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Labor Day

A Novel by
Floyd Kemske

Labor Day dust jacketChapter One

I knew quite a bit about the place before I began my surveillance. Jolly Jim's Refresh & Refuel. Truck stop. Northern New Jersey, just off exit 39. Twenty-four fuel islands, a substantial restaurant, souvenir shop, and showers for truckers -- $3.50 for ten minutes under a cascade of warm water followed by a fresh towel.

There's no Jolly Jim. That's just a name. The place is run by Melissa Willard, a well-groomed, slightly overweight 45-year-old single woman who makes a career managing Jolly Jim's. I have spent three successive weekends watching her from a rented truck in the Jolly Jim's parking lot. I know what time she gets to work. I know when she leaves, when she meets with her shift supervisors, and when she does her receipt tallies. I even have a pretty good idea when she goes to the bathroom.

The Jolly Jim name is owned by a small, closely-held corporation with annual sales of $14 million and 53 employees and an employment contract with Melissa Willard. The corporation is as closely held as it can possibly be -- owned entirely by a well-to-do, civic-minded lady who lives on the Main Line in Philadelphia. Jolly Jim's was a bequest of her late father. The civic-minded lady uses the profits to support various charitable causes. She has not visited the truck stop in over ten years.

It's not difficult to watch a busy truck stop, especially at night. You rent a small truck, drive in, and park. Traffic being what it is, you can leave a truck in the parking lot for up to twelve hours without attracting suspicion. This is my third weekend watching Jolly Jim's. I don't mind working weekends. Some people like to spend their weekends gardening. Some people like to watch or play sports. I like to stalk small- to medium-sized businesses.

Through my palm-sized binoculars, I study the enthusiasm with which the Jolly Jim staff carry themselves under the fuel island floodlights, and I watch their demeanor in the presence of the ubiquitous Melissa Willard. She wears the same khaki trousers and blue windbreaker the employees have to wear and she works alongside them when she is needed, but I've studied enough organizations that I recognize power relationships on sight.

The employees respect her and trust her. It's apparent they even like her. She has been here working all evening, even though it is Sunday. I wonder what the people who are close to her think of these hours.

I have done enough of these to know that Melissa Willard will be a casualty of my work here. But I never let myself worry about unemployed managers.

I am attracted to Jolly Jim's Refresh & Refuel by the ampersand in the name. Is that strange? There has to be some reason to decide on a target. An ampersand is as good as any.

I once saw a documentary on television about a man who studied a band of baboons. He was remarkably patient and would set himself up in a blind near them. They knew he was there, but he sat in his blind quietly for hours and hours, and they got used to him. I feel a little like that man. I sit here in this truck cab, and I make notes on my yellow pad as I watch the attendants running around on the gas islands. I've even had to give them names to keep track of them.

There is plenty of truck traffic on the highway, notwithstanding it is Sunday night. Truckers usually work all weekend. It's a business that requires a lot of hustle, whether you're union or not.

About eight o'clock heavy trucks all pull in to Jolly Jim's at once. They line up at the pumps to wait, while the attendants dash from vehicle to vehicle, pumping fuel into the enormous side-mounted tanks and climbing the sides of cabovers with their windshield squeegees in hand. They move fast and purposefully and with little wasted movement. They are a competent crew. Lots of teamwork, good focus.

On this shift, there are four men and two women. They are all in their early twenties. At least two of them are college kids. I can tell because they bring books to work. Economics, history, art appreciation, psychology, philosophy. Budding members of the exploiting class.

A kid with sandy hair, whom I call Sandy, practically sprints from truck to truck, keeping the pumps pumping, checking oil, making change. When there are no trucks there to buy fuel, he walks around and picks up litter. When there's no litter to pick up, he reads a paperback book with a lurid cover, which I assume is science fiction. He moves like somebody who owns stock in the place. That's pretty amusing. The person who owns stock in the place -- all the stock -- doesn't even know this kid, and if she did, she would consider him less valuable than a house cat. But then she's a little nutty when it comes to house cats.

Sandy is my best prospect. When you're looking for the prime recruit -- the bell cow -- go for the smartest one you can find who isn't a supervisor. They might not have leadership skills, but they are easily disillusioned.

Sandy and the rest of the crew work for forty minutes at top speed to clear out the backlog of trucks. When it is finally over, and the fuel islands are quiet, they all go back to the booths that stand at the centers of the islands. Sandy opens a book and starts to read. The dark-haired man in the booth with him appears to be making entries on a keyboard. He is the shift supervisor.

I turn the ignition key to start the truck, flip on the headlights, and then drive over to the island. With the eight o'clock rush over, I will be the only customer, which is what I want.

Sandy closes his book, then trots out to the truck.

I switch off the ignition and watch him approach in the orange light of the sodium arc lamps. Standard-issue khaki pants and blue windbreaker with a Jolly Jim patch on the left side of his chest and a name badge on the right. Alan.

I climb out of the cab.

"Fill it, please."

The boy is still sweating from exertion, but as he pulls the pump handle from its slot, he smiles at me as if I were the only customer of the day. "Check the oil?"

"It's fine." I look around at the quiet fuel islands. "Are you the shift supervisor?"

"No." Alan turns to look at the man intently tapping the keyboard in the booth.

"You will be," I say. "I was watching you work as I drove in. You work like a shift supervisor."

His eyes light up. He has a fantasy about becoming shift supervisor. Strivist advancement crap. It is the drum beat management generously provides to help their galley slaves push through the pain and row a little harder.

Over his shoulder, I see the plump form of his manager coming toward the island. She stops to speak with another employee, but she is clearly headed in this direction. I walk around to the other side of the truck, as if examining its body. I prefer not to be seen by managers.

The fuel pump is making a soft hum, but I can hear Alan speak to her.

"Hi, Melissa."

"Alan, I just wanted to tell you I think you did a great job with the rush just now. I was watching you from my window. You kept them moving, but you were friendly and courteous. Great job."

I recognize this as a "brief affirmation," suitably personalized. It is from chapter three of Sensible Supervision.

"Gee, thanks," says Alan.

"Come see me in my office when you're finished here. I want to talk with you."

"Sure, Melissa."

I pull an IBOL brochure from my pocket and leave it on the ground where Alan will find it when he picks up the litter after I am gone.

Melissa goes away. Probably has more brief affirmations to distribute. I walk back around, where Alan is wetting the squeegee to do the windshield.

"Don't bother with the windshield," I say.

"I don't mind," he says.

"Doesn't need it."

The boy drops the squeegee back into the reservoir and returns to the fuel pump.

"Does she do that often?" I say.

"She does it a lot," he says. "She's always telling us when she thinks we're doing a good job."

"Pretty good boss, I guess."

"Yeah, she's pretty good. She cares about us."

"Caring costs a lot less than a salary increase." I smile to keep the comment friendly.

The boy laughs.

"I used to work for a company," I say, "where they cared about the employees. We were like one big family. We all worked hard and our manager was always there to help out. I really liked that guy. You could trust him, you know?"

The boy nods his head toward the office. "Like Melissa."

"Yeah," I say. "A manager like that is hard to find. When you get one, you'll do anything for him. We put in overtime whenever he asked, same pay as straight time. The people at that company, they would do anything for that manager. I've always remembered that company fondly."

"Why didn't you stay there?"

"One year the company had record profits and all the employees got one-percent raises. After all the hard work and overtime, it was nice to get a raise, but I thought we'd done more than one percent. I did some investigating and found out our manager got twenty percent. I am not kidding. He got twenty percent. And he was already making about four times what any of us made. You want to know why the company gave him twenty percent?"

The pump handle clicks off and Alan nods, then takes the nozzle from the fuel port.

"They gave him twenty percent because he kept us happy with one percent."

Alan fits the pump nozzle into its slot on the pump.

"It happens all the time," I say. "You do a good job and she compliments you. She does a good job, and she gets twenty percent."

He looks thoughtful when he stretches his hand out to me. "Thirty-five fifty-seven."

"That will be cash." I take a roll of bills out of my jeans pocket and peel two twenties from it. "I realized the company judged our managers on their success in cutting costs. It didn't matter if they did it by getting a good deal with a supplier, streamlining a work process, or getting employees to stay happy without raises."

The boy takes the twenties and reaches into his own pocket for change. "Where did you go after that?"

"I didn't leave after that," I walk back over to the cab of the truck. "I joined a union."

A look of curiosity crosses his face. "A union?"

I climb into the truck. "Keep the change."

"Hey, thanks," says Alan. He walks closer to the door of the truck. "A union?"

I lean out the window toward him. "Don't say it too loud. Even a good boss like yours would fire you if she heard you wanted a union."

"I didn't say I wanted one," he says.

"You don't have to want it. Just thinking about it is enough. Management thinks that if you start thinking about unions, the next thing they know you'll be asking for time-and-a-half when you work overtime. They don't want that, do they?"

"I guess not."

I turn the key to start the engine. "She wants to see you in her office. Do you think she's going to offer you a raise?"

"Hey, don't you want a receipt?"

"I come through here all the time," I say. "Maybe I'll see you next weekend. You can let me know if you got a raise or just a bigger compliment."

I wink at him. You always wink at the young ones. They are susceptible to that.

-End Chapter One-




© Copyright 2000 Floyd Kemske

Published by Catbird Press. $22 hardcover, 208 pp., ISBN 0-945774-48-6

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