Thursday, June 25, 2015

Projeks6

“The system was designed to scale to accommodate all of the anticipated growth. What was unknowable at the time was that the network would not be able to accommodate the increased traffic. We now need to redesign to compensate for the lack of bandwidth.”

The presenter was a highly regarded Corporate Director who was known as one of the more powerful thought leaders in our IT organization. He had the advanced degree, varied resume, and enterprise experience that made him a key factor in the strategic direction of the technology platform for our company. He was acknowledged to be bright, articulate, and on the short list of potential heir apparents to our Chief Information Officer. He was also dead wrong.

I knew this because he had called me the previous day with questions related to the servers ability to process information to the network based on the backplane speed of our Host computers. It was a fairly down in the weeds technical question for a Corporate Director to be asking a peer. Curious as to why he was interested in this information at the time, it became clear during his presentation the next day. He was using the old “blame the network” trick to explain a flaw in the architecture of the application that his developers had designed. It was obvious that he was trying to shift responsibility from himself to our Director of Network Engineering, who conveniently wasn’t in the room at the time.

I was presented with a choice: I could correct him in front of the room and challenge his numbers or do nothing. Correcting him would basically constitute a frontal assault on a peer and one of my main rivals. While this might score some points for me, was it worth it to piss this guy off? The Director of Network Engineering was a more trusted peer but not a friend, definitely less of a rival. To put it bluntly, the Network guy was just OK with me; the presenter was pretty much known as an asshole by everybody.

"Mr A-Hole" was also a formidable adversary. He was quick witted and could be cutting; it would not have surprised me a bit if he was the captain of his high school debate team. I had seen Mr A-Hole mercilessly undress people who had made the same tactical blunder that he was making. Fudging the facts and casting doubt on to someone else’s area of responsibility was never a good idea if there was someone in the room able and willing to call you on it. But I decided to let him off the hook for now, figuring that sooner or later the Network guy would find out that he had been scapegoated and then it would be a beef between them, without my being involved. Not wanting to get caught in any crossfires, I figured I'd just sit this one out.

But first I had to fuck with Mr A-Hole a little bit. I asked a very leading question about backplane processor time that brought a slight smile to his face and a bead of sweat to his forehead. I knew that he was wondering if I was going to bust his balls and expose him. When I accepted his misdirected reply without argument he shot me a little look, like “thanks, I owe you one”. Although I knew based on his history that the shelf life for him feeling indebted was short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to bank a little goodwill.

My back story with Mr A-Hole was that I had worked at the company for 12 years, starting at the bottom and working my way up through the organization. He came in with a cushy Corporate Manager job, one of those guys who was born on third base but had convinced himself he'd hit a triple. At one point he had been my boss but I got promoted and took over another group. Even though we were now peers I knew that he always felt superior to me and the first few times I challenged him at meetings he acted indignant. After about a year of sparring I do believe he granted me some grudging respect as a worthy adversary. I also think he believed that since I did not hold a college degree I was not a serious threat to him.

He was probably right. On paper I was woefully under qualified for my position as Corporate Director. I was a fluke, a product of a time when there were few technical resources that had enough of a knack for management that they could bridge the gap between being a technical lead and a manager. Because of this, I was able to rise up through the ranks quickly and without the necessary accreditations. I had learned that a lot of hard work and good timing went a long way.

And timing being everything in life, I quickly had the opportunity to cash in my goodwill gesture of not calling Mr. A-Hole on his “white lie”. A couple of days later we were in a very contentious meeting where he was going after another manager on a different issue. Clearly the woman had made a mistake and promised something she could not deliver and A-Hole was not giving her any way out. He wanted to kick the project back to the steering committee with a recommendation to start completely over, which the rest of the room opposed. We were at an impasse, and the entire meeting was in danger of being a waste of time. It also sucked because the woman that he was giving a hard time was a very well liked, well respected manager. Everyone at the meeting knew she had fucked up, but everyone hated Mr A-Hole for not giving her a way to save face. I decided to break the stalemate.

“Why don’t we just expand the time frame? I have been off on my numbers before and given people bad information that caused them to be off in theirs. I’m not saying that that’s what happened here, but let’s say I gave you the wrong statistics around throughput that caused you to not meet the design specs for an application. Wouldn’t you need to take some time to redesign?”

It was an obvious reference to the previous discussion that only he and I would understand. When he miraculously shifted his position and found a way to allow the manager time to re-engineer her deliverable, the people in the room were surprised and relieved. One of them commented to me afterward:

“Wow, you just have a knack for being able to work with jerks. I don’t know how you do it, it's like jedi mind trick type stuff!"

Having to develop consensus and negotiating compromise was something that I had a lot of practice at. From growing up in a big family fighting for the last dinner roll to living in the projeks with guys who were quick to use violence as a first resort I had developed coping mechanisms. Like some kind of inter-personal jiu jitsu, I learned to tread lightly where necessary, allow others to save face whenever possible, and to choose the best time and place if a conflict had to happen. To win without fighting is best; to lose without fighting is worst. When you do go to battle, you have to jump in with both fists throwing punches and never give up the fight. All of these tactics were as applicable in business as they were in the projeks and stayed with me my entire career.

Projeks5

I regularly meet with executive level leaders in different organizations – Chief Executive Officers, Chief Information Officers, and other assorted corporate officer mucky mucks. These meetings have become fairly routine but there was a time when they were new to me. And while I have always found the prospect of interacting with high level leaders to be exciting and challenging, I have never found it to be nerve wracking. In point of fact, the first time I sat in on a meeting with a CEO I wasn’t very nervous at all but I was shaking in my shoes the first time I sat at a bar with a real Wiseguy. The difference was that one guy might end your career. The other guy might end your life.

The very first time I ever met with a CEO I was a late fill in because my boss couldn’t make it due to illness. The guy had a reputation as a prick but I kind of looked forward to seeing how these big wigs conducted themselves in meetings so I didn’t mind attending. I figured I’d just defer to my boss for any tough questions, try not to say too much, and be a fly on the wall. I expected to see much better structure and protocol than what I experienced during my current manager’s staff meetings and I figured, you never know, I might learn something.

What I learned was that from a meeeting perspective, these guys didn't know what they were doing. The hour was as disorganized, inefficient, and sloppy as our weekly shift meetings were at Papa Gino's when I worked there in high school. At least at Papa's the staff was making minimum wage and the supervisor was a night school student at Bunkerhill Community College. Here we had a CEO, a Corporate Director, and several Corporate Managers all sitting around posing and posturing and engaging in side conversations while getting nothing done. They paid no attention to the agenda and nobody recorded minutes.

I was surprised and disappointed by all of this and had almost completely disengaged when the CEO directed his attention to me and asked when an action item that had supposedly been assigned to my boss would be done. Of course, this item did not exist on the agenda and I had no frame of reference for it, but I kind of snapped to attention in my seat and hurriedly stated a kind of “whenever you need it we'll make it happen” type of response that got some of the people at the table chuckling. He sternly barked another quick order at me and I took out my notebook, scribbled into it and assured him that he would have his deliverable ASAP. He seemed to be OK with my response and segued off on yet another tangent. In an effort to keep my head in the game in case he tried to bust my balls again I took notes during the rest of the meeting. With about 5 minutes left they quickly jogged through their forgotten agenda items, deferred most of them until the next meeting, and headed off to the all important vendor sponsored lunch.

I reviewed the meeting in my head while sitting alone at lunch. Each of the manager’s priorities in the room seemed to be to avoid action items, kiss up to the CEO at every opportunity, and go to lunch. I could not discern a single decision that was made or state a deliverable that was assigned from that meeting, except the ones that I assigned to myself. I kept thinking of all of the thousands of dollars and hours of study spent on the education of the people in that room and the guy who had barely graduated high school was the only one who had written anything down.

After the meeting, I was concerned that I might have come across as a smart aleck to the CEO so I took my notes and transcribed them as minutes and forwarded them to the group. I did this because I wanted to put myself on the hook to deliver on the action item publicly and to show Mr. Important CEO that I took him seriously. It seemed that during the meeting the guy wanted to flex a little muscle so I figured I’d let him save face by making his directive a priority and following up. I decided that if I had come across as disrespectful during the meeting this would make up for it.

The CEO ate it up and Replied All with an "Atta boy!" memo, thanking me for my notes and commenting favorably on the format and clarity. I didnt know this guy at all but whenever I dealt with him after that he treated me like I was his boy and told my boss that I was “the guy who writes everything down” and said that he “could assign me something and forget about it” because he knew it would get done. I made sure to deliver any action items assigned to me by him quickly and he in turn gave me the benefit of the doubt whenever there was a problem. I knew that by making the guy feel important I had set the tone for a good relationship with him and it worked out nicely for me.

Years earlier I was drinking at my neighborhood bar, the Sweet Potato, when an older guy wearing a white scali cap walked in and sat on the first bar stool at the end of the bar nearest the back door. Right away I recognized that it was Hank The Man, a gangster who basically ran the town's underworld. Hank was a legitimate wiseguy, someone I had read about in the news and someone who I knew was a serious-as-a-heart attack threat to your life. I had never met him, but I had seen him driving down Main Street in his white Cadillac and the stories around town about him were legendary. He was a known bank robber, brawler, and killer; but also had a kind of folklore about him that painted him as some kind of man of honor, a thug with a heart. Word about town was that he had had a hand in several gangland murders but never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it. He had done his thing and made a lot of dough and was now living large in a beautiful house outside of town. When he would drive by in his new car a standard line for people to say (under their breath, after glancing to both sides) was: "Whoever said that crime doesn’t pay?"

There were only a dozen or so people in the bar that night but when Hank The Man walked in the atmosphere seemed to perk up. He had a pseudo celebrity style about him as he said hello to the bartender and a couple of regulars. It was a status symbol for The Man to acknowledge you and when he slapped one of the guys at the bar on the back you could see the guy straighten up in his chair and look around to make sure everyone saw that the big guy liked him. When he bought the house a round I watched as one of the older guys acknowledged it by nodding at Hank and tipping his glass to him before taking a sip. I did the same. This was a classic Wiseguy trait, spending money, buying stuff for people. It made them seem larger than life, and added to their charisma.


I have learned a simple rule about what to do when you are around serious people and unsure of your place in the conversation: shut the fuck up. Never fails as a strategy: when in doubt, clam up. I saw how when my buddy Georgie met people that he wanted to impress he would jibber jabber about stuff that he thought made him look good. How tough he was. A score he did last year. He would try too hard to look cool and it betrayed his insecurity. A guy like Hank The Man was not going to be impressed by what you said, he had already done worse. He would most likely conclude that you were a bullshitter and not take you seriously. I learned to let the other guys talk and just agree with whatever they said for the most part.

So I pretty much sat at the bar and minded my own business and people watched. I knew that the guy next to me, just like Georgie, wanted to say something to The Man, to engage him in some way to make himself look important. I watched as he repeatedly tried to butt into the conversation only to be rebuffed by a lack of response. I sensed that this was a common occurrence for The Man and his contempt was apparent. After he gave my buddy a couple of sideways looks I knew that it was best not to annoy him any further so I distracted the guy with a comment about the Bruins that got him ranting about hockey and out of harms way.

After a trip to the pisser I came back to find Hank sitting on the barstool next to mine. I kind of wanted to move to another seat but I thought he might take that as rude so I casually reclaimed my spot. At some point The Man said something to me and I just politely acknowledged what he said, making it a point to not fawn over every comment that he made. I sat down and looked straight ahead and for a moment almost panicked as an awkward silence set in. I looked up at the TV mounted above the bar and noticed that a quiz show was on. I absently answered a question out loud and The Man responded with a different answer. The host agreed with my answer and The Man bitched a bit while chuckling at me. Next question he got right and I nodded and smiled back at him. We went back and forth answering questions from the TV show out loud and I got a few right. That seemed to impress him and led to a little side conversation between us. We seemed to have established a bit of a rapport and I made sure to buy him a beer as soon as his glass was near empty. He acknowledged the drink with a nod and walked away. I breathed a silent sigh of relief that he had not refused the beer I bought him. There is no way he would have accepted it if I had insulted him, that’s for sure. After I relaxed a bit I noticed my armpits were dripping with sweat.

When you deal with a guy like Hank The Man you need to show a kind of understated respect but you don’t want to kiss his ass or act scared. These guys are used to having everyone suck up to them so they need to distinguish between who’s for real and who’s just looking for something from them. You gain their respect by having no agenda and treating them as equals. Try not to be too impressed; you have to be cool. But you also want to make sure that you keep your place in the pecking order. You don’t challenge these guys, especially in front of anyone else. You mind your business about things that don’t concern you. The real trick is to come across as strong while finding a way to defer to them on something. Strong leaders like to have other strong people around them, as long as the other person is not a rival. You find a way to pay tribute. That way they can accept you as an Alpha Dog while maintaining their status as THE Alpha Dog in the room.

I had many opportunities to observe Hank The Man over the next few years while I hung out at the bar. I gained a first hand perspective of how his power influenced his interactions with those around him. People were constantly trying to curry favor with him and he accepted it with a jaded cynicism. He knew that everyone wanted something in return and he played by the same rule. Even when broads hit on him The Man always seemed to remember that it was all about the money. He approached situations and relationships as if everyone was bullshitting him. It made him be a somewhat cold, detached person, but he made deft decisions when it came to human resource issues within his organization. By that I mean he knew who to pay, who to fuck, and who to kill.

CEO’s and Wiseguys have a lot in common. They are both top of the food chain guys who are competitive and willing to assert their will over the other people in the room. They are used to getting their way and having people kiss their ass. They learn to develop filters; ways to read people so that they can figure out what people want from them. They become experts in human nature. They need to make ruthless decisions based on what they feel is best for the larger organization in the long term.

Like a big time gangster at the local bar, when an executive leader interacts with staff the ‘kiss ass factor’ goes through the roof. You see lots of people throwing their co-workers under the bus when the boss is involved in a situation. The most re-hashed corporate cliché uttered during the Boss’s presentation is received as brilliance. In a social setting everybody laughs at the Boss’s lame jokes. A successful Leader must be able to separate the posers from the doers. It's the Boss's challenge to cultivate the people who are the de facto leaders, those who have the respect of their peers and subordinates and who are willing to accept their role within the organization. The Boss has got to identify these "Glue Guys" who keep things running and promote them over the well spoken self promoters. Successful organizations recognize and reward their best performers and weed out and eliminate those who cannot do their jobs acceptably.

I am sure that Hank The Man could have been a helluva CEO. The life and death skills that he devloped to ensure survival on the street would have served him well in the boardroom. His ability to make firm decisions, to motivate and inspire, and to sniff out hidden agendas were key leadership traits. I have seen the same qualities exhibited by Chief Executive and Chief Information Officers that I have worked with. The biggest difference between them is that in the corporate world you fuck up and they write you a pink slip. In the Projeks you fuck up and they write your obituary.

Projeks4

During the Information Technology boom days of the early to mid 1990's good technical help was hard to find and managers who understood technology were even more scarce. My company did what most companies did at the time, which was to take your smartest technical guy and assign that person to manage the group. It was a flawed methodology which usually resulted in people who were ill equipped to manage being placed in management positions. After all, the stereotypical IT guy was a geek who liked computers because he couldn’t relate to people, right? 

Leo was smart and ambitious, perhaps a bit immature in a lot of ways but undeniably intelligent. He was a big, fat kid who looked a bit sloppy but had graduated from MIT and was considered somewhat of a prodigy in the IT field. He had an impressive resume and presented himself well enough that my company hired him to create our first corporate network dedicated to the new PC technology. Leo took a bunch of mainframe computer room guys  (me being one of them) and did an outstanding job on the design and implementation of the then cutting edge Local Area Network. In recognition of this accomplishment he was promoted to Corporate Manager of Network Operations with a staff of 10 direct reports, a multi-million dollar budget, and a mandate to re-engineer our company's entire computing platform.

Although Leo excelled in the technical aspects of his job, he did not handle his management responsibilities as well as he handled his technical tasks. Leo was notoriously rude and condescending with peers and subordinates and had a reputation of being difficult to work with. He did not deal with confrontation well and he lacked the ability to constructively criticize. His management style was to either blow up and blast people or to avoid issues altogether until the situation resolved itself – or didn’t. For him, being “The Boss” meant he had to win every argument and could broker no dissent. Leo struck me as a small town guy who grew up as a big fish in a little pond and was now struggling in the ocean of the big city.

Though he inherited me as an employee and I was never part of his inner circle, I got along with Leo well enough that he grudgingly acknowledged my place on the team. For the most part Leo only cared about impressing those above him on the Org chart and had little time for dealing with people whom he considered to be inferior. He reminded me that on paper I was not qualified to be a network engineer but he also gave me the first big pay raise of my career so I just decided to keep my head down and work hard enough that he'd keep me around. My co-workers in the computer room busted my balls about being a kiss ass but I didnt care as long as I got to cash that fat check at the end of the week. I frequently thought about those few days that I had spent roofing after my senior year of high school and whenever I got fed up with Leo's bullshit I reminded myself that it was better than being out there on that damn roof. The thought also helped keep me from punching that fat bastard  in the face on several occasions. Still, I was grateful to be a part of the team and busted my ass to keep my job.

 Because Leo did not deal well with people who might challenge him he tended to hire job applicants that he liked personally rather than those who were qualified for the job. He brought in one or two guys from a former employer and eventually hired his buddy who worked as a shift supervisor in the warehouse into the Team Lead position as our boss. The guy's name was Jack and he had been at the company for years and played around with computers as a hobby but didn't know anything about IT, except of course how to find free porn on the internet. He was a jokester and a prankster who was known as a party animal outside of work. Jack was Leo’s computer gaming buddy and soon became his second in command. His idea of being a manager meant that he could take long lunches, leave early every day and generally avoid working for a living.
 
While Leo was a bit of a small town boy, Jack had grown up in the city and I think Leo looked at Jack as someone who was "cool" in a way that he had never been. He was a big guy and a bit older and acted more like a union thug than the corporate type. The way Jack looked at things, the more he could fuck off and take time out from work the more he was getting away with something. It was a projeks mentality that I was very familiar with and I didn’t really give a shit, but I knew that Jack thought that he was playing me for a fool since I was the guy working late trying to get stuff done. Leo noticed that at least I was always there so he started giving me the priorities for the team each day and treating me as the de facto team lead. That worked out for all of us: Leo dealt with upper management, Jack got to screw around all day, and the team started to gravitate to me for direction.

With Jack and Leo in cahoots, I knew I had to watch my step a bit. Leo eventually threw me a bone and officially promoted me to Team Lead so that I technically became Jack’s peer. I think Jack just looked at it as a way to pawn more work off on me so he didnt protest. By now he had essentially abdicated his position, on the rare occasions when he did show up in the office he would just play around on the Internet all day and barely interact with the team.  Leo would not bother assigning any responsibility to Jack, partly because they were friends and partly because he knew that Jack was useless. I became both the workhorse and the scapegoat for when Leo needed to yell at somebody if something fell through the cracks.  

As I gained more responsibility I thrived on the feeling of being an important part of the team. I had always played team sports growing up; I was a “strength of the wolf is the pack” type of guy. When I realized that my main role as a manager was to facilitate the needs of the team the concept came as an epiphany to me. I learned that good management was merely the act of promoting communication and coordination among the staff and then getting out of the way and letting them do their jobs. I was an assist man, like Larry Bird or Bobby Orr. I didn’t actually do the work, but I set up my teammates so that they could successfully peform to the best of their abilities. When my teammates realized this they allowed me to lead and my position evolved to fill the void in communication between Leo and the staff.

Pretty soon all Leo had to do was give me a list of tasks and I’d deal them out, make sure they got done, and come back for more. Just like when I was hanging out with my boys in the projeks I remembered to do the right thing and share the credit when the team did well and be a standup guy and take the blame when things went wrong. I tried to build consensus and put people in roles that they both wanted to be in and were good at. I made sure to treat everyone with respect but to hold them accountable for doing what they said they were going to do and if I needed to get in someone's face I did...in a professional way of course.

Before I realized it we had become a high performing team and I had become a manager.

Projeks3

In “The Art of War” an axiom that Sun Tzu imparts is: To win without fighting is best. I agree with his statement, but I would also offer a corollary: To lose without fighting is worst. Somewhere in between these two poles exists our every day give and take with the people we live with, work with, and compete with. The key to successful engagements is deciding when to go along to get along and when to assert yourself, when to argue and when to shut up, and when to fight and when not to fight. There is a time for each, and it is not always obvious when one tactic versus the other is right for the occasion.

Whether it is on the street, at a sporting arena, or in a conference room, when two men interact it is a duel and both guys know it. One or both will look to impose his will, either in a physical, mental, or business context. At it’s most base component, interaction between men always comes down to who can kick whose ass. If you can't kick the other guys ass then you have to outsmart him, and the trick is to be able to outsmart the stronger guy without insulting him, and to take it to the ninja level it is about how to outsmart him without him even knowing it.

To win without fighting is best, but a competitive man values strength and you cannot gain his respect on any level if he thinks you’re a pussy. This is why to lose without fighting is worst. The other guy always needs to know that you are willing and able to fight. You don’t necessarily have to win the fight, but he needs to know that if we do fight this is gonna hurt both of us. If you challenge me in a meeting then I am going to contest you on every word and make you prove everything you say. I may not win the argument but I’ll make you work to make your point. If you beat me up on the street then I am going to fight you every time I see you, even if you beat me up again. It’s what I call the porcupine method, every time you touch me it hurts. Yes, the wolf may be able to expose porcupines soft underbelly in the end, but to get there wolfie is going to take a few sharp quills in his snout. Just as it’s easier for the big bad wolf to go fuck with some softer, fuzzier creature, you need to make it easier for the bully to go pick on someone else.

Yes, I wish that we could all just get along. But the fact of the matter is that there are people out there on the street and at work who are selfish and demanding and want to have their way at your expense. They are not interested in what is right for the organization or society as a whole, they only care about getting what they want. If you give in to them even one time by their very nature they will want more. They will bully you, and the best way to deal with a bully is to smack him in the mouth. Make it painful for him to deal with you, every time. Mask your intentions to keep him off balance. Be hard when he expects you to be soft and then you can be soft when he expects you to be hard. Kill him with kindness one time and then explode on him with controlled fury the next. Above everything never give up without a fight!

Projeks2

Our Chief Technical Officer was an intimidating guy. Shaved head, goatee, stocky build – he looked more like a motorcycle gang member than a geek. He did drive a motorcycle, but the tough guy perception quickly went away as soon as he opened his mouth. He spoke in a solemn monotone about bits and bytes and latency and throughput and it was clear that he knew technology inside and out. He could analyze the most complex technical challenge and deftly craft a solution so quickly that it made the engineers who were working on the problem feel stupid. The fact that he didn’t smile much and tended to look right through people only added to the intimidation factor. He seemed to come at people on two levels – the physical and the intellectual – in the same silent, threatening way. He gave off a vibe that he was smarter than you and tougher than you and as soon as you made a mistake he was going to fire you...or kick your ass.

When I was still in a technical role and relatively low on the corporate food chain a few of my co-workers and I were standing in line at the cafeteria when the CTO walked in and took a place in line behind us. Immediately the chatter between us stopped and we stood in awkward silence for a minute or two. I could feel the unease emanating from the group and I wondered if the CTO felt it, too. I decided to break the ice a bit and turned around and introduced myself. The guy seemed to appreciate the gesture and we made small talk for the rest of the time we were in line. Just “nice weather we’re having” and “how ‘bout them Red Sox” bullshit. Every time I saw him after that he’d give me a little nod of acknowledgement or a wave of the hand as we passed each other.

I remarked to one of my co-workers later that he seemed like a decent enough fella. She replied that she couldn’t believe that I even had the guts to talk to him. She said that I was lucky I didn’t piss him off because he might have whacked me right then and there and I’d be out of a job. I almost laughed out loud.

Actually, I did laugh out loud.

We were hanging out in a projeks hallway at 2 am on a Friday night smoking a bone. I was in high school, about 16 years old, and had finished my shift making pizza at the local sub shop earlier that night. My two buddies and I had been drinking beer and by now we had a nice mixed buzz of Budweiser and sensimilia going. I was staring at the handscrawled nonsense covering the walls and now my eyes rested in a corner where the cinderblock wall met the black, hardtop ground. There was a quarter inch thick muck in the corner and my addled brain was trying to figure out what it consisted of. Surely piss was a huge component, along with dirt, roaches (the bugs and the marijuana cigarette butts kind), and I supposed that there were all kinds of other human waste products combined with a smidgen of naturally occurring grime. I thought it would make for a good science project at school to scoop some up and have my science teacher analyze it under his microscope. Maybe it would provide him with some forensic information on how we lived and help him understand the context in which I kept school work in my mind. Teachers were always bitching at me, telling me that I was going to fail all my classes on account of playing hooky and not paying attention to whatever the class was doing. I would sit there and half listen to them, all the while wondering if they could smell the aroma of this morning’s wake and bake wafting from my person. On test day I would spite them by getting a 90% and celebrate by playing hooky the day after, figuring I’d earned a day off.

“Yo!” my friend said in a breathless voice while holding in his hit of smoke. He was holding the joint in the classic passing grip (thumb and forefinger pinched tight on the roach, other three fingers in a fist) to pass it to me while I daydreamed about scum and school work. As I looked up to focus on receiving the burning roach, a shadow glided out of the mist and into the hallway like a ghost.

The first thing I noticed was the gun. It was a shotgun and I was hypnotized by the black hole at the end of the barrel. My legs went weak and I was paralyzed as real time became slow motion. I kept expecting to hear an explosion and to see the bullet come flying out of that gaping abyss that I could not stop looking into. I thought if I kept staring it would hit me between the eyes so I tore my gaze away and looked up the barrel to the stock of the gun and then to the crook of the arm that the butt rested in. The person holding the gun was short and fat, wearing a gray hoodie and had a ski mask on. I was dead and I wouldn’t even go to my grave knowing who had off’ed me. None of us said a word, the other two kids were paralyzed just like me. The apparition looked and pointed the gun at me, paused and did the same to my other buddy, then finally turned his weapon on the third, who was still holding the roach ready for passing. I felt that the gunman was debating in his mind whether to shoot or not shoot. I couldn’t breathe and my legs were literally shaking. Apparently satisfied that none of us was the person he was looking for, he turned and left as silently as he had entered the hallway.

I had never been so scared in my life. I already knew people who had been killed by that point in my life, as well as people who had killed people. Dying was not a foreign concept to me but at that moment it became tangible, like the period at the end of a sentence. I realized how close I had come, just a hair trigger away from extinction at 16 years old. I lay awake that night wondering what my funeral would have been like, how my Mom would have felt, and if they would have gotten the guy who killed me. I dreamt about being frozen in fear and not being able to move. For a while after that I was afraid of my own shadow and felt like a pussy, but then it started to make me angry. I did not like to feel powerless and I thought about carrying a weapon. I mentally and physically prepared to be ready for the next time I was confronted by danger.

It would not be the last time a gun was pointed at me, and unfortunately I have seen far too many violent situations up close. The experience gained in those times of crisis is battle hardening - if you survive them. You learn how to force yourself to slow down and think and then take decisive action. You learn to analyze the risk and consider the odds and then bet with your life. You adapt and overcome and never give up because if you do you might die. So the thought of being scared that I might get “whacked” at work? I thought about how the CTO seemed to try to stare people down and compared that to looking down the barrel of that shotgun.

I laughed out loud again.

Projeks1

I remember when Shawn told me that he was doomed. 

I stopped by his house one day with a couple of subs that I bought at Jenny’s. It was about noon, and he was just waking up. Shawn had quit his job a few months before and was drinking pretty heavily now; he would typically stay out until 2 or 3 am partying and sleep late, well into the afternoon. I had the day off, one of the benefits of my 3 day work week job as a computer operator. I noticed a book on his bureau and I busted his balls a bit. 

“The Way of Zen”? What the fuck are you, a philosopher now?” I teased. 

“When the inferior man hears of the Tao, he will laugh aloud at it” Shawn replied, slanting his eyes and over biting his front teeth in a mock Asian accent. 

“Where’d you get that, from a fortune cookie?” I retorted. 

Shawn smirked and took a bite out of his sub. We ate for a couple of minutes and then he crumpled more than half of his sandwich up in its wrapper and threw it into the garbage. I knew that it wasn’t because he didn’t like steak and cheese, but since he had started drinking so much he could barely hold down more than a few mouthfuls of food at a time. He twisted the cap off a Bud bottle and took a swig. 

I was worried about Shawn. He had always had dreams and high aspirations; in high school he was a good athlete and thought he might get a scholarship to a D1 school. He used to get on me about doing something with my life, so now it was kind of ironic that I had a decent job and he worked as a roofer, at least he did on the rare days when he woke up before noon. It seemed like at some point he just lost all hope and resigned himself to becoming an alcoholic like his father. I remember how he used to be so embarrassed when his old man would stagger out of JJ’s bar and have to be helped home. Now he was the one who cracked open a beer for breakfast, and he was only 22 years old. 

“What the fuck guy, you drinking already? You couldn’t even man up and finish your sub!” 

“Mind your own fucking business. ‘We eat, shit, sleep and get up; this is our world. All we have to do after that is die.’ I read that in this book right here” he said as he tossed “The Way of Zen” in my lap. “You ought to read it, you might learn something.” 

I had always been able to communicate with Shawn on my own level. He was smart and read voraciously, a trait that I admired about him and mimicked. Even though he had clearly deteriorated in the last year he was still my idol and I looked up to him like an older brother. I placed the book on his nightstand as I decided to try to dig a little deeper and reason with him. 

“Dude, what are you gonna do for a job now? You can’t be out on a roof  your whole life, you’re too smart for that. Why don’t you do the computer thing like I did? Go to school and get a job. Hell, you can work three days a week like me.” 

He broke character for a minute and didn’t act like a hard guy. His face softened into a weary smile and the hint of a sigh accompanied his long exhale. 

“I know I’m doomed, Bro. Fuck this place and fuck everyone. I’m done with shoveling shit for people I don’t respect. No offense to you, but I aint gonna be a suit and tie nitwit, busting my balls for people who look down on me. Fuck them! I aint kissing ass no more. If I’m going down I’m going down my way.” He took another sip from his beer and looked out the window. 

He said it with such finality that I knew it was pointless to argue. He was bent on a path of self destruction and I just couldn’t reach him. He was at the bar every night, drinking beer, snorting coke, and getting into beefs. He pissed off a lot of people, and Shawn was very good with his hands. When he was drunk he got belligerent, and he had already beaten up a few known gangsters. A guy like Shawn had to be careful because the craziest, toughest guys out there couldn’t fight for shit. They would just as soon stab or shoot you than scrap hand to hand with you. If you beat them up and wounded their pride they felt they had a vested interest in keeping their reputation by hurting you back. If guys saw a gangster get his ass kicked they might think that they could get away with not paying their debts to him. A gangster had to save face no matter what, so if you scrapped with one you better be willing to take it to the next level. As tough as Shawn was, I never knew him to use a weapon. The guys he fucked with, however wouldn’t hesitate.

I left that conversation knowing in my heart that something bad was going to happen to Shawn. He knew it, too. 

Years later, I was driving home from work through Wellesley and as I drove I caught glimpses inside the beautiful homes along Route 9. They looked so warm and inviting through the big picture windows. I wondered what it must be like to grow up there. A landscaped front yard, two car driveway, maybe a swimming pool in the backyard. Every house neatly separated by land on both sides and a fence. You could imagine how easy it would be to bring up a kid there and teach him to take care of his stuff. 

“Hey, keep this place clean, it’s a beautiful place. You’re lucky to be here. If you do what I tell you you’ll always live like this.” 

Everything clean. New. Pretty. 

In the projects, you live in a shithole. Neighbors right on top of you, loud noises coming through the walls, people always fucking with your stuff. Spray paint on the buildings and the hallways stink like piss. Garbage and trash everywhere because the dumpsters are overflowing. Cockroaches. You think somebody is gonna say:  

“Hey, keep this place clean. It’s a beautiful place.” 

You’d know they would be lying to you. You’d think they were a fool. Your parents have no credibility when they tell you to do the right thing and you’ll be successful. Is that how it worked out for you, Mom? How come we live here then, Dad? The only successful people I see are criminals. There are no heroes here, no doctors or lawyers. Only the strong survive. 

You watch TV as a kid and you see suburban America and you have to think it’s fake. People really don’t live like that, do they? “Leave it to Beaver” type of shit where Mom stays home and cooks dinner with a smile and Dad comes home from work to play catch with you? How come all they ever have to worry about is the Beav forgetting to do his homework and Dad patiently explaining that he should take the time every night after dinner to study? Why isn’t Wally strung out on drugs with a pending felony charge and Mom making sure she hides her pocketbook at night? How come Dad doesn’t pop open a beer while Mom bitches about money and then Dad gives her a smack in the mouth because he’s trying to watch TV and she won’t shut the fuck up? 

I silently chuckle when I hear some of my co-workers talk about how tough they had it growing up. “Nothing was handed to me, I had to work when I went to college!” Never mind that school was paid for by Mom and Dad and Junior started his professional career with an Ivy League education and no student loans to pay back. Forget about the fact that as a kid you had the best grade schools and high schools and medical care and attention to your every need. You had the latest style clothes and disposable income and you were allowed to be a kid with nothing more to focus on than your classes and extracurricular activities. You worried about baseball cards and homework and comic books. When I was a kid I worried about survival. You had all the advantages, the deck was stacked. No wonder why when the suburban kids drove into the projeks in their new cars looking to score drugs we jacked those motherfuckers quick and hard.  

I thought about Shawn and his family. His old man was a drunk who just disappeared one day. One of his sisters OD’d on heroin. His brothers were fuck ups, forever getting into trouble and drinking and drugging and dragging Shawn down with them. I thought about my own family. Dad died when I was young and we had to move into the projeks. My Mom with seven kids, one of them handicapped, she couldn’t control me and didn’t even have the time to figure out how I was doing in school. She needed me to get a part time job so that I could contribute half my check to the house and pay for my own school clothes with the rest of the money I earned by working 30 hours per week through high school. I remember waking up in the morning in grade school and having no heat or hot water and then I had to go to class. Walking through the projeks, past the homeless drunks and standing on the corner to wait for the bus while the other kids smoked their morning joints. You see so much shit that by the time you’re 16 you feel like you’re a million years old, like you’ve seen and done it all. Not exactly conducive to higher learning, eh? 

“We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;

This is our world."