Frank Bollinger Day

I was desperate to hire somebody, and John Gaines
qualified. He aced the test, his resumé oozed with experience,
and he was nice, really nice. You get your jittery chatterboxes
with sweat dripping from their hands and your head-nodders that
make you listen to yourself talk. There are people in between who
don't dress well or have dirty
fingernails, things you notice. But John was great. He dressed nice,
not stiff. Clean and groomed. He answered the questions like he
knew
what I was talking about. I was put at ease by the way he looked
at me
and cheerfully commented on my office decor.

He was somebody all right, except of course for the bitter fact
that
he had been fired from every job he'd listed on his resumé.
You've got
to think the guy is either confident or nuts.

He said he showed up on time, and dressed and acted appropriately.
"I
think I know why I got fired, but anything I say would be tainted
because I want this job," he said. "You'd be better off
calling my
former employers. I don't think they'll have anything too bad to
say."

My priority was to hire someone likely to keep the job for a long
time. I did not want the hassle of another person quitting, having
to
train someone else, and having to do the work in the meantime. I
was
sick of it. Three new people in the last year was all I could take.

The main problem was the pay. They offered clerk salaries and little
room for advancement, so there was a lot of turnover. It was a pretty
good starter job, but even if a worker could live on the salary,
when he became proficient he would usually leave for a real gig.
I begged for a promotion or even a lateral move, but they told me
to calm down and everything would work out. They knew they had me
(for reasons I won't go into) and there was nothing I could do.

The money was fine with John, even though he wasn't real young
and was way overqualified. Because of his past, he explained, all
he wanted was a home.

I rarely pushed on references, but in his case I was forced to,
and
then I was too intrigued to stop. I called all five of his former
employers and each one said the same thing: He never called in sick,
never took advantage, always did his work, and people loved him.
The
worst anybody could muster was a dubious lack of ambition.

"He'll work overtime, if you want him to, but he'll never
offer," said
one person, searching for better words. "I mean, he's always
there if
you need him, but he prefers his boss to be in control, or something,
if you know what I mean."

His first employer told me they'd tried to promote him but he'd
turned
them down. "In fact, it was right about that time that the
games
started," the person said.

"What games?" I asked.

There was a pause at the other end: "Not games really... just
funny
things. You can't really understand unless you know the people here,
but you'd love him. In fact, I would hire him again if I could.
He
really is a good worker, really, he just wasn't... right for us."

I gathered after five interviews that John was a people magnet
and his
personal habits were impeccable, but not one person could give me
a
definitive, sexual-harassment or work-not-up-to-par kind of reason
for
his being let go. Responses to that question varied from hazy to
façades under the flag of company policy.

Our publishing company had to produce a lot of copy on time. Nothing
big. There were about a hundred people in this branch and the house
was solid, but the company was just a little fish that had to work
very hard for sustenance.

 

None of the other applicants fit my parameters, mainly because
hiring
any of them would have involved a lot of training. With a host of
deadlines coming up and forced to make a decision, I decided to
take a
chance, figuring on just getting through the immediate future and
coming up with another plan if it didn't work. I hired John Gaines
and
he went right to work.

At first he took copious notes and pestered me with questions.
And he
never made a mistake, if you can believe that. Anything that did
go
wrong was due to my lack of attention to detail or errors by the
other
two assistants in my department.

John blocked out time for every task. If I gave him something extra
he
would tell me how long it would take to complete the project along
with his normal duties, then ask if that time schedule was all right
with me. Everything was produced just when he said and done perfectly.
If he had to learn a different job, he took notes again, then
memorized the chore like the others. He was a mechanic when it came
to
work, displaying neither joy nor scorn.

That shouldn't have been noticeable by itself. Most of us never
even
wonder whether other people liked their job, but with John, performing
rote tasks was a contrast. John's passion was making people happy.

When he did get everything down and the vagueness of work set in,
his
behavior in the office became endearing while his habits remained
scrupulous.

He was friendly at first — I mean, normal friendly. Like
anyone else
starting a new job in a small company, he was introduced to half
the
people and met the others by chance. He ate lunch with different
people each day for the first few weeks, and a lot of repeats too.
After a few months of bang-up work and getting to know all the people
in his realm, the "funny things" began.

It started with the secretarial pool. John had to go in there several
times a day and he was very charming. One day he got the dozen women
to agree that the next Tuesday, the last Tuesday in February, would
forever more be designated as "Funny Hats Day." Everyone
was to come
in wearing a funny hat. Four of the women didn't play, but John
wore a
Rat-Pack pork-pie hat during all three breaks and good-naturedly
kidded the women who didn't participate. The eight who did wear
hats
were the hit of the party.

Then he took a poll about tricks people could do with their bodies.
People were contorting their thumbs and making loud popping noises
all
day. Another time, every day for a whole week, he asked everyone
to
sing different parts of the national anthem and he formed different
groups for the chorus, percussion, and solos. People nervously went
along as he taped everything on a small cassette recorder. A couple
days later he played back a spliced version with some barnyard animal
sounds and everyone howled.

And he did all this stuff during lunch and breaks, mind you. He
was
never at his desk a second late, and most times he was early.

He wasn't loud or mean or forceful, just interested. He'd tell
computer stories to the techs and talk recipes with the grandmas.
He
was quiet sometimes, listening, then he'd add a story. He talked
to
everyone with respect and cheer.

Before a year had passed, Christmas rolled around, and he bought
everyone presents, and I mean everyone, down to the lowliest mailboy
whom he had barely met. Just little things. For New Year's he handed
out copies of a yearbook he had produced at home. The 20 pages or
so
of the home-computer generated, newsletter-styled opus had birthdays
remembered, a funny stories column, top ten lists, a Heard 'Round
the
Coffee Machine piece that was hilarious, and a comic strip with
pretty
decent characterizations of a bunch of people, including me. He
planted a scrawny tree on Arbor Day, and people still water that
weed
to this day. And then there was this goofy clerk in filing who was
always trying to be a little too friendly. John organized "Frank
Bollinger Day" during which everybody was required to "say
something
nice to Frank."

It was something like that all the time. John wasn't a performer;
he
was just trying to come up with something to be noticed. Most days
he
was just his friendly self, and if something came up in conversation,
it would turn it into action, then invention, then to merry
conclusion.

Sometimes he would come to my office to drop off something, then
babble a list of cliché-ridden, opened-ended questions that
were funny
and sweet. "How's the wife?" he'd say, and then, without
waiting for
an answer, blunder on, rapid fire: "Hey! Like your tie! Is
that
paisley thing coming back? And how 'bout that game last night? Was
that crazy, or what? Yeah, my back's been hurting, might have to
take
a couple days off." He'd do all this in the time it took to
walk to my
desk and drop off papers. "Boss," he'd often say, if I
had offered
something humorous as he left, "Don't ever change." He
cracked me up.

 

The let-down after breaks became difficult. People didn't bother
John
at his desk because he wouldn't let them, but he worked the crowd.
People loved him and changed their habits to say hello during the
day,
especially to him. They loved coming to work and hated leaving,
but in
between, they operated in a trance. Some came up with their own
games
or tried to carry on John's inventions even if he wouldn't play
anymore. Some went to breaks earlier and stayed later, hoping to
catch
him. John loved everyone, but he didn't play outside the rules.
No
matter what was going on — a spirited argument in the cafeteria,
a
party celebrating another made-up holiday — John was always
at his
desk on time, doing his work.

I loved the guy personally and always gave him great notices, but
management was concerned.

After two years it was obvious the branch was on the verge of not
pulling its weight; and worse, we knew why. At that point, some
of the
big bosses came down for a visit.

Their task, according to the grapevine, was to find out why the
division was having trouble with deadlines and to eliminate the
problem. Three guys hung around for a week, going over the books
and
observing. The whole office knew what was going on after the first
day
and, afraid for their jobs, were on their best behavior. All except
John, even if he found the rest of the crowd a bit more subdued.

John came in with a beaver-skin cap and no one said anything. John
brought in Mr. Microphone and no one listened. He didn't offend
co-workers when he sat with them, but for those few days he became
singularly animated in a show-off kind of way, quite different from
his usual go-with-the-flow performance. As my boss related it to
me,
the three guys held a meeting with the top plant managers at the
end
of the week. No real decisions were made at that time except to
"buckle down," as the three were to go back and discuss
their findings
with superiors. But one guy did tell my boss's boss, almost as an
aside, to find an excuse to fire John for unprofessional behavior.

It was over in two weeks. John had made up a booklet of poems from
a
few of the people with his own written biographies of each
participant. The woman caught making copies on a company machine
was
fired too.

 

His last day we had a big party. In the middle of the festivities,
I
went into my office to get away from people. Somehow, John had found
a
way to escape the excitement surrounding him and come to my cube,
alone. He came right up to the seizure in the wall and knocked on
the
partition, looking at me, as he always did, waiting for permission
to
enter. It wasn't as if he were walking past and happened to see
me.
With everyone crowded around him and stories abounding, he'd realized
that I was not among the throng. He knew I was in my hole.

"C'mon in," I said, slumped in my chair and happy to
see him.

He sat down in the seat across from my desk, leaning forward. "I
know
why they fired me. You didn't have to tell me."

"I didn't tell you," I said, embarrassed for the truth.

"That's not what I mean," he said. "I mean I know
why they fired me.
That's why I got fired all those other times. Now you know."

"It's just not right," I said. "And yet I sit here
and I don't do
anything about it. I can't do anything about it. I'm too scared
to do
anything about it. I'm mad at me."

"Don't kill yourself," he said. "Look at it from
their point of view;
the shop is not producing, and I am the reason."

"Don't say that," I said. "It could be anything.
The economy isn't
growing as much as it was when the company started, and with TV,
we're
going the way of the radio."

"You don't have to defend me. It's me." He paused and
I didn't defend
him. When I finally looked up, he was staring at me, his elbows
on his
knees, his hands clasped. "No matter what, I always did my
job. I
never cheated. I've done as you asked. I agreed to a contract and
I
honored it. It's obvious to me to be that way, but I know some people
take advantage and I am the cause. What I want to say is... well,
it's
not a bad thing, or a good thing, or an important thing, it's just
a
thing. It's not the point where importance begins."

I couldn't respond. He stood up.

"I don't mean you personally, if it sounded that way. I think
you're
an upright man and a good boss. I wish you good luck." He offered
his
hand and I shook it. "I'll see you out there," he said,
leaving. It
was late and I sat there a long time, purposely doing work to keep
myself sane. Eventually I noticed the sounds of the party dying,
and I
dashed out, but John Gaines had left.

That night, I stayed up 'til dawn watching a Mary Tyler Moore
marathon. In one episode, the station has a chance to be big and
powerful and Mary breaks down at the end because she doesn't want
anything to change. Tears burst down my cheeks and onto my shirt.

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