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Letting George Do It


Harry Buschman

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 distinction.

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 rutabaga.

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 all.

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 responsibility.

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 nucleus.

So it goes.

1995 Harry Buschman

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