Monday, October 26, 2009

My Last Day

On my last day, you couldn't wipe the smile from my face. The opportunity not to be part of this organization (but collect a severance) was just too good for me. I was bursting with joy. The last time I felt like this was when I was a kid on the last day of school before the long summer vacation.

I was so elated that I worried my exuberance would be met by a lynch gang. I thought my former colleagues were beginning to catch on that I never really wanted to be in this place.

Perhaps it was my retorts, like, "Who would ever want to be in banking?" or "This place is falling apart faster than a snowball in hell.", or "I know one career I'll never try again.", that just didn't sit right with them. I mean, these were people who put in 10-20 years in the institution. They certainly didn't need a snot-nosed "kid" telling them their career choices sucked. They knew it already, I think. I'm sure they kept those thoughts deep in the recesses of their psychic apparatus.

"Okay, is it the end of the day yet?" one of them asked.

"No, it's only 10:15am," I replied.

"You should leave early on your last day."

"Oh, no. I'm sticking this out to the bitter end. I came this far. I'm not quitting now," I said. "I'm not gonna let this dung heap get the best of me."

"Leave now," the woman in HR told me.

You would think the offer to buy everyone a round of drinks would have encouraged a lot more people to show up to the bar at the end of the day. But I'm sure the two others who came to wish me well brought stories back to the office about what they had missed.

"Hey, good luck," one them wished me heartily. "I'll take that mojito in a to-go cup," he said to the bartender. What a joker. I'll certainly miss the UPS guy.

My last day was definitely quite different than my first day of my new life. I woke up (later than usual), went to the gym, showered, had a nice breakfast and then looked over the to-do list my wife had already assembled.

It was brief and to the point. On the top, she wrote lovingly: File for unemployment. And I used to think only losers did that.

Hey, wait a minute.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Memoriam

A couple of months ago, through a package of licorice which was imported from Australia, I tracked down a lead on a career I thought would be of interest.

The licorice was from an age-old family recipe and it was made without all the modern chemical ingredients we see today. No high-fructose corn syrup, starches or preservatives. It was made straightforward with some sugar, of course, and get this, it even had some licorice in it.

Through the company's website I found their local distributor in the USA. And by chance, the company was located just a few towns away from me.

I went to that site and saw something that interested me greatly. It was a firm dedicated to health conscious foods. It was a small company run by a gentle-looking older man. In the company picture, he was surrounded by his co-workers. It looked like a family. There was the head of accounting, vp of operations, the customer service person and the head of sales. The sales guy was the only one who didn't look like family. He was slick looking and had a mustache. Who has mustaches these days?

But I didn't want to judge the company by this one picture. I was more interested in the backgrounds of the people, especially the CEO. He had been in the food industry throughout all his career and started this company as a way to focus on what he thought would be good for the consumer, something he would enjoy eating because it was well made.

I liked that philosophy and thought this is a company I would like to learn more about. I'm sure if I wrote a nice letter to the CEO expressing my interest in hearing about the ins and outs of the business, he would grant me some time.

I bookmarked the site and then forgot about it for a while.

I spent the next couple months worrying about my current situation. What kind of future would there be in the bank? How much longer could I hold out? Could I get the severance package before its too late?

Well, all that worrying came to a close last week when I took the package. After the initial excitement of knowing my payout number and calculating how long it could hold me, I thought what am I going to do next?

Aha! The food industry. This would be the perfect time to reach out to that little company that was doing good things. Now, that I was unencumbered by the daily slog of the bank, I could focus on learning about something new, something tangible and perhaps get a few bags of licorice out of it.

I found the bookmarked site, clicked on it and came to their home page - which had changed. Instead of seeing a welcoming photo of the company employees, I saw a single headshot of the CEO. The poor bastard had died a month prior. He was in his early 60s and just dropped dead. And, now, running the company was the weaselly-looking salesperson.

Of course, just another day when you're already dead and living in hell.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Day of the Living Dead

Part of the excitement of leaving my company is telling people I'm leaving.

For one thing, I feel like I'm blowing off some steam with the news. For another, it probably serves as good networking to let people know I'm out there and through the kindness of their hearts they may think of me if they ever hear of a possible job opportunity, or not.

In my office, most of my colleagues knew that I was trying to breakout for the past few years. My huge smile along with the news probably offered them some relief. Now, they wouldn't have to listen to me complain about our company or be brought down with my doom and gloom reports regarding the future prospects of the place. Now, they can get on with drinking in the Kool-Aid and believe that the company would not do anything foolish to jeopardize their careers any further.

The part I did not really think about was telling my friends and neighbors in town that I would be hanging out at home now. And as news travels fast, I soon found myself faced with a new dilemma.

It seems that quite a few other residents are in similar circumstances. As a result, small groups of these people who have also taken packages, early retirements or simply can't find a job have banded together. These are people who like to stick to a routine and they like to hang out with one another on a regular basis - something I don't like.

Let me clarify. I will have structure during my time off. I will most likely have a routine, and I will see people, but it will be my choice. I do not want to get caught up in someone's idea of what time off should be.

So when I ran into Richard at the town deli the other day, I knew I had to start preparing a better canned response.

"Hey, heard the news," Richard said. "How long you got?"

"About a year."

"A year, that's excellent. You got plans?"

"I'm thinking about some things I want to do. I'll be keeping busy."

"Great. Well, everyday after I drop the kids off at school. I head down to Rockin' Joes. About six of us meet there everyday for coffee. We could always use another guy in the group."

"Uh, sure. Maybe."

"Good, see you there, Rockin' Joes Cafe."

What did he mean, they could always use another guy? What is this some vampire clique? The problem is I like Rockin' Joes. It's a new coffee joint that opened in town with comfortable seating and some good food. Well, that'll be off my list of places to visit now.

And what about the other places in town I liked to frequent, the bagel store, the diner, the salad shop? I'm sure all those places have been infiltrated with wi-fi seeking regulars. Oh man, I might become a regular?

It was not until I ran into Morty outside the grocery store that I realized I may become something worse than a regular - I may become a shut in.

"Hey, heard the news about you, " Morty said. "How long you got?"

It seemed to be a similar conversation in Stepford. Somehow I had been targeted. I was new meat and the zombies were preparing to feast.

"We could sure use your help," Morty said. "There's a lot to be done down at the Town Beautification League. We got some new benches coming in that need assembling. And the mums need to be planted on the traffic circles. Maybe you can help out?"

I just nodded and kept walking.

"Okay, we'll see you down there," he called out after me.

Can you get unlisted numbers in hell?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Plan A, check!

It's been in the works for three years and just this week I pulled it off. I truly felt as if I accomplished something. I felt proud and relieved as to how well the plan worked - I got laid off from my job.

Now, I know in this economy losing a job is not something to do the happy dance about, or walk around the office with a big smile on, or even accept congratulatory praise for -- but I did. I had been hoping and wishing for this to occur ever since my company published the terms of its severance package several years back.

Sitting in my office, I would imagine what it would be like to be compensated for time off. I thought about all the things I would do to fill my day - more writing, more gym time, more sleeping, maybe audit some classes, maybe see what the divorced women in town were doing during the day. It became a goal, actually somewhat of an obsession, to lose my job.

Of course, I could have just tried to find a new job and exit this mess respectfully, but if you haven't noticed lately -- the job market really sucks. And I didn't want to rush into something new just to get out of where I was currently. I didn't want to make a rash decision that I would regret, kind of what I did when I took my current position originally.

No, my plan was to get the package and use the fear of the complete unknown to force my brain cells to figure something out. I work well that way. Again, I know I could have done this while at my current job, but I didn't. I was handicapped by the time I spent trying to look busy at work. I didn't have enough emotional energy to focus on the "me" plan.

I know, it's lame, but you weren't there.

As I mentioned, the plan worked perfectly. I brought it down the wire with seconds to spare and achieved the end result I was finally looking for. I have counted my blessings a number of times in the fact the plan was not brought to final conclusion any earlier than it did.

I often think of what it would've been like if I actually left a year or two earlier. I could've been sitting out there much longer than my severance package covered. I know a few people who that's happened to. Scary.

But it wasn't for a lack of trying. I remember telling one of my managers early on that I wanted the package. I was laughed at. People didn't take me seriously. What kind of fool wants to lose their job?

This fool did. But instead I got promoted. I had to be accountable for more projects and more people. I know, "wah, wah, wah." But I hated my job. I hated the whole concept of where I worked and what the place stood for. I hated how unchallenging and how poorly managed things were. But I liked the paycheck. Wah, wah, wah!

This past week was especially difficult because the end of the week marked the official close of the known severance plan. Rumors on the new one didn't look good. It was not as generous. In fact, it was supposed to be down right awful.

I didn't sense any change occurring. I didn't read in between the lines on any conversations. I didn't think anyone even knew about the looming deadline, so when I saw my boss for a catch-up lunch this week I was totally surprised to hear him say, "Sorry, but we've decided to eliminate your position."

Sorry? You had better be sorry for keeping me on pins and needles for so long. I had already resigned myself to slogging through another year. A year of trying to pretend just to keep some sanity amidst the mindless projects that would be occurring. Do you know I spent 6 months on a project team of 12 people discussing through weekly meetings how staff should order business cards???

Yes, the waiting was too long and too close to the edge. But those sweet words rolling off my manager's tongue filled me with such elation, I forgot about the anxiety I had put myself through. My sentence had been commuted. I was free to leave.

"Again, I'm sorry to have to do this," my manager said somberly. "It's not performance related. It's just economics and I will be happy to give a recommendation if you need it."

I'm sure he thought my wide stretched grin was just a cover up to the massive amount of tears pouring out from within. He probably thought to himself that this guy is really trying to hold it together. The poor guy is probably just going fall apart once I leave.

"And, you should be expecting a call from HR to go over the details. Again, I'm sorry about this," he said.

I just nodded. I wanted him to leave as soon as possible. I wanted him to cut short the comforting words shit. I wanted to check my voicemail to see if HR had called already.

I brought the grin down a notch and saw my manager to the door. I thanked him for everything. I didn't want him to think I found this whole thing funny. I didn't want him to think I actually felt more sorry for him because he actually had to stay at the company.

We bid farewell and then I quickly checked my messages. Nothing. This was just one other thing I hated about this place. Everyone is so slow. You have to nag people to get things done. So, I called over to HR.

"Hi, how are you?" I said happily.

There was silence on the other end. I don't think HR is used to being greeted in a friendly manner.

"Um, I'm okay," the voice responded finally.

"Great. I'm in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by and pick up my paper work. You know, save you the trouble of bringing it over."

"Um, okay."

I needed my hands to be holding that packet of papers as soon as possible. I didn't want to risk any chance of them pulling back this offer. I had already come too close to the deadline. I didn't want anything to get in the way, especially an incompetent HR department or a morally ethical boss.

I was giddy with delight as the HR associate took me through paragraph by paragraph the essence of the 12-page exit document.

I kept interrupting. "How much am I getting paid?"

"We're getting there," he responded.

"Have you done a lot of these this week?" I asked with interest.

"We have done a fair share," he responded as if he was a mortician.

"How about you? Who would do your exit interview? I mean, would it just be one of your own colleagues or would you just do it yourself?"

"Can we just get through this document," he said curtly.

"Sure. By the way, when will the money hit my account?"

"We're getting there!"

"Okay, okay. Do your job," I said.

I could hardly contain myself. I had felt as if a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders that day. I did not foresee a grim forecast out there. I saw an opportunity to explore a new path. I was not afraid of the future. I was embracing it.

Of course, having a healthy severance payout that should keep me afloat for at least a year certainly helps grease the skids.

And I'm well aware how quickly that may go by. So beyond some of the daily things I would pursue each day that I mentioned above, I will also put aside some time to do some job hunting.

Yes, I will be practical because under this joyful exterior I am mature. I am cognizant of the difficulties that I may face, and so I will also be putting Plan B into effect - get wife to get new job that can accommodate the lifestyle I have grown accustomed to.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Fugitive

I read about a program the State of New Jersey was enacting that would give fugitives a second chance to turn themselves in.

Over a four-day period, a surrender site would be open where people could just show up and give up. A judge would be on hand to hear their stories and then dispense a sentence.

The State was expecting about 6,000 people to walk in to this location and ask for forgiveness.

I was thinking that if this actually worked, we wouldn't need cops anymore. We could probably even scale back the whole justice system. We could have our own self-service criminal justice system.

Just think of the money we could save. Commit a crime and then when you're ready and if you're available on the pre-set surrender date, come on down and hang out with all the other criminals that knew they were guilty. It'd be like a convention, a chance to meet and greet fellow colleagues from the industry.

The State would just need some clever advertisements telling everyone what dates they should mark on their calendars for the big dance. The department stores could get in on the action with Back to Prison Day sales (although I would think all sales would be final), there could be contests where the first 100 people who show up get a prize - like a lighter sentence. Maybe even a 10K road race to add to the festivity.

I was so intrigued by the openness of such an event, I decided to go down an check it out for myself.

I thought it was kind of funny that the surrender site was actually in a church. But considering it was the largest place around besides the town's athletic stadium, which was already booked for some school events, it seemed appropriate for the type of repentance that was supposed to occur.

I thought I got there early enough but the line to get in was already around the block. It's just like it was in the old days when you had to stand on line for concert tickets. I was not an early riser and I didn't like sleeping outdoors, so I never really got the good seats.

As I stood there, I started to wonder if I was on the wrong line. Just like me to waste an hour only to find out I was waiting for a soup kitchen to open or for some free dental check ups from the local dentistry school.

"Excuse me," I said to the rather large gentlemen with the tattoos on his arm, "is this the line for the surrender center?"

"Is this the line? What the fuck do you think it is?" he said quite brusquely and then turned back around. I was going to let that attitude slide for now.

I felt a little better when people started filling in behind me. At least I wasn't going to be last.

"So, what are you turning yourself in for?" I asked the guy behind me trying to make small talk. He was a little less intimidating, probably because he was 6 inches shorter than me.

"Gun possession."

I nodded. "Did you bring it with you today?"

"Did I bring it today?" he said, "what the fuck do you think I am? I'm not packing today, shit."

The guy shook his head a lot. I realized the people on the line used a lot of swears and liked to repeat the questions I asked. I guess it was sort of a fugitive type lingo. I was new at this and I needed to pick it up quick.

"What the fuck you here for?" the guy asked me.

"What the fuck am I here for?" I said.

"Don't fuck with me I asked you question. You fucking with me?"

I shook my head and then said, "Evasion."

"Evasion? What the fuck is that?"

"I didn't pay taxes ... actually, I didn't pay some taxes. I left some information off my 1040."

"You here because of some clerical error on a form, huh? You didn't fill something out right and you fucked everyone over?"

The guy was getting hyped up over this. I was starting to believe it was pretty cool crime from the way he was playing it up.

"You're a crazy mother fucker," he went on. "That shit is federal. That is big shit to mess with."

"That's right," I said. "That's why I came all the fuckin' way down here. I'm doing the right thing, man. Can't live myself anymore."

"True dat," he said. "That's why I came down here. Can't live with anyone anymore."

"Who the fuck can't you live with?" I asked, getting into the groove of the whole fuck thing.

"My bitch. She's driving me crazy. I needs to go away for a while. Three square meals, a little exercise. Do me good."

"Yeah? They're gonna feed us here?"

"Not here. In the blocks, man."

Yes, there was still that hurdle I needed to overcome to get into the big house. I needed to be convicted of my crimes.

It took about an hour until we finally got through the doors. We were asked our names at a front desk and then told to sit in the pews, which were filling up fast.

A guy on a PA was calling out names. Someone would rise from his seat and then walk up towards the altar. There was another desk set up there with three people filling out paperwork and looking up stuff on a computer.

Nobody was really talking to each other. I guess most people didn't know one another. People mostly kept to themselves and slept.

A couple more hours went by and I was getting hungry. I looked towards the back and still saw people filing in. I figured I could slip out the door, grab a sandwich and then come back in on the line. What's the crime in doing that?

"Hey, where you going?" The nazi-looking officer asked me as I neared the door.

"Gettin' a sandwich."

"Outside? Hah! Sit down. Once you're in here, you're not leaving until we let you."

Holy shit! What did I get myself into? What happened to being innocent until proven guilty? Well, I guess that went out the door by showing up here.

I sat back down in my pew and looked at my watch. Half the day was shot. This was not as efficient as I imagined it would be. Even with a self-service model, these government agencies add their own dose of bureaucracy to it.

I wanted to lean over and take a nap, but I have a thing about putting my face in the place where some stranger's butt has been. I chuckled to myself over that one. In prison, would I be getting a brand new bed? I didn't think so. How do they find open cells for all the new fish showing up? Do they work it out so those on death row leave just in time for the new arrivals? Or do they actually double people up in a cell? That would be awful. I hated sharing my dorm room in college. And I hate when people touch my stuff. When you double up you're just inviting that kind of snooping.

Just then, my name was called. I walked down the aisle up to the altar. There was something eerie about that.

I approached the desk with the three men, their logbooks and computer.


I gave one of the gentlemen my name.


I gave him my social security number.


I gave that, too.

"You're not in here. You have no warrants."

"What? That's impossible. Why do I have to be in there to give myself up?"

"What was the alleged crime?"

"Evasion. Uh, tax evasion."

They looked at each other. Shook their heads.

"Are you wasting our time?" one of them asked.

"No, I wanted to surrender."

"We're not the IRS."

"But a crime is a crime. I want to clear my name."

"Not here," the man said and pointed to the back door. "Take this." He handed me a slip of paper.

Dejected, I walked off the altar and up the aisle.

"What the fuck is up with you, mopey?"

It was my old friend who stood behind me on the line.

"They said they got nothing on me. They're sending me home."

"They're sending you fucking home? Shit, for me that would be the worst news I heard. I ain't goin' home."

I nodded my head and said good luck to the man. As I walked away, he called out. "Don't feel so bad, fuckhead. I read only 1 - 3% of the people who surrender actually get sentenced."

"Thanks," I said. I knew he was trying to cheer me up, but as I thought of those staggering statistics I only became sadder. At best only 180 out of 6,000 people would be sent away. That's no way to run a criminal justice system, I thought.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In the Beginning . . .

I had a job. Not a career, but a job that a buddy of mine helped me get. It was with a 30-year-old, family-owned chemical and adhesives manufacturing company that was headquartered in Boston. The Boston part was intriguing. The chemicals were not.

A week before I started, I found out they were moving the company to Walpole - 20 miles West of Boston. They were expanding and found an industrial park to set up in. The only other thing that was in Walpole besides this new industrial park was the state prison.

I had already found a place live in Boston and planned on taking public transportation to work. Now, I would have to get a car and drive.

Working with a budget of $300, I found a very used Honda Accord hatchback. It had just reached 100,000 miles, it had a choke to help start the car, balding tires, and rust along most of the edges. The main thing, though, it started.

My boss wouldn't let me park the car in front of the building because it was so ugly. He tried to get me to drive the company car. It was a pick-up truck with their main product's name, Topcoat, emblazoned on the side - a liquid roofing material for metal roofs. I was the new head of marketing for the product. I was the entire marketing department and sometimes technical salesperson.

While most of my friends were working in large corporations beginning training programs with hundreds of people the same age as them, I was sitting in Walpole in a 25-person company run by two brothers who didn't trust anyone or each other.

There was Stan in accounting who did everything with a pencil and piece of paper. He didn't trust technology.

"You see this pencil?" he'd say to me. "It's never gonna crash."

"But what if you break the tip?" I'd ask.

"What, are you an idiot? I'll sharpen it," he'd reply.

"But what if the sharpener ..."

"Get outta here, do some marketing," he'd say and slam the door to his office.

There was Felix who was in charge of the lab. We weren't allowed to talk to him or even go into the lab area. It had three locks on the door. The brothers thought there were people who would break in and steal the secret rubber formula. (I guess they shouldn't have moved so close to the prison.)

And then there was Lou who was in charge of operations. He basically managed the plant in the back where the chemicals were manufactured and the loading dock. He got to drive the fork lift onto the trucks everytime there was delivery.

He always liked to hang out in the front office. He would sit in the chair in front of my desk and tell me how stupid all the workers were out back, mainly because they were foreigners. He'd tell that if it wasn't for him, they wouldn't even know how to zipper their pants - not something I really wanted to think about how he helped them.

He'd also tell me how dumb the two brothers were as well. But whenever they walked by, he'd sure liked to kiss their asses.

"How ya doing Mr. Clark? I don't think the Sox are gonna pull one off tonight."

"What are you doing up Lou? Who's watching the plant?"

"I'm heading right back. I was just answering some questions for Marketing, here."

All these guys were a few years away from retirement when I started, fresh out of college. I had some great role models to look up to.

This is my desk that I sat at for 2 1/2 years.

And this is the window I stared out of from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

To be fair, I wasn't always at this desk. I did get to do a fair amount of traveling. I got to meet other roofers from around the country who I tried to educate on the wonders of a rubberized substrate for corrugated metal.

The point was that metal roofs leaked a lot because they expanded and contracted with the heat and cold. A rubber roof that goes down as a liquid coating would adhere to the surface, cover the seams and stretch with temperature fluctuations.

It didn't really work. You had to have the finesse of an industrial painter to put the stuff down. You had to know how thick to put it on in certain spots. You had to hope for warm weather and enough sun to cure the material. And you had to have the patience to attend to the details, like every screw that held the metal down had to have a special dab of Topcoat applied to the head. Did you ever see how large some of those warehouse roofs could be?

These were roofers who were used to rolling out carpets of black, oily matting that would have its seams heat-welded together with big, flaming torches they carried around. Sure, a few roofs would catch on fire, but man they could lay that stuff down fast.

These were interesting people. People from the heartland. I think a lot of them even made it to high school graduation.

And, like I said, I got to see different parts of the country.

For each place I'd go to I would try and bring back a post card so I could put it on the wall at home and marvel at it. Although some places I visited were so exotic they didn't even have post cards, like Waterloo, Iowa or West Allis, Wisconsin, or even Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

But I did get to the big towns now and then, like Fort Wayne, Pittsburgh, and even Cincinnati - the city where the TV show WKRP was supposed to take place in, even though it was shot in Hollywood I hear.

That was the beginning. Some days when I think of where I am now, I still look back fondly and think of the old gang of people I once knew.