Fear and loathing in the burbs
It was autumn 1980 and I’d been with the Public Works Department for over two years. Not a bad gig; decent pay and fairly light work. But it was also a time when, for a short stretch, I started dreading going to work. Things were changing in the department, with the retirement of a longstanding foreman and a couple of other guys, along with a few reassignments.
When the dust settled, I was paired up with Bob or “the Big Bossman”. That’s a nickname I’d given him early on, after hearing one of his “jokes”. I won’t tell it here except to say it ended with the line “white is the color of the big boss man!” Yes, it was one of those idiotic, antiquated racist numbers. Thus I felt justified in using the name to give it back to him, although I doubt it even registered that way with Bob. He seemed just fine with it.
Bob was a townie, close to 50 years old at the time, soft in the middle and soft at both ends too. The kind of guy that’ll make you wonder how he managed to survive in life, yet he still had all the answers and took every opportunity to let you know. He wasn’t so keen on solutions though, excelling instead on problem identification.
In one early exchange Bob told me that immigrants were a major cause of problems in our country, before going on to imply that all non-whites were a threat to our freedom.
When he shared his view on immigration with me — that was well before we were paired up, and just a bit before I knew better than engage — I pointed out that a variety of statistics show that immigrants stimulate the economy.
Bob came right back at me — well, first he had a snicker with his like-minded and heavier pal Gus, looking to share a laugh at my expense, before accusing me of being either a flake or a communist. Bob was a real piece of work as they say. Little did I realize at the time how flighty Bob could be with his convictions.
Guys like Bob and Gus fit right in to the DPW work culture. Lifers like them were the clear majority. They were old school traditional and politically conservative. Guys like me; twenty-something, college educated liberals, were basically their favorite targets of ridicule, mostly because we were in their sights, a clear minority and easy pickings. There always seemed to be two or three of us on staff at any given time while I worked there.
I started at the DPW as a summer temp just before my junior year in college. I was offered a part-time gig that fall, then decided to stay on after my graduation as a full-time employee. I had decided to take a year off from studies to figure out what I wanted to do. Not two weeks after starting full-time, I was in the midst of a shake up.
It was a cloudly and crisp Friday afternoon, and Dave, the new foreman told me I’d be paired up with Bob. Bob’s old partner and pal Gus had just retired, and I wondered how Bob would feel about it. After all I’d been watching the Bob and Gus team in action for a couple of years by then. They went together like T&A or maybe burgers and fries would be more appropriate. Gus was by far the alpha male in that pairing, even though he was much quieter. He was also 100% unadulterated bigot. The kind that made me most nervous at the time, his silent self-assuredness made him remote and out of my reach. And his ability to influence his peers was considerable. Meanwhile Bob took the role of the unofficial spokesman.
To my relief at the time, Bob didn’t seem too upset about his friend’s departure. Later on I realized it had to do with seniority. Gus had been the senior partner and now, in one of his life’s triumphs, Bob was moving up to senior partner with me the gimp. Looking back at it now, it occurs to me that Bob was probably relieved to no longer have to fulfill his old partner’s high standards of bigotry and racist dogma.
To give due credit, Bob was a decent partner in terms of doing his share of work. He was no slacker. He’d just tax my patience when he got emotional. He wasn’t necessarily a windbag, but when he got worked up about something, watch out! It wouldn’t be long before I’d be looking for an exit.
After a time I came to see that Bob wasn’t very politically minded at all. When he’d get worked up, it was usually a perceived slight at work, or trouble at home. He often fought with his son, who was just a couple of years younger than I was. After we’d been together for a while, he confided in me about his occasional marital issues. Bob’s wife Barb, in another twist of irony, was a bossy boots who seemed to go off on Bob whenever the mood struck her, but it always passed. When it came to the home front, all Bossman Bob wanted was to have peace and harmony in his refuge.
In the end I was mildly surprised to find I liked Bob. Once Gus was gone from the scene, Bob’s racist jokes slowly faded and I realized Bob was mainly an empty vessel. Highly impressionable, or maybe malleable is a better word for it since I don’t believe he’d actually adopt opinions so much as reflect them back to impress the guys he looked up to — me NOT included.
All that to say, that was where my relationship with Bob ended up once we had bonded. But it took a while to get there. The first few months were rough on me.
The very worst, most irksome thing about Bob was his eccentric way of interacting. Bossman was not a fan of eye contact. When he spoke to me, his eyes would be fixed on a spot a foot or two over my head or off to one side or the other. It was a weird, but relatively harmless quirk. The bigger problem happened while Bob was driving. Given his seniority, Bob chose to drive while I rode shotgun and squirmed in the aptly named death seat. He always obeyed speed limits, but for some strange reason, when he was behind the wheel, Bob would get more talkative, and when he spoke, he’d look right at me as I sat, squirming, heart racing in the passenger seat, and not the road. Inexplicably, he did this for unnervingly long stretches.
I’m never one to shrink from the perverse. As an observer, I’d love a story about an eccentric like Bob. I’ve often laughed while in the thick of hairy situations brought about by bizarre characters in my life. But this situation didn’t tickle my funny bone at all since I felt like we’d surely be crashing at an moment.
This tendency was so inane that I didn’t know what to say at first. Especially because he’d only look at me when the truck was moving. At red lights Bob either gazed into the distance or fixated on some part of the dashboard. He’d wait until the truck was moving to take his eyes off the road to look in my direction.
I remember our first day together like it was yesterday. The Big Boss Man started off unusually quiet that morning, and I was worried it was because of me. After all I was in my early 20s and I still wanted to be wanted. Shortly after we left the yard, we were sitting at a red light when suddenly and irately he whacked the steering wheel with an open hand. For a moment my anxiety intensified. Eyes front and fixed on the distance, he launched into a tirade about our foreman Dave, who had just somehow rubbed him the wrong way.
Unbeknownst to me at the time Bob had felt passed over for the foreman job and now had an axe to grind. Changes had been revealed the week before and I hadn’t noticed any complaints from the Big Boss Man. Looking back now, I’ll bet he ate a ton of shit from the wife over the weekend and was now primed.
“That fuggin’ guy! Why’s he deserve that job anyways?!! It’s all about who ya know…shit! I should be the fohman afta 22 years in dis fuggin’ job. Tell ya what, I’d fieahh that suminabitch too!! He nevah carried his weight…he’s just a kiss ass!”
When the light turned green, Bob stepped on the gas and then looked over at me, starting in on his take on Dave’s psychological shortcomings. We actually made eye contact for a split second before Bob’s eyes scattered over to the glove compartment. But this time I was equally averse to holding eye contact. My eyes fixed on the road ahead while from my periperal vision I could see Bob’s head still facing me.
Based on prior knowledge of Bob, I had settled in the passenger seat, 6:30 am on a frosty December morning, still half-asleep and expecting that I could run on autopilot for a 10-minute drive. But now I was wide awake and my heart was racing. I first assessed we were a safe distance from other cars or objects, but still it was disconcerting traveling blindly at 30 mph.
As Bob kept looking right at me I was at a loss as to what to do. I started to panic and my thoughts ran wild. “Is this guy a closeted gay?” was one of the many possibilities that ran through my squirrel-like mind at that time. After a few seconds I met his gaze hoping he’d get back to looking at the road, but no such luck, his eyes immediately darted past me to my window.
Seeing no indication he planned to get his eyes back on the road, I instinctively grabbed the dashboard and fixed my eyes on the road. I had hoped Bob might be inspired to do the same, but no, he was still facing me.
I should add that I had been in a really bad car accident the prior summer. Two cars were totalled and it was fortunate no none got hurt. But I did come away reminded (as I now was accutely aware) not to take for granted the hazards of heavy-weight mobile machines moving through space capable of manslaughter or otherwise serious damage. Bob only seemed unphased and casually turned his focus back to the road after some time.
Looking back now, I wonder if Bob had really good peripheral vision. Otherwise I don’t know how he could have possibly gone so long without looking at the road. On that first day, I developed a strong suspicion that Bob had a shark-like instinct, and knew what he was doing. I have no idea what he really thought of me at that point, but he had on a few occasions called me Nr. Cool. I suppose it was based on my steady temperament. I never got rattled easily. But now the Big Boss Man had a way to make me squirm and I’ll bet seeing my eyes about to pop out was something he enjoyed.
Still being a kid, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Bob to look where he was going that first day — something I’d eventually do by the end of that first week. Initially I got the idea he enjoyed seeing me in fear, and I decided I wasn’t going to give in. I’d eventually resolve not to play that game with Bob. The stakes were too high with no payoff to speak of.
I got through that first day visibly unscathed and just a little worse for wear psychologically.
Next morning, I purposely got to work early and prepped the truck. We’d typically start at 6 am and spent about 15–20 minutes prepping and getting the equipment on the truck. Bob arrived a few minutes after I’d finished loading. It was now 6:15 and I saw that Bob was fairly animated joking around with one of his lifer cohorts, so I stuck to my plan of walking to the site. It would be at most a 20-minute walk in relatively mild 50-degree weather. Nothing to it! I started walking and called back to him when I reached the gate — far enough away to negate any objection: “Hey Bob, I’m walking, I’ll meet you over there!”
But just as I turned to look forward, I tripped over the gate frame and fell on the concrete, with my right shoulder absorbing most of the impact. Oh the pain! The next voice I heard was Bob, reacting: “Whoahhhh….ha ha! Don’t hurt yourself kid, you gotta look where you’re going man!” Predictably followed by a chorus of laughter
He knew! That son-of-a-bitch knew. I was still in his stupid game, and I was losing. Losing to the Bib Boss Man!!
As I started to get up I heard the familiar sound of the truck starting up, and as I stood and gathered myself, there was Bob pulling up, window down, big smirk on his face. “Come on kid, hop in!”
Reeling as I was, and on the verge of desperation, I noticed there was enough space for me on the cargo bed.
“I’ll sit in the back Bob — might need to lie down for a minute.” I said as I climbed up the side, catching Bob’s eye through the back window for a split second before they darted away like salt-water minnows.
“Whaaa?!!” he implored, still looking out the passenger-side window, as if I was doing something completely insane. And the game went on.
I laid down flat and used a tarp for a pillow while contemplating these latest developments. While I have to believe that a person like Bob, who has that much trouble with eye contact must have some deep-seated issues, he still managed to snare me in his tangled web. A wise man once told me that I can learn something of value from everyone I meet. So it is! And it seemed there must be more for me to learn. Much more. I eventually learned that I will always rise or fall to the level of competition, where I chose to compete.
As I felt the shooting pain in my shoulder, I started thinking about how I’d soon be sitting in the passenger seat again. I mused on the sometimes high cost one pays attending the school of Hard Knocks, and wondered what the road ahead had in store for me.
Over twenty years later I got a call from a DPW employee, who turned out to be Bob’s current partnero-workers, to invite me to Bob’s retirement party. I couldn’t believe Bob had gone out of his way to have me invited. I was touched. It was good to see the Big Boss Man, although I couldn’t bring myself to call him that until we’d sufficiently broken the 20 + years of ice build-up.
It’s interesting how the years wear us down, and make us less audacious, more risk-averse. But if we’re fortunate, they also allow the heart to open. That was my take away from Bob’s retirement party. Both Bob and I were among the lucky ones.