Friday, December 23, 2005

All Ready for the Christmas Luncheon

It’s two days before Christmas and it’ll probably be a short day here at work. Our annual Christmas luncheon is scheduled for 1:00 this afternoon at a restaurant a couple of blocks from here. We’ll eat too much, drink too much, and then our bosses will pack us off right afterward before anybody can alienate a client while in an inebriated state. It would be very unfortunate if Ms. Smith were to call. Alcohol and discretion are mutually exclusive and a loosened tongue could be the undoing of us all.

I have worked for this company since 1987. That makes me something of an anomaly, because most people in graphic design tend to hop around quite a bit. I’m safe and snug in my little office here. And I have attended many a Christmas luncheon. The cast has changed over the years, and, though it’s been a continuum, I can roughly count the groups of people I’ve worked with as numbering three. Each group or era has had its own stamp, and I can’t honestly say that one has been better than the other. But there has been one constant throughout the years: yours truly, Mr. Schprock.

The Ghost of Christmas Past has asked me to single out one colleague who I feel was the most memorable. That is a tall order, because there have been more than a few unforgettable personalities who have walked through the door. But, after giving the matter a minute or two of consideration, I think there is one who stands out among the rest, and he is my good friend Bob.

Bob turned 69 last month, and he hasn’t worked for this old design mill for a very long time. But what an impression he made! I first knew him in 1987, after he had been fired from a previous job and was hired temporarily by my company as a freelancer. This was just before the computer age, back when everything was done by hand. We had heard of desktop publishing, but it seemed more like science fiction than the next big thing. When you heard the claim, “Someday this will all be done on a computer, and a job this size will fit on a little disk,” it was just like hearing, “Someday we’ll all fly hovercrafts, and robots will dress us and brush our teeth.” All very futuristic and unattainable to our ears.

In olden times, we used drafting tables, T-squares, triangles, ruling pens, X-acto knives, compasses, airbrushes with compressors, paints, inks, and rubber cement. We sent copy off to the typesetters, which came back to us in the form of galleys. We pasted pages for advertisements, brochures, posters and catalogs on what were called mechanicals or boards. It was an art, one that required technical skill on top of design talent. You had to have good hands. You needed to be quick and neat. And there was nobody better at it than Bob.

The first day Bob arrived, he carried all his tools with him in a large wooden wine box. He was only 51 years old then, just a year older than I am now. I would say he was a handsome man, and you could tell, without ever having heard his antecedents, that he was a sportsman. He had a husky athletic build, and he wore a Polo shirt-sweater vest combination that proclaimed him a golfer just as surely as a kilt would a Scotsman. Immediately upon being shown his work area, he straightened everything up and set things just so. The X-acto knife, hard-leaded pencils, Rapidiographs and glue bottle went over here, and the T-square and triangle were placed there. Someone got him a gallon can of Bestine and he used the strong smelling solvent to clean his table.

Bob’s craftsmanship was unrivaled. He could paste up a board faster than anyone — and yet, for all his speed, he was fastidious. You couldn’t find the slightest blemish or a single, sloppily ruled line. He didn’t mind people watching; in fact, he enjoyed an audience. His hands were always in motion; there was never a false movement. Observing him, you knew you were witnessing virtuosity.

Here was Bob’s problem: he was loud. Excessively loud. And he was arrogant and a braggart besides. Nothing you said made any sense to him. He was always right and you were always wrong. He talked and talked and talked. Bob had a naturally resonant voice and was a little hard of hearing, so everything coming out of his mouth was at a decibel level approaching that of a rock concert. He told a good story and no one appreciated his jokes better than he. And Bob had these personal sayings that were repeated constantly. The one that comes to mind right now is: “And speaking of your sister Sue, how’s your old wazzoo!”

But Bob was more than a boor. When you got to know him, you realized he was intelligent and sensitive. He appreciated art and music and theatre and I had many interesting conversations with him on those subjects. His life story, given to me in installments, was fascinating. He was an athlete in high school and college, and later played minor league baseball in the Pirates system as a catcher. After that, he signed on to a professional softball team called the Hoboes; they actually toured the country dressed up like clowns. His first marriage, which was already on the rocks, was destroyed when he ran off to New York City with another man’s wife for a couple of months. For a while he bred show dogs. At the time I first met him, he was a scratch golfer.

Bob was the best paste-up man in the business, but he never stayed with a company for more than a few years because of his big mouth. Most people liked him but hated his attitude. No one measured up to his standards and he let you know it. Bob had a habit of saying very cutting things and then finish with the statement: “I’m sorry, but that’s how I feel.” He complained incessantly. Nobody worked harder, no one’s life was tougher. He would drive you crazy and then suddenly say a very funny thing that cracked you up. You both loved him and hated him.

Through the years, Bob worked for us from time to time but never constantly. After a while, we were his only client. During the intervals when we didn’t need his services, I stayed in touch with him and we’d occasionally see a sporting event together. Finally, the new way of doing things completely outmoded him. He never tried to learn how to operate a Mac; he thought working on a computer was beneath him. “Back in the old days, you had to be good,” he was fond of saying — which implied, of course, that any idiot could do on a computer what only skilled craftsmen did before.

Bob spent several hard years barely employed. He lost his condo and eventually declared bankruptcy. A friend at his country club (he still kept up his membership) rented his apartment to Bob at a bargain rate. Finally, as the last indignity, Bob was hired on full time by my company as little more than a glorified intern.

I’d like to skip over this next part, because, quite frankly, he drove us nuts. Before, as a freelancer, you could take him knowing eventually the project would end and he’d leave. Now he was with us all the time. He complained about the errands we asked him to run. He hated learning the computer, but needed some basic skills or he’d be of little use to us. His telephone manner was so gruff my bosses asked him to stop answering it. And he never tired of pointing out to us the crap we were producing. All bad design. That’s not the way you kern type at all. We never used to do it like this. Who taught you typography? If you had to, could you hand comp anything? Your clients accept this?

Inevitably, Bob was asked to leave. He took it surprisingly well; years of similar dismissals had taught him a nonchalant attitude. One time, after telling me the story of how he left one company, he brayed, “I don’t burn bridges — I dynamite them!” I’m guessing it was around 1997 or so when he was let go.

Well, it’s time for lunch and I have to wrap this up. Bob and I are still friends — sometime after the holidays we’ll get together. But of all the people who have come and gone, he was the most unforgettable.

17 Comments:

Blogger Scott said...

You can tell that you are friends with Bob, as that was an honest and intimate portrait of him. I thought along the way that he would be a good match for your Ms. Smith, being so exacting and critical. I feel sympathy for him as a person left behind by technology. He was an artist that mastered the trade, and did truly have to know so much to be good at what he did. Not that working with a computer is without it's particular skill set, but you had to be the master of fire, wind and rain to get something done in those days. To perform like he did without so much as a smudge on a computer is irrelevant today--there is no such thing as a smudge anymore. The lines are all perfect.

10:51 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I kinda feel bad for the older generation, who are either forced to learn technology or fall by the wayside. They tend to adapt easily or be so set in their ways, they never learn - rarely is there an in-between. Even still, there's a lot we young 'uns can learn from them.

But his attitude might have made me go all Operation Braggart with the x-acto knife.

12:36 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Scott, I quote him all the time, and when I tell people the "back in the old days you had to be good" line, those folks in the industry who actually can remember the old days tend to agree. Here's another of his lines I love: "There's no time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over."

12:36 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I kinda feel bad for the older generation, who are either forced to learn technology or fall by the wayside."

Those who adapt earn my admiration. The ones who fall by the wayside only get my pity. In the case of Bob, he was his own worst enemy.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

One of my favorites that still rings true today:

"Good
Fast
Cheap

Choose two."

Okay, I know this has nothing to do with your story, but reading Bob's pet sayings reminded me of it.

2:06 PM  
Blogger trinamick said...

My boss was 74 when he decided he needed to learn how to use a computer. He took classes and everything! He does pretty well now, even though he's still a little intimidated.

My grandpa, OTOH, doesn't even want people talking about computers around him, because he "doesn't understand all that rubbish." Maybe if he learned to use e-mail, he wouldn't have to gripe about never hearing from anyone.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

My father is 82. I tried to get him to type a letter to a long, lost friend from WWII (THAT's a blog post for a future date!). The "old" electronic daisy-wheel typewriter was started off just fine, but it had been so long since it had been used that everything that needed lubrication had dried up and the thing died in agony before our eyes. He pecked at the keyboard so slowly that he surprised the hell out of me when he told me that, during the war, in addition to firing anti-aircraft cannons at German planes overhead, he was a headquarters company orderly who typed 50+ words a minute! And that was on the OLD, mechanical, elbow-grease-required typewriters!

He's forgotten how to do all of that in the ensuing 60 years. With the use of my sister's typewriter he got the letter written. We've tried to get him to compose letters on the computer, but he'll have nothing of it. He's afraid he'll "break" the computer.

Sorry, Mr. Schprock, I've taken the "what's yours is mine" creedo a little too much to heart....again.

6:37 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Dassal and Trina, I just gave my parents our old iMac G3. I set it up and they stood there looking at it from a safe distance like it might explode. I showed my mother how to get on to the Internet using dial-up (I keep a Netzero account active for some reason), but it's anyone's guess if they'll actually use the thing.

6:57 AM  
Anonymous LL said...

I've felt your pain on the computer end Schprock, and I sympathize. So...

Have a Merry Christmas, and wish your lovely bride a Felix Notverdad from me too. :P

4:21 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

The same to you, LL. And, by the way, I knew of you from a long time ago through John and Frell Me Dead. One day he mentioned a guy named Lord Loser and I said, "Stop right there — I already like him."

Happiest of happy holidays, m'lord. Best wishes to you and yours.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous LL said...

No trouble judging a book by its cover, eh Mr. S? :P

Thanks for the well wishes.

9:10 PM  
Blogger boo said...

well schprockster. one day we shall all be replaced. but we will keep the memories, warmth in our hearts, sounds (however loud) in our heads & smiles on our faces.

p/s its 8pm boxing day & aptly named. time for deathmatch on wow :) i need more gold dammit

4:01 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

I just looked up “Boxing Day” — there’s some pretty interesting theories on its origins. Our family does Three Kings Day.

Good luck getting the gold!

6:58 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Because of my mother's age, she gets the youngins at her work making comments like, 'you just don't like change' when they suggest something that she disagrees with. Then she points out all the changes in the workplace that she has adapted too, and quite well too.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

I just caught up on a bunch of your entries. My mind is still stuck on the dog house one and your "younger" wife. Time changes us and our marriages.

Sometimes I think the contract should have had a renewable expiration date. You could sign up again for another tour of duty if you wanted it, which is sounds like you do! =)

10:49 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

“Then she points out all the changes in the workplace that she has adapted too, and quite well too.”

Oh, yeah, I say she has a decided advantage over the young’uns. If only those whippersnappers realized it!


“Sometimes I think the contract should have had a renewable expiration date. You could sign up again for another tour of duty if you wanted it, which is sounds like you do! =)”

You mean we could hire agents to represent us like professional athletes? Like, I could hire Scott Boras and we could go over my stats and discuss my “intangibles.” How about we offer four years with an option for five, plus incentives?

But of course I’d sign back on with the missus. If I didn’t, then it’s back in the doghouse I go!

6:49 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

My Grandma just turned 87 and is always talking about needing a computer to keep up with her daughters on the west coast. She never does it though. On the other hand, my mother is the biggest technophobe in the world. She doesn't even know how to work the VCR.

Nice description of Bob. When reading about his proficiency I was wondering why he got fired and then boom...loud, obnoxious braggarts are so not fun to work with. And many of them never figure that out.

5:13 AM  

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