By Tim Hayes
The summers between one’s college years can be interesting, to say the least. Educational, even.
There’s incredible pressure to first of all, find a job – then rouse yourself out of bed in time to get to work, deal with the assortment of personalities there, and not burn through your paycheck on pizza and movies and gasoline and girlfriends, so that you have enough left in your checking account to cover the gouging you’re in for back at school to buy your exorbitantly expensive textbooks.
I had my share of weird and wacky summer jobs back then, but the weirdest and wackiest had to be the summer I spent in The Fishbowl.
Tucked into an otherwise forgotten and misbegotten corner of what used to be called the Pittsburgh Press Building, and otherwise known as the Circulation Complaint Department, The Fishbowl harbored a collection of lifetime workers year-round, and a couple of sacrificial college students each summer. How on earth I ended up there, I couldn’t tell you. But it was a job, so I took it.
In the days before personal computers or laptops, workers inside The Fishbowl sat on either side of two eight-foot tables. We each had a telephone, a pad of paper, and a pen. Thick White Pages phonebooks sat within reach, and on smaller tables along the back wall rested two printed copies of a huge City Directory, where you could locate an address in a number of ways.
But ringed around this entire work environment, this hard-boiled habitat of humanity, stood floor-to-ceiling clear plastic panels. Hence, “The Fishbowl.”
Most of the lifers working there were older ladies, hard-bitten, cynical, worn down by years of irate newspaper customers screaming through the phone lines about some stupid kid who missed delivering their paper that day, or throwing it on the roof or in a puddle or through their front window. My term in The Fishbowl lasted only about 12 weeks, and the ways a newspaper delivery could be screwed up astounded even me.
Our boss – who I never saw actually enter The Fishbowl…my guess being this particular honor had been tacked onto whatever his real job was – said we only had one rule. If a customer swore at us, we could hang up. Otherwise, they could verbally pummel away, and we had to remain professional and courteous at all times, doing everything we could to get them their daily freaking newspaper.
Yeah, okay, Boss. Easier said than done. We’re suffering in this hotbox – and this also was back in the day when people could smoke their heads off inside…and this gang took full advantage of that perk – while you’re sitting fat and happy in your little air-conditioned office, with no supremely honked-off housewife from McKees Rocks screaming in your ear that she couldn’t read her horoscope today.
Actually, for as crusty as those older ladies appeared, most of them treated me and the other college kid pretty good that summer. One lady in particular. Bess had a kind heart, but a serious alcohol problem. When I arrived for work, I usually had to take the last empty seat, and it usually ended up next to Bess. It didn’t take long to understand why. The scent of liquor on her breath became distracting and disconcerting. But again, Bess never drank at work and always treated her co-workers and her callers with respect and patience.
We occasionally worked weekends, so one week I had taken a regular day off. As I reported to The Fishbowl the next morning, two seats remained empty. I took one of them and asked if Bess had taken vacation. No, I was told. Bess had been fired the previous day. Seemed her problem had gotten the better of her, and when a caller had become irate and abusive, Bess fired back in similar fashion – and then some. The caller reported her to our boss, and shortly thereafter, he let Bess go.
I learned a lot that summer about workplace dynamics, about controlling my temper, about being patient with people – some of whom just need somebody to talk with, even if it’s to complain about a silly newspaper delivery. But the most important lesson came from Bess, who fought her own personal demon as best she could, until one day the demon won and everything changed.
And the lesson is this. If you need help, or if you know of someone who needs help, please get it. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of amazing courage and enormous personal strength. It’s a sign that you think enough of your own worth to want to be strong, happy, healthy, and well.
I never learned what happened to Bess. But I hope she got the help she needed.
Copyright 2014 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting