Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Failing to the Top (Part 3)

After all the now-former employees --- it would be silly to call them "workers" --- had come and gone, we were still sitting on three checks.  I went in to talk to Anise and Paul, leaving Seth and Reba in his old cop car chopping up some speed.  I'd made no promises about the personal habits of the people I dealt with, so I left them alone.  Going into the main kitchen, I found them way ahead of schedule: the people they hired actually worked!  Hard!  Quickly!  Correctly!  The crew was told to take it easy, wander the store a bit to learn where things were, and otherwise get familiar with Stone Soup Organic's layout.  They'd moved so fast compared to the old crew, many trays were being wrapped in foil and put in the walk-in cooler by the new crew, to keep them from either turning or going stale and bland before the event.
Showing Anise the three left-over checks, I asked for a list of phone numbers; I'd contact them myself.

A thought ran through my head.  "Hey guys, these three here, um, Geoff, Sandy, and I'm assuming a girl named Minstrel.... Do you know who their best friends are here?"
Paul pondered and said, "Yeah.  Geoff and Sandy always hang out with Rich, and Minstrel is good friends with Annette.  Why?"
"I'm gonna play a hunch.  Wanna watch?"
"Umm.... Sure...."
I wrapped the mouthpiece of the phone with a single ply of paper napkin, then turned on "SPKR OUT" on the phone, so Paul and Anise could hear.  I dialed Geoff's number; when he picked up, I said, "Yo Geoff, it's Rich.  Want me to clock you in?"
Geoff replied, "Yeah, awesome.  I'm still pretty stoned, so I'll be with you guys in about ninety minutes."
I said, "No problem," and hung up quickly.  Then I did the exact thing with Sandy, "Rich" promisinig to clock him in, much to Sandy's appreciation.
After hanging up a second time, I told Paul, "That was a bet I forgot to make.  They're ripping you off on wages, too.  No wonder it took the same number of people half the time today: you never had a full crew here, despite what your schedule and payroll said.  Shall we go for three of three?  Either Anise or Reba can pull off, um, Annette's voice."
I went outside to find Seth and Reba sharing a cigarette and making out at the same time.  Many of you probably did it yourselves: take a drag, then french the other person while exhaling iinto their mouth.  They inhale, and exhale normally.  It's a fun way of hot-boxing your Camels.
Seth saw me and said, "Yo Lenny, I left---- "
"Ixnay, ixnay," I muttered, as Paul was right behind me.  "Hey Reba, you wanna pretend to be a hippie bitch for a minute on the phone?"
She was game, and "Annette" called Minstrel to let her know she'd been "clocked in."
"So what do ya think? Let 'em dangle?" I asked Seth and Paul.
Seth said, "Screw that.  I hate people like that.  Flush those fuckin' turds."
"You wanna do the honors?  Just keep in mind, you're a contractor for Stone Soup, so don't say anything illegal and don't swear.... Not too much anyway."
"Don't worry, I got this," said Seth, picking up the phone.  And it was a beautiful thing to witness:
   "Yeah, hello, is this Geoff?  Hi there, my name's Seth, I'm contacting for Stone Soup Catering, and that wasn't Rich you talked to earlier, it was a random dude helping confirm that you rip this place off by cheating on your time cards, asshole.  You're fired...... Yeah, fired.  Canned.  Sacked.  Given the boot.  You no longer work here.  Am I being clear enough, or do I gotta show up at your house and put on a fuckin' puppet show?..... Because you're incompetent and you steal, those are usually good reasons..... No, he got shit-canned too.  In fact, everyone you knew at Stone Soup is gone, we bounced 'em all today.  Really the only thing we need to know from you is whether we should mail your final check or if you wanna pick it up.  If you want to pick it up, we need to set a time, because it'll be when I'm there..... Yeah, tough shit, junior..... Because you're as trustworthy as a goddamn puff adder, that's why!  I wouldn't leave you alone with a jar full of piss.  And as all the other little dipshits learned, coming back here without express permission from Paul or Anise will be considered trespassing, and have the same legal repercussions.  I know I just used a few big words, did you follow me? Did I make sense..... Oh really?  That's nice.  Next time tell your mom don't bite so hard when I come, okay?  You have a nice day." *click*
Seth turned to Paul, who was gaping in shock and amazement.  "Sometimes you gotta get a message across in no uncertain terms.  And he wants his check mailed."
Paul said, "But won't he...."
"Don't worry about it," Seth cut in. "I made statements of suspicion, not accusation.  We're clean.  He knows it, too.  And it's not illegal to insult people over the phone.  If I'd told him I'd kick his ass if he showed up here, that would be trouble.  Suggesting somebody's mom is a freelance cocksucker is just being mean.  Big difference, legally."
"How do you know all this?"
"I took a couple pre-law courses in college.  In my spare time, I sorta looked up how to get away with being an asshole and not have legal repercussions.  Shall I get rid of the other two?"
Paul said, "May as well.  In a perverse way, it's almost like an art performance.  Hey Anise, come in here a minute!"

Late that night, the rental vans were hit with a paintball gun.  "That's why I insisted on the full damage waiver," I told Paul. "Some people get really petty when they get canned from a job."

The Roadie came with me two days later to inspect the vans.  It was early in the day, comparatively speaking, so he'd have time to examine things at his leisure.  Tall, lanky, and bespectacled, The Roadie was a born engineer: he could build a running Ferrari from beer cans and bubble gum.  His ability to fix things that were broken was why he was in constant demand to roadie for bands: he could save small, up-and-coming bands a ton of money by fixing what others would insist needed to be replaced.... A vital commodity to have in a band on tour.
The Roadie's "home" was simply East Bay.  He kept a post office box in Oakland, but had few possessions (not including tools) and no actual residence.  He spent so much time on the road all year that paying rent, even on a room, would be an extravagance.  He toured with bands from all over the west coast and even Britain; they'd simply pick him up as they came through the Bay Area, gaining a tireless driver, a man who could change guitar strings in seconds, could fix any mechanical or electric object in existence, and had an utterly unflappable temperament: nothing phased him or angered him.
With no actual home to go to, The Roadie (actual name Ron, but everyone simply called him "Roadie") would rely on his well-deserved reputation as a courteous house guest --- have your in-laws ever shown up and fixed your washer and drier when they come a-visiting? --- and an endless source of interesting stories about life on the road to make him a desirable couch-surfer.  He would never stay at one house for more than a week, he was clean, he paid for his own food and beer and cigarettes, and would keep himself amused  during the days by repairing and tuning any vehicles sitting around.  He kept more punk rockers mobile than AC Transit or MUNI combined.

We first stopped by a friend's warehouse in West Oakland where he kept his tools, and loaded up some basics.  He knew the year and basic model of Chevy he'd be poking around in, so he filled a satchel with some appropriate tools, along with a slider, one of those wheeled boards used for sliding under vehicles.  Then we crossed the Bay Bridge and arrived at the kitchen.

I knew things were bad when I kept hearing The Roadie muttering "Damn!" and "Jesus Christ!"  He rarely swore --- not from any aversion, he just didn't bother --- so the things he was seeing were making him very unhappy.
Since I knew where to put gas in a vehicle and that was about it (I exaggerate), I simply hung around, smoking cigarettes, drinking Mountain Dew, and alternately grabbing tools for him and staying out of the way, letting him concentrate on his job.  When he went from the first van to the second (we'd had the third van returned, unfinished) I did ask him about the tie rods.  "Between the tie rods, the springs, and the wheel bearings, I don't understand how anyone didn't die driving that thing," he replied, shaking his head.  I told him to not run out of indignation yet, since the first one was the better of the two I'd driven.  We'd paid to have the third van towed back to the kitchen, so I had no idea how it drove.  I was willing to wager it was like the others, though.
Paul arrived and immediately committed a serious faux pas: he began looking over The Roadie's shoulder, pointing at things and saying, "Is that supposed to be like that?"  The Roadie gave terse one-word answers, and I grabbed Paul by the arm and walked him  over to where I'd been hanging out, muttering, "Just let him work, let him do his thing."  Paul grabbed a clue and hung out in the background with me.
When The Roadie finished the third and final van, I was witness to something very few had ever seen: The Roadie looking angry.  In fact, damn pissed off.
"Where are the people who've been driving these vans?  I want to talk to them," The Roadie demanded.
Paul told him they'd all been fired the day before yesterday, and why did he want to talk with them?
"Because whet they did to these vans is a crime," he replied.  Confirming my own suspicions, he said, "All three of these vans have been systematically abused.  Almost all the mechanical problems are not the result of wear and tear, natural aging, but deliberate abuse performed in an effort to make them break.  The drivers  of these vans are, in my eyes, criminals.  If you refuse to hospitalize them, take them to court.  I'll write and sign letters decribing the problems with the vans, and explain how the damage to them was deliberate.  And it was.  I'd call anyone who drove these vans a rapist and dare them to come back at me; they can find out what some funny-lookin' black boy can do when he's mad."
"Like the terrible steering?  All three have been put into curbs, at speed, countless times.  They would also apparently try to stop the vehicle by dragging the front wheels along a curb.  This causes the springs and tie rods to bang against themselves, putting years of wear on both in months.  Lenny, you mentioned how that one van had a rear wheel that wanted to lock during breaking?  Someone knew enough to get a pair of pliers and crimp the brake line.  You're lucky the line didn't split.  You'd have lost all fluid within five minutes and find yourself driving in San Francisco with no brakes, at all.  Not even the E-brake, since all three were driven long distances with the parking brake applied, pretty much destroying the rear brake rotors and shoes.
"It's like they wanted to destroy the vans, but were feeling creative.  No Karo syrup in the gas tank, no obvious shit like puncturing the oil sender line or pouring sand in the radiator.  It's like they wanted to see how badly they could treat them and still have them driveable.  Lenny may have mentioned to you that mechanics is my passion, my genuine love, and seeing vehicles treated like this gets me very angry.  These were vicious people.... Um, do you know why they would feel prompted to try and kill your rolling stock like this?"
Paul shook his head sadly.  "We always tried to treat them fair.  More than fair."
I said, "Check it, Roadie: they were all hippies, every one.   Totally entitled but no skill to back it up.  Every damn day I find another way they were ripping off Paul and Anise.  Speaking of, did you inventory beer and wine?  How short were you?"
Paul sighed again.  "You were conservative.  Twelve cases of beer, seven of wine.  I owe you, what, six paychecks now?"  He smiled grimly.
"Buy me lunch in a couple weeks, we'll call it even," I told him.
The roadie said, "Lemme wash up and I'll itemize what's wrong with all three vans.  If you'll let me use a phone, I can give you a total estimate for the repairs: my labor plus parts.  It's probably gonna be both better and worse than you think, simultaneously."
"How so?" asked Paul.
The Roadie said, "I charge $25 an hour, which is about a third of what an ASE shop would charge.  Some of the repairs are pretty quick: just bolting a new part on to replace an old one.  But some of the parts are expensive.  Your cold comfort is that once they're in, they'll last the lifetime of the vehicle.... And once I'm done, these vans will live again."
"What about just.... Replacing them?  Getting new ones?" asked Paul.
The roadie barely suppressed a sneer.  "For what those vans sell for these days?  Let me get you your estimate, you can decide then, but I guarantee you purchasing fresh stock will be an unnecessary expense.  Yes, some parts will be expensive.... But unless you let the evil people who were driving them before back on your payroll, the parts I'm replacing will outlive all of us, you know?"
We headed back in, The Roadie stopping briefly at his satchel to grab a bar of Lava soap he kept in there, for situations such as these.  A restaurant wasn't about to have that "goo-gone" hand cleaner around, and basic manners dictated he give Paul something legible to read.

Two hours later, The Roadie had written out reports on all three vans, including the pricing on parts, estimated time needed for each repair (ranging from five minutes to three hours), descriptions --- in lay terms, bless him --- of how each mechanical failure or destruction had happened (these sections included such phrases as "vicious swine," "murderers," "unfit to walk among civilized men," and of course, "rapists."  He was of course describing the former employees.  The Roadie felt a kinship with vehicles that bordered on pathological.  He felt about the hippies who'd damaged the vans the way most people feel about people who torture dogs and cats: thoroughly void of humanity, and undeserving of mercy when caught.... And more than willing to pull the switches on the electric chairs himself).
The upshot was each van would cost from $1100 to $2100, the high price going to the oldest van, which needed various esoteric parts of the transmission replaced.  It had been brought to a stop on many occasions by simply jamming the gear selector from Drive to Park (The Roadie labeled the persons responsible for this as "truly sick individuals").  These costs included his labor, working eight hour days; all three would be done in five days.  So that we could drop the rentals sooner, he'd do one van completely before moving on to the next.  If there were no complaints, he'd perform the work in the lot of the kitchen, eliminating the expense of having all three vans towed to West Oakland.
Paul and Anise were reading the reports he'd written, alternately expressing hope and worry.  I noticed The Roadie staring intently at one of the tray racks; you could hear the gears whirring.  "Excuse me," he said to the two, "these racks are how you get your food into your events, right?"
Paul said, "Well, the racks stay in the van.  When they're loaded, they're too heavy to lift in and out of the vans.  We just move the trays by hand."
"Do they ever exceed 500 pounds?"
"Oh, no, still they're too heavy and bulky to lift in and out.  We looked into getting a Tommy-Lift installed on each van, but we just couldn't afford it.  Moving the pans by themselves is slow, but at least we know we won't lose an entire rack by having it dropped."
"May I borrow one for a few minutes?" asked the Roadie.
"Umm.... Sure...." said Anise.  "In case you're wondering, they've been cut down to fit in the vans."
"Okay, okay...."  The Roadie was off in his own world; he had something on his mind.
I sort of trailed him outside to have a cigarette.  He opened the back doors of a van and hefted the rack inside, then simply stood there staring at it.  He ran back inside and returned with a handful of blank paper and a pen, and did more staring.  He produced a tape measure and took measurements of the rack's length and width, of the interior width of the van, and --- strangely --- the width and height of one of the panel doors.  He did some sketching, performed some math, and sketched some more.  Then he turned to me, smiled, said "I think it'll work!" and ran inside.

When The Roadie came in, he was greeted by Paul and Anise, who had decided to go with his offer.  This made him happy.... But he was more excited about having solved a different problem.
"I figured out how you can get a whole rack off at once," he announced.  He spread out his sketches.
Basically, it was a Tommy Lift that operated on the same principles as a barber's chair, including being operated by a foot pump.  A platform that would fold up against the outside of the door would be attached to a hydraulic tube, which would be mounted on the outside corner of the rear of the van.  To drop it, you'd simply swing down the platform, insert a bolt for safety, and use your foot to hold down a lever, dropping the platform.  To raise it, you'd pump the lever and the platform would slowly rise.... Just like a barber's chair.  The Roadie said it would require no space inside, very little space outside, and he figured the hydraulic tube would be the only thing that would cost much.... Far, far less than a Tommy Lift would, anyway.
Paul looked over the sketches and the math and said "Very, very clever.  You know,  I took a minor in mechanical engineering in college.  Where did you go to school?"
"Um, McClymonds High in West Oakland," replied The Roadie.
"No, where did you go to college?"
"I didn't."
A slightly uncomfortable silence filled the room.  Paul finally said, "I'm not calling you a fibber, but you have to have been to college.  How else would you learn....This?" he said, tapping one of the sheets of paper covered with math.
The roadie looked a little embarrassed.  "Well.... I had algebra in high school --- shucks, I was one of the few kids to get that far in math at all at McClymonds --- And I already knew I liked fixing and building things, and you needed high-level math to do that stuff right.  I couldn't afford UC Berkeley, and um, my grades weren't good enough for a scholarship, so I did what is known as 'auditing.'  That's where---- "
"I know what auditing is," said Paul.  "Are you telling me you audited trigonometry and calculus classes at UCB?  And the professor didn't catch on?"
"Oh, he knew I was there, and why.  He thought it was funny: some skinny black punk rock ghetto kid who thought he could learn trig just by being in the class.  His guess was I'd be gone in a month.
"I kinda had an ace up my sleeve.  I made friends with a girl in class, and she'd loan me her textbook over the weekend.  Basically, I'd reconcile the notes I'd taken in class with what was in the textbook and try to get them to agree with each other.  I'd also go forward in the textbook and just try to remember what would be coming up.
"At midterms, the professor thought he'd embarrass me out of his class: he gave me a copy of the exam to take.  We'd been on each other's nerves all semester: how does some weird-looking black boy who hates rap, who isn't even a student, learn trigonometry with no textbook and a cheap calculator that was missing functions?  It wasn't easy, but I completed the exam under the allotted time, and felt confident with my answers.  If this was a movie, I'd have aced it.  I got a 'B'.  But hell, that was a lot better than  a lot of other kids did, and several letters higher than the prof expected of me.  He invited me into his office and asked if I'd be auditing in the spring.  I told him yes, and he said he'd make sure I had a textbook to work with, for which I thanked him sincerely.  The subject of high school came up, and he choked on his own spit when I told him I'd gone to McClymonds.  'So not only did you graduate from McClymonds having learned something, you looked like that at McClymonds and you survived.  Tell me, why aren't you a student here, or at least at Hayward State?'  I explained my high school grades were only mediocre, so I had no chance of getting any scholarship money.  I don't think McClymonds even offered any SAT courses, much less the chance to take the test.  They figured everyone would graduate and then immediately choose which corner they'd sell rock on.  He told me the nicest thing any educator ever said to me in my life: that he wished he had far more students like me, because I actually wanted to be there.  He was a good man, a generous man: he told me to meet him at the campus book store three days before class started.  I did, and he bought me a textbook and a decent calculator.  It's weird: he could be really abrasive in class; God help you if he caught you whispering with friends.  But like I said, he was a good man, and kind.  He'd just spent too much time around stereotypical college students, and was a bit cynical."
Anise said, "Your parents must have been very proud."
The Roadie suddenly found the view out the window incredibly interesting.  "Dunno.  Dad's in prison and'll probably die there, Mom's into smoking rock and drinking Royal Gate vodka.  I had a lot of leeway as a kid, I guess.  Mom never had to get me out of juvie, so I must have been doing okay, right?"  I made a subtle throat-slitting gesture at Paul and Anise: drop the subject.  Paul grabbed the clue again, and began quizzing The Roadie about the specs of his little invention.  I grabbed one of the free-for-all sodas from the cooler, offering one to Anise.  She accepted, and we went outside so I could smoke.

I was up front with her: "Anise, you wanna ask Roadie about his family.  I can tell by looking."
"Well, yes.  He seems like a good person, and probably carries a lot of burden...."
"Probably so.  Certainly.  But if you want the vans fixed, just drop it."
"Because any extended discussion of his parents sends him into a depressive crash that renders his all but catatonic.  He's never gotten suicidal that I know of, but I'm not exaggerating about the 'catatonic' part.  He won't move for hours.  He'll wet himself and not care.  Personally?  I think his fear is that despite everything, he'll end up like them.
"The lift he just came up with?  Yeah, that's him and his engineer's brain working away.... But it's also a situation where he has to prove to himself, and others too, I guess, that he's worthwhile, that he can be constructive and useful to other people.... That he's not a crackhead leech like his mom, or a murdering thief like dad.  He's gotta prove that he is a useful person."
"But he is useful!  He's repairing our vans, and at a good price!"
I shook my head.  "Not good enough.  That was just business.  He has a compulsion to solve problems for people.  If he goes past a car sitting on the shoulder of the freeway and doesn't stop, he'll kick himself for the rest of the day because he didn't, y'know, jump across three lanes of traffic and repair a complete stranger's vehicle.  Heh, he's like a hyperactive boy scout."
Anise said, "But.... My God.  He can't solve everyone's car troubles, or invent things to make everyone's lives easier.  He'll drive himself insane trying to do that."
I sighed.  "We all know.  People very close to him have hinted that just maybe he could see a therapist, help him get over his issues with his parents and his pathological need to help people.  He waves the idea off, insisting his  parents are no longer part of his life, and he likes being helpful.  So keeping him as a roadie is probably what keeps his head together.  God knows, there's always something to do when you're on tour with a band, even if it's just driving for fifteen hours straight so the band can relax and sleep."
I gave her a small smile.  "You know, technically speaking he's homeless," I told her.
Anise gasped and said, "What happened?  Did he lose his apartment?"
"No, he just has no fixed place that he lives in.  He spends so much time on tour that an apartment, or even a roommate situation, makes no sense.  When he's back home --- 'home' being East Bay --- it makes more sense for him to couch-surf until he's on the road again.  I'm sure you'd agree that he's a nice guy, right?"
Anise nodded.
"Hell, having Roadie as your house guest for a week is considered a fuckin' honor.  He never stays at one house for longer than a week, 'cos he feels like he's imposing if he does.  Shit, people give up their rooms and crash a sofa just so he can spend some time in a real bed.  He's clean, he doesn't mooch beer or cigarettes or food, he's always got a million hilarious stories about stuff that happened on tour....  And he'll ask, 'Is there anything broken around here? I'm feeling restless.'  Bam, your clothes washer works again.  A roomie's car that's been sitting at the curb for a month because there's something wrong with it starts running again; keep this a secret, but a few girls showed their appreciation in ways you can figure out yourself.
"We had him for a week about six months ago.  Two cars, a motorcycle, and the dishwasher all miraculously began running.  Some of my roomies are in bands, and I don't think the TV got turned on once that week: Roadie and the band members swapped stories and kept everyone entertained.  It was like a punk rock Chautauqua every night.  Hawk gave up his room for the week to Roadie.  Then he moved on to someone else's place, either Little Arkansas or Headache Manor, I forget which."
"Wait, are you telling me the names of places?"
"Yeah.  Punk houses usually pick up names sooner or later.  I live in one called The Silo."
"Does he have any possessions?"
"Oh, of course.  He has one of those big-ass duffel bags that hockey players use full of his personal stuff, like clothes, and about fifteen or twenty grand worth of tools that he keeps at a friend's warehouse in West Oakland.  He'll carry two or three tool boxes with him while he's on tour: one for repairing amps and guitars and stuff, the other two are tools for the van or truck the band is travelling in.  Like you noticed he showed up with just a small duffel bag full of tools and his creeper to examine the vans, right?  He knew the make and model of what he'd be working on, so he just brought what he'd need, within reason."
Anise looked amazed.  "He knew what tools he'd need just by knowing he'd be working on Chevy vans?"
"Absolutely.  The fact that you have vans that need repair makes his life a lot simpler.  Think about what indie bands travel in.  Your stock is newer than what he's used to, but they're still Chevy vans, and he's probably had to kludge more vans on the side of a freeway than you'd ever guess.
"Anyway, it's rare for him to be in town for more than four weeks.  The indie labels would hire him on as a permanent employee, if they could afford it.  Bands that are with the same label will arrange their tours as a package deal, sort of a showcase for the label.The label supplies them with stickers and sampler CDs and helps them with logistics.  They'll be told, 'Yeah, bring your guitar tech and equipment handler, but all the band's crews defer to Roadie.... And don't be wasting his time having him re-stringing guitars.'  So it's like a mutant Gypsy tribe, moving from town to town, and Roadie handles the pack animals, as it were.  Also if an amp goes out and the band's tech can't figure it out, he'll defer to Roadie, who will figure out a way to get it working again, at least through the end of the tour.  His technical abilities are so amazing, it's almost creepy.  He talks to vehicles he's working on, you know."
Anise looked slightly worried.  What.... What does he say to them?"
"Comforting things.  Like after he'd finished with inspecting your vans, he went to each one and told it that the bad people who hurt it were gone, and he would make it strong again.  That sort of stuff.  I'm not a superstitious person, but.... God damn if it don't work, because what he fixes stays fixed.  He feels a genuine bond between vehicles and himself, especially when he's working on 'em.  You'll never hear him cussing like, well, a mechanic at a vehicle while he's working.  His view is that if things aren't going right, it's obviously his fault, so it's up to him to figure out a different approach to solving a problem.  Ready steady go, whatever was jamming him up is now behaving."
"He seems like an amazing guy."
"He is."

Paul stepped out and called to us.  "Um, Lenny?  That woman Mimi is on the phone, but refused to talk to me.  She wants to speak with you only.  I told her I was the co-owner --- you know, the guy who signs the paychecks around here --- and she said, 'And I'm sure each one is signed with love, a tiny orgasm embedded in the ink.'  Are you sure this girl is okay?"
After I stopped laughing, I told him that yes, Mimi is fine, a consummate professional in the kitchen.  She merely had a, uh, theatrical flair that she saw no point in ever turning off.  I went past Paul (who returned to his discussion with Roadie) and picked up the phone.


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