Monday, September 20, 2004

"Beth Lee, I hear you callin', but I can't come home right now..."

I love early-morning flights.

I love the idea that, before 10:00am, I can be 300 miles away from where I was when I woke up that morning. I get a great sense of accomplishment from it, though I didn't actually do anything myself.

I get off the plane. While walking toward the parking lot, I see a uniformed limo driver holding up a dry-erase board with my last name written on it.

How weird. Some rich dude has the same last name as me, I think.

Then it occurs to me that the limo is mine. Holy shit!

Our corporate headquarters is an amazing place: Huge, intimidating, beautiful, and impressive.

As we pull into the parking lot, I can see the crisscrossed mower patterns in the bright green grass, and the in-ground sprinklers busily spraying water.

The building is metal and glass, with angled roofs, and a giant, mirrored front wall in which you can watch yourself walk up to the door and open it.

The inside is just as awe-inspiring. High ceilings. Wide, sprawling staircases. Escalators. Yes, escalators! Bright, colorful, freshly-vacuumed carpets. And something resembling new-car smell throughout.

After several minutes of walking, I get to Claire's desk. "Steve!" she says, smiling. "Welcome! Have a nice trip?"

"Yes, yes I did."

"Mr. Johnson wants to take you around at 11. Just be careful. He's in a bad mood."

"Anything wrong?" I say.

"Besides everything?"

"Gotcha," I say.

"I'll show you to your new office," she says.

We walk around a corner and down a long, quiet hallway. She opens a door and flips a switch. And I almost pass out.

I know that each DM has an office at corporate, so that we have someplace to work when we are visiting. But I had no idea that my new digs were going to look like THIS.

The office is huge, roughly 25 by 25, the size of a large family room. It's got its own copier and fax machine. The furniture looks to be solid oak, and ornately carved, too. There's a high-back leather chair, and a massive armoire and credenza, all polished to a dull shine and devoid of even a speck of dust. There are paintings on the wall: Real paintings, not reproductions.

"Nice, huh?" Says Claire.

"Wow," I say.

10:45. I am barely settled when Claire calls me. "Mr. Johnson will see you now." I follow her to Dan's office.

"Steve, how are you? How is have you....what have you learned today, my friend?" Dan says. He's preoccupied, looking around his desk as though he has just lost a contact lens.

"Your sprinkler system is broken."

"No it isn't."

"The last sprinkler head in the northeast corner looks to be at about half power. I bet you have a hole in your underground pipe."

"That's nonsense, Steve. Our maintenance crew is meticulous. Me-TIC-u-lous!"

"If you say so," I say. "But your grass is already getting brown in that area."

He stares at me. "Ok, I'll have someone check it out. But it's absurd, I assure you."

He looks around more frantically, lifting up envelopes, moving penholders. "Where IS it?" he says. He finally produces a thin packet from a wooden bin on the corner of his desk, and places it in front of me. It is stamped "DRAFT" on the front.

"Ahhhh, SHIT! This is just the draft!" He says. He picks up his phone and presses three numbers. "Claire, bring me a copy of that employment agreement, please."

Claire breezes into the office, papers in hand. She hands them to Dan, who slaps it triumphantly down in front of me.

"Steve, this is an agreement that all company executives must sign. We'll need you to execute that for us."

The document is six pages long. My eyes are drawn to the "HOLD HARMLESS" section on page 5.

"Hold harmless" is a scary term. It's basically an agreement not to sue or take any action against the other party, no matter the circumstances.

I skim the section, and find that, in certain (albeit unlikely) circumstances, I could be held PERSONALLY responsible for legal fees and damages!

"Mr. Johnson, are you aware of what this says," I say finally.

"Of course I am. All executives are required to sign."

"All NEW executives, right?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Well, this is a new document, isn't it? I mean, someone just prepared it recently. Otherwise, why would there be a draft copy floating around?"

"That is correct, Steve, exactly correct."

"And I'm guessing that you are grandfathering in all the existing executives," I say. In otherwords, he's not making other DM's sign this agreement.

"Well, Steve, is that really relevant-"

"As a matter of fact, I bet I am the only one in this whole company you are asking to sign this agreement, sir. I bet you aren't even asking Ross, because he was already a DM before he got promoted."

"Steve, this is just standard legalese. It's really not an issue. Let's not make it into one."

"If it's not an issue, why make me sign it?"

"A fair question."

"I'm not signing it without a lawyer."


"Yeah. A lawyer. My OWN lawyer. There are personal liability clauses in there!"

"No there aren't."

I point to page five. He stares at the paper.

"Well I'll be dipped in dogshit," he says. He rubs his hair. "I'm sorry, Steve, I'm sorry. I didn't know. It's been a horrible week. HORRENDOUS."

"Sorry to hear that, Mr. Johnson."

"Please call me Dan, Steve. That 'Mr. Johnson' bullshit is for those people," he says, pointing at his office door, "so they don't try to get too friendly. So they don't come in here kissing my ass, asking me to christen their kids and come to their family barbecues."

"They ASK you that?"

"Of course."

Dan takes me around to meet all the key players in the office. I meet at least 20 people. The last person we meet is Fran, the CFO (Fran is a male, BTW).

"YOU'RE the new DM? YOU?" Fran says, unsmiling.


He shakes his head and turns his back. "Sheeesh!" he says loudly, as he walks to his desk.

"Dickhead," Ross says, loud enough for Fran to hear.

"Gotta get back to work," Dan says. "You have dinner tonight with Ross and me, and golf tomorrow morning at 6."


7:00. We're at Cafe' Parisian, an overpriced, way-too-impressed-with-itself restaurant, at which it's impossible to get a table on short notice. Unless you're a high-powered CEO, that is.

Even the menu is a work of art, with it's gentle, evocative color scheme and wedding invitation-style script font.

And the menu takes pains to describe in great detail how each dish is made. The lobster bisque, for example, is "lovingly prepared," with a long list of ingredients. "Lovingly prepared"? What, does the chef whack off in it?

With all that love you are getting, I guess $17.95 for a bowl of soup is a bargain.

"Steve," Dan says over crudites, "there are a couple of things that concern us about this transition."

I've been expecting this. The layoff rumors have surely reached corporate, and from there have made their inevitable way to Dan's desk. I have to be careful how I address this: If I say I knew nothing about them, they'll tell me I am not paying attention. If I say I knew ALL about them, they'll tell me I should have done something.

"Such as?"

"Several people have called this office, fearing that they are the victims of an impending round of layoffs. Are you aware of this?"

"Aware that they called you? No." A sneaky response. By answering this way, I don't have to tell him whether I heard the rumors or not.

"So you didn't hear the rumors at all," Ross says.

Thanks, Ross. You're just like a dad to me. Prick.

"I hear lots of layoff rumors. I heard YOU were being laid off, Ross. Every week, someone else is supposedly being laid off, or a department is being eliminated. That's not new."

"But you ARE new," Dan says. "And you should know that these rumors might carry more weight because of that."

"I worked hard to build that office, Steve," Ross says. "It would be a damn shame if we had 12 people go out and find new jobs because you didn't respond to a rumor-"

My phone buzzes. LEE CALLING, it says.

I wonder what Lila wants. She is supposed to be making dinner and bringing it to my mom's house tonight. Wonder if everything is alright.

Can't talk to her now. I let it go to voice mail.

"TWELVE people, Ross? Twelve people? You KNOW these people, Ross. We couldn't get 12 people to leave if the BUILDING was on fire."

"Did you announce some type of position-by-position review?" Ross asks.

"Yes, yes, of course." But you didn't hear that, because you were too busy ducking out on the meeting. DAD.

"Don't you think you should have told them that no positions were in jeopardy," Dan says.

"No. No, I don't. Because some positions ARE in jeopardy. The waste in our payroll staggers the mind. Over $200,000 a year in temps alone. I can barely sleep at night. I am a man of my word, and I would never say something that was not true. I value my relationships with the employees, and I won't ever jeopardize that by lying or misleading."

"TWO-HUNDRED-THOUSAND??!!" Dan says, looking at Ross.

"Dan, we had record profits last year," Ross says, dismissively.


"Those temps have highly specialized skills-"

"They're entry-level clerks from AccounTemps," I say. "Get me somebody who knows Excel, and who knows how to ask a question if they are stuck, and they can do it."

Dan leers at Ross. He's angry.

Still worried about those "12 people" quitting? FUCKER?

"And another thing," I say. "I'm trying to build a culture in my office. I don't want to be in a situation where I wait for a rumor, then respond to it. It should never COME to that point. If someone has a question, let them come to me with it. Let them ask it in the proper way, and I will answer. If I answer a rumor, then I'm rewarding inappropriate behavior, aren't I?"

"But in the meantime-" Ross begins.

"In the meantime, people are worried. SOME people. I'm still not convinced it's as widespread as it may seem. But nonetheless, I intend to get this message out there to these employees, this message that, if you have a question, my door is open. I don't intend to turn anyone away if they have a concern."

My phone goes off again. LEE CALLING. Fuck. I let it go to voice mail.

"Rewarding inappropriate behavior...." Dan muses. "Yes, yes, good...." he says, staring at the tablecloth.

"Come on, Dan, these people won't come to him about a layoff-" Ross says.

"But he's going to change the paradigm," Dan says. "They wouldn't come to YOU. Maybe they WILL come to HIM!"

BUZZZZZZ, goes my phone. LEE CALLING.

"Gentlemen, please excuse me. I have to take this," I say, holding up my phone.

I walk out the front door and answer the phone. "Hey. I'm kinda busy," I say.

Lila is crying hysterically.

"Baby? What's wrong?"

"She-she-she.." Lila begins, before bursting into fresh sobs.

"Did you go to my mother's house?"


"Was she drunk?"


"Did she say something to you?"

"Steve, please don't say anything..."

My blood turns to sulfuric acid. One way or another, mom is going to learn the rule: Fuck with me, and I'll deal with it. Fuck with Lila and die.

"I'll call you back, Lila."

"Steve, don't call her-"


With shaking fingers, I dial mom's number.




She's got to be there. Lila called me less than two minutes ago.


Aunt Shirley doesn't have an answering machine. "Don't believe in 'em," she says.

How the hell can you "not believe in" an answering machine? It's an appliance, not a religion!

Five rings. Six. Seven. Eight.

"Hello?" It's aunt Shirley.

"Put my mother on the phone!"

"Don't take that attitude with me, Steve-"


The phone hits the floor. Thirty seconds pass.

"Helllllll-oooooooooooo?" Mom's voice is dry and scratchy. Well, it's definitely scratchy....

"Mom, get a pen and a piece of paper."




I recite Lila's number. "Now read it back."

She does.

"That's Lila's number. You call her right now and apologize for whatever it is that you did. And then maybe you won't have to deal with me tomorrow."

"You know, Steve, you're really barking up the wrong tree with that little whore."


"She comes in here with her tight little shirt and her tight little pants, just like a little Barbie doll. A little plastic doll, with her big plastic titties and her plastic head with a little plastic brain inside." I think I can hear Shirley laughing in the background.

"That little WHORE is more of a woman than you will EVER be, mom."

"That's right, you jackass, take her side. Take sides with your little fucking bitch over your own mother. And then you'll find out that she's only after your money, and you'll be all alone."

"Yeah. I guess I just can't get away from asshole women, can I mom?"

"Steve, you-"

"You listen to me. You're gonna pick up that phone and you're gonna call her. You are gonna do something right for once in your miserable, rotten, drunken fucking life, mom."

"That's right. Take her side. That's right, Steve."

"I'm tired of you, mom. I'm tired of you getting a few in you, and acting like a total obnoxious ass, and then apologizing the next day and expecting everything to be alright. It's time for you to grow up and take responsibility for your actions. You call her."

"I'll do no such thing. I'm the mother. You're not the mother. You don't tell me what to do."


"Or else what?"

"Or else, as far as I'm concerned, you're already dead."