In January of 1974 I was engaged to my first wife and searching for a job. My major in Speech & Theater was ineffectual as to the ‘recession of ’74’ job market. My goal had been to work with kids in recreation, using my theater background compounded with my sports experience (wide receiver Brooklyn College football club 70-74). This was not to be as jobs in recreation were scarce. So, I went thru the Sunday Times Classifieds each and every week looking for perhaps some sort of ‘management’ opportunity. Being a part time telemarketer for one full year in a boiler room operation had lost its luster for me. Finally, right after the new year, more jobs were filling up the Times want ads. I found what looked like a great opportunity in ‘Management Trainee needed.’ Before you knew it I was hired by a linen service corporation with a plant in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y.C. The plant’s operations manager, saying he ‘Liked to employ fellow Italian Americans’ hired me on the spot. The salary was not as high as I wanted but, in his words ‘The more you save the corporation the more you’ll make in way of bonuses kid.’ This was my first time working for any sort of corporation, so that bit of predatory behavior did not impress me as negatively as it would in later years.
Day One of my new ‘career’ in management was accompanying my new boss around the plant to learn how things operated. He first introduced me to his boss, the GM of the entire plant, a 50 something guy who was definitely not a fellow Italian, and who had this almost nasty edge in his voice. We have all met bosses like this guy, people who seem to have the attitude that everyone but them is lazy and looking to get over on the company in any manner possible. The GM gave me the ‘two minute sermon’ how one could advance up the corporate ladder by making sure that the ‘help’, as he put it, did what the company expected of them etc. Then the operations manager, I’ll call him Frank, took me on a tour of the plant. We entered this giant warehouse-sized portion of the plant where the dirty linens were washed and dried for use again. It was mid-January and there was snow and ice on the ground outside in 10-degree temperatures, and this place was hot as hell! I mean, I had to loosen my tie and white shirt collar as we walked thru the place. What really captured my memory bank, and to this day it is a clear as then, were the workers throughout this giant room. They were all black, with the women looking like the cover of the Aunt Jemima pancake label, with those long dresses and bandanas on their heads. The men all wore full white uniforms with sweat pouring from their faces. All I could focus on from the entire group was their eyes, or rather the white of their eyeballs. From the various levels of this cleaning area, each and every eyeball was staring at Frank and myself, the only two white guys in the room. He matter of fact lectured me on how ‘Ya gotta keep on top of these people or they’ll goof off any chance they get.’ I felt like I was back in time walking thru some Southern cotton plantation.
Day Two was when Frank introduced me to the shop steward for the delivery drivers. They kidded a bit and then the shop steward gave me my instructions, as per Frank. ‘You’ll meet here each morning this week at 7 AM and go out for the day with a different driver on his route. You are not to help… just observe. I’ll pick out the guys you’ll ride with each day.’ I then spent the rest of day two in my new office (the size of a cloakroom) reading over the company’s PR packets. Day three I would be up and out early with the drivers. On day three, another sub-freezing January day, I met up with the drivers in the garage area at 7 AM. The place was as cold as a meat locker. The shop steward introduced me to the group of perhaps 10 or 12 drivers. The guy I was matched with said hi and off we went. During the ride, we rapped a bit thru the noises of the diesel engine and the traffic. He had the heat on and kept his window open a bit so as to not have us choke on the engine fumes and cigarette smoke (the guy was a chain smoker… one after another all day). I was to get off with him at every stop to observe. We stopped a lot, mostly at bakeries, coffee shops, butcher shops and other small businesses. He told me that the customers hardly ever had the linens and towels ready for pickup. He had to go thru the place and pick one here, and one there etc. The worst thing, he explained, was having to go down to the dark and dingy basements searching for linen.’ The rats usually are scared of me, so I got over the fear, but the bastards are always in these basements.’ We stopped to eat lunch in the truck (most of the guys brown bagged it) and he took a few ‘ciggie breaks’ and finally we headed back. I really could not believe what these guys had to do each and every day to earn a buck.
On Day Four I once again got up early (5 AM), showered, had a nice hot breakfast and trudged along the icy streets to the subway. By 7 AM I was at work, shivering in the freezing truck depot, ready to go out with another driver. This guy, I’ll call him Tom, was right up my alley, as he didn’t smoke cigarettes and was closer to my age. His route was the furthest one, being the Bronx (this plant only handled the 5 boroughs) so we had to load up and hit the road ASAP. I say ‘We had to load’ because I could not stand there and watch this guy do the grunt work of loading up by himself. Tom and I had plenty of time to rap as the trip to the Bronx and back was long. He told me that he was only with the company for about one year, and he hated his job… but with a young wife and a new baby at home he needed the work. Tom had little or no formal education… the linen company was what his karma brought him. He told me about his experiences with the union. ‘They’re what you call a sweetheart union, up the ass of the corporation. The union officials at our local don’t seem to be aggressive at all towards the bosses. They go along with them and sell us down the river. You can see how much we have to do and how little we get paid. The trucks break down too much and we freeze our asses off in the depot during the winter. The trucks have no A/C and it gets hot as hell in summer, especially during the dog days. Just a bitch all around.’
On day five I slept late and called in at 9 AM. I told the girl who answered to tell Frank that I quit. He never even bothered to call me back. I guess I wasn’t the first new ‘management trainee’ to get out so soon. I did ask the girl if they could mail me my paycheck for the four days I worked. She said she’d tell Frank and wished me luck in my job hunting. Well, the check never came. Two weeks later I got my friend Elliot, who we called Torch because of his fiery nature, to give me a ride to the plant. Torch had spent a year in the Nam with the Army, and always had this problem with authority. The only job he could keep after the army was as a cabbie (which I did for the 5 years I spent in college). Torch drove me to the plant as I described my experiences with the company. When we got there Torch seemed more pissed off than even me. We walked in and demanded my pay. The girl seemed scared and called Frank in his office. He came out in a huff and said ‘You got nerve coming here demanding anything, after quitting with no notice!’ Torch pushed me aside and walked up to Frank, who was at least six inches taller and 100 pounds heavier. He put his face right up to Frank’s chin and said ‘Pay em the **** money asshole or I’ll punch your fat face in!’ Suddenly the GM came running over, as the reception area girls all stood up to see better. Before he could say a word Torch turned to him and said ‘Pay my friend what ya owe em jerkoff, or we’ll have twenty guys here in an hour to get it for him!’ The GM backed off and yelled to Frank ‘Get him his check and call the cops if they give you any more trouble.’ And that was that.
It took me 13 years before I ever attempted to get a job with a corporation again.