Friday, July 01, 2005

WerkHorrer -- Today, July 1st, is the First Anniversary...

... of when I was fired from Hewlett-Packard in Dearborn, Michigan.

It was one of the strangest, most surreal work situations I'd ever encountered -- some kind of weird Ponzi scheme perpetrated with the same economic prowess and criminal sophistication as the scheme in Mel Brooks' film The Producers. I was a technical writer on a project that at once sounded so vast (HP took over EDS's management of General Motor's "systems") and utterly ethereal at the same time.

The first people hired on this project were the technical writers. Note to HR staff everywhere: Project Managers should always be hired first -- they know what the hell is going on. Or, at least, pretend they do.

Not that we didn't have anything to do. Our days were ever so filled -- with waiting. If you're ever asked in a trivia game how long it takes HP to get four tech writers HP laptops, the answer is three weeks. Our days were filled, indeed -- with wondering, endless wondering.

We sat in empty cubicles surrounded by furtive people who averted their eyes whenever they walked past our area. When one of the tech writers made the mistake of asking if one of these ferret-like personages was our manager, the question was met with a look of horror and disgust -- and a shake of the head.

No, the managers were soon on their way -- flying in from North Carolina, California, from all over. They were crusty old white men who were, ironically, a bunch of techno-phobes. The tech writers had more than a few sardonic laughs over the fact that HP, whose motto was/is "Invent", and fancies itself to be somewhat a dabbler in technology, had at the helm of this project people who thought "archiving" our work a silly, redundant notion. When systems explode and hard drives go bad, and Fortuna takes a shit on your data, tech writers have learned to thank the deities for those "redundancies." And the idea of "secure archiving" seemed even more arcane and alien to these walking cadavers with gold pens in their shirt pockets, and their Dale Carnegie courses wagging all about them.

Bill Bertch was the name of the head gobshite. I remember there being quite a few "Bill"s involved in this fiasco that was steadily turning into a debacle. Or, was it a debacle fast becoming a fiasco...?

Ole Bill Bertch and his drugged California countenance, his bald, sunburned head, his rust-colored eyebrows, his eyes blue as gel capsules. He possessed a strange blend of grandfatherly bearing -- he was as old as Moses -- with an all-encompassing lethargic, Gomer Pyle incompetence. One day I nearly walked into him in a cramped meeting room. I muttered my reflexive "Sorry," to which he replied, "That's OK, I'm just a person." I was both glad and dismayed by that reassurance.

We had impromptu meetings, made lists of language-defying terms, mumbled about "parking lot issues," and did our best to give the appearance that we had the least idea about what was going on. There was much TechSpeak bandied about, many serious looking crusty old men acting like they carried the weight of the world on their narrow, villainous shoulders. Nodding sagely, absently at all that was said, which was probably as unintelligible to them as the barking of dogs.

By then the technical writers had their (our?) project manager. He was a hapless, harried middle-aged man named Rick Marshal. He was an amiable guy. He occupied the space next to me amid the cubicles. He did his best to give some semblance of understanding what was happening around us; what was required of us. He did his best to explain this, except it didn't seem to come out as English. It came out in that strange hybrid language that has no name. Maybe we could call it "Bullshit-lish" or "Treading-Water-lish" or simply "I-Don't-Know-lish." Rick was quite fluent in this language.

After two months amid the cubicles in Dearborn, the entire group of tech writers, recovery specialists, programmers, problem-solvers, problem-makers, cads, hangers-on, and gad-abouts were relocated to the basement -- the very bowels -- of the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. We were welcomed like lepers arriving at a cocktail party in Martha's Vineyard; like carnivores showing up to a vegan rutabaga roast.

The miserable group of us were corraled into a single windowless room in which the walls were literally padded. There weren't enough chairs for us. It was all so painfully, laughably symbolic of Corporate Life. And there we milled about like a gaggle of retarded ants, gathering and carrying crumbs of angst and anxiety several times larger than our body mass, yet without the direction, intelligence, or sense of purpose of ants. We moved so that we were seen to move, to show we were capable of movement. We spoke so that the sound of our voices might be registered by someone else in the room; to show we were capable of speech. If one left his seat to use the rest room, he came back to find his belongings piled on the floor by the wall, and someone else sitting in his place -- working, presumably.

Rumors floated about. Rumors that the project would last longer than we were first told. Rumors that the project might be dropped the next day. One rumor, which proved true, was that my immediate project manager -- amiable, aimless Rick M. -- would be terminated within the month. Some unseen hand had turned its thumb downward on him. A pall followed him everywhere. We felt sorry for Rick. We were glad we were not him.

My pay checks continued to be sent to the Dearborn office at this time. The details of why I was not paid via Direct Deposit are many, multifarious, and complex, having to do with my being a citizen of another country, currency exchange rates, the cost of rice in China, and international money-laundering laws. So, I was paid by check, and that check was available to me only at the Dearborn office.

One morning, the antfarm atmosphere of the windowless, padded-walled room took on a new, wordlessly antagonistic slant. There are not even words in "Bullshit-lish" to adequately explain the oppressive, hopeless, wayward, forlorn something that assailed me that day. Suffice it to say that I am an intelligent, heartfelt human being who knows when his dignity is being used as a bedpan.

So, I left Warren for Dearborn to get my pay check. It felt like a sound, sane thing to do. It seemed like oxygen in place of the airless insanity of the go-nowhere project to which I was attached. Well, it appeared -- and no surprise in this -- that my going to Dearborn on that particular day, at that particular time was just the false move THEY were looking for -- many-eyed, mute, omnipresent, omni-idiotic THEY.

I retrieved my check in Dearborn and wandered into the empty area of cubicles where I had sat weeks before. Amid the silent, empty carnage of the nothingness was Rick Marshal, diligent at his HP laptop. He was startled to see me. By the surprised, vacant look on his confused face I wondered for a split second if he was going to say to me, "Who am I? Why am I here? What are THEY doing to me?" But he only asked what I was doing in Dearborn, why I wasn't in the padded room in Warren.

That evening -- having simply gone home from Dearborn rather than braving the torrential traffic back to Warren -- Rick called me at home. He sounded like a peace-maker on the telephone. He asked me to go into the Dearborn office the following morning. I allowed a fragment of myself to believe that he might have found other work -- something! -- for me to do in the Dearborn office.

As it turned out, at 7:30 a.m. on July 1st, Rick and I sat in an empty meeting room and he terminated my contract. Which raised a semantic question in my mind: Can a man who, himself, is being fired actually fire someone else? I didn't voice the question. I was too filled with relief to do so. I simply left my laptop and other HP accoutrements on my former desk and made to leave. Rick looked up from his cubicle as I did this, seeming startled, ever startled, and asked if I wasn't going to do "something" with my laptop and accoutrements. I replied, "They're not mine anymore. Have at them, man. Have at them."

And I left.

And that was a year ago.

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