During my first job right out of college, I met Ted who was on the back end of his career. I liked Ted because he always made me laugh. He didn’t tell jokes. He just had the ability to frame the conversation that soon turned hilarious. For example, he constantly referred to the company delivery vehicle as the “sewing machine” for it had that much power. When talking about one of our more hyperactive co-workers, Ted would always say, “William is wired for sound.”
Although he had a dry delivery, Ted was flat-out funny. I think most of his humor came from his age, his experience and how he really hadn’t mellowed throughout the years.
It’s funny how the passage of time can make events that were once casual now look horrific. After all, it wasn’t long ago when parents threw their kids into the back seat of a car instead of strapping them down like ballast to a ship; where smoking in the office was appropriate if the person had a cup of coffee; where bribing a public official was considered – actually, this is still considered good business.
Today everything has changed; is changing. The life Ted had as a youth is a marked difference from what a ten-year old experiences today. For example, when Ted was growing up in the small rural town of Eagle Lake, MN, the town’s mailman would drive his route with a beer in hand. That’s right, a postal employee at work in a moving vehicle drinking on the job. Ted said when the mailman approached an intersection instead of using a blinker he would stick the cold can right out the driver’s side window to indicate a turn.
This practice prevailed when Ted entered the workforce in the 60’s where drinking and employment went together like whiskey and more whiskey. Being 100% Irish Ted didn’t need a second invite. He didn’t much care for beer, so he stuck with Manhattans, which is the difference between having a nice buzz (3 beers) and ending up in the emergency room (3 Manhattans).
Ted was so fused with the drinking culture he knew how many Manhattans he could order on a business flight from Minneapolis to Detroit (2). He wasn’t the only one who participated in the on-the-job Bacchanalia. Two of the other drivers at our company, also in their 70’s, had their share of stories to tell me in the hallways and around the water cooler.
Jim, also 100% Irish, told me he drank so much one night in the town of Buffalo, NY, he woke up the next day in Canada with no idea how he got there. Ernie, who was built like a Peterbilt truck, spent more time in the supper clubs of Hopkins and Edina than the actual office. And once five hit, rarely did he punch the clock and leave the bar stool.
That’s how it went and nobody knew any different. But to his credit, Ted knew he reached his limit when one day he woke up from a night of drinking and found his car in the neighbor’s rose bushes. From that point he decided it not best to drink. And by the time I stared working with him, he had been dry for years. So instead of steak and martinis in a darkened lounge, we would heat up our frozen dinners and eat in the lunchroom. And it was in those hard plastic chairs under the blinking fluorescent lights Ted would sit with a reflective eye and regale me with his past exploits and I would nod and listen and wonder how he ever reached the point of sitting next to me.
One of his stories revolved around his time in Detroit. He took a position with a company to manage a group of gas stations. That’s right. Inner city. Late 60’s. Race riots. It wasn’t the ideal setting for a pale face Irish man. Believe me. I’m half Irish and standing next to Ted I look Mediterranean.
Ted pretty much had to tip toe from gas station to gas station. If a till didn’t balance at the end of a shift, he didn’t raise much of a fuss. If someone didn’t show up for work, it was easier for him to be the sub. Tensions were so tight he had to bury his natural tendency to be a smart ass and concentrate on the task at hand. Then some friends came into town.
Ted and his wife entertained by showing their friends the sights of Motor City. And it was at a shopping center that Ted, his son and the friend dipped in to use the restroom. Immediately, they were shoved to the floor by two men, one wielding a gun the size of a small cannon.
“You’re kidding,” I asked.
“I wish I was.”
It was the scariest moment he ever experienced: to be face down and spread-eagle, feeling his warm breath on the cool tile, smelling week-old bleach and fresh urine, wondering if those short breaths on the tile floor was his last, wishing beyond hope that he would have done the irresponsible thing and left his young son all alone at home.
“What happened next?”
Ted leaned back in the chair. He said one guy rifled through their pockets while the other guy kept the cannon leveled at their heads. Then they bolted out the door.
The lunchroom got quiet.
“I learned an important lesson that day,” Ted added to break the silence.
“What did you learn?”
“The next time I need to use a public restroom, I do something first.”
“Send my wife in first.”
Just like that, the conversation went from morbid thoughts to outright laughter. Only Ted could make that turn.