Part 1: Professionalism
Sammy normally liked his job at Dinners and Waters, an investment firm with its own advertising and marketing department, as it demanded from him the starchiest elements of his steadfast professionalism, and did so at the word “go.” Whenever his bosses had asked him to complete an assignment, they expected top-notch performance out of him; they knew they could trust him with anything, for he always delivered, usually on time, as his responsibilities required. Like him, they frowned on laziness, and thanks to his determination to satisfy, it wasn’t in Sammy’s wheelhouse to disappoint those who counted on him.
But he knew he had seen the world through a different set of lenses than the common folks around him. Where most people lamented the slow ride through traffic and the slower ride up the elevator to their offices, made worse by the sound of Monday coming off their tired lips, Sammy saw the commute as a journey, a chance to experience motion in nature’s intended form: a forward trek along the straightest line through the concrete wasteland between Point A (his loft) and Point B (his office), hopefully without interruption, and hopefully with enough straightforwardness to give him time to plan his day while simultaneously suppressing unwanted memories of his former life.
He appreciated this routine, which most people would consider dull and lifeless, because, for him, it was comfortable. He knew it was a life without distraction, and devoting the maximum allotment of focus to his work meant he could excel at anything he’d brought to the firm’s mahogany conference table for review. And, if, at the end of the day, he were to deliver anything that was less than perfect, he would beat himself with a stick and restart the project from scratch, going home only after he was satisfied with the final result. Sometimes that meant spending the week in his office. Sometimes that meant shutting himself down from the outside world, cutting himself off from current events, isolating himself from people who couldn’t help, forbidding himself from eating. It was one way he dedicated himself to excellence.
His colleagues, however, insisted that his high sense of professionalism was just a coping mechanism to ward off his demons. No one else at the firm had felt so strongly about a commitment to perfection. Their unwritten motto had always been, “Whatever gets the job done is good enough.” But Sammy knew better. Professionalism was the foundation for success. It not only translated to high job quality but ensured that the job was done right, the first time. It should always be done perfectly the first time, or it shouldn’t be done at all—that was Sammy’s motto. If everyone had committed to his assignments with pride, then the world would be a happier place.
Professionalism was not a quality he believed was too demanding for “professionals.” In fact, if anything about his job had upset him, it was that so many of his colleagues were adopters of the rest of the world’s attitudes: show up, cut corners, get paid, go home. It was the overachievers like him who’d kept the company well-oiled and highly respected. But that was his satisfaction: knowing he was making the world a better place.
Therefore, it had given him great joy knowing he had his brown windowless office with the dying plants in the corners to look forward to each day, where a stack of papers sat waiting on his desk, ready for him to study, ready for him to sign, and ready for him to send back to his boss for approval. It was boring work inside a boring room, but it kept him professional. Nothing about his office distracted him from the task at hand. Likewise, he enjoyed those days where he could pinch the skin of his neck with that uncomfortable gray tie that a woman he once knew had given him for a birthday he didn’t want to celebrate, then conceal everything but the knot under a blue silk shirt and dark business coat where his professionalism could be fashionably visualized. He felt naked if he couldn’t enter his office with a leather briefcase in hand, which was often filled with antiquated documents paying tribute to a time before electronics had taken over communication and the world. Not only was the briefcase a solid accessory to his sharper image, but it contained valuable resources inside that contributed to his preparedness—an attribute of a true professional. Psychology was the mother of strong character, and knowing he looked the part and fulfilled the part ensured him that others would view him as the part and perhaps step up their own professional game. Certainly, that would give him one less thing to worry about. Following the mindless routine of paperwork and meetings also enhanced his feeling of worth, and the thought of marching toward the weekend was the only thing that brought him any sense of anxiety. Weekends were full of uncertainties and distractions. Weekends were the reasons people didn’t pay much attention to their current tasks.
Yes, his bosses kept it easy for him to seclude himself in a cocoon of contentment, but today he was no fan of Dinners and Waters or the opportunities it had offered him. Today, the firm had called for an offsite meeting with a company he did not trust. The company was remarkable in business, but lay at the bottom of the proverbial barrel in professionalism. Its employees weren’t even required to dress the part. Sammy worried that dealing with them would siphon his strict values right out through his pores and onto the shoddy concrete paths they forced their customers to walk upon. He’s seen it happen to others—good men shot down by environmental conditioning. The very thought of it made him anxious, even with the weekend so far away. For this reason, Sammy wasn’t happy with his firm’s current assignment. In fact, he was very angry, very angry indeed.
“I am not amused by your policies,” he said, as he squeezed the life out of his steering wheel, ready to bend it out of shape. “I am here for business, not for play. I expect to park for free.”
The parking attendant, a dainty forty-year-old smoker with auburn hair and freckles, whistled at his guest’s predicament. It was not the low rhythmic chime of a work tune he whistled, nor the low-pitched collapse of regret, but the simple o-shaped exhalation of apathy that escaped his mouth, and it cut Sammy deep beneath the skin. He had the bright doe-eyes of a ventriloquist’s dummy, and the compassion of a ventriloquist’s audience. He smiled with his thick lips and yellow chalky teeth. They looked like they were better fit for a cadaver.
“Unless I have clearance,” said the attendant, maintaining that wretched smile, “I have to charge you the normal ten dollars.”
As he spoke with that raspy singsong voice, he softly danced in place doing a basic three-step swing dance maneuver, flailing his arms over his head. A sway here, and a jungle thrust there: he might as well have been a dancing balloon strapped to a high-powered fan trying to encourage new drivers to enter here and forever lose their souls.
“Your sign says five dollars.”
“We charge ten for new, shiny cars with plush interiors. Not that we’re prejudice here at the Happy Fun Land parking lot or anything. Certainly we’re tolerant of all makes and models. But new cars encourage greater freedoms, and thus greater attention. It’s an insurance thing.”
Sammy the businessman looked past the gate and across the ground floor of the multileveled parking lot, hoping to find an empty spot close by. All he saw, however, were SUVs and vacant handicapped spots available. Figured. He sucked against the back of his teeth with his tongue. He could feel a piece of meat stuck between the center groove. One way or another he was getting in. Not that he wanted to, of course. But it was on the agenda.
“Get me your supervisor,” he whispered.
“He’s not here, delightful sir.”
“Go find him then.”
“I can’t. He’s in the South Pacific this weekend getting a rapturous tan.”
Sammy glanced over his shoulder for a better look at the vehicles waiting behind him. He expected to hear the blares of horns by now, but they remained silent. Through their sparkling windshields he noticed the drivers’ faces and their toothy smiles gleaming like rows of ecstasy pills. Sammy crossed his arms and focused back on the parking attendant.
“Who is in charge right now?”
“I am, happy sir.”
The attendant continued to dance. Sammy stroked the side of his vinyl steering wheel, trying to figure out what to do next. He looked to the passenger seat and noticed his Burger Ace bag folded over and lying on its side. If he had only skipped lunch, then this wouldn’t have made him late. He focused on a point through the parking attendant’s eyes and held his contemptuous gaze affixed until he lost track of time. Once again, he sucked against his teeth.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“I’m doing fine, how ‘bout you?”
Sammy paused again. He rolled his eyes.
“Give me your name tag,” he said.
“What?” The parking attendant stopped his jig and flashed a glance at the brightly multicolored name tag pinned to his lapel. He slipped his spidery fingers and then his whole hand over it.
“Give me the name tag, right now.” Sammy pounded his fist against the steering wheel. The whole dashboard vibrated under his power.
“No, I have to wear this. It’s part of my job.”
Sammy flung the door open and lunged for the attendant’s hand. After they swatted at each other for a few seconds, Sammy managed to pull the man’s arm far enough away from his chest to rip the name tag off his jacket. As the pin tore a small hole in his uniform’s lapel, the attendant screamed.
“Give that back! I have to wear it. It’s Happy Fun Land policy.”
The parking attendant threw some pansy punches to rattle Sammy’s nerves, but Sammy blocked each one. He counteracted by removing a wrapped cheeseburger with pickles from the recyclable paper Burger Ace bag and shoved it in the attendant’s face. The forced contact caused an explosion of bloody condiments to burst, and seconds later, ketchup dripped from his nose. The attendant stopped fighting to wipe the crimson smear clean with the back of his hand.
“Why are you being so unhappy?” he said. “They told me ten dollars for shiny cars. It’s our policy.”
Sammy calmly placed the name tag in his pocket.
“Maybe it’s time to change policy. Don’t charge people who come here on business.”
“But it’s Happy Fun Land. That’s what we do. Don’t take it out on me. Please. Give me back my name tag, I’m begging you.”
The parking attendant got down on his knees and clasped his hands together.
“I have a wife and three cats to feed. I need to have my name tag back, please. I want them to be happy.”
Sammy shoved his hand in the attendant’s face and pushed him aside, getting ketchup residue on his fingers. The attendant wavered a bit, but stopped from falling over. Sammy wiped the tomato smudge on the attendant’s orange and yellow striped shirt.
“Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you wasted my time.”
Sammy breathed a sigh of contempt as he looked at the line of cars building behind him. None of the faces he saw in the vehicles appeared upset. He scratched his forehead, then reached in the attendant’s shack to push a green button. As the whisker-covered gate rose, Sammy got back in his car and slammed the door shut. He drove through the open passage without incident.
Shortly after parking and getting out, he armed the theft deterrent system on his Windsnatcher sports car with a press of a button. Once he heard the ba-beep from under the hood, he looked up in time to see the vehicles that were behind him slowly coast by. Smiles continued to glow through the blue-tinted windshields, and he couldn’t figure out why. Perhaps they were breathing carbon monoxide? He stuffed his keys in his pocket. He tried to cast away the thought.
With the insanity behind him, he strolled through the third floor of the parking garage to find the exit. His posture was stiff, but his feet were light. According to his watch, he was twelve minutes late, and he needed every ounce of composure he could manage in his sharp, tailored gray Nomani suit to avoid making an issue of it. Lateness was the opposite of professional, and he was already annoyed with the potential partner for this distraction.
A moment later, a car door closed behind him. He shrugged it off—car doors closed in parking garages all the time. But then the sound of metal scraping cement came from a short distance behind him and it scratched his eardrums. He looked around to see the trembling-lipped parking attendant standing next to a blue Fort Temper. He waved a rod of metal rebar high over his head like a madman, distorting his mouth between a smile and an O.
Sammy’s lower jaw hung as the parking attendant ran up to his Windsnatcher and brought the rod down with extreme force against the windshield. His adrenaline pumped hard as he ran back to watch the glass collapse in a crumpled mess, and his car alarm shriek with massive decibel spoliation. Sammy reached out as he closed in, hoping to grab the attendant by the neck, but the attendant assumed a defensive stance with the rod pointing at him.
“I want my name tag back,” he said, with an unexpected smile. “Give it to me now or you’re next.”
Sammy felt his insides burn with anger. How could this man do this to his car? And why was he still smiling? Sammy reached deep into his pocket and flung the name tag out like a cap flying off a plastic aspirin bottle. It hit the floor with an anticlimactic clack.
They looked at the fallen object and then at each other. The attendant kept an intense gaze on Sammy as he reached down to pick it up, pawing around until his fingers made contact. After widening his eyes and smiling a bigger smile, he stood up and carefully tried to pin the tag onto his lapel with one hand. He couldn’t do it.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” said the attendant. “Since I’m such a happy person, I’ll let you park here for free if you forget about the window.”
Sammy, with the speed of lightning, reached out and grabbed the metal rod from the attendant’s hand. With a quick continuous motion, he brought the rod up to a striking position. The attendant covered his face.
“Don’t hit, don’t hit!”
Sammy paused. His burst of unquenched anger tangled with reason. A split-second of mental processing revealed folly in his action, and he was not a man who cared for folly. This was neither the time nor place for violence. In his line of work, violence was the enemy of professionalism. He threw the rod to the ground, and its harsh clanging echo screamed with displeasure.
“Get a new job,” he growled.
Sammy reached in his pocket and thumbed the button to deactivate his security system. All became silent again.
Mentally exhausted from the pointlessness of his battle, he turned around and walked away. Almost immediately he heard the earsplitting sound of metal scraping cement. This time a sharp pain in the back of his head and shoulders followed, and a brief vision of blackness fell before his eyes as the ground upended on itself and came smashing at his face.