Odd Jobs Stories
Text © Robert
Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet
There are certain events in one’s life, especially with employment, that one will have tales to tell about the work, the boss, the co-workers, and the people one comes in contact with in these situations. I have worked long enough to gather a host of stories.
Previously, I have blogged about working in two different movie theaters, being employed with racist and bullying coworkers, and other odd situations. Here are some random events, in no chronological order.
* * *
As an instructor, I was teaching people how to use computers from a user perspective, with software such as Word, Excel and Social Media in general. The room was the size of an average bedroom with less than 10 computer stations lining the edge of the room. In one particular class, there were three students. Being an inside room, there were no windows.
As one particular morning class was going on, I heard the door open behind me. No one usually enters the room when the door is closed. A big gentleman came in wearing sunglasses dark enough that I could not see his eyes. He closed the door behind him, and turned off the lights. Without windows, it was pitch black. Luckily, I had been there long enough to turn it back on even in complete darkness.
I had recognized the man from a month before, when he had come into the classroom during the afternoon when it was open for job searching. Rather than seeking employment, I saw that he was looking at inappropriate pictures instead. I told him he had to turn it off and leave. Swivelling around in his chair, he asked me, with a smile, “Who’s your favorite porn actress?”
Answering truthfully, I said, “I don’t have one.”
“Yeah, right,” he replied. Again, I insisted he leave, and after a few minutes, he did. I then told my boss about the incident.
This time, I flicked the light switch back on and said, “Excuse me, but I’m teaching a class, you’re going to have to leave, please.”
Very calmly and without a threatening tone, as he sat in one of the empty chairs, he said, “I’m the teacher now.” Even without sounding hostile, his words chilled me, and I could see the three students were unnerved.
Firmly I said, “No, you’re going to have to leave.” It took about 7 to 10 minutes, but he left. As he walked out the door, he took the plastic hand sanitizer that was on a shelf by the door. I didn’t care, I was just happy he was gone. One of the male, middle aged students said, “I’m shaking. I was afraid I was going to have to knock him out.”
I said, “What would that prove? The main thing is he left. If he hadn’t, I would have called the cops.”
While the class settled down, I excused myself, and informed the boss of what had happened.
Before the class was over, the door opened again, and this time it was a police officer.
Apparently, the man in the sunglasses tried to steal a purse in the lobby, was tackled and the police were called. He had heard about what had happened in my room, and asked for details. I told him everything except for one thing. I didn’t need to do that.
When the officer asked if he had stolen anything, one of the students mentioned the hand sanitizer. I wasn’t going to mention it, but the officer said I needed to sign a paper saying such, and the man, who was out on parole, was rearrested for the purse and the sanitizer theft.
Thankfully, I never saw him again.
* * *
At a new job as a typesetter, I was a newbie and still learning the ins and outs of that particular work environment. It was also a year since my last job as a typesetter, so I was definitely in the rusty department.
Almost two weeks in, on January 28, 1986, I heard a commotion in the far end of the room, and went over to see what was going on. The television in the break area was showing a loop of the space shuttle Challenger exploding.
Like everyone else, I was shaken by the news. I went back to my Verityper, and accidently closed a 40-page document I was working on without saving it. It was lost. Software did not automatically save documents like they do now.
It was close to the end of the day. I went to my boss and explained what happened. As a solution, since it was my fault and acknowledged it as so, was to stay and recreate the document without pay, staying as long as it took. He agreed. I worked on it and had it finished at 10 PM, five hours later. Before I left, I put a note on my boss’s desk to let him know it was done, and what time I was leaving. I bought a burger on the way home, as I was starving.
When I came in the next day, I was expecting him to say thank you, and see that I was dedicated enough to admit to my own mistakes, and take extra measures at no cost to the company. With a satisfied smile on my face of a job well done, I walked in the next morning. To my surprise, the first thing the boss did was fire me on the spot.
Funny thing is, I don’t remember what company it was, or on what I was working. Also, I never felt bad about it. I know I did the right thing, and it was the actions of the boss that was at fault, in my opinion.
* * *
While working at a multinational corporation creating PowerPoint slides for presentations, I was in an elite group of a dozen or so that was assigned to teams for the length of a project (a three-week average), rather than doing piecemeal work when needed, as with most of the other 60 workers doing a similar job. Our group was spread out in rooms across the building, while the rest were in one large room.
One of the rooms in which I was assigned was with two other men that was next door to one that had four women. The air conditioner was in their space so they were always freezing – I worked in that room previously, and it felt like the icicles on my fingers hit the keyboard before my digits – and we were damp with sweat in ours. To solve the problem, rather than putting in a new air conditioner in our room, they decided to knock a hole in the wall so we could share the present air conditioning. But…
They figured out it was a load-bearing wall, so they needed to put two horizontal holes two feet deep and six feet across, with a one-foot brace in the middle. Of course, the brace was right where the air conditioner vent was, so the cool air bounced back into the room, and they remained just as cold, as we nearly as hot. But…
One of the odd outcomes of this was that because the air conditioner was somewhat noisy, we could hear a pin drop in their room, and they could not hear us at all. This led to two incidences.
First, there was a deep conversation in that room about their favorite books and authors. Now, this was not Shakespeare or Dostoevsky-level material. Towards the end they were arguing over the merits of Mary Higgins Clark. The conversation concluded with something that made me laugh hysterically. One of them said, to sum it up, “Well, she’s no Jackie Collins!”
The other event, which was more serious, was while I was working with a team on their project. As a couple of them were standing over my computer trying to get the slides right, the conversation on the other side of the wall turned to the topic of their menstruation, the consistency of it, and the amount of flow.
When the consultants left, the administrative assistant who sat outside our door with whom I was friendly came in and asked me, “What the hell is going on in here?” She heard the two consultants talking about how we were, well, let’s just say of lower class.
I did not want that stink on my reputation, so I went to my boss and lodged an informal complaint. The result was that the room next door was broken up and the people in it were all placed in separate rooms. They never forgave me, but to tell you the truth, I did not care.
* * *
One of the last jobs I had as a typesetter, before the position disappeared into the world of computer layouts, was at a factory in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that made swatches. No, not the watch company, but rather a place that made cloth swatches to show colors and styles for designers and paint stores. My job was to type out the info on the back of the swatch, such as the name of the color (e.g., “Cantaloupe Yellow”), the catalog number, and the name of the company (there were a few). It was tedious, but it was work.
It was not a safe neighborhood at the time, and I had to walk by the infamous Marcy Projects from the Flushing Ave subway station to the factory on Warsoff Place. In fact, the management had a food truck come by at lunch, so the employees would not be wandering around the neighborhood as much.
Across the street was a meat-cutting factory. I have no sense of smell – never did – but I understand the odor was strong. One day, while waiting for the truck so I could buy lunch, I saw a big cardboard box on the sidewalk near the meat plant. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not, but I noticed the box kind of shimmering with small movements.
I wondered if there was an abandoned animal in there, like a puppy or a kitten. So, I went over to see what it was. I opened it, and the box was full – and I mean full – of maggots.
Anyway, while the job was a bit tedious and sweaty (no air conditioning), I was in a separate room from the factory proper where the swatches were produced. There was one other white person than me who typeset, and the entire factory floor was filled with African-Americans, trying to earn a living on minimum wage. The only other white people were the upper management, which had a room overlooking the factory floor where the workers were not allowed. Except me. It was pretty easy to see what was different about me.
I did not like the management. There was definitely a distain for the black workers by them. For example, I waited outside for the food truck at about 11:50, to beat the crowd, who came out when the factory whistle blew. I was casually talking to one of the members of management (if I remember correctly, one of the owners) just outside the door on the sidewalk, who was also waiting. Another worker, who was a person of color, stepped out at 11:55, and this manager screamed at him to get back inside until the siren went off, and then continued talking to me. Again, it was pretty obvious to me why I was allowed out early, but not the other worker. I started planning my escape from the job.
Around that time, people were getting mugged left and right as they either walked around the neighborhood during lunch, or on their way to or from the factory. One day I was talking to an older black gentleman, and jokingly said, “I keep hearing about people getting mugged. How come I haven’t been mugged yet?”
He said, quite seriously, which I was not expecting as I was just kidding around, as I am wont to do, “Well, they see you’re thin and white in this neighborhood, so they’re assuming you have a weapon.”
That scared the bejeezus out of me. Two weeks later, I had another job. Normally I would give two weeks notice, but I was offered the job on a Friday, to start Monday, and I gave my notice right as I was leaving. Considering the attitude of the upper bosses, I did not feel bad doing that; it was the only time I had ever left with not at least two weeks notice.
The building is now a Hassidic yeshiva.
* * *
At one time, I was working in a room with two others who did the same job. As I was on a later shift, I went home at 8 pm. One of the other people in the room left at 5 PM, and the last, E_____, at 9 PM. This latter worker started at this company well before I joined, about 10 years before this incident.
Now, I am good at my job, so I had finished everything I had to do at around 7:45 PM. I took my time going to the washroom, and came back at 7:55, just in time to gather my things, turn off the computer, and go home for the night.
When I walked back into the shared room, with five minutes left to my shift, the 9 PM person angrily said to me, “Where the hell were you?!”
“I was in the bathroom, why?”
“You’ve been gone for 10 minutes! Why did it take you so long?!”
Needless to say, I was taken aback by this and said, “Why does that matter to you? Did you want me to take pictures of my poop to prove it to you? Besides, my work is completed. And you are not my boss.” She turned around in a huff and I walked out the door. By the time I got home, it wasn’t even on my mind.
The next day, a couple of hours after I started working on a new batch of slides that were given to me by my team, I received a call from my boss to come to his office. I walked in with a smile and said, “What’s up?”
He grumpily said to me, “What the hell happened last night?”
It was so far from my thoughts, I asked what he was talking about.
“I got a phone call at home after 8 PM from E_____, saying you yelled at her and accused you of not doing your job.”
Laughing, I told him what happened, explaining that I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore. He was calmed down by my ease, and said, okay, and told me to go back to my desk. He also believed me because I am honest at work. If I make a mistake, I will admit to it and try to fix it, and if someone else helped me or came up with a good idea, I always gave credit. As I walked out, I heard him make a call and say, “E_____, can you come down here, please?”
Two months later, she was let go.
* * *
Working in a large room, my station faced another desk. It was an open concept office, so the wall came up to below shoulder level. Talking to the person facing you was common, that in this case, V_____, who is Puerto Rican, was fun to talk to between typing.
One day she accidently called me Frank. I so understood it. In a brief second, I caught that between having a co-worker with that name and my last name being Francos, I could connect the dots and did not feel a need to force the issue. It was not important, really.
A few seconds later she asked me, “Did I just call you Frank? Oh, I’m so sorry!” I explained that people mistake my name all the time. “I’m also often called by my middle name, Barry.”
The man who was sitting behind her, who was Venezuelan, quickly turned around and said, “Hey! My middle name is Barry, too!”
My joking reply was, “Well, I guess I’ll have to change mine, then.” Rather than laughing, he got furious, which puzzled me, honestly.
“What, we can’t have the same middle name!? You don’t like having the same name as me?!” Wow, this is crazy, I thought. Like I was really going to change my name because of him? And he was known for being a jokester, which also was part of my confusion of his taking my joke as reality. Then he started to physically threaten to take me outside.
V_____ turned around and said something to him in Spanish that was short and pointed. I don’t know what she said, but he spun around and he didn’t bother me again.
He was let go not long after that, after calling a gay co-worker a sexual slur, and threatening to throw him out the window. Scary thing is, when he left the job, he became a cop.
* * *
For a very short time, I worked as a proof-reader for a large corporation in the early 1980s, in a windowless basement office on Lexington Avenue. Man, it was a boring job, most of the time. My general job was to read rows and rows of numbers on one sheet and compare them to numbers on another sheet. By three o’clock, I was ready to nap, and daily had a big cup of tea. I even bought one of those spiral water heaters for my huge cup.
I enjoyed reading the resumes of people who were applying for jobs and were turned down (I had to match the names and addresses on the resumes to those on the envelope with the rejection letter. Most of these requests were unsolicited. I was amazed at some of the unprofessional resumes that were sent to such a Fortune 500 company by college graduates, many from graduate schools. One was written out in red pencil.
One of the things about this job was that I made myself flexible, to keep it interesting. There was a Vydec machine in the middle of the room; it was huge with three screens, used for mass mailings. The screen on one side had the addresses, the screen on the other side had the original letter, and the one in the center showed the two combined. Now it is handled by the Word software as Mail Merge. I taught myself how to use the machine by using the official instructional cassette tapes on a transcription machine with headsets. The speaker/instructor talked very slow and precise. I remember one part of it went, “This is a keyboard. The keyboard is your friend. On the keyboard are a number of keys. On each key is a letter, number, or symbol. When you press on a key, the letter, number, or symbol that appears on the key will be on the screen at the cursor…” I thought, “You need to be typing more than 60 words per minute just to sit down on this thing, so why are they trying to teach me to type?” I turned up the speed of the transcription machine, and got through the three-day course in less than one day.
The other great thing was that there was a Verityper in a corner, and as I knew how to typeset, with both these machines, I would fill in when someone was ill. The people working those machines made more money than I did, but I did not get any extra funds at those times, so the boss was happy. What made me especially joyful was that, after the boss left, I typeset my fanzine, FFanzeen, and saved a ton of money that way, not needing a printshop.
The boss was a wonder, and I do not mean that in a nice way. She treated her workers like they were her servants, rather than employees. This was no surprise, because she would invite people coming to see her into her office, such as sales people or upper management, by saying, “Come on in, said the spider to the fly.” I heard her say this numerous times.
One of the ways she tried to control us is when she needed someone to be between her and the proofreaders. Rather than using one of us, she hired some young thing just out of college named Lisle (short for Elizabeth). Needless to say, we resented her and no one paid her much mind.
One day, at about three in the afternoon, I was having my daily fix of wake-up tea, and Lisle walked by. Under her breath, she murmured, “Boy was in a hallway drinking a glass of tea.” My ears immediately perked up. Patti Smith was not as well known then. I stated, “From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating.” She whipped around, shocked that anyone knew the secret of Patti. In unison, we started chanting, “The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run…” The boss came out and yelled at us, “This is a place of business! There is no singing in here!” We became close friends for a few years after that, even going to Max’s a few times with her friends and boyfriend at the time, who was in Fred’s Band. Our boss was not happy about it.
She let me go not much longer after that.
* * *
Working for a large corporation at 5 World Trade Center in the mid-1980s, I was hired for two months via an employment agency. It was a large in-house printshop, and I was hired for a particular project. They figured it would take me a month to learn the typesetting equipment, and a month to do the project. They did not know that I already knew the machine, and I handed in the project on the Friday at the end of the first month.
Now I was in a dilemma: I was hired for two months to do this project, but did it in a month. But they hired me for two months… Finally, what I decided to do is just come in on Monday, as the whole thing was not brought up by my boss. There was one other typesetter, who was very hippie-like and sweet, and I knew she was feeling overworked. So, when I came in on that new week, I just started helping her. And then the week after that, and so on. I worked there for two years that way, and finally convinced by boss that it was cheaper to hire me on than to keep paying the exorbitant employment agency fee. He agreed, so I quit on a Friday, much to the chagrin of the agency, and was hired on that Monday. I worked there an additional two-and-a-half years.
One of my co-workers, C____, who was a paste-up person, had kind of a like-hate relationship with me. I liked him, and it was rarely reciprocated. One day we were all sitting around and C____ said a quote from West Side Story by the character, Action. I smiled and said, “Easy, Action,” a line by another character, Cool. I love obscurity, and I thought we would high-five over this, but instead, he got angry at me, like I had stolen something proprietary from him. To this day, I do not understand that attitude. I would have thought it was great if someone had done that to me.
Another time, he was working and softly singing to himself. It was kind of a high-pitched voice that one sometimes uses when doing that sort of thing. In humor, I said, “Is that the Chipmunks version? He was furious and actually chased me around the large room. I hope he found peace.
Sometimes, the upper mucky-mucks would have us do personal stuff. For example, a Vice President requested I do his Christmas Party invite. There were two checked box choices; one was “Ho Ho Ho, I will attend,” and the other was “Bah, humbug, I will not attend.” Clever.
Rather than just doing as I was ordered, I phoned him up – I did not know him other than by name – and said, “If you want to be accurate, it should be “Bah! Humbug! I will not attend.” I took my chances. Luckily, he loved it, and awarded me a gift of a really fancy hand calculator. I was touched. I kept that calculator, still in its box, until literally last month, when I gave it away to a charitable organization for them to sell and raise money.