Friday, December 27, 2013

Everyone Has Real Choices?

I met someone once who wondered if anyone has a real choice the way something fell in his lap. I said, "Happy Holidays" as we shook hands across what he called my "well-appointed desk."

My meteoric career had only just begun. But his comment confirmed he'd probably never exchanged compliments across any level of executive's desk before. Slightly amusing me so I interviewed him with interest in his life because there was no pressure. I already knew I wasn't giving him any job. 

His spur-of-the-moment suit didn't fit as he'd apparently neglected an even short inspection by the executive who'd recommended he fill our equal-opportunity quota of dead-beat white guys. I repeated it to myself like a mantra. I'm not giving him any job. But the form had to be filled out straight from the potential hiree's mouth, so to speak. Regulations can trump custom sometimes.

I was also curious if there was a real reason for Herb's recommendation. Because the story around the office was he was caught walking the halls unescorted. Supposedly looking for Herb. But our receptionist said she had just stepped away for a moment. A real scene. Eileen was offended and confronted the messenger about his not waiting at the front desk at all. Taking extreme liberty. There was yelling about calling security. Then Herb came back, smiling as always, and recognized the package and courier and covered with "the smart-aleck" was just mimicking him. While the lawyers got their kick out of the commotion, laughing in their stern, consistently ticking, billable hours way. 

Consequently companies remember how money disappears. Even our president had to be told about that lost half-hour. So it was a little shock when Herb recommended for our mailroom, this particular bike messenger. Who probably cut his own hair and shaved as if it didn't matter. And sat forward in his seat complimenting my "well appointed desk" and effusively thanking me "for this opportunity." 

Everyone's polite in interviews. I said, "You're welcome. Everyone has something to offer. So. Let's find out what you're capable of here." I soon raised my eyes from his application asking, "You graduated high school, but left college without graduating? It appears you stayed long enough. Five years? Why didn't you finish?"

He said, "It sounds arrogant."

Which made me smile, so I said, "Then tell me, by all means. Arrogance is business' most interesting part." 

He officially stopped smiling and said, "Well. I always wanted to be an historian. But at the precipice, from my student's perspective, professors are required to periodically publish quality which is daunting. When I learned I wanted to write something like Russia's Nineteenth Century novelists who influenced the revolutionary Twentieth Century." 

I wanted to say uh huh. But in my position said, "Intriguing. And how is that project working out?"

He shrugged and there's a lesson. Even if it's your answer, don't shrug your shoulders in a job interview.   

I said, "Let's move on. I see you've been a bike messenger for a decade?"

"Courier," he said.

I said, "What's the difference?"

He said, "Professionally it's very significant for some people. Couriers carry packages that's commerce. While messengers carry messages people prefer not to deliver themselves."

Maybe that's what Herb thought? He could communicate directly with messengers. Correctly citing their delivering what we didn't have to ourselves. But giving up a degree to pretend to be a Russian novelist? It was doubtful he could communicate with anyone. Because so far his only duty was to impress me and he'd failed, miserably. Plus since I'd pre-judged him unsuitable anyway, I was ready for him to leave and cut the interview short. I said, "You've been with three courier companies. Any reason to fire you?"

He just grinned without volunteering an answer. I said, "Something amusing?"

He said, "Yes and no. What happened scared the crap out of me. So technically it wasn't amusing and I wasn't actually fired. Technically."

Relating I asked what the technicality was so his review of me would be I was polite. But, seeing nothing in his application, I said, "This is just conversation to learn from. Companies hiring and firing aren't often born of incidents." I wondered if he caught I meant his interview was a lark? 

But he ignored me, reflecting, then just started in. "In 1986 I was technically fired," he said. "A dislocated disc in my back probably irritated me and I forgot I was asked a few months before to make sure this specific delivery went smoothly without a hitch."

So the applicant was giving me a story when I distinctly just asked for an explanation. Then he just stared over my shoulder out my window. Ignoring my whole facial expression telling him to just wrap it up. His commitment was to explaining in my office what seemed to gain steam from his staring harder out the window as if his listening was as important as mine. 

He said, "I'd made my central location an area of Madison Avenue in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center at 49th Street. Lately I wait for work at the New York Public Library at 40th and Fifth. But back then, 49th and Madison was my spot. Tragically I liked carrying this particular company's correspondence. The telephone in the lobby of their office building is an art installation and the company is The Carnegie Corporation, no less. The philanthropy built by the fortune of Andrew Carnegie who practiced the policy of paying workers less, when he could afford more, because workers would just drink more alcohol to their detriment. In retrospect not really what expanding capitalism is about. But the benevolent Carnegie Corporation has contributed to bettering discrepancies. I got to ride the elevator from their floor to the first, alone with the famous journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. I embarrassingly asked if she was really herself and she said she was and pronounced her name and, well, it really was a very nice introduction."

I was waving both a pencil and pen, ready to be rude too and intrude. 

He said, "It was morning. I'm hanging around not making money because my back is bad. If you can't keep the pace no one is giving you money. So I'm no smooth operator but the beeper beeps and I'm given this special delivery and right away I lose it thinking some big deal dropped in my lap. My dispatcher asked if I was clear about what I was doing." 

He sighed but still beat me to speaking and said, "I told the dispatcher Michael, 'Yes, I was clear.' But really, I somehow forgot I'd been asked earlier to deliver this specific envelope without a hitchI was already there waiting so I took time to write a poem to where the envelope was going. The sanctioned country of South Africa did not have a Permanent Mission to the United Nations then. But they had an office on 46th Street between First and Second Avenues. A nice building I guess they sold because the South African Mission is on East 38th Street near First Avenue now. 

"When I picked up the package from The Carnegie Corporation, the African-American woman I received the package from, second-guessed sending it with me because I said something about doing the right thing. But I reassured her and I don't think I was lying telling her it would be okay, nothing would go wrong."  

He saw me look at my watch and continued as if the clouds outside were all he needed following him. He said, "Well, apartheid like religious war are bad traditionsI wrote five copies of the poem before picking up from Carnegie. I walked right in South Africa's first-floor office entrance after I imagine I was buzzed in. But I don't remember that detail, except it felt like I just waltzed right in the perfectly sized Reception Area without room for requiring crowd control." 

He smirked. "I really had no way of thinking through what I was doing. I went to the Front Desk bullet-proof partition and put the envelope in the trough with the poem on a small piece of paper. The room was how I'd thought it would be with a table lamp and couch, so I backtracked circling the room placing copies of the poem until before reaching the two chairs the powerful South African official's voice stopped me declaring, 'What is this?'

"Unbelievable. I was just trying to seriously convey racism should end without violence. There was bounce in my step back to the window where I pleaded, 'Come on. I didn't mean to sound mean. It's just time. You just have to stop the violence.

"He said what I did would not be taken lightly and I'd lose my job and he wouldn't take the package. I wouldn't stop smiling and he said I'd done a very bad thing interfering where I don't belong. He had me pick up the other poems while the whole time I'm apologizing for the extreme voice I used in the poem. It was the poem that made me beg. The act was supposed to be about acceptance and tolerance but the poem lacked any sentiment. I was apologizing profusely how sorry I was, please. I didn't mean to sound so mean, it's just, I said, 'I meant to emphasize how rude callous is. You have to stop the cycle of revenge.' 

"But what I wrote was,
Black backs brought your wealth from the ground.
Black backs enabled your wealth to grow beyond profound.
Give back their ground and get out of town.

"I think South Africa actually kept the package but the man at the desk promised it wouldn't be opened and I never returned to The Carnegie Corporation again. When I left the building a female and male New York City Police Officer stopped and questioned me. Patting me down they found my wide back-brace belt which caused them a short alarm. But somehow my numb smiling calmed the officers and I explained my bad back problem probably caused my frustration inside that the cops said 'happens all the time.'

"Hence why I was asked to deliver that package without a hitch dawned on me. Knowing next I'd face my ruthless boss. No one ever yelled at me like him."

He sighed again and said, "Everyone acted their roles and my boss didn't fire me but I've never set foot in The Carnegie Corporation again. Turned out the package was paperwork for Archbishop Desmond Tutu's visa to the United States that was a prickly issue for them in their efforts to stem worldwide sentiment. And I'd broken my boss' word. I should have recused myself. Because not only had I ridden in the elevator once with a civil rights icon, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. But when I was around maybe five years old, I was dressed up with two other guys as The Three Kings to sing the hymn before the whole church. Before while preparing our robes in our Sunday School classroom a kid in the back said I was the black one. And not only that. My home I was raised in was an African-American funeral home in a white neighborhood whose mortgage paid for my university education. And after hearing Reverend Ralph Abernathy speak at my school he stepped from the aisle down my row to shake my hand and we said some things. Apparently I forgot a lot and moved on bare instinct. Even though I had no choice I still feel a little grateful South Africa reconciled so however insignificant my interference was the dream is above sabotage." 

Then he stood and shook my softly offered hand and walked to the door concluding, "Underneath all the publicity, history is mostly a big oh well. But how long is civilization meant to just sit on the precipice?" And left winking, singing, "Not your stepping stone." 
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Take aim beyond mere protocol President Putin, please?

Denial's As Damaging As Racism