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. 

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