Pride and Prejudice

So I am very busy these days.

Right now I am scribbling down this history of events while sitting in the offices of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Employment which, interestingly, handles claims for unemployment. And that is why I am here; I am unemployed. So I got here at about 8:30 this morning and the machine spit out at me my appointment ticket with the number 54305. Good thing they don’t start each day at number one, I thought to myself, but here it is almost noon and they better get to me pretty quick because I have to see my parole officer at 2pm half-way across the City and she is not someone who enjoys being kept waiting.

I am fighting about my entitlement to unemployment payments while I look for another job. Never thought I’d find myself in this kind of a pickle. I mean, I worked for General Vibration Technologies for what, over eighteen years and never had a hassle or a problem in all that time. I don’t look for trouble, ya know? They are – well, were – nice people, a small business run by the family, paid me on time, gave me raises most times when I asked, and when Margaret had that thyroid thing they just let me take all the time off I needed and when my personal days ran out, well they never docked me for those extra five or six times I had to go pick her up after the radiation.

And as for my job, I like to sell. And our products are great, top of the line, sell themselves. I show up for work, I do my job, I’m not late, I don’t leave early even on Fridays in the Summer, I think that if someone pays you for a week’s work and treats you professional, ya know, then you should give them a week’s work and be professional back.

So we sell this big account in Billerica, and if ya don’t know we’re in Boston and that’s a nearby town, they buy maybe a hundred units a year typically which is, real money when you think about it. And one day my guy over there, Louie, been selling him for maybe ten years and we get along fine, we send him a nice Christmas basket and I buy him a couple beers at lunch sometimes, well he calls to say they got a new line they designing and could we sit down and could he explain what they need so maybe we can tweak our basic unit to work in a particular way. So that’s good news, ya know, but I need someone from engineering because they always yelling at sales, saying things like “great you signed a contract to deliver them an XYZ machine except we don’t know how to make an XYZ machine so why don’t ya stuff the contract up yer ass and by the way go explain it to Mr. Hardison?” He’s the President, Hardison.

So I email Louie back and say, sure let’s have lunch at Bertucci’s (where Louie likes the lasagna, which I know) and by the way I’m going to bring someone from engineering to make sure we do the right thing for you and price it as low as possible. You know, I’m a salesman, I know what to say in these situations, this not being my first rodeo. And I go to Mac in engineering and he says yeah, heard about this kind of thing, best person to take with ya is Rita del Corso. Rita is real nice, and a real nice looker too and from what I know, actually a pretty good engineer for a woman, if you catch my meaning.

Now before ya start jumping here to the wrong conclusions, let me tell ya that I do not mess around. Me and Margaret been together since High School and I may not be an angel but she sure as hell is, always had my back when I was down, did a great job with the kids, that thing with my daughter Antonia a few years back no one could see coming and Margaret she just swallowed
Hard and went to all the sessions with her and really pulled her back and now Antonia, you should see her, she’s fine. Just fine. So I never so much as winked at Rita because who needs that shit, right? And IF, and I do mean IF, I ever got the itch well I’m no rookie, I don’t go messing around where I’m working. I mean, all you ever read about is guys getting screwed at their jobs because they were trying to get screwed at their jobs, if you catch my meaning.

Rita’s cool, she can make the meeting she tells me, so I send an email to Louie, a courtesy, saying I’m bringing Rita del Corso from engineering, she’s a U Mass Lowell graduate so she’s of course a great engineer, so forth and so on.

Louie writes back, he says, “that’s fine if you wanna bring a date with you, okay at this end.”

Now that’s an asshole email, right? But he don’t mean anything harsh, and Rita is the engineer and I need her; and why call Louie on what he thinks is a neat piece of banter? He’s the friggin’ client, fer Godssake! Why make him feel uncomfortable or, like, I’m looking down on him or correcting him or something. That isn’t salesmanship, that stupid shit-ship. So I don’t write anything back. We got the lunch set up, it’s set up.

So we show up at lunch and Louie gets a look at Rita and he doesn’t care about his machine no more, he just wants to impress Rita. He smiles at me and says something like “you said you were bringing a date, but I’m gonna steal her from ya” and other dumb stuff like that. So Rita, she can see what’s happening, she’s asking all about the new machine, she’s got her notepad out and all, and Louie he’s pounding back Stellas and dripping the gravy down his shirt front and ignoring me and explaining to Rita how he single-handedly built up the business which is of course not true, and even I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for Rita who is just doin’ her job and helping me, and I’m embarrassed for Louie, which isn’t really my problem except he’s being such an asshole that it’s painful to watch.

So Louie he says a whole bunch of things that he shouldn’t say; he thinks he is clever with his innuendo thing, which he ain’t. And Rita is cool but can’t get the info she needs and lunch is over and Louie he says he gotta get back to the plant. SO he turns to Rita and says, like, “I guess we didn’t finish, we gotta meet again on this, so give me your card” and then he says “this next meeting is just all about engineering” and he turns to me and says “you don’t gotta come to the engineering thing, and ya know ya got the business so don’t worry” and he stands up, wobbles a bit, he’s not loaded but he’s happier than he oughtta be at a lunch, and he leans over and quick plants a kiss, a real loud smooch on Rita’s face, aims for the lips and his aim isn’t great but he gets some of it, rubs the back of her neck and he’s off down the aisle happy as a pig in shit.

And then I’m driving me and Rita back to the office and I don’t know what to say, particularly since I didn’t do anything wrong, ya know. And she’s real quiet but polite, and doesn’t say anything about Louie so I figure, she’s an engineer, she’s been here a lotta years, this can’t be the first time guys were being guys with her, she can take care of herself. We get outta the Corolla, I thank her, she nods a little nod and goes off to the annex where the engineers work and I go back to the front office and don’t think anything more about it, except I do tell Margaret a little about it over dinner and she, she’s been around the block, worked in an office for a long time before she got sick, and she just says something like “tsk tsk, these things happen, I feel sorry for Rita” and that’s it. That’s the whole thing.

I thought.

A couple of days later, it’s around lunch time, my line buzzes and Mort Hardison, the president, he asks could I please come to his office, which is not usual but not rare ya know, so I go down there and knock on the glass and I hear a “come on in” and I open the door and there are a lot of people in his small office which makes me stop for a minute. “Sorry to interrupt your meeting, boss, I’ll come back,” I say, and am about to go when Hardison says, “no, no, it’s alright Harry, actually we were just talking about you. Come on in and sit down.”

I got no idea what gives. Zero. But never had a problem with these folks, so I step in and close the door and go over shake the boss’ hand, and he smiles and says “you know my daughter Virginia, don’t you?” and sure enough Virginia, who I have known since she was a teenager, she’s seated near her dad’s desk, sort of at an angle almost putting her behind the desk. And so I say “hello, Ginnie” and start to shake her hand, and then I’m not sure I should be doing that, Ginnie came to work at the plant a few years ago and rumor has it that she is the heir apparent which is all fine with me, that isn’t my end of the operation. She comes to the office every day dressed real nice in dark suits which is her call, she can wear whatever she wants, and I’ve never had anything with her in the office in all the years she has been there; so anyway, I have taken a couple of steps with my hand going out so she does shake it which saves me some uncertainty, I tell ya.

And the boss, he waves his hand to a guy in a dark suit and he says, like, “I’m not sure if you know our company attorney, Mr. Franklin Mackie.” Well, he knows damn well I never had occasion to meet Mr. Mackie, but I shake his hand and look him in the eye and he looks down, which I do not like, and then I sit down facing the boss.

“What’s up,” I ask, since I don’t know what’s up, except I got a feeling they are not about to make me a senior vice president at double pay.

So the lawyer he says, “that’s what we are going to ask you about, Harry.”

“Yeah, well give me a clue about our subject here, Frank,” I ask because I really don’t know but this lawyer here has already confirmed my prior view that they are all weasels except for the ones who are cobras. Ever see a cobra in the zoo; just sorta coiled all up, waiting to uncoil on you.

“ Mr. Mackie,” says this Mr. Mackie.

“Beg pardon?”

“Please call me Mr. Mackie,” he says.

Huh. I think, not even Franklin, if Frank is too informal. But “MR.” Okay, no sweat off my back.

“Sure. Sure, Mr. Mackie,” I say, not even putting a little accent on the Mr. to make sure that he won’t think I’m making a point about he’s being snotty and all, which he is. “But I am not sure what we are talking about here.”

Frankie baby, he has a few pages of papers in his hands, and he looks at them, ruffles the papers and says “Ms. del Corso?”

“This is about Rita? Shit. Is she okay?”

“Ms. del Corso is actually not okay, Harry. She was very upset and you have ignored her, failed to report the incident, did not defend her, and indeed perhaps even joined in the derision.”

“Don’t getcha, Mr. Mackie.” I turned to Mr. Hardison. “Boss, what’s going on here?”

So the boss is studying the arrangement of the tiles on the drop ceiling and the lawyer starts talking. Now at least I understand the lay of the land.

“Harry, I am looking at an email you received on May 18 from a Mr. Louis Canazzo, which is confirming a business lunch at which Rita del Corso is to attend and which refers to her as your ‘date.’ Do you recall that email?”

I look him right in the eye. “Mr. Williams,” I say with a real even tone.

“No, Mr. Canazzo,” he replies.

“I ain’t referring to Louie, I am referring to me. To I myself.”

His brow knits.

“Please call me Mr. Williams. Because, Mr. Mackie,” and this time I do give him the hard “Mr.,” “I am getting the feeling that this is some sort of a problem you are laying out for me and I didn’t do anything here, never gave Rita any hassle, I think she’s great and I’m a real professional at what I do, and I just don’t like the drift of this whole thing.”

I am feeling pretty good about myself and I glance over at the boss, who has now taken an interest in one of our delivery trucks that he is perusing out through his window into our back parking lot. Not a great sign, I say to myself.

“Okay, certainly, Mr. Williams, I meant no condescension,” says this lawyer in a suit who is dripping with condescension, “ can you tell me if you recall receiving this email?”

“Yeah, ‘course I do, it was just like a week ago. How come you have my emails anyhow.”

He smiles, he is definitely from the cobra branch of shysters. “Well, Har—uh Mr. Williams, as a matter of law there is no right of privacy for your emails if they go through the company system, particularly an email like this which relates to the business of the company.”

I didn’t know that. I says to him, “Well I knew that acourse….”

“And what did you do when you received this email?”

“I didn’t do nothing. He’s a customer. He’s being an asshole – uh, sorry but it’s a dumb stupid email but so what? Doesn’t hurt anyone. Rita isn’t copied. Why make a big deal out of it. It’s like the thing about the tree in the forest. If there’s no one to hear it, you can’t say it made any sound.”

“Don’t you think that as a representative of the firm you have an obligation to stamp out this kind of sexist profiling?” It’s Ginnie talking all of a sudden, and now it is crystal clear.

“Well, never thought about it, Ginnie—or Miss Hardison. Jesus, I am confused, don’t even know how to talk to you and I’ve known you forever. I never thought about it really, and no one ever talked to be about a policy or anything. I just figured, it’s a big account of ours, why rock the boat when its no blood, no foul.”

Mackie is at it again as Ginnie doesn’t crack a smile or anything. “So, Mr. Williams, can you tell us your version of what happened at the lunch?

So I told them what I wrote down here already. And they asked me why I didn’t speak up to defend Rita and tell Louie he was being inappropriate, that General Vibrator Technologies does not support demeaning women as a business practice. And I told them that Rita seemed to be able to take care of herself so I let it play, Louie was half in the bag anyway.

“Rita came to me very upset. She said you didn’t even apologize in the whole car ride home.” GInnie had gotten up and was sort of standing over me, brow knit in a most unpleasant way.

“Well, uh” and I decided not to call her Ginnie or Virginia or Miss Hardison or anything so I just kept going, “she didn’t say a thing to me in the car so I figured she had it covered. Ya know, she’s been here a long time, this can’t be the first time she’s been hit on and she’s an attractive girl ya know?”

This was not the smartest line of defense, as it turned out.

“She’s a woman, not a girl,” Ginnie damn near spit out.

The lawyer, he was a good deal more — I guess sneaky and nasty are the words I am looking for. “So you are aware of other times when Ms. del Corso was put in a sexually uncomfortable situation?” I was about to say I just assumed it but he didn’t stop to let me answer. “And you did not report any of these occasions to the company? And you did not reach out to her, to defend her or ask if she were upset in any one of these other occasions? And by the way, what difference does it make if she is as you say ‘attractive’? Would it matter to you if you found her to be plain looking? In fact, you are particularly attracted personally to her, aren’t you? I bet you enjoyed when Louie leaned over and pawed her and kissed her, bet you wished it was you, isn’t that right?”

“Whoa, why you taking off on me? I never said one inappropriate word to Rita in over a decade; not to anyone else either. And yeah, Rita’s pretty. You met her? Or you just blind?” I turned to Mr. Hardison.

“Boss, where are we going here? I’ve been with you, never a problem, never a bad review, for almost twenty years. Just tell them I’m not the problem here, if there is a problem.”

The boss turns to me and he’s a little pained I can tell, but he just puts in the last stab of the knife. “Harry, it is true you have been a very good employee but this is a different age we all live in, and standards of behavior are, well, different, improved if you will. We need to live by these standards. The old rules don’t apply any more.” He turned his chair to look out the window, his back almost turned to me. “My daughter is going to take over the company and we need to conform to the new standards, all of us. I’m afraid, given your answers today, that we are going to have to put you on probation for six months, and we want you to attend a couple of classes at the College that may help you understand what is expected these days.”

Now United Machine over in Quincy, they have been after me to go there for a few years and until that moment it never occurred to me to jump ship, but I gotta tell you it was so ridiculous and unfair, I guess I sort of lost it. I’m sitting down now, writing this, and when I stand up I’m not much taller. But that’s me. So I stand up to my full five feet five, okay maybe five four with regular shoes, and just let them have it. I suggest an appropriate dark wet place into which to insert their job, I’m not even looking at their reactions because I am on a roll, and then as I get to the door for my grand exit I turn to the boss.

“Hey boss, one more thing. I won’t be here of course, I’ll be taking your business over to United is my plan, but I wanna know something about these new standards you putting in. Do ya think you gonna be okay, yourself, under these new groundrules? I mean since you been fuckin’ Ellen in personnel for what, the last two or three years? Just curious, wondering if the President gets a skate….”

I don’t stick around, figured not really healthy for me to stick around, although the last thing I saw as I turned to step through the door was Ginnie with her jaw dropped and an unattractive little bit of drool on her cheek as she was turning.

So I am cleaning off my desk, putting pictures of Margaret and the kids into a packing box, not talking to the other folks because I was pretty upset but it must have been obvious what was happening, and just as I am taking my painting off the wall, a nice little oil painting of the factory that my daughter Anastasia did for me a long time ago, this guy in a uniform, from the security company we use to guard the plant at night, he starts asking why I’m taking that painting and I’m telling him because it’s mine and says no it ain’t and I’m like how the hell do you know that, and he says he has his instructions and he grabs my arm and that’s the last straw and I catch him on the chin real square, which surprises me more than him but he goes straight back and cracks his head as he goes down and, well, he’s in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and me I’m scared to death and grab my carton and my painting and toss them in the back seat and the cops don’t catch up to me and arrest me until I’m damned near all the way home.

So I serve three months and now have this probation, and meanwhile no one, including but not limited to United Machine, wants some con working for them and here I am, no job, no savings left, fighting for my money but they’re telling me I quit wasn’t fired, and I’m telling them I was really actually fired in fact if you thought about it but so far I got nowhere. So I can’t find a job, I can’t get the unemployment, under the law they tell me I can get government money for support but I have to get a job first to prove I’m not sponging the system, and on and on, it’s like ya can’t win for trying.

Margaret says she’s planning to go back to work but that is not going to happen, not with her condition. I really need to find some way to get back on the payroll.

Wait. Who they calling? Yeah 54305, right here, that’s me. Window eight? Fine. I am shuffling up to window eight and I recognize the clerk, a woman I have seen maybe half a dozen other times. She must be ten years older than I am. Bad bleach job, black painted-on eyebrows, a bit too much make-up; sort of hard looking, carrying a few miles and probably a lot of beer and cigarettes is my guess. She isn’t smiling, she must hear hard luck stories fifty times every day. Washed out pale blue eyes, skin with those fine little lines around her eyes that the make-up doesn’t quite fill in, a slight pucker in her upper lip like her underneath teeth have abandoned their job, and is that the start of one of those turkey necks under her weak little chin? Her name plate tells me she is Bridget McMann. She looks as beaten down as I feel. And I glance down and she isn’t wearing a wedding ring.

I have an idea. It is not a very well thought-out idea, but at this point I am all out of ideas, well thought or otherwise.

I give her my name, she is punching keys on an ancient gray computer device and I look at my watch; a quarter to twelve.

“Say, Bridget,” says this voice that I guess is my own, “look at the time. You wouldn’t be free for lunch around about noon today, would ya?”