I keep trying to figure a clear way to tell you about what happened to Tripp. We worked together at Bristol for three years before he went strange on us. It was sad at first, all his crying and such over that new job that made him so damn miserable. He got a promotion from the reception desk job he’d had for most of his time there and immediately went south on us.
Tripp wasn’t exactly brilliant but he was no dim bulb either. He had a nine-year bachelor degree from State College here in town. Took a few side trips between freshman year in one decade and graduation mid-way through the next. Communication Studies was his degree, I think. Not so practical as journalism or broadcasting but he could talk forever on the phone, generally long distance to every vendor we had. Tripp had what you might call a union mentality. I don’t mean any offense to unionists, don’t know any I can recall, North Carolina being an open-shop state. But Tripp knew all his rights as an employee and quoted them from the employee handbook at anyone who mentioned his smoke breaks or quitting time. He arrived at 8:30 on the dot, punching off the night-call operator button as he stomped over to the coffee pot. Never mind that his bosslady wanted him there at 8:15 to start the coffeepot, open the blinds, greet early visitors, and whatnot. Eight-thirty was in the employee handbook so eight-thirty was starting time. He left at five o’clock exactly as you can imagine. The only place where he allowed himself a little latitude in the schedule was the matter of coffee breaks. Tripp didn’t break for coffee, coffee was his constant companion at the console. Tripp broke for cigarettes – six of them each morning, six in the afternoon. The handbook called for a fifteen minute break in the morning and afternoon. Tripp took his breaks in five-minute increments, stepping onto the front stoop and each time sucking down two cigarettes as if they held the last air on earth. Tripp had mastered the flick to launch the butts behind his back and over the railing down to the sidewalk. His bosslady talked to him in a joking way about them butts a couple of times and he just shrugged her off. When she sat down next to his telephone console to mention it seriously, he allowed as how sweeping the public sidewalk in front of the Bristol building was not in his job description and that flicking butts was within his rights as a citizen. Even Father Tom down to St. Margaret’s had been known to flick his butts on the sidewalk downtown, and if it was good enough for preachers, blah blah blah. Bosslady told him to requisition a standup ashtray for the stoop. He did. A week later she told him to use it. Instead, he walked around the side of the building where the smoke blew in her office window and he flicked the butts into the high-dollar shrubbery.
The cigarettes weren’t the last straw, not even close. Before he got fired and went down to Topsail Beach where his vintage, rust-colored Studebaker gave out on the main thoroughfare between Sparky’s Bar and the Topsider Restaurant and Ice Cream Shack, and way before he lost his shoes in the jail because they arrested him for brawling at Sparky’s over whether you should call Dean Smith a coach or an educator, and before he went to live under the Topsail Pier because the Studebaker where he’d been living was towed off and he couldn’t find it until he came up with the cash money for the tow and he was at that time panhandling for cigarette money because his so-called wife back in Easton had cut off the bankline to the checking account because he used it for collateral for the earnest money for a three-bedroom condominium on the beach that would solve all his problems since then he wouldn’t have to dodge around the dumpsters because somehow there would be food in the fridge and beds in the rooms and sheets on the beds, way before then, but after the crying stopped, he got loud.
Whoa, he got loud! First I noticed was when he slammed down the phone in his new office where they put him because the crying was starting to wear on the new girl they hired out front at the switchboard. Phones are made out of special telephone plastic, developed in the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in the early nineteen hundreds for the explicit purpose of being slammed down. If they made them out of regular plastic like milk jugs, they’d get all dented and the insides wouldn’t work right and when Bell Labs invented plastic for phones they had a monopoly on the phone system and people kept their phones for years and years, unlike today when you can get a phone for seven-ninety-five down at K-Mart any day of the week, and before they de-regulated the banks, don’t even get me started on that, and they had Christmas clubs where you got a toaster for opening the account even though the interest rate was shockingly low, there being no free lunch and people being lazy about saving in a regular account, but you don’t remember them days, do you, well, sometimes they’d give you a free phone. This was after Princess phones, way after that, shortly around the oil embargo time. Anyway, if Bell Labs had known that the phone business was going to go to amateurs like it did, they wouldn’t have bothered with special telephone plastic, like no one would have bothered with eight-track and beta if they’d known about CDs and DVDs, but the point is they didn’t know so they made that special plastic, just black at first like all the old Ford cars, you can have any color you like as long as it’s black, because nobody thought of phones as decorator items coordinating with avocado shag carpet and whatnot, and the point is, Tripp broke the phone, special plastic and all. Can you believe it? Well, this was no free phone from the bank, this was one of those integrated, programmable phones with modes and function keys and options that cost a hundred and seventy-five dollars, which is nothing compared to what it costs to have the technician come over from Winston to plug it up for you. Can’t just call AT&T to send a guy over for free or put that little phone jack plug in the wall yourself or move the one from Reggie Martin’s old office where he left in a hurry after the marketing meeting with the bosslady. No, that don’t work because Reggie Martin’s phone has Reggie Martin’s personal number coded in it and if you called Tripp’s number when Reggie Martin’s phone was plugged into Tripp’s wall, it wouldn’t ring. And if you called Reggie Martin’s number while his phone was plugged into Tripp’s wall, it still wouldn’t ring. This is what I mean by amateurs infesting the phone business. In the old days, the phone rang and you picked it up and the call was for you or a wrong number and the person apologized for the inconvenience. Now, if the blame thing rings at all, it’s a telemarketer not trying to sell you something but trying to share a special opportunity with you about discount gravesites with perpetual lawn care or a new kind of gas company credit card that gives you a free weekend at a resort where all you have to do is listen to a three-hour presentation on why you should spend all your money and every vacation for the rest of your life there. And it wasn’t this kind of understandable thing that got Tripp so riled up that he slammed down the phone, but the fact that National Airlines, who he shouldn’t have been talking with in the first place because it was a personal call and not during his break and the employee handbook clearly states, between the policy on harassing the disabled, don’t even go there, and jury duty, that employees are to conduct personal business on their break time using the pay phone in the lunch room. This rule is important because that pay phone is an old model made of iron and chrome with the metal-covered cord so you can’t snatch it out of the box and the handset is one of the Bell Labs ones so it won’t break in a fit of anger when National Airlines won’t give you back your money for a thousand dollars of non-refundable plane tickets to Denver, Colorado to visit an old college buddy who doesn’t want you to come visit right now because you’re either crying for six months or screaming over the phone. Well, I don’t blame National because even though he did pay cash for the tickets, this is Tripp paying cash not the college buddy, who I don’t know at all since I’ve never talked to him, but Tripp paid for them with the share of the profit money he got at the end of the physical year like everybody else, he being employed for a full year and not getting pro-rated like the new girl up front who was only there a couple of weeks, even though he paid cash, he bought the tickets on the cheap, knowing that they were non-refundable which is how he could afford them in the first place and now National, which is no slouch of an airline, let me tell you, because they got the only non-stop flight out of RDU to London, England which is what makes the “International” in Raleigh-Durham International Airport where before all you could do was go to New York City or some such as that in order to get to London, England or Paris, France or any other foreign place, well, National knew Tripp was going to change his mind and they didn’t want to be acting as a savings and loan for Tripp’s bonus money so they told him he could trade the tickets in on some other tickets in the next year from the time he bought them for a seventy-five dollar each penalty and there being three tickets – one for him and the so-called wife who was really nice from what all I knew of her, and the little boy – that was going to cost him a pretty penny and he didn’t really have anywhere else he could go in the upcoming year because the thousand dollars was all spent on tickets to a place where he could stay for free and all his kin lived in driving distance and where else could he go in the next year for free before the bonuses came around again, if they ever did, the market being what it is and all. And so Tripp, being pretty smart still, had figured all that out and knew his money was kissed goodbye, the whole bonus which could have gotten them a swell driving trip to Disney where the wife and kid wanted to go anyway but it was Tripp’s bonus, but now it was gone and National had stolen his money and the phone broke during the conversation that he wasn’t supposed to have anyway. Even that wasn’t the last straw. Things can break and Tripp thought or at least said that we ought to send the bill for the new phone to National Airlines since they had plenty of money.
The last straw wasn’t even when he came barging into the bosslady’s office when she was doing my annual review which I purely despise and don’t mind being interrupted but it was the principle of the thing that he didn’t even knock on a closed door which is a sacred rule at Bristol. You don’t open a closed door until you are given permission even thought it’s not written down in the handbook. Everybody knows it and besides it’s just common courtesy or at least commonsense because who knows who might be standing behind the door hanging up a coat or trying to plug in the phone and you could get knocked in the head by Tripp stiff-arming the door like that and get a contusion or worse and sue the company for an undisclosed sum of money which would be hell to pay on the bonus plan come April. You’d think he was raised in a barn except I personally met his mother once when she stopped by the office unexpectedly on his birthday one year, which was on April Fool’s Day, which tells you something I think though I know in my heart he couldn’t help it. She was a real nice lady who had recently had a scare about a little dark shadowy spot on a chest x-ray they did to make sure she didn’t have cancer which they do every year for her because she’s a woman of a certain age, as we all are if we can be lucky enough to get that old, and/or be a woman, which I am not of course but I do sympathize. And she didn’t really have any cancer but the pictures weren’t real clear and she had to come to Easton and have the x-ray done again and she was kind of tender because they’d mashed her chests in that machine twice in a week’s time and she came by the office to say hey to Tripp who was just back from his second morning smoke but he took her out on the stoop anyway since he had some girlie pictures up at his desk that he thought she might find indelicate being as she was having chest difficulties of her own at that time and I saw her just a minute as he was scooting her quick-time out the door and she seemed polite and possessed of all the natural and social graces as they say and I couldn’t for the life of me understand how he thought he could get away with just throwing back the door during my review without a “By your leave, Madam” as old Shakespeare used to say or a “sorry” or nothing but start talking about how rude the new girl was being to him and he had been there four years and he could have her job in the snap of a finger, just like that as he snapped his fingers to show us how fast that would be, because he had forgotten more at Bristol than she’d ever know and I don’t know what all else he said because it was just crazy talk. And that’s just it. It was crazy talk.
I’m sorry to say that I feel kind of guilty that they let Tripp go when he was in such a state as that, that we had to change all the door locks on the building and the woman who sat right across from the front door was jumpy for months every time the door opened thinking he’d gone right off his nut and had come back to settle scores even though by that time he was in the hospital, maybe for good and we didn’t even know it. They all tell me that it wasn’t at all my fault that the day the new girl quit because Tripp kept calling her at home at all hours of the night from a payphone down by the hardware store in Hilltop Plaza and they asked me to sit at the front desk until they could hire a replacement and Tripp came out and saw me there and asked me why I had that job when he was the one who knew about telephones and I said that I guessed it was because they wanted someone who could get the job done without breaking the damn phone, and he picked up the receiver and hit me with it in the head, and I cold-cocked him right there where he stood.
We all agreed not to call the police and press charges on each other and get tied up in court for who knows how long and appeals and counter-arguments and depositions and finally settling out of court anyway because these things are never simple and only the lawyers are satisfied and Tripp agreed to be fired and I agreed to apologize though I really think I did everyone a favor but it’s all just a little complicated to tell it so I’ve just given you the short version.
Copyright © 2002 Anne Weston. All Rights Reserved.