Saturday, September 15, 2007

Alice in ...Wonderland?

(This is story #4 of my employment stories. For an introduction to these stories, click here. Other stories are below this post.)

I offered her the job. To be honest, I was new at this hiring business, and she fit my naïve mental picture of a “light assembly” worker. Alice was middle-aged and had “been around” a variety of blue-collar jobs. Rough around the edges, she was tough-talking but friendly, knew how to schmooze, and it was obvious that her mama didn’t raise no fool. I wouldn’t have to worry about her, she assured me. She’d be there early. She knew how to work. Not like the goddam kids today. Why, she could teach them a thing or two.

“Can you start on Monday morning at seven?”

“I could start right now,” she replied with a wry smile.

On Monday, the call came in mid-morning. All four of the new hires were on the job, but one – Alice - had been late.

I called her that evening to see what had happened and to reiterate the importance of being at work on time.

“I had a flat tire,” she bellowed into the phone. “How can you get a goddam tire fixed at six in the morning? I showed my supervisor, but she didn’t care!” (And in fact, she had literally dragged her supervisor out of the plant to the lot where her pick-up was parked and pointed to a “flat” tire in its bed).

These things can happen, and so I sympathized with her misfortune and again reminded her how necessary it was to be on time from now on.

“Well I can’t help a goddam tire!” she repeated. “What the hell was I supposed to do? You can’t get a tire fixed at six in the morning.”

“Okay, Alice, no, you couldn’t help that. I hope tomorrow goes better.”

It didn’t. Tomorrow she didn’t show up at all, and when I called her home to see where she was, she yelled into the phone, “A goddam tree fell on my trailer! What was I supposed to do? Go to work?? I mean a goddam tree fell on my trailer, for chrissake.”

On day three she wasn’t on the job either. “I had to take my disabled daughter to the doctor in Syracuse, for chrissake. What was I supposed to do? I mean I’m her mother and she got sick and I had to take her to the goddam doctor.”

“Alice,” I said, “It sounds like you have too many problems in your life right now, so how about if you call me when things settle down and you are able to go to work.”

An indignant tirade followed in which she repeated all the excuses of the previous days, punctuated with the same chrissakes and goddams in exactly the same places. I got the sense these excuses had seen a lot of use over the years.

I never heard from Alice again, but months later I read about her in the newspaper. Using several aliases, she had defrauded the county welfare department, and using some gasoline, she had staged an “accidental” fire that destroyed her trailer. No doubt it was the same trailer the goddam tree fell on. Apparently the disabled daughter was out of harm’s way, probably sitting in the pickup truck with the goddam flat tire in its bed, for chrissake. Alice went to goddam jail.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Who Would Show Up?

(This is story #3 of my employment stories. For an introduction to these stories, click here. Other stories are below this post.)

It was the end of the day, but sure, I would interview one more - Claire. Chris, the Job Service counsellor, said she had some electronics assembly experience and maybe I could use her. His weary expression might have suggested to me that he didn't really think so, but I always took his referrals.

I greeted her and offered the chair, my eyes quickly skimming over her application papers as I sat down, but before I had a chance to even engage in some warm-up small talk, Claire began spilling the information she could not contain.

He had beaten her so bad, so bad she threw up, and then, while she was wretching into the toilet, he pissed on her. And then he beat her again. And again. Within thirty seconds of our meeting, Claire told me - a complete stranger, a possible employer - the intimate details of criminal abuse and pathetic submission. Everything about her was beaten down, like the worn once grassy short-cut people take across a lawn to save going to the corner. There was no life, no resillience left. Despite her statements that all of these things were behind her now, her eyes were dull and unable to meet mine, her mousy brown hair as limp as her spirit. I placed the application quietly on my desk and just listened.

"But that's all behind me now," she said at last, "and I'm ready to go to work." Of course that wasn't true, for if it had been, she wouldn't have spilled her guts to me as she had done. I thanked her for talking with me and gave the usual line about keeping her application in case I had an opening for which she was the best match.

For weeks thoughts of Claire would come back to me at unexpected times, her vivid descriptions haunt me. I'd seen the scars of abuse before, but this woman had described the wounds so clearly, in such detail, and she had poured out her heart to me as though I was a trusted friend.

Months passed. I hired Jane, a part-time assistant to do payroll and help man the office. One Thursday afternoon Jane handed me the list of people she had scheduled for Job Service testing and interviews for the next day, and I saw Claire's name.

"Oh dear," I said, "Of course you couldn't have known, but I've already 'interviewed' her, and she's not someone I can hire. No matter, I'll interview her again. Who knows, maybe her life has changed."

The next day, I arrived at the Job Service and took a peek into the testing room, but I didn't see Claire. As expected, there were eight people, and several of them were women, but none was the person I remembered so clearly.

I conducted three interviews, and then an enthusiastic, curly-haired blonde handed me her application and took the applicant's chair. The name on her papers was Claire. I took a double-take. This couldn't be the same mousy woman I had met previously. Her body language was confident, even jaunty; she was positively pretty.

The interview began to have a "Twilight Zone" feel to it as I realized that she had worked at Black and Decker and at Campbell, two of the same places the other Claire said she had worked. Finally I couldn't continue without addressing the situation.

"Claire," I said, "This is so strange. Months ago I interviewed someone who had the exact same name as you - but didn't look like you. This other Claire was not someone I was able to hire because she had some serious troubles in her life at the time. I would like to offer you a job, but this is just so strange... You not only have the same name as this other person, but you have worked in two of the same places!"

Claire lowered her eyes and said, "Well, there was a girl who lived with me for awhile, and she used my I.D."

"Oh my God. You mean she pretended to be you?" Claire continued to look at the floor and gave a slight sort of "strange things happen" smile. "Well, no wonder I was confused!" I said. And I asked her if she could begin work the next week.

When Claire left, I asked the Job Service clerk to pull all the information they had on both of the Claires. "Oh, there's only one," she replied. Incredulous, I said, no, there had to be two. "No, she completely changes every so often, but there's only one."

I believe I had interviewed a schizophrenic. Two of her. Unfortunately, I had to call her later that evening and rescind the job offer. There was no way of knowing which Claire would come to work.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fairy Tales May Come True, It Can Happen to You...

(This is story #2 of my employment stories. For an introduction to these stories, click here. Other stories are below this post.)

She hadn’t ever really had a paying job, but it seemed to me that she had worked. By the time she turned seventeen, marriage and babies ended whatever educational aspirations she might have had, and now at 27 she said (in so many words) she wanted to contribute to her family’s ability to live better. Her name was Cinderella. Cinderella Hotchkiss.

On first impression there was something about her that I liked. Maybe going through life poor and living in the back woods with that name had given her a sense of humor, the ability to cope with adversity. Maybe it was that look of determination in her eyes.

No coach nor fancy footmen had this Cinderella. In fact, she didn’t even have a driver’s license. No matter, she assured me confidently. Her husband would drive her to wherever the job was, and if he couldn’t, her mother would. (How many times before had I heard promises like these, believed them, and got screwed by day two of the job? Porcine flight has greater probability.)

Worst of all, she had not done well on the manual dexterity testing. That was hard to overlook, but I knew that my customer sometimes had a need for packers, and that job called for energy and a good attitude in greater measure than fine motor skills. Maybe she could fit in somewhere.

Her gown was denim, and that was in fashion at this electronics manufacturer’s ball. I stole a peek under the desk… good…her slippers were canvas - practical, no glass in sight.

Across from where I sat, Cinderella’s eyes looked at me with a sincerity and eagerness that was refreshing, and despite all the reasons I could see for not hiring her, I wanted to.

“I’ll be there and I’ll do a good job if you hire me. I want to work. I won’t let you down.” (Please stop saying that, I thought. Please stop reminding me how dumb it would be to offer you a job.)

And so I told her that I didn’t know if my customer would be willing to give someone a try without at least a “medium” score on the testing, but I would ask, and I would let her know. She left and I continued interviewing the remaining candidates, thankful that a few of them had high scores and some history of employment.

But how could I not take a chance on someone whose very name conjured up images of fairytale castles and living happily ever after? Okay, so that didn’t fit with the “hire with your head, not with your heart” philosophy, but I was also desperate for enough qualified workers to fill the job orders lying on the desk in front of me, and at the end of the day I called the customer who had always been the most reasonable to work for.

“Wayne,” I said, “I’ve got someone I want you to try. She scored low on the testing, she doesn’t drive but swears she’ll get to work on time and always, and her name is Cinderella.” There was a beat of silence and then Wayne laughed and replied, “Sure, why not? We’ve already got Grumpy, Dopey and Sleepy here, so she’ll probably fit right in.”

And she did. After working on my payroll for eight weeks, she was hired by my customer and worked there for over a year. Eventually I lost track of her, but I’ll never forget Cinderella and my gratitude for her and for workers like her, workers who made my own business shine.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tell Me What You Like to Do

(This is story #1 of my employment stories. For an introduction to these stories, click here.)

He was a man of few words and sullen stares. The size of his hands told me he wasn’t likely to be good at working with tiny electronic components, but hand size wasn’t something you could pre-screen for when somebody called and said they were looking for a job. Ditto the stares.

I guess you could say that terseness defined him, for his written answers in the application’s blanks were few and far between and tended toward one-word summations. He had apparently finished high school (but didn’t say where) and had been in the army (again, no details). There was no indication of any work history in the fifteen years since. Even the “position desired” question was unanswered.

I worked my way through the application, verifying his address and asking for his telephone number, learning that he had done “odd jobs” and that he didn’t care what kind of work he got.

“You haven’t put anything here on this line where it asks what your interests and hobbies are,” I said with an encouraging smile.

Another stare, and then he replied, “Whattya mean?”

“Well, some people like sports or listening to music or working on cars or whatever. You know, what do you like to do when you aren’t working?”

Silence. And then his eyes met mine and he said slowly and deliberately, “Killing people is my specialty, and I’m very good at it.”

I chuckled (trying to act nonchalant and as though he had been joking) and replied, “Well, I guess everybody’s good at something!. … So… John… do you have transportation?” and I gradually concluded the interview so as not to appear intimidated.

I rose and extended my hand to shake his but was un-met. As he walked away, I made the coded notation for “Do Not Hire,” and I thought that he was probably an honest man. His specialty was killing people, and he was probably good at it because you had to be if you survived Vietnam, and it would haunt the rest of his days.