Sunday, May 07, 2006

tough shit corp

Earlier today I was thinking about my first job out of college. How I didn't know anything about having a job: whether you had to wear shoes to work, for example, or whether your friends could hang out with you in your office once in awhile. I tried to determine the answers to these questions experimentally. That was no help. No-one offered any guidance. It wasn't a restaurant -- it was a company that specialized in signal processing applications -- so no-one had any opinion one way or the other on the shoe question, nor did anyone seem to notice an extra person in my office or in the computer center. I struck what I thought of as a reasonable compromise: I wore tatami flip-flops most days and didn't bring any of my more questionable friends in to work with me.

My office mate Matt wasn't much help either. He wore a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, bathed only occasionally, and rode a Norton 850 Commando. We had puffed wheat fights in our already messy office. Periodically he went to Fort Huachuca in Arizona to work on some kind of secret stuff; then I'd have the office to myself. That was boring. That's when I wondered whether I could bring a friend to work with me. The day would drag on and on if Matt and Margaret -- whose office was two doors down -- weren't there.

The company rented several floors in the State Bank building on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. 2811 Wilshire, if memory serves. That was when you could still stop six lanes of traffic in LA by stepping off a curb into the crosswalk, even on a busy street like Wilshire. The terminal room, a long narrow space with four or five tables-worth of baby-blue ADM Dumb Terminals, had a terrific view of the ocean, all of Santa Monica Bay. Think of the view from the Getty Center, and you'll just about get it right. It was the kind of view that'd distract you from the blippity-blipping of the dot-matrix characters crawling across your terminal and cause you to stare out the window at the sunset. It was the kind of view that made you forget that Fortran variables that started with an "m" would be implicitly typed Integer.

Matt and I shared a windowless office that shared a wall with the elevator shaft. It pretty much reflected our status at Tough Shit Corp. If Matt wasn't there, the only thing to do in the office was listen to the elevators go up and down. We were on the 7th floor, midway up the building. It wasn't that exciting to listen to the elevators. More exciting was to leave the suite and stand in front of the two elevator doors. Sometimes the doors would open onto Glenn, the financial guy, sneaking a Coke as he rode up to the 8th floor. He was a Mormon. I don't know why he thought he wouldn't get busted sneaking a Coke on the elevator. Perhaps God couldn't peer into elevator shafts. Perhaps elevators were exempt from the "no caffeine" rule. The radio reception in elevators is usually crappy, so maybe that's what he was basing the "no-one can see me here" rule on. Maybe if I waited long enough by the elevator doors, I could catch him dancing or sipping a Pina Colada. But I never did. Just Coca-Cola. The doors would shut on his guilty countenance.

Raydeen and I ran the Computer Center, such as it was. There were two minicomputers, but one was locked away in a more secure back room. The combination to the lock on the door was written on a slip of paper taped to the bottom of Raydeen's top desk drawer in case one had to gain access to the back room, but I usually didn't. I was mostly responsible for the unlocked Prime 400 that was in the main room; it was as responsible as I was for anything. When we'd had the Prime for a year, I baked it cake with chocolate frosting and we had a party.

The joke going around the office was that I'd spiked the frosting. With some homemade hallucinogen. I noticed that several people eating the cake looked worried. It tasted okay, but who knew?

I didn't spike the frosting.

But it was like shoes and friends: spiking the frosting didn't seem completely inappropriate either.

Raydeen worked two jobs. By day she worked at Tough Shit Corp, running the administrative end of our little Computer Center. By night she worked at a truck stop in Bakersfield. She was on the lookout for husband number 4. She'd already decided that husband number 4 would be a trucker. Her theory was, you'd be most likely to meet one of those if you waitressed at a truck stop on the night shift. Preferably one in a place like Bakersfield, where the big trucks roll through on their way up 99. So she lived midway between Santa Monica and Bakersfield in one of those bizarre nowhere exurbs. Canyon Country. It would've been a sucky commute into Santa Monica, except Raydeen was willing to buzz down the emergency lane of the 405 in her big ol' Chevy with the bald tires. Whatever she did when she was stopped by cops, she was good at it. Very good. She didn't get tickets. I still think of her when I drive in the carpool lane from the Valley into Westwood; that was Raydeen's own personal carpool lane.

I'm given to understand that the technical term for Raydeen and her ilk is horn-dog. She conducted various liaisons with visiting repair people on the roof, on top of the out-building that housed the elevator. There were a tangle of blankets up there. I discovered this love nest when I was up on the roof, smoking whatever, taking in the sights of the city and looking out to sea. No doubt what it was and who used it; Raydeen came back from lunch one day with her pants on backward.

Now Raydeen'd be cited by HR for sexual harrassment violations. But then, she'd lick her lips unconsciously contemplating any guy who'd venture into the computer room. The ones that didn't respond she'd tell me were gay.

One day Tony came into the computer room and said, just barely audibly, "I wonder what the disk looks like when it's spinning." I whirled around just in time to catch him lifting the cover on the disk drive. He got to see what a head crash looks like. It took me two weeks to restore the system from backup tapes. I might've been in trouble, but I don't think I noticed. It was like shoes and friends and hallucinogens in the frosting: I didn't know that a senior manager couldn't get in trouble from mischief like that, but that I could.

On nice afternoons I'd walk up Harvard Street to the streets bordering the Brentwood Country Club and collect golf balls. I kept them in my office: a cardboard Xerox box with like-new dimpled golf balls. If I wanted to venture further afield, I'd walk all the way down to 7th street and watch the old Italian men play Bocci ball in the little park. But that'd do nothing for my golf ball collection.

I didn't know anything about having a job. Not a clue in the world.

I had no idea how lucky I was.


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