Sunday, January 27, 2008

Attack of the "I Don't Give a Fuck" People

There’s a woman at work who's been annoying me lately. She's an archetype of people I’ve encountered, and have personally been at times, in my life: The “I Don’t Give a Fuck” People. Remember being a teenager or in your early adulthood, and any time you were faced with a stressful situation demanding that you respond in an immediate fashion, the pressure combined with your lack of maturity would often result in this response: “I don’t give a fuck!”

Or “shit.” Or “damn.” There you go, Rhett Butler at the end of Gone with the Wind. These days, Rhett would say, “Frankly, Charlotte, I don’t give a fuck.” As he sauntered from the mansion, hopped in his '76 Nova with flaming tailpipes, and drove down to hear the Atlanta Rhythm Section at the local bar.

This woman at work is a few years older than I am, in her mid-40s. Has two college-age kids. Is in a semi-supervisory role. She’s prone to getting extremely emotional and pitching fits in closed-door meetings in her boss’ office. She often jokes about taking anti-depressants, and it’s clear she takes them daily. Oddly enough, she’s basically a nice person I get along with, although I suspect she wanted to get all I-Don’t-Give-a-Fucky with me when I made the executive decision to move the fax machine away from just a few feet from her desk. She wrongly believes I’m under the protection of the guy running the department (my boss, and her boss’ boss), but I’m really not, she could tell me anything she wants, in any tone of voice she wants.

And I don’t give a fuck!

What a wonderful world it would be if we could all go around giving that template response to any question: I just don’t give a fuck.

I hope you’re gathering that I’m dog tired of this sort of response, especially from someone old enough to presumably give a fuck about many things. I think what bothers me most about this current situation is the woman seems to delight in telling people, in her high-pitched, “don’t mess with me, I’m a crazy bitch” tone of voice, that she doesn’t give a fuck. It’s like a badge of honor. Only she sees reality, that the given situation does not require her to investment her precious emotions, therefore …

It seems like the only thing she gives a fuck about is letting everyone know she doesn’t give a fuck!

I’m not sure when people got it into their heads that declaring your lack of emotional involvement and commitment to anything was an attractive, respectable, honorable quality. It isn’t. Most people I know who truly don’t give a fuck about anything are, simply stated, assholes. Because they don’t give a fuck about anything, you can’t trust them. They have no accountability. Nothing matters to them. Go ahead, beat the shit out of them. They don’t give a fuck. After you’re done, and they’re laying on the ground in a heap, they’ll eventually get up again and go straight back to not giving a fuck about anything.

Of course, your average “I don’t give a fuck” person, were you to attack them in any sense, physically, emotionally or mentally, would respond and, in fact, would make your demise their number one, burning, “now I give a fuck” reason to live. Which is the real issue and problem with the “I don’t give a fuck” people. What they’re really trying to tell you is they’re mentally ill at worst, or childish at best. They haven’t quite gathered that no one give a fuck that they don’t give a fuck, and loudly proclaiming this on a regular basis only makes other people view them in a negative light. Unless they’re like-minded “I don’t give a fuck” people, in which case you’ll have a confederacy of dunces, a portable New York City. They're the boy who cried "I don't give a fuck," so that when they finally do give a fuck, no one believes them.

My reality, not sure how it compares to yours, is that if I were to make a pie chart demonstrating the things and people I truly give fuck about as opposed to those I don’t give a fuck about, there would be a less-than-one-percent sliver denoting what I truly care about in the world. Think about it. How many people there are in the world. How many different issues there are to get truly upset about if you so desire, maybe even get involved with on some level. Heath Ledger? Cold as it may seem, I don’t give a fuck that the guy just died. I feel vaguely bad for his ex and kid, and family and friends. But I don’t recall any of these people dropping cards and calls when my dad passed on, a situation I truly gave a fuck about, nor did I expect them to, as they didn’t know him. I have a hard time grieving for people I didn’t know. Generally speaking, unless they touched me in some way with their art, or imparted some other message I admired in some sense, it just doesn’t happen.

And that’s just the way of the world, which some people seem loathe to admit, or maybe I’m just missing something when I get perturbed over the unbelievable carrying on over this regrettable situation for the past week. (It isn’t tragic. It’s stupid and pointless, a bad way to go. You leave a kid behind at that age, I can only hope the end was accidental. I don’t know. I don’t care. People of all ages are dying all the time, and I don’t know what emotional filter is supposed to serve as a norm for absorbing all that emotional darkness. How much you should acknowledge, how much you should ignore. I know what mine is, and it’s the difference between empathy and sympathy, if you want to break out the dictionary. I don’t make exceptions for celebrities.)

I don’t get any pleasure about letting the world know I don’t give a fuck about many things. I don’t feel any spite about it either. If you hear me saying I don’t give a fuck, it’s an accident, something I didn’t want anyone else to hear. Because I’ve come to realize that I like people who give a fuck and who demonstrate that more than say it. I like showing people that I give a fuck. I tried avoiding this knowledge about myself for years, masking it in irony and black humor, which I still gladly partake in. But I also know that I’m more prone to giving a fuck, that people expect me to give a fuck, because it’s just part of my nature. Get yourself in a work or personal situation with Bill, sooner or later, the guy will give a fuck. Sometimes too much of a fuck, but a fuck nonetheless. On one hand, I don’t care what you think about me. On the other, I recognize that there are standards in any given situation, quiet rules of morality, doing what’s “right” so to speak, and I try to gauge that and respond acccordingly. Finding myself not giving a fuck in any situation is a failure of sorts, and not something I like to admit to these days. Not giving a fuck is just too lazy.

So, you can see this is something I give a mild fuck about, and when this woman at work proudly declare she doesn’t give a fuck, or I hear some random kid on the street declaring the same, I cringe. It’s just such an obvious character deficiency that I don’t see any positive outcome in pointing this out to the person. Because, as noted earlier, people who claim to not give a fuck give an absolute fuck about demonstrably not giving a fuck. It’s their thing. Wrap your mind around that, man! I don’t give a fuck! How do you like those apples, asshole?

Why do I find the concept so ugly and empty? If you look at it from a Buddhist point of view, not giving a fuck must be a beautiful thing. Unencumbered by attachment, floating free of the unreality of our world. Unfortunately, I rarely see people smilingly coo, “I don’t give a fuck” with sitars strumming in the background. It’s always some angry, frustrated person really saying he or she feels powerless. It’s not a sense of release, of rising to some higher plane where not giving a fuck offers enlightenment. There is no release. There’s some grumbling or raging person declaring it, and that same bleakness not just enduring beyond the statement, but most likely growing bleaker.

Fuck the “I Don’t Give a Fuck” people, the fucking fucks. After a certain point in life, you really should start giving a fuck about situations in life you’re entirely capable of giving a fuck about. I’m not saying walk the streets in a flowing robe, handing daisies out and declaring to strangers with a warm smile, “Hey … I give a fuck.”

All I’m saying is give a fuck when you can. Keep it to yourself when you can’t. I gather we’re living in a culture where not giving a fuck isn’t just the norm but a badge of honor for a lot of people who truly need to pull their heads out of their asses. I recall in the weeks following 9/11, one of the writers for the weekly paper I also wrote for put forth that Hollywood would never make another movie where the cool anti-hero would calmly walk away from a massive explosion occurring behind his back, probably in slow motion, and not react humanly, i.e., just keep on walking, like a fireball of body parts and steel shooting into the sky was normal, as opposed to the real reactions of running, turning around, or hitting the ground in fear of getting hit by debris.

Well, got news for you, after that grace period where we all became gentle hippies for a month or two, movie scenes like that became the norm again, not so much because we forgot the lessons of that day but more so because people who make movies recognize movie goers like watching and often emulating people who just don’t give a fuck, as demonstrated by deeply unreal scenes like that.

I can live with that sort of unreality, but, man, it gets tired in real life, where there are very few casual fireballs, just people in our lives who put out the vibe that they don’t care about anyone or anything. No drama. No cool soundtrack. The world most likely won’t end with a bang. It will end with no one giving a fuck.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Factory

Strange day at work. Guy next to me is either suffering from some extreme cold or the onset of pneumonia. He sounds like a doberman choking on a Barbie doll. Got a jolt earlier in the day. I had to talk to a woman about a legal invoice we received related to the closing of a small factory in upstate New York that made plastic products. As she was telling me what this small company did (before going under … a long, sad story, that apparently had more to do with mismanagement than hard times), it occurred to me that this place was a smaller version of the plastics factory my father had worked in for decades before retiring around the age of 68.

It’s always nice to get those reminders when you’re sitting in an office reading clinical documents noting the financial decline of a company, when the reality of my life through the first 20 years or so, was watching Dad faithfully go to work every day at the factory to put food on the table and keep the roof over our heads. This small company in upstate New York circa 2007 could have just as easily been the larger factory Dad worked in from the early 60s through the mid 90s. Do I feel dirty or guilty eaves dropping on this failing company? Not really … Dad would have been over-joyed to know I was working in a place where I wasn’t get the working-class shit end of the stick. But it did get me to thinking about the factory.

For most of my childhood, the factory was a gray mist to me and everyone else in not just in my family, but the neighborhood. Most guys with families had working-class jobs. Mom would make a sandwich the night before. In the morning, Dad would pack the sandwich and a thermos of ice tea into a lunch pail, maybe some chips, and off he’d go in his shitty used Dodge. A scenario played out a few hundred times over all over the neighborhood. He’d leave for an 8:00 shift and come back around 4:45, usually not in a good or bad mood, just sort of “another day at work” attitude I now know all too well. It was somehow crucial for Mom to have dinner on the table right around that time. Would have done us all a lot better to eat later, but Mom’s still like that. I was probably a chunky kid because of the lethal amounts of junk food we had in the house, and the reality that a kid eating at 4:45 is going to be hungry at 9:00. After dinner, Dad would read the paper on his sofa (he owned the damn thing, literally and figuratively), and invariably nap before a night of TV. (We kids used to excavate the sofa when Dad or Mom left the room to find the loose change that would always slip from Dad’s pockets when he took his naps. Could range from a few cents to a dollar in change. I’d always use this in our monthly Catholic confessionals as something bad I’d done … stealing change from Dad … that’s the kind of kid I was and how far I got in terms of being a prick.)

Hardly a bad life. I’ll never quite get the stereotype of working-class guys sitting around a kitchen table, drunk, smoking, wearing a wife beater, and conveniently beating the wife and backhanding the kids. That wasn’t us, nor many of the families I knew back then. If there were guys like that, bad news, they’d have been miserable pricks no matter what they did with their lives. Some people just aren’t geared for happiness, and it’s a fucking idiot who uses his socio-economic class for an excuse to be miserable. It stands to reason that if you’re not making a lot of money, then you shouldn’t base your personal happiness on money. Not too many people seem to gather that’s about the best, most sane way you can get through life, especially in our hyper-status aware culture that’s geared towards creating miserable, unsatisfied pricks who never measure up to some mythical standard.

Dad would go off to work at this mystical place, and that’s all I ever knew about his work life, as he never brought it home with him, save for the occasional conversation with Mom complaining about some jerk at the job. We'd go to his company-sponsored summer picnics, but those were a blast, kids everywhere, a huge cookout, games, prizes -- I knew this was a respite to work as opposed to Dad's work. After my first year at college, I lucked out and gained entry into the summer work program at Dad’s factory. My two older brothers had blown off the opportunity, probably because the financial aid they were getting for college at the time (late 70s/early 80s) was phenomenal, paying for everything associated with school. Not for me – I had to make some money if I wanted to have any spending money during the school year, and build a small nest egg for the eventual move to the main campus and an apartment.

The pay was $6.50 an hour … appreciably high for the time for kids in school. Dad was pleased that I took him up on the offer, but I was glad to have gainful employment, and probably in a place where I’d have Dad to guide me around and look out for me. There were about a dozen other kids in the same program, all in the same boat as me, working-class kids, sons and daughters of factory men, all attending local colleges, looking to make some good money in the few months before the next school year began in September.

I was assigned to the maintenance division – Dad was in production. This meant we wouldn’t have much contact during the day, which was probably for the best, as I’d see him at breaks and lunch time. Each division had a different color jumpsuit. Production was white, maintenance blue. First day was simply getting assigned two uniforms, work goggles and a hardhat, with a voucher to hit a local shoe store for a pair of steel-toed boots. It felt cool to be wearing a uniform, something I hadn’t done since my Little League and basketball days in early high school.

Maintenance didn’t mean sweeping up. It meant maintaining the numerous machines and heavy equipment in the factory: mechanics. I had zero mechanical aptitude. It didn’t matter. The expectation was for kids like me to come in and simply help out on jobs, help hold a wrench in place, do the grunt work of the department, sweeping floors, handling any small projects that came along that didn’t require too much know-how. Another college kid, Ed, was assigned with me – a football player on scholarship to one of those small northeast Pennsylvania colleges. The guy was built like a little bull, had the vibe of a surfer dude, we got along pretty well. The maintenance building, separate from the main factory, was a ramshackle two story building filled with greasy parts and work machines (drill presses, lathes, saws, etc.), pornography posted wherever possible. I was forever turning a corner in that place to find a poster of a naked woman bent over to show me her perfect ass. (I'd have to wonder if the same lax social standards would be allowable today.)

Of course, my main memory of the factory is the guys who worked there, a motley collection of Korean War Vets (Dad was an old timer for sneaking in on the tail end of World War II), Vietnam War vets, younger guys who had no war, some druggy/wastrel types who clearly weren’t going to last long and the occasional very tough broad who held her own with all those guys around. Ditto the occasional black worker. The handful of black guys who worked there fit right in, were in the same boat as the other guys, got along amazingly well with a bunch of white guys who were and still are often depicted as a bunch of racists. I found that if you worked with someone, you’d learn a lot more about them beyond race, you’d generally learn the truth of their nature, and that’s something greater than any surface value.

In maintenance, most of the guys were gritty older Korean War vets who put out the “mechanic” vibe. I often got placed with Pete, who reminded me of Yosemite Sam, a real crusty old guy, sort of looked like Van Gogh with a pair of Wayfarer shades. The odd thing was there seemed to be some bad blood between Pete and my Dad, at least that was the factory lore, but Pete and I got along great, and he confided in me that he had a lot of respect for my Dad, and Dad did vice-versa when I told him I was working with Pete a lot.

The oddest pair was Al and John, two old timers near retirement who were diametrically opposed in personality, but were best friends. I wrote a one-act play about them a year later at school, “Tweety Bird and Blowfish,” that the teacher went nuts about, called it the best student play he’d ever read. I simply imagined the last day of John at work, and the blow it would lay on Al, who never showed his emotions and seemed to have no one else in his life who could make him smile.

Al was a big burly guy who seemed really unhappy, clearly drank a lot and would often come in late or phone in sick. When he did come in, he’d sulk at his station by the lathe and generally not be approached by any of the managers until later in the morning as the “leave me alone” vibe he emanated would have spooked even Lou Reed. I'd occasionally see Al get into it with a manager in a way that suggested asking him to do any kind of work was an invitation to an argument.

John was a sparkplug. My first day there, standing there like an idiot in my hyper-clean jumpsuit (most blue maintenance suits were filthy with grease and oil stains), John walked up, hugged me, and cried out, “Billy, you look just like your Dad, I’m John, let me walk you around, you and me are going to be friends.” In that play title referred to above, he was Tweety Bird, just a very vibrant, comical guy, bald on top with pair of coke bottle glasses that made his eyes look enormous. Small, too, about 5’ 2” or so, compared to the grumbly bear of a man Al was. When I got paired off to help John, I knew I was in for a day of philosophical conversations, him talking about his wife and kids (two of whom were my age), a little work, a lot of bantering. Make no mistake, the guy worked his ass off, but I took note regarding the attitude he had about work, that you should enjoy doing it, see purpose in it whatever it was, and just do it.

How he and Al became best friends, I have no idea. Obviously, they worked in the same department, from what I remember, starting around the same week, too. I should mention that the factory opened up in the early 60’s, and my father was among the first few dozen employees along with John and Al. For that reason alone, I got along with Al as, like so many other guys, he saw my father in me. (I never understood that as I didn't sense any physical or personality resemblance, but there it was.) It was good to see that whatever Dad’s reputation was at work, there were people in this place who treated me with respect as a sign of respect for my father. So whatever he was doing there, he was doing it right. The guys who worked with Dad would often joke about the hiding places he had and how he knew how to kill time when necessary, but I also got the vibe they were learning their jobs by watching him and were pretty impressed with him. (Dad turned down a few opportunities to move up the corporate latter as they would have involved pulling up roots and leaving the area, and I can tell you, it was a chore to get Dad past the county line. I think all the traveling he did in the armed forces as a mechanic, which he’d go on doing for another decade after WW II ended, wore him out in terms of moving around.)

The main reason Ed and I were hired, beyond helping out in Maintenance, was to paint the metal portion of the factory roof. There were a lot of ducts, air vents and piping that were on the roof, and they had to be weather-proofed to avoid rusting. Ditto the wooden walk ways that led all along the roof, which was a sea of gravel with these various metallic configurations sprouting up like towns every few yards. It was a big job and would take most of the summer.

I’ve never been more tan in my life than I got those two summer at the factory. Because Ed and I would go up there around 9:30, take the morning and afternoon breaks, and lunch, but most of the day was spent painting in the summer sun, in an environment that was a lot like a desert. It only made sense to unzip the jump suit down to the waist, use the arms as a belt, and get tanned while we worked. We’d occasionally get busted for this, as one of the maintenance managers would routinely check up on us during the day. But most days were a strange, lonely hum with a paint brush – everything hummed up there, you cold hear the factory working through the sounds these ducts and pipes would make. I can’t recall which, but one of the managers was a prick, an older guy, about the only guy who didn’t like my Dad, but I took solace, because a lot of guys thought this guy was a bit of an asshole. Still, I recall him dressing me down a few times for not wearing my full uniform … in 90-degree heat and direct sunlight on a roof filled with metal and gravel. We didn’t take him that seriously, and he didn’t take us that seriously because he knew we’d be gone soon enough. (The best managers were usually guys who had worked the factory floor in some sense for years and had been promoted to manager – for every guy like that, there were three or four who had always been nothing but managerial types with little or no feel for the men who worked for them.)

The only other major job we had, near each summer's end, was to build "coffins" for burnt-out and old dyes, which were long, extremely heavy metal rolls that were used to produced sheets of plastic. We were building literally coffin-style casings out of wood to hold these things, and I actually got pretty good at carpentry for a very short while, as we'd have to build first a proportionately-sized box, and then wooden frames inside to hold the bars on each end, finished off with a lid for the casket. We'd also drive these things to a near-by warehouse in a delivery truck (Ed drove as he knew how to drive a stick) and put them away -- a fun job to be honest as it kept us busy for a few weeks and we had a clear-cut goal each day.

It became a treat to take breaks as it meant human contact in the lunchroom, a gritty, no-frills place, a soda machine, some non-descript tables and metal folding chairs. But it meant “no work” and eating, so it was a good place. Guys would treat me like a novelty there because I was a college kid. I still remember reading “A Tale of Two Cities” on break there, which must have freaked out many a coworker as the Penthouse “Letters” Forum would have been more in line, and trying to choke back tears at the book’s end. There was a lot of joking, a lot of complaining. I recall one little guy with a beard who worked on the floor, complaining about the “college kids getting a tan on the roof while I work my ass off.” I look back and recognize that even then, I could have kicked the shit out of the little ogre, but I kept my mouth shut at the time as I could see this guy was just an unhappy little prick, and my being there was simply a lightning rod for his misery. Had he goaded me into a fight, I probably would have been booted off the summer program and lost a good chunk of change.

Some of the younger guys tended to be fuck-ups … I don’t know why as that particular factory was far above the working conditions of most factories in the area. There was one guy in particular who was just borderline crazy, came in one day missing his front teeth, said he had tried to bite a fire hydrant. Whether that was true or not, who knows – he probably got into a fight at a local bar and got his teeth knocked out. But you never knew with him. There were some real outdoorsmen there, too. One guy told about running over a sea turtle while on vacation in South Carolina. Got out of his car, realized the turtle wasn’t dead, so he got out a tire iron and beat it to death to make sure. Threw the turtle in the back of his pick-up and had turtle soup the rest of his vacation.

I’d check in with Dad when in the lunch room, but there was no rule that we had to sit together. He was often sitting with his crew, talking shit about the day’s work, and I’d often be with the maintenance guys, talking about what have you. I recall one guy, Harry, who was the biggest character in the factory, who worked in the dye shop, where they’d clean the huge, smooth dyes that would need to go back to the factory floor ASAP so the guys in production could keep pace with their orders. In terms of the plastic, think saran wrap, or any rolls of plastic – there are hundreds of kinds of plastic products that would come out of the plant based on orders from manufacturers. One of our Christmas presents at home every year was plastic sleds made in the factory, simply rolls of thick plastic with a handle on one end. If you sprayed Pam on the bottom of those things, they were like rocket sleds.

Harry was always flirting with the women in the place, a big, burr-headed guy who was a lot like Curly in The Three Stooges. (I should also mention that there were a handful of guys there who were Three Stooges scholars, buying books on the comedy trio and having deep discussions on the pluses/minuses of Shemp versus Curly Joe.) We got along great – most people did with Harry. His thing was to crack me up while I was eating. He’d often talk about the various kinds of shits he was taking lately and was so graphic in his descriptions that at first everyone would be grossed out, but after awhile, laughing hysterically. He got me a few times, laughing so hard I couldn’t finish eating. The guy was just naturally funny. The odd thing? The dye shop had to be the worst job in the place. Harry would spend all day burning dried plastic off hot metallic rollers, some a foot or two long, others a few feet long and weighing tons. He’d stand there with a blowtorch and a putty knife, melting and scraping off burnt plastic with some really noxious fumes coming off as a result, an then cleaning each roller with an odd mix of ammonia and acetone. A toxic, hot place to work. But Harry had a blast most days. Again, another sign to me that if you put your mind into your work and took pleasure in doing the job, you could do just about anything and still manage to be reasonably happy.

The few women in the place were usually middle-aged, hard as nails on the outside, but matronly once you talked to them. They had to be tough to put up with a room full of belching, farting guys talking sports and hunting all day. But there was one girl, probably my age, and beautiful, who worked on the floor, and for the life of me, she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Blue eyes, long brown hair, a great pair of tits that were perfectly shaped in her white jumpsuit. I don’t know what is was, as the other guys said she wasn’t married or dating. The other college guys came up zero with her, too – not sure if it was a college thing or she just didn’t want to deal with any guys in that place. She seemed really out of place there, like a model who had wandered in for a fashion shoot and was now held prisoner.

The few guys in the place around my age, i.e., in their early 20s, did tend to be standoffish with the college guys doing summer work. And my quiet response was usually, what the fuck, I can’t help that. Every older guy I worked with in the place told me he’d break my legs if he ever saw me come in there as a full-time worker. Not that it seemed like a bad place to me to work. But they were coming at it from years of experience, while I was a novelty worker there for a few months in summer, not being exposed to the same pressures in work or life that they had going on. There was one college guy who did just that – said, fuck it, I’m just not going back to college in the fall, I like it here. A big guy, bigger than Ed, and you know what? He had that vibe about him that he would be better off in a factory, and was probably forcing himself to go to college for his parents’ sake, who were probably non-too-pleased with his choice. In terms of factories, there were a lot worse ones to work in than that one.

I’ll never forget at the end of the first day, after getting out of my uniform, standing there in my shorts and t-shirt. I was by the work clock, waiting for Dad, had just punched out, was saying goodbye to the people I’d met that day as they left. As I bent over to untie my work shoes, I found that I couldn’t – my stomach would cramp up each time. This was the first time I’d been on my feet for 8-9 hours. When you go to school, you’re sitting most of the day. The summer jobs I’d had before, all lawn mowing and landscaping, were a few intense hours of physical labor followed by immediate rest. This was eight hours of standing with two 15 minute breaks and 30-minute lunch hour, but otherwise on my feet all day. It was a bit of a shock.

Dad and I would drive to and from work together in his shitty Dodge, and that’s when we’d talk about work, the people I should befriend, those I should watch myself around. He’d been in that place since the early 60s (this was 1983-84), was really one of the “founding fathers” of the place, so he knew it inside and out. I got to see a whole different side to him because of the summer factory job, and I liked it. I could see that he was well-respected at work, that he wasn’t known as a shitbird or the type of pain-in-the-ass worker I’ve dealt and worked with many times over my work life. The guy who was quiet and tight-lipped around the house was actually pretty gregarious at work in his own way, and I knew his work ethic coming out of the Depression and fighting in World War II, followed by years in the service, was something people recognized on the job.

And I got to see and feel what it was all about: the working-class thing. Honestly? It’s not that much different from the office thing. I see it this way. In a factory, the worst things going are the drudgery and the boredom of doing what becomes a very basic job (believe me, most jobs in a factory are nowhere near as basic as you’d think, take years to perfect, but once you do, become dull), on top of dealing with fucked-up managerial types and never having any job security as you recognize yourself as low man on the totem pole in the corporate hierarchy (despite doing the work that must get done to produce goods). In an office, the worst things going on are psychological warfare, hideous, high-school like games of status and one-upsmanship, mental stress that’s often far worse than anything you’d find in a factory, dealing with fucked-up managerial types and never having any job security no matter where you are on the corporate totem pole.

They both have their pluses and minuses. From having experienced both, I can see the one thing I miss about factory work is the sense of camaraderie, the feeling of being in something together, that you’re not out to screw over your coworker, not just because it doesn’t get you anywhere, but simply because it’s the wrong thing to do. In offices … christ, I’ve met some seedy, truly evil individuals, people who should be in jail or beaten mercilessly. The thing about office work? Repeat after me: more money. That’s pretty much it. Guys who work in predominately male factories think “hanging around pussy” all day must be heaven, but I think I’ve detailed in the past the problems that come with mixed-sex work places (type in "Corporate Amazonia" on this blog’s search window for a real treat). I rarely get that “guy” vibe in offices that was common currency in the factory, and when I do, I watch myself, as I know people will be noting this and making generally wrong character assessments as a result. Offices are often tense places filled with unhappy people – I think part of the reason people like working with me is I’m not tense, and my main goal every day is to get shit done with a minimum of hassle and/or attitude, working that straight line from Point A (9:00 am) to Point B (5:00 pm).

Just like Dad. He was lucky enough to dodge the fate of those poor bastards stuck in that small plastics factory that went down a few months ago. It wasn’t lost on me that on the day the doors were shuttered to the place, probably after a tearful, final announcement from the owners, the workers gathered in the break room one last time, that this could have just as easily been my Dad among them, getting the heave-ho, maybe a few weeks severance and a slap on the back. I’m glad Dad got better in his work life, and I know he’d be glad that I was in a place reading about such a sad occurrence as opposed to being stuck in it. I think that’s why he was glad to have me there in his factory for a few summers, and why he wanted to never see me there again.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Battle of the Bands

It doesn’t feel like it, but it’s already been 10 years since I hung around the Jersey shore quite a bit, seeing two bands who my friend J managed. I’ll give them fake names to avoid too much hassle: Village Green and The Junkyard Cadillacs. In Springsteen lore, a big deal is often made of the Jersey shore bar scene, how it was nowhere from which he sprung, despite its proximity to New York City. Well, in some senses, it was and is nowhere. But it’s also just a scene like any other you’ll find in non-glamorous places in America, bands playing a network of small bars and clubs for gas money, if they’re lucky, most nights playing to sparse crowds, no matter how good or bad they are.

I’m not sure how J came to manage these bands. Knowing his nature and love of music, he was simply seeing these guys play in bars, befriended various band members, they recognized he had some connections with bar owners and such, and it came to pass that he managed them, although he surely lost more money than he made. Managers have a thankless job. Do it right, and you’re a prick, but a prick who gets things done. Do it wrong, and use the previous sentence substituting “doesn’t get things done.” Most bands think their managers are doing it wrong, without realizing the countless minute details that are going right because a manager is quietly making them go right. Managers have a similar ethos to Hell’s Angels: when they do right, no one remembers; when they do wrong, no one forgets.

J’s tenure with both bands was constantly rocky, but apparently rewarding enough that it took a good few years for things to fall apart. The Junkyard Cadillacs were a seasoned rock band with country leanings: think The Georgia Satellites, who seemed like a template for the band’s look and sound: very much 80s roots rock, electric-guitar driven. They had a self-released album out before J managed them which, had it been released in the mid-80s as opposed to a few years into the 90s, would have registered. As it was, roots rock was dead as a doornail by that time. Bands like Uncle Tupelo were being hailed as some new wave of authentic Americana while 80s bands like The Del-Lords and Jason & the Scorchers were being quietly elbowed out of the picture as if they'd never existed. I think the problem was they were too “rock” – the new scene was more about acoustic instruments and some half-assed take on authenticity. (These were college kids, for christ’s sake, aping Carter Family albums. The new sincerity? Fuck's sake, I think that's what it was called. What an awful name and concept for a music scene.)

Still, the Cadillacs weathered on with the their New York Dolls/Steve Earle vibe without a home. They were some real characters, too. The lead singer had an amazing snakeskin jacket among many of his cool stage outfits, and he knew how to be a lead singer in a rock band, just that right attitude and presence. The bass player had a six-figure day job doing some type of scientific research and seemed a bit out of place as he was a sane, rational adult. The lead guitarist could play anything, a big, swarthy Italian in a leather jacket who had that Sopranos’ vibe before the show existed. The rhythm guitarist was a dead ringer for Roger Daltrey; his day job was as a process server in north New Jersey, a nasty job that probably served him well in dealing with drunks in bars. They had a Spinal Tap rotation of drummers who came and went.

On the other hand, Village Green were a bunch of snotty-assed kids who never quite understood how good they were. With the right guidance, which would have implied J getting them to a certain point where someone at a record company with national connections could have taken the flag, they could have easily been a band on the same creative level as Wilco. But, this being the Jersey shore, well, you gather how this thing went, none of it J’s fault. These guys were country rock, too, save their influences were more Gene Clark and Gram Parsons than the rock edge of the Cadillacs. It was unusual for guys their age, in their early 20s, to be so into country acts that were obscure by any standard, much less when you consider all their friends were listening to goony 90s shit like Limp Bizkit. I can still recall making a compilation of Mike Nesmith solo material for the lead singer, as I could see the similarities, and the drummer, who worked in a record store, snobbishly scoffing at the tape, “oh, man, I already got all that stuff,” maybe not realizing all those albums were long out of print and it was a miracle anyone had them. (I found them in a shitty Manhattan record store that routinely dumped out-of-print albums and broken-up box sets in their shit bins for $5.00 a disc. I got Nesmith’s entire catalog like this, while it was selling on Amazon for $40.00 a disc used.)

The lead singer was a long-haired Irish kid, truly talented, not the leader of the band per se, and that was a problem area. There were three singers in the band, but one being the drummer and the other the bass player who only took occasional leads, he was the most obvious focal point. All three wrote and sang their own material, and they were all amazingly good songwriters, especially for first efforts. I have a copy of their only album, which was never released save for home-made CD-Rs sold at shows, and there are still a handful of tracks from the disc I listen to today and think what might have been. The other band member, a gangly, gregarious carpenter from the Philly area, had toured with The Mekons and had many tales to tell about that adventure (most involving drugs). He looked like Buddy Holly and added that sort of jangle to their sound. The drummer came on strong, but the guy was working in a record store and had that sort of “fuck you” attitude about him which was a bit of a front. The bass player was more a pop guy, into The Who, but he fit into their sound. All their influences worked that magical band synergy to make the sum far greater than the parts. For covers, they’d do rockabilly versions of The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” and The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” – and I mean really good cover versions that sounded like their own songs.

The one thing both bands had in common was they both thought J was a flaming asshole, and they were probably right about 80% of the time. I can see that another key point for managers is to serve as a target for the band’s hatred and misgivings about their lot in their life. It’s the manager’s fault. Always. Either he’s not doing enough, or he’s laying it on too thick. A manager is like a piƱata for the band to playfully take shots at and scream with glee when they bust him open and the candy flies out. The other 20% of the time, J was working his ass off for both bands. Lining up gigs, trying to make new connections for them, always scouting out ways to increase visibility, building email lists, hustling the door at each show, making sure to talk to everyone entering so they knew his bands were playing, selling CDs after the show, basically serving as an unofficial master of ceremonies. I saw bands without managers simply show up and play. With J, both bands had a promoter working the floor, talking to literally every person, sometimes charming them, sometimes on the verge of getting smacked, but his heart was always in the right place.

And what a shit gig the whole process was. Your average bar featuring music has a brutally honest policy with bands. Someone at the door will take a cover charge, usually something minimal, $5.00 seemed to be the going rate at most places, never more than $10.00. The door person would then ask what band you were there to see and kept a running tally, as there’d often be 3-4 bands playing over the course of a night. At the end of the night, the band would get their percentage of the door. So, if 50 people showed up and 10 mentioned your name at the door at $5.00 a head, you’d go home with $50 for about an hour’s work. Split four ways. Throw in gas money, even buying a drink, and no one in the band takes home any pay. The lucrative bar money is always, and I mean always, kept by the owner, and I’d have no idea how much that would be per night, but figure a minimum of 50 people having three drinks a piece at an average of $5.00 per drink, you’re talking close to $1K a night, which isn’t bad.

There’s nothing particularly shady about this – it was standard issue in most bars where I’d take note of how they operated. The bands got no frills and would be lucky to have a ratty, graffiti-scrawled dressing room backstage. Usually, they’d be by the side of the stage, literally sitting on their equipment, the guitar and drum cases, so that no one would swipe their stuff as they waited to play. No roadies, unless they had musically-inclined friends who knew how to break down a drum set or set up mike stands. There often was no soundboard or monitors, just guys plugged into amps and wailing.

Musicians would pile in, generally with their incredibly beautiful girlfriends (who saw that glimmer of rock-and-roll hope in their broke-ass, sometimes talented boyfriends), sit through the sets, load in their equipment in about 10 minutes, play like a house burning down for an hour, do an encore if they were lucky, break down their equipment in about 10 minutes, get their whopping fee for their services, if any, usually spending that on a beer or two (I rarely saw bar owners front bands free alcohol and if so, they kept count), then pile their shit back into the van and go home. Repeat 3-4 nights a week, in the same bars on the same circuit, throw in an occasional festival or opening slot for a bigger band in a nice venue, maybe even a wedding (which would be rock-star money for them, thousands of dollars for one appearance, laugh at wedding singers all you want, but a good wedding band can make a fortune).

The only pleasure was in playing live music, which would be magical some nights and a turd in the punch bowl on others. I can only imagine how old the routine must get for a touring band driving x number of miles between shows in a cramped van for months on end. It felt old just watching guys who lived in the general area doing the routine and going home at night. You had to like your fellow band members and be operating on some mutual level of respect and maturity. Bands broke up constantly because they recognized each other as childish assholes, often with drug and alcohol issues, which makes a situation that, at best, is hard to endure, virtually impossible to handle on a long-term basis.

Rock and roll! I never got to see it at the level of four-star hotels and tour buses, which must be something else entirely. But when you see it at the level of guys doing it simply because they love the music and believe wholeheartedly in what they’re doing, you recognize that they’ve seen too much to be chasing a myth, that there is no big payback, that this may be all there is, and they may as well rock while they can. Sort of a fitting motto for life itself, where the big payback will be you in a pine box. You learn a lot about why you do things when you do them for free – I can easily make the same comparisons to me writing this now. You do it because it makes sense, and I guess in the back of your mind, you’re always hoping for that big break, but recognizing the only way you’re going to stay sane is to keep doing what you’re doing.

So, a band either feeds off that energy or implodes. I can see that The Graveyard Cadillacs are still doing their thing by their website, with or without J, who bailed on them in a “you can’t fire me/I quit” situation back around 2000. I can’t even recall the exact grievance. I know the lead singer was never happy with J’s efforts, despite sharing a real kinship with him, they really hit it off, but it must have been a love/hate thing. It’s clear the band hasn’t done any better without him, but the simple fact that they’re soldiering on all these years later is a good sign. If you’re a middle-aged guy in a bar band, you no longer give a fuck in a very healthy way, and the world will never break you.

Since J managed both bands, it was often easier for him to book both bands as a package for a club on a given night. Thus, Village Green and The Graveyard Cadillacs got to be in the same bars at the same time, yet you’d be hard-pressed to see them hang out together or even exchange glances. The Cadillacs though the Green were a bunch of arrogant kids in the shallow end of a bar scene they had spent years traversing. The Green thought the Cadillacs were a bunch of cheesy, over-the-hill weirdoes who should have thrown in the towel years earlier. Of course, both bands were right about each other to a small degree, save that their vision of each other was reduced to a worst-case scenario as opposed to recognizing each other’s strengths.

They routinely ignored each other when one band was onstage and the other waiting to go, finding an excuse to go smoke a jay in the parking lot. I probably saw at least half a dozen shows with both bands present and rarely did any guy from either band exchange words. The only intra-band recognition I saw was the Cadillacs’ bass player, the normal guy, stopping to watch the Green’s show, simply because he thought they were a great band. “Jesus Christ,” I remember him telling me once at one of the Green’s better shows, “if these guys stick together, they’re going to be huge.”

In that gritty Jersey bar-band scene, his admitting that and openly encouraging the Green was one of the finer acts of humility I’ve ever seen in a bar. It wasn’t just those two. I never got a “we’re all in this together” sense from any bands in that scene. You often read about these mythical music scenes, like Springsteen’s scene in early 70s Asbury Park, and the key is a bunch of guys pulling for each other, floating in and out of each other’s bands, a sense of community. I never saw that, if it was there. The guys in Village Green, much as I liked each individual personally, really could be a bunch of arrogant pricks who thought the world was spinning around them and about to lay down at their feet.

Unlike with the Cadillacs, Village Green broke up on J before they got a chance to fire him. I can’t recall what it was – probably a simple, inevitable clash of egos. The band routinely fought like cats and dogs, so I guess one of those fights mushroomed into the end. Simply underlying that the guys never understood what they had, but probably do now. I’ve been around talent a few times before it hit, sometimes without even knowing it. I remember seeing Beck way back when, at the Pyramid Club in the East Village, long before his first album came out, playing folk tunes … and I thought he wasn’t that good. By the time I heard “Loser” on the radio a few years later, man, something had happened with the guy.

But Village Green had it, and I felt like I was watching the start of something big. I imagine every band is a volatile mix of personalities that could torpedo their cause at any given moment. The Cadillacs no doubt laughed at their ineptitude, having weathered all the usual garbage any long-term band endures, especially one that never quite got there. It was a shame that they never got their chance to move to the next level, because as a band of fully-grown men who understood each other on some important, unspoken level, they surely would have handled any situation with aplomb. I think it was because the Cadillacs all had clearly defined roles in the band, set in stone from years of playing together and knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Village Green never figured that out, and were too young and full of themselves to stop and ponder what each member meant to the whole, what made each good, when each would be better taking a backseat and letting someone else drive.

The lead signer put out a few songs on his myspace page, both good, basically him in his Village Green style, save he was now working with a small string section which added a nice twist to his country background. The drummer’s living down south somewhere, although I understand he and the lead singer stay in touch. Bass player put out some more poppy solo material that wasn’t bad at all and seems to bounce from band to band in the scene. Buddy Holly just disappeared, probably working on a house in Cherry Hill as I write this. Scattered to the wind, like ex-Beatles putting out half-assed solo albums for the rest of their days.

And the bar scene must go on, although I haven’t been to a bar show in years down there. J stopped managing after awhile, puts on a few “twangfest” shows every other year and generally takes a bath money-wise, despite the constant low rumor that Springsteen will show up at one of these things one day and hoards of people will pour through the door. (Springsteen associates often make a fortune playing Jersey shore clubs with the understanding when they’re booked that it’s always a possibility that Bruce will show and jam on a few songs towards the end.) After awhile, he got sick of it and got himself involved with the local Little League as a manager, no doubt finding 12-year-old boys easier to manage than grown musicians. This story would really be his to tell, from the bands to the club owners he regularly haggled and drank with. I’d wager the Jersey shore bar scene is even more of a “nowhere” place now than it was 35 years ago when Springsteen exploded from it. And if you haven’t already guessed with music, nowhere is where things tend to happen.