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Nine To Five


Bob Schackner

Part I

Every now and then, through the lost leagues of time, a person comes along that proves to be different from others. You may remember such a person, perhaps through a filmy recollection of a late night dream so many years and so many tears ago. It’s as if that person has been sent by God to make a difference in our humble lives. It’s a person that teaches others what life is all about, its finer points and its not-so-finer points. A single unique individual that helps folks to discover good things about themselves, about others, and about the world around them. After this person has gone, we know our lives have been touched, our lives have become enriched, and we have truly been blessed. And no matter what, we know our lives will never be the same again.

Unfortunately, this story has nothing to do with people like that. It’s about bosses. You know - the people for whom you have worked your entire life. Unless you’ve been lucky enough to have been born into a very wealthy family and your parents decided you were going to own your own business as soon as you came out of the chute, it’s very likely you’ve worked for someone, somewhere along the highway of life. And of course, if you’re reading this now, it’s a forgone conclusion you’re still working for someone. So, hurry up and read this, and get back work before you get caught and then get yourself fired! I don’t need that kind of guilt. I’ve got enough to worry about! The kids, the wife, the mortgage. But hey, this isn’t about me - it’s never about me. It’s always about the kids, the wife, and the mortgage… Uh, sorry, I promise it won’t happen again.

In the long haul of life, I’ve been very fortunate in that the win column of bosses has a greater tally than the loss column. I’ve worked for many people since I was sixteen. I’ve worked for a mason, an electrician, a general contractor, and a hotel owner (as a bartender). I spent some quality time in the seminary (back off, I’m not going to talk about it, so don’t ask), and in state police basic training (where everyone is your boss, including the grandmotherly matron in the mess hall). I’ve been a recreation director, a computer programmer (now there’s a career), a field service technician, a gas jockey, an auto mechanic, and an inventory clerk. There are probably a few more professions I’ve been involved in, and they’ve either slipped my mind or my attorney has requested I not put them into print. He once said to me, “Bob, while there is no limit to the number of times you may invoke the Fifth Amendment, the court clerk has told me in confidence that she is going to poke you in the eye with her stenographer’s pencil if she ever hears it from you again.”

’Nuff said.

Because I’ve had the luxury of such a vast experience in the workforce I could write volumes about my former bosses (I will not discuss my current boss, so don’t go looking for any reference to him. Besides, I remember my Uncle Vinnie Scarducci’s favorite expression, Sardiciaño estella como la forma estutito beneficío mal, which loosely translated means, “Suicide in any form is bad for your health”). Keeping that in mind, I want to talk about two particular bosses I’ve had over the years. They had both been good to me in their own ways, and they each taught me how not to be a boss. But they gave me some very fond memories. More importantly, they gave me some excellent material for tipsy audiences at late-night parties, long after the hors d’oeuvres have been exhausted and the bleary-eyed host has long-since given up trying to usher everyone out so he can go to bed. So while you’re finishing your drink and looking for the last piggy-in-the blanket or that final scrap of Spam-quiche let me tell you about George Hoffman.

George owned the largest gas station in town. I had just lost a job working for Borden Chemical as an inventory clerk. I worked in the printing ink division (Elmer, not Elsie – she was the Dairy Division), and I was in charge of ordering raw materials so we could make ink. It was a union job, and the orders began to dry up, therefore so did my job – “last hired, first fired” as the saying goes. I was nineteen years old and knew I couldn’t afford to be out of work for too long. I stopped by the station in mid-spring of 1974 figuring I might be lucky enough to get a job pumping gas for a few weeks and then find something more substantial. There weren’t too many self-serve gas stations back then. As a matter of fact, they were called service stations because not only could you buy gas there, you could get your car fixed too (what a concept!).

I pulled into the large driveway and sidled up alongside the pumps. I got out of the car and the attendant, named Paulie (I went to high school with Paulie) came out with no particular interest in his step. I smiled at Paulie and said, “Gimme five buck’s worth, okay?”

“Shooor,” he said smoothly.

I walked into the bay area looking for George. He was in the back champing on his ever-present cheap cigar. George stood about six-foot-three and weighed three hundred and seventy pounds. He always needed a shave. Not much of one – it just looked as if he needed to stand about a half-inch closer to the blade as he shaved. He had a full head of hair – it was pure white – had been that way ever since I first saw him. He was a gruff old guy – in his sixties, and of Irish-German descent. I got his attention.

“George, I’m looking for a job. You got anything?”

He patiently put down a wrench he held in his large ham-hock and started walking toward me. Actually he lumbered toward me; that’s how big he was. “Ain’t got nothin’ right now. Come back in six months.”

“I could starve to death by then,” I said peevishly.

He bent over and closed one eye, I guess to get a better look at me. He took the cigar out of his mouth and blew some pretty powerful smoke in my face. He growled, “What can you do?”

“I can pump gas.”

“I already got me a kid can pump gas. What do I need another kid to pump gas for?”

Good point.

I forged on ahead. “What do you do when Paulie goes to lunch?”

“I pump the gas.”

“Right. And you’re the owner. You shouldn’t be pumping gas. And this place could use some painting and cleaning. I can do that. And your restrooms – well, let’s just hope some aliens don’t land here and use one. They see that men’s room and they’ll figure it’d be best to put the entire human race out of its misery.”

George opened the eye that was closed and then closed the other. He mashed the cigar back into his mug and cocked his head to one side. “Beat it, Kid.”

I heard the other guys in the garage start laughing as I turned my back to go. I just about got to my car when I heard George shout out, “Hey Kid. C’mere.”

I walked back over to the garage and stood there waiting for further humiliation. “You think you’re pretty smart, huh?” he asked.

“Look,” I began, “I didn’t mean any disrespect, okay. I don’t think you need to say anything else to me and...”

“Kid, you think you could shut your yap for about ten seconds and let a guy get a word in sidewards, here – huh? Do ya?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Okay, come back tomorrow morning at seven. I can hire you for a week – and let’s see if you last that long.”

“Thanks, George,” I said. “You won’t regret it – I promise.”

“I’m already regrettin’ it. Now get out of here, I got work to do.” He turned and shuffled back into the garage.

“Okay, thanks again.” I flipped Paulie a five-dollar bill and climbed back into my car. Before I started the car I looked over and George was shouting at me, “Don’t go getting your hopes up for a long-term career here, Kid. You only got one week!”

I showed up for work the next day and George taught me how to pump gas. The bell would ring whenever a car rolled over the rubber hose stretched across the wide driveway. George said to me that morning, “Okay, now watch me.” He walked out along the driveway, his cigar firmly planted in the side of his mouth. He said good morning to the lady in the car, and walked over to the pump. He lovingly put the cigar on the top of the pump, made sure it didn’t roll off, and removed the nozzle. He turned on the pump, removed the gas cap from the car, inserted the nozzle and turned it on. A few minutes later it clicked off all by itself. George removed the nozzle, turned off the pump, replaced the nozzle in its holster and shoved the cigar back in its usual place, his face. He collected the money and came back toward me. “You think you got it, Kid?”

“Yeah, I stayed up all night studying for this job. Jeez, you make it look so easy.”

Paulie started laughing. George shot a quick glance in his direction and Paulie said he had to go to the bathroom. George shook his head and as he walked away, he mumbled to Bill his manager, “Swell, I hired a wiseass. Remember Kid – you only got one week.”

I yelled at his back as he trudged inside, “Hey!  Isn’t it dangerous to be pumping gas with a lit cigar? I mean, you could start a fire or something.”

The early morning sun was shining right into my eyes and I couldn’t see very well inside the garage. But I could hear George just fine, “One week, Wiseass,” was all he said.

One of things I quickly learned about George was that he liked very much to drink scotch. Not during the day, only at night after he went home. And he liked a lot of scotch – as in large quantities. I figured that if I drank the same amount as George did in any given sitting, I would die of alcohol poisoning. During my second morning on the job, after George spent a particularly long evening of scotch rendering, he came in rather pale looking and most definitely under the weather. He walked past me and went into the back office. He came out about ten minutes later with a cup of coffee in his fist and said to me, “You know, Kid. I really feel sorry for you.”

“Me?” I asked, extremely surprised. You’re the one nursing the hangover. Not me.”

“Yeah, that’s right Kid. Johnny Walker and me, we had a terrible argument last night. Mr. Walker won. But that don’t make no difference about what I said. I still feel bad for you.”

I tugged on the bait. “Why do you feel sorry for me?”

He shifted his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other and smiled a crooked grin. “Because Mr. College Smart Guy, right now you feel the best you’re gonna feel all day. Me, I know I’m gonna feel great later on, so I got something to look forward to. How many times in your life have you been able to say that? Huh, Kid?”

You just can’t argue with logic like that.

George was also great with the ladies. Especially the widows. George charmed them all. But he never took advantage of any of them. Not once. He was sort of a gentleman in that way. He did however have a bad habit of poking fun at them. Very often in their presence. Which made it tough for the rest of us.

Mrs. Consodine had been a customer for many years. George knew her husband and had seen all of her kids grow up, get their driver’s licenses, go off to college, get married and live their own lives. Mr. Consodine had died a few years before and every time Mrs. Consodine came in, she wanted to see George. She would travel down memory lane and go on about her dead husband. George would mumble something under his breath that one could understand, but you knew it was bad. Then Mrs. Consodine would begin to cry and George would tell her it was time to shove off, he couldn’t afford to have some emotional dame on his property. That was his word, dame. In my whole life, with the exception of the old black and white films, I have never heard anyone call a woman a dame.

On my third day of work, Mrs. Consodine came in to complain about a recall notice she got from the car manufacturer. She wanted to see George. I went and brought him out. She began to tell him the story about the recall and he shifted from one foot to the other, obviously becoming rather impatient. Finally, after she began lamenting that her dead husband, Herman, would know what to do and God rest-his-soul she missed him so, George spoke up. “Lemme see the recall notice.”

She suddenly stopped her crying and sobbed, “I’ve got it in the glove compartment.” She turned her back to us and bent over as she reached across the driver’s seat to open the glove compartment. It was warm that morning and Mrs. Consodine’s black blouse scooted up her back a wee bit, revealing some rather unpleasant-looking stretch marks on her side.

George knew I had seen it and I turned away, very embarrassed. I don’t know if I was more embarrassed for Mrs. Consodine or for me. George chuckled and without missing a beat he leaned over and said to me, “Jeez Kid, would you look at that - a map of Chicago.”

I turned my head around and looked right at George. His was bobbing his head from side to side. Trying to get a better look. At one point he even turned his back to Mrs. Consodine so he could turn his head upside down. He pointed right at her side, an expression of recognition crossing his chubby face. “I’m not fooling, Kid. I know - I’ve been to Chicago. Look, there’s Rush Street!" 

I walked away, knowing full well that if I stood there any longer, I was going to lose it. Mrs. Consodine had to know what was going on. But she handed George the recall notice anyway and he told her not to worry, he’d take care of everything. And he did.

Our gas delivery tank wagon had shown up on the last day of my new job and the driver asked if I would check the underground tanks. I saw Bill do it earlier in the week. I was sure I could do it. It involved removing the caps to the three underground tanks and inserting a long wooden pole with gradients on it into each underground tank. The idea was to measure the level in the tank before the driver emptied the tank wagon and again after he was done to ensure we received a full load. After the tanker was empty, someone had to climb on top of it and open each compartment to be sure the tank wagon was empty. This was the era right after the first gas shortage when prices skyrocketed and less-than-honest tank drivers would only deliver part of the gas load to unsuspecting gas station owners and then drive down the street and bootleg the rest of the load at half price. The guy who was supposed to get the load was out hundreds of gallons of gas and the driver was getting paid for it.

I stuck the tanks and recorded the levels. When the driver finished unloading the truck he said it was okay for me to check everything out. “I’m going to get a Pepsi, I’ll be right back.” He headed off in the direction of the package store across the street. I mumbled to myself, “Pepsi, my tookus. If that guy comes back with a Pepsi, I’m Mario Freakin’ Andretti.” George went inside to get the stick, where I had placed it after I checked the tanks before the driver started emptying the tank wagon.

He yelled at me to get on top of the tank wagon to check if it was empty.

“I never did anything like that before. I don’t know how. Where’s Paulie?”

George shot a wicked glance back at me. “He’s at lunch. You gotta do it.”

I was getting a little aggravated. “I told you - I don’t know how.”

He was getting more aggravated than I was. “Listen Kid - I told you one week on this job was all I was givin’ you. It may be your last day on this job, but you’re still working for me. Now, either you haul your skinny butt up there right now, or your one week on this job ends right now instead of five o’clock tonight. Get me?”

The strange thing was that although I only had about another four hours to finish this job and end my week-long service to George, I didn’t want to get fired. I guess it was a pride thing. So I climbed up the vertical ladder on the back of the tank wagon and I began opening the sealed hatches. After I popped each latch, I could hear the hissing of air as it rushed into the vacuum that had been created by the now-escaped gasoline.

I had just opened the last compartment as I watched George walk over to the tanks, with the stick in one hand. He bent over the “super” grade of gasoline and slowly eased the long wooden pole into the tank. I estimated there should have been about three thousand gallons of “super” gasoline in that first tank in the ground, about four thousand gallons of “regular” gasoline in the second tank, and about forty-five hundred gallons of “unleaded” gasoline in the third tank. I still remember the colors, super was red, regular was yellow, and unleaded was blue. George was looking down and suddenly I realized he was still puffing on his cigar. I screamed at him, “George, get rid of the cigar!”

He looked up and started to say, “Wha…” The rest happened in slow motion, just like in a Sam Peckinpaugh film. When George opened his mouth to speak, the cigar fell from his lips and tumbled toward the opening of the “super” gas tank. Horrified, I watched it fall, tumbling end over end, getting ever closer to the opening. I did the first thing that came to mind: I pressed my hands over my ears and crouched down real low on top of the tank wagon, waiting for the explosion that was sure to follow. Of course, in retrospect, a lot of good that would have done since I was standing on a truck full of gasoline fumes that was parked above more than eleven thousand gallons of gasoline. Did I mention gasoline is highly flammable?

The cigar hit the wooden pole, bounced slightly away from it, and disappeared into the hole. I waited - my entire nineteen years flashing before me. At least this was going to be quick. I was sorry for all the bad things I had done to my sister, sorry I was going to leave my mother without saying goodbye and most of all, I was sorry I took this stupid job in the first place. I waited some more, perched high up on the truck, face scrunched up, my body all bent over like an arthritic old man, and my hands pressed tightly against my ears, waiting for the explosion to happen.

It never came. The cigar had bounced off of the stick and missed the opening. It dropped harmlessly into the overflow chamber, which luckily happened to be full of water. Later on George said he heard the “Hssst,” of the cigar as it broke the surface of the water.

George sat down, as if he had been struck in the kidneys by an errant blow from a prize-fighter. I clambered off the truck and went over to him, forgetting about the open hatches. He was as white as a ghost, and shaking uncontrollably. I helped him stand up and realized I was no better than he was. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, staring at each other. George was the first to break the silence. He started laughing as he looked at me and said, “You look like hell, Kid.”

I took a deep breath, thankful to be alive. “Yeah well, you don’t look so hot yourself.”

“Hey, you guys done? I gotta get back to Sewarren and pick up another load.” It was the driver returning from his trip to the package store. He held his “Pepsi” in a brown paper bag. George and I looked at each other.

I turned toward the driver and said, “Yeah, we’re done. Take it away.” The driver shouted over his shoulder, “You closed all the hatches, right?”

I yelled back at the driver and lied, “Yeah. All buttoned up. Get it out of here.” And then I muttered under my breath, “Please get it out of here.”

As George and I walked toward the garage, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Hey Kid, whaddaya say we go get ourselves a Pepsi?”

“Yeah, sure. I think I could use one right about now.”

The funny thing is, no one else ever knew what nearly happened on that beautiful spring day. George and I never spoke about it to anyone. We never even mentioned it to each other after that day. Didn’t feel it was right to talk about it. But the other guys kept asking George why he quit smoking. He never really gave them a straight answer either. He’d always look over at me, wink, and say to them, “That stuff’ll kill you if you give it half a chance.”

Seven years and one week after I started working for George, I left that job.

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