Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Screamer!

For more background, I thought I'd introduce you to the man who dragged me into this line of work 6-1/2 years ago: My former boss, normally a rather quiet and shy early-50's Korean gentleman named John (NOT his real name), but who for our purposes we're going to call The Screamer. Why will become obvious.
I owe The Screamer a lot: He hired me to work in his little gas station (where I still work) after I'd been unemployed for 9 months and was at the absolute end of my rope. I was starting to wonder if I was going to have to go back to being a reporter....
At my job interview I was struck by how soft-spoken John was. He seemed very nice & probably saw immediately how desperate I was. He said I could start work the next day. I wore a rather bright orange & purple African-mask-motif shirt to the interview, hoping to make an impression. "We have no dress code here," John said. "You can wear anything you want. But not THAT shirt."
I started training the next night, working with a younger guy named Tony who had dozens of tattoos & about 84 piercings. As soon as I walked in the door I thought I'd walked into the wrong store by accident. Tony, though as gentle-voiced as John, looked like something out of a Clive Barker movie. "It's OK," he said in mellow tones, "you're in the right place...."
Tony taught me everything I know. Every night I use things he taught me. Tony himself went on to flip houses, a less stressful line of work, as you'll soon see....
After 2 days of training they threw me to the wolves. Every time John came in I babbled about what stupid thing I'd done and been embarrassed by, or what minor little incident seemed to offend some customer. & John gave me a priceless bit of advice:
"I know you're trying to be good guy," he said. "You ARE good guy. But you can't worry all the time about everything that goes wrong. If you do, you'll be useless to me. If something goes wrong with customer, they'll be gone in five minutes. You still have to be here."
For awhile I worked mornings & quickly learned that John wanted the place immaculate by the time he came in at 8 a.m. That was his way of judging whether the morning person was actually working or not. That gave me 2 hours to make the store spotless. Sometimes I made it, but John would always find something to trip me up about. That didn't stop me from trying to make the place perfect. I still try to make the store spotless when I'm working, as if I expect John to walk in any minute -- & John sold the store 5 years ago....
I stopped racing to make the place spotless each morning when one day John walked in and started yelling about something I knew nothing about, had no control over and couldn't fix. That didn't keep him from yelling. Finally he started winding down and said "I'm not angry at YOU, I'm angry at SITUATION."
Thanks for clarifying that....
When I WANTED John to yell he wouldn't. John was there on my worst work day ever, when one of our morning Regulars (a constantly-grumpy businessman) grabbed his usual 64-cent refill cup of coffee & then yelled that he was NEVER GOING TO BUY GAS HERE AGAIN because he couldn't count on us. We ran out of gas about 3 times a week at that point, & I had to agree with him that we were pretty unreliable.
The customer immediately after him, a short, 80-year-old man with gray hair, glasses & a cane, screamed at me that our milk prices were "A FUCKING RIP-OFF!"
And John stood beside me all through it, nodding his head up and down as if he didn't understand or didn't speak enough English to be able to respond.
Later the same day I gave away $150 in "free gas" to 2 customers who drove away without paying -- half to a Regular I never saw again, & the other half to a guy who said he was working at a building project in town and he'd be back in to pay me the next day. I gave him a week, then went to his work site and had to embarrass him in front of his boss in order to get the money.
John said of the drive-offs: "This will not cost you your job ... THIS TIME."
When the new red, white and blue $50 bills came out & I took one as payment for gas, John came UNGLUED. "Why'd you take this bill?!" he screamed. "You KNOW it's fake! You probably even know who you took it from! Why everybody always trying to rip me off?!"
When I told John the new bills had been all over the news -- hadn't he seen anything about them? -- he responded very quietly: "Why are you trying to make me more angry about this?"
When the bank confirmed the bill was real, John didn't apologize for his screaming fit.
The screaming became so common that I could tell it was going to be a bad day if I pulled into the parking lot at work and my co-workers were shaking their heads "No" through the window at me. That meant I'd want to be anywhere else but at work while John was on a rampage.
The Screamer did do some amazing things, though. The gas-station business works on a credit/account system: If you order a gas shipment, the oil company will send it as long as they know you're credit's good & that you'll pay them within a certain period. By July 2004, John's credit had run out. By then, to get a gas shipment, John had to wire the oil company the money up-front, & then they took their time getting the shipment sent.
For 10 days after the 4th of July that year, we had no gas at the gas station. In the middle of that 10-day period was a pay day. I still don't know how John got us all paid then, when we were only selling about $300 worth of stuff per day at the store. But somehow he did it. I don't know how he got the gas shipments rolling again, either....
The Screamer sold the store in December 2004. He said he was going to retire, that as he neared age 55 he couldn't take the stress anymore. Though he'd kept us working and usually paid us on time, my co-workers and I were happy to see him go. My new boss is a quiet, happy guy, who I've seen upset maybe twice in 5 years, & never at me. He never says two words when one will do, & I've never heard him raise his voice at his employees. Things are MUCH smoother and quieter now.
Last I heard, The Screamer had bought another gas station about 10 miles down the road from us. I feel sorry for his employees....

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