Monthly Archives: May 2020
(Some names have been changed ‘cause some of this stuff is embarrassing)
Amy, my love (who isn’t me), as my birthday approaches, it’s time for another covid fueled look back at ‘80s J.
In our last installment your husband-to-be was a college student in the Reagan years freshly hired as private security. Guarding was a temporary gig, a dues-paying layover on the way to glory.
My plan to embrace my future was simple: get my bachelors’, search the want ads, go to the many “Writers job fairs” no one ever hears about, get hired to compose prose and start spending the torrents of cash my words would earn. Swimmin’ pools. Movie stars. Stephen King was looking nervously over his shoulder as I neared graduation.
Yes. You married an idiot. I know that’s not news, but this document is more evidence for your file.
I settled into my new job of taking a bite out of crime by working any location in the metro where trouble was likely to surface. Of course, I wasn’t Batman, my boss, Jim S. negotiated a contract before we were dispatched to protect and secure. Wherever there’s a parking lot, convention center, festival, wedding, alcohol being consumed, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy, look for me ma, I’m probably the cop.
There was little glamor or flash to guarding things, most jobs are like that I suppose. At no time did I ever have to carry Whitney Houston through a concert crowd or away from Bobby Brown. If someone had amassed a mound of feces on a railcar that needed protection from turd burglars, we were likely to be the successful bidders.
Thanks to guarding I’ve been to more wedding receptions than those guys in _Wedding Crashers_. I was not as accomplished at picking up available women at these events, but it may have had something to do with the fact that my job was suppressing peoples’ fun. That did not prevent many of my fellow guards from scoring, however. Is it possible that I was not as handsome? Not as charming? That my night stick was less alluring? I must be careful as I stare into the abyss. But then, how much interest does my wife have in the action I wasn’t getting in my twenties?
In security work you often have to be out in the weather. Murderous heat, meat locker cold, biblical rain, nuclear winter snowfall—-all on the wind-swept Great Plains. Security contracts, like the honey badger, don’t care. Some underpaid chump must occupy a dimly lit place and make rounds to protect other people’s property. Compensation was a major drawback. Working for the lowest bidder in town translates to your income being equivalent to the change that gathers in the cup of a dancing monkey. And the monkey is held in higher esteem.
On the plus side there was no shortage of interesting material for a man who was working on his novel. As I’ve demonstrated, security work treated me to a panorama of characters and situations not offered by stocking at Hy Vee. It was like a circus parade.
There was Malone, an ex-cop who ran call girls out of a bar downtown. Malone taught me that when hitting someone with a pistol try to drive the butt into either side of the head and discharge the weapon upon contact. “It can blow their ear drum,” he advised. So far, I have been unable to work this tidbit into my life, but tomorrow shines brightly.
Frank (my friend since the 4th grade). Frank took his authority to heart. Once, at the Civic Auditorium, Frank refused to let Tom Petty (yes, THE Tom Petty) into an event without paying admission. Petty was heartbroken—har! I hope Frank would have made an exception for Springsteen.
Stoop and Poop. Honestly, if I ever knew his real name, I forgot it. He branded himself with this cognomen by making a bold speech at a mandatory team meeting (for which we were never paid) wherein he declared loudly he was ex-service, and “I know how to stoop, and I know how to poop!” On a hot sticky night guarding the Summer Arts Festival, Frank, the site supervisor, convinced Stoop and Poop that he was too good for such a stupid assignment and he should quit. S&P took Frank’s argument to heart and walked off the job. Jim was furious, because Stoop and Poop pure gold in the showing up department.
Scrap Iron. He didn’t work for SL&B, he was the bouncer at Big Jim’s Bar, a ROUGH establishment on the north side where SL&B guarded the parking lot. One night the manager came out yelling for security to come inside to break up a fight. One guard asked: “Where’s Scrap Iron?” The manager replied: “They threw him out the back door!” When the sound of gun fire began echoing from inside, SL&B’s close out sale merc squad wisely scattered under various parked cars to await the arrival of professionals.
Big Tom (my friend since the 7th grade). Tom was a very good guard, so he was doomed. Tom not only showed up, he took the job seriously, believing people deserved service. The big in Tom was both his heart, and his measurements. Around 300 pounds. Anytime Tom had to lay down security law his opponent would pull the fat card and try to fat shame him. This will reach critical mass in part four.
Naut. Naut was something you send to haunt a house. It would not be out of line to expect Naut to swing out of a bell tower. He was as big as a sofa, and like most sofas just got dirtier, rougher looking over time and for God’s sake never smell it. He carried a revolver with a butt held together with electrical tape and would often set himself on fire. Okay, he let his cigarette ash drop and burn holes in his clothing. I watched it happen and would alert him that hot cinders were eating through his shirt. Sometimes he would brush it off. Sometimes we both just watched it burn. But, and this is key: HE SHOWED UP. Jim’s gold standard baseline of employee performance excellence (which pertains to all jobs): SHOW UP. My job was to show up to relieve Naut in the mornings before human beings arrived to discover we had shaved a Big Foot and given it a job. Naut was also stunningly inarticulate and could not always be understood. It may have been his lack of teeth, but his sentences often came out sounding like: “Ardy-Ardy-DingDong.” Big Tom’s young son would announce Naut’s arrival shouting: “Daaaad! Ardy-Ardy-DingDong’s here.”
The fact that he was a real human being that could be conveyed in such fantastic fashion remains incredibly sad to me. I never tried to discover how he became Naut. That is on me.
Salted through this period of my life was my growing appreciation for the loveliness of the night. Evenings where the stars glittered like glass beads and birdsong and summer flowers seasoned the air. People were mostly sleeping; traffic sounds were far away so it was just me and God. There is something comforting in the isolation of the midnight stretch.
But being a rent-a-cop was about establishing and keeping peace more than savoring it. In the early ‘80s I worked a lot of places where the faces changed but the ugly never let up.
Parking lots. Lots and lots of parking lots. Any parking lot where teenagers would gather to be teen aged (Burger Kings, W.C. Franks, haunted houses) that had an owner with insurance liability had the potential to have me show up and confiscate their beer, interruptus their coitus and generally rain on the fun. I did not enjoy it, but I got very, very good at it. At some point I started to take security work personally.
Apartments. Apartments seem to host a lot of bad human behavior. Probably because people live in them. I walked around various apartment complexes at night watching cars, smelling dinner being prepared, hearing favorite television shows behind closed doors, periodically asking people to turn their music down. I was a force for mundane justice. On the more intimidating end of the dial there was low income housing on the north side. There, when fun went sideways on Fridays and Saturdays people got shot. Other nights too, but I only did apartment search-and-destroy-fun missions on Fridays and Saturdays.
I worked every weekend for eight years.
Salem Baptist Church. Churches are hot beds of sin. It isn’t just teenagers that have sex in cars. Cheating spouses and the horny faithful all chase the backseat boogaloo. One of the dumbest things I ever did (yes, I know how large that list is) was walk into a mob of people having some dispute over race, religion, sex, or some damn thing, and order them to disperse. God was at Salem Baptist Church that night and he kept me alive.
The House of Large Sizes— a clothing store for plus size women. I walked the aisles in uniform preventing full-figured ladies from shoplifting. Nothing I say here will ever be as funny as I think it is, so I’m moving on.
See? I have gotten marginally smarter in 61 years.
The Game Gal-Ry a hugely popular ‘80s video arcade at the bustling Southroads Mall. Teenagers, underage drinking, cocaine, parking lot sex, Donkey Kong. It was all there. I broke up fights and persuaded players not to beat the machines that beat them. I was a parent without the grocery overhead. I so endeared myself to the clientele (One regular named me “The Bald Eagle”) that twice someone loosened the lug nuts on my left rear tire and each time that tire flew off in traffic. Checking my car for sabotage became one more game played at the Gal-Ry.
The Franklin Credit Union (pre-embezzlement, prostitution and devil worship scandals). I worked the lobby during the day and later the night watch. This was pre-Internet or 24-hour television (dinosaurs still roamed the Earth and three channel TV actually went off the air). I had to read books.
Car dealerships. We would often watch car lots at night to prevent vandalism and theft. I would protect vast sprawls of expensive property I could not afford. I would dream over the gleam of vehicles, wrenched from my fantasy at how distant such a purchase was by the stickers in the windows. I came to understand why cars get stolen.
Not every miniscule paycheck involved guarding things. My boss Jim was a licensed private investigator, so I got to follow cheating spouses and collect proof; when we delivered the news to one cuckold, I was sure we were abetting a murder. Instead, the giant husband wept, his heart entirely broken.
We repossessed cars. With the title and keys in hand we would legally reclaim the bank’s property when folks fell behind on payments. The pure act of stealing a car and knowing you will get away with it is a big rush. Frank had a shotgun leveled at him during one escapade and his partner, Bone, advised the defaulted fellow: “You kill him. I kill you.”
Over a car.
On the plus side we were tipped twenty dollars for every car we reclaimed.
One security task prevented folks from stealing cars, in another we stole those cars when folks couldn’t afford them: It’s the circle of life.
Motor vehicle adventures continued with valet parking for the upper crust at swanky parties. Our ever-present companion was the weather. We stood outside in the heat, the rain, the falling, clinging snow watching other people going inside to have a great time. Did you know that the wrong Lincoln Continental key might still start some other guy’s Lincoln Continental? Yes, you will drive up with the horn honking, the lights flashing and the alarm going off, but the wrong car is running and can be driven. There is no tip in such circumstances.
Frank and I painted Jim’s house. When I did the math, I found that we made less money painting than we did guarding shit, so I had to negotiate a pay boost. Jim hated having me around the office because I was always reading his official business communications and correcting his text. Terminating me for insubordination was not on the table, because I was the poster child for showing up.
Why did I keep showing up? One, I’m pretty sure we’ve established I’m a dipshit. Another factor is the whole economy was in a massive recession with an unemployment rate around 10%. Options were not abundant. Also, I was taking the work personally; guarding became in some way about me. I refused to back down. I would do whatever I was being paid fool’s wages for because I was not going to give in to fear.
Yep, you had children with that guy.
One aspect of security work that resonated– the range and complexity of human situations I met on the clock. While I spent most of my time thinking only of myself (my greatest natural ability), sometimes I got a window into other lives that forced me to pause.
Once, I had to guard a federal prisoner. Before you think I was staring down some tattooed thug with a sharpened toothbrush looking to shank me (and I may change the story later) I was actually watch-dogging a tiny young woman in the hospital who had just given birth to her son via Caesarian section. I was pretty sure I could catch her if she made a break for it. Just watching her try to walk was painful, so I can only imagine how she felt. I have no idea what crime put her behind bars. I don’t know her story and I wasn’t sharp enough, human enough, to ask. On a warm Friday night, I watched her rock her newborn son. From a distance I saw doctors take the infant away. She cried as her bonding time concluded and she surrendered her baby to whatever was ahead. I don’t remember the prisoner’s name.
I don’t know if anyone does.
Next: Part Three, “There is an A-hole in Everyone.”
Amy, while sheltering in place I have been doing some looking back, (yes, I do that pretty much every day pandemic or no but try to focus here). Previously I have shared some things with you about my past, telling you that before we met, I was an international banker, secret agent, porn star and dog groomer.
Over time you’ve come to your own conclusions about my capacity in each of those skill sets.
The truth, or at least what I’m going to say here is, I spent the majority of the 80’s working as a security guard. You know the kind in the movies, the private cops, mavericks that the system could not contain, that are ex-Navy seals, are smarter than everyone around them, collect exorbitant fees and are usually played by handsome, fit actors who can kickbox?
Not that kind.
We were rent-a-cops, those guys you see in malls, whose uniforms don’t fit, have unusual body shapes and lack real authority, but because this is America often have guns. That was me. I wore a uniform (that fit), carried a firearm, and generally worked a reverse schedule for the majority of the Me Decade. Like Dracula, or many summer teenagers, I slept all day and prowled other people’s property all night.
My first security job was in Texas, where in the summer of ’81 I guarded a foundry. I worked a 12-14-hour night shift guarding Caterpillar engine blocks and glowing white pools of liquid metal. The foundry patrol area was on average 118-degrees (I know because foundries pay particular attention to the temperature). I sweated rivers and I stank. Security consisted of walking around at night with a giant clock on a strap punching keys into the clock proving I had made my rounds once every hour, preventing anyone from slipping multi-ton engine blocks or molten metal into their pockets. As an only child the hours, the solitude, suited me and my desire to read and write. J’s summer of ’81 is another Facebook post entirely.
Eventually I returned to Omaha and in ’82 I got a job working for SL&B security. S, L and B were the initials of the guys who started the company. It was easy to get a job with SL&B. My friend Ed saw the variety of suspect characters employed there and concluded that the standards were low if they existed at all. He said, “I’m pretty sure if you show up with a shine on your shoes, you gotta job.” This was true. The employee roster was a wild cocktail of under achievers, ex-cons, drop-outs and recovering (or not) addicts out of some improbable fiction.
Our friend Frank, his shoes gleaming, got hired. After a few months on duty his opinion was that SL&B really stood for “slow, lazy and blind” and he suggested I apply. We are still friends despite this. At the time I was busy cramming four years of college into seven and I needed some way to pay my aunt Evie room and board. So, I shined my shoes…
The interview was long, maybe because I was pretty green. Academically speaking I looked great, and I had experience guarding for a major company in the south, but Jim S. the S in SL&B, wanted to take my measure. It’s possible that having someone who had a high school diploma, no addictions nor criminal record was something he was not accustomed to dealing with. I’m not saying I was better than anyone, but I was very different than Jim’s generally derelict applicants. I take comfort in believing that, anyway. I’m pretty sure I was his first nerd hire
Jim’s big concern was that I “show up.” As I got to know Jim’s management philosophy, I found that “showing up” was the bedrock of being a world-class security guard.
Jim had me show up at the Godfather’s pizza on south 24th street. High schoolers would raise hell there on Friday and Saturday nights, so security was brought in to fight for Truth, Justice and calm dining. Paying real off duty police has a hefty price tag, so enter SL&B. Jim found a demand for marked down protection. Our unspoken motto: “Can’t afford the best? SL&B!” Here was his formula: offer the lowest price in town to companies that needed security, hire a buncha guys who could never pass a background check, pay them dick, and build a reputation for excellence. It is simple math if you are simple to the point of deficiency: 2 + 2 =$220,000,000.
My first partner in crime fighting was Perry, a compulsive philanderer who was primarily interested in afterhours clubs, gambling and sex. Lots of sex that he talked about. Lots. He projected his own infidelity back on his wife. Perry was positive his wife was screwing their dog (“Think about it man, who the dog gonna tell?”).
One night Perry didn’t show up, violating Jim’s prime directive of successful guarding. Jim sent Tate to be my partner. Tate was a four foot something septuagenarian who resembled an ancient hobbit who had been in a horrific car accident. Tate had one glass eye that was always looking somewhere else, and a Gandalf walking stick to help balance his gnarled left leg which was visibly shorter than the right. Tate was presented to me as my “back-up” if I had to stop a fight between amped-up high school troublemakers. Visions of having the snot beat out of me flashed before my eyes.
There were many, many others in this “bonded and insured” roadside attraction of misfits. Over the next eight years I would work with many of them and I would be challenged and change in ways I could not begin to imagine. Like many people in their twenties I had a lot to learn. The one thing I was confident of? I had job security—-all I had to do was show up.
End part one