Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Half a lifetime ago about 44 million Americans elected Ronald Reagan to be the president of the United States. The morning after the election I went into work. I was working for The Phone Company at the time. My so-called “career” in the movie business had crashed and burned, my wife was pregnant, and I needed a job. Any job. Danny, a musician friend of mine, had gotten a job at The Phone Company when his meteoric rise to fame and glory fizzled out, and he told me to put in an application. He said they’d hire anybody. I couldn’t argue with that. After all … they gave Danny a job. He was the most unemployable person I knew. I put in an application, they hired and trained me that day, and the next morning I was working for The Phone Company.
We were paid every two weeks. Payday was normally on Friday but if you promised not to cash your check, they’d give it to you on Thursday. And every Thursday Danny and I would take our paychecks to our favorite liquor store. James the night manager was cool. He’d cash our checks for a slight fee. We’d buy a bottle of Wild Turkey, head on over to the House of Records in Santa Monica, buy a couple of albums, rock and classical usually, and drive up to my house because I had a killer sound system. Not just a good system … a fantastic one. In 2011 dollars the cost of the amp, huge speakers, and turntable would be just shy of $5,000. Only an idiot would spend that kind of money just to play records. And in 1980 … as a soon to be Hollywood has-been … I fit that description perfectly.
My wife was a nurse and worked nights. Danny and I would go into The Music Room, turn on The System, put the latest vinyl on the turntable, crack open the bourbon, and blast ourselves to a place where we believed the lies we told ourselves. Every other Thursday was Record and Booze Night at Bob’s Magambo Lounge. And every other Friday my hangover and I would go back to The Phone Company.
Before I worked there I had no idea what went on inside that huge featureless building in West LA. You picked up your phone and made a call. How that happened was a mystery. After my second day I realized it was a miracle.
Everyone in the building had a mindless job. Every part of any task was broken down into its simplest components. And then they’d hire people. Each person would be assigned to do One. Simple. Thing. The supervisor would take the results of his department’s simple things to his supervisor. And then all the supervisors would combine all the accumulated simple things … and that would result in Something Being Done. Most often … a dial tone.
For 15 minutes in the morning, 45 minutes at mid-day, and 15 minutes in the afternoon, we would leave our windowless concrete room and walk down the windowless concrete hall to another windowless concrete room where we would be “free.” We drank terrible coffee, ate tasteless sandwiches, and bitched about our job until our “free” time was up and we returned to our desks.
During my tenure at The Phone Company if you needed to leave your desk and be out of your windowless concrete room … you needed a hall pass. Black clothing was not allowed. Management was seemingly deranged by a perceived threat from the punk/goth movement so they outlawed the color black. Hats of any kind were against the rules.
I was told by my co-workers Management was always instituting new rules. For the most part nobody did anything about the rules except follow them and bitch about them. Every once in a great while somebody would snap at the latest batch of silly rules and quit. No pension for them.
The goal of my co-workers was to put up with whatever Management dished out for 20 years. The pension for a “Twenty Year Man” was supposed to be very good. The goal of Management was to constantly sift through the employees and weed out anyone who wasn’t … compliant. They rarely had to fire anybody. Anyone who eventually couldn’t put up with all the idiotic rules and regulations would voluntarily quit.
I called Management’s process, Clamp and Release. They’d issue three new ridiculous rules like: Hall pass, no black clothing, and no hats. Everybody would grumble grumble about the new rules. Maybe the gutless powerless union guy might say something to a supervisor. If the grumbling was loud enough, and the workers pressured the union rep to talk to Management a second time, there was a good chance that the gutless powerless union guy would come back with a “victory” for the workers. One of the three stupid rules would be rescinded. Yay! We Can Wear Hats! And then the Management Cha-Cha would start all over again. Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. Clamp and Release … Clamp and Release. Somebody in Management knew a thing or two about instilling learned helplessness in their work force.
The day after the 1980 presidential election I didn’t go to work with a hangover but something much worse … crushing depression. The woman in the desk next to mine came in late. It was okay though. She was having an affair with our immediate supervisor. She asked me what I thought about the election. Before I could tell her that I thought it was one of the worst things that had ever happened she bubbled up and said it was so cool. Ronald Reagan Was President! Earlier that morning my next door neighbor was out watering his hedge. He said he was “freakin’ jazzed” because Reagan’s election meant that his aerospace company would finally get the go-ahead money for the B-1 bomber. And he could keep his job.
Everybody I came in contact with that Wednesday was absolutely elated that Ronald Reagan and The Republicans were now In Charge. While I was walking around in stunned disbelief everybody else was acting as if finding out they had terminal cancer was the best news they had received in their whole lives.
Danny and I moved up Record and Booze Night at Bob’s Magambo Lounge from the next Thursday to that night. I got fired for insubordination for wearing black jeans … after being repeatedly warned. I think my firing had more to do with my not-so-surreptitiously left business cards on every supervisor’s desk. I had them specially printed up to read, “You are cordially invited to eat shit and die.” And Danny? A mutual friend of ours told me he ran into him years ago while taking photographs on a deserted beach. Danny wandered up to him and said, “Dontcha remember your old friend?” Danny took him to his van hidden in the brush. He was living there “between gigs.” My friend said he seemed particularly proud of the fact that he owned a gun.
I read the news today oh boy. They just don’t quit. The Republicans Just. Don’t. Ever. Quit. Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. Every freakin’ day. So here we all are … still orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles an hour. It seems to me that Management’s 30 year-long “Clamp and Release” program has worked out pretty well for them. We’re finally … ultimately … compliant. I can’t speak for Danny though. A homeless alcoholic living in a van on a deserted beach with a gun might have decided to quit.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh June 1, 2011