Saturday, February 25, 2006

Frank, The Phone Throwing Guy

We used to call him “Frank The Phone Throwing Guy”. Frank was tough on communications equipment – handsets, headsets, cell phones, pagers, PDAs, you name it and more likely than not Frank has sent it hurling through his office at some point against the unforgiving end of the brick wall that faced his desk at the office.

He didn’t start out throwing telephones. He started by tossing furniture but as he got older and as furniture became more ergonomic this became less and less feasible. He had tried pencils and pens but they lacked the same satisfaction that telephones gave him as they shattered into a million shards. Telephones have always been at the receiving end of abuse ever since their inception. I imagine that after Alexander Graham Bell uttered those famous words “Mr. Watson, come in here. I need you” into one end of his newest invention, that Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell probably shouted down to her husband that she was going to leave him if he didn’t come out of that dank basement playing with all those wires and things. His reaction was most likely to yank the whole device off his desk and toss it toward the cellar stairs in the direction of his wife’s voice.

Ever since then, men and women everywhere have been realizing the cathartic release in that eruptive slam of phone into cradle – complete, final and tight, plastic on plastic, loud certain and sure. The slammer is almost always under the misguided notion that the intensity of this slam would travel over the phone lines filling the ears of the transgressor; hence, enforcing the point of said dissatisfaction. It was an emotional sonic boom of sorts, faster than the speed of sound; faster than that lying, cheating, sneaking voice coming from the other end of the phone call. SLAM. It was goodbye with attitude and yes, it was a fuck you in one brief cataclysmic syllable: over, kaput, finis, done!

So given the history of abuse known to be heaped on telephones it seemed only logical to Frank that the next step in its evolution was that of un-powered flight. The phone’s square solidness in Frank’s sweaty wrinkled hands felt like power. The hook made for a perfect bowling ball grip; the weight was substantive but not oppressive. Its trajectory made for a straight line with no wobble; no uncertainty in its final destination. It gave rise to an orgasm of dismantling plastic, with the cracking shell and slight hint of the ringer. It was anger in the form of office equipment that sailed by the heads of salesmen and consultants who dared to cross Frank’s meteoric sense of justice.

This was such a tradition that Frank had a large storage room built just to house all the spare phones for those occasions when he needed to release stress or register his dissatisfaction with something. People who worked with him never spoke a word, but came in, cleaned up the parts and replaced the now defunct phone with a new one. Frank never liked bad news. Who does? Whenever people came to break bad news to Frank, they inevitably wore that “don’t kill the messenger” look like a fresh, ill-fitting suit. Frank would reach for the phone at some point during every day and toss it with a Sandy Koufax ease, replete with a kick of the rear leg and graceful follow through. Before the days of “anger management classes”, before the politically correct days of harassment, Frank saw things through the filter of his own sense of justice.

No one ever knew for sure if he missed his targets on purpose. On the one hand the sound of the smashing phone was often enough to register his complaint with the other party while doing no real damage to speak of. This alone would frighten the most stout hearted. Still, on the other hand, Frank’s cataracts were legendary so even if he wasn’t aiming at you, he was throwing toward you and that was enough for many. And besides, it wasn’t really the mass of hurtling poly vinyl chloride coming at you that bothered you so much, but more the fact that the phone embodied all of Frank’s rage that a man his age could muster. The sub-orbital phone was really just a metaphor for something Frank could never quite get a handle on: his temper.

In point of fact, Frank was good to me as he really did treat everyone who worked for him well, almost like family. This was a business that he had built up with his own two hands. As quotidian a description as that was when it came to describing every entrepreneur since the inception of capitalism, it really doesn’t begin to describe Frank’s loving dedication to a business that was more flesh and blood to him than his own family.
When his wife had cancer, when he lost his son in that accident, he inevitably found his way into work and sought relief in work the way some men might find it with religion or at a bar. He was always good to me – which is not to say that I carried any exemptions as the target of some sort of flying hardware from time to time.

Frank hired me fresh out of college as an accounting student. He paid me next to nothing and as I gained experience, he knew that I could be running other places and making triple the salary. Still, he gave me great freedom and was constantly sending me gifts. I would be the one to hold the impromptu “come-to-Jesus” meetings in his office – times when I had to make him see that his old school ideas about running a business were creating great disadvantages for the business. He would hate it when I brought new ideas to him, but really I believe that was why he hired me in the first place, though he never admitted that. For him, it was like taking his castor oil – some foul tasting medicine that he knew was going to help him in the long run. Sometimes he hated the advice I gave him and he hated the fact that everything was changing around him and he knew I was right. He was aware of his limitations so he forced things onto himself that eventually would help the business.

But there was no questioning that Frank was the boss though. There was none of this “employee empowerment” or Six Sigma, quality improvement, “I’m okay, You’re Okay” pop psychology in Frank’s place. Despite his great self-awareness, despite the signs of his advancing age and stooping gait, despite all the signs of a rapidly aging tyrant who believed that hurling phones against a brick wall of his office was good management style, he was still not averse to acting childish from time to time. Like the time I had to explain to him why we were losing market share to some Chinese company who made our products at a fraction of the cost we could. He wouldn’t listen. He grew more obstinate inversely proportional to the clarity of the logic I was using to explain the matter to him. He would put his fingers in his ears when he reached overload, usually just before he reached for the nearest telephone or cell phone, wind up and let it fly like a major league pitcher at the start of a no hit shutout. With fingers in his ears he would then chant so as to make it impossible for him to hear me. “La-la-la-la” he would intone as I would follow him around the office imploring him, “Frank, Frank don’t do this.”

He wore the same type of gray oversized business suit as when he started the business. He took off the suit coat every morning and hung it over his chair. His hair thinned and what little was left turned white. He wore his trousers up high almost up to his breastplate the way older men did and in time it almost seemed like he had no hips at all. His walk changed over the years from a bounce when he first started to the gradual shuffle that I came to know in his later years. Never needing a cane or walker, he would start every day the same way: with a walk. His skin developed the looseness that an older person’s skin does, and the hearing aids and thick bottle end glasses had the effect of a fun house mirror on his face. He was not one of those men who denied his age. He accepted it the way he accepted everything that came his way: in a deep quiet. He wasn’t a personal type of person, but you could tell he needed people. He loved to argue. I suppose it tested his faculties. He did things the way he did for irrational reasons, but they were rational to him. . We couldn’t change him and the fact was none of had the balls to suggest he retire, even as his memory began to lapse; even when he ended up in the nursing home; even when he was unable to recognize his wife or even when he was unable to remember where he worked.

Eventually when Frank died and there was a great pallor that beset the office. His son took over and he managed the place in accordance with modern business practices. Soon after that, I deleted the spreadsheet row in the budget that I used to prepare for Frank. It had only the generic description of “Spare Phones” and some dollar amount. I removed the row since we no longer needed spare phones as a separate line item in the budget. With this, it seemed as though I was excising Frank’s very soul from this place, from the financial plan of his very heart; for the thing he cared for the most. It hurt when I actually clicked the “File-Save As” option. As the hourglass came up on the computer reflecting the time it took to save the new budget files, Frank’s memory grew just a little more dim and in the end, we would all be a little worse for it.


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