Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Temple Of Dreams

The heaven that was my first non-retail job was relatively short-lived. I was hired as a “Customer Service Representative” at Access Kontrol, which I was told was to evolve into supervising the three in-house reps in charge of managing the electronic key-cards for the clients. The director who hired me was fired by the owner a month or two later and my job’s evolution took on an unpleasant new direction. I floated for a while until I eventually found myself reporting to the VP of Sales. Sales? Sales. I was still called a Customer Service Rep, but now “servicing the customers” increasingly meant making them buy stuff. This was a short story. I’ve always hated selling, knew very little about our rather technical products, got no support or training from this tiny company and was destined to fail. They even gave me a sales quota. The firing was a thing of beauty.

On Friday March 31, 1995 (the last day of a pay period) my boss asked me what I was up to that afternoon. I told him all I had left for that week was to complete my monthly reports, including the sales figures – the first time I had made my monthly quota – and one afternoon appointment in downtown DC, from which I’d be going straight home. He asked me to stop by the office on my way home. When I got back to HQ at about five o’clock, he was the only one left in the sales office, which was unusual. The rest is pretty typical – he sat me down in front of his desk and bluntly said I was not working out and was being let go as of that minute. I could have gotten rug burn on my chin, my jaw dropped so hard. There were no warnings, no evaluations, no ultimatums. The only measurable thing I had to go on was my quota, which I had just surpassed for the first time. I think my stunned look of horror surprised my boss. Suddenly those stories of people going postal and killing their bosses didn’t seem so far-fetched. The impulse to hurl his arrogant, skinny ass through his fifth-story office window was so overwhelmingly powerful, I could swear the muscles that such an action would require started to twitch. I would later learn of the true depth of Access Kontrol’s gall when they contested my unemployment claim, citing “gross misconduct on the job,” an allegation they only dropped when I subpoenaed half their staff and countless documents for the hearing.

I never needed that unemployment money, thanks to another timely step to the plate by my man Blanston. He had found his way into a good job at a little Gaithersburg genetic testing lab called Gene Tests R Us, and his boss needed a temp immediately. A strange, life-changing series of events was set in motion. The assignment was a breeze – mainly simple office clerk stuff, and Gene Tests R Us loved me. They kept me there for four weeks and sent rave reviews to the temp agency. I didn’t miss a day of work, as my next assignment started immediately.

This one was even more interesting than genetic testing, although it didn’t sound that way at first. I reported for duty at the Rockville loan processing office of Some Bank, to do what was described by the temp agency as “light filing and general office work.” That proved to be mostly accurate. I did plenty of copying and filing of home equity loan packets, some data entry and a lot of sitting around getting to know the staff while the office manager tried to figure out what to have me do next. The atmosphere was often very uncomfortable. The office manager, a diminutive woman of about fifty, frequently had customers visit the office. Some of these visits were less than pleasant. This sweet-looking little lady would lock couples (and sometimes whole families) who had fallen behind in their payments in the conference room and “straighten them out.” There was terrible yelling and profanity, slamming and banging, breaking glass and horrifying threats. These customers inevitably left in tears, sometimes with broken thumbs. I would have to go in and clean up the conference room. Every two or three days, she sent me to Pier One to buy more water pitchers. The actual work I was doing was easy, but I was glad to see that assignment end, when the company came in and shut the office down.

My next assignment had me spending two harrowing weeks with the man I came to know as “The Evil Dr. Claw.” His name was actually Jim Claussen and he wasn’t a doctor, but he was running a weird little laboratory on “Biotech Row” in Gaithersburg – and he had a prosthetic hand. The agency had told me to expect lots of data entry and filing, but I never did either. Instead, on the first morning, Dr. Claw gave me $500 cash, drew two vials of my blood, then sent me home. The next day he gave me some more cash and stuck a little square band-aid on my shoulder, then let me sit in a vacant office and watch TV all day before giving me another blood test. He promised that this important product testing I was doing for him was completely safe. The following day’s band-aid was slightly larger, but the routine was the same. I had no idea what he was testing. I’d heard of little nicotine patches that doctors were using to help people quit smoking, so I assumed that I was testing something similar. I just know I felt great. I was having trouble sleeping though, even with my trusty tapes of WHFS’ “Mutant Dance Party.” By the end of my second week I was literally not sleeping at all, a fact which seemed to delight Dr. Claw. I had also made an extra $2,500 under the table. The company was in the middle of toasting the success of his caffeine patch when the FDA came knocking, and The Evil Dr. Claw was taken away in handcuffs. Actually he was taken away in shackles; they couldn’t get the handcuffs to stay in place on his “claw.” Too bad – I really enjoyed that assignment.

Word was getting around the temp agency about my ability to handle “sensitive assignments.” After a week of catching up on my sleep, I was sent to work as a “personal assistant” for an individual introduced to me simply as “The Dagger.” He was a very dark-skinned Jamaican – tall, muscular and imposing, but the black of his severe, bearded countenance was compromised by the whitest and warmest of smiles. He spoke with a gravelly baritone and his accent, I suspected, could turn frigid women to quivering puddles in an instant. He was impeccably groomed and wore tailored double-breasted Armani suits. He maintained a palatial office covering the entire top floor of the old G.E. Building in Rockville. My excitement at the prospect of temping in a gorgeous office overlooking the tracks of the CSX Metropolitan Subdivision was dampened by The Dagger’s proclamation that we would rarely be spending any time there. Seemed like an awful waste. Thousands of square feet of prime office space, beautifully appointed with cherry and brass, vacant ninety-five percent of the time. “You’re the boss, Mr. Dagger,” I said that first morning. “Call me The Dagger, kid,” was his reply. The first morning was spent learning how to disable The Dagger’s car alarm so I could go pick up his suits and “run backup” for him, learning how to disable the office alarm system so I could drop off his suits when he was out, and learning how to operate the phone system for those rare “in-office” days. That afternoon, we went to an indoor shooting range in P.G. County, where I had my first experience firing a Colt .45, a .44 Magnum, two .44 Auto-Mag Longslides (one with, one without laser sighting), a snub-nosed .38, a 9mm semiautomatic, an Uzi 9mm fully automatic, several customized AK-47’s and a “very old” Derringer named Betsy.

Day Two: Driving Lessons. The Dagger taught me how to drive backwards at high speeds for extended periods of time. He showed me the secret to backing quickly out of a tight spot, doing a split-second 180 and zooming away. We also spent an hour practicing driving while slouched down low in the seat, an endeavor which involves heavy use of the side mirrors, as well as this odd little periscope device on the dashboard. The Dagger was the coolest dude I’d ever met. When we got back to the office, he sent me out for pizza and his dry cleaning – in his 12-cylinder 1996 Jaguar XJ6 convertible. I was terrified at first, but on the way back from Armand’s with the pizza, I lined up at a traffic light next to a 1970 Mustang Mach-1 with a massive blower and racing tires – and easily blew him away. Yes, this was better than I ever could have hoped, for eight bucks an hour.

The next day was very short. We met at the office at eight o’clock, then I drove The Dagger to Enterprise, where he rented a plain gray Toyota. I followed in his Jag as he drove this nondescript Corolla or whatever to an industrial park off East Gude Drive. We left the Jag there and I drove him in the Toyota to a house just off Stone Street in the Lincoln Park section of Rockville and waited with the engine running while he shot Lester Jones eleven times in the head. Then I drove him back to the lot where we’d left the Jag, he took off in the rental and I went home. Wife1 was none too pleased at the thought of having my temp agency’s client’s $85,000 car parked outside our Frederick apartment, but she got over it, as soon as I let her drive it.

For the following several weeks, I never saw The Dagger. I just went to the office and played with his computer, watched his satellite TV and kept an eye on the train tracks all day. He’d call and check his messages, which were few, and tell me to forge his signature on my time sheets for the temp agency. Finally, in mid-July we had a “gig.” I got to carry around a couple of hundred pounds of cameras and equipment and make sure The Dagger was “always loaded” during a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot in New York. I had spent the whole Metroliner ride thinking that we were going to New York to whack some crooked man, and that the metal cases I was carrying were full of guns, so it was hard to conceal my delight at the sight of a dozen underwear models and full-service catering. The work was tougher than driving around in a Jaguar, but I can’t say I minded at all. The Dagger was every bit as impressive as a fashion photographer as he was as a professional killer. A true Renaissance man, I guess.

We got much busier for the rest of the summer. I got to assist The Dagger with a couple of initial public stock offerings for local companies. I drove him to the airport for his secret flight to Croatia with the Reverend Jesse Jackson. I read script with him, helping him tune up for his audition for the role of Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling in “Courage Under Fire.” I talked him out of going to Los Angeles to kill Ed Zwick, after the director called to say that Denzel Washington had become available and they wouldn’t need to see The Dagger after all. I got to assist him in the delivery of a baby hippo at the Baltimore Zoo. That was really gross, but after a few minutes the newborn was the most adorable critter I’d ever seen. A couple of times, I had to teach his Chemistry for Non-Majors class at Montgomery College. I got to operate the remote-controlled cameras while he piloted the Goodyear Blimp “Stars and Stripes” 1,100 feet above the Redskins home opener at RFK Stadium. That was the highlight of my assignment with The Dagger – floating above the field on a brilliant September afternoon for eight bucks an hour.

I loved that assignment, but eventually all good things must come to an end. The Dagger was hired for a long-term covert job in Liechtenstein. He said his “employer” would be providing an assistant from their own staff, so my services were no longer required. I wouldn’t have been able to go, anyway. It had been a constant challenge to keep Wife1 unaware of the wild stuff I had been doing for the temp agency all summer. Plus, Blanston and Gene Tests R Us were about to come through again. Their receptionist was leaving and they offered me her old job on a temp-to-perm basis, with the idea that I could move into a customer service role after a year or so. I accepted, and happily launched a significant new phase of my employment life. I was making the same salary Access Kontrol had been paying me – just to answer the phone, sort the mail and greet the occasional visitor. Life was again good. Plus, I later met my soul mate there, which was nice.

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