Company Man

I’ve had a huge influx of readers over the past couple of days. If you’re new and you haven’t had a chance to browse the 2016 archives (with arbitrary-ass categories), here’s your chance. I don’t have ads and this site costs me a couple hundo a year. All I want from you is your occasional attention, and hopefully I can supply a feel or two in return. If you really want to do something for me, relay to your friends and family the legend of Web Scoundrel Bob Talbot, the King of Shit, who posts from his hermitage atop Fuck Mountain.

I first used the term book ninja to refer to my profession over a decade ago. I can’t claim the rights to its invention, since a quick Google search provides plenty of results that predate my employment as such, but I don’t recall having heard it anywhere else at the time. Chalk it up to multiple discovery, baby. It’s either that or ancient aliens. Pyramids on different continents and the proliferation of a simple two-word phrase couldn’t have happened any other way, right?

In my youth, I claimed to have come up with the slogan “Han shot first.” There’s absolutely no way that’s true, but at the time I was even more solipsistic and full of hubris, if you can imagine, and I had the gall to email a well-known comic artist and accuse him of idea theft. When he replied, politely confused, and asked me exactly what I wanted, I settled for a free t-shirt.

I didn’t get the t-shirt.

Rarely does a workday pass when I’m not complimented for knowing an item’s exact location without consulting the computer system. While it never fails to make me smile and puff up like a horny bird, deep down I know it’s no miraculous feat. I’m reminded of the scene from Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s character is trying to explain to his stunned and slightly offended coworker, played by Andie MacDowell, that he is “a god, not the God.”

He goes on to say, “Well maybe the real God uses tricks, you know? Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”

Well, I don’t claim to know everything. In fact, I know very little in the grand scheme of things, and the things I do know, I’ve had to learn by repeatedly driving my garbage truck of a life off the top of the Empire State Building.

For example, you’d think a manager wouldn’t have to be taught that other humans need to pee, but a dozen years ago I was the guy who said, “Uh, yeah, let me see who I can get to cover your register,” when a cashier flipped her flashing light on and informed me that she needed to go. Luckily for her, me, and everyone I’ve supervised since, the heroic customer in front of her turned on me and said, “Hey, she said she has to go. When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.”

“Uh, okay,” I said, my face on fire. “Let me cover your register.”

I wish I had the customer’s contact information so I could send her a fruit basket with a card that says, “Twelve years ago, you taught me part of what it means to be a human being. Thank you.”

I used to be that guy, though. I was a Company Man. I was concerned with profits and payroll and product and price. People, not so much. Not enough. Not as much as I thought I did, anyhow. It’s easy to reference my writings from that era and see how I thought I was some kind of selfless hero of the people. Upon reflection, I am not so certain.

As a father of three, it’s easy to witness the selfishness of early human life close up. Kids have to be taught empathy. They’re hungry potato sacks who turn into little monkey monsters, and I haven’t even witnessed teen behavior under this roof yet, aside from my own.

I won’t pretend to be a scientist, so I’ll leave it up to you to Google research on frontal lobe development and the sociopathic tendencies of young people. Suffice it to say that teenagers scare the living shit out of me, but append this to everyone up to their mid-twenties. After that, it’s a crapshoot as to whether people aren’t actively thinking of ways to destroy you just because it tickles their collective pickles.

Maybe the dickhead is me. It’s possible that I don’t give other humans nearly enough credit, but when I interact with over a hundred people a day, possibly a thousand on a busy weekend, there are far too many wrenches in the wonky works for me to ignore.

There’s always the chance I’m going to live up to my nickname, “Howlin’ Mad,” which was bestowed on me by my pal and twenty-year retail veteran Christopher Clark. Somebody cleaned my mess up the day I stalked down the power aisle and knocked books off every endcap on my way to the back. “I’m sick,” I said as I left the breakroom. I wasn’t sick of anything but working there. “I need to go to the doctor.”

It was probably him. I never had the balls to ask.

I’m haunted by the time an employee asked me if his girlfriend, also a coworker, could leave early with him so they could attend a New Year’s Eve party together. “No,” I said. “Why are you doing this? She’s a closer. Look at the schedule yourself.” There’s the old dickhead we know and love. Bob Talbot, the Classiest Guy.

He left upset and I never saw him again. He went to the party, alone, and was accidentally injured during some horseplay. Andrew (I will force myself to write his name) died in the hospital some days later.

My coworkers urged me to visit him in the hospital, but I did not. The responsibility weighed on me and the content of our final conversation had me paralyzed in horror. I didn’t attend his visitation. I was almost late to his funeral, but I got seated just before the ceremony began. My boss thanked me for coming. “I didn’t think you were going to make it,” she said. They knew.

Everyone knew. I sat at the end of a pew and watched the priest deliver kind words about Andrew walking with Jesus in Heaven. My old cowboy hat was in my lap. I gritted my teeth and stared at the crucifix on the wall. Rage. Rage at myself. Rage at nothing. Rage. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.

It stabs at me even more now that we’ve seen payroll slip so much over the years. In retrospect, we were overstaffed that night. Since then I’ve operated the store on busy Saturdays with skeleton crews, overwhelmed, the wheels falling off, but on that night I wasn’t even the only manager in the building. It would have been fine, Company Man. I’d shout it back through time if I could. Fuck you, Company Man.

I wonder how the Lieutenant feels, who sent a man out of a foxhole and into his doom. Surely I hold less responsibility than that, because I didn’t know what his future held. I couldn’t have known. We weren’t at war. We were book ninjas doing battle with boxes.

Still, I remember my Vonnegut, and the words of his Bokonon, who suggested that if someone asks you to do something, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t, perhaps you should. If someone asks you to accompany them to the store and you aren’t currently engaged, perhaps you were meant to go. If someone asks you to tweak the schedule and it’s of no consequence, why not?

Oh, but the consequence.

Once upon a time, in a different life, one of my door greeters asked me, with great derision, if I were a Company Man. He was gray and full of wrath. A customer had insulted him and I remember how he growled and shook in the breakroom. He muttered something about his pocket knife. “What did you say?” I asked, shocked.

“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing. Are you a Company Man?”

“Yes,” I said, beaming. “Yes I am.”

Company Man should have gotten a pocket knife in the gut. Perhaps we’d all be better off. As it stands, Company Man was beaten down by life, death, and consequences. Circumstances. I’m still a manbaby, but I possess a tattered list of lessons learned the hard way. Maybe that’s all we are, big children who’ve seen and practiced enough folly to place us a bit higher on the cliff face of life. We climb as long as we can, our views improving incrementally, until we miss a step. Hopefully we survive the fall with the knowledge of which footholds to avoid on our way back up. Up, to where we do not know. Just up.

But am I a Company Man? Call me a book ninja, a fuckhead, a man, but never that. Never again. I’ll make stunning new mistakes and leave the old behind, but the man who held Sam Walton’s biography to his chest and levitated by his own bootstraps is dead and buried. That malignant growth has been irradiated, cut off, incinerated.

I’d step outside and scream into the mist if it would do anything other than disturb Dave next door. Fuck you, Company Man. The blade is coming. Fuck you. Fuck you. You’ve read Vonnegut but you didn’t pay attention.

I’d say I’m paying attention now, but the future will certainly make me a liar. Ain’t we a pair, Company Man?

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