Friday, June 24, 2011

East Tennessee gets snow

East Tennessee gets snow. I don’t mean “gets” the way characters in Semlia, Sense of Snow get snow as an entity with seventeen names just describing the nuances of how it drifts up against the side of a doublewide. I mean quantity, knee deep and hiding all sorts of matter under foot. Might not be for long, couple weeks at the most most years. Certainly not the sort of snow that hides cars in Alberta or buries businesses in Newfoundland. Just enough to give meaning to songs that also mention roasting nuts and nose nipping. 

Enough for bus drivers to call in sick and schools to close and sleds to come out from metal sheds or from behind wood piles. Just enough for seasons to have meaning, for scarves and corduroy pants over ill fitting hand me down long johns. Just enough to make snow midgets and try to pee your name on the back sides of them when no one had an eye on you. 

East Tennessee got enough snow to leave my Mom and I stranded inside an Oregon green Ford pick ‘em up truck at the elbow bend valley between one ice slicked hill and another, sitting there as other cars came sliding down from one way or another, some of them bouncing off us, others slipping past into another stranded vehicle as though the gods were playing shuffle board.

East Tennessee got enough snow the founders of Washington College Academy, back when the institution had in mind to serve as a preparatory school for young women of means, saw fit to have an annual holiday season fund raising event called, ever so aptly, the Christmas Dinners. A full week that felt like a fortnight of frolicking frocked maidens and fine frilly gentlemen singing, dancing, and all the while serving the hundred or so place & plate purchasing patrons.

Each year the event roped every student into a role, older students taking on coveted roles as entertainers, MCs, or head maitre d', while younger students were left to menial tasks like taking coats, delivering food, and bussing tables before subsequent courses. Anyone else worked in the kitchen, the set up crew, or the cleanup crew.

I served two tours through the WCA Christmas Dinners event. Perhaps because my parents ran the kitchen, or because only one costume fit me, I ended up as a step ‘n fetch food delivery and plate clearing boy wonder. Each table had up to eight people at it, not unlike a wedding arrangement really, and mule packing food to those tables meant two to three kids multi-plating to a table at the same time, or clearing with client permission but of course for each course without crashing into one another or dropping anything. Child labor at it’s finest.

The plates entres were served on were custom made each year, the school’s emblem, ensignia, and details about the event year were printed and glazed over on each plate. After the dinner course the plates were rushed to the dishwashing room for clean up, towel dried, and wrapped up to give each attendee a keepsake other that their prospective gluttonous indigestion and heartburn.

Drop a plate, or chip one during process, and there were spares. At least, on the first couple nights. Good thing we got better at our roles, because by the last night, we were struggling to even have enough plates to serve everyone, let along give them something to go home with. Strange thing, one year there had been an excess of plates, currogated cardboard boxes and boxes of them, perhaps interest had been low that particular year, maybe not enough snow frame the mood, or perhaps someone had overestimated breakages. Good thing, regardless, because worst to worst, some folks took ten year old plates home for keepsakes. Never heard that anyone had ever complained, yet still you’d think someone in charge would’ve realized not dating the plates might be a good idea regardless. Oh wait, the guy in charge ended up going to jail for embezzling enough to leave the school bankrupt. Nevermind.

I served food to folks, then hid away until summoned to clear. I cleared and delivered the next round, then hid away again upstairs until summoned to repeat my duties. The expansive dining room where the guests were fed normally served as the school dining room for all the students that lived on campus in one of the two dorms and weren’t bussed in on the short brown bus from Johnson City and surrounding areas, or that drove in themselves. On the far end of campus sat the newer red brick boys dorm, newer meaning 50’s as was evidenced by the bomb shelter full of non-perishable government tins of saltines under the back stairs a kid named Jeff and I found one day while trying to work off our indentured education dues. Amazing how crisp and salty those vacuum sealed saltines were after all those years, and the hiss the coppery tin canister made when we opened it with a screwdriver and the prongs on the back of a hammer.

The dining room and industrial kitchen my parents ran those two years sat at the bottom of the far older red brick girl’s dorm. That dorm at the other end of campus, slightly downslope from the administration building with the haunted gymnasium. Behind the dorm and kitchen, across a small delivery lot accessible by a winding single lane road sat a diminutive two story house that came with the job of running that kitchen. A house with a single, windowless, yellow tiled bathroom fit for construction workers, no bath, tiled shower, perpetually moist like a failed meat locker, and with luminescent mushrooms growing from the grout.

My parents shared the job of running the kitchen, and there generally wasn’t a lot of overlap where both were present in the place. During the Christmas Dinners, though, both were on hand from dawn to the wee hours of the night trying to ensure everything elapsed as should. I wonder if running a set menu that expansive with children for staff for a week were more difficult than all the work they did running Parson’s Table back in Jonesboro. I suspect with the exception of the night ZZ Top rent our Parson’s Table, WCA’s event easily eclipsed the difficulties they’d previously encountered. Imagine that Food Network show about the Meal Impossible. Now magnify that across a week of daily events. Amazing to me no one died, on either end of the edible experience.

Worst that happened other than 2nd degree burns and a few cuts would have to be the girl among the throng of juniors and seniors handing out coats and wishing everyone safe travels at the end of the evening who would laugh uncontrollably at the mention or very thought of the word “toenails” like some warped merger of Manchurian Candidate and Pontypool. So of course one of the boys began mentioning toenails repeatedly as he handed out coats and helped elderly women put them on, “My your nails look great, ma’am, bet your toenails must be wonderful to see!” And while the flattered ladies blushed behind their Tennessee Dixie rouge as best as their thin blood would allow, the girl clenched her fist and tried to keep her composure while her Pavlovian reflexes tickled her fancy like a rapid onset of rabies. She wavered, rippled, smiled like a bear trap, and she held coats handed to her to disperse like a robot. She didn’t laugh, however a puddle began to grow around her feet, hidden from the general public by the frilly hem of her voluptuous layered gown.

East Tennessee gets snow. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sister Envy

So once upon a time I called my sister the “B” word, the one that rhymes with stitch, witch, itch, birch, and butch. I felt instantly bad after the word escaped my mouth, the first and as far as I can recall only time I have ever used an expletive towards a sibling. Not counting “dumb ass” thought even that was rare.
I’d love to make excuses and claim the use of the “B” word, the one that sounds a bit like pitch, switch, and snitch came completely from warranted grounds, or when discussing mongrel husbandry. Unfortunately, I must disclose that the utterance spew forth like so much flu season punch as a brilliant display of older sibling breakdown. My sister, eight years younger biologically and 28 years older intellectually, had by her ‘tweens sorted out how to push my buttons and that particular afternoon had elected to phone long distance collect with a bootleg Chinese scratch off phone card. 
And I had things on my mind, as most emotionally challenged artistically moody and dramatic 17 year olds seem prone to embellish. Such woes, such concerns, such weight on my tilt head defeat bowed world weary black sweater from Lazarus dept. store shoulders. And then my little sister did what all little sisters of the world should do. She called my meandering morose shenanigans for what they were, pose prose, and giggled for the absurdity of it all..
No one knows you like your family does, especially how to flatten your personas like closing a pop-up book, pressing the fairies of your flights of whimsy flat between colorful cardstock pages. And while she might have been intending some levity at my expense, she meant no real ill will. If anything, she’d chiefly wanted some attention in our household of distracted, preoccupied peoples and denizens. Mom and Dad were busy teaching, studying, grading, and caring for three kids when the children weren’t at school or I wasn’t out working at the mall. We lived like associates of Nemo in a narrow townhouse apartment midway down a row of identical facades, and the upstairs hallway between the three bedrooms and single bathroom often had the elbow dodging urgency of a San Francisco streetcar, the frenetic scoot and shove of a waiter’s station as the line plates overdue orders. Sooner or later the tarmac would heat up enough for a tie to hiss and pop, for a gasket too blow. 
Don’t remember what exactly set me off, maybe she’d giggled too loud, maybe she’d mentioned my black sweater had faded a bit gray in the wash. Maybe she’d just stepped on a toe in passing, called me a jerk for saying no about something, or to something, or replying no to her asking about inquiring as to something. I honestly have no idea. All I know like Soul Coughing sang that a name burned the air like the names of candy bars, my vulgar utterance soured the air and left me immediately resourceful, wishing I could turn back the sands of time and these days of our lives to retract my statement and not make that particular impression on my little sister.

Even more so now. Not the insult as much as the fact that little could be farther from the truth, and I’ve never really made an effort to say so.

My sister is in her thirties now, and has a family of her own on the distant Isle of Britannia, or whatever England calls itself when it’s in a playful mood. She’s a heavyweight with the University of Manchester, and has had some sense of what she wanted to do with her life for as long as I can remember. 
I recall her mentioning wanting to move to the Queen’s country and marrying up a fine blue blood during one of those holiday breaks when I came to visit the family out where they’d moved too in tornado alley, Missouri. True, I might have manufactured that memory to support my thesis, just bear with me.

My sister has confidence, I am insecure as the day is daunting. I have ambitions while my sister actually has a plan. I have a family now, a wife and child. Guess who had that sorted first? I adore zombie films, though invariably Jennifer and her handsome husband Neil have seen another five or six films I’d not even heard of yet. If it pleases the court, allow me to present Exhibit A: Black Sheep, Dead Set, Flight of the Living Dead, Night of the Living Dorks, and Doghouse.

I still don’t have a license to drive; my sister has been driving legally since high school. Of course, I’ve also never t-boned a parked Mercedes with my parent’s brand new Taurus. I took eons to sort out colleges and majors therein. My sister graduated early, with honors, and with a job lined up to go to immediately thereafter. Did I mention she wrecked my parent’s brand new car while in college? Just checking, as these details matter.
I know how to press play on a cassette deck, my sister knows how to play the cello. Both she and my brother had that skill covered. Skipped the firstborn offspring with me, clearly. My sister knows how to talk with my parents almost every day, despite the time difference, let alone the differences with accents. I barely manage to check in quarterly. My sister knows how to live in Europe. I’ve been there once or twice.

One of the things I missed out on is growing up with my sister. With almost a decade between us and the family move without me to Missouri while I finished my last year of high school, I missed out on my sister’s growth from a surly ‘tween into the woman, mother, and wife she is today.  

That said, I’m glad to know her as I do, and proud to be her sibling. And after all this time, to say sorry for ever calling her the ‘B” word.

Love you, sis! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Friends & a Robotech Poster

By the time I hit tenth grade my geek tendencies were showing like anime cherry blossoms blooming. I’d taken to watching Robotech alongside GI Joe and Transformers, and She-Ra at that one girl’s house down the cul-de-sac, had a real crush on her though only her pre-teen sister ever thought I had anything interesting to offer conversationally. My nninth grade pals had gotten me up to speed on Star Trek and I’d read William Gibson’s sci-fi hat-trick triple-crown trifecta winning Neuromancer, twice, as well as the rest of his limited roster to that point. I’d helped my friend Joe build a Veritech fighter pixel by pixel in the 8-bit limited painting program on his Commodore 64.

Many of the prized possessions decorating the walls and littering the shelves in the room I shared with my brother were comic shop swag, fliers and teaser posters slashed with slogans like “Who watches the Watchmen?” and “I never met a Superhero I didn’t kill… Marshal Law”. One poster in particular wore the room the way the rose window of Sainte-Chapelle wore a French church, an oversized poster that afford the vantage of a dashboard bobble head looking in on Rick Hunter as he flew Roy’s Veritech away from the deck of the megalithic SDF-1 while rockets, swirling contrails, planes, glowing tracers, and enemies whipped past with all the frenzy of an assault on the second Death Star, except in California sunlight over a coastline and five-frame glittering ocean instead of the audio allowing abyss of Lucas’s outer space. For some reason, the very first time I looked at the poster once I’d gotten it adhered to the wall with that strange putty my Mom’d recommended after nixing the use of thumbtacks on the beige bedroom walls, a Led Zeppelin song called “Friends” occurred to me, and I dug out a tape with the track on it to play on my hand me down dual tape deck, the only one I’ve ever seen that had flip down flaps to cover the running reader head and spinning wheels rather than a hinged slip drawer like boom boxes typically had.

With the song rumbling through my foam headphones, I’d sway to the tempo and look at the big poster and let my mind wander into swoops and spirals, ducks and dodges, sensing the thrill of careening through a three dimensional space like the arcade cabinet vector graphics games of Star Wars and Red Baron hinted at through their vague approximations. Years later, working on Tribes 2, the jet pack and grasshopper bounding through the landscape gave me some of the same thrills and spills I’d dreamily envisioned, yet still I’ve yet to work on or play a game with the actual density of detail or potential points of precision that might match the epic marriages of man and machine I daydreamed about, the sprawling, glittering sea beam dances only fireflies, angels, and dragons know.  

Bright light, almost blindin'
Black night still there shinin'
I can't stop, keep on climbin'
looking for what I knew.

While other posters came and went, that poster remained in place until the day came when my family packed up to move to Missouri, and I into an interim friend’s parent’s basement until college began. The poster witnessed the only time I ever brought a girl over on a date, one half of a pair of twins – specifically the insane artist half that went on to assassinate my Fisher-Price  Animal hand puppet, chop it into pieces and flush it slowly down a Louisville toilet, document the mutilation send pictures to me through a mutual friend. Yeah, that Jackie Weill. For the record, the other twin, the preppie one with college ambitions, turned out to be very cool when I met her a few years later. 

The poster silently oversaw those flailing attempts Jenny Thomas and I made at making out on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed. Discovered necking with a woman several inches taller than you is even more awkward on a single bed with minimalist head height. Don’t know how they do it in prison.

That poster hung there when the great exchange happened, like the passing of prisoners of war through a valley after the war like the one Kurt Vonnegut described in Slaughterhouse 5, the one after WW2 I believe my Grandfather Van Dussen’d been a part of, as well as Lisa’s Step-Grandfather, the one with the forearm riddled with pock marks, scars from shielding his face from a machine gun nest. And American one. My Grandpa had spent time in a German POW camp. Her Step-Grandpa the opposite. Do you think the ritual of passing teams slapping palms and muttering, “Good game good game…” over and over again came from epic post war POW exchanges?

One day, not long before the family began packing up for our respective destinations, my brother and I held a great summit, one with lasting implications. Over the years we’d each gotten toys on birthdays, holidays, and occasionally visits to the doctor, or in my brother’s case, prolonged visits to the hospital, though that had been years earlier and no, I didn’t have anything to do with how that had happened. The broken cello? Yes. The hospital thing? No. Add into the mix birthday monies and my ability to earn income from mowing lawns and later from the movie theater; our room bulged at the seams with toys, and while some toys clearly belonged to one or the other of us, like the Gaza Strip there were many areas where the lines were very fuzzy and ownership easily contestable, without even trying to recount trades or so called inter-sibling gifts.

So beneath the unwavering gaze of big eyed Rick Hunter gazing steadily down at us from that prized Robo-Tech poster, we made piles of loose figures, accessories, intermittent vehicles, and various other toys besides. And then we negotiated, like the two Koreas, tense yet polite, until eventually next to each of our knees sat piles of toys roughly equitable. Most deals were defined down party lines, with a couple notable exceptions like the Navy Seal and the Fireman, my brother took all the GI Joe, except for Jazz he took all the Transformers. I took the Kenner Star Wars, the Ghostbusters, and the Robo-Tech, but of course. He took the Fisher-Price Adventure People and He-Man, I took the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The exchange took a couple hours, with golden rays of late afternoon sunlight filtering in through the narrow room’s single window, falling across the Robo-Tech poster. After we had our respective piles of toys, we stood and emulating TV lawyers and businessmen, we shook as though we’d struck the deal to divide Berlin or declare peace in Grenada. I piled my holdings on my bunk, the lower one, and my brother began to pack his up for the impending move. I went off to work, worked late, and ended up sleeping next to a pile of prickly plastic peoples that night.

So anytime somebody needs ya
don't let them down, although it grieves ya
Someday you'll need someone like they do
lookin' for what you knew

I still have a lot of the figures from that great day of deliberation, of property division. What matters more to me, though, is the civil and deliberate way my brother and I elected to divide our goods. Perhaps the knowledge we were about to stop being roommates at last, he would go with my folks to Missouri; I would remain in Kentucky, god alone knows why, and attend college. We’d always resented having to share a room, especially after the sweet room I’d had on my own in the house across from Milligan College. Still, ending a forced cohabitation has a degree of sadness to it, a note of nostalgia, because the rest of life lay in wait and an uncomfortable certainty is sometimes preferable to an uncertain adventure ahead.

The most important thing is that despite all the hassles we’d given one another as brothers, we left that battlefield peaceably.

We left it as friends.

Excepts from “Friends” by Led Zeppelin (1970 Page, Plant) used without permission. 
Please don’t sure me, pretty please?

Monday, June 20, 2011

ReLoad: A Collection of Short Fiction Pt. 5


I had held the title of Assistant Manger before I interviewed for a position with that moniker in the New Accounts area at Limited, Inc. I’ll point out that the hours were nearly as long, and both entailed wearing a tie. At that point, the similarities end.

Asst. managing for a film theater is all about collecting cash drops, counting things, calling in replacements when someone doesn’t show up or calls in sick. It’s about sending folks on break, or manning their station while they’re on break. It’s about helping the ushers clean theaters between shows hoping all the while not to discover a popcorn cup full of urine or tobacco spit mid row, or worse, be down slope when someone else manages to knock one over as they rush through their row picking up cups and wrappers. It’s about building prints and breaking them down, about screening them and making sure no one leaves beer bottles behind for the cleaners to narc on to regional management. It’s about discretely patrolling the theaters to ensure no one is unruly and indiscreetly addressing young lovers’ amorous activities in low ticket sales houses. Clue, no one buys tickets to a flick starring Norm McDonald, Andrew Dice Clay, Carrot Top, Joe Piscopo, John Leguizamo, or Joe Pesci unless they have ulterior motives.

Remind me to tell you some stories about the Kenwood Twin. Now that was an Assistant Manager’s gig to recount.

At the Limited’s credit bank branch corporate office in office part outskirts badlands Columbus, the gig began to differentiate from my personal experience from the fact the tie around my neck had a six hundred count of silk instead of sixty purple polyester poly-fibers. Instead of weekly schedules I had monthly reviews, instead of walk and talks I had recorded calls and score sheets. Instead of building prints I had training temps, and instead of breaking prints down I had coverage monitoring and resource allocation as we covered a nation of mall stores and shifted with the sun and moon from time zone to time zone, east coast to pacific and a little longer for Hawaii, Maui & Honolulu if you’re nasty.

Initially I reported to the woman that interviewed me, a former power-lifter named Shelly that broke and bridled me fairly quickly before sending me over to Eric to run the biggest and most established row of employees in the New Accounts department. To get a sense of the space, imagine first a massive hangar where perhaps the Dozers built space shuttles. Now section that off into a grid, leaving a very clear thoroughfare down the middle of the space like a path from the mouth of the building to the ass end where the cafeteria and rest rooms lived. At the front side of the barn, give a fifth of the real estate to the autodialer rows handling collection calls for customers gone one to two months past due.

Facing the rear of the barn and standing in front of the autodialer area, what video game developers would best equate to QA (quality assurance, or what my current employer calls Dev Support despite QA being faster off the tongue), and looking down the dividing thoroughfare, to the left is the epic sprawl that comprise all the many facets of customer service for the credit aspect of Limited, Express, Structure, and any bleed over from the other divisions, aka the “bulk of their calls.” To the right, first a few rows dedicated to collections, both the post two to six month delinquent accounts and the post six month write off aka Dead Letters office where skip tracing occurred to determine who to throw the lawyers and salary garnishments at. And after that, ironic only because is collections is death the new accounts area would be birth, row after row of new accounts, helmed like the bridge of classic Battlestar Gallactica by a high top table garnished with monitors and keyboards where controllers watched spikes and flow numbers stream by real time like a stock ticker and allocated resources to cover areas combusting, drawing from other regions that weren’t. Now days, these calls likely all go to India, however in the mid-Nineties, Columbus had to be the bee’s knees for proprietary dynamic call center customer coverage and support, and have the tract housing to prove it. 

So the move from collections to new accounts meant packing up and moving to a desk waving distance from my old one. I still regularly sent calls or fielded calls from my old gang, though more and more I sent calls to Julie’s team, to Auntie, or Kurt, or the snake oil six tit cat that replaced me. I began working more and more weekend shifts helping out the autodialer team on the pretense of needing the extra income, though really to ensure I hadn’t lost my edge, my vitality. New accounts is a touchy feeling thing, and most of the people working in that area had the potential to make babies someday, or already had. Nothing wrong with that, especially for this fan of Project Runway, however there is a sort of world conquering rape and pillage aspect to collections that helped remind you a pair had dropped at some point. Though I’d be remiss not to mention the majority of successful collectors weren’t men. Women have a wiles for collection that utilizes levels far surpassing pure testosterone and loud brow beating. Why I mention Auntie and Julie as often as Kurt. Kurt and I both did well because we were mama’s boys, and that matters, like Paul Atreides leading the Freemen in Dune, a book I really was too dumb to try to read in junior high. Changed my life regardless, but I digress. Something about mice and worms in really expansive sandboxes. Kudos, Frank.

I learned how to co-run a crew of over thirty people across a couple different shifts. I learned how to tape their calls when they weren’t looking, or at least listen in like a snooper spy. Learned how to crank through thirsty plus reviews a month and at least seem to have something worthwhile developmentally to say. The new associates were easier, they messed up all the time and left enough surplus content to comment on to fill several months worth of fifteen minute one on one check in snapshot reviews. The regulars, or long standing employees were harder, as those fell in two camps; young associates aspiring to ascend the rungs of the corporate ladder and really doing their best to get there and people too old or young to give a shit beyond punching the clock and not getting into trouble. The former desperately want secrets and insights to better themselves, as in, better their chances for ascension, though their rock star performances at best leave little room for improvement and at worse make them essential dependencies a team can’t bear to lose. The latter do their job by the numbers and like sticks in mud can be depended upon yet can’t really be energized to do more than they already do. A real quandary for a newbie corporate assistant manager, for sure.

To try to solve this static stall that many of the staples had, I came up with an idea to create a pallete of paper doll parts that would be awarded based on snapshot reviews performed by random mangers at random times to random employees. Basically gold stars for ace performance, silver for decent, copper for ok, and maybe lose a star if the call we wire tapped in on sucked. Except instead of stars, I drew crazy body parts, dozens of them, so that people coud accrue the parts, color them as they wanted, and assemble / cobble together their own creatures to line their cubical walls with. At the end of the internal contest drive, the cat with the most monsters wins some sort of big prize. The contest went well, though I don’t know if more because of the absurdity of the monsters or the fear of having a cube full of small parts like hands and feet because none of your calls had been good enough to ever warrant a head or a torso.

Training temps took up a night or two every couple of weeks. Temps were a rotating door of prospective seat warmers meant to deal with the most mundane aspects of data entry that sometimes revealed folks worth hiring into the fold full time, and other times revealed folks that needed to return to prison. Full time associates might pitch in to help with data entry on busy days or nights, but chiefly took calls where something hadn’t earned an automatic approval or had hit any of a number of other assorted “call in” errors or issues.

Temp flocks were sometimes freshly dropped out of high school and aiming to earn money as far from a deep fryer as possible, other times able bodied pensioners with an eye to supplement the income their children’s needs had squandered too much of. And in the middle, regular types that could go either way thought generally were keen to land a real job and not have to temp ever again. Limited gathered troops from at least three temp agencies that I knew of, and occasionally during the pre-amble to a training session and indoctrination into the wide world of new accounts data entry, you could catch snatches of agency rivalry as temps compared the cuts and deals their respective agencies had made with and for them. Having never worked as a temp myself, I couldn’t really relate, though I did enjoy the impression of Bull Durham style mud league teams competing to land more players in the big leagues show. Made my job seem more like that of a line coach, and how exciting is that, waving players in and spitting meaningfully after tough plays.

The training, largely an orientation for how to enter data into the system and how to relegate something to someone else if any red flags popped up, also had a component baked into of implied threat and implicit restrictions. Number one above all others, no person working in new accounts could enter an application for themselves or anyone they knew, nor could they pull a credit bureau on themselves or anyone known to them. Despite being told this, and warned that the system itself would alert us should data go in from them that pertained to hits on themselves, invariably one of the temps would trigger an alert at the monitor station for trying to pull their own credit report, or the report of one of the other temps sitting nearby. While I’m human and felt curious myself about seeing what dwell within the folds of my own credit report, I never pulled one. Not for fear of causing an alert, though that may well have been true even though I wasn’t a temp. I didn’t because I had to bust a few temps that had, and enforcing a rule not of my making caused me to feel obliged to obey the same rule myself.

After a couple months working in new accounts, I received a request from the autodial collections manager to assist with creating training materials that would work better than their previous approaches to make new hire collectors, even at the first contact one to two month past due phase, more  effective for differentiating the disconnects from the deadbeats. The manager said training manuals hadn’t been very effective to date. After some thought, I suggested a more Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 comic book approach, figuring making the all too serious notion of debt collection and wrangling defensive customers could use a more playful approach to help get the tips and tricks to sink in. To my surprise, management agreed, and from that point forward for the next several months working there and a couple months after Lisa and I relocated to Eugene, Oregon, I earned part of my keep  writing, drawing, and inking page after page of how to do this and that, what if and alternatives, to a fairly lengthy laundry list of topics from management. 

I would pass scripts past them, and the subsequent pages after they were penciled, and for the most part they seemed ecstatic about everything I put together, despite the talking mushrooms, gun slinging produce, wooden doll debtors, and generally absurdist illustrations I built the one to two page narratives out of. After the run I did for the autodialer kids, management had me go after supplements for the full blown collection guidelines, and to this day some of the best comic book panels I’ve ever crafted were for that enterprise. And I still appreciate all the help my team put in erasing pencils and correcting spelling mistakes along the way, like having a personal sweat shop, except they were happy to help, and worked in an air conditioned environment.

I adored my team, perhaps in some ways even loved them. For instance Tony, a retired fellow supplementing his income and keeping himself mentally sharp as a tack working in new accounts. He also smoked, yet taught me a lot about how businessmen used to operate back when society had been polite, as we’d talk as we walked towards the cafeteria and smoker’s lounge beyond, or back from same, but should both of us happen to need to stop off at the restroom on the way, Tony would sharply cut you off should you try to speak to him in the restroom. It’s as though, for him, a pause button were hit when you walked into the restroom, and play could not resume until you’d zipped up, washed, flicked dry, and walked out again. And what about Jamie or the other college students with their whole lives ahead of them? Thirty plus people that I enjoyed working with, that I felt like an emissary for, an ambassador, and a devil’s advocate. I reviewed them, coached them, all the while fully aware that outside that setting I certainly would never be a worthwhile example to follow. On the job, all business, outside work, life to life and all tomorrow’s parties to be had, a dichotomy I’m sure plagues many twenty-something corporate assistant managers.

I had a coffee mug from BP that probably had been offered for sale with interstate truckers in mind. The yellow capped, thick walled plastic mug could hold 32 ounces of hot coffee and still have room for cream and sugar. The Limited cafeteria had a discount on coffee refills if you brought your own mug. They let me refill that monster two or three times a shift for a couple weeks at the discounted price before they noticed that one fill up would require another full pot of coffee be made and negotiated a unique, one of a kind price with me. Even at most, a fill up cost me a buck and a quarter. What would 32 ounces at Starbucks cost again? Five dollars? The scary thing is that I could finish two or three of those a shift, since I didn’t drink pop anymore or much of anything else. The idea of drinking more than a couple cups of coffee in a day these days scares me, get too tense and dehydrated, age and the constraints it brings.

When Lisa and I made our plans to move West, gave our notice to our managers and their managers beyond them, our respective teams threw us parties and bought us parting gifts. While there might be little surprise that Lisa would have fans galore, the very idea of thirty something people passing a hat to buy me something nice and getting so much they nearly cleared an aisle out in a TRU to pile presents high in my cubical at the front of our long row, a row that had my cube at the front and the manager Eric’s at the end and all the team members along the row like ribs along a spine reminded me of the Sears exclusive Star Wars Stormtrooper Transport carrier that had never actually appeared in the film ,a long grey thing with cockpits at either end and places for troopers to stand in pockets down the length of the sides. Gray color much like our cube farm. I arrived at work, walked down the aisle already sensing something amiss, a disturbance in the force, seeing the shiny glint of a foil balloon hovering over roughly where my cube sat, and approached to discover my desk overflowing with toys of myriad shapes, sizes and makes, with more still piled up on the floor. Keynotes like the Alien Queen playset, a Bucky O’Hare Toad vehicle, some Spawn stuff, and a variety of other cool things. I stopped and stared, emotional register overheating and locking up, tears heating my lower lids and burning my eyes red.

There’s only a couple times in my professional career where I’ve been so floored that people like me, they actually like me, that I have to nod politely & earnestly, thin lipped, squeeze out some sincere thanks as though trying not to puke or pass out or pee myself, and flee to somewhere solitude to breath, count to a hundred, and have a good little cry. Once was while working on a Crash Bandicoot game at Radical, called out by the writer and seconded by the Producer, unexpected and more than I could emotionally ingest so suddenly, I’d vanished to the parking garage, stared at the sky outside the slit between parking stalls and the overhanging floors above, had a good, manly cry and said “thank you” unconditionally as though to the fates for such a wondrous validation. And standing there looking at all those toys like Christmas come early, then slowly pivoting my head up to see Jamie and Tony and all the rest looking expectantly at me with smiles on their faces. “Thank you!” I said, nodding and clenched to the brow. A few words and handshakes, a couple sad hugs, and as soon as I could extract myself, I fled to the smoker’s lounge, to the far end and further still past the row of bushes to have a spot beneath the sky alone. As much as I’m perpetually starved for approval, I really don’t deal with receiving it all that well.

That weekend, as we packed for Eugene, including all the wonderful toys my former colleagues had so generously showered me with, we took a break so Lisa could have lunch with her friend Joanne and I could wonder over a couple blocks to the street that ran around that edge of the mammoth University property.

Throughout our time in Columbus that strip had been a place to go for bagels at Benny’s, used CDs at a few places, and cutting edge college radio ready releases at an upstairs record store with a listening wall to die for. And after a quick stop at Benny’s for a ham & cream cheese on an onion bagel, I went a block further up the hill and up two flights of stairs to visit that listening wall one last time. So many great discoveries there, and this last visit didn’t disappoint. If anything, this one last time exceeded expectations. 

I left with a CD in hand that Lisa would actually enjoy as much as I did. And all the more special, the CD appeared and disappeared from the public about as quickly as our stay in Columbus did. Trying to track down this stunning little soundtrack to a collection of original short stories is a largely futile and otherwise expensive affair. Doesn’t show up on iTunes or isohunt, and while the two artists responsible for it remain prolific, the particular CD has never been reissued. Perhaps someone from James Cameron’s roster didn’t take well to their use of weapon sounds from Aliens for percussion on couple tasks. Perhaps the whale songs were liberated from somewhere without permission. Maybe it just didn’t sell enough copies for anyone to care. The rareness of the album coupled with the qualities of the compositions therein really endears it to me, a sort of accidentally found, incidentally assigned soundtrack to this five part anecdotal ensemble.

While Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” scored our aiming the Ryder truck of worldly possessions at the western horizon, ReLoad A Collection of Short Fiction makes a damn fine preamble for these and all the other adventures we had living in Columbus. Like the Iguana, or why an African praying mantis should never be fed lightning bugs.