Saturday, July 31, 2010

Now I know why people join suicide cults...

I had that feeling this morning. That feeling that there was a message waiting for me on the phone telling me of some new crisis. Sure enough, Jimmy, one of my crew leaders, texted to inform me that one of the guys had said it was "too early" and he wasn't going to come to work. Now, granted, it was a new guy and he doesn't know the deal, or all that goes into streamlining a series of moves in a weekend, but still. Crisis.

Here's what happens when guys bail on us at the last second:

1. I call/text/e-mail everyone in the crew list for backup. This is now about 30 guys.
2. I prepare to go to a job and act as backup myself.
3. If it's a weekend, particularly a Sunday, I tell my wife and older son that I won't be able to do all those things we'd hope to do after all. There's usually crying.
4. I get maybe three responses from the 30 or so guys I contacted. Two can't make it. One can, but needs a ride from another time zone.
5. I call my partners in the industry. "Got another guy to spare?" To their credit, yes, they usually do.

The guys who have been with us the longest get one or two basic things down -- they know that if they want work, they have to show up. These are the guys in whom I entrust the entire reputation of the business, and I can't express my gratitude enough. The rookies never get beyond rookie status until they've proven they can show up on time, ready to work. Then they wonder why I never call them for work anymore. A catch-22? Maybe, but if you don't show up for work -- kind of an "Employment 101" thing, I used to think -- even one time, I'm far less likely to call them again.

I used to be very tolerant of no-shows. Lord knows we all have problems, or there are snags with Metro, or cars break down, or babies are being born. But after 2.5 years of this, I've come to realize that guys who bail on you at the last second will ALWAYS bail on you, with rare exceptions.

And this is just one of many daily crises.

I spoke with my friend and colleague Brian at Suburban Solutions this morning. He and I kind of treat each other's text inboxes as psychological dumping grounds. He called me after getting yet another "Can you effing believe this?" text from me.

"Chris," he said, "What keeps you from swallowing the barrel of a shotgun?"

"Right now?" I replied. "My wife and kids need me. Otherwise I'd go for the sweet release of cordite and gunpowder."

Needless to say, the slow season can't come fast enough.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A symptom of a larger problem?

I was working at the Martha Washington public library yesterday, and I had to mail some letters. I figured they'd have a mailbox, so I went to the Information desk.

"Hey -- do you have a mailbox I can drop this into?"

The librarian, a middle-aged lady who looked very tired, looked at the other librarian. She was concerned, or so it appeared.

I raised my eyebrows and tried to maintain my smile. I was impatient. Another crisis had taken me away from the computer again, and e-mail was piling up.

The librarian finally said "we don't have a mailbox you can use here, but there's a drop box down by the road."

Somehow, I figured as much, thanked her, and set out for the road-box.

If that thing was still in use, then people risked tetanus every time they dropped letters into it. Rusted and crumbling, it probably first saw service in 1942. There was no way I was going to drop a letter into it.

Back in the library, I tracked down a different librarian. He too appeared irritated to have to talk to me.

"Can I just drop this into your mail?"

"I...don't think we can do that..." he said, and vaguely trailed off.

I wasn't feeling very smiley, but I tried to keep it light. "Hey, this letter doesn't have the hantavirus or anything. I just need to get it out and on the way."

"To be honest," he said, "I don't know how we'd do that."

I believe he was being honest -- the question seemed to be frying all his synapses.

"Okay," I said, "Let's say you had to mail a letter from the library. What would you do?"

"I'd put it in an envelope and send it to headquarters. They put a stamp on it and it takes about two weeks to get to the destination."

I gotta say -- I wasn't expecting that. It was horrifying. I know that my administrative duties suffer because I'm the only guy in my "office," but damn. They have to send the letter away to HQ so somebody can put a stamp on it? What do they have to do if the librarians need to use the bathroom? Fill out a requisition form for toilet paper? Do they streamline the process so it only takes a week?

This was just one little library in a D.C. suburb, but I suspect it's just a microcosm of the waste and inefficiency in Washington. Actually, when I worked for the TSA, it was a little MORE efficient than this tiny little library with the eco-friendly ethos. I'd have to get ten people to sign off on a press release, but at least I could usually get it done in one day. Two weeks for a freaking stamp, though?


Friday, July 9, 2010

Sometimes you can take the simple pleasures too far...

Yeah, shrooms, I think. Everyone agreed? Shrooms?

Is this a hard job? Is D.C. a political town?

Occasionally, when I find it difficult to dive into the 100+ e-mails for the day, I like to procrastinate by reading traffic sources to my website. (What--like you don't do the same thing...) Oddly enough, the vast majority of MTB's traffic is from people typing the URL directly into the browser and hitting "enter." Still, though, I get the occasional "organic" source.

I've gotten some good ones. Among them: somebody once type into Google "Yes, this is my truck. No I won't help you move." (Got a huge number of people to MTB with that one.) I've also had not a few links from porn sites (at least they looked like porn sites -- I didn't check. If they weren't, then some people made some horrible website naming choices...) I always wonder about those -- what, people surf for some naughty pics and then line up a mover? I guess -- if there's anything I've learned doing this, it's that human beings are...odd. Odd and screwed up, very often. I won't divulge any details, but I have seriously -- seriously -- considered adding counseling services to our resume. At the very least I should be referring people to some good counselors.

At any rate, I got another funny search link to my site today. It was "Is being a mover a hard job?" I lol'd at that and sent it to my crew leaders. No matter how you look at it, yes, this is a hard job. Definitely the hardest I've ever done, not even including all the administrative nonsense. A typical day might involve moving a glass-heavy china hutch up a three-floor walk-up in the middle of a July heat wave. Or, sometimes we have to take a mattress out of a basement apartment, the customer forgot to get a mattress bag, and the entrance to her place is covered in black moss and/or mold. It's kind of like playing "Operation," only instead of setting off a buzzer, we would have to buy a new mattress. (This has never happened, fortunately).

On the managerial/admin side, let's just take the last two days, for example. I realized fairly early on that I was likely to be short-handed for six jobs this Saturday. I began the usual regimen of calling all Truck Buddies, only to realize that about half the work force would be gone. For the first time in two years, I was looking at the very real possibility of having to cancel at least one job -- a total rookie, half-ass maneuver. In the meantime, I have literally 21 voice messages and dozens upon dozens of e-mails coming in, some requesting work, some having to reschedule jobs at the last second (unfortunately, no reschedules for Saturday), or panicky messages about parking issues. I handled most of that and got to bed before midnight for a change, but my first thought this morning was -- after ensuring our infant son was still alive and breathing, a practice I got into with our first son and have never stopped doing -- "I wonder what this morning's crisis is going to be..."

One of my crew leaders, Jimmy, called to tell me about half an hour later: someone had crossed a couple of lanes of traffic, nearly cut him off, and hit our truck's rear bumper while he was on the way to a job.

My reaction: "Oh, that's today's first crisis. Next!" (Everyone was okay, btw, and our truck is fine.)

So, yeah, being a mover is hard work. If the guy who Googled that phrase decides to apply for a job, I might have to direct him to something a little more his speed. I hear the florist down the street is looking for a daisy tender...


Monday, July 5, 2010

Our Independence Day

Two years or so ago, we realized we'd made some cataclysmic miscalculations regarding mortgages, expanding the family, etc. Pretty much all the big stuff. My wife's car was dying (although it held on for quite a while longer), she was pregnant, couldn't work, I hated my job, and eventually was laid off anyway. We call that time of our lives "Crisis Mode," because almost every single day brought some new crisis, some new disappointment, some setback, some new challenge. So many times I thought we were done. Just done. But somehow, likely because of my wife's encouragement and level head (most of the time-- heh!), I summoned just enough strength to get through one more day.

Lately we've been able to breathe. Once, we even had some money left over at the end of the month! (And we're not big spenders -- I won't tell you our monthly budget, but friends and neighbors, it ain't much). I still pretty much work around the clock, but now I know that, even if a good chunk of everything were to fall apart, we'd be okay. Not "let's go to the Hamptons next week to brainstorm about which private jet we should get" okay, but normal people okay.

Last night we went to a birthday party / Independence Day party with our boys. We had to leave early because, well, they're both young enough to be confused about where the bathroom is (not the pants, boys), but on the way home our oldest reminded us in very clear terms that we'd promised BIG FIREWORKS. (You really need to hear how he says it -- he deepens his little voice with something like gravitas). "See...BIG FIREWORKS!"

There was still some light out, and there was no way in Hades I was about to drive into the city on the 4th of July with two babies. However, there was a long stretch of open road along the GW Parkway just south of Old Town, though, with a big grassy expanse teeming with fireflies even in the low light. Might work.

Little Joe and I killed the remaining daylight minutes chasing said fireflies. (Our newest little Truck Buddy kept my wife busy in the car with his 87th feeding of the day). "Geh...lie..buhs" Joe kept yelling, which roughly translates to "Get those punk-a$$ lightning bugs!" Which we did. En masse. With Joe riding on my shoulders. With Joe on my back. With me chasing after Joe after he chased the bugs toward the very busy GW Parkway. 

The sunlight finally gave out, and the field by the side of the road (golf course, actually) was positively illuminated by fireflies. (Avatar fans might get a "Pandora" reference, were I to make it). And then, almost so perfectly that I wondered if Michael Bay was directing the scene, a bald eagle swooped in low from the Potomac and over the highway, right above our heads. He held a fish in his claws, or, as I thought about the fish, one of America's enemies. Hah!

The fireworks began a little bit later, but little Joe wasn't as interested in those after all. It was all about the fireflies. We all walked down the pathway (except for Joe, who, with complete disdain for anyone's safety, including his own, sprinted down the dark bike path amidst the legs of strangers and who-knows-who-else), and watched the night sky along the Potomac explode with color.

About that time I had what might be considered an ungrateful, or even self-centered thought: One could consider this our Independence Day too. I've been catching up on a little historical reading lately, and I'm very aware of the staggering risks and cost that bought America its independence. I haven't exactly pledged my life, my fortune (lol, "fortune") or property in defense of the nation. There are guys doing basically that right now in faraway hellholes where the people can't even conceive of an existence with true liberty. But this I know: we've been enslaved to a great number of fears, doubts, and even modes of thought. At least now, for hopefully a couple of months, two-and-a-half years of back-breaking labor have yielded a little reprieve from doubt and worry. Two-and-a-half years of risk and sacrifice allowed me to finally find some time to catch fireflies with my son, and take a little walk down a river-side path with my wife on a hot summer night.

Thank you God. And thank you to those who take the really big risks to ensure we civilians can have such summer night firefly walks.