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Letting George Do It
At an age far earlier than most men, George began wearing a homburg hat and a
coat with a velvet collar. To complete the illusion he grew a silver sable
mustache trimmed to exquisite perfection. In a drafting room filled with portly
and poorly dressed engineers and draftsmen, he was an island of sartorial
Do clothes often proclaim the man? Not often enough ... or to look at the
question from another angle, you can't judge a book by its cover. When cliches
cancel each other, it pays to ignore them and study the man himself.
Despite George's natty appearance, all the engineers and architects of
Clarkson's knew he was an incurable drunk. He came in two flavors ... sober and
hung over, or freshly drunk. The line between the two was tenuous and there were
times when he was both. In spite of his handicap George earned his living. His
hands were not steady, not steady at all, and unsteady hands are a drawback to
pianists, surgeons and draftsmen alike, yet strangely, when George grasped a
pencil and applied it to paper his hand was as still as that of a dead man. But
his attention span was limited, and when he was engaged in conversation with one
of us his gaze would wander, his voice would trail off in mid-sentence and he
would stare into space like a man trying to remember whether he'd left the gas
turned on back home.
With all his faults, George was a likable fellow and it was difficult not to
like him. If you met him on the street you might mistake him for a drama critic
for the "New Yorker." Drunk or sober, such is the effect of a man born to wear
gray hair, a homburg hat and a coat with a velvet collar.
George was an architectural draftsman who specialized in stair details. Maybe
'specialized' is a little strong ... closer to the truth was that stairs were
the only thing he knew something about. Owing to his lifelong commitment to
Martinis, he had fallen down enough of them to know what makes them work. The
tread of a stair, (which is the part you step on) and the riser, (which is the
part that lifts you up or down) should add up to 18 inches. For thousands of
years we have become accustomed to this relationship and minute deviations from
it will cause even a sober man to stop in his tracks and look down at his feet –
sensing that something is wrong. For someone like George it could be
life-threatening. Making stairs work in a multi-story building was George's meat
and potatoes. His stair landings would always land where they should, and if you
opened a door to one, you found the landing at your feet not at eye level.
But the design and construction of buildings is a cruel and volatile business.
There are boom times and bust times, and very little in between. During the bust
periods layoffs can be expected every Friday, payrolls are cut to the bone and
people like George are the first to go. The "nucleus," as we liked to call
ourselves, are retained. To be "nucleus" you had to be groveling, ingratiating
and inconspicuous. George was none of these, and he compounded his failing by
being a drunk as well.
But when boom times returned, George would be back with us, his homburg hat and
velvet collar freshly brushed. The scent of Sen-Sen would herald his appearance
at the end of the long line of drafting tables, and we would know that "Happy
Days are Here Again." We were a happier bunch when George was with us – there
was overtime and all of us could make plans for the children's education, or
perhaps a new vacuum cleaner for the lady of the house or maybe a place in the
sun come summertime. Like the robins in spring, George was a harbinger of boom
or bust and in spite of his shortcomings as a human being and an architectural
draftsman, he was welcomed by one and all.
During one of our bullish periods, our president, (the bosses son, and a living
example of the Peter Principle) reached the conclusion that George was not fully
utilized. He was the best dressed man in the company, and since "the clothes oft
proclaimed the man," he concluded that George might be raised a notch or two.
But interviews with George proved disappointing, his speech was frequently
slurred and his hands were never still and seemed to have a life of their own.
The thumbs flailed wildly when he put them in his lap or the hands would creep
in and out of his pockets. Finding nothing there, they would re-emerge to fiddle
with things on the bosses' desk or play with each other in his lap. At the same
time his mind wandered and he would occasionally answer questions he had not
been asked. A word or two with George was all you needed to discover that he was
an empty shell, a well dressed one perhaps, but about as mentally alert as a
It was plain to see that the boss's son had fallen in love with George's homburg
hat and his Chesterfield coat and not George himself. Against the advice of many
of the supervisors in the drafting room, he decided to expose him a bit more so
he could be seen on a wider scale and reflect the caliber of excellence that
could be found among his employees. He might sit in the lobby to be seen by
visiting clients, or perhaps interrupt important conferences by delivering
folded sheets of paper disguised as messages. It was a dangerous game, because
much as we liked to have George around we knew he would inevitably embarrass us
After a long argument and detailed objections, our chief engineer consented to
permit George to file a set of building plans with the City Engineer's office
downtown. It was a job we usually assigned to someone who had worn a tie that
day. This was an assignment that would expose George and his sartorial splendor
to a wide variety of city officials. He would also carry a letter of transmittal
which explained the project in great detail, should George forget why he was
there. You might say it was a trial run and our president hoped he could get
through it without a hitch, perhaps then he could trust him with greater
George left the office with high hopes and as it was close to lunch time, he
decided to have something to eat – and maybe one for the road, so to speak
before heading downtown. After all it was going to be a long afternoon and he
needed to be on his toes. He stopped in at the Exchange Cafe, (a place where he
was well known) and before long George was into his third martini. Lunch time
came and went, patrons came and went but George stayed put. By the middle of the
afternoon, his mission to the City Engineer's office had been forgotten along
with the building plans and the letter of transmittal. It grew toward late
afternoon and yet George was still in the Exchange Cafe. Someone had mistakenly
left with his homburg hat and the cafe's house cat and kittens were asleep on
his coat with the velvet collar – which had fallen off a hook near the kitchen
door. To make matters worse George had thrown up on his shirt in the pocket of
which rested the letter of transmittal.
Although I have little personal experience, I have been told that people in an
advanced state of inebriation have moments of complete sobriety. Something like
this must have happened to George, perhaps it was the olives – at any rate he
suddenly remembered his mission and decided to carry on. He grabbed the
gin-soaked building plans and cleaned the letter of transmittal as best he
could, shooed the cat and its kittens out of his coat and headed for the door.
He found his way to the City Engineer's Office late in the afternoon looking
more like a homeless person than a Clarkson representative. No one at the
Building Department would acknowledge him or touch anything he carried and when
he tried to explain, they wrinkled up their noses and edged away.
It was a tragic mistake to send him. One of many mistakes our president made
daily. As I mentioned earlier, he was a living example of the Peter Principle.
He had risen far above his own level of competence on the strength of being the
only son of the founder and he had completely misunderstood George. George was
able to hold his own doing his stair details and checking his specifications –
he might have gone on indefinitely, yet here in the middle of a boom time he
found himself out on the street again.
It wasn't the same back at the office, his replacement wore a leather cap and
wore a plaid woolen jacket – he was the groveling, ingratiating type – a born
So it goes.
©1995 Harry Buschman
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