Friday, July 10, 2009

We’ll Call Him “T”

My first job out of college was in the internal visual merchandising department of an old Pittsburgh-based department store. I was a print designer. The job entailed designing the in-store printed materials to help push various products. The man who would later become my boss was easily identifiable as a very odd character. We’ll call him “T.”

After I settled into the job a bit, T took the liberty of telling me why I had gotten the job. During the interview he had asked me what I was currently reading. Unlike the other applicants, I had a straight and immediate answer. T was impressed. It disgusted him that nobody seemed to read anymore. I still remember what I was reading then. I was fighting my way through David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. It’s a devastating book and a difficult read, but I thoroughly recommend it.

T was an old half-Jewish hippie, a walking HR liability, and full of amazing stories. One of the first things he asked me during the first week of my employment was, “Young man, do you like fat pussy? Sometimes don’t you just want to get smothered in it?” He said it all bright-eyed and excited, like an adolescent about to show a friend the bag of weed he had just scored. As it turned out, there was a chubby girl in tight pants who worked on the second floor selling men’s dress shoes. He had a long-standing crush on her but never approached her, despite how frequently he liked to look at her. He was married, and he liked to give the impression of recklessness and indiscretion. It was a façade, though, as he was actually a very cautious individual.

He liked to talk about all the great music of his younger years. At one point I asked him if he had been to Woodstock. I thought it was a logical question. He replied, “No. I was high on Mescaline, naked on an Indian reservation.” He told me this as though I had asked him something ridiculous. It was if he wanted to say, “Of course not! I was way too cool for Woodstock!”

T also had no short-term memory (none whatsoever) and a bipolar temper that could turn a corner like one of those ridiculous little European subcompact cars. At least twice a day he would misplace his $80 German-made Rotring pen. It was as heavy as a brick, bright blue, and nearly the size of a small child’s forearm. A substantial portion of his daily routine was spent hunting for it throughout the office. The rest was spent in his office, playing music, looking at online porn and giving me instructions that he would often repeat five minutes later without any idea that he had ever told me the first time. When T didn’t drive his BMW to work, he would ride his Harley, which he loved like an only child. He was also an ordained minister in the Church of the Sub-Genius and carried a loaded gun in his bag, which he occasionally neglected to leave in his car. He was notorious for making female vendors, and occasionally the other print designer, cry. Vicious words were one of his fortes.

I worked hard and efficiently and we had common interests, so T liked and generally favored me. For what it was worth, I was on his good side, which still did not stop him from occasionally turning on me and cursing me out for no obvious reason. He’d lend me books and CDs. His taste in music was eclectic and almost as wildly insane as he was. He got me into Captain Beefheart and I got him hooked on Wesley Willis.

I met my good friend Frank in that office. Frank was the CAD guy. T and Frank were friends before I was hired. Like me, Frank is an artist, so we quickly had a natural and strong connection. Frank and I became close friends, and still are. Due to T’s incredible paranoia, possessive nature and general distrust, Frank and I had to pretend not to be friends around him. We weren’t gay but we were in the closet! Amazing! Ironically, we were both friends with T. There was no good reason that we couldn’t have all been friends, but thanks to T’s personality, it wouldn’t have worked out.

The remainder of the office was staffed almost entirely by gay men. Loads of them. They all hated each other. None of them could get along. The egos were insane. The cosmetics coordinator was a bear: 6’ 2,” easily 250 pounds, big bushy beard, and very short hair. Not quite a shaved head but a very short, military-style haircut. He drove a giant black truck and talked in a thin, wispy voice. Everybody referred to him as “Sasquatch” or “Squatch” for short, though never to his face. The men’s coordinator was a pretentious, alcoholic drag queen. He was about 35ish and looked 50. His boyfriend was an extremely successful investment banker, and supplied him with all the Prada and Gucci he could wear. He was full of what had to be exaggerated stories of his exploits and debauchery back in the '80s. He was generally shitty at his job, prone to psychotic outbursts, and had a strange affinity for Nazis and Nazi imagery. Once, in the middle of an important meeting, he stood up and stuffed an empty Pepsi bottle down his pants to create the bulge of a grossly large phallus. He then threw a leg up on the table, which put his newly enlarged crotch in another man’s face, and started gyrating and thrusting. These sorts of insane outbursts were generally expected from him. The recipient of the lap dance turned bright red. Everybody else laughed.

The women’s coordinator was actually a woman. She was from England, and aside from that generally uninteresting. The homes department coordinator was the sharpest one of the bunch. He was a stunning-looking man who didn’t really strike you as gay. He had his shit together and ran his projects well. He also had a weakness for cocaine and loved to trash on the other guys in the office. The two guys who took care of the windows were a couple, and generally didn’t engage with the melee created by the others. They were organized, good at what they did, very sweet and easy to work with. The young men’s and women’s coordinator was a beautiful woman with the voice of a porn star and an incredible pair of tits. She was pretty good at her job. A little catty, but very well endowed.

T would talk loudly about people in the office. He wanted them to hear him. He wanted them to know. Nobody’s insanity could match T’s. After about a year there, he was absolutely out of control. Mr. Hyde began to eclipse Dr. Jekyll. He would twiddle hollow point bullets between his fingers while sitting at his desk. He'd talk loudly about killing various people in the office. His best ever loud, inappropriate comment was this: “If Jean thinks she has a bigger dick than Jim, she can fucking come talk to me about it.”

I learned that T had an HR file up in HR about as thick as a phone book (17 years’ worth of accumulation), but that they couldn’t fire him. His wife held an incredibly high position within the company and all of the complaints filed against him came from parallels or superiors. Nobody who had ever worked below him had ever spoken up about him – likely out of fear.

I was the first. I had an initial conversation with his superior, another with HR, and then a second with HR and all of the company’s lawyers. I didn’t lie. I didn’t fabricate anything. I just regurgitated. I was Donnie Brasco or Judas Iscariot or a 23 year old print designer who’d run out of patience. One Thursday, around 5pm, he was called up to HR and forced to either retire or be fired. They told him everything I had said and sent him back down to the office. I was the only person still working. He didn’t say much to me. HR called me upstairs to tell me that they had just let him go and that they had had to tell him everything. They sent me back downstairs. There was about another half an hour in which I had to work in silence with him. It was more than a little awkward. The next day would be his last day. I called in sick to avoid any further awkwardness or drama.

Months later, Frank and I had an exhibition of our work at a local gallery. T showed up. He was very cordial and friendly. Although I felt incredibly uneasy, he was fun to talk to. It seemed to me that he made peace with the whole thing. And, in a strange way, I felt that I had very likely added years to his life by getting him out of that office. I think he understood that. He and his wife still have plenty of money and T doesn’t have the office to make him crazy anymore. Months later, we all got laid off. Frank maintained contact with him and, apparently, T has mellowed out significantly and now enjoys his life. Frank says that sometimes he talks about me fondly and other times he just says, “Fuck him.”

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