Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Sippican’s Greatest Hits: Hostile Workplace

In a previous life, I supervised the construction of commercial buildings — filling stations, convenience stores, restaurants — that sort of thing.

After a short while, I was in charge of most everyone. When you’re in charge, all the ticklish things make it to your desk. The staff tries on their own for a while, and then it escalates to supervised trying, and finally at the end of the winnowing process, there’s nothing left but really tough things that only a person with the keys to the kingdom can handle.

The worst stuff was what employees would hide for years at a time. Carrying uncollectable debt on Accounts Receivable forever, never quite completing a project until a place needs to be remodeled before it’s officially finished, stuff like that. A couple of times project managers went into the hospital for short periods and a casual look over what was hidden under their desk blotter gave me an aneurysm. The passing of an employee out of the building was like the old business saying about the tide going out: It affects everyone the same amount, but you get to see who isn’t wearing any swim trunks. It was at the tail end of one of those cathartic employee convulsions that I gazed upon the second most beautiful woman in the world. You don’t forget people like that.

There was a convenience store/ gas station combo that had been built before I was even employed by the company, but was never really finished to the last jot and tittle, and there was some money left on the table and I had to go get it. The building was in the inner city of Boston. I arrived in the late afternoon after a long drive. The place looked as neat as a pin, like it was ten minutes old. I got out to look around a bit, then went inside.

The building was built in what we termed “the urban style.” What was meant by that was that it had to be constructed to withstand a zombie apocalypse, a full-on riot, a nuclear strike, and World War III at the same time. The building was constructed of textured concrete block. The block was ribbed to make it harder to deface. A concrete block might seem substantial to a layman but it’s hollow inside and won’t stop a high-caliber round. While laying up the blocks, each cavity in the wall was specified to be filled completely with mortar instead of the insulation a regular wall might be filled with. Reinforcing steel bars were put vertically through the webs before the mortar, because it was common for hijacked cars and trucks to be rammed through the sides of such buildings for smash-and grabs. In addition to the wall reinforcement, bollards were set deeply into the ground in front of any part of the facade with any sort of penetration in it. The bollards were steel pipe that were filled with concrete.

The roof was flat with a short parapet wall, as is common with such structures. HVAC (Heating,Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning) and other mechanical contrivances were installed on the roof. In the “urban” environment, every opening that was required in the roof , some large, some very small, had to have a steel grate welded over it before the units were installed on them, to protect from entry to the building after removal of the machinery from their bases.

The front of the building had a lot of glass, centered in the facade. It was all bullet-proof glass, and not ordinary bullet proof glass, but a form of it the suppliers often referred to informally as “military.” That was just to protect the building during the day when it was open; there was an enormous sort-of steel garage door that was lowered over the glass part of the facade after the business closed for the night.  The building became a short, squat metal and masonry bunker that showed no opening whatsoever. At one time, these sorts of buildings has a four-inch square window in the back door so that employees going out to the dumpster could look outside first, but a would-be robber had shot an employee in the face through the window at another building, and the architects changed to a blank, steel, bullet-proof door with a camera instead. There were cameras all over gas stations already, to allow the clerks to shut off dispensers if people were smoking and so forth; one more didn’t cost that much more. That other employee at the other place died, by the way, and the robber couldn’t reach the knob by reaching through the window hole, so he never did get inside.

All the money in such places was treated like radioactive waste, and we used to install safes that were welded onto a sort of steel sled, and the concrete floor was laid over and around them. There was a kind of slot with a slim rammer that you folded folding money over, and injected it into the safe. There was no way for any employee taken hostage to open the safe.

I went through the front door to talk to someone about whatever needed attention before we got our money. It was a conventional convenience store, with all the usual stuff that’s in one.  But instead of entering the store, you entered a sort of quiz-show booth, about the size of a roomy phone booth or a cramped handicapped bathroom, maybe. Nothing and no one in the store was accessible to a customer. Items were displayed on shelves facing the door. There was a stainless steel drawer, like maybe you’d find in a supermax prison, and everything going in or out went through it. I was in the noticing business, and noticed that the size and shape of the drawer was painstakingly designed to keep a robber from being able to put a hand holding a gun and turning the barrel up to the cashier when the drawer was half-opened; it would break your wrist to try it.

The glass inside was way, way more bulletproof than the bulletproof glass on the outside. It gave a hint of greenish parallax to the view inside, like everything was under water filled with algae. It was like a window on a submarine. You were expected to point to what you wanted, pay first, and the item would be placed in the drawer. There was no penetration of any kind, and I knew from blueprints that the glass went all the way to the underside of the roof deck, so you couldn’t climb over it. You spoke to the attendants through an intercom only.

There was a young girl behind the counter. I am in the describing business, but I cannot do her justice by telling you how beautiful she was. It would be easier to build a time machine, go get Titian and DaVinci and bring them back and have them work in shifts trying to paint her picture. I’ll bet the picture would never be completed because they’d be fighting over her with knives before fifteen minutes was up. She was so pretty that a normal person, which I sometimes am, would just look at her, slackjawed, and forget how to breathe or think or behave. If God has some plan for mankind it is surely inscrutable because no one else would put this daisy on the far side of Pluto like that.

She was very pleasant, but didn’t speak English very well. I was expected, and even though she was barely an adult, she had been left in charge and given instructions on what to show me. She told me to go outside, and she appeared from around the back of the building and showed me some trifling problem I can’t remember right now; a busted hinge on a dumpster corral, something like that.

There wasn’t anything left to discuss. We’ll fix it, you’ll pay, case closed. I leaned on my car and was writing some notes about the meeting, and she put her hand on my arm. She was very worried, and told me that I must leave, right away, because the sun was going down, and very bad people would come out. She pointed to a park across the street and said it was very dangerous, and that after dark no one like me should ever show their face there. She wasn’t frightened, exactly; she was frightened for me. I was born a few blocks from that place, and for all I know my parents took me to that park when I was an infant, but I didn’t mention that to her. She lives here all the time now. That’s seven no trumps. She went inside, and I left.

I’m told recently that if someone looks at you funny twice, or maybe if a guy with bad breath instead of Fabio pectorals asks you out on a date at your cubicle farm, you’re working in a “hostile workplace.”

I’ve been to a hostile workplace. I’ll raise my hand when you’re in one.

28 Responses

  1. glad you revisited this one.
    i believe maturity and wisdom can be reached in at least two ways, doing it wrong and getting experience and listening to someone else who did wrong and getting wisdom through understanding… i prefer the latter.

    what stuck with me from last time was this passage.

    "The worst stuff was what employees would hide for years at a time. Carrying uncollectable debt on Accounts Receivable forever, never quite completing a project until a place needs to be remodeled before it's officially finished, stuff like that."

    from time to time i think about that type of person and try not to be them…it's amazing what will be forgiven if you just humbly admit your mistakes.

  2. I SAW HER.

    Her presence graced an otherwise undistinguished mom n' pop motel outside Bonners Ferry – although she wasnow fluent in English, her first lanquage was Beauty. And how. She was ostensibly the night clerk, yet it was obvious she was there to show How It Might Have Been.

    Claimed that night her husband was out bear hunting with his brothers – and said it with a straight face.
    I knew it to be untrue at the time – how could it be true?

    What man would leave such exquisite beauty alone for a moment?

  3. Yes, parts of Boston are that dangerous. After all it's another long-time Democratically controlled urban "paradise". I'm very familiar with that station, never stopped there but I've seen it. It's not that far from the spot where an Irish exchange student was hit in the head by a rock thrown by a teenager, he threw it because she was white and looked like the people from South Boston (Southie, think Whitey Bulger) who he hated, and who hated him right back. BTW, the Irish lass died.

    As an Telephone worker, in the seventies, I had to work in that part of town. During the day, we all refused to go there at night. Many parts of Roxbury, which is what that section of the City of Boston is named, are quite nice with parks and beautifully designed townhouses built by Jewish and Irish families a century ago. The Irish and the rest moved to the North and South Shores, the suburbs. The neighborhoods and the brownstone and granite houses are not so well maintained now.

    One day I was in Roxbury servicing a phone system at a small business. Going in I had dumped the tools out of the truck except my tool belt and some service parts and replacement sets. After going inside and finding the problem, I went back to the truck for a part. As I was bend over going through the parts bin I heard someone behind me. I turned around and found that I was surrounded by neighborhood kids. Most of them were five or six years old. They were all looking at me with enormous brown eyes. The oldest, ten maybe, said to me that their mother had instructed them to come back from the park at a certain time, but not to cross Seaver Street without an adult accompanying them. Without further ado or conversation, one of the children took my left hand (well two of my fingers) and another one took my right hand. Well, what could I do? We crossed the street. All the children stopped and carefully looked left then right and then we crossed. On the other side they let go of my hand, they all (in unison) said "Thank You" and walked away.

    Why do children have to grow up? In eight or ten years would any of them be throwing rocks at a white face topped with red hair. Like mine.

  4. I lived near Mass General on Mass Avenue in Roxbury and worked in Southie 45 years ago.

    Neither place exuded friendliness, exactly.

  5. I'd lived my entire life on the Atlantic coast, moving from from Washington D.C to Florida and back as a kid, as the family ran from bill collectors. What I knew, and what I expected, was based my experiences in Eastern cities.

    I was had an Epiphany on my first trip to Boise Idaho one summer.

    I saw two Caucasian women, attractive, casually dressed and deeply engrossed in talking while each ate ice cream cones. What made the event amazing was it taking place on a park bench in an urban public park a little after midnight. They were completely oblivious to their surroundings and clearly felt safe and comfortable.

    I realized how much freedom we have lost, and how complacent we are about it.

  6. I have read, and reread this several times. The staccato description and the unexpected ending are flawlessly done.

    I have sat in a small restaurant in which the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in real life also sat. I felt sorry for her, because everyone, men and women, put down their forks and stared at her. The whole time she was there.

  7. When was all this? I'm wracking my brain trying to think of a part of Boston that's that bad these days.

    Sixty Grit – I assume you mean Boston Medical Center (Mass General is over near Beacon Hill). The BMC area isn't fantastic on the "wrong" side of Mass Ave these days, but the South End direction is almost totally gentrified now.

  8. I remember this one well. I'd bet a lot of businesses around the country are wishing they had this kind of construction right now; I get the impression in some places, they should have it but don't because the denizens of the neighborhood would be insulted. Instead they allow their shops to be pillaged on a regular basis, and if any employee shows any gumption, they are soon no longer employed.

    Your voice is missed out here; always glad to see it.

  9. The only hostile workplaces I worked in were missile launch control centers, but we launch crew members got along pretty well down there.

  10. I saw a woman like that once on a rental-car bus at the airport. Couldn't stop looking at her. I wondered what that must be like for her. Seemed like she was used to it.

    The Boise story reminds me of a time I was in a suburb of Rochester, NY. I was staying at a nice little hotel fairly near the canal, where I learned there was a tow path where you could walk. Before setting out for the walk around 6PM, I asked the gal at the front desk if it was safe to walk there by myself. She gave me kind of a funny look, then said, well, yes, the path is paved, and it's very even… there are no hills…. She had no idea what I was alluding to, and I loved that!

    Nice to see you posting again, Sippican!

  11. I was deleting every email I could get my hands on, when I realized that I had winnowed the stack so far down that you were suddenly at the top of my queue. April of 2010. We were discussing the utility of a Sippican Six-finger Stepper in a house with small children. At least I believe that's what you called it. Perhaps even "super."

    I still have both steppers, and both children. The former get near daily use and have aged beautifully. The latter I would sometimes like to see far less of, though they're aging quite well, also.

    It's good to see you.

  12. In the 50's and 60's I would often go to Boston and Roxbury. Somewhat dangerous even back then but more likely that your car would get broken into or you might see a argument devolve to a fight. It was the bussing decision in the 60's that lit the fuse and destroyed a lot of Boston. Once the judge did that and destroyed the community of a 100,000 or so people and lowered the value of their homes to next to worthless Boston got a lot worse. Liberal judges are responsible for a lot of the problem.

  13. Well, dang. Here in the Twin Cites there were quite a few stores that had the two-inch thick Plexiglas cage around the cashier, after a run of C-store murders in the early 90s. Most of those are gone now, and some that remained burned in the riots. Of course, now stores have Plexiglas again, but it's thin, and designed to stop breath, not bullets.

    But the whole concept–you get this far, no further, and ask for what you want–well, that's going to come back. Before the riots, "youth" knew they could walk into a CVS or Walgreens, fill their pockets with stuff, and saunter out, because police would not respond to shoplifting calls. When the virus arrived, the city made it explicit: No enforcement of retail theft or fare jumping on buses or trains.

    CVS upper management is particularly vile. They do not mind at all forcing their employees to accept such brazen theft, because if a staffer looks at such thieves in a mean way, that staffer is fired. Of course, the manager is still responsible for shrink! I had a conversation with a regional security guy, and he talked to me like he really wanted to reduce theft. Of course, any practical means were out of the question.

    I suggested a mirror ceiling unit near the registers, so that when the store was short staffed (most of the time, as CVS operates with 1/3 less employee hours compared to Walgreens), the cashier working out in the store hanging sale tags or the like could look up and see someone standing at the counter. This guy, plus the store manager, replied that no cashier should ever be out of sight of the counter. I started to respond as if it were a joke because both of them damn well knew that cashiers were sent away from the counter for other work, leaving the counter unmanned, every fricking day.

    I think I must have stared at them for ten seconds, waiting for one to crack up laughing. When I realized they were serious–seriously lying to me–I finally just gave up and didn't make any more suggestions. See, those pharmacies make a tone of money, so the store will accept a fair amount of loss on the front of the store.

    But when teens know they can steal with impunity, right in front of staff, well, things will change soon.

  14. I just discovered you thanks to Ace. I also hopped over to Amazon and ordered your book. You are a magnificent writer and keen observer. My hat is off. If you might be interested in small jobs copy editing/proofing fiction please email me. My website is
    Elaine Ash

  15. Hello everyone- It's nice to hear from you all. Thanks for your kind words.

    Dangelo- Seven no trumps is a reference to bidding in card games like Whist or Bridge. It means you think you can win every trick, without requiring "trump" cards to do it. In poker, it would be the equivalent of holding a royal straight flush.

  16. Like ea , i saw mention & praises of you at Ace .Will be back too , I have never read such an account of beauty in contrast to the steel & steal . gobsmacked in words . perfect

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