Cranes! An Employment Interlude

Age 23

What Happened First

I was laid off on December 20th. It was a pure relief, and just in time for Christmas too. I’d been working at Frito Lay as a vacation driver for the last eleven months, which is code for “a horrible awful terrible job which you have to do to get your foot in the door”.

The job was grueling. It paid well but not considering the twelve and thirteen hour workdays. Vacation drivers were considered “part time” in spite of the long hours. We were second tier, working without benefits while waiting for someone to die or retire and open up a slot. It was bad, but the worst part was the group of people who worked in this specific district. I’d never encountered such a whiny group of people in my life. They were endlessly pained. They hated their jobs, they hated their lives, they hated each other – and they loved to tell me about it.

I started out sympathetic, even though they were complaining about the exact position I wanted. When that dried up, I tried to tune them out, but eventually I grew to loathe them. Worse, I started to become just like them. I’d go home at the end of the day to dial up friends and complain about my job, even though I knew this was poor play.

I should have gotten myself out of there, but I was stuck. I was held in place for the hope of a better job in the future, even though I knew it was doing a number on my personality. Something had to give, so I was grateful when the universe straightened things out. Even if this meant I got fired.

I was politely laid off. They liked me and were happy with my work. I was told that temporary employees were let go this time of year as a matter of routine. The boss said it was almost assured I’d be called back at the end of February or March, but I didn’t care. He sounded like a man telling me that he’d call me in three months, if he found himself re-interested in dating me. This is what I heard, and my ego was not impressed.

I sat in the chair graciously nodding, but my energy had already left the building. He was talking and I was imagining myself a slave being let out of my contract. You say I’m free to go? I don’t care why. I don’t need details. There are other jobs, so where’s the door?

I shook his hand, walked out, and by the time I got to my car I felt exhilarated. Perhaps I should have been upset over losing my job, but instead I felt life had dealt me a “get out of jail free” card. It’s like when your Mother-in-law leaves after a long visit. You know, any visit longer than twenty minutes. You’re supposed to miss her, but instead all you can seem to do is smile and glow and spontaneously dance. This was how it was and by the time I got home I had a plan.

First, I had to cover my butt and it wasn’t hard to do. I’d left the bar business, but it had not forgotten me. I called a bar owner I knew.

“I need a Jay-Oh-Bee.”

“When do you want to start, Elsa?”

“Monday, I guess. I want days, if you can.”

“Done.”

“Done.”

I really didn’t want to tend bar, but I had to keep up my cash flow, so this was a security move. I‘d become too disillusioned with bartending to stick with it – but it was there to fall back on, so this is what I did.

That night, I went to my new bar to chat, check in, and cement the agreement. I also wanted to readjust and acclimate myself. I’d been getting up at four in the morning to work at Frito. I worked well into the evening hours and I’d been coming home exhausted for the better part of a year. I wanted to recall what it was like to be out after dark, but I know me. I like to work as many angles as possible, so I probably dressed to get a date while I was at it. I’m there, right? I may as well cruise.

I walked in and saw one of my old customers sitting at the bar, so I nabbed the seat next to him to chat and catch up. I told him I was coming to work in the bar the next week. May as well drum up some tips, right? I also told him I’d be sniffing around for alternatives. He told me he knew of a job opening.

“Yeah?”

He said his pal “Crane Boss” was looking for a secretary. He needed someone to manage his office.

“But I don’t know anything about that kind of work.”

“You’re smart, you’ll pick it up.”

“What is it?”

“A crane business.”

“What’s that?”

“They lease cranes. You’d work in the office.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a construction thing, Elsa. Just call the guy.”

I was baffled. Cranes? I didn’t know anything about cranes, but he said it didn’t matter. “I can’t type very well.”

“I don’t think there’s any typing involved.”

“A secretary that doesn’t type?”

“Right. I don’t think you have to type. He’s just looking for someone bright. That’s all he wants. He pays well and he’ll train you.”

He told me the salary and I was surprised. It was the same as Frito but without grueling work in the desert heat. And it was an eight-hour day too. It sounded pretty tasty, how lucky is this?

I wondered if there was a catch, but he assured me there wasn’t. He said Crane Boss needed someone right away and he implored me to call him.

“He’s really busy. He needs somebody to come to work right now and you’re perfect. I’m sure he’ll love you.”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll do it.”

The next morning I picked up the phone and called the guy wondering if this would be a lucky break or a waste of my time.

Crane Boss

Crane Boss was a piece of work. He told me that most people thought he was a tyrannical asshole and it was occurring to him that it was possible they were right.

“One hundred people told me I was an asshole last month. Can you believe that? Maybe, just maybe they’re seeing something…”

“Well, the whole world is rarely wrong,” I said.

From what I could gather, it was just about that bad. Crane Boss had a girlfriend who was trying to drag his tired act into the twentieth century. He was motivated, because she was uncommonly good and he was about to lose her. Apparently she didn’t want to date an asshole. Can you imagine? I liked her already.

He said he had a theme song. He laughed and said it was a song about an asshole, but the asshole in the song had nothing on him. Then he had a bright idea.

“Hey! Do you want to hear the song?” he asked.

I told him I’d very much like to hear his asshole song. “I want to know what I’m getting into here,” I said. I could see he was pleased.

“Wait right here! I’ll be right back.” I watched him take off like a kid and return with a cassette deck.

“Wait’ll you hear this asshole. Now this is an asshole!”

He fumbled around with the cord, sat the deck on the floor, plugged it in, and punched “play”. Shel Silverstein’s “Put Another Log On The Fire” came on.

“Put another log on the fire.
Cook me up some bacon and some beans.
And go out to the car and change the tire.
Wash my socks and sew my old blue jeans.”

He sung along, waving his arms around as if he were conducting an orchestra. I knew the song, so I joined in and he was surprised and happy. I was happy, too, because I thought the whole scene was hysterical. It’s a funny song, he was a funny man, and the situation was surreal.

We sang:

“Come on, baby, you can fill my pipe
And then go fetch my slippers.
And boil me up another pot of tea.
Then put another log on the fire babe,
And come & tell me why you’re leaving me.”

“See what an asshole he is?”

“I do! I do!” I roared laughing and we finished the rest of the song, with flourish – both of us belting it out.

“Now, don’t I let you wash the car on Sunday?
And don’t I warn you when you’re gettin fat?
Ain’t I a-gonna take you fishin’ with me someday?
Well, a man can’t love a woman more than that.
And ain’t I always nice to your kid sister?
Don’t I take her driving every night?
So, sit here at my feet, ‘cause I like you when you’re sweet,
And you know it ain’t feminine to fight.
So, put another log on the fire…”

The song wrapped up and we clapped for ourselves.

“You know that song?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I know all about assholes.”

“I think I’m gonna like you.”

“Most assholes do,” I say.

“You know a lot of assholes?”

“I’m a bartender.”

“Yeah, right.” He beamed.

He explained that he yelled now and then, but he was trying very hard to stop. I gathered it was a pretty fierce thing to witness and I was amused. I appreciate candor. Eccentricity rates pretty high too, so this was already a very interesting job. Much to see, and much to learn. I thought I was going to like this crane business gig. I took the job.

The next day, I called the bar owner. “Sorry. I’m not coming to work after all.”

“No problem. You can call me anytime, Elsa.”

Twenty-four hours had passed. I was now in the crane business.

The Office

I showed up at work the first day and Crane Boss rattled off instructions that couldn’t possibly have been more foreign to me. Apparently, people would call all day to hire various cranes, for various lengths of time, for various purposes, at various costs. I should mark them on the schedule, allowing for travel time. He didn’t know where the schedule was. He suggested I make one.

There were three 10-ton cranes, two 20’s, a 30, and a 50. The most common job involved lifting an air conditioner onto a roof and it took a 10-ton crane.

“Just so you have an idea”, he said.

But it didn’t work. I had no idea.

There was a chart taped to the desk that I was supposed to use if the customer didn’t know what size crane he or she needed. He said that most people who called would know what they needed and if not, I should just use the chart. Something, something and something else. I think it was about weight and length and height or was that volume? Wait a minute. He may have said distance or um…

Obviously he was assuming I could read the chart, but he was wrong about that. The chart was a baffling mystery to my ignorant and overwhelmed eye. I looked at it and I crinkled my forehead. I looked at it with one eye hoping to see it better – but, no. It still appeared to me to be uh… to be upside down? I had no idea. I made a note to look at it again when he quit talking.

He said I should answer the phone, schedule the cranes, monitor the radio and meanwhile, I should bill people.

“Especially the bastards who haven’t paid!”

I’d be responsible for payroll and coffee should be brewed at all times. Coffee is cheap, the crane operators are not. He didn’t want them waiting around for a cup of coffee.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Okay,” I answered.

There were loans on some of the cranes, and I should make the payments on time. He’d signed about twenty blank checks.

“Just fill ‘em in and send them where they go. I’m sure something is due, so try to find out what.” He said he was sick of paying late fees when he had plenty of money.

There was no system for anything that he knew of. It’s my job to make one. He didn’t know the status or location of anything, but he waved his arm around the room and assured me, “It’s all here somewhere.”

He admitted everything was “fucked up” and he took responsibility. Apparently he’d run through a string of office managers. More than ten. Each of them tried to get a grip on what the gal before her had set up, but he was such an asshole, each wound up quitting before they’d mastered anything. Consequently, the entire operation was on its knees.

I noted his professional life was on the line, along with his love life, all because he was an asshole. This was interesting to me. I was curious, that’s all. I’d spent less than an hour with the guy and he’d told me at least fifteen times that he was, or that he could be, an asshole. He must know but I was anxious to see him in form and judge for myself. Asshole, sure. But on whose continuum?

“If you have any problems, call me on the radio.”

“Huh?” I didn’t know how to use a radio.

He said it was simple. “Just hold the button and talk.” He added he was number one, which meant nothing to me. He rattled off names of crane guys and their numbers, but this didn’t even begin to gel in my head. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Was I supposed to understand this today?

He gave me a big smile and I gave him a big smile back. I chuckled because we had the same big smile. I could see myself in the guy and I was amused. He was oblivious to this, so I was doubly amused.

The boy was stressed and the situation ridiculous. I was completely and utterly incompetent. Did he know this? He didn’t seem to. He seemed enormously grateful I was there. He seemed to think I was actually capable of saving the day and I didn’t know where he got this notion, because I’d told him I’d never done office work of any kind.

There was one more thing. He had one customer who was in their own class. They ordered cranes every day and represented a significant portion of his business. There were two men who would call for the cranes and I should give them special attention.

He raised his hand, and raised a finger. “First, there’s Aquarian.”

“Okay.”

“Second,” he said, raising another finger, “There’s Cousin.”

“Okay.”

“They’re both assholes.”

“Not again.”

“Yep. If you’re going to be in the crane business, you’re going to meet a lot of assholes. But you’re a bartender, so that shouldn’t bother you.”

“No, not really.”

He explained I should cater to them, even if it meant calling other customers to reschedule. “Unless they get asshole about it,” he added.

“Um…”

“If they get asshole about it, call me on the radio. But, you know. They’re okay. They’re pretty good guys.”

“They’re good guy assholes?” I asked.

“Yes. They are nice guys who can be real assholes.”

“As bad as you?”

“No. I’m the biggest asshole you’ll ever meet. I still think you should keep this in mind, because they can get asshole now and then. Look. Whatever you do, just don’t piss them off too bad. I need their business. If I lose their business, I’ll be fucked. That doesn’t mean they have to be assholes, so if they get that way, call me on the radio.”

Got that? I was dizzy, and I might have asked a few questions like, “Where’s the radio?” but he was gone.

Well, hell. I was in the office alone. Some crane guys came in early in the morning and left just as fast with a cup of coffee and tip of their cap. I just smiled and stared at them because they were just so damned alien to me. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what their job was, so I sat frozen in fear behind my desk, meaning to stay out of their way. I watched, sort of out of my body, while they grabbed clipboards and hooked radios to their belts. You know. Men stuff.

They all spoke to me. They said good morning and one of them told me the coffee tasted good. I knew he was just being nice and I felt a wave of gratitude. I had my first friend.

The crane men cleared out. There was something called a “crane yard” out back. I wondered if they were out in the yard moving things around with cranes. Is that the crane business? Do the cranes move air conditioners around in the yard out back? I thought it might be something curious, like a farm.

I wondered, but once they left the office there was no way to find out where they went. There were windows to the street, but this crane yard place was behind the office, back in uh… well, it was back in the yard and I had no idea what was going on out there. It was a pure mystery, and a big yard.

Have you ever seen a crane yard? They’re big enough to hold tons of cranes, so there you go. There are buildings in a crane yard, too. I noticed them when I came to work. They looked like something farm animals may be kept in, to me, a non-crane type person. Sheep, pigs, a few cows maybe?

I was curious, but if I left the office to look around “back”, the phone will be unattended. Crap! I wondered if I should panic. Surely there was another option, and I found it. I decided to try to do at least one thing right. I thought if I could master just one piece of this job, I’d gain some footing and I’ll tell you right now, I failed.

Base

The phone rang all day and I tried to handle the calls in a professional manner. This was difficult since I couldn’t understand anyone’s questions, never mind answer them. Crane Boss was wrong. Most callers didn’t know what they needed. Several people called to ask me what a crane could do. Since I had no idea, all I could do was commiserate in ignorance. It occurred to me they might get the information they needed by calling the reference desk at the library, but I refrained from mentioning this.

I did tell one man, who had a sense of humor, to call me back if he found out anything about cranes – because I surely needed to know as well. We’d been chatting about my world of hurt and we sort of hit it off. Several people told me I was incompetent, as if I didn’t know that. They were surprised when I agreed.

I found several versions of a “schedule” in the filing cabinet and I picked one by the “eenie-meanie-miney-mo” method. It had days of the week and times and boxes, which I thought is all I should need, right? I can’t read my own handwriting now and couldn’t read it then, but I managed to schedule one crane correctly. At least there was a possibility this was the case. There was maybe a fifty- fifty chance, so how do you think I’m doing?

The phone rang.

“Brinnnnnnnnng! Brinnnnnnnng!”

“I need a 20 ton crane at 11:00, at this address, for four hours on Thursday! Thanks.”

Click!

Who was that? Was I supposed to know? Did it matter? Do I send a crane, and find out who’s buying later? The guy seemed to know the drill, but did he say ten AM or ten ton? Was it a four-ton crane at ten AM? Was this the top dog customer I was warned about? Uh oh. Should I call him back and ask? Call “who” back and ask?

Most legitimate callers were quickly disgusted. “Another new girl, huh? Never mind. I’ll call Crane Boss later.” Click! This was a humbling experience, and there was another distraction.

To the right of my desk there was a microphone and what a pain it was. All day long, it talked. It constantly went off in the background, crackling, “Base this” and “Base that”.

A – l – l day l – o – n – g.

Now, my name is Elsa. If someone would have said “Hey Elsa, push the button, the black part there..”….but instead, all day long, these crane guys called me on the radio for instruction and direction, and all day long I ignored them.

Actually, all day long I was relieved, because I was so intimidated. This “Base” person was under the gun. Base was busy, but I was lucking out. I was glad no one called me, because I was just plain afraid of the microphone, and the last thing I wanted to do was touch it.

I thought about “Base” though. So many people asked for Base, I wondered if “Base” might be what you say before and after your message. Was that radio talk? If it was, I definitely didn’t want to use a radio. I didn’t like the sound of it. Base, base, base. It sounded kind of stupid, actually.

It also occurred to me that it might be the police calling the ambulance, or something like that. Or a fireman talking to the hospital. Whatever it was, it wasn’t my affair because, come on. My name’s Elsa, not Base. Er… right?

Of course it’s right. How was I to know it was the radio, and I was “Base”? If I were “Base”, surely someone would have told me. And what’s a radio, anyway? The only reference I had was the walkie-talkie set my brother had when he was five years old. That would make me about seven, and this was a big part of the problem. I thought the microphone was a loudspeaker, not something to talk in to. There was no obvious button to hold down. I had an eye out for a pocket-sized square thing, which I assumed was misplaced, along with everything else. If I could locate THAT, then I’d have found the radio and I was loathe to poke around looking.

You know those type of people who snoop in your medicine cabinet when they use your bathroom? I’m not one of them. I respect other people’s privacy, and although I was alone in the office, I was not comfortable poking my nose around. It never occurred to me that the radio was integral to the day’s operations, anyway.

I thought the radio was something to be used sparingly and only in case of emergencies. I didn’t plan to have any of those. This was the decision I’d made, which meant it was no big deal if I couldn’t find it. No one said anything about anyone calling me. If I avoided “emergencies,” I would never have to use the radio and this was my exact plan, for all time.

“Are you there BASE? BASE? Base, are you there? Come back Base. Base! Are you there? Come in Base!”

“Crrrrrrrrrrrrr.” The radio crackles. “Base? Are you there? Number four to Base. Helllllllllo? Come in Base.”

A – l – l day l – o – n – g.

Do you think I kept my job?

Well, I did.

The crane guys thought I’d walked off the job, and this was why no one responded. Seems this had happened more times than anyone cared to count, so they were actually relieved when they came back to the yard at the end of the day, and I was still there. They were happy to show me how to use the radio and explain the types of things that would prompt them to call me…uh…I mean “Base”.

Crane guy #FIVE explained “Radio 101”, while I stared with my face scrunched up, trying to figure it out, reason with him, and strike a deal.

“Can you call me Elsa?”

“No. You’re ‘Base’.”

I chuckled. “I am not.” I smiled slowly and shook my head, because he was so wrong. I’m Base in some boy’s game? I’d never heard anything so stupid in my life. I figured I’d better straighten this out.

“Why do you have to call me ‘Base’?” I asked, with my hand on my hip.

“Because that’s what you are.” He waved his arms around the office. “You don’t know that?”

“Know what?”

“This is base. Our base. You’re the base.”

“Yeah, okay.” I chuckled. “No, I didn’t know that.”

Can you believe this? And maybe after work, we’ll play cops and robbers or something? It was crazy talk.

“Can’t you just call me ‘Elsa’? That makes a lot more sense. Just use my own name.”

He looked at me quizzically. “No, we can’t call you Elsa. We have to call you ‘Base’.”

“Why? Why would that be?”

“It’s just the way it is.”

“The way it is? What do you mean?”

He laughed. “This is BASE. You’re the base, where we all call. Didn’t you hear us calling today? Was the radio on?”

“Er… I heard ‘Base’.”

“Why didn’t you pick up the call?”

“What do you mean, why didn’t I pick up the call? Because my name is Elsa.”

He laughed.

I laughed back. “So, if you expect me to answer that thing, why don’t you call me, Elsa?”

He shook his head. “No. You have to be Base. People will laugh at us if we call you anything but, Base.” He was in the middle of smirking at me when Crane Guy #TWO came into the office.

“The radio was on, #TWO. She didn’t pick up because we called her ‘Base’ and her name is Elsa. She wants us to call her ‘Elsa’.”

“Uh… Yeah. My name is Elsa and that ‘Base’ thing is a little too “boy” for me. I don’t really think I can stand it.”

I was serious but they both laughed heartily and I was befuddled.

“So can we do that, #TWO? I don’t think we can.”

“Why not?” I asked.

#TWO answers, “No, we can’t do that. We’re men! We can’t use a girl’s name on the radio. People would laugh at us. We’d never live it down!”

#FIVE added, “Yeah. People would laugh. I’m sorry. We’d just be too embarrassed to call you anything but Base. Right, #TWO?”

“Right, #FIVE. That’s right. We’d do it if we could but we’re men, and you know we’re the weaker sex. Just let us call you Base. We’re too fragile for anything else,” he said.

“How about, Miss Base?”

They both stared.

I waved my arms in front of me. “Okay, okay. Just kidding about ‘Miss Base’. I’ll do it. I’ll learn my new name. But you’re sure about this, right? Because if you want to know, I think it’s stupid.”

“Sure about what? That you’re Base? Of course we’re sure and it’s not stupid.”

“It’s not stupid, and I’m not ‘Base’. I’m Elsa, but whatever. If you want me to play Fort, then I’ll do it.”

“Fort?”

“Never mind. I said I’d do it, so tell me how.”

I got a crash course in “radio”. They explained how the microphone worked and outlined various reasons they would radio me. They may call for driving instructions or to check to see if a new job had come in before they brought a crane back to the yard. A customer onsite might ask them to schedule another crane on another day.

“Or, sometimes, a job will run long. When that happens, we’ll call you and you’ll have to find another crane to cover the next job on the schedule. Because once we’re at a job, we usually can’t leave until it’s finished,” #TWO explained. “When that happens, you have to find another crane to fill in, and that crane may be covering another crane because another job ran….”

“Okay, Okay, I get it! But why the radio, for chrissakes?”

“What do you mean?”

I picked up the microphone. “You just like to use these? They’re a fun toy? Like a walkie-talkie?”

They both laughed. #TWO explained the radio was not a toy. “It’s a very important male thing.”

“Phallic?” I asked

He laughed. “Of course. That’s the main reason we like to use them. But the other reason is because we work in construction, and guess what?”

“What?”

“Very few construction sites have telephones.”

I blushed. “Ohhhhhhhh. Oh, oh, oh, oh.”

“Phallic? Did you actually say my radio was phallic?” #TWO grinned.

“That’s what she said,” #FIVE remarked, with a snort.

“That’s what I said,” I repeated. I shrugged. “Just look at it,” I said, staring at his radio.

#TWO laughed. “I’ll never gonna look at my radio the same way again. You’re something else.”

“No, I’m Elsa – but that’s Base to you, and don’t you forget it.”

That was Monday. By the end of the week, I was chatting them up on the radio. “TEN-FOUR GOOD BUDDY!” I told jokes and sung songs, poorly. I thought I was funny.

They thought I was crazy, but it broke up their day and I must have been better than the last gal, because they went out of their way to help me.

“#FIVE! #FIVE! It’s me! It’s me, Base! Base with the shiny hair! Come in #FIVE!”

“Your hair is nice.”

“I know, I know! I wash it! Do you really think it’s nice? Thank you! Do you want something else or are you just calling me?”

“Do you have a job for me?”

“I think I do. I’m not sure. I don’t really know what I’m doing, ol’ PAL O’ MINE! Is that radio talk? I mean TEN-FOUR! But I sure like playing with these boy’s toys. Whoops! Did you hear what I said? That was pretty funny. Scratch that. Er…no pun.”

I’d follow that up with peels of laughter. I couldn’t help it. How could I possibly take this seriously anyway? By some mistake of the universe, I was the Base of the Fort, so yeeee-haw!

“Okay, yeah. I’m serious now, #FIVE. I’m seriously talking to you on this thing and there is a job.”

“Do you have an address for me?”

I laughed. “I do! I know you’re surprised, but I do have the address and I even think I can read it to you if you’ll hold on.”

I heard him laugh. “I’m holding. Give it to me, Base. Lay it on me.”

Every time I heard that dumb name, I’d howl but I’d relay the address. “Can you be there by 11, #FIVE?”

“For you?”

“No! This is not me! Elsa is not here! This is Base,” I said, chortling. I heard him laugh back.

“I got you covered, Base.”

“Er…okay! This is BASE! OVER, #FIVE! Is that right? Is that what I’m supposed to say? Over! Okay, well, I hope that’s good. Can you hear me? Bye! I mean, over! Over to you!”

A couple of them were slightly perturbed, but I was winning the crowd and what could they do? Suggest I have less personality? Not possible. Stuck in a room all day, the radio quickly became my channel to the outside world.

To be continued.