Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Classy Act

            This didn't happen on my very first day. But it was within the first week. Perhaps, a Thursday or a Friday. In fact, now that I get to thinking about it, I'm almost certain that it was on a Friday because the residual stink of it all sort of ruined my weekend. It made me not want to ever go back. To ever show my face again within that singular block of a building (that must have spread an entire acre) that comprised every department and every employee that was Hemcon Medical Technologies; the prospering company where and with whom I'd just started a job.
            On my first day, as well as the following two, I'd done nothing but sit in a cubicle all by myself and read through the most tedious training manuals digital form, of course. For eight hours a day! Twenty-four hours total of nothing but scrolling down a screen and reading through document after document (most of which didn't even apply to me or what was to be my position within the company). Most of which contained a lot of technical jargon and referred to environments, situations, and instances that I could only begin to guess at. And this is what the manager wanted. It's what he'd told me to do. He mentioned that I should probably take some notes but also made it clear that there was to be no test so... I only found myself wishing that there would be some sort of test at the end of all this! So that I wouldn't have been staring at a black and white screen for three whole days and all for nothing! But unfortunately, this wasn't the case.
            Fuck. Now that I really get to thinking about it; make that 3 ½ days! Because the first half of that Thursday also began with me seated in the cubicle 'taking notes'. And I tried to search for this manager's motives in putting me through all this ennui. I tried to fish for some sort of time frame in which I might have been expected to finish all this...'training'. But all he kept saying was, “Don't worry about it. Maybe we'll get you into some hands-on tomorrow.” And the only reason he said this even was because I would ask him periodically, “Do you think there's anyone who could use any help in the lab right now? Or manufacturing even?”
            But anyway. Skipping right ahead to that Friday; I found myself rounding out my first, long-ass week with the company and finally putting in my first few hours of actual on-the-job training. And the job...well, let's just say that the job title read as; Lab Services Technician. I'd been hired through a temp agency and, according to them, my duties were to be assisting in laboratory practices and helping them to clean any leftover lab ware. So I'm thinking; beakers, test tubes...shit like that. When, in reality, what I came to find were carboys. Now...for those of you who don't know what a carboy is (and don't feel bad as I didn't even know until starting this job); allow me to offer a brief definition. In this particular case (as I believe they can take on many materials and forms); a carboy is a giant, plastic bottle shaped like one of those old milk carafes with two loop-handles up near the neck. Or...imagine your standard BBQ grill propane tank but about twice the size. And these used at Hemcon were composed of some seriously thick plastic; thick enough to cause them to weigh around 5 lbs. each even when they were dry and empty. And I hated them instantly. This wasn't at all what I had signed up for but it was a job...and I had no other.
            And my 'job' cleaning lab ware entailed these carboys almost entirely.
           To put it succinctly; Hemcon made bandages. Special bandages that claimed to staunch even arterial bleeding. But as most of us know; the process that goes into producing a marketable good is anything but succinct. It can be lengthy and messy and tedious at times and at Hemcon this was definitely so. There can be much dirty work involved (and I mean that in the more literal sense of the term). And the majority of this dirty work was now to be assumed by yours truly. And here I thought this whole time that I was being hired based upon my extensive medical background. Wrong and wrong again. When, in fact, they had probably hired me because I appeared strong to them and looked (mistakenly) as if I had a good back.
            So those carboys became my life. They were considered to be the 'lab ware' and I was considered to be the guy to clean them. Outside and in and with the aid of several different brushes, some nontoxic detergent, and three enormous sinks. Dozens of them sometimes would be there waiting for me whenever I arrived; each one slathered in a chitin gel which is the fancier and more scientific term for the ground up shrimp guts that were actually used in the the making of these special bandages. And this gel had already been very refined, it's true. But it still smelled like shrimp and like brine. But this is beside the point and I apologize. And of this smelly gel, I am not even complaining.
            I'm not really complaining about anything so far as this job was concerned and how it relates to this story. Rather, I'm merely trying to stress that it was highly physical work and that, after cleaning and brushing and lifting and stacking those carboys, I utilized a giant, industrial steam cleaner to wash and sterilize many racks full of the heavy, iron molds also slathered in shrimp guts and also used in this bandage manufacturing. And how, after that, I myself was probably already smelling particularly briny on that first half of my first Friday with the company.
            For just over four hours, I'd cleaned those carboys on that day (and the iron molds). But then, as was the nature of this job, there was nothing left for me to do (and wouldn't be) so far as the cleaning of further 'lab ware' was concerned. And so, as I was told, it would then be part of my duty to spend the remainder of the day in a department appropriately named, Labeling, where I would assist in the  packaging of said product after it had come out the other end of the 'lab' and had been freeze-dried and, in a 'clean room', had been individually sealed in foil pouches about the size of one's hand. And so it was into this labeling room that I went on that first Friday somewhat smelly and stinky already after having performed my duties as a Lab Services Technician.
            And at Hemcon, if I may digress for just one second, every last department within the company (and I do realize that I have mentioned this just briefly above) were contained within this one building. One super-huge building out in Tigard enveloping all executive level offices, all research and development facilities, all of sales and marketing divisions (which, at the beginning of their downfall, I even began to participate in), all of manufacturing, all quality control, and lastly; all of the labeling and packaging of the product. And even the shipping! They even had that under control via a giant warehouse attached. And the product would be sent from us directly to all of the company's customers which, at this point, mainly consisted of the US military until our lovely Hemcon was outbid by a similar manufacturer of a similar product and so fatefully lost their contract. And if you should ever find yourself wanting to know a bit more about this Hemcon Medical Technologies; simply Google them to find all the information and more (less literary) stories about this seemingly promising company that would have been such a wonderful and much needed solid in this shaky local economy and how, from the start, they had done nothing more than infringe on someone else's already existing patent...but enough of all this. My only point here was to infer that, in this singularly huge building, the atmosphere was at least supposed to be that of a close-knit family all working to together to reach a similar cause; that of its expansion until there was enough capital on the table to make a public offer  whereupon all of us would mutually and ultimately benefit in the profit sharing rewards.
            So as I walked into this labeling room of perhaps only about 40 square feet; I found myself eager and yet exceedingly nervous to meet this new 'family' of mine which would, no doubt, be a very close part of my life for some time to come.
            There were probably 8 of them in there sitting on either side of the room at one of the counters lining each wall. Say...four people on one side and four on the other. Something like that. And they were relatively spread out...just enough. Each person had just enough space between him or her and next guy for two plastic storage bins; one on their left and one on their right. The one on the right containing foil pouches that they had already labeled. The ones on the left containing pouches that had yet to be. And directly in front of each of these people was a long roll of stickers (also about the size of one's hand as it was their aim to cover almost the entire front and back of the pouches). And this was the job. Each plastic storage been contained something like 150 pouches. The person would label them all with the stickers designated for the fronts. Then they would do the backs. And then they would reach for another plastic storage bin sitting on a cart in the middle of the room and begin working on that one. Forever. Unceasingly and indefinitely. And most of the people working in this room now had been hired to do this and this only. There were a couple others like me, however, who had already finished their work in the warehouse or wherever for the day and had just come in to help out. And I found myself instantly and increasingly grateful to be a Lab Services Technician and only a part-time labeler.
            “How's it going, everybody? Nice to meet you all,” I introduced myself as Troy, the guy who'd been teaching me how to clean the molds and carboys, helped me find a seat and a plastic storage bin full of foil pouches to call my very own.
            All of the people working in this room, save one middle-aged lady, were in their mid-twenties...and I found this a bit intimidating. They all looked up and smiled and said 'hi' and everything but, since I was also in my mid-twenties at the time, this made them my peers and some instinct within me caused me to feel like I might be judged by them or like maybe I had to try to act cool in order to impress them or get in early with the 'in' crowd. And, believe me, I know how silly this sounds even as I'm sitting here writing it. But it is the truth. I'm not sure if I'm just more self-conscious than most but this is probably so. And I really did want them to like me and not think I was a nerd or anything. Because they all looked like cool people. Close-knit workers as I've said. But also like friends who went out to the bar afterwards.
            At first, applying the stickers was sort of difficult; they were thin and wanted to fold back on themselves. Bubbles forming underneath them were also a problem but Troy told me not to worry...that I'd get the hang of it after my first couple hundred or so.
            But I was worried about it. I wanted to do a good job and for these people not to view me as a dunce. But it was pretty obvious that I was still fucking up every other one as there could be heard the bubbles popping as I tried to smooth the stickers out against the pouch or the equally obvious sound of me ripping one back off entirely in order to try and replace it...which never really worked out. Those fucking stickers continued to stick to my thumbs and fingers and, before very long even, I had a small pile of unusable rejects right next to me.
            “Don't worry,” Troy told me again, “Especially about the front ones. The back stickers each have a specific lot number on them so we try to use every one of those. But even's really not that big of a deal.”
            “Thanks, man. I appreciate that. I just feel so dumb, ya know? Like, who would have ever thought it would be so difficult to just apply a freakin' sticker?”  
            “You wanna know the trick?”
            “The trick is you gotta use your whole hand. Just peel that puppy off, take a little bit of an aim, and then just smack that thing on there. You're just going too slow. I know what I mean. You're just trying to be too precise and that's actually what's messing you up.”
            “Alright,” and I tried one his way then...and it worked! “Hey, thanks man. Good advice.”
            “Anytime. I'm pretty confident,” he said completely deadpan, “That sometime before these next three hours are up, you'll not only have it down pat; you'll be bored out of your fuckin' mind just like the rest of us.”                
            “Amen Troy,” and, “Ain't that the truth,” some of the other kids backed him up.
            And these kids...these personalities I could already guess are what made the job tolerable. It was the ongoing stream of conversation as the voices spouted out while, however, nobody ever really looked up from what they were doing or turned to look at who they might have been addressing. And it seemed fun like a game that I'd be good at. I didn't really know any of these personalities quite yet and would so resort to only answering questions if spoken to directly. But soon. Soon, I hoped to be just one of the gang; peeling stickers and talking about new movies, talking trash about the company and talking trash about each others' mom's, 'chiming in for the day' and laughing with this group seemed to me. And laughter was key because this was a factory sort of work without an actual assembly line. Laughter was an outlet through which everybody could go on staying sane; an outlet that this group had naturally achieved and seemed very good at sustaining throughout the countless storage bins full of labels and foil pouches.
            Just before Troy had taught me his trick to labeling, though, I had begun to notice that an unwanted entity had sort of crept into this small room with me...and for once, it wasn't my exceedingly dark personality. For once! And for perhaps the first time ever; it seemed to me like I could have made a good first impression and that these kids could have liked me almost instantly. And at least by the end of the day, it seemed, that I could have been labeling my pouches and cracking jokes with the rest of them...which was unusual. Normally, it takes me eons of time to come out of my shell (which, ironically, is when people usually start to accept me). Weeks sometimes. Months. The better part of a year as it has happened. But not this time. This time, I may have had a chance. If all but for that one, unwanted entity. It being my body odor.
            Now, when I'd first stepped into the room; I'd smelled. It's true. But I wasn't worried about that particular brand of stink. I'd smelled of sweat and of the workout I'd just given myself cleaning all those iron molds and carboys and typically, once I cool down and dry out again, this type of smell begins to dissipate shortly thereafter. But this smell, unfortunately, is not the one I am referring to.
            Just before Troy had shown me his trick to sticking, I had begun to become aware of my nervousness in the failing of my being able to properly stick a sticker and it was this temporary inability, perhaps, that had acted as the trigger. Or maybe not. It's good speculation at any rate although, and I realize, sort of irrelevant. But it was during this brief time that I'd begun to notice that tainted sort of vapor arising and becoming ever stronger and more pungent each time my armpits separated themselves in attempts at applying another sticker. And his act of coming over, however noble and effective it may have been, only seemed to catalyze whatever this horrible function was that happened to be going on inside my body. In the acidity of my blood? My lymph nodes? Definitely my apocrine sweat glands, though, with the perfect dash of undesirable adrenaline mixed in there to boot.
            And ever since I had begun to notice it; this BO was only on the increase. And like little, brown clouds as I imagined them to tiny, little smoke signals each time that one arm or the other ever separated itself from my torso; the odor would rise up again in stronger force until arriving at the point where I could not only detect it but felt immersed in it and knew for certain that its traces could at least be picked up from several feet around me. And yes. Lamentably, these boundaries would and had already crossed over into the personal zones of those two currently working on either side of me. And like well-bred and decent people; I was just sure that they were pretending not to notice. But had they become quieter? Had they purposely minimized their own contributions to the conversation going on all around us in attempts to also minimize their breathing. So that they wouldn't have to take in any more of this awful stench than they absolutely had to?! It certainly seemed so to me. And since I was prone to not participating in the conversation just yet (especially under these present circumstances) and since I found my own core, as it were, now stewing in its own juices, I was quiet and keenly aware of all that was going on around me. The low music. The stream of conversation. Pauses in the conversation. The sound of every, individual hand peeling off their stickers (of those next me and of those across the room even). I was suddenly aware of every single second ticking by as this seemingly solid and noxious fume generated only by myself had wafted and begun to settle in even the far corners of this small room. No region was now left unexposed. Untainted. Or uncontaminated. But what could I do?
            Before I answer that, though, please allow me to rewind again if I may for just one second.
            I don't wear deodorant. I hadn't since high school. And other than partially believing it to be nothing much more than a pasty carcinogen, I also just never really saw the point. In fact, even back in high school; I think that what I really found appealing about deodorant itself was its cologne like scent. And, since I didn't wear cologne either; perhaps, I believed then that it was the scent of the deodorant stick that through pheromones or whatever, would ultimately attract the ladies. But I'd never really had body odor. At least, none such as an attack like this one presently plaguing me in the labeling room. My scent had been just never that strong. It did come about once in a while, though, surely. And I'd noticed that it usually came on when, the previous evening, I had probably eaten more than my fair share of meat. It was never a major problem such as this, though, and had never resulted in such a situation. And, just to be fair to meat, I did also notice a slight rise in my own personal gaminess after eating processed foods such as those boxes of Lipton noodles with the packet of powdered seasoning or those horrible boxes of scalloped potatoes which I have no idea why I keep on buying. But basically; poor people food. The food that I've reduced myself to even up until this point in my life.
            But I do recall that on that last Thursday evening; the evening leading up to the point of this odoriferous predicament...I must have splurged a little and grabbed some fast food on the way home. This was uncharacteristic of me but, perhaps after cleaning all those carboys that evening for the very first time and only then realizing how physical this job was actually going to be...perhaps, after that, I'd simply felt too tired to cook anything. Also, and this is something that I've neglected to mention thus far; this job took place on a swing shift which meant that I didn't even get out of there until just after midnight...which was a bit different for me. I was used to working more of a mid shift and had, for years, practiced a pretty strict routine when getting home around seven. First, I take a nap. And then I'd stay up half the night drinking and writing or reading and finally making myself something to eat. But not even getting off until midnight? What was I supposed to do? Come home and take a nap until like four in the morning or something? And then start drinking? I suppose, rationally, this shouldn't have made any difference. Either way, I was working a full eight hours and had relatively the same amount of time between alarm clock buzzers. But there was just something about starting to drink while the sun came up and then having to still go to work (even if I did take a nap in between) that bothered me. So...while getting used to this new routine (whatever it turned out to be); I'd decided to take it easy on myself by grabbing a hot, steaming bag of greasy Jack in the Box.
            Poor as I was, I usually hit the value menu pretty hard almost always opting out of a combo meal. I don't drink soda so... So, I believe that my usual order went something like: 2 Jumbo Jacks and 4 of those deliciously oily, mystery-meat tacos. And I probably tacked one more item on there just to make it an even five dollars. Then I drove home, chowed down on that shit, washed it down with something like nine beers, and proceeded to take a shower. Then I went to sleep! And I always go to sleep right after chowing down just like they say you're not supposed to. And how I haven't had a massive heart attack by now is perfectly beyond any of my best guesses but this story has less to do with my heart and more to do with my chemistry. All night, that toxic food had a chance to churn around in my bowels and combine with my stomach acid until settling somewhere deep down in my guts. And all the while I slept; those hamburger patties, those mayo slathered buns, and those disgusting, wilted pieces of lettuce that they always threw on top of there bubbled and broke down metabolically until my very blood was heavy with sugar and fat.
            Part of the problem, I'm sure, was that the shower that I'd taken shortly after stuffing my face was also the only shower I'd take in the next 24 hours. I'm simply a night shower-er. It's always been my routine. Although, I have to admit, that it's never really come back to bite me in the ass quite as hard as it did in this instance. Because, hard to digest as it almost always is, that Jack in the Box meal caused me to toss and turn and sweat under the covers. For eight hours almost, I sweated it out under there; the covers quickly becoming a dank hotbox of junk and my armpits beginning to show symptoms even then that I should have noticed first thing in the morning if only I'd been listening. If only I'd known! If I'd known then I would have risen and given myself a quick 'whore's bath' with a wet washcloth and rubbed some bar soap under my arms. But I didn't know. And I wasn't thinking clearly enough first thing in the morning to be able to predict such a catastrophic event of this social and professional nature.
            Which is why I began to hear giggling come from the other side of that labeling room. Stifled little giggles which made them all the worse. Their suppression was meant to save me my dignity. It was the act of them needing to express themselves without being outwardly rude. And I even heard one of them say to the other...“I think I know what you're laughing about,” through his teeth although not quite under his breath.
            “I think I do too,” the other guy answered through his teeth as well.
            And, for the life of me, I couldn't tell whether they were speaking this way (through their teeth) in order to seem more incognito or whether they actually didn't want to activate their noses..even as far as taking in one sentence's worth of breath.
            I tried even harder then, desperately, to hold my pits together and it must have been completely obvious to anyone looking that my torso had grown completely stiff and that my arms were moving from the elbows only. But this tactic, of course, only served to make matters worse. This tactic allowed zero air to be able to escape from that region at all and for the stench to be able to heat up even more like a couple of tiny ovens were attached to me. But then, inevitably, I'd have to lean over in order to peel off a poorly stuck label or something and the two, yellow clouds (as I now imagined them) would just come pouring out in an even more concentrated form thereby dusting the room anew like a crop fumigation. This space encompassing all of us; perfectly humid with only me. It was probably sticking to other people now. They'd probably be able to smell it clearly even after they'd returned home!
            “Um...alright,” I stood up and spoke mostly to Troy, “I'm gonna take a quick leak. I mean...if the boss asks where I am or something. Um...I'll be right back.”
            And I could just hear them all saying (in their minds), “Take your time, new guy. Take all fucking night if you need.”
            But they didn't say this, of course. Troy only replied with a, “Cool, dude.” And, in a way, their collective silence on the matter only made it all the more mortifying.
            I hadn't wanted to get up, despite the fact that this move may have seemed the most practical from the get-go, because I hadn't wanted them to be able to talk behind my back. Not to mention, I'd wanted to spare myself the embarrassing return I now must inevitably make. Hey, guys. I'm back! Did ya miss me?! They would, undoubtedly, look up at the clock then and curse God himself that there were still something like 2 more hours left.
            I should have just nipped it in the bud though. When I'd first noticed that my smell was becoming offensive, perhaps just over an hour ago now, I should have excused myself, said something to the affect of, “Man, I'm sorry guys. I fuckin' stink after cleaning all those carboys. Whoo, what a workout. I'm just gonna go rub some soap or something under my armpits and I'll be right back.”
            That's what I should have done...but I'd hesitated. And, stupidly enough, that's still what I was off to do just now...I'd only prolonged it, increased the embarrassment 50-fold, and ultimately scarred any good impression I could have ever made on these people.
            There may have been a bathroom on the manufacturing side but I didn't know where it was. But also, I just needed a little bit of time and a lot of cool down. And, fortunately, the building at this hour (aside from the labeling room of course) was all but completely dead sparing me the further awkwardness of stopping and having to talk to somebody who would certainly detect the foulness and perhaps even proceed directly to the labeling room where this condition might be addressed even further and further fueling the conversation that was now, absolutely, taking place while I was away.
            Once in the bathroom, I did take a leak and then...from the dispenser right in front of the sink, I squirted huge globs worth of the foaming pink hand soap onto a paper towel and attempted to work it vigorously underneath each arm. I wished to God it was dish soap though. Or just something thicker. Because this foaming just didn't want to stick to me in the way that I needed it too just then. It didn't coat my armpits as much as it did; just wash them out. Plus, with all the greasy, fast food sweat already built up under either one of them; this particular pink substance seemed not to be able to dry against my skin as there were already two, huge pools of wetness present beneath each of my t-shirt sleeves. And underarm perspiration was just another element that I was so unused to dealing with! The plain visibility of this wetness, though, did prompt me to do something else that I'd been questioning ever since this little fiasco began.
            In my satchel, in a locker about halfway down the hall to the labeling room on the manufacturing side, I had an overshirt that I was accustomed to wearing here...especially since all I'd done earlier in the week was sit in a cubicle on the more administrative side of the building. And it was this overshirt that I went for now. And this also may seem like something that I should have done earlier...and it wasn't that I hadn't considered it. There just seemed to be a lot of drawbacks. For starters, the most impractical of these drawbacks had to be that adding an overshirt to my ensemble would only increase my body heat. And if even by only a few degrees; the results could be disastrous...even more so than it was already. And even if I buttoned up this overshirt all the way; it's not like the knit cotton that it was comprised of would ever really help to contain the problem. The air would still get out. Through the collar and through the untucked waist. And, of course, right through the material itself in little, pulsating bursts of effluvia; it would escape. It could not be contained. Because it was, in fact, completely out of control. Plus, for some totally irrational reason, I just didn't want the other kids to notice that I'd changed into something new. That I'd added another garment in attempts to cover up my putrid companion. I felt that this was openly admitting my guilt and would thereby cause me to somehow feel even more shame when, in reality, the others probably would have appreciated me having at least tried to make some sort of effort.
            But there was nothing I could do about it now. I had to put the overshirt on; so ridiculously large had the pools of dark grey dampness under my arms become after all the wiping and the soaping. And I wasn't about to let them think for one second that these pools, suddenly so much larger, were actually of even more sweat that I'd somehow perfused in the ten minutes real time that I'd actually been away. I just prayed to God that the soap would work. Because if it didn't; I felt that there was a strong possibility of me saying 'fuck all' and abandoning this job altogether. Who knows? Maybe I could work at Jack in the Box. They'd probably hire me up pretty fast. food. But seriously. To have to sit in that torture chamber any longer... A chamber that had become tortuous to the others also...and all because of me! This was the absolute worst! Maybe I could just flee the scene for tonight and return, perfectly deodorized, on the morrow. But no. I'd just started this job. It wasn't even my first week yet! And I didn't want to make a bad... Nevermind.       
            I didn't work though. When I reentered the room, a couple of people looked up and nodded to acknowledge my presence but nobody said a word. There was music playing, as there had been, over a pretty nice stereo system and everyone just acted as if they were super intent on doing their work. And maybe there truly were as we, from what I'd heard, were supposed to have this entire lot labeled, packaged, and ready to be irradiated by the time we left here at midnight. So, not wanting to draw any attention to myself if that were even humanly possible, I quickly and quietly made my way back over to my stool and work station and instantly began to resume what I'd been doing. Labeling.
            And it didn't take very long. Fifteen minutes perhaps. It was something close to that, I knew, being now keenly aware of the clock. I felt like part of me was caught in one of those Chinese finger-traps. Like the more I willed myself to stop secreting whatever this neon green, chemical garbage inside me was; the more it seemed to drip. Like it was somehow rooted in my own anxiety. Causing it to exude. And 15 minutes was all it took before that foaming hand soap underneath my arms must have dissolved; my pits feeling all the wetter and more uncomfortable now for having so much as attempted to amend the situation. Wet and sticky and excruciatingly annoying to even want to hold my arms closed anymore. Like they were caked together with batter even when I pulled them apart! And I wanted so badly then to take my hands and just rub them with anything to soak up some of the excess perspiration. With absolutely anything in the room that might have been available! A piece of copy paper even. Anything! But I couldn't. Whoo! I was shivering with heebie-jeebies.
            And the room stunk up again much to everybody's increasing frustration. No one ever said a word, though, but I could just tell. There was something about their demeanor, their sighing, and their grunting even. And I'd already exercised my only options. And now, for certain, there was nothing I could do.
            So together, we all drudged it out.
            After another 20 minutes was up, the labeling was all finished and it was then our collective duty to stick all the foil pouches in boxes and then stick all those boxes into bigger boxes for shipping. And this wasn't good for my plight either as it meant getting up and moving around more...more physical activity and one that required me to stretch my arms the whole while. And it was fucking awful. For everyone. So awful that, before these larger boxes were even finished being packed, someone suggested to Troy that he take me out back just to show me how to properly recycle all the cardboard. I knew it was probably a bit early to be taking out the trash though. I'd never done this before. But I just knew.
            As chagrinning as such a suggestion might have been, though, it was actually well welcomed by me just to have such a made up excuse designed for the group's aggregated benefit. It offered me the opportunity not only to leave the room again...but to get outside and perhaps dry out and become a bit refreshed in the cool, night air. And Troy was cool about it once we were out there and taking turns at re-piling all of the day's used cardboard into the large, metal receptacle.
            He said, “Man, I'm really stinkin' tonight.” And he even lifted his own arm here and brought his nose closer in feigning an estimation of his own, nonexistent scent. “I totally must have forgotten to put on some deodorant today. I'll have to remember to do that tomorrow for sure, ya know?”
            And there wasn't even a trace of accusation in his voice.
            “Yeah. I'm pretty sure I have a bit of that going on myself today. I'll have to remember to do that too.”
            How humiliating!
            But this was Troy's way and he turned out to be one of the best people I've ever met.
            And I must have redeemed myself somehow. Because, just a couple of weeks later, I did start going out to the bar with all those guys after work. And nobody ever said a thing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Union Town?

            Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelworkers. Now, that's a fucking union. Just say the name and you feel powerful. Say the name and it conjures up images of molten metal and badasses working by the sweat of their brow. Labor and industry. Factories. Harsh, unforgiving conditions and jobs that are seriously dangerous even today. But I can't even imagine what it must have been like to report for duty in any of these dismal places before the first union. The regular workday would last anywhere from 10 to 16 hours. Overtime didn't exist and neither did sick pay...or medical benefits for that matter. And the odds of losing a limb (or even a life) in these places were pretty high since safety regulations, from the management's perspective, were nothing much to worry about...if there even were any! And if someone were to have accidentally melted their arms off; it was, of course, their fault somehow and a willing and able two-armed guy was always lined up and ready to take his place. And it is this unfortunate mentality, management's idea of the readily dispensable worker, that still exists today. 
            So how the hell does this apply to Portland; a city that couldn't be further from Pittsburgh if we tried. A city that, nowadays especially, conjures up images of scenesters and punkers and crazy ex-hippies...of yuppies who'd become sick of their careers...and of course, everyone's personal favorite; the California transplant such as myself. A city full of folks who'd either chose to move here or stay here for the reason of seeking an escape from society's traditional norms. And anyone who'd been here for a few years had long since said, 'fuck you' to the system. Because Portlandrriqueños, at least a greater percentage of them than the average national urbanite, valued living over money. And in part; this 'living' meant working a nice, cushy job. Something part-time or event-based or both. Something that wouldn't too badly distract the fair citizens of this fair city from the finer things in life. And I certainly don't meant to imply that Portlanders don't work hard...just not as hard as steel workers. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. But why the fuck then would we need a labor union? Well...
            It all comes back to that idea of the readily dispensable worker. A concept that, in and of itself, rings truly enough. Because, at their place of employment, anyone is replaceable from the guy scrubbing toilets all the way up to and including the president of the United States. There's always somebody who can do the job just as well. And if they don't already know how to perform said job; you can bet there are people determined to learn. Which again, in itself, is a good sign. This steady supply of readily available laborers shows that at least Americans are still willing to pull up their shirt sleeves. However, the idea of the readily dispensable worker turns rotten whenever the notion is exploited. Which, in the midst of this bleak economy with its deplorable unemployment rate, it is exploited almost incessantly. Anyone is replaceable, sure. But, from any given managements' perspective, the question on their minds is; just how easily?
            All too often, this is where the exploitation of laborers begins. Because the concept of the readily dispensable worker cuts right through the bullshit. It cuts right down to the core of employment itself whether viewed from the management's angle or the worker's. Through the management's eyes; an employee will be expected to break his/her back for minimum wage and not a penny more...with a smile on their face! Because both manager and employee know that even a low-paying job (like the one specifically about to pertain to this story) is in high demand in a such a dysfunctional economy as the one we all now find ourselves living in...especially in Portland where the rate of unemployment continues to skyrocket. And in this way; the inert economy helps to make half the management's decisions for them. In this way; all any given manager has to do is sit back with their arms folded and wait for any one of their subordinates to make a complaint or (God forbid) stand up for themselves or show the slightest backbone when being mistreated and...SNIP. It's just that easy. Because why the fuck would they want to deal with any employee who won't allow him or herself to be railroaded, misused, and treated unjustly when they know perfectly well that there are plenty of other potential employees to choose from; some with master's degrees even who have their resumes out and ready?
            So why have a union in a town where part-time, event-based, and temporary jobs seem to reign? Maybe so the companies can't get away with it. So they can't go around firing people on the thinnest little whim...for standing up for themselves, for refusing to perform duties well outside that person's job description, or even for just asking questions in general. The list could go on and on because no matter how self-explanatory one's job may be; each and every modern workplace remains a giant grey area where shit is constantly popping up...shit not listed in the official employee handbook (even a handbook as purposely vague as the one handed out by this particular corporation). So, if for nothing other than to prevent the higher-ups from going on an occasional firing orgy, the union is necessary. It's necessary to keep them in check. And for that alone, the dues are worth it.     
            But enough of this essayist bullshit. Let's just dive right in, shall we?
            Woodman's office was small as it was windowless as it was depressing. Suffice to say that, any normal person forced to work in such a dreary dungeon day-to-day and for any length of time, would have definitely killed themselves long ago. But maybe he wasn't very sensitive to his surroundings. Or worse. Maybe he'd just become used to it. Either way though; I was glad when his boss, Brendan, overrode Woodman's original decision and opted instead to use the boardroom down the hall. Because, other than just being dark and gloomy, the first two meetings in this series of three had already taken place in Woodman's office. And I believe that if the 7 of us agreed on even a single thing that day; it was that we were all pretty well sick of that stinking venue.
            The purpose of this final meeting was to was to grieve the fact that I'd been terminated from the company in a way that the union and I felt was wrong and unjust. And supposedly, based on what Clara had told me out on the sidewalk mere minutes ago, we were here to plea our case for the first time since the firing was made official...and they were here to listen to us.
            “But why would they hire me back?” I'd asked her, “I mean...just so I have some sort of idea of which angle to work. I mean...what's in it for them?”
            “Well,” and her answer wasn't canned so much as something that I just didn't necessarily believe, “Because you're a good employee and you always show up on time and do your job. Plus, it saves them the trouble of having to hire someone else.”
            “Yeah, but they already hired someone else...about two months ago when I was first suspended,” I honestly wasn't trying to sound surly now; it just sort of came out that way, “But, kind of ironically I guess, I heard the other day that that replacement of mine just quit.”
            “There!” her eyes perked up, “You see?”
            “Yeah, but I mean; they already replaced her too.”
            And I was quickly beginning to see that Clara was drastically depreciating the situation here and the bewildering numbness of those heads we were about to go up against.
            For starters, the managers present were already going to be pissed off for just having to be here today! I knew this and, to be honest, a part of me even relished in this little attitude of theirs and it's definitely one of the reasons that I'd taken things so far and for so long. There was no winning this battle. I knew that too. But rather than go down without a whisper, I could pester the fucking shit out of them so long as the law and union allowed me to do so. Because they had to be here today less they relinquish all power. There were going to have to sit across that table from us and listen to me plea my case. And they'd have to answer some technical questions that Clara and Malcolm, the other union rep present, would surely ask. And having to do so would burn them so would infuriate them! And they couldn't very well stand up all red-faced and say, “Fuck your stupid union! And fuck you!” Because, obviously this entire meeting was to go on record and obviously there would be plenty of witnesses...partisan witnesses but witnesses just the same. And because, according to Clara, the next step, should they choose not to hire me back, was something called 'arbitration' where basically we'd have this same meeting but in front of a judge.
            Of course, they weren't going to hire me back though. And the joke, this whole time, was really on them because after getting fired...getting shit-canned for nothing more than being short a stack of plastic fucking cups; I sure as hell wasn't about to jump at the opportunity. They'd make my life a hell upon rehire. And the whole 'plastic cup' thing was a facade anyway; an excuse, and they knew it. They knew it, I knew it, and all the rest of my coworkers knew it. And that's why they'd officially fired me for something as vague but ominous sounding as 'gross misconduct' rather than 'theft'.
            What Clara didn't understand was that this case...I don't know if I'd call it 'personal' exactly but it definitely went beyond the plastic surface of those stupid cups. What she didn't understand was that this story really started about 7 months prior when I'd complained to Woodman about a way one of his managers was acting towards some of the prettier looking ladies around the workplace. And, what the hell, just for kicks; I'll get into some specifics. Said manager would approach me and elbow me in the gut with a pervy look on his face and proceed to say things to the affect of, “Yeah. I wouldn't mind breakin' me off a piece of that...if ya know what I mean.” Or, adversely, pertaining to some of the less lovely looking ones on the scale of outward appearances only, “There's no good lookin' ones in here today,” he'd nudge me, “Looks like they're all a bunch of computer geeks and lesbians.” And I'd told him that he really shouldn't be sharing these personal thoughts with me. And when even after that, they didn't cease; I'd made an appointment to come in and talk it over with Woodman who was the manger of the mangers of sorts although I believe his official title was something like: Corporate Toolbag. And so we'd met up in his depressing office and we'd discussed this issue and, afterwards, that particularly pervy manager did keep it on the down-low...about as much as he could. So problem solved, more or less, without me having to bring the union into it. Without even notifying them; I'd met with Woodman on my own (something that I knew the union disapproved of...especially these days when new contract negotiations were in the air).
            What Clara also didn't understand was that I'd met up with Woodman a couple of months after that about a scheduling issue. And this one wasn't so much of a complaint as it was taking a stand on my part. And I could see how Woodman might have taken this personally since it was he who made the schedules himself. Basically, after promoting me to Bartender last summer, he still felt free to schedule me in the concession stands whenever he did so please. And this alone; I would have been cool with despite the fact that no other Bartender would have ever been so obedient. But hey, I'm a team player and like to help out when and where I can. However, upon glancing at my paycheck one day, I noticed that, while working the concession stands, I was actually being paid a lower rate...lower than a bartender, that is. Which would pretty much negate my promotion to Bartender in the first place! Not to mention that the tips were less. Not to mention that that pay rate I'd noticed on my check was even lower than what I'd been making in the concession stands before my promotion! summarize; I was basically getting fucked in the ass without even the decency of a reach-around.    
            This particular issue was never least not on the books. Because, after meeting with Woodman (and some ancient bitch from HR) and not having accomplished much; he held his ground by stating that he would continue to schedule me to work the concession stands whenever he so needed but added that he'd also begin to cross-train all the other bartenders to work them too...which we both knew was complete bullshit. He was never going to cross-train them and he never did. This, however, didn't keep him from looking me straight in the eye...and lying. This is also the same moment that I lost all respect for Woodman; a respect that had been slowly declining over the years anyway as he became more and more of a corporate whore and would lie to us (the bartenders, concessions workers, dishwashers, catering crew, and even the mangers below him) on a more and more regular basis.
            And so it was for this particular issue and its lack of a resolution that I, for the first time, contacted the union for help. Surely, somewhere within our contract that I'd never once so much as glanced at...surely, there must be some clause that stated we couldn't be forced to work a position outside our own job classification and for less pay to boot. And sure enough; there was such a clause. Two or three of them actually that Malcolm and I had found together when I called him up to discuss matters. We'd found them, yes. But Malcolm did suggest then that we not press the issue unless it ever came up again (on my schedule) which, of course, it never did. Thus, the matter had amended itself...but only because of the giant shit storm I'd created...much to Woodman's annoyance, I'm certain.
            And what Clara ultimately didn't understand out there on the sidewalk and before going into the boardroom that day was that these two issues coupled with a grievance recently filed on my behalf regarding a concern where I'd been accidentally (but unfairly just the same) skipped over to work a concert (a really good moneymaking shift that, by not working it, probably cost me upwards of two hundred dollars) is that I, having had to stand up for myself these many times in the course of the past year, had been labeled (by the management, of course); a troublemaker. And they wanted nothing more to do with me.
            Four year's worth of working there and the only complaint I ever made before these aforementioned was about a coffee maker that had gone haywire and had, for months, been overflowing thereby causing a slip and fall type situation. Some of the staffers, on more than one occasion, had even burned themselves while trying to turn it off. Yes, before then, the only complaint I'd ever made was about a safety issue and, even then, it's only because the management had refused to  take the matter seriously. The machine had gone unrepaired because they claimed we didn't know how to 'use it right'. And with over a dozen different people using that thing weekly...? It was Woodman's way of saying that he thought we were all stupid. It couldn't be more black and white. And it wasn't until I threatened to call OSHA that that human shit-stain finally sent someone in to fix it.
            “So I heard you just got employee of the month at your other job?” Malcolm asked me as we were all making our way into the boardroom and finding our seats.
            “Of the quarter,” I smiled not only because this was true but because it was exactly the type of  praise that these managers needed to hear about just now as they proceeded to shuffle their paperwork together.
            “Yeah, it's a pretty good gig actually. Steady hours. Paid holidays. Medical benefits.”
            And Malcolm's ears perked up at that last one. Through the union, he'd been steadily pushing   to obtain medical benefits (for everyone) for no avail. It was a pipe dream, of course. Healthcare through a part time, event-based gig such as this? Let's just say that there's some magic not even the union can work. And not many employees, besides Malcolm, ever expected them too. Including myself.
            “Well, that's awesome,” he smiled back sincerely; his dyed red hair pulled straight back into a ponytail.
            Today, Malcolm was wearing a summery sort of dress; white cotton and sleeveless with some sort of black pattern on it. He'd worn a dress and platforms to the previous meeting too. And the only reason I even mention this is that he was the only one in the room presently wearing one. Even Clara, just to my right now, was wearing pants and a shirt. Red pants! And a blue shirt! Or, to be more precise, red jeans and a royal blue cotton T. She was all business, though, with reading glasses on and a pen in her hand already.
            Having just come from my other job (and having carelessly spilled coffee on myself just as I was leaving), I wore, over my collared shirt, a black the middle of summer which, no doubt, looked somehow suspicious or weird. But my hair was combed and my face was shaved. I wasn't making a mockery of this meeting in any least not outright.
            So a motley looking group were we that would have evoked an uncontrollable amount of intrigue from any assemblage (although probably less disdainfully so than the one presently) sitting across from us. And this is how the table was divided. The three of us on one side...the side closest to the door. While the four of them sat directly across from us with the exception of HR lady who'd seated herself at the head of the table at one end. Make no mistake though. She was one of them. A recently acquired corporate liaison whose position, I can only suppose, was to ease the rocky relations between the division of laborers and management. For example, a couple of months ago, she'd set into motion a program for rewarding us, say, if a customer called to praise us for good service. The sadly typical downside to this program, however, was that it was virtually impossible to reach any of our managers by phone...even if somebody had a complaint to make! I often tried to imagine customers going online to find our number where sensibly, they'd search for The Schnitzer or the Keller Auditorium. And a phone number would pop up, surely. It just wouldn't be the correct number...the number that would ultimately lead to one of our managers' desks down in the very bowels of these buildings. Because our company, Aramark, subcontracted with the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and flew conveniently under the radar while the patron calling to either give praise or make a complaint would have no idea that the box office they just reached was not in any way, shape, or form associated with us. And as far as taking the time to jot down and relay the name of an Aramark employee being praised; well, the good people actually in the box office could really give a shit.
            So, for this reason, the proposed record keeping of potential praise was complete bullshit but not, however, for this reason only. The next had to do with what they actually planned to reward us with. No shit; she literally reserved a small room in one of our buildings and filled it with crap like cheap appliances and headphones and maybe a department store bicycle even. And whenever we were praised, they were supposed to reward us with this fake currency anticreatively dubbed: Aramark dollars or Aramark bucks or something equally unimaginative but of the like. But in the many months since this patronizing program had begun, I hadn't come into contact with anyone who'd saved up enough of these so-called bucks to actually 'buy' anything mostly (as I've just mentioned) due to the fact that it was virtually impossible for us to ever receive any outside praise in the first place.
            Come to think of it; I'd only known one employee to have ever received any payment in this phony cash and that was for rolling a heavy Cambro full of ice 10 downtown city blocks to a different auditorium and then back again. The poor guy, upon his return, was all winded and sweaty and so I asked him, “Did they even give you anything extra for doing that?”
            To which he replied in a tone that I hadn't yet identified as sarcasm, “Yeah. 50 bucks.”
            “Oh. Well, hell. I would have carted it over there for 50 bucks.”
            “No, dude,” and he gave me a look then like I should have known, “50 Aramark dollars.”
            “Oh. Sorry.” And it was pretty sad but I think, at the time, we both just had to laugh.
            These specific instances of praise were also supposed to go in our personal files so, as the managers used to say, if we ever did get into trouble and had to sit in any sort of disciplinary meeting like the one I'm about to transcribe, there would at least be some documentation present to portray us in a positive light. Not that this was technically a 'disciplinary meeting' we were about to engage in so to speak. As Clara had told me over the phone; I was already fired and therefore had nothing to lose. This was her way of attempting to put me at ease...and it did...sort of. But what she neglected to mention (or perhaps didn't fully realize) was that since this wasn't technically a disciplinary meeting and since I was already fired and since they had no plans to take me back; this meeting was to be nothing more than a farce at best and probably something more like what I enjoy referring to as a 'lame fuck around'. And, as will soon be revealed, the few points of praise in my file that I had picked up along the way (not to mention my perfect attendance record and willingness to always come in on short notice) did for me about jack and shit.
            And so it was programs like these that this HR lady now sitting at the head of one side of the table came up with. This was pretty much the extent of her position from what I'd gathered which, when you think about it, is pretty sweet gig! And this was her first sweet gig or cake job or, to be perfectly accurate; professional job. This, I could tell just by looking at her. She overdressed the part for starters; like she'd gone out the day she was hired and bought a bunch of new suits because she'd never had the opportunity to wear one to work before...having just come from Target where she'd been employed since graduating college something like 40 years ago! That last inference is nothing more than that; the part about Target, I mean. That being said, though, I am still very good at pegging people which is why I'm going to go on record as saying that her age (60-something) wasn't so much a guess as it was calculated speculation. She was 60-something hoping to God she could still pass for 40-something and hoping erroneously. Imagine an old cat. A really old one. One that's so old that it appears boney and brittle. So old that, if it weren't for its fur, there would only be a wrinkled sack of skin to meet the eye. Rather than fur, though, this HR lady was trying to disguise her own wrinkled sack with an expensive haircut...and that's what she had going for her. That and a cakey layer of cosmetic foundation that didn't do shit to conceal the copious amount of age spots that, like a disease, seemed to be on the verge of fully taking over her face. To sum it up succinctly; she was just trying way too hard to hide the fact that she was, and had been, post-menopausal for quite a while.
            She was also one of those particularly scarey types of people who couldn't quite decide whether or not to believe their own bullshit. As with her 'praise and rewards' program, for instance. Did she actually go home at night and say to herself, “You know what? I think that I really made a difference in those people's lives today. I think that, from now on, everyone working under my tiny area of influence is going to feel that much more appreciated...because of me. Good job!”
            And if so then which was worse? This was the burdensome little bug of a question that these types left me trying to decide. Because, on the one hand, if this lady did indeed believe that she was somehow making a positive difference; well, then she was just another idiot in the world and not to be taken seriously. And I believed this to be the case here; this less malignant of the two possible outcomes. Because, on the other (and this is something that frightens me right down to my core), if this bitch knew that she was just spitting out bullshit and went to a job everyday where she generated more bullshit because, deep down, she knew that this Aramark corporation (on its administrative end) was nothing more than a giant bullshit factory...which it is. If she knew this for a fact but continued to spit this shit...for a paycheck? For a job where she could wear a suit for (literally) a couple more years until it was time for her to retire? Where she could delude herself just long enough to hold back the self-loathing until it was time to wake up and look into the morning mirror all over again? It was this type of fundamental flaw that frightened me so much and it's exactly these types of deluded sickos out there who epitomized the very definition of the word 'wrong'. But we'll get into that in a minute. For now, as I've already mentioned, I believed this lady to be the more benign type of psycho. She knew that she, for the most part went unnoticed...that her footsteps through this life would forever be quiet...that she would sooner than later, to quote Dylan Thomas, 'go gentle into that good night'...and that truly; her very existence made hardly any difference at all. So little difference, in fact, that I could never even remember her name...which is why it doesn't appear in this story.
            Seated next to her and slumping in the corner was Woodman; the manger of mangers (so to speak) whom I'd met up with so many times by now already. During the last two meetings, he was the one who'd done almost all of the speaking. He'd told me point-blank that he didn't believe I'd miscounted my cups...which was his way of insinuating that it was the management's take that I was stealing. And while it's true that this was the management's position, it was a lie that Woodman himself believed me to be a thief. It was illogical. He never would have kept me around for 4 fucking years (much less have promoted me a year ago) if he so much as had an inkling...which he didn't. Because I had not, nor had I ever, stolen from that atrocious fucking company. And who knows? Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have stolen a little bit here and there over the years. It sure would have been easy. And it would've added up. And I would have damn sure felt less silly sitting here at a boardroom table after having been fired for not stealing. Had I been fired for something; I wouldn't even be writing this right now! But I am...because I wasn't.
            And this is exactly what I mean about believing one's own bullshit. Or not believing it; as was the case with Woodman. He was wrong for firing me because, deep down, he knew that I didn't deserve it. But of course, with a grievance already on the line and with this inventory discrepancy that truly I could not explain, he was under pressure to do so from his higher-ups when really all this discrepancy should have ever led up to was a stern warning and a write-up. And this is where things really get ugly. Because it's the philosophy. Assuming Woodman was under pressure to fire me and that his hands were tied...and I really wanted to believe this. Assuming this was the case; then what was he supposed to do? Be a man and stand up for his convictions like I did? And I do realize that that's a pretty tall order since Woodman, from what I understood, did have a family to support and kids that had probably long since stopped respecting him. And surely, it wouldn't prove very beneficial for him to get fired for not firing somebody else (me) who would doubtlessly be fired regardless of his own stance, his opinion, or his actions. But at any point, he could have leveled with me. At any time, he could have taken me aside and said, “Hey, man. I know this is complete bullshit and I know that everyone has an off night every once in a while. But it's either me or you here...or both of us. And I'm really, really sorry. But I hope you understand. They've really got my nuts in a vice over this one.” And I still may not have been okay with it but I may have at least regained a single ounce of respect for the man. But he never did take me aside and put his hand on my shoulder or even communicate such sentiments with so much as a beseechingly apologetic look on his face. So here goes... 
            It's a scary thing when people go against that little voice in their head; their conscience. And it's a scary thing when people are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Not to say that it was evil to fire me necessarily. But I do believe that a bunch of tiny, little evils piled on top of one another for so long will eventually spill out into the world and cause a bunch of chaos and unnecessary negativity. It's funny because there was this one woman whom I'd worked with who had basically gone up against Woodman for very similar reasons. She'd had a couple meetings with him while union reps were present. But, unlike me, she was able to maintain her employment. She told me those meetings got gnarly though. She told me that, at one point, she found herself yelling across the table at them for having accused her of 'gross misconduct' which, in Aramark language, meant stealing. And she told me that, with people like Woodman in the world, it was no wonder the holocaust happened. I'm chuckling to myself about this last remark even now...but not as hard as when this theory of hers was first expressed to me. I didn't make a face and say, “Jesus! That's a bit extreme, don't you think?” But afterward...I used to go out to the bar and tell other co-workers that she'd actually said that about Woodman and we'd all just laugh our heads off. How could she say that about anyone, for that matter, save a neo-Nazi?! But I get it now. A little. I think. This sentiment that she was attempting to express; it was the same idea as all the little evils adding up. All the little wrongs. And 'wrong' is something psychological. It's man-made. It's obeying orders from higher-up that you don't agree with on a moral set of standards. It's going against yourself. And when you go against yourself; you go against everything.
            This co-worker also stated that, in this meeting or meetings, Woodman had yelled at her; had actually stood up and yelled. And I'd heard, on more than one occasion, of him doing this. I'd heard it from other mangers even! Which, to me, just meant that he was under a lot of stress. Again, he was perpetually caught between the rock and the hard place that was his position within the company; the go-between guy who was somehow supposed to link this awful line between labor and management. He never yelled at me though. Not even in the two meetings previous; both of which had become pretty intense. Because...yelling at women with their backs already against the wall was one thing. But to yell at a 200 lb. guy whom he knew would stand right back up, get in his face, and throw it back at him...he didn't have the balls...or at least not balls big enough. Apparently.
            As he sat there across from me at the boardroom table on this day, though, rolling his eyes; I mostly just felt sorry for him. I'd heard that he was (or at least once was) in a band. A Cake cover band, granted. But still. It was kind of cool. But just look where he wound up. This was his stage now. And we, the union reps and I; his all but unreceptive audience. I'd even heard that once, not so very long ago, he'd moved to Philadelphia where there must have been some musical opportunity there awaiting him. I'd heard that that had been his last real stab at it. And I'd heard that he'd failed miserably. And that that's why he was back. Imagine the resentment he must have held towards other people still living their dreams. The very weight...the magnitude of it must have been astounding. And that's why it didn't surprise me at all that he rolled his eyes and huffed and yelled and acted the way he did. It didn't surprise me that anyone who saw him on the street would have immediately mistaken him for an albino with his ever thinning white hair and waxy, wan complexion. Woodman, however, was an albino only of the soul. The very fibers of his being lacking any pigmentation...anymore. A sad and tragic man who just wasn't quite good enough to make it.
            Either that or he was just your regular, run-of-the-mill fucking asshole. Take your pick.
            On the other corner across from us, there sat Will. He was sort of a newcomer to Portland but not, however, to the Aramark managerial scene...which is crazy because he was probably a few years younger than myself. Maybe more than that even. It was hard to tell. He was young, though, and still had that little boy's face about him. More definitively; a little boy who'd just shit his pants and was pissed about sitting in it. His prematurely receding hairline only helped to accentuate this image because it resembled that of a toddler's whose hair hasn't begun to grow in yet right around the temples and even a little bit beyond. And it was because of his youth and his position that he truly disgusted me and didn't draw much respect from anyone else. This isn't to say, of course, that just because someone is young; they don't deserve respect. Rather, it was just so completely obvious that he'd given up on his life and aspirations without ever really trying to achieve them and that he'd probably taken that low and easy road by majoring in (and then graduating with) a hotel and restaurant management degree.
            And as I sat across the table from him just then, I couldn't quite decide whether or not it was funny or sad that Woodman was his future. Either way, though, it sure did make for an interesting phenomenon to see them seated almost side-to-side. The broken. The defeated. The lifers.
            Will had been around for only a couple weeks before the first meeting that had resulted in my suspension. And already, my co-workers had been referring to him as, The Mole. I'm not perfectly sure why, though, since a 'mole' (by my understanding) is someone who is undercover. Still, the nickname was funny as shit. And even more so because he had absolutely no idea that this is what the staff truly thought of him. It was believed, anyway, that he'd been brought in as an extra player for their team while the new union contract was still under negotiation. And it was known, pretty much from day 1, that Will's position within the company was just a bit higher than that of our nightly closing managers. However, after these first couple weeks were up and the story had a chance to unfold itself (mostly thanks to some of the other blabbermouth managers); it turned out that Will was just some garden-variety douche bag who'd moved to Portland because his wife wanted to attend a specific school of chiropractics...which would make him, what they refer to in The South as, a following-spouse.     
            As I've pointed out, it was Woodman who'd done almost all of the talking in the two previous meetings. But now, just by the way that the Legion of Evil had situated themselves, I could tell that this was no longer going to be the case. Because, sitting in the center of the table on their side now was Woodman's boss, Brendan. And he, out of any of them, had to be the one bona fide steaming pile of human garbage; a stinking turd of a man right through to the core and a beady-eyed, Leprechaun looking bastard at that. 
            Smiling smugly across from me now, I actually took the time to evaluate the worm for the very first time. His profile was so obvious, I can't even believe I'm going to describe it but...Brendan had gelled what was left of his greying mane and had slicked it back in the fashion of any used car salesman ever; a style that I've never quite understood on any guy whose hair was already thinning so badly. And Brendan had used so much fucking gel today that his scalp now, under the overhead fluorescents, reflected an irritating, white shine that I knew was going to distract me for the duration.
            That being said; it should also be obvious that he was the kind of guy who would point at someone when he walked into a if to acknowledge their presence. Today, he wore a dress shirt; maroon and of a cotton that had been so refined, it seemed to gleam...which only accentuated his already greasy being. Beyond that, though, Brand would have been the perfect spokesman for Viagra. He could easily have taken the place of any one of those guys in an erectile dysfunction commercial; so prime was he for the part. As if, just by looking at him, one would begin to hear that little voice-over warning that always ran at the end of those ads...“Please, consult your doctor to determine whether or not your heart is healthy enough for sex.” And I guess that's the general impression that this guy gave off; that his heart was not. Although, rather than wearing that complacent, self-satisfied smile on his face like all those other baseball loving 50-somethings in the commercials; Brendan's own countenance gave one the feeling that they were staring at some kind of hologram when, without moving any actual muscles, his standard schmuck-smile would slowly transform into an expression full of fear and agony. And this may sound strange but it only made complete sense because, if I know anything about Aramark (and I do), the degree of misery only seemed to increase as one moved up the ladder...exponentially. And I didn't even want to fucking try to imagine was his boss was like.
            However, for all points and purposes of this story, it may just be easier to envision any standard, pink-faced lowlife that could make a $2000 suit look bad.
            Admittedly, Brendan was somewhat of a mystery card that I'd been dealt. That is; other than the characteristics mentioned above and so easily ascertained via a little intuition, I believe I'd only ever seen him one other time and that was at the last meeting a month ago whereupon I was officially fired. And even then, it seemed he'd made himself present just to ensure Woodman was doing his job properly. He spoke only once then and I believe it was after the fact...after Woodman had already broken it to the room that their decision was 'to terminate'. And, as we'll see in due time, jabbering nonsensical bullshit was nothing more than another trait of Brendan's that can be added to the list. What he'd said then was in reference to an extra bottle of gin that had appeared on my paperwork. At first, I didn't know how this could have happened either...but then, about a week later, it came to me. And please allow me to get a bit technical for a moment... Whenever a bartender closes up for the night, it is common practice (not to mention the way I was trained) to not even take the time to inventory a bottle that has less than a shot in it. We'd leave it there for the next guy, sure. But on paper, it simply wouldn't exist. It wouldn't exist, that is, until the next bartender came along, poured that 'less than a shot', and had to account for it on a different form that we were supposed to fill out when accounting for the actual, empty glass bottle itself. So it was a paperwork error. An error that was easy to explain if they were at all into listening...which they were not. And that fucking moron, Brendan, actually opened his yap and in that high-pitched, girly voice of his; actually tried to argue the point with  me. He mentioned something about always counting the liquor in our bottles whether they only had a few drops in them or not. To which my rebuttal was to bring to his attention that one of his own managers had specifically asked that we not do this. And so Brendan, the dumb mother fucker that he was, proved in front of everyone in the room that he didn't even understand the very system that he was supposed to be there somehow enforcing...the very system that they were firing someone over. Brendan obviously didn't know shit about anything going on behind the bar or the inner workings of the job itself. And because he was now sitting in middle of the boardroom table today, I knew for a fact that this meeting about to proceed was going to be nothing more than a comedy of pretentiousness as did everyone of them. They still had to be here though. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
            “Well then,” Clara communicated to the room now that everybody was seated and the doors had been closed behind us, “We're here to talk about two grievances today so I opt that we start with the easiest one first.”
            “The easiest one,” Brendan blurted, “Which one's that?”
            And here, I would have automatically assumed that, by saying this, he was just trying to get things off on the smug-foot by acting like some sort of hotshot in front of his buddies if not for the insight I already had about Brendan not really being able to comprehend what was going any situation. So, rather than just trying to be a bigger douche here, it occurred to me that he probably just wasn't aware that that first and fatal (to my occupation) grievance was still in affect. And that I still wanted my back pay.
            “It's the one,” Clara replied, “Where Mick was allegedly skipped over on the call-down list to work a shift.”
            “Well, that sounds to me like you already said it right there,” he spoke to her and her only, “Allegedly. I mean, as far as I know, we keep pretty accurate logs on this type of thing. In fact...” and here he looked quickly over to the left at his subordinate who was sort of spacing out in the corner, “Woody. Why don't you go find some of those logs to show everyone here. Especially, the one pertaining to this date if it's still available.”
            To which Woodman responded with a despondent shrug and a roll of his eyes like he'd just sat down and didn't feel as if it were necessary for him to get off his lazy ass again. He did get up though. He took that order like a good little boy, swallowed his pride, and left the room in pursuit of those call-logs which, in all fairness, were completely unnecessary to obtain. They weren't going to prove anything. And it's not like anyone in the room wasn't able to imagine just what one of these logs would have looked like. But, who cares? That was their problem.
            “Yes,” Clara answered in a tone; practiced and diplomatic, “And I guess that we're not really arguing the fact that this particular call wasn't logged...”
            “Then what are we arguing?” Brendan interrupted her. He was already losing his cool and I was already loving that I really had to do nothing more than sit back and enjoy the show.
            “And Clara...if I may,” Malcolm chimed in on my left, “I just wanted to reiterate and to stress the fact that we're in no way suggesting that the secretary willingly or intentionally skipped Mick over on this call. But, you know, human errors do occur...”
            “Well, they don't occur very often,” Brendan put flatly.
            “Um. Yeah,” and Malcolm leaned forward a bit here to sort of eyeball Clara right on the other side of me. It was as if he needed to ascertain, through just a look, what she made of this blatant lack of regard for the perfectly valid and bipartisan point he'd been trying to make. “Well, I guess the point that we're trying to make is that they do occur from time to time and that this may just be one of those cases.”
            Malcolm sat back again; his hands daintily folded over the notebook in his lap.
            “Okay?” Brendan retorted, “Well? Do you have some evidence of this?”
            “Actually,” Clara took over again, “We do have Mick's phone records which he's obtained from...AT&T?”
            “That's correct,” I spoke up mostly just so my throat didn't go dry.
            “Can I have a look at those?” Brendan held his hand out.
            And he did look at those couple sheets of paper; skeptically, though, as if the very records were antagonizing him.
            “Well, this...” he sneered arrogantly here, “There aren't even any calls made on the day in question. Incoming or outgoing. These are all text messages.”
            “Yes,” I attempted to clarify, “I really don't get that many actual phone calls.”
            “Well, you have to get more than... It says here, you got three in a week!”
            That's because nobody actually talks on the phone anymore, you dumb fuck.
            “Three in a week sounds about right.”
            “About right?”
            “I think what we want to focus on here,” Clara did her best to keep the communication from running away with itself, “Is that there are no records indicating that Mick ever received a call on that day.”
            “Okay,” and Brendan may as well have been the only advocate over on their side at this point, “Well, we're sayin' he did. So...? I guess I'm just not really understanding what it is you wanna do here.”
            “Well,” Clara continued, “What we're asking for is that Mick receive back pay for this night in question. No tips, obviously. But, according to Mick, he was only requesting the back hourly wage to begin with...which, I'm only speculating here, would come out to something like 40 or 50 bucks.” Then she quickly craned her neck to look at me, “Is that about right, Mick? And would this satisfy the situation for you?”
            “I believe it would,” I answered her.
            “And that's all fine and good,” Brendan opened his hands, palms up, in a exaggerated expression of poorly feigned bewilderment, “But phone calls don't always show up on the billing records. It happens to me all the time.”
            “And to me,” the nameless, void of an HR lady decided to show some support.
            “There. Ya see?” and Brendan actually looked to her as if her three-word statement somehow held any water.
            “And Clara...if I may,” and I just had to be the one to say it, “I think that what we're asking for...what we're requesting here...that is, if we haven't already; are the phone records from your side so that we can compare.”
            “Well, I'm afraid that's not possible,” Brendan always had an answer...even if it was just empty garble, “This building operates on a tree trunk system meaning; all the lines are tied into one record so... I'm afraid it's just not possible that we could tie any one line to Mick's number.”
            And he was actually saying this shit. It wasn't his logic. But, once again, Brendan wasn't the type of creep to believe in his own bullshit.
            “Yes. But I'm sure,” I threw in again, “that it would be possible to obtain those records and, from them, to discern whether or not any line from this building called my number on that day...which I'm confident that it would not.”
            “And what?” and here was his exasperated attitude again, “So you're saying that we should actually pay one of our people to take the time to go through all those records?! I'm afraid that's just not going to happen. Not that it would prove anything anyway!”
            And I looked him right in his beady, little eyes this time, “So what you're saying is; you can obtain the records. You just don't want to.”
            Luckily, for the sake of the continuity of this meeting, Clara jumped in again and addressed him, “Okay. Well, I can clearly see your stance on this matter. And it would appear, for the time being, that it's not going to be resolved. So I guess that our next move would be to subpoena those records and just take it from there.”
            Woodman reentered the room at this point with a few sheets of paper in his hand. He dropped them down on the table in front of Clara and let his boney index finger linger on the stack just long enough to seem spiteful before returning to his corner. Then, from his seat, he proceeded to explain what each of the lines on the Excel spreadsheet that was the call-log were supposed to signify while Clara marked on them with her pen and asked some questions as to whether or not the log was manually entered...which, of course, it was.
            “It also says here,” and she already knew this but I can only suppose she was just trying to gauge their response, “That you left a voice mail? Is that considered a standard procedure?”
            “Not yet,” Malcolm proudly interceded from my left, “But we're actually trying to get that wording into our new contract right now so... We hope it's gonna happen.”
            Clara may not have been aware of this last part, however; the part about voice mails presently being on the contract table. It didn't really matter either way but it did cause me to stop for a second and consider that I'd had no idea just how deep this union went. If Clara wasn't aware of every last, little detail in this upcoming contract; it was probably because she was so high up the ladder that our contract was, to her, just another one among many. In Portland; I'd heard lately that the Hyatt staffers were coming up on a new contract too and I knew that this union also covered the workers of the downtown Hilton. Neither of these companies could have been nearly as defective as the retarded conglomeration known as Aramark though; the very same Aramark that, beyond such finer establishments as the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, also ran and operated prison cafeterias (and that is the honest-to-God's truth).
            High up on the wrung as Clara was, though, she was here helping me deal with this shit...and I did appreciate it. It was nice to feel, when dished up one heaping helping of injustice, like someone did indeed have my back. And the union seemed to. During the meeting in which I was fired, for example, no less than four representatives from the union hall made it down to hear the verdict. Woodman was pissed that we had to get so many extra chairs just for all the butts to fit in his tiny, little office! All just for him to read (literally) from a script which took all of two minutes!
            Be that as it may; the union still didn't prevent me from being fired just like they weren't going to get me my job back right now. Because, at the end of the day (and as we shall see momentarily), there was still this little clause on all official disciplinary forms used by the company which stated basically that they had the right to fire anybody for any reason. And it was this type of clause that had always caused me to question the actual authority (or lack thereof) that our union may have wielded. Because, if this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone still working for Aramark at the PCPA...anyone who ever decided to speak up for themselves. And this is why, since I was already fired after all, I had decided to make this process the longest, most drawn-out, most painstaking shit-charade this company had ever yet imagined. I would waste as much of their time as was humanly possible just so that the next time they ever even considered firing someone without any solid proof or legitimate reason; they may remember just what a lengthy process it could be indeed...and think twice about it.
            “Okay,” Clara obviously knew that we'd hit an impasse, “Well, I think we can just put this one aside for now and move on.”
            “I can't wait,” Brendan replied tonelessly and surprisingly without an ounce of sarcasm in his voice.
            “Alright,” she went on while switching folders, “Well, I guess that brings us to the company's decision to terminate Mick's employment. And I think what we're trying to determine here is if said termination was completely justifiable.”
            “Oh, it's justifiable,” was Brendan's response, “I mean, it's all right here in black and white. Mick came up short over $200 on the night in question and bingo. I mean...what more do you need?”
            “Clara,” and I did actually find it necessary to intervene here for just a moment, “I just wanted to make sure that you understand that that $200 wasn't actual cash that I came up short on. In fact, the bartender working right next to me; her cash totals were about the same as mine at the end of the night. I just wanted to be sure that we're all on the same page and that it's the plastic cups that I was actually short on and their worth as far as poured drinks are concerned.”
            “Well,” Brendan's irritation made its quick reappearance, “I mean...that's what we go by around here, isn't it? They're cups that you signed for.”
            “Yes. Well,” Clara resumed, “I think part of the case that we're making is that Mick had to leave his bar during the time of setup and...”
            “Well, who told you to leave your bar?!” he quickly bypassed the mediator altogether.
            “Nobody ever told me, in four years, not to leave my bar,” I replied, “And the fact of the matter is that I had to since, more often than not, the supplies that I require aren't delivered to me by the time the house doors open.”
            “Why?” this question of his was rhetorical though, “Do we not have runners on the payroll to do that for you?”
            “There are runners, obviously, and I'm not getting down on any of them. But it's common knowledge that, for big concerts and events like this was, they're running around like crazy people trying to get everyone the most rudimentary stuff that they also need to do their jobs...”
            “And what was it? What rudimentary things did you need so badly?”
            “Well, lemons and limes for one. And bus tubs and ice for another. Let's just say that I don't enjoy serving the customers warm beer and gin and tonics with no lime wedge. They get upset. And,” I delivered my case in the only language they spoke, “It's bad for business.”
            “So what you're saying is that the runners aren't doing their jobs?”
            “Not at all. In fact, I've heard them complain many times only because they're not given ample time in which to perform their duties. And I've mentioned countless times to the mangers on duty that they, along with the bartenders and everyone else for that matter, should be scheduled earlier and given more time...the time that they need, so that we don't always run in to situations like this where everyone is having to rush around...”
            “I'm not buying it,” Brendan sat back in his chair now and sort of removed himself from the conversation. He also took this time to scan each and every face sitting on his side of the table; searching them for approval like a politician who knew that his stances were shaky. Brendan needed to be surrounded by yes-men less he crumble...and I imagine that he was like that outside of work as well. 
            “Mick,” Clara attempted to refocus the discussion for the umpteenth time, “Would you say that it wouldn't have been difficult, while you were away from your bar, for somebody to just come over and take some cups?”
            “Extremely easy,” I used her prompt, “I keep them behind the bar so that they're not as obvious or inviting but... If someone...especially someone working for the show, like the crew; if some of them needed cups, I'm sure they'd feel perfectly entitled and wouldn't hesitate to lift some. The ushers have been known to get a bit grabby from time to time too.”
            “Is it possible that another bartender might have taken some because they were short themselves?” Clara kept leading me.
            “It's possible but not very likely. Not without them having told me about it, that is. But that's not to say that maybe they grabbed a stack and then, after a crazy-busy night like that, just forgot to tell me about it. That's certainly another possibility.”
            “No,” and Brendan actually shook his head here as if to accentuate that one hollow word from which a brief pause followed. And I think even his side was expecting him to say something else. But he didn't.
            “Okay,” Clara took a deep breath, “Well, rather than concentrating anymore on whether or not Mick's missing cups could have been taken without his knowledge; let's examine for a moment, if we may, the severity of this disciplinary decision and whether or not it was a reasonable one based on his longstanding record with the company. I have, in my information here, that in 4 years; Mick has called in sick only once. He's been late only a couple of times. And, other than this one incident, there have been no other major disciplinary actions on-record. Am I correct in saying this?”
            “No,” Brendan's tone rose and then fell a bit as if to stress the absurdity of Clara's very question, “In fact, I have a whole stack of disciplinary records here. Here's one,” he opened his own folder now, “It says Mick was off by $7.25. And here's another one, and this one only a few nights later, that says he was off by 9 dollars. I have a whole stack. There's over a dozen of these things and his signature is on every one of them.”
            “And may I have a look at them?” Clara asked.
            “Be my guest,” he said as if she were going to attempt to discover something that just wasn't there.
            “And Clara,” Malcolm threw in from my left again, “I think, just for the record, that we need to make clear that these sheets are representing cups, and not cash shortages again. So, while 9 dollars may sound like a lot, it really is just one or two cups that he may have been missing on these nights.” 
            “And may I further clarify,” I had to add, “that these notifications, as they're called, were being handed out to everyone for any little shortage just about every night there for a while. And this went on for...I don't know; something like only a few months in the entire 4 years that I've worked here. And then they just went away entirely like sort of a passing fad.”
            “Since when did they go away entirely?!” this last statement of mine had apparently pissed Brendan off...and I hadn't even been trying! My guess is, though, that he hadn't been aware of this sudden influx of shortage notifications and then their sudden cease. And all the flux really amounted to in the first place was a ploy by the management to flex their muscle a keep us scared and in line like good, little worker-ants. And he'd probably berate Woodman later for not having informed him that this little preventative policy had gone out the window a long time ago like so many other non-issues they would occasionally isolate and try to enforce before quickly giving up again.
            “As I've just said,” I answered him directly, “I can't remember the last time anyone has actually received one of these. I mean, it's even become sort of a running joke. In fact, I can clearly remember some of the newer people asking what a 'notification' was even.”
            “I don't believe that,” Brendan put flatly.
            “Well,” I found myself glad to be having this deliberation now. I mean, that's what Clara told me this meeting was supposed to be all about; stating my case in an environment where the management was practically forced to sit and listen, “I'm sure that if you just check the dates on any of those notifications in that stack there; you'll find that they all occurred within a few months time. And because they were almost always given for any of us being off just one cup; nobody ever really worried too much about them. That is, they just seemed sort of meaningless. Even the managers told us not to worry about them since, I believe it's even stated in our contract that, if we ever received something like 10 of them in a month's time; then this would constitute a write-up. But I also believe that, in our contract, it's stated that those things are supposed to be thrown out after one year. So what I'm really wondering here, since I know absolutely that any of those in that stack is much older than that... What I'm wondering right now is what they're still doing in my file or why they're even in this room in the first place.”
            “Is that so,” Brendan wrinkled his brow...not that he portrayed the look of being stumped. But he was. I'd caught him on something and a thick vein marking his inner tension began to bulge on his forehead. Predictably, though, he dodged the question, “And why, do you suppose that these notifications just sort of fizzled out? Which they didn't.”
            “Because the managers,” I came back, “have always been, since I started working here, reasonable enough to adjust our inventory if we were ever only off by a cup or two at the end of the night. And it is perfectly reasonable for them to do so. Cups fall on the floor. They get broken. Oftentimes, two just get stuck together and there they go. I may use one for ice water and then forget to mark it down. It happens. Everybody's human. And just about everyone is off at least one or two cups at the end of the night. And so the night managers will adjust our inventory. It happens, literally, every single night. So, when it comes to these notifications, it was the managers who were really under the pressure to give them for a while more than we ever felt burned for having received one. And they always told us not to worry about them so...”
            “Were you aware of this, Woody?” Brendan asked his boy.
            “No,” Woodman shrugged his slouched shoulders again without looking directly at anyone.
            Malcolm hadn't wanted me to play this card. He'd told me so many times. He believed that it would bring heat upon the employees again...and with good reason. But my philosophy for doing so was; if the system was a broken joke to begin with then it needed to be fixed. No more hush, hush behind the curtains shit...even if some of it (like the manager overrides) were actually in our favor. And I knew absolutely that this heat which Malcolm predicted would never reach the extremes he was anticipating. Because...what were they going to do? Pick up with the whole 'notification' thing again and hand one out to every last staffer at the end of the night and, in a month's time, fire everyone working there?! They could, I suppose. But if they didn't like how firing me was going just now; multiply that by twenty without even mentioning the media shit-storm that would develop by firing so many people in such little time in this, the largest unemployment scare in our nation's recent history.      
            “Well,” Brendan looked me right in the eye this time, “That's all fine and good. But, from the way I see it, it has nothing to do with why you're sitting here today. We decided to terminate. And I believe that that decision was a good one. I mean, sometimes things just happen as they'll happen.”
            “Yeah, well that's a pretty vague statement.”
            Something had changed in the room. The air had become thick and humid and it was beginning to boil. I never lost eye contact with him though. And I think this is why...
            “Okay,” Clara annunciated while reaching out to put a hand on my shoulder, “I think that we're just going to take a quick caucus...if that's okay with everyone. Just five minutes or so. And we'll be right back.”
            And, with this, the three of us (Malcolm, Clara, and I) stood up and exited the double doors just behind where we'd been seated.
            And this is where these events truly come to be hilarious for me. Let's just call them; the caucuses. Like in a courtroom movie! All this. All these meetings and all this seriousness! And for what? A part-time, event-based job? Who's ever heard of such a thing?! But no. This was about something bigger than that. It was about something much bigger. It was about not suffering an injustice without a fight. And it was about all those other workers still on the payroll who, one day, may meet with a similar end. Workers who didn't already have another job like I did. Many of whom were older ladies just trying to supplement their social security when they should have been resting and enjoying their retirement. There were people working for Aramark and the PCPA who actually needed the job. And I wasn't about to let them think that I'd gone out without a fight.
            “Okay,” Clara spoke in a low tone just after the thin, wooden door had clicked shut behind us, “So I thought that just a little break would be best. And I think that it would be best to stick to getting your job back. I know it's frustrating just sounded a little hostile in there.”
            “She's right,” Malcolm backed her up, “I could sense a little anger coming through.”
            “I wasn't angry. I was just breaking his balls a little. I mean, obviously he's been dishing enough of it out.”
            “Well,” Clara humored me, “You have to decide. Do you want to break his balls and say that you really stuck it to him? Or do you want to try and resolve something today?”
            She still didn't get it though. There was nothing that would ever be resolved here. So I didn't answer her question directly.
            “I'm fine. I can behave.”
            “Okay,” she seemed glad to hear this, “Now, I think what we want to try to get back to is the customer service stuff. You may have left your bar but it was only because you needed to get the supplies necessary to provide good customer service.”
            “Well, that's the truth,” the inflection in my voice made it apparent that I was wondering where she was going with this.
            “Yes, but...Mick. There's obviously a piece still missing to this puzzle. I just mean...and don't take this the wrong way but; is there something you're not telling us? That you haven't told them?”
            “No. Absolutely not and that's the plain, boring truth of the matter. I don't know what happened to those cups that night. I may have miscounted them to begin with. It's a possibility. Or, someone may have come by and snatched a stack. That's certainly a possibility as well. And believe me, I've thought about just coming up with a lie...even now. Just claiming something like, 'Oh, I forgot this whole time. A guy from the show did actually come by and ask for some cups so I gave them to him. It must have slipped my mind.' That would be so much easier than going through all of this and I'd probably still have a job right now. I might even have a chance if I got back in there and told them that now! But I can't. Because I don't lie. Well,” guiltily, and I closed my eyelids tight for a moment, “Not around the workplace anyway.”
            “That is correct, Clara,” Malcolm spoke up for me now, “Mick has never and would never. And he's been completely transparent with us throughout this entire process. I believe him. And he is getting kicked in the ass for telling the truth here.”
            “Alright,” Clara sighed almost disappointedly, “In that case, there is something else. Another option that I wanted to propose to you for just a moment. What if we could arrange, through this meeting, to change the status of your termination so to speak. To alter it in their system so that, to future employers, it would show that you were re-hirable.”
            “I'd be down with that. In fact, I actually considered that as I viable outcome to this meeting before leaving my day job just before coming here. Because, I don't think I could ever come back to this place to work. I have no respect for this company. I always loved the job itself, don't get me wrong. But can you also imagine the hell they'd make my working-life upon my return. The shit would never end. So yeah, I'd be open to that. If you can get my back pay for that call that I got skipped over on somehow worked into the deal too...then, yeah, I could go for that. I'd be willing.”
            “Good,” she sounded relieved, “But what we're going to do is go in there and try this one more time. I think you should go over the night in detail from beginning to end and, as I've already said, stress the customer service stuff. And I'll just take it from there. I may, just to warn you, call another caucus like this and I may ask for one with just Brendan and myself depending on how things are going. And thank you,” she said to my lastly, “This is very big of you right just going back in there. And it's for people in your situation right now that I'm just glad to be doing this job.”
            “That's true,” Malcolm put his hand on my shoulder now, “I truly respect you for coming all this way with it. I think most people would have just given up and not wanted to deal with all the stress involved here. But we're glad to be here with you, buddy. We all have to stand united.”
            It was nice of them to say these things and I took them to heart. And if Clara may have shown that fleeting lack of faith in me, it was only because she was just now beginning to realize that, as she put it herself, there were still missing pieces to this puzzle. Or, more specifically, pieces that were there but she was only now beginning to see. Pieces like the fact that this termination wasn't at all about the night in question. Pieces that contained the word 'retaliation' on the management's part for me having shown some sort of backbone.
            Once the meeting resumed, however, nothing much more was really ever accomplished so for as me pleading my case and them being receptive to it. I went over the detail. And this time, I even picked out little features such as the fact that my polyester jacket (the latest required uniform) had been suffocating me so much in the summer heat that I couldn't even think straight. Suffocating me so much, in fact, that the bartender working next to me actually went in search of the 'summer uniforms' that we'd heard were in already. She could tell I was dying in that thing. Which meant that she'd left her bar too! But it was a nice gesture on her part. I also went into the fact that my register had been acting like a piece of shit all night. The touchscreen was 'sticking' as I liked to call it; which basically meant that there was a 10 second delay every time I tried to ring someone up by pressing one of the keys. There was a long delay with the credit card processor too. And what all this amounted to was added stress to an already busy night which may have caused me to not to be able to perform my job so well or operate as smoothly as I would have liked.
            “But this is all just hypothetical, right?” Will finally grew enough of a spine to actually speak in this meeting...and it was directly in Brendan's ear.
            “Well, yeah!” Brendan instantly agreed with his palms turned up at us again and then went into a soliloquy (from which I'll spare you) about how he did, indeed, believe me to have been stealing from the company. 
            And so...
            “Okay,” Clara, as she'd promised, took it from there, “If you guys don't mind, I think that we're just going to call another short break again. We won't be more than a few minutes.”
            “Take all the time you need,” came Brendan's mask of a shit-eating grin.
            And the door clicked shut behind us once again.
            “Okay,” Clara seemed a bit discouraged but not surprised, “This isn't going well.”
            “Does it ever?” I asked lightheartedly. But seriously. I really wanted to know.
            “Usually a little better than this,” she answered but was clearly not too amused by my question. She was in full-on business mode now. “So I think what I'm going to do is ask Brendan if he'd step outside with me for just a moment to discuss what we've already sort of gone over. I'll ask him about changing the status of your termination and just sort of test the waters to see where they are on that. Is that okay with you?”
            “Sure,” I replied without any sarcasm, “At this point, I don't think I could ask for much more than that. Unless, of course, we take this to arbitration.”
            “Yeah. But Mick,” Malcolm interjected, “If we go there, you've got to understand. They have all their ducks in a row on this thing. At least this way, you're still sort of getting a win, in my opinion.”
            And he wasn't entirely wrong here. I had actually thought of this outcome before coming here and would take the deal. But I'm not sure that I would have called it 'a win' per se. And I did feel that if I had a little bit more information as to how these so-called arbitrations went down then I, just now, could have better planned my course in which future to take. Because, if I could talk to a judge and lay down for him or her concisely all the devilish, little details in this case... If I could somehow explain to someone who'd actually been placed in the power to make decisions... Then perhaps I would be able to explain factors like how I'd never been signed off on anything even halfway relating to my position as a bartender. I'd never signed or even so much as initialed any document stating that I wasn't supposed to ever leave my bar...which was Brendan's first rebuttal. And in 4 years; no manager had ever so much as told me that I couldn't. And maybe I could explain to said judge just how much more cost-effective it would have been for this company to simply install some security cameras and how this would have prevented us all from even being here just now. I could have explained to this arbitrator that, back when I was in college and working at a convenient store, there were not only security cameras on us at all times; there was also a device wired to the register that showed exactly what we were keying in and charging people in relation to the items for sale that the customers put up on the counter. Every key we ever touched popped right up on the video footage and it couldn't have been that expensive to install and would have been damn sure less expensive than keeping the entire staff in the offices of the PCPA after hours to ensure that their stupid cup-count system was correct. And maybe I would have been able to explain to this judge that Aramark never had any intention nor the desire to install such cameras or devices for the sheer reason that it suited their interests so much more to dwell in grey meetings or arbitrations such as this one rather than just operating in the black and white...the clear and concise. Because I wasn't afraid of security cameras. Because I'd done nothing, or never would have done anything questionably wrong at that job.  
            “If you can get me that back pay,” I had to mention again, “Then, yeah. We can work out a deal.”
            It goes without saying that this wasn't about the money. But that back pay for the first grievance that was filed...for the concert I'd been skipped over on; that was enough for me. That would be them admitting that they were wrong. That they'd fucked up. And I would hang that check on a wall somewhere.
            When we went back in, Malcolm and I took our chairs again but Clara remained standing.
            “Um...Brendan. Would it be alright with you if I could just speak to you privately outside for just a moment?”
            Woodman in his corner, despite the fact that this question wasn't even addressed to him, rolled his eyes again and began to rub his temple. Maybe he had a Cake cover band gig to get to. Fucking dork-ass loser.
            After just those two left the room, though, it did kind of leave the rest of us in an uncomfortable (to say the least) position. But this is where the HR lady finally came in handy. She finally found a fucking use for herself...and it was just so fitting. The lady could small talk! And small talk with me, she did. And since she hadn't really said anything thus far; she also hadn't pissed me off. So, luckily, I did find it fairly easy to shoot the shit with her about only the most mundane topics ever concocted. The weather. The news. Upcoming events at the PCPA. And even food. And just this mindless chatter did cut down on most of the tension that would have otherwise unraveled everyone's minds as we sat there in silence. It was still awkward. Will was still sitting there across from us with his shit-his-pants face on. And Woodman was still slumped over there in his corner and rubbing his temple. Just not as awkward as it could have been.
            After what couldn't have been more than just a seemingly long 5 minutes, Clara and Brendan returned to the room whereupon she immediately called Malcolm and I to stand back up again and join her outside...again. And when the door closed, this time, she explained to us that Brendan (who'd remained in the boardroom) was now 'testing the waters' of her proposition...mostly, I'm assuming, just to see if it was even logistically feasible. And they stayed in there on the other side of those closed doors for quite a while. So long, in fact, that the three of us moved down the hallway just a bit to a little nook where there were a few chairs set up around a coffee table. And, amongst ourselves, we talked easily now without having to feign an air of enthusiasm while blankly staring off into space.
            Eventually, Brendan popped his head back out the door again and requested that only Clara return with him leaving just Malcolm and I to sit at that coffee table for the time being. And again, all of this covert, behind the curtains shit couldn't have possibly been any funnier to me. And more than anytime today thus far, I felt that all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the show.
            “Well, buddy? What do ya think?” he asked me as I flipped through some copy of an interior design magazine.
            “I think that I was ready to leave anyway. Honestly. And it's been good experience and a steady record of employment for my resume...assuming they grant this sort of plea deal and remove the 'firing' from my record. Plus...I don't know. I think I was starting to feel the stagnation really kicking in there. Night after night of the same old routine, ya know? I think it was starting to get to me. Counting those stupid, fucking cups and then having to sit there in line...for an hour sometimes! While the one, fucking manager on duty sorts through everybody's shit. It's insanity, man. But I think that now, with a little bit of bartending under my belt, I'll be able to find something...I don't know. A little more real?”
            “Yeah. I hear ya, buddy. I don't think I could handle that plastic cup shit either.”
            And this was true. Malcolm worked in and only in (due to some weird rule that Aramark alone had cooked up) the slightly fancier bars in the very same buildings. And, in his bars, they actually used real glasses.
            “Just promise me something, man,” I peeped up from my magazine, “Promise me that you'll try to get this awful system the new contract, I mean. Ya know...for the sake of the people still working there who do have to deal with that stupid plastic cup shit every night. And maybe try to get some security cameras in there as well. Because this is just awful.”
            “I know it is, buddy. And I promise...I'll try.”
            “Thank you.”

            When one of the double doors to the boardroom opened up again, Clara slipped out and quietly clicked it shut behind her. She then made her way down the hall to where Malcolm and I were still seated and, from a standing position, proceeded to give us the low-down.
            “Well, according to the HR lady, it would be tricky to get the status of your termination changed in their computer system once it's already in there but she's going to check out just what it would take to do so. I did also mentioned the back pay again and they're going to get back to me on that also. So basically, we're just going to have to wait. But the good news is, they did at least seem acceptive of the terms of the bargain. So...don't worry too much. I'll be in close contact with you, Mick. And they are obligated to get back to me with an answer in a reasonable amount of time.”
            “Alright,” there wasn't much left for me to say, “Well, I did leave my bag in there so...”
            “Right,” she agreed, “The meeting is pretty much over at this point so all we have to do is gather our things and leave.”
            And into the boardroom we went one last time. I lifted my satchel from off the floor, nodded my head a couple times in the general direction of our opposition, but didn't actually say anything to anyone. And then we were out. The three of us. Back in the elevator again.
            “And you know what the most fucked up thing is?” I asked Malcolm.
            “What's that?” he smiled widely fully expecting me to let off some steam.
            “Did you know that last summer I actually cut my trip to India short for that fucker. Woodman, I mean. No joke. I cut it a week short because he said he needed me back there to work some shifts for him for a week-long opera. Which he didn't, really. But that's what a good employee I was. I mean, that's how dedicated I was to this joke of a company.”
            “I'm sorry to hear that, man. And I know that you're a great employee and that they did really shoot themselves in the foot on many levels on this one.”
            “Yeah. I mean, it was hot over there anyway. And I was sick and everything. And probably thankful to get back to the US. But it's like...”
            The elevator binged and we exited the building.
            “So, Mick?” Clara asked me as the three of us walked down the street, “What do ya think?”
            And I knew that she meant; what I thought about the deal but...
            “Well,” and I meant this in all seriousness, “I least from what I've been able to deduce anyway. I think that Brendan definitely has a little dick and that's why he is the way he is. It's not his fault, though, ya know. It's genetics.”
            And we all had a pretty good laugh over this.
            So...while they may not have been the Teamsters and this Portland of ours was certainly no Detroit; I did find myself glad to have this particular union of ours in place. This whole fiasco was well worth the two dollars or whatever it was that they took from my paycheck each week. And they had represented the very best of their ability. Because I was smiling. It was worth it just to see those looks of remorse, of anger, and of chronic irritation on the four faces across from us who were and who would never again be anything more than the representatives of a faceless corporation.
            It was worth it just to see the looks on Aramark's face.