Adding complexity to an already complex situation, I then fell in love with one of the retail clerks in the outlet, a woman named Michele Calabrese.
“Michele was a dark haired dancer, a fragile flower with brown eyes and nearly ivory skin,” according to a journal entry I wrote on June 24, 1982. “I used to drive her home after work even though I knew she loved someone else, waiting for that moment when she would smile at me. She wasn’t pretty in any conventional sense, but she was warm.”
This came at the same time Stanley was looking for an excuse to get under my skin, treating me much in the way he had treated Gary earlier.
“He began looking for things to blame me for, and my attitude went from bad to worse. I think maybe he feared what he saw coming as much as I did. Donald had brought in a computer to improve production, and had plans to install an automated conveyor belt system that would cut production time by more than half. As it was, we already had a roller system in place, soon it would be mechanized.”
In a journal entry dated Jan. 8, 1986, I recalled “By the time 1978 came around, I had grown very unhappy with Donald and the warehouse, partly because I felt trapped, the way Stan was trapped, and wished that something dramatic would happen that would set me free – but I was just too much of a coward to simply quit. I had become a radical trouble maker, blaming Donald for the woes of my world, when he really wasn’t to blame for the most part. We had grown too big for my tastes – and Donald wanted to turn the company into something more like an assembly line, far from the intimacy I had enjoyed with Stan at the old warehouse. I only saw things getting worse, more impersonal, and felt a greater distance growing between me and Stan, who was now supposed to act out the role of a warehouse manager and not one of the boys. Perhaps because of my attitude, or perhaps because Donald liked having college graduates working for him, he offered Cliff O’Neil the job I had once been promised.”
In a journal entry dated Jan. 19, 1986, I recalled other problems I was having at the time.
“While working at Cosmetics Plus, I spent a lot of time in a doctor’s office in Caldwell. I seemed to have a perpetual cold. It didn’t occur to me until years later that the dust and fumes were working on me like a gradual poison. He kept giving me shots of b-12 and prescriptions for various cold remedies.”
My 1997 journal had the most complete accounting of the events and how I felt at the time.
“Donald infuriated me, partly because his ambition reflected the collective ambition of the era and its attitude towards workers. We no longer mattered and in fact sometimes we got in the way, seen as too expensive and expendable in an ever more urgent push to gather wealth. It was a time when the working man was finally earning a reasonable living, and the wealthy were looking for a way to cut our salaries.”
Yet, according to his journal, life in the new warehouse seemed to lack cohesion and there was a kind of constant adjustment.
“From the start of 1978, I felt only the desire to flee, and fantasized that Michele and I might flee together. I wasn’t the only one who had an interest in the women working in the outlet. Once back on the day shift, Tim Holly got it on with the outlet manager.”
Michele according to this account started out as one of the sales people in the outlet and evolved into an office worker. I got to know her before the office sucked her in, and she more or less took my side against one of the other sales girls – an uppity pretty, spoiled brat from the rich section of Wayne who actually liked being called “a bitch.”
Although I ached to get to know Michele better, she became the talk of the warehouse because she had a black boyfriend. The fact that he beat her frequently pissed me off. The fact that he was black didn’t bother me the way it did other workers in the warehouse.
“She had a black boyfriend – a notorious womanizer – which became the talk of the warehouse,” I wrote in a Jan. 8, 1986 journal. “Some of the warehouse workers weren’t kind, heaping their scorn on her. I made matters worse since I wanted her, too, and I more than willingly volunteered to drive her home whenever I could. I got mocked by fellow workers who said she would never love me, a white man, and said I was a fool for even trying.”
“This was 1978,” I wrote in the 1997 journal entry. “I erroneously presumed that America had gotten over its racism. But I learned from this situation with Michele that it has simply taken a more silent and insidious form.”
Michele, as I recalled in that journal, “was too soft spoken and inexperienced with cosmetics to make a good salesperson, so Donald moved her into the office to help out Carmella.”
This account differs slightly from some other journal entries, by painting Carmella into something much more of a shrew than I recall now.
“Carmella had already worn out a half dozen helpers since our coming to the new warehouse. None were ever good enough to share the same space with her. They couldn’t file good enough as she could, they had no skills for handling customers on the telephone and they lacked the dedication to remain after five to finish filling out or filing former the way she did. Her jealousy and resentment drove out every one but Michele.”
Michele wanted to quit but was then hoping a New York City dance company would make her an offer.
“So she held on, day after miserable day,” this account claims.
The Jan. 8, 1986 journal described Michele as “a ballet and modern dancer, who had arrived at the outlet just prior to the 1976 Christmas season, but by 1978 was fully entrenched in the front office.
Donald didn’t get on well with Michele. For some reason he felt compelled to ride her hard the way he sometimes rode Stanley. But a dancer is made of different stuff than a sheet metal worker, and when Donald yelled at her for making mistakes, she cried, and he yelled louder, loud enough for us to sometimes hear it in the warehouse.
He had some foolish notion that she might be able to operate his new computer – something that would later be the equivalent of a Commodore 64, but took up most of a glassed in room near his office.
“He seemed put out by her artistic temperament,” I wrote in the 1997 account, “and seemed bent on breaking it the way a cowboy might break a wild horse. He succeeded in breaking her spirit the same week a freak accident did a portion of her lower leg. She got the fracture while helping her boyfriend pushed his car out of a flooded area near Willowbrook Mall. It was not severe but bad enough to ruin her career as a dancer.”
She could still work around the office in the cast, but according to the Jan. 8 1986 account, “she hobbled around for months, finally coming to the realization that she would never dance again.”
The 1997 account recalls her breaking into crying jags each time Donald yelled at her, which seemed to make him even angrier and caused him to push her all the harder.
“He demanded that she extend her hours, but did not pay her overtime. Then when the pressure got too much, she called in sick on Friday. Donald had ordered her to work that Saturday and when she didn’t show up, he fired her. When she tried to collect unemployment, he disputed it, claiming her work record was poor, both in attendance and quality. She said she needed the unemployment because her boyfriend has lost his job, too.”
I later learned she and her boyfriend were evicted from their apartment and this enraged me.
In a journal written in 1982, I wrote “It was at this point, I vowed to destroy Donald’s business by revealing his business operations. Years later, I realize it was a mistake.”
The 1997 account elaborated on my motives better.
“While what happened to Michele inspired me to finally act, I was in no means acting on her behalf,” I wrote. “My rage – justified or not – had grown more potent over the previous few months, partly because of my feeling trapped and partly because I lacked courage to simply get up and leave. Much of this I masked behind my rebellion against Donald.”
In 1996, I wrote “In my mind, I had painted Donald into a monster, when he was simply driven. On one hand, he could be kind to his employees; on the other hand, he was consumed with making money and elevating his status.”
Again the 1997 journal gave Donald more credit.
“I don’t think Donald understood the impact of the change and how the growing company could no longer accommodates those of us who had formed the foundation of his success. The new building was too big for us.”
The attack, this account went on to say, was justified only in the sense that he served as my personal symbol for the vast changes underway in America.
“I blamed him for the fact that blue collar jobs had lost value and that the world as we knew it would never come again like the 1960s that bred me, the era of my kind faded with each passing year, and I lived too close to see how large a problem it was. I questioned why Donald had not hired new workers at a high rate than the amount that he had hired four years earlier. I knew inflation was making havoc on the economy. I knew that my money went far less far than it had when I fire started. But I did not understand how wages fueled inflation or how wealthy investors in companies expected workers like us to pay the highest price with our labor in order to save their investments. Instead, I saw the world in too narrow terms, seeing Donald as the cause of problems he really was only living with, too in many ways.”
But something else had happened to me, part of some larger dissatisfaction with my own place in the world. I was no longer satisfied with being one of the boys, a member of society of order pickers, whose labors were repeated daily, weekly, monthly, yearly until we died with no other real recognition by a weekly pay check.
I was aching for a change, an opportunity to grow, but didn’t know how or what to become. I was dabbling in writing and began to see myself as an artist, too, which was why Donald’s abuse of Michele struck such a nerve in me.
But I had been plotting something even before Michele, something the Cliff had half heartedly suggested.
I knew Donald’s vulnerability was his wholesale dealings that allowed him to redistribute merchandise he secretly purchased around the region. So I collected the labels we cut off the boxes, filing them away at home as I built up a complete list. Sometimes I even fished bills of lading out of Carmella’s trash, and then made a list of all the companies, typing out letters to each corporation with a list of the stores Donald collected from.
When I was finished, I did not mail out any of those letters. Some mysterious force held me back from taking that final step. Although Cliff had encouraged me to do this earlier, he was gone and I was less certain that it was the right thing to do. I eventually dumped the whole lot into the trash.
When Donald fired Michele I went back and redid every letter, not as well or complete as the first time, but with a hot rage that I could no longer hold back. Instead of taking a month or two the way it had the first time, I completed it all in two days, and mailed them all, sealing my own fate as it turned out, not Donald’s.
In a journal from 1982, I recounted the days after writing the letters.
“After I sent out the letters, I knew I was doomed at Cosmetics Plus and went over to John’s house in early May, 1978 to talk to him about getting me a job at his new place of employment. This was nerve and I knew it, but he made the arrangements for me to meet the supervisor the following week. Donald called me into his office on Monday morning and said he knew about the letters I’d sent. He asked if I knew who had sent them. I said no. He called me a liar saying that he had compared the type face on the letters with some fiction I had written. I could see the hurt on his face, a sense of betrayal that had almost nothing to do with business.”
Donald stood behind his desk and cursed me, his voice horse, his face red.
“You’re lucky I don’t press charges against you,” he said. “This is industrial sabotage.”
He told me to leave, which I did, and then about a mile down the road, I realized I still had the key to the building and I came back and gave it to one of his secretaries, before fleeing again. Riding away for the second time, I felt empty and lost. I had worked for Donald for four years and in a matter of minutes, whatever future I had had, evaporated, and me with a new apartment and new car payments to make. Hating Donald had been a full time occupation and now that evaporated, too.”