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Interlude: The Same as an Old Girlfriend

Back when I was in the restaurant biz, I developed a reputation as the guy who could handle the problem children. (Translation: I developed a reputation as a sucker.) In retrospect, that has probably been a factor in the downfall of a lot of my jobs. I would take the worst worker of the bunch, give them way too many chances, and get screwed every time. They say the definition of insanity…

I could have nipped it in the bud. Back in my earliest days of management, I went to my HR manager with a request for a re-hire. She said,

“Now T, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t rehire G. I will tell you this, rehiring an old employee is like getting back with an old girlfriend. The longer you are spit up, the less like you are to remember what caused the break. But the troubles will always return, and usually worse than before.”

Don’t you know it’s true? It’s easy to re-hire someone who you’ve worked with before. You don’t have to train them. But if they left under bad circumstances, they will likely do so again. And it’s just as painful every time.

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Interlude – It’s the Prairie Dogs, Dammit!

I spent the majority of 2012-13 in Denver, Colorado. I could go on and on about the weather, the mountains, the spirit of the Great American West (and I probably will at some point). But I want to tell you about a particular night I spent in Aurora, Colorado. 2013 was an off-year election. There wasn’t a lot going on politics wise in Colorado. That being said, we never stop doing what we do. Aurora was holding a city council race and a union guy was on the ballot, so we decided to put him over the top. When you think of Aurora, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the theater shooting. Most folks don’t realize just how large Aurora actually is (350k people).

We had a very tiny crew that year, so I spent some time canvassing. I was out in Aurora knocking on doors when I walked up to a house whose yard was inundated with gopher holes. I nice woman opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. I introduced myself and told her why I was there. Then I asked her the same question that I ask everyone at the door.

“What is the biggest issue for you and your family?”

She didn’t hesitate. “The prairie dogs. I know your candidate and I like him. But his opponent actually knocked on my door and told me that she’d take care of my problem.”

Yeah right, I thought. A politician is going to personally come out and eradicate a thousand prairie dogs from this neighborhood. I gave the standard talking points on why we chose our candidate and what made him better, then moved onto the next door.

I turned the corner and started working my way down the next street. About ten doors away I turned up a driveway and made my way onto a porch. One of the great things about being out on the street in beautiful weather is that you can take in all the sights. This house had hella sights to take in. The yard was full of hippie shit. I love hippie shit. There were dreamcatchers, streamers and windchimes dangling from the porch. I peered through the screen door and saw a middle-aged man walking around. I gave the door my signature “shave-and-a-haircut” tap and he hollered,

“Let me grab a beer and I’ll be right out.”

We exchanged pleasantries and I sent my opening salvo. “What’s the most important issue for you and your family?’

“It’s funny you should ask that.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s the prairie dogs, dammit!”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I just wish people would leave them alone. They’re my friends.”

It was a ‘holy shit” moment. And it just goes to show you that there are two sides to every story, and that one of them isn’t necessarily wrong.

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Chapter 4 – What The Hell Is A Senate Bill 5?

I was just about ready to jump back into politics. Unbeknownst to me, things were about to get very real.

In 2010 the Republicans pulled off a nationwide coup that was nearly as devastating as Pearl Harbor. The Lefty crowd was still patting ourselves on the back for electing Barack Obama, choosing Hope over Fear. Rather than wringing their hands, the Republicans went to work. They targeted State Houses and Governorships across the country. Few states felt the sting as badly as Ohio.

I still view it as kismet. I walked into the job interview with high hopes. I had requisite experience, a passion for the work and, as I told you before, I’m a wizard at job interviews. The Field Director and I hit it off immediately. It was like we were brothers from another mother. He too had spent some time at Citizen Action, albeit years after my tenure. Within the first minute it was clear that I would get the job pending a second interview. The conversation progressed to how I could become a Field Director. I’m pretty sure I threw my hands up in the air and said “Whoa, wait a second.” I hadn’t escaped from twenty years of management jobs to go right back to being someone’s boss. At the time, I still had delusions of being an award-winning crime writer. Dreams die hard.

“I know what kind of hours you have to work, B. Time is more important than money to me at this point in my life. In fact, I’d like to do this job four days a week. You see, I write books.”

He got this stern look on his face, one that I’ve seen maybe three times in the eight years that we’ve been friends. “This work is too important, T. We expect everyone who takes this job to be on-time full-time. We’re going to pay you a good wage plus bonuses and pay for your health care. All we expect you to do it be here forty hours per week and to do a good job while you’re here.”

I thought I had overplayed my hand. I said, “I can do that.” And that was that. I walked from the dark side into the light.

sI had my first union job, fighting for worker’s rights against some of the same corporations I used to work for. About six weeks later, Governor John Kasich signed a bill into law that would seriously roll back those right in the state. The bill was so hated that only one state senator would publicly sponsor it. The so-called Senate Bill 5 would restrain the rights of unionized state workers to collectively bargain.

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING: When a group of workers negotiates with management as a unit, typically for wages, insurance, benefits and working conditions. This bargaining unit usually takes the form of a union and must be ratified in a democratic vote of the proposed unit’s members.

Specifically, Senate Bill 5 allowed for the negotiating of wages, but eliminated any other bargaining rights. This was particularly troublesome for first responders and teachers, who already had to go into their own pockets for supplies and safety equipment. Roughly a half-million workers were affected by the new law. Mass protests erupted at the statehouse. I was there on day one.

In Ohio, the citizens have the right to repeal any law, but only if they can muster enough statewide support to get it put on the ballot. At the time the bill was signed into law, the threshold was 400,000 verified signatures to put the repeal on the ballot. In addition to that, a minimum number of signatures needs to be distributed among 44 of the state’s 88 counties. Progressive groups, including my own, set a goal of 500,000 signatures in the next three months. My team crisscrossed the state, going to all the tiny hamlets that were off the beaten path.

I mentioned early that only one senator would sponsor SB5. She was from a rural “safe” district where she’d won by a large margin the previous November. We took the fight directly to her home town. I can recall canvassing on her street, her husband following close behind, trying to explain away her heinous act. We got a chuckle on the ride home that night. In the end, 1.3 million signatures were collected, 900,000 being valid.

I estimate that I talked to over 4000 voters in that election cycle. It was a nightly education in what people really want and need. I had people from the Right and the Left tell me they expected bloody revolution to break out. I heard from voters who said their single biggest issue was the city not fixing the potholes on their street. I also heard the litany of “birth certificate, Muslim, Kenya” bullshit from the burgeoning Fox News crowd. It was alternating hope and despair. I loved it.

In November of 2011 we went back to the polls to vote on Senate Bill 5. It was a resounding win for the good guys. We got more votes than Kasich did when he was elected. It was also a foreshadowing of things to come.

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Lessons From The Road – A Long-Form Confessional

In February of 2011, I began a nearly eight-year journey that took me to eight different states and 11 different cities. I saw the Rocky Mountains, The Rust Belt, New England and The South. I worked with hundreds of vibrant young people, who in turn knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors. The quest: to spread the good word of progressive values and reach into the core of the American psyche. The pertinent questions can be boiled down to: “Why does fear overshadow common sense?” and “What can we do to pull the country kicking and screaming back to the American Dream.” Enclosed are the lessons I’ve learned along the way. You’ll also learn more a lot about me than you ever wanted to know.

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Chapter 3. It’s Too Close To Call

I’ve flirted with politics before. I spent a year on the doors for Citizen Action, educating folks of the dangers of toxic waste from the Ohio factories and profiteering from the power companies. It was like I was born into it. I was like a sponge when it came to progressive causes and I boiled the fifteen-second elevator “they’re screwing us” speech down to a science. People were running for the checkbooks when they saw me coming. It all came to a screeching halt because of…

wait for it…

…a girl.

That’s been a recurring theme in my life. When my romance flamed out, I lost my passion for the job. Or more likely, the shift in focus allowed me a closer examination of both myself and the fund-raising aspects of the job. After a particularly smarmy door where I talked a woman out of twenty-five dollars that she really didn’t have, I walked away feeling dirty. I quit that night.

The experience wasn’t all bad. It whet my appetite for politics and started me on my social justice addiction that I have today. A few years later, I honestly don’t remember how it happened, I got involved with a fun little group call the League of Pissed-Off Voters. It led me Get Out The Vote (GOTV) as a volunteer for the John Kerry campaign. It’s barely a blip in the radar of my life, but I met a few wonderful people who I cherish to this day. It was a feel-good campaign. We were the resistance against the war-mongering Bush-Cheney administration and we were going to knock them out of office. I remember making a final push to get voters to the polls on election day and then racing to the bar to watch the returns.

Things were going great. It was a nail-biter, but we had a few good things going in our favor. As I sat with my compatriots at the bar doing shots, we cheered at every state that went our way and grumbled at the alternative. It was coming down to Ohio, and that’s where we were. My efforts that day could actually swing an election. It was that close. The screen on CNN flashed to a graphic of the state map and the caption;

“98% in. It’s too close to call. The majority of uncounted votes are Cuyahoga County.”

A roar went up from my friends. We had done it. Cuyahoga County was the largest Democratic stronghold in the state. Forty percent of all D votes were located in that county. No way the Republicans can pull it out. We did another round of shots. It was maybe thirty minutes later that the graphic changed.

“George W. Bush has been reelected to a second term in office.”

The air went out of the room. The best way to describe it is stunned silence. We did not know how to react. My first thought is betrayal. The assholes had stolen the election right out from under us. That feeling persists to this day. I can rail on demand about Voter Suppression for all the livelong day. Between engineered precinct confusion, thrown-out ballots and electronic voting machine skullduggery, I’m still convinced that the bad guys stole that one.

We weren’t quite done. In January of 2005, I rented a car, packed some friends in, and headed to DC for the largest protested inauguration in U.S. history. More than 50,000 strong lined the parade route that the Bushes would travel. I marched with Code Pink, demonstrated outside the American Enterprise Institute, shouted slogans at the black-clad stormtroopers of the DCMP (and got pepper sprayed for my efforts), bonded with activists from Anarchist University, and partied hard.

I’d had a taste of the resistance elixir, but it took seven more years to finally make the break from the dark side of corporate America and come to the light.

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Chapter 2. I Think He Hates White People

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was working as the multi-unit manager for a bunch of restaurants in an airport. In those days I worked hard and partied harder. In retrospect, I was probably a much-hated person. I was the perfectionist who also liked to joke around. So I was constantly screaming at others for doing the exact same shit that I would do. I ran around that airport with my chest puffed out and made a mad nuisance of myself.

I was in love at the time. She was a coworker who I’d met when I first started on the job. The funny thing, she’d nearly had to fire me in my second week as a bartender. I came into the cash room one day with my till $200 short. She grilled me like she was the FBI and I was a bank robber. I was sweating prolifically, like only a fat-ass ginger can pull off. The end was nigh until I said, “Hey, wait a second. Let me see that register strip.” Sure enough, I’d punched in 33 domestic beers instead of 3, for a traveler. Whew, that was a close one.

She was Ethiopian and the most beautiful human being that I’d ever seen. Our ages were fifteen years apart, but she was definitely the grown-up in the equation. It was a steamy relationship and it was destined for the inevitable flame-out before we even started. I told her every one of my secrets before I ever kissed her. We were inseparable for a short time.

But I digress.

One day at work I was flying around in giant asshole mode. I came into the office area like a whirlwind of bad intent. I started firing staccato orders at one of the office staff. She was not my subordinate. 

“Hey Gayle, can I get such and such report?’

She gave me the side-eye glance. I was so full of myself that it didn’t even register. “Sure.”

“Thanks.” I stood there, tapping my foot I’m sure, while she took her sweet time producing what I wanted.

“Here you go.” She handed the papers to me with dead eyes and disdain.

“Thanks. See ya.” I burst out of the office beelined for the elevator. 

“Hey.” Said a soft voice behind me.

I turned with a smile and said, “Oh, hey Honey.” Or some other sickly-sweet nonsense. I know my voice dropped a few octaves.

“Why did you do that?” said my girlfriend.

“Do what?”

“Why did you go in there and yell at Gayle?”

“I didn’t yell at Gayle.” I’m sure my cheeks were burning when I said it. I am a ginger, after all.

“You didn’t say hello. You didn’t ask how she was doing. You didn’t ask about her father who just had a heart attack.”

“I was in a hurry. I need to get shit done. That’s what I do, get shit done.” 

“No.” She said, shaking her head. “You need to slow down. In my country you have to say, ‘Hello, how are you’, before you do business. In most cases you would even have a coffee or a meal before you talk business.”

“How do you ever get anything done? Time is precious.”

She grasped both of my hands and looked me in the eye. “No, Brother T. People are precious. Jobs come and go, but people are forever.” All I could do was nod in shame as she turned and walked away. As the day went on the idea of it sunk deeper into my psyche. I was being a real asshole.

The following day I tried a new tack. I was Mr. Etiquette for the day. I was small-talking everywhere I went in the airport. I realize now that it was probably jarring for all the people who were used to the asshole me. By the time I reached the office, I was in full-on bullshitting mode. It’s been a long time, but I think (hope?) the conversation went something like this.

“Good morning, Gayle. How’s your father doing?”

“Okay…” Followed by an awkward silence.

“Well, err, great. If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” This was followed by more awkwardness and work talk.

It was only later that I found out how my co-worker perceived the conversation. She went to our mutual boss saying:

  1. Terry was nice to me.
  2. I think he was lying.
  3. I think he hates white people.

They say no good deed goes unpunished.

I persisted. From that day on I have been Mr Etiquette. I start every interaction, be it pace to face or on the phone with the question, “How are you?” The girlfriend is long gone, but her words of kind wisdom have lived on.

But I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I was still a raging asshole. I would be that way for the next eight years, screaming, pounding tables, throwing things, until I finally escaped the restaurant industry for good. 

Consider this an open apology to all those who had to deal with my shit.

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Chapter 1. The Meandering Path

Why Am I Here?

It was just about eight years ago that I started a quest that brought me to this very point in my life.

I was at my wits end, a bartender turned reluctant career restaurant manager. I’d gradually worked my way down the food chain from fast casual restaurants to pizza chains. The next stop on the train was the exciting world of fast food. My career, if you want to call it that, was a succession of fast starts and spectacular flameouts. I was a raging maniac. It was not a good time to be me.

In my late forties, I found myself playing out the chain as a pizza delivery driver in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio, The Hilltop. I bided my time. I liked the job. I was a GREAT delivery driver. Hell, I’d been a General Manager of the two largest pizza chains for over seven years. I knew exactly what my manager needed from me and I left it all out on the streets every night. After a year in the shooting gallery, I made a simple request. Transfer me to a safer spot and I’ll continue being the teacher’s pet. The word came down from on high:”

“We can’t do it, Brother T. If we let you transfer, we have to let everyone do it.”

Now you and I both know that this is a bullshit answer. If you can’t reward your good employees, then you don’t deserve good employees. Despite feeling betrayed and unappreciated, I gave my two-week notice and began looking at my options. It never occurred to me to just go. Managing was in my DNA. I knew that I would leave them in the lurch. I remembered the countless times over the years that my employees had done the same to me.

It was time to take stock of my life. Time to stop looking for the most bucks and the best perks. Time to do something to enrich my soul. Time to stop feeding the madman that raged within.

The Bullshit Artist

I’ve always had the ability to walk into a job interview and come out on top. You could same that I’m the ultimate bullshit artist. I‘m a voracious reader. I’m able to learn things on the fly. I’m good with jargon, so I’m usually speaking the same lingo as the interviewer. And I have the ability to get along with anybody.

It doesn’t hurt that I’m a white male, relatively attractive (I guess, I’ve never seen it), with a military background and I was articulate. I seem more educated than I really am. All through school I was an underachiever. I didn’t bother with homework, studying or things like that. I was a test taker. I knew that I had a pretty good chance of scoring well. Job interviews were just like tests for me. Go in there, tell them what they need to hear, report to work on Monday. That’s how I became an internet support rep who had never used a computer before, a supervisor in a factory when I had no mechanical skills, a high-volume restaurant manager who had no formal training.

Looking back on all those interviews, I can honestly say that I was the beneficiary of white privilege. The interviewers didn’t doubt me because I looked like them. They didn’t question my past because I have a nice smile. I was tough. I was a Marine. I’d been a “manager all my life.” I used this phrase in every job interview for twenty years. It worked every time. The only times that I didn’t get a position that I wanted was when I interviewed with someone who knew about my past. That never went well. You can’t bullshit someone who already knows about the skeletons in your closet.

I Went Down to the Crossroads

I quit my job. I was at a crossroads. I was also flabbergasted. I was raised in an era where we were told, “if you work hard enough, good things will happen.” I’d often used that messaging with my employees as well. Of course, mine was often double-speak. In the service industry, especially on the corporate side, we told our people whatever it took to get them to show up and not steal from us. Most times this wasn’t enough for them to keep their jobs, but at least it gave me time to find their replacement. So now pizza world was finding my replacement. What was I to do?

There was one thing I knew for sure. I could not endure another service industry gig. One the one hand, I’d been working in restaurants for so long that self-abuse and the abuse of others was second nature to me. I had done awful things to my employees and tolerated the same from my bosses. Twenty years in the industry was enough. I needed a clean break. I was searching for menial work. I needed zero responsibility for minimal compensation. I looked back on my history. I made a list. Marine, security guard, factory foreman, Jetski salesman (what?), environmental canvasser, retail manager, Internet tech guy, bartender, restaurant manager, multi-unit manager, pizza guy, delivery guy.

The Marine Corps was NOT an option. I guessed I could still guard things, but security is hardly a fulfilling field. I could sell things (but not Jetskis). Technically (no pun intended) I could get back into IT customer service. But the field had passed me by. No more retail. No more food. My eyes kept circling back to the canvasser job. I’d had a lot of fun. I’d hooked up with one of the loves of my life. I’d been very good at it. I told you I was a bullshit artist. On a whim, I called the number on Craigslist. I had an interview. I got the job. (Just not the one I have now). That’s what I do.

I picked up right where I  left off. I was one of those guys that walk around your neighborhood and knock on your door, telling you “how bad your windows are, and I can give you a heckuva deal on some new ones.” If you own a house, we’ve probably knocked on your door. It wasn’t my job to sell the windows. I just had to get my salesman into your house and let him rip you off. It was easy. Follow the script and watch your paycheck increase. I was good at it, but I fell into a malaise. I may be a bullshitter, but I felt like I was a con artist instead. And the conning went both ways. I could twist the words to get what I wanted from the homeowner, while giving the bosses what they wanted as well. After a year of this, I needed a change. Back to the drawing board.

The next ad I replied to was for a similar job. The heading said. “Make a Difference. Change the World.” Yeah right, I thought. I called the number. It changed my life.

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