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.