Friday, March 22, 2013

Escalator Down for Repair

He walked up the metal steps past the sign every single day.  Escalator Down for Repair.  It had been permanently affixed to the shiny metal that lined the machine.  Many days, the escalator worked and worked fine.  Carrying kids and moms, workers, homeless people seeking warmth, and the aimless souls who populated the city's "great" library.  Some just passed through on to another destination, like him.  Others stayed in to stay warm or watch a kids show or actually find and possibly check-out a book. 

The building had been open for just over 10 years, and for at least the last four, the escalator had been down for repair all or part of most weeks.  Sometimes, workers would appear in blue jumpsuits and with large, grease-stained hands, they'd make the machine move.  Or, just stand there and look at it. 

He wondered if this team of guys in blue work clothes got dispatched all over the city to find the dysfunctional machines and give some appearance that they were being fixed.  He wondered if the escalator had been essentially broken when it was installed.  Or if it might have been installed improperly or if it was simply the consequence of awarding government contracts to the lowest bidder.  And even still, wondered why it couldn't be more permanently fixed.  And why no one really complained.

Was it left undone so that the blue-clothed men could have a project every couple of weeks?  Would it be cheaper to simply rip out the broken machine and completely replace it?  Was there some design flaw in the building that made operating an escalator in that location especially difficult?

No matter.  It was down for repair.  And this time, the steps actually weren't moving.

For the past four years, he thought, his life had been down for repair.  He'd been on a trajectory with progressively more interesting and better-paying jobs.  The one he had then had played to his talents for the most part and earned him some attention.  Positive attention.  The kind that gets people thinking a person is different, that perhaps he or she should run for office or take on a high profile public role. 

And then, the phone call.  On the porch of his home.  His child riding a bike so she couldn't hear. 

It seems he wasn't working out as had been planned.  His work product was good, he was assured.  It was just that something more, something intangible, had been wanted.  And he wasn't it, or didn't seem to be it.  He'd be given a few months and a good reference.  But the time had come. 

That day, he took his daughter to an early dinner and she relished the different restaurant, the weeknight out, the kid's meal.  Her eyes and smile brought him new life.  And for a moment, he forgot about the news he'd heard.  The knowledge that in just a few months, he wouldn't be certain of how to earn the money to buy her more kid's meals. 

The last day came and the organization's number 2 called.  Not to wish him good luck, but to chastise him for not knowing she was working on a project that involved his part of the organization.  Telling him he should have been wiser, let her know about the call he'd received two days before.  He didn't apologize, he just gave her the information from the call, emailed her documents he thought relevant, and deleted every single file left on his computer.

He was to ship it back, at their expense.  The guy at the FedEx store asked what shipping option and explained which one would be cheapest.  "Oh, I'm not paying for this.  I just got fired.  Fuck them.  What's the most expensive choice?"  The kid laughed, told him, and they filled out the paperwork for the most expensive shipping option. 

He left the store and went home.  Bought a website and on Monday, launched a "business." 

For months, he searched for clients and for regular jobs.  A few clients here and there.  A part-time job to keep the money coming in. 

His life was definitely down for repair. 

He got an email about a job he'd applied for.  A place that had interviewed him before and rejected him.  So, he was surprised that the email asked for a time when he could interview.  Within the first minute, he could tell they wanted him.  His confidence boosted, his true character shone through and he was offered the job two days later. 

It seemed the repair was taking shape.  The job paid slightly better than the one he'd left.  And the requirements were not at all taxing.  He performed ably and became a star.  Though within the first week, he'd begun sending out job letters.  He could tell this environment would not serve him well.  He'd keep on running, just like the freshly fixed escalator, but he wouldn't be at full strength. 

What's the point in being a star when only a few can see your light, he thought.

One day, while he was "on assignment," he thought about seeing a movie.  He looked for something interesting, found it, and planned his escape.  An email about a need to investigate, availability by phone and email, of course.  And a quiet afternoon in a dark theatre with popcorn and 40+ ounces of diet soda. 

As he was walking outside and relishing the warmth of the spring sun on his face, a call came.  He took it.  Then called his wife.  A new opportunity had sprung forth.  He'd keep his job, but this side project would have his full time and attention.  He skipped the movie and started working.  The machine was well-oiled and moving forward.  He had money coming in and a project that satisfied his passion.

Maybe the men in the blue suits could leave. 

The project, though well-executed, ended poorly.  In four months, it was over and he knew that he might be asked back, but not for a while. 

So, back to work.  Inventing trips to get out of the office.  Completing a full week's worth of work on a Monday and turning it in over the week to create the illusion that he was "swamped."  The other four days were spent surfing the Internet and reading and taking long lunches and walks in the park near the office building. 

His friend at the office created the fiction of "being in the field."  It was what they told the boss when either one of them were gone for a particularly long period of time.  Oh, he's just out "in the field," they'd say.  And work would go on as normal.

As time wore on and new outside projects failed to present themselves, he competed for other jobs.  Often, he'd get through several stages, only to lose out in a final group interview or some competitive assignment. 

Always, he was told there was a bright future and his time would come.  Mostly, this felt ok, though he at times wished he could get back on the upward trajectory.  And he feared that one or two more years in "the job" would mark him as a mediocre operator unable to hack it at the highest levels. 

Finally, he began to settle in.  Treating his job like an academic posting.  Turning in the required number of office hours, setting up "field experiences," doing outside projects and lots of writing. 

And a call came while he was with his family on a short vacation.  His boss was furious over something that to him seemed quite small.  They'd talk about it when he returned.  He learned from talking to his longer-serving co-workers that this happened all the time.  That two or three years was the limit.  Then, anger, aggression, and the person left.  Only once had the object of dissatisfaction actually been fired. 

Life changed. He was no longer "in the field" but dutifully at the office every single day.  His work product was the same, just turned-in more quickly so he ended up getting more "special" assignments.  Rather than friendly chats about issues of the day, it was all work and no play between him and the boss.

His work product, as usual, was quite good.  Before a long weekend, the boss told him he was doing well and wished him a good weekend.

He felt uneasy.  The boss's tone had not been bright and the boss had not looked him in the eye when these words were said.

He returned on a Tuesday. Ready to begin another week of dutifully grinding out the best work in the office and leaving every day at 5. 

Instead, he was dismissed.  He offered to work on a few undone projects and stay through the week.  At least to guarantee another couple paychecks.  He was told that wouldn't be necessary.  That by lunch time, he should be cleared out.

He was now far down for repair.  The wheels and chains and gears going nowhere. 

He had enough money saved to last several months.  Then, he'd have to do something.  Work somewhere, anywhere.  The men in the blue suits would have to come and take him away.  He might never get on track.  Might permanently be the machine that sometimes with only adequate ability gets people where they are going.  He'd not go on to his once-bright future. At best, he'd resume in an average, unnoticed role.  Down for repair.  Even in that new role, when it came (if it came), he'd have two or three years at best.  That was the lesson of his life.  Don't push too hard or try to much, you might break.  And fixing a broken human takes a long, long time and lots of repeat attempts.  Even then, when all seems well, that broken human only works for so long. 

Down for repair.  Today.  And tomorrow.  And probably for at least two of the next three weeks.  And the cycle will go on until retirement renders him out of service.  Eventually, the scrap heap of once shiny metal will take in the escalator that only sometimes ferried people on to their destinations.  And he'd end up on one of those heaps.  A "Brightside" community where the forgotten forget and the visitors are facing their own stages of disrepair. 

Finally, a truck will come and haul off the old escalators.  Or a dozer will bury them.  And like those once-gleaming metal wonders, he'll find his way beneath the earth. Forty or 50 years after the promise turned into a breakdown and the breakdown could only be half-fixed. 

But today, today ... the escalator is down for repair. And that means his day is a normal one. 

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