Bipolars get fired a lot, which isn’t really that surprising. You can only donate your boss’s car to the Salvation Army so many times before the geniuses in HR start to refer to you as a discipline problem. At this point you learn what you must know in your heart if you are to make it as a functioning lunatic – resilience is the name of the game.
Sometimes sitting in a job interview and keeping a straight face requires chutzpah – especially if where you intend to go differs greatly from where you have been.
The following scene is excerpted from my 2nd novel, WASHED UP. Andrew Porter, an alcoholic English teacher, is interviewing with the President of Winged Victory Manufacturing Company International, which makes wing nuts. See how deftly he navigates this improbable transition.
The next day, Andrew played hooky from school, put on his least threadbare suit, and coaxed the Volvo into the bowels of Philadelphia; Wayne Junction specifically, home of Winged Victory Manufacturing Company International. Adjacent to the station itself, the building was a gem, a textbook bit of architectural grandeur dating back to the post-industrial revolution. A three-story red brick edifice that lined the street for most of a block, it had the symmetry and proportion so admired at the time it was built. Even rows of tall windows with stone sills and slightly arched tops welcomed in the sunlight, throwing elongated crosses on the worn, wooden floors. Wayne Junction mattered once. Freight and passenger lines that stretched along the Delaware River to the east, and the Schuylkill River to the west, met there and headed straight into the heart of the city, a teeming confluence of railroad might. That was then. Now, Wayne Junction was the sort of place people went on a bet. Winged Victory Mfg. Co. Int., a building that deserved to be a national landmark, was like the last guest to leave a party. The facility itself was very well attended. Mr. Styckney saw to that. But the grunge and decay around it cast a shadow, even if they didn’t touch it directly.
Entering the lobby of Winged Victory Mfg. Co. Int. was overpowering for Andrew. An aura of long-gone grandeur, ragged opulence, permeated everything. The entrance hall was cavernous and dark, with a ceiling that soared high above his head. A receptionist sat at a tiny desk that seemed to float on the wide marble floor like an inner tube on a lake. Behind her was a tile mosaic that climbed twenty feet high. It was a celebration of the statue, Winged Victory. On the other side was its sister, a tribute to technology. A locomotive of gargantuan proportions was taking people out of their caves, teepees, hovels, and tents, and transporting them to the heavenly gates. They arrived in modern clothes, for some unexplained reason. Andrew was stunned and had the sense that he needed to get out more often. What a truly amazing place! As architecture it was superb. As art it was just too funny. As experience it was priceless.
The woman at the desk looked as though she might have once danced with President Taft. All the same, she was elegantly dressed and seemed to have her marbles. “Your name is Andrew Porter, and you’re here for Mr. Styckney,” she stated pleasantly, before Andrew had a chance to announce himself. “Please sign the register.” He did. “Now if you go straight back, you’ll find the elevator. You want the third floor, someone will meet you.”
“Thank you,” Andrew was courtly. The antique, brass cage elevator was worthy of the Smithsonian. Its luxuriant pace gave Andrew ample time to admire the intricate figuring of the bird’s-eye maple interior. It wasn’t just that it was lovely; years of use, soft wear, brushing, rubbing, leaning, had made it lovelier still. I’m in another place, thought Andrew, and another time.
After making a metal-on-metal sound, the elevator came to a jiggling halt. The beautifully polished brass arrow aimed at the number three. He pulled the handle and the cage door compressed, like the hinges on a drying rack. Waiting for him was a woman who seemed oddly out of place. She was young, attractive, officious, and certainly in a hurry. Then Andrew looked down the hall and realized what had happened. He’d gone from nineteenth century to tech-chic, new millennium, in the space of just two floors. Balancing on high heels that might have caused a nosebleed, the woman raced down the hall with Andrew behind her toward the office of the man himself, the great Cedric Styckney.
Styckney’s office was large, with windows on two sides. The southern exposure looked out over the mammoth Wayne Junction train yard, where rolling stock and locomotives performed a ceaseless dance of coupling and uncoupling, breaking up and assembling, leaving and arriving at every hour of the day and night. Beyond the maze of track, the city itself was visible, its distant skyline a jagged saw blade facing up to the sky. Styckney stared at the trains as though he was a boy and they were merely toys. His back was to the door. “Come in,” he ordered flatly. “Sit.” Andrew did.
“How do you like our murals?” Cedric Styckney asked, still looking out the window.
“Extraordinary,” Andrew responded.
“You’re the tactful type. You called them extraordinary when you could have used grotesque, ridiculous, or silly.”
“Of another day.”
“I think it looks like that Communist stuff. You know what I mean; a 50-foot Lenin, juggling tanks. Mao’s head, smiling on the world, looking like a plate with an engineer’s hat on.”
“It has that scale, all right.”
“Know why I left the lobby how it is? The elevator, too?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Because it makes us look like hayseeds. Only insiders get to this floor; the trade goes to the second. Wait ‘til you get a load of that. Looks like a fuckin’ sweat shop, Brooklyn in the ‘20s.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If we look like dim bulbs, hayseeds, rubes, that gives us a leg up. Business is about two things: Getting lots of advantages, and making the most of them.”
“A Potemkin village in reverse.”
“Don’t be clever, Mr. Porter, be smart. There’s a difference between the two.”
Cedric Styckney turned at last and sat down at his desk. The desk commanded attention. Seven feet long and four feet wide, its heart was a huge piece of glass, pulled from the wreck of a diesel locomotive. The glass had been framed in smooth stainless steel and suspended from the ceiling by wires so thin they were almost invisible. The effect succeeded, it did indeed look like the desk was floating. Andrew was reminded of Danni’s face by looking at the face of her father, but in him, there was a fierceness, a hawk-like grace, and a singleness of purpose. He wore a three-piece suit of excellent cut, regimental tie, and wire-frame glasses. He was trim, and athletic, with a military haircut; a man who could lie about his age and get away with it. He looked at Andrew. “What do you know about business?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Andrew admitted.
Mr. Styckney laughed out loud, “Very good. Tactful and honest. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Andrew, heading for uncharted waters, got himself ready to pitch. “However,” he began, “the study of letters teaches one to think, and that skill can be transferred to any discipline, including the production of wing nuts.” At the mention of the phrase “wing nuts,” Cedric Styckney’s lips curled into a smile, and a far away look came over his face.
“And the values and lessons of business are present in literature.”
“Take poetry as an example. This literary form has much to reveal about efficiency, economy, power, maximizing sales, and design excellence.”
“Young man,” CS lit a cigar, “you have my undivided attention. Do bear in mind, I wouldn’t know a poem if I were pissing on one.”
Andrew, undeterred, threw out one finger. “One: Efficiency. Poetry delivers the goods, for less. What does that mean to the consumer? More truth, and emotional impact, per word, than any other literary form. A handful of lines can spark a revolution, or reduce a grown man to tears.” Two fingers. “Two: Economy. Poetry demands that things are reduced to their essence; less is more, less is best. In poetry, waste is forbidden!”
The phrase “waste is forbidden” caused CS to smile the same way he did when he saw his grandchildren.
“Three: Power. Poetry is soul food. It’s powerful because it’s indispensable. People must have beauty in their lives, and they must have meaning, too. They need the gifts of poetry, whether or not they know they do.”
Cedric Styckney put his feet on the desk, and pushed back in his chair. He blew a series of smoke rings that the girls at the Crib could have jumped through.
“Four: Repeat business. Great poems are never topical; they exist out of time. Since they deal with eternal truth, they don’t become obsolete. The language of Shakespeare moves us today.”
CS interrupted him. “When you like the product, you’ve got a flair for sales.”
Andrew smiled. “Five: Design excellence. Consumers never wonder why they like a product, or how it got so good. They only wonder if it suits their needs. The harder poets work, the less their labors show. Like process control engineers, with schematics and decision trees, they fine-tune rhyme, meter, simile, allusion, and metaphor. At last, their craft is invisible, the reader simply feels. In business terms, this becomes ‘good enough is never good enough.’”
“So what the hell do you want, anyway?” asked CS abruptly.
“A break. A break from the past. An opportunity. A crack at making real money. Where I am now I get paid the same if I do a good job or a bad one. Nobody wants initiative. I’m not getting ahead. I want a job where excellence is prized.” He was silent for a moment. “I want to kick some ass.”
“It’s important to be loved on the floor,” Cedric Styckney informed him, apropos of nothing at all. “If the men on the floor are behind you, everything goes your way. If they don’t, you’re fucked.”
“I treat everyone the same.”
“Do you have any names of people I could call?”
“Fuck that. I can spot talent, and I’m damn sure not giving it to someone else. Talk to me. My distribution manager just left.”
“You’re getting warmer. He melted down or some shit. I don’t know. He went crazy. I can’t leave that position open for long, it’s way too important.”
“What are you saying?”
“Take a sabbatical. Ask for six months. Start here. If you can cut it, I’ll keep you. If you can’t, you can go back to school.” CS scribbled on a slip of paper, and slid it across the shatterproof glass. “This is what he was getting. Just to make it interesting, I’ll bump it 50%, if you hit your metrics.”
Andrew looked at the scrap of paper. The figure, without the bonus, was over three times his current income. “My God,” Andrew was in shock, “you don’t even know me.”
“Porter,” CS clarified matters, “if you don’t tell me my business, I won’t tell you yours, unless you fuck up.” He paused. “Danni sent you, that tells me plenty. We’ve had a chance to talk. Can you start Monday?”
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