WHITE COLLAR HELL

Wall art on Clarion in Street San Francisco

by Dell Franklin

Fall, 1968

I was dwelling like a mole in a subterranean garret in San Francisco and trying to land a bar-tending gig after working the past summer at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe as a bar boy. But I soon found out San Fran was a union town and there was no chance for a 24-year-old newcomer to break in. In short order, my priorities were finding a good watering hole, a job, and a woman, or, better yet, getting laid, as I’d been on a brutal drought.

The city economy was booming and I went to an employment agency where a savvy lady felt since I was clean-cut and an army veteran and scored high on an aptitude test and cheated to pass a psychological evaluation, I was prime salesman material.

Meanwhile, after considerable searching in the meat-market bar scene, I found Danny’s in the Marina, a hallway size affair with a pool table in back, and a blue-collar, working-class crowd I instantly forged a rapport with. Danny himself was enthused I’d found a job as salesman with Graybar Electric, a huge corporate supply company in the industrial belt across Market Street.

I reported to work in the same cords and white short-sleeve shirt and snap-on tie I wore to the agency interview and with the man who hired me, Bernie, to whom I reported at the monstrous drab three-story building after a night of celebratory boozing in Danny’s. The level on which I was to be employed was lined with desks of typing secretaries and salesman talking on phones, scribbling on invoices, or paging through telephone-book size catalogues of items and prices. Everybody was terribly busy. They smoked and drank coffee. There was no conversing among employees. Alongside this hive were private offices where older, rather portly men in beautiful suits signed papers, talked on the phone and, from time to time, patrolled the room, visiting, asking and answering pertinent questions, attempting amiability to boost morale. Pictures of these men were displayed along walls above their offices. I was issued a corporate handbook in which there were capsule biographies of these men, along with an outline for success within the corporation.

“To begin with, Rick,” Bernie said. “This is not exciting work. It can be confining for a restless person. You are always at your desk, working the phone, consulting the catalogue. This can be tedious and demands patience and persistence.” He watched me stifle a yawn. “Of course, after a while, you can move from the desk to the road. You’ll have an expense account, travel. I’ve done both. At this point in my life, with wife and kids, I like it here. I see you’re not married.”

“Not yet, Bernie.”

“Okay. Well. I’m going to start you out with one of our top salesman—Bill Rogers. He started out like you, and last year he was employee-of-the year throughout the country!”

I sat next to Bill at his large steel desk that was a-sprawl with manuals, invoices, and the giant catalogue. He was pale, clean-cut, chipper. A framed picture of his wife and two children stood at the corner of his desk. His handshake was solid. He was busy, working his phone, calling on trade in all parts of America, displaying an easy familiarity and rapport with each person, like old friends.

After a while, I asked, “You ever meet any of these people?”

“Oh no.”

“Don’t you want to meet them?”

He paused. “If I go to a convention. But I’m not one for conventions. I’m not a drinker or a partier. I’m a family man.”

“So they’re just voices…without faces or bodies, huh?”

He seemed impatient with my questioning, wanted only to discuss my training. He was not one iota interested in me as a person, like I was not a face or body. I was just a project.

“Some of these secretaries are cute. Do you have company parties, where I could meet some of them?”

He sighed. “No. Now, Mr. Kelso, the first thing you might do is take home a copy of our catalogue and study it.”

He was actually too busy to train me the first day. I paged through the handbook, reading bios. A striking red-haired man around my age, swinging his ass, dropped Bill off a cup of coffee and appraised me with fleeting distaste before dropping off more cups to other salesmen.

“Who’s the haughty queen?” I asked Bill.

“Edward.”

“What’s his problem?”

He sighed. “Just read the catalogue, okay?” He returned to his phone. Time crept by slowly as I grew bored with the catalogue and handbook. I peered around in hope of finding an interesting face. There were no blacks, Latinos or white low-brows.The handbook contained no pictures of blacks or Latinos. I felt perhaps there were minorities in the packaging and shipping area downstairs.

At lunch I attended a room of long tables where dozens of secretaries and salesmen ate box lunches or food from the automat. Edward hung with the girls. The salesmen talked about clients, mortgages, their kids, vacation deals, the 49ers, etc. Bernie, among them, kept an occasional eyeball on me. From time to time he conferred with Bill. Some of the secretaries appeared uneasy and flashed me dirty looks when I stared at them too long, trying to keep my boner down as I fantasized fucking them in my miserable garret. Edward also shot me a look if disdain. So I polished off my sandwich and returned to the desk where Bill was still nonstop busy and I spent the next four hours watching the hands of the big clock on the wall inch toward 5. I was never so exhausted.

Afterwards I drank at Danny’s and later had a chili cheese dog at the Doggie Diner and passed out and reported to work at 8. Early on, I found myself closely studying not only the offices of the executives as I took little strolls to break up the monotony of studying the catalogue, but their smiling yet sober visages on the walls. One of these men caught me observing him, and I nodded as he peered up from his desk from paperwork, and he nodded back, but I could sense he was not impressed with me.

“Bill,” I said, after lunch the second day. “You like this job?”

He was very, very busy, since Christmas was near. “Of course.”

“Are you passionate about your work?”

He sighed, dropped his pen. “Listen, do YOU like the job?”

“I’m trying to.”

I kept drinking coffee, because there was nothing else to do. I became jittery, started sweating. I switched around a lot and cleared my throat and rubbed my itchy nose and made several trips to the water fountain and restroom to piss. After my second day I was so drained I could barely drag myself across the industrial blight and catch a bus to Danny’s, where I got drunk, forgetting to eat. Everybody wanted to know about my new job as I sat with tie in pocket, shirt open at the throat. Next morning I arrived at work an hour late with nicks on my face, some of which were clotted with dabs of toilet paper. I sat down beside Bill and he cringed at the sight and smell of me. I was sweating cold bullets. The red-headed queen flounced by me, sniffing sourly.

“Edward!” I called. “Get me some coffee!”

He halted in his tracks, hands on hips. “Pardon me?”

I flashed him a look of icy malevolence and he quickly slammed a cup of coffee on the desk and huffed off before I could thank him. Bill was on the phone and I blindly paged through the catalogue with quivering fingers when I was not staggering—on the verge of puking—to the drinking fountain to gulp copious spouts of water as salesmen and secretaries and Bernie at the big desk up front peered over. I finally visited the john to puke violently into a toilet. When I returned to the desk, Edward, to his credit, brought me another cup of coffee and appeared sympathetic. I had slept in my sweat-and-coffee-and-beer-stained shirt and now Bernie repeatedly glanced at me. I began to shake uncontrollably. My clothes were bathed in cold seat. My scalp itched and burned. I scratched at it like a man aflame with lice. My legs went numb. My heart beat like a parakeet’s and I gulped for breath.

San Francisco wall art on Clarion Street

Wall art on Clarion Street in San Francisco

“Bill!” I said, standing. “You’d better call the paramedics for me!”

He was on the phone, covering it. “Not now!”

“I need a fucking doctor, man.”

“Listen, jackass, what are you doing here?”

“I don’t know, Bill, but I gotta get the fuck outta here. I can’t breathe.” Sweat dripped off my face. A foul stench emanated from me—a toxic effluvium equivalent to a dead seal rotting on shore. I careened across the room, bouncing off desks like a runaway pinball while employees cringed and ducked for cover or stood to observe my demise. I arrived at Bernie’s desk gnashing my teeth.

“Bernie, I gotta get outta here!”

He stood. “Mr. Kelso, please calm down!”

“I can’t! I’m going nuts in here. I suffer claustrophobia.”

“Perhaps this is not the right job for you…”

“No job is right for me!” I ripped off my tie and hurled it at one of the walls. All the executives were out of their offices, stood at the doors. I reached out and shook Bernie’s hand with my clammy paw. “You’ve been more than fair.” I dashed to the door.

“We’ll send you a check in the mail,” Bernie called.

“You don’t have to. I did nothing but sit.”

“We have to.”

“Okay, okay.” I fled the place. Dashed across the industrial blight and caught a bus to Danny’s. The sweat dried up on me and I ceased shaking. Danny fed me two hotdogs and everybody bought me drinks and I told them I could not handle a white collar job and quit. Soon they were all advising me on finding a new job. I never found one I liked, and never got laid, and ended up thumbing across the country and working on a riverboat out of New Orleans. §

Dell Franklin tended bar and drove a cab for a living for many years before retiring to his hovel in Cayucos to write full time, and care for his very needy rescue dog, Wilbur.

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