SUNRISE OVER MONTAUK POINT. 7-11-11
I’d been forced to take on the worst job in the whole company and the one that has to be the worst job in every other company that’s in the same business as ours.
I used to say often that, “Service Managers come and go but Technical Supervisors go on for ever,” and unfortunately the first part had proved to be very true over the last
two years in that we’d had no less than six of them quit, or get fired, in that time.
The second part is no longer true, as far as I’m concerned that is.
The Pres. knew well that I hated all kinds of paperwork and that this job was nothing but paper work except for the times when you’re fighting the union reps. or individual
mechanics or irate customers or building owners who call to scream at you a half dozen times a day about the self same thing, even when that thing is not under your control, and
not to mention all of the internal personnel problems and the penny pinching and the pleading to the Comptroller to pay the bills of invaluable suppliers to whom you’ve promised a half dozen times that the money is in the pipeline and, well – all of the myriad other things that come up each and every day.
I protested but the Pres. told me that he’d simply run out of “volunteers” and so, like it or not, it was my turn.
We both knew that I could do the job because for years by then I had reluctantly filled in for the various Managers when they took vacations or were sick or whatever.
At one time the terrible job was filled for many years – very efficiently I must add – by an irascible guy who lived just down the road from the office and thus was first in and last out everyday.
He’d had an assistant who’d shielded him a great deal but who couldn’t help him at all on the night that he dropped dead on the dance floor of a restaurant. Nor could his wife whose arms he’d dropped dead out of.
The assistant took over the job but he couldn’t find anyone to shield him properly in turn and after six months he took early retirement and went to Florida. He told me that he knew better than to think it would get any easier with time.
That was number two.
The next guy to take the job, his name was Mark, had never been a very good mechanic and then he’d been a not very good foreman and, later, not a very good supervisor. He was six foot four and was big built and he had long grey hair and a goatee and he also had what could be called `charm’ and is called’ charisma.’ He constantly needed help in the field with relatively small problems but the customers liked him so someone in the office decided to utilize his PR abilities and he was put with a team of other mechanics in our biggest contract as the job foreman. The first time that he talked to the Building Manager they struck up a rapport and after that he was the only one who the Building Manager would deal with and so he could do no wrong as far as our office was concerned.
After a few years at that, it was decided, by the brass, to broaden his field and so he was made a District Supervisor who touched bases with all of our important clients and he went from strength to strength.
It was at this time that he learned how to use an Expense Account to its fullest extent. The man became an artist at it. He would invite four or five people, customers or mechanics or fellow office workers, to lunch everyday and he’d encourage them to order anything on the menu. He’d run up a bill for maybe three hundred dollars and then he’d perhaps spot a cheese cake in the counter display that he liked the look of and he’d tell the cashier to wrap up the thirty or forty dollar item for him to take home and, of course, to put it on the bill.
One day in the office he was in a meeting at which the silent partner of the company showed up and met him for the first time.
More instant rapport.
They lived quite close together out on the Island and if the Silent Partner found that one of his parties wasn’t going well he would call him to come around. Sometimes he’d do that when the party was on his yacht or in his apartment in Manhattan.
Mark’s Expense Account use, and expertise, broadened significantly.
The Silent Partner, against all precedent, used his influence to insist that the Supervisor be given a managerial job in the office so that he could climb the ladder more quickly and, incidentally perhaps, be more easily reached.
He thus he became our next Service Manager.
He must have known that he was out of his depth on the very first day because not only did he not have the answers to the questions that poured in, and that needed to be answered that same minute but, added to that, was the fact that he couldn’t begin to keep up with the mountains of paperwork.
He knew that he had to quickly find a way to cope so he decided to bring in four foremen from the field to be Assistant Managers. He split up the whole area in which we
had contracts into four districts and he put one of his new assistants in charge of each one.
He retreated to a sealed-off office within the office (he’d had it put up himself) and he let it be understood that no one was to disturb him until it was time for lunch.
The very basis of his new plan was absurd because the four assistants needed guidance and he wouldn’t and couldn’t give them any and, besides that, they were valuable men in the field and were badly missed out there.
Of course, all four of them loved having their own desks and their new titles but after a month they realized that the chaos was increasing daily and they, not being able to make their Manager listen to reason, in desperation went to see the Pres. and when they explained the hair brained scheme that they were working under he went berserk and he sent them back to the field and he had Mark’s newly built office torn down and, not being able to fire him, he gave him a job managing the HVAC Dept. which had been running very well without a Manager for years. That was the ideal job for him and he is still there, happily running up huge lunch bills, and he is in blooming, stress-free, health although he’s way over weight.
That was number three.
The next occupier of the hot seat was a competent and highly regarded technician who was going to start his own company and thus needed experience of office routines and procedures. He kept the job for a year and then decided that he’d suffered enough and what he’d learned already would have to be enough so he quit and went off with a full Rolodex and an extensive knowledge of the all important Pricing Systems and many invaluable contacts.
That was number four.
The next guy had seen how his predecessor had used the job to educate himself and to set himself up to be able to start his own company so he asked for the job too and was
given the chance.
He came from the Sales Dept. and he brought his ‘Bankers Hours’ with him. He showed up at nine o’clock each morning – by which time most of the day’s problems had been dealt with, to the best of their ability, by the dispatcher or one of the clerks – and he let it be known that even when he was in the office he wasn’t to be bothered with the mundane things and was to be notified only if the Pres. or one of the big clients was calling for him. He must have thought that the knowledge that he needed would come by osmosis.
He lasted just six weeks and although he already knew the Pricing Systems, having been a salesman, he didn’t get to understand how to deal with the field end nor much of all the rest and both of the companies he that subsequently set up, with various partners, lasted no more than a year or two each and so he eventually had to go back to Sales somewhere.
That was number five.
The next guy was ‘head hunted’ but he had lied about the size of the companies in which he had been the Service Manager and he wisely quit after six months knowing that he was hopelessly over-matched and that the stress was affecting his health.
That was number six and when he left that left me and I couldn’t wriggle out of it.
After taking on the job I was always at my desk by six thirty, five days a week, and I used that quiet time to catch up with the paperwork before the new days’ problems came
flooding in at eight.
After a few months of this hellishness I was sitting at my desk just before eight one morning when the Pres. came into my office.
He was one very unhappy man and he didn’t even say, “Hi,” nor even, “Kiss my ass.” He stormed in and up to my desk and he threw a folder on to it and said, “I told you two weeks ago to get rid of four route mechanics by the end of the week and you didn’t so I’ve done it for you. I’ve marked the ones on this roster who have to go this Friday.” With that he stormed out again.
Whenever the holy ‘Profit Picture’ has slipped below a figure that is, I think, set unreasonably high anyway, the time honored way to boost it again has always been to fire
Service Mechanics. You can’t hardly fire Installation or Repair Mechanics because they generate profit by being out there but not so the lowly Route Mechanic. Firing them is
painless because it takes weeks before the deterioration in service quality, and the increase in the time taken before a call for service is answered, comes to anyone’s notice.
The fact that the Service Department generates most of the profits, steady profits that can be counted on, and determines the company’s current reputation is never brought to mind when the last quarter’s bottom line has sagged below a set amount for whatever reason. Of late that reason was quite often due to the incompetence of someone heading up one of the other departments but who had to be bailed out regularly but always protected.
Even while being angry at the Pres. I knew that it was out of his hands and that he was subject to enormous pressure from above. Much more than I could be subjected to, by far.
Nevertheless we had already cut to the bone and all of the goof-offs had long been pared away and consequently we already had every one of the route men way overloaded with work and the overall service performance levels were not good and letting them head any lower was untenable.
That was why I hadn’t fired any of them last Friday, that and because the ones who were left had long proven out to be good, hard working mechanics and most of them were my friends too.
I opened up the folder to see which ones he had marked and what I saw horrified me. Two of them had been with the company longer than I had and way longer than anybody else now working for it except the Pres. and he should have known better. Also all four men were nearly indispensible. He must have simply made a mark wherever his pen randomly fell onto the paper while he kept his eyes closed.
The phones started ringing then and so I put the folder into a drawer and I let the new days’ problems surge in.
At around nine-thirty I’d dealt with dozens of them and there was a lull so I got up and I told the Dispatcher that I’d be back in a half hour and I went down to my car.
One of the few perks that come with the job, besides a liberal expense account, is a parking space in an area where the side street parking spots are all taken by seven o’clock
and all of the lots are full by eight.
Before I’d even pulled clear another car was positioning itself to take my space and I
saw who the driver was and I waited until he looked at me and when he did so he, guiltily, gave me a wave and a gesture that said he only needed it for ten minutes, max. He was one of the four mechanics marked on the list for getting the axe and such was the state of bloody mindedness that doing that job had gotten me into I promised myself that if I had to go looking for him to get him to move his car when I got back from breakfast he would be gone next Friday and that would help me, albeit very unfairly, with the difficult decision of choosing which four would have to go. I didn’t think that the Pres. would make me stick to his list of four exactly but who knows what might happen when he was subjected to the enormous pressure that must have been on him to take such drastic action.
I decided to go clear across the borough line to be sure nobody would bother me while I ate breakfast and eventually I found a corner coffee shop that had plenty of parking spaces by its side.
There was only one other guy eating in there, over in the far corner, and the waitress was mopping the floor and she had taken most of the tables out of commission by putting chairs on top of them so after I’d given my order of scrambled eggs and bacon and a buttered roll and coffee to the guy behind the counter I went to the only table I could get to and I sat down and took out my newspaper.
I’d barely scanned the main headline before the guy who was sitting at the other table which was just a few feet from me, and who had just finished his breakfast, started in. He
was an older guy with just a little fringe of grey hair above his ears and he was way over weight and he had a terrible complexion and he had wattles like a buzzard, if that’s the bird that I’m thinking of. Probably not. Maybe a turkey then?
I shuddered inwardly at his interruption and got prepared to indicate to him, gruffly, that I didn’t want to talk but his very first sentence reached out and squashed my resolve.
“There was one of the best sunrises ever out at Montauk Point this morning.”
I put down my paper and turned to face him. “Do you drive in from way out there every morning?”
“Nope. I drive way out there and then back here every morning”.
“Wow! Just to see the sunrise? I’ll bet you’re mad if the clouds are covering it up when you get there.”
“Yeah. Really pissed. But I’m glad to say that that doesn’t happen often, except in the winter months.”
“Been doing that long?”
“Since I got out of hospital the last time.”
“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ is right. The Doc gave me a month to live and that was more than three months ago! I feel real bad every morning when I’m getting out of bed at around four o’clock and on the long drive to get out there but when the sun starts coming up and I know that I’m the first guy in the whole state to see it and maybe in the whole country if those guys up in Maine are too busy hauling in lobsters and whatever to look at it, I feel like I’m part of it and as if I’m helping to get the entire country started and the good feelings stays with me on the drive back here for breakfast. In fact, the whole world looks better and the other drivers are more courteous and the food tastes better everyday and Joanie there looks even prettier and Arnie there looks less miserable! Trouble is it’s already October and I can tell you that I’ll be more than just mad when there’s clouds everyday! Or when there’s snow and I can’t even go out there. I’ll have to try to keep-on-going-on without my therapy, and that’s tough. It’s funny too ‘cos seeing that I can’t move to India, or some such place where it’s always clear and there’s never any snow, it’ll be me who’s giving me a month to live!”
“Sorry to hear that. Heart is it?”
“That’s the latest to play up, yes. Goes with the diabetes and the whacked out liver and the blood problem and the arthritis and the one lung and the rest. Ha! There’s hardly a specialist in the health business that I haven’t been to see at one time or other!”
I went over to get my food and coffee then because the counter man had called to tell me it was ready and when I brought it back the sunrise guy left me in peace to eat but when I’d finished he said, “Wish I was your age and had all of these troubles in front of me instead of with me here and now. It’s a bitch.”
The only thing I could think of to say to that was clichéd all the way up to its neck and was so banal that I waited until I’d left a tip on the table and had stood up and had started walking away before I let the words out. “Hang in there man. You know, the sun always rises, clouds or no clouds.”
Before I could get far enough away from him so that the conversation would have had to have ended he said, “Yes, and it always rises, clouds or no clouds, whether we are around to look at it or not!”
He’d taken my attempt at up-beat banality and had made it enigmatic and decidedly down-beat. He didn’t say “Thanks a lot Buddy, now go jump in front of a truck willya?” but he could well have.
I murmured, “Goodbye and good luck”, after I’d paid the bill, and then I maneuvered past the jumbled tables and got into my car and went back to the office.
I drove totally by rote because I was figuring out what to do and none of the traffic lights nor the other vehicles’ movements registered although, clearly, they must have been dealt with appropriately.
When I got back I found that I didn’t trust myself to talk to the Pres. face to face. I’d worked for him for years and he’d taught me most of what I know and so he’d, most likely, succeed in getting me to change my mind so I chickened out and wrote him a memo –
When you’ve already cut to the bone you’ve taken the edge off the knife and then the only way to pare more flesh is by chopping and this will probably shatter the bone. The bone in question here is the “Servicius Maximus” and, as you well know, it is the backbone of the body that is this Company.
Well, this note is to tell you that I am leaving before the whole she-bang comes crashing down and I refuse to be the one who does the chopping. The four guys you earmarked are indispensible and you well know it.
I am not indispensible as you also, evidently, well know.
Remember this, Jack – The sun always rises and sets, clouds or no clouds, and whether there are clouds or not it also always rises and sets whether or not we are trying to see through them and whether or not we won’t even let ourselves look up.”
I gave the note and the keys of my Company car and the key to the Exec. Washroom to a clerk and I asked him to put them on the desk in the Pres’s. office.
I’d already filled up my brief case with my personal stuff so I picked it up and then I walked out.
I just said, “Goodbye. I’m out of here for good. Nice working with you,” to the dispatcher and to the people that were in the offices that I went past and I didn’t wait to
hear any of their shocked rejoinders and then I walked out of the building and then along the street for two blocks to get to the subway.
I hoped that I’d remember how to use it because I hadn’t been down there for over ten years seeing that my company car had been fitted with commercial plates which let me park just about anywhere.
I also hoped that their ‘Profit Picture’ had been healthy for a good long time.