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Things I've Seen & Heard

by Stephen DeVoy Saturday, Nov. 20, 2004 at 10:57 PM

From the short stories collection.

Things I've Seen & Heard Author: Stephen DeVoy

This is not really a short story.  It's just a sting of memories of events that really happened.  I was standing in line at a pharmacy a few days ago, waiting for a prescription to be filled, when I overheard a series of conversations that reminded me much of experiences in my own life.  I didn't hear the whole of these conversations, because the woman waiting in line was on a cell phone.  I only heard her part of the conversations.

Her voice was horse.  She looked very ill.  She was young.  During her first conversation she called her office, explaining that she had just been to the doctor and was very sick.  Her doctor instructed her to rest.  Her office replied insisting that she come into work.  From what I could gather, she was involved in some kind of sales job.  She argued a bit, explaining that unless she rested she would get sicker and then she would miss even more work.  Her answers indicated that they questioned just how it was that she got sick, just what was it that she was doing during her free time that could cause her to become sick.  The woman was aghast at the line of questioning, stressed out and I can confirm, very sick, for after the conversation she continued to cough and sniffle while waiting for her prescription to be filled.

Next, she called her mother.  Crying into the telephone she explained how she was being forced to go to work, how they also reminded her that 2/3 of her earnings was commission so, if she didn't show up, at the very most she would earn 1/3 of her normal earnings, that is, if they didn't fire her.  She went on and on with her mother about how pathetic is was that they felt they owned her even during her time off, insisting an explanation for how she got sick.

I've seen this situation before.  I've been in this situation.  I remember back in 1995 suffering from a sever case of pneumonia.  I came down with pneumonia by getting stuck out in the snow on the road during a vacation in British Colombia.  It was January and I was snowed in.  When I returned to Los Angeles, I found myself sick.  Despite this, I had to go to work.  Driving to work in the morning, I would cough until I nearly passed out from the lack of oxygen, while driving.  At work, I worked about 15 hours per day trying to meet an unreasonable deadline.  During a few 15 minute breaks, I'd take a snooze on the couch only to be chided for snoring - note that I was working 15 hours per day with pneumonia.  The job was a temporary position - six months in duration.

I finished the project on time and did a great job.  Since it was a temporary position, finishing the job meant ending my employment.  I found another job immediately and had to leave the temporary job one day early to accept the new job (yes, I finished all of my work).  Can you believe this pissed off the temporary employer?  Not only did I finish their project, I finished it early and they wanted me to turn down a job because they expected me to work ONE MORE DAY?

What I'm getting at is that this is what America is all about.  I know many refugees from other countries: Russia, Cuba, Romania, Vietnam - they all tell me how lucky we are and they defend the "American Dream."  I suppose that if you're brought up in a nightmare all of this looks pretty good, but as far as I'm concerned the American Dream is a shit-poor excuse for a reason to live for all we end up with is poor health, stress, no dignity and, in the end, a pile of debt.

Thinking about this woman caused me to think about the many experiences I've had over my life as a worker.  The first full-time job I had was with a bank when I was in college.  I worked as a teller.  Right after training, the "big boss" at the bank's main office, the one in charge of all tellers, told me that he had selected me to work at the Wellesley-Hills branch in Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Wellesley is a very wealthy town.  This boss remarked, "don't let me down, Wellesley is where 'the beautiful people' live."  He asked me if I understood what he meant.  Yeah, I did.  He meant that people like me who come from middle class or poor towns are shit.

I was treated like shit in Wellesley.  I remember this woman, the wife of the owner of a car dealer, coming in one day, slamming down a wad of cash, and telling me she wanted 10 dimes, eight quarters and two nickels.  I was a bit confused by her request and asked her, "OK, so you want to use three dollars and ten cents of this for change, what do you want to do with the rest?"  She looked at me with extreme anger and asked, "What are you, fucking stupid?  I want 10 roles of dimes, eight roles of quarters and two roles of nickels."

I've never been good at handling disrespect, so I got a bit upset, looked at her and said, "Look, I am not stupid.  Let me show you something."

I pulled out a dime and a roll of dimes and I placed the two on the counter before her.  I pulled out a quarter and a roll of quarters and then a nickel and a roll of nickels, doing the same.  I pointed to the dime and I said, "Do you see this here?  This is a dime."  Then I pointed to the roll of dimes and said, "Do you see this here?  This is a roll of dimes."  I repeated this for the quarters and the nickels, adding, "Please note, what distinguishes individual coins from rolls of coins is that the latter are contained within rolls, thus the word "roll."  Needless to say, I was without work a short time later, but that was good because I refocused my energy on school and earned my degree, thereby not needing to be a teller again.

Before I move on, however, I'd like to mention another thing about this boss at the bank.  I believe his name was "Greenberg."  Mr. Greenberg had a habit of straightening my tie.  That's right, without even asking permission he'd grab my tie, straighten it out and suggest that I learn to do a better job at tying it.  Now, on the street if someone grabbed my tie I'd break their face.  The only reason Mr. Greenberg's face did not get broken is because he was the boss.  However, in a just world, someone would break his face and it is my hope that someone, at some time, did break his face.

After this job, I worked part-time for the father of my girlfriend in the shipping office of a corporation.  There was this older guy working with me, close to retirement.  He had a photo of his son on the desk.  His son was a marine and this man was very proud of him.  He worked as hard as he could and kept talking with me about how he was looking forward to retirement.  His pension would become available in one more month.  He had been with the company for about 30 years and did not imagine that anything would change within the next month.  A couple of days before his pension was to become vested, my girlfriend's father fired him for being lazy.  Right after he fired him, my girlfriend's father gloated about how much money he had saved the company be preventing the guy from getting his pension.  Welcome to fucking America.

I went to work for the Department of the Navy right after graduation.  I liked the job.  It was interesting.  What I didn't like was the paranoia around me.  I had a secret clearance.  We worked on a military base.  Our telephones were tapped.  U.S. Government spies would show up at bars when I was drinking and start asking me about my job - very specific questions that indicated that they were probing me.  Fortunately, I knew the deal.

While working for the DoD, I and many other workers were invited to a presentation billed as a chance to listen to a Soviet sub-captain talk about the Soviet view of the cold war.  We were told he was for real.  I had studied Russian in the University and suspected quickly that the guy was a fake.  He showed us Soviet Propaganda films.  Next, American propaganda films were shown, not as propaganda but as documentaries, attempting to dehumanize the Russian people, showing old and ugly grandmothers waiting in line to by potatoes, with background music from the Beatles playing, "Well those Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind..."

I found this appalling.  It angered me.  I asked the guy on stage if he was really a Russian or was he, as I suspected, an actor pretending to be a Russian?  He confirmed the latter.  The whole thing was a big lie and their goal was to get us to hate the enemy.  I wrote about this in my weekly report, denouncing them for this bullshit.  I quit a short while later, specifying my belief that "War is Obsolete" as the reason for quitting.  When I left, they gave me a picture of a Russian sub as a token to remember them by.

I've seen many things in my career.  I've seen bosses instruct workers to interfere with the work of other workers in an effort to make them fail at their jobs and justify their dismissal.  I've seen positions "eliminated" just to get rid of someone before they became vested or entitled to benefits only to recreate the position after the person was gone a few months.  I've seen people set up in traps, falsely blamed for things they didn't do and then fired.  I myself have been anonymously stalked online by an ex-employer.

And so, I sit here wondering why we call ourselves free and lucky to be Americans?  We work more hours per year than other industrialized nations.  We have far less vacation time than others.  We have no guarantee of healthcare or even fairness.  We get fired from our jobs for our political views or life styles.  It seems that if there is any freedom here at all, it is in the hands of corporations and not of the people.  We are a nation ruled by corporate executives.  Given this horrible, unjust and stifling system, why don't we revolt?  Will we always believe that just because it is worse somewhere else we are, by definition, lucky?  Does our luck run out only when we are at the very bottom of the barrel and in chains?  I don't know about you, but I expect more out of life than this.  Perhaps you should too.

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