Sunday, November 04, 2018

Part X: The Way Mike Worked -- The Passing Parade

I can't remember The Retiree's name. He had worked in my division, Information Services, at Denver's Gates Rubber Company, before I arrived on the scene in 1983. He came by occasionally to visit the other old-timers. At 32, I was part of the younger cohort stepping into their shoes as they gradually marched off into the horizon. My parents' generation, the generation that weathered major cataclysms to give birth to many children and kick-start the post-war economy.

Sometimes The Retiree came for lunch at the corporate cafeteria. One afternoon, I came across him in the lobby. He recognized me, invited me to sit in the comfy chair next to him. We watched as the corporate parade passed. The Retiree gestured to a middle-aged guy he used to work with.

"Wanted to buy a sailboat and circumnavigate the globe," The Retiree said.

The guy worked in my department. "Did he do it?"

"What do you think?"

I thought no, he did not.

We chatted some more. He spotted a woman he knew. She walked over to say hi. "Hi," she said.

They exchanged pleasantries. He asked if she was still making fantastic cakes.

"Not as much. Julie moved back home with her two kids. I do a lot of babysitting." She seemed a bit embarrassed. When she went back to work, The Retiree explained.

"She made the cakes for employee birthdays. You had to get there early -- guys stampeded to the break room. Fights broke out to get that last piece of three-layer devil's food cake." He got a faraway look. "I still dream about it."

"That good?"

"Better. Yeah, she was going to open her own bake shop. But she didn't. One thing or another came up." He shrugged.

I sensed a theme developing.

"You know a lot of people," I said. "And their stories."

"People tell their stories all the time. You just have to listen." He paused. "What you pay attention to makes the difference."

Another guy walked by. We called him The Actor. He just played Sweeney Todd for a local theatre and got to murder a bunch of obnoxious people whose meaty parts were made into pies. He was talented and drank a bit.

"I worked with him for a few years," The Retiree said. "He went out to Hollywood for awhile. He probably told you that."

"Not a word."

"He had a few bit parts. Played a dead guy in a soap opera."

"So I work in the graveyard of broken dreams?"

He laughed. "Beware." With that, he took off, probably to take a nap. I went back to work to ponder my future.

The above conversation is fictional. You can probably tell because the exchange rolls so trippingly off the tongue. As if it were a scene from a play or novel. That's something a fiction writer can do when blogging. If I was trying to write, say, a memoir, I would have to let you know that I was reconstructing the dialogue because there was no way I could remember what was said verbatim more than 30 years ago. What I can do is recall the feeling I had when sitting in the lobby with The Retiree. Holy Shit, if I don't watch out, I could end up like this endless retinue of sad sacks going back to work in the rubber mines. On some days, I was already there.

It would be rare to find a kid that says he or she wants to grow up to write paeans to industrial rubber hoses. Yet, there are a surprising number of us who grow up to sing the praises of hoses or cars or computers or paper products. We want to be something else but, as the saying goes, a job, any job, pays the rent. In 1983, I was approaching 33, was married, and tired of living on a prayer. I wanted to land a job that entailed some writing, and that's when I began looking for jobs with big companies. 

At Gates, I did know The Retiree I quote at the beginning of this piece. I knew many of them. I photographed scores of retirement parties, took a lot of employee anniversary shots.  Lots of grip-and-grin shots of a VP  congratulating a union guy who had spent the last 30 years making radiator hoses in the deepest darkest confines of the ancient factory. The cavernous work rooms were loud and covered in carbon black, the ingredient that blackens your hoses and fan belts. It was everywhere -- on the walls and floor and machinery. It was in and on the machines. It was on the employees and their work clothes. When I ate lunch with my female coworkers, they always grabbed extra napkins so they could wipe the carbon black off of the seats less their dresses get streaked black. I followed their example until I noticed that the union guys watched us. We were literally trying to wipe away their presence. I was a writer supposed to know a metaphor when I saw it.

I eventually saw it.

I left the corporate world for academia in 1988. We sold our house that we bought with money from rubber writing. I could walk to work. Now, when I'm in Denver and I drive down South Broadway, I see that corporate HQ now bears a different company logo. Across the street, the massive factory is gone. After Gates abandoned it and it turned into a magnificent ruin, urban explorers made it their playground. Replacing it are rows of modern condo complexes for the new crop of college graduates eager for the Mile High lifestyle. They can catch the light rail at the hub at the corner, where the Gates garage once fixed employee cars at a reduced rate. The company clinic and grocery store are no longer there. "The song "16 Tons" says "I owe my soul to the company store. That wasn't exactly the case, as it was just convenient to shop at the company store. This wasn't Appalachia during the Great Depression. But it was the ending of a certain type of employment. Chris and I paid nothing for an emergency Cesarean and seven days in the hospital for mother and son. All the prenatal and postpartum appointments were free. A billion-dollar privately-owned company in a booming economy could be generous. Every employee's kid got a free gift at the annual Christmas party and rode the Lakeside rides for free at the summer picnic.

It sounds good. But Gates was already building factories in right-to-work states and overseas. The ranks of the URW were beginning to decline. A new health care plan was in the works and a fully-funded retirement plan was being replaced by a 401(K). I know because my department was tasked with explaining the changes to employees who weren't always appreciative when being lied to. The new century approached. Technology would save us all. The international open market would signal a new golden age. Reagan said so.

The first short story I wrote in my CSU M.F.A. writing workshop was called "Who Needs Fedder?" It concerned a young corporate guy who chronicles the travails of his co-worker Fedder when he quits the corporate softball team. He quickly became a non-person, like Doc Daneeka in Catch-22. The story seemed outlandish to my younger classmates. The older ones thought it said a lot about people they had known in the corporate world or in the military. The story was published in 1990 in Bob Greer's High Plains Literary Review in Denver. I never knew what my former Gates colleagues thought about the story as I lost touch over the years. Now they're all retirees like me, reminiscing about those glory days.

You can read "Who Needs Fedder" in my book of stories, The Weight of a Body. It's out of print, but I'll find the file and link it to this post. I will reread it, just to find out what this writer thought of his corporate career.

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