Land O’ Lakeland

            Once again, despite all promises made in the past to spare this readership further tales of those vainglorious and vermiscious days before my little jaunt into the Air Force, I am going to make a filthy liar of myself. I feel that in my haste to close out this era and move on to stories in which I alone of the editorship was the star, I left out some details worth telling in my post titled “Wild Blue Yonder”; specifically my days of employment at Lakeland.

            As per the original agreement that I saw fit to flagrantly disregard on so many occasions and thus invite all manner of justifiably angry responses, I am going to leave out details that would serve to direct the baleful eye of Google or other search engines this way. It is not so much that I worry for the delicate feelings of those sensitive souls who sob quietly to sleep at night because I described them as a low brow brutish nancy, or because one of the editors tends to spew a worrisome stream of Mountain Dew from his nose every time it happens, but because I have grown weary of the cumbersome task of apologizing, backpedaling, or trying to convince you that you aren’t as bad as you seem. This naturally does not apply to any current readers whom we have apologized to. You, my friend, are the lone exception in the dreary list of malcontents.

            Although I now am known to possess the gritty motivation of a fully fledged razorback boar with a yen for road apples, following college graduation I had no particular idea on how to go about gaining a professional position that had anything to do with my majors of choice. I closed out the year in food service at dear old Berts in Talbert, said my goodbyes to JT and Eileen, and was banned for life from the immaculate grill area on the simple account of losing my student status. Where most people would have used this as a springboard to make use of the career counseling services we all had access to, I chose, as usual, the road much less traveled (and for a good reason) and waited with grandiose expectations for the world to get around to beating a path to my door.

            In the mean time, I fell back on my old standby, the DPW. I figured working a long summer would keep me in beer and pretzels while word filtered around the job market that a brilliant young bull was about and available. The job paid the princely sum of $5.50 an hour, which even at 1995 wage rates, probably wasn’t really all that great. Given that I lived out most of the year making minimum wage food service wages supplemented with the $2 a week I took home from Collectors after paying for the 4 color monkey on my back, it seemed generous. To save on gas, as well as the expensive luxury of a personally owned vehicle, I pedaled my ass through the streets of Tonawanda every morning to spend the day dumping trash into the back of a packer or schlepping around killing time with old Bucko, occasionally tending to the one or two village owned patches of grass.

            With these lofty wages keeping most of my expenses met (supplemented with a Discover card I received after filling out an application to get free M&Ms), I lacked the motivation to really, really look for a job. Hell, I didn’t even have an up to date resume; the most current employment on the old document listed as my Pennysaver route and ‘bug collecting’ listed under hobbies. Now I knew that a lot of the ‘summer scum’ as they liked to call us got hired on full time when needed and my unmotivated noggin deeply considered the option of just continuing on past the summer and backdoor my way into a permanent gig. Some of the really senior guys there revealed that with side gigs they were clearing as much as $40K a year, and to my poor 4 digit annual income, that sounded pretty sweet.

            The shoe dropped of course at the end of the summer. The super came rambling up to me one Wed in early September and revealed that Friday was going to be my last day. “Budget’s all up for summer scum Wolfie! Nice havin’ you but don’t let the door hit yer ass on the way out! Haw!” Well that was just great. A college grad with gigantic loans looming and here I was about to face the ranks of the unemployed. I was filled with indignant fury! Since they had hired on less senior summer scum I was under the assumption that my marker was in play and good and now to betray me like this? I was the ideal government employee! Never missed a coffee break, never returned early from lunch, took frequent naps on the taxpayers’ nickel, and often showed up late, hung-over and disheveled… I was the very model of the extraneous man leaning wearily against a pristine shovel behind a relentless barricade of orange road cones assembled for no discernable reason but to irritate residents.

            I vented my outrage to Bucko who listened with great compassion and aplomb. “My old pal Willie could use a good man like you. Got nothing but assholes and thieves working for him!” This sounded at least somewhat promising. An environment full of lazy distempered thieves was one I felt I could thrive in and stand out over the rest of the pack. The friendships I had cultivated as described in the rest of this wordy blog prepared me well for dealing with assholes in a highly successful manner. Willie, happy to have a well recommended college boy like myself sent his way, sent me in to Lakeland to interview with his son who had taken over the family business.

            The interview process was quite informal. Billy kicked the tires a little bit and quizzed me on my knowledge of auto parts, which was nil having never owned a vehicle or even changed a tire. He smelled the potential of greatness, or perhaps the Brut I employed to smarten myself up a bit, and agreed to hire me at the same amazing wage as the DPW was paying me. Although he admitted my pedigree had senior management written all over it, Billy took the bottoms up approach and decided to start me as a driver hauling parts around town in order to get to know the customer base and the product since at that time I had not even been aware that cars had such things as cooling systems or alternators.

            I reported my first day, shiny and showered, and was given over to Greg, one of the counter guys. The other fellow at the counter, chain smoking and barking on the phone at the same time was identified as ‘Bud’. I was immediately warned of both his explosive temper and the fact that he carried a concealed weapon. Experience taught me over time that the latter was well justified as no less than three dozen people, most of them customers, one with known mob ties, personally and graphically threatened to end his ability to breath in ghastly, painful ways. Billy’s business model was somewhat counterintuitive in nature, but by the fact that he remains in place today against juggernaut NAPA, his acumen is unquestionable.

            Greg got me going with my first delivery run and a snag or two shook out almost immediately. The first being that not having a car, I didn’t know how to get anywhere that was not in walking distance. We worked through this, both initially and for the next 6 months by Greg taking me to the local map in back and tracing out my route with his finger as I hastily wrote down directions. Eventually I would take to spending much time at that map establishing ideal routes for any type of delivery run which led to my legend as the fastest driver in the history of the joint.

            The second problem manifested after I loaded up the back of the old Ford Ranger and got in the drivers seat where I was confronted by the fearsome stick shift. The worn black knob, like a gruesome eye with foreign symbols (the gear numbers of course) staring up at me, mocking me, daring me to try and fail. Of course I did; those of my kind are not partial to revealing weakness and would rather drive the thing off a cliff than admit the challenge was beyond the scope of experience. I couldn’t even manage to get it started. I stepped out and admitted defeat expecting to be sent home in disgrace. Instead, Billy surprised me and made available the only vehicle in his fleet with a standard transmission, a large white box truck in which I was to have plenty of adventures.

            Driving the box had its own challenges as I was to learn. First, backing up requires some deal of care and in one of my first runs out I managed to plow right into a parked car. Like a good employee and responsible citizen I left a note implicating my employer. As it turned out, that was the wrong thing to do. Billy made it a point to avoid company identification on the vehicles despite the guaranteed advertising value specifically because it allowed the possibility of his careless drivers to escape hit and runs, something that happened quite frequently, without implicating him. Otherwise he would have been out of business in but a few fortnights. Yes, I am using archaic time terminology simply to be a prick and make you think.

            I also learned early on that the box did not fit very well through the drive through at Arby’s on the Boulevard. Thinking I was clear after placing my order I ran right into the overhang. This necessitated a comedic episode in which the whole line of disgruntled drivers behind me had to back out, let me out, and then refigure their place in line to receive the correct order. Although Arby’s took down my information I declined to relate the incident back at the home office for obvious reasons.

            Since the box truck was my only possibility for the time, it became my responsibility to deliver all the 55 galleon drums of oil, washer fluid and anti-freeze around the area. This in itself posed some challenges. My first time out, Greg loaded the back with about 10 drums using the fork lift. I got to my first destination where the customer didn’t have a fork lift. We stood there looking at each other wondering how we were going to lift down a 900 lb drum of anti-freeze. Someone finally came up with the idea to stack up about 5 discarded old tires behind the truck and roll the barrel down onto them. This method worked splendidly for getting the item off the truck, but had the downside of almost squishing the fool mechanic who had the brilliant idea to stand in front and “catch” the falling item. Classic Wile E. Coyote. In time I gained such finesse at this operation that I could alone tip and roll the barrel down and flip it upright the moment it hit the tires; a class act according to the grease monkey community at large.

            I would also like to share my complaint regarding the day that this cavernous vehicle almost became my tomb. I was executing the much vaunted Kessel Run and trying to beat HS’s nonsensical time of 12 parsecs down the 400 from Holland. The back hold was filled with exotic merchandise: 2 huge pallets of oil spill cleaner (kitty litter), some barrels of oil and washer fluid, stacks of brake rotors, and up front in the passenger seat next to me was a whole pile of exhaust parts that a savvy customer was returning. I took a hard turn trying to make good time when I felt the load shift in back. I heard a vaguely familiar sound that almost reminded me of a plane taking off. In nanoseconds I concluded that the noise was generated by the tires lifting from the wet pavement. I could feel the tip just beginning and fountained effluvious chilled sweat staring down the tangled mess of rusty piping poised ready to impale me if gravity had say.

            Forget not to breathe gentle reader! I did indeed survive that day as evidenced by my only claimed supernatural telling of this tale. With ever so careful application of the brakes I managed to reverse the course of the tip and guide her home; albeit now going at a breakneck 15 MPH reaching base in great excess of the to my knowledge unbeatable 12 parsecs. To round out the day nicely, driving into my last stop I was forced to brake suddenly allowing for the sole remaining barrel of fluid, unwisely placed at the rear of the truck, to fly forward up through the crawl door and into the cab with me. Extracting it was a real bitch; a task made all the more difficult by well shot nerves.

            Over time with the assistance of the irascible Mr Walsh I learned to drive stick shift, but by that point my duties began to shift more managerial. My next feat of note occurred when I brought in my first new hire; a very poorly conceived idea that fortunately managed not to bite me in the ass. Adrianna was one of the many women I met in my teledate days and in one of our early conversations she revealed she was hard up for a job. We had lost Fat Paul and Billy was looking for someone new and reliable. So, without ever meeting her in person, and even after the Stanky Stalker incident, I gave my wholehearted recommendation. She interviewed and was hired and we had our first “date” as I was to train her how to drive stick, Billy having not yet learned to incorporate that most useful of questions into the interview process.

            The immediate upside to what could have been an awkward and disadvantageous situation was that we had a wonderful case of mutual unattraction that greatly facilitated us working together without too much hullabaloo. Our first foray out she beat the clutch on the old Ranger like Mike Tyson’s unfortunately named younger brother Bryson. We were cruising down the 290 approaching Sheridan with the intention on making a delivery to some now defunct garage near the country club when I smelled it go. The predictable black smoke visual soon followed and I was able to guide her down the Sheridan/ Harlem exit ramp. I had a dilemma on my hands here; our customer expected their delivery and this was the time before cell phones. I boldly made a decision of executive quality.

            Adrianna steered the old clunker while I pushed that son of a bitch all the way to the garage; a distance of almost 3 miles. It was a fantastic battle gaining momentum down slight inclines and straining with all my might on the tiny rises, but I got her there to the delight and amazement of the wrench heads waiting for their parts. The bonus for this customer is that they were guaranteed the work of making the repair and got to ogle Adrianna, generously endowed in an area pleasing to most men. We became the most favored supplier that day. Greg picked us up and drove us back to Lakeland where I received significant accolades for the accomplishment and was subsequently asked to repeat the story ad nauseum. Despite all I have accomplished since, including bringing in a $15 million dollar contract, I never once received such praise as I got for pushing that old goddam truck.

            After an incident in which our mob affiliated customer threatened to kill Bud, and Bud responded by threatening to not only kill Doug, but his whole extended family, it was decided that the best place for Bud was in sales and marketing and not managing the counter. I don’t know if Billy thought that Bud might make more effective threats in person than over the phone, but I never understood any of his logic anyway. In a brilliant move of emasculation, Billy gave him an adorable little Geo Metro to scoot around town in and gave the flagship purple S-10 over to me to take home every night. A sweet deal this; my own “company car”. This served to facilitate my tele-dating efforts considerably, even though I was on the honor system to simply drive the thing back and forth to work.

            In my new role as counter manager and directing the drivers and such, I finally had my first opportunity to push someone out the door. I’ve never been a believer in keeping around dead wood; a philosophy diametrically opposed to Billy’s penchant for bringing it in through the front door and angling just so that pushing it back out becomes an exercise in futility. The prize of the litter was a fellow Greg and I referred to as ‘U.T.’, a clever altering of his true name, ‘J.T.’ for the purpose of identifying him as a ‘Useless Tool”. U.T. was the son of a highly prominent customer in local government who had the wherewithal to allocate large amounts of budget our way by circumventing the fair bid process. U.T. was hired to sweep up and shit and I was saddled with the task of keeping him busy. Within hours I wanted him fired, though Billy would not capitulate.

            U.T. liked to find places in the store to hide and force me to go looking for him in order to find some bullshit task that didn’t need doing that he couldn’t fuck up too badly. It was a challenge. Since I couldn’t force him out, I decided to break him to provide motivation for him to look for an easier job. “C’mere J.T.! Got a little job for you!” his face would fall in misery upon hearing those words. “I’m going to need to go ahead and ask you to…” It was never anything pleasant. Tedious, dirty, even dangerous; no task was too shitty to assign U.T. We received in a half dozen pallets of anti-freeze, the heaviest shit on earth, stacked up to the ceiling and wedged back into our filthy cramped back storage area, comfortable only to the likes of a Gollum, and I had my backbreaker.

            “J.T… Got a little job for you. Yeah, you know all that anti-freeze in the back? Well, the other day I went back there myself and pulled out and counted every single bottle. Here is the thing…the count has to be balls on accurate, so I’m going to need you to do the same thing and let me know what number you come up with. I’ll come back here and there to see how you are doing.”

            In reality I did nothing of the kind, but it did force him to actually do the work in hopes of matching my number. Accomplishing the task meant moving everything by hand through cramped dirty narrow areas in stifling heat to boot. I made good and went back there every 20 minutes or so and tapped my watch each time. He worked all day; pulling, counting, putting everything back. He finally emerged well after his normal quitting time filthy, sweating, red faced and weary to the bone to produce his results.

            “Oh… hmm… that isn’t the number I came up with at all! Well, one of us is off, so I’m going to need you to go ahead and do the same thing tomorrow to see if you come up with your number, my number, or a different number all together. Just so you know, I’m real sure my number is right, so…”

            As expected, U.T. failed to show for his next shift and every one thereafter. A week later we discovered him sweeping sawdust at one of our customers who also knew his dad. Sweeney leaned over to me, “I never saw anyone take 4 goddam hours to sweep a floor before! And it wasn’t even clean when he was done!” If I had to make a guess where he is today, it would be holding up a shovel behind inexplicable orange cones, enjoying the effects of gravity and nothing else till 5 o’clock made its way around once more.

            Far more difficult to manage was Willie, the founder of the company and Billy’s father. Despite retiring 5 years prior, Willie insisted in coming into work for the full day, every single day. He spent the majority of his time poking around, telling Billy how he was doing things wrong, annoying the living shit out of Bud who would periodically quit and storm out in a cloud of fury to make a point, and needling the rest of us about everything under the sun. We affectionately referred to him O.B. or ‘Old Bastard’, based on an incident in which a former employee, tired of being told for an hour straight that he was hanging exhaust wrong, screamed “fuck off you old bastard!” and was thence ushered out the door. Once I was jammed behind the counter most of the time, he began to get under my skin as well.

            I found a way, however, to get him to leave us all alone. I discovered quite by accident that after he had one of his temperamental episodes, set off by some perceived slight or instance, he would take to Billy’s office for several hours to cool down. I began to look for ways to get him spun up at someone else’s expense. “Will, get this. I filled up the white box truck on Friday afternoon, and here it is Monday morning almost empty!” He looked at me with wide eyed horror, “Those sons of bitches!”; Willie was always convinced the world was out to pick his pocket. What I didn’t tell him as he exploded in fury was that I came in on Saturday and drove a load of oil down to Chestnut Ridge and never filled back up. He had his rant, hid with Billy well into the afternoon (poor Billy suffered from my technique) then spent the rest of the fuddling around trying to find a locking gas cap that would fit.

            I can probably fill up a whole separate entry about all of the characters I encountered there: Fat Paulie, Shaky Joe, ‘Crash’ McGee, MAWDI Mary, Assface, the Made Man, Anal Bead Gary, Rocky, the Businessman, the Bigot, and of course much more on the ineffable Bud, so I’m probably going to go ahead and do that at some point since the rest of these douche bags are letting this wondrous fruit languish like last weeks tomatoes. Pricks.