"Attack of the Mad Shitter"
by Paul T. Riddell
Originally published in the Hell's Half-Acre Herald (March 19, 2001)
Ah, the news in the business community keeps getting better and better. The March 18 New York Times ran a little report in its "Week In Review" section of some of the crass and thuggish layoff methods used by dotcom companies in the last few weeks (one of the best: a company that announced layoffs and then told employees to wait at their stations for an E-mail message letting them know if they were staying or going), right alongside the lamentations in the Business section about the ongoing crash of the stock market. A few days before, Reuters ran a report on a study that showed that employees near the bottom of the company hierarchy were much more likely to seek retribution or revenge against real or perceived slights than those near the top, thus helping to explain everything from company virus attacks to office shootings. (As refreshing as it was to see that someone seemed to care enough about employee morale to commission this study, the basic response is still "Well, duh." These guys and gals aren't pissing in the coffee pot just for giggles.) Right now, the big worry is that a decrease in American worker productivity will only aggravate the impending recession, and never mind that this collapse is inevitable once the folks working 90-hour weeks with the promise of future benefits realize that they'll never see those benefits. At this point, no rational person is going to believe anything coming from a 22-year-old MBA about job security or pension plans or stock options: if these scum weren't sharing when times were good, why the hell should anyone trust them now?
Even considering that the stories about the tight US job market is a blatant lie, the recent five-year boom was a nightmare for managers used to alternating between King Log and King Stork. Ten years ago, it was easy to keep employees in line with that old saw "You know, it's a really bad job market out there, and I don't think you'll be able to find anything better than what you have right now." Then, with the boom in open positions in any number of companies, employees treated like abused housewives didn't have to resort to the shotgun in the middle of the night to escape the nightmare: they could just leave. (This is one reason why I always detested the Dilbert comic strip: since everyone has a story about having a stupid boss and lazy co-workers that compares exactly to one Dilbert strip or another, the strip encourages those suffering under lousy working conditions to suck it up and keep taking it, because it's just as bad anywhere else.) Instead of working together, management and employees at far too many companies are adversaries, with management regularly breaking promises and then screaming about how nobody has any loyalty because the abused finally say "to hell with this" and walk out.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating killing all managers in their sleep and forming communes or anything silly like that. If anything, the deaths of so many of the hippie communes during the Sixties proves that ultimately someone has to take charge, if only to decide who washes the dishes and who cleans out the outhouse and how often. Good bosses are rare, and they're extremely valuable, so they should be cherished and respected and protected from sharp objects coming at them. Unfortunately, these good bosses usually have bosses above them who shouldn't be trusted with used Q-Tips, and the good bosses are usually replaced during a layoff cycle by dingbats fresh from business school who haven't worked a real job in their lives. I understand it's because the good bosses are too busy trying to get productivity by the use of rewards for loyalty and improved production, not by creative application of the whip.
I once took a journalism class taught by Bill Marvel, one of the only good and true writers at the Dallas Morning News, and he related that graffiti was a valid communications medium used by those who felt that they had no other venue for expressing themselves. In that way, office rebellion is an act of expression, if only to let the rest of the office or factory know "This has gone on far enough." Many intending to rebel tend to pop off too early and in the wrong way: you don't shoot your boss and everyone else in a three-county radius if you expect anyone to listen to your complaints about the lousy quality of toilet paper in the employee restroom. However, considering that nobody seems to want to apply the Magna Carta upon CEOs and middle managers, the only option is the strike for (relative) freedom. This may be exercised by nasty comments written on restroom stalls; it may be exercised by "blue flu" or by general refusals to put in "mandatory voluntary overtime". One way or another, though, the more a company tries to stifle dissent, the more it grows. Push someone too hard, and WHAMMO! a nice big writeup at Fucked Company that relates how the board of directors blew a year's operating expenses on booze and hookers during a weeklong holiday in Aspen while telling the grunts to recycle office supplies to make them last longer.
Everyone has stories of subtle and not-so-subtle terrorism intended against their managers or fellow workers in the search for a decent work environment. I remember one manager for an insurance company who found that her serfs spent their lunch breaks at their desks playing computer solitaire because they didn't have enough time to go out and get lunch anywhere else and contacted the tech department to have all of the built-in computer games removed from every computer in her department. She then had the nerve to look surprised when someone climbed over the fence in her gated community and slashed all four tires on her new BMW. (I was not involved, nor do I know who was, nor do I have any interest in computer games, but considering that this was a company that required its employees to show up to the company picnic and then charged them $20 a head to attend, I understood the motivation.) Her predecessor was such a petty tyrant that she held a mandatory meeting when she left the company so she could bask in the perceived rush of sadness from the grunts, but instead her announcement was greeted with an impromptu rendition of "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead". But by far, the most base, most disgusting, and most honest rebellion against a toxic work environment I've ever come across came from a fellow I only know as The Mad Shitter.
Back a decade ago, I was working for Texas Instruments, back when TI was still involved in the defense contracting business and before it sold that big chunk to Raytheon. Although a firm supplier of Cold War armaments for the self-appointed Forces of Good, TI also spent quite a bit of time encouraging its managers to study the book The Business Philosophies of Josef Stalin, leaving every midlevel manager protected from assassination attempts by a good multilevel layer of professional asskissers and stoolies. TI encouraged betrayal of one's co-workers and friends at every level, and if upper management wasn't able to inflict the right level of terror through flunkies standing at the front door of offices and workshops to make sure that employees came back on time from a 26-minute lunch (not 30 minutes: 26 minutes, and never mind that the lunch area may have been a 12-minute walk from those areas), it encouraged the mobilization of a vast volunteer secret police force that tattled any comment, no matter how minor, back to a supervisor's ear in a matter of minutes. Talking out loud about anything deemed improper, from the lousy food in the cafeteria to the merits of joining a union, guaranteed that the offender was sent to gulag. Before 1990, that gulag was an inability to move up within the company, which just stimulated more improper talk. After 1990, that gulag was the layoff, which convinced the survivors to work harder and smarter if they didn't want to be next.
And if you're wondering why anyone would want to suffer under those conditions, remember that this was during the late Eighties, when Texas was suffering from a major recession brought about by the drop in the price of oil in 1985. By 1986, any permanent job for those without a college degree that didn't involve flipping burgers or bagging groceries was treasured, and these were the days when blue-collar jobs were still valued or at least respected. Compared to all of the nasty and foul temporary jobs around, the promise of something approximating a decent rate of pay combined with basic benefits was seen by many to be worth any amount of discomfort, because that decent rate of pay was enough to buy enough booze and weed to ease that discomfort and make getting up in the morning a little more tolerable.
Not that Texas Instruments was willing to give a decent rate of pay: the initials "TI" stood for "Tiny Income" among the workforce. (They stood for "Training Academy" for the engineers, who took advantage of the great training but left because of the miserable pay the moment their contracts were done. This changed to "Totally Incompetent" in the Nineties, when TI's layoffs regularly caught fresh engineers who had started weeks or even days before. A long-running joke among the labor pool was that they should get their resumes ready whenever the company promoted new vice-presidents: without fail, the company would promote anywhere between two and fourteen new vice-presidents to replace those who cashed in their stock options and bailed out, and then lay off another 6000 employees.) Every year, management would argue that TI paid a median rate compared to other companies for the same general type of work, conveniently leaving out that they were including companies based in maquiladoros on the Mexican border so as to skew the statistics. Shortly after making everyone feel that they should be proud to have a job at all, someone would roll out some boneheaded new policy intended to save a little bit of money but that completely destroyed whatever morale remained. (One of the best was the new smoking policy in 1991, which charged anyone using tobacco products an extra $10 per paycheck for insurance purposes. A well-intentioned policy, to be sure, but any former smoker or chewer who decided to quit had to be "clean" for a minimum of six months, and any contact with tobacco automatically turned a non-smoker into a smoker. How was this to be policed, one asks? By encouraging fellow employees to tattle on each other, of course. The only rebellion that seemed to work was a mass exodus from making contributions to the United Way, which just made it easier to spot the obvious troublemakers and lay them off.) The only policy that backfired was the mandatory random drug testing policy that started in 1989: intended to round up all of the pothead proles, it was quietly dropped, according to rumor, because far too many members of upper management were testing positive for cocaine for their firings to be explained away as "leaving to pursue other opportunities."
In a novel, the author would create a grand hero to fight the forces of oppression and incidentally make a name for himself in the process. This would have worked at Texas Instruments if anyone with ambition or options hadn't left as soon as inherently possible, and the rest were happier complaining than doing something about the situation. Petitioning the government for a redress of grievances didn't work, either: the only petitions the boss of my department listened to were petitions from those willing to get up at 5 ayem on a Saturday morning for a good eighteen holes of golf, and anyone coming to him during working hours with issues were either blown off or told in no uncertain terms that making waves was a good way to lose employment. In a comic book, we would have ended up with a strangely dressed but inherently noble protector of the weak and helpless, determined to prove that managers are a superstitious and cowardly lot. This was real life, though, and people running through a factory wearing leotards and their Pokemon Underoos on the outside get escorted outside by security or popped in the ass with a taser and thrown into the back of a police car. The stress was intolerable, and nature abhors a power vacuum, so TI nature created an avenger for us. It created The Mad Shitter.
The first signs that we had a superhero in our midst happened sometime in 1989, when one of the supervisors went to the supply mezzanine to collect some three-ring binders. To explain, I was working in the Non-Metallics Shop, a little area at the TI facility on Trinity Mills Road in Carrollton that was dedicated to making the nose cones for the Hostile Anti-Radar Missile (HARM for short) that TI was foisting upon the Navy. The company was doing well at that time, but very little of that wealth was trickling down to the people on the bottom, and we were definitely the people on the bottom. The Non-Metallics Shop ran three shifts for at least five to six days a week, and I was on the Second Shift: 3 p.m. to 11:15. Most of management only operated during daylight hours, and our supervisor at the time was usually in the parking lot with his girlfriend in the back seat of his pimp-red Camaro shortly after dark, so the environment wasn't quite as foul as it was during the day. This time, though, the girlfriend was out of town, so The Man was actually accomplishing a bit of work when he went up to the second level of this gigantic shop space to get those binders. He got his binders, but he also found a gigantic human turd on the mezzanine, placed so that the first thing anyone saw as they came up the staircase was a nice brown replica of the Hindenberg. He screamed and ran back down, demanding an accounting of all of Second Shift, and waited for someone to confess to this atrocity.
Naturally, nobody in their right mind was going to confess to taking a crap on the mezzanine, so The Man bullied someone into cleaning it up and dutifully reported it to his boss, the Golfer. Quick triangulation ascertained that the offending fecal matter could have been plunked down at any time between 7:00 that morning and 7:00 that evening, so everyone received a stern lecture on proper toiletry the next day, with horrendous threats implied for those without proper bowel or bladder control.
A month went by, and then the Mad Shitter struck again. And again. And again. This time, he wasn't going for an obvious doody drop: he was obviously hopped up on too many Judas Priest albums, because he was Screaming For Vengeance. Considering the size of those dumps, he was definitely doing some screaming: when security came in, they ascertained that these were (a) human feces and (b) left where they were issued and not made somewhere else and hauled in via wheelbarrow or forklift. They started appearing in other places, suggesting both lookouts and access to various equipment, as well as a particularly demented imagination. Kong turds started showing up on the tops of light fixtures, on storage racks, and in file cabinets. The Mad Shitter struck one of the locked file cabinets intended to hold classified documents, tooting on an open file folder, folding it quickly, and deftly shoving it through. He even hit The Man's pimp-red Camaro, squeezing out a long but pungent trail that looked and smelled like a dead water moccasin.
One of the vilest yet most appropriate attacks came upon the cafeteria, which remained a joke up to the day the facility shut down. This facility was in the middle of what was then absolute nowhere, and heading out for lunch on a 26-minute break was career suicide, so we all had no choice but to bring in our own meals or buy the slop from the company vending machines. The "food" would have been rejected by dogs, pigs, maggots, and coliform bacteria, and all complaints about the quality went absolutely nowhere. (A year before the facility shut down, TI suddenly had money for a massive expansion and revamping of the cafeteria, which was finished just in time to announce that everyone was being laid off or transferred, and TI had a wonderful tax break. The running joke was that if complaining about the food got us a brand new cafeteria, maybe complaining about the cafeteria would get us edible food.) The Mad Shitter finally managed to get results, in the form of a freshly wrapped bowel movement on a little plastic platter, complete with a scoop of potato salad and a sprig of parsley, loaded into the vending machine to await discovery by someone looking for a new taste sensation. One person told the anecdote of finding a shit sundae, whipped cream and a cherry on top, in that same machine, but this was never confirmed.
By this time, The Mad Shitter was a true folk hero to the masses: the managers wanted him dead or at least unemployed, and every report of a new atrocity just fueled speculation as to his identity. The Mad Shitter obviously wasn't a woman: women were rara avii on a par with promises of profit sharing that actually came through. He wasn't a member of management, unless we had a really sick bastard whom liked blowing dirt. (One manager was fond of sneaking up behind his charges, farting, and running away, but he was quickly removed from suspicion.) By the time the Mad Shitter somehow managed to break into the plant manager's office, shit on both his desk and chair, and then get out without leaving any traces of his identity other than that his blood type was O-positive, we knew that we had our own blue-collar Bruce Wayne, and anyone with an IQ above sixty was watched. Instead of quelling the attacks, this just increased the strikes against anything and everything in range, culminating in the great Fourth of July Bombing.
The Golfer was not only mean but paranoid, and he had enough clout that he actually had a real office instead of a cubicle with high walls like the supervisors. It was composed of cheapo Henry Miller wall units bolted together to make a monolith in one corner, but it was a real office in a garbage dump scavenger sort of way. Under no circumstances were any of the grunts allowed near that office unless they had legitimate business with him, and that business almost always consisted of lectures on Getting With The Program or scheduling for tee time on Saturday. Every evening before he left, he'd get up from his desk, close and lock the flimsy door that kept all of the proles away from His Stuff, and wander home, comforted that no matter how miserable everyone was, in no way could the Mad Shitter get in.
Well, July 4 fell on a Tuesday that year, so we had a four-day weekend. The Golfer came back rested and relaxed, opened up his door, and had a seizure. Sometime during that weekend, the Mad Shitter struck again. However, apparently MS really had something for the Golfer, because the Shitter had apparently overdosed on laxatives before going in. It was all over the desk, the chairs, the file cabinets, the walls: the place resembled the sets in The Wild Bunch if the film had been directed by John Waters instead of Sam Peckinpah. (Or, for those who saw the film adaptation of Trainspotting, this spot was an easy candidate for The Worst Toilet In All Texas, if only someone had put a potty inside.) And did I mention that the plant shut down its air conditioning over that four-day weekend to save money? Or that the Non-Metallics Shop had one air vent up in the roof that was too small for a human to crawl through, but that let snow and bugs fall from the Great Outdoors?
Those faced with the horror of that stench once the Golfer opened his office were also hit with a puzzle. The lock on the door was still secured; the floor was concrete, so the Mad Shitter didn't climb up from underneath. An investigation by Security ensued, and they discovered fragments of the acoustic tile that passed for a ceiling atop the mess. According to them, the Mad Shitter had somehow slung a rope from one of the overhead I-beams holding up the ceiling, climbed down, removed at least one of the acoustic plates, did his business, and climbed out, all without anyone else spotting him. Whoever he was, he didn't do it over the weekend, because all weekend visitors had been accounted for. This wasn't some garden-level pooter running around. This guy was good.
Sadly, this was the last strike by the Mad Shitter, at least at the Trinity Mills facility. Almost exactly a year later, the plant manager announced that TI was shutting down the Trinity Mills plant, moving the main factory equipment back to the plant from which it had sprung a decade before and my department to the facility in McKinney. In all of that time, although those smart enough to see the layoffs coming down had left while they had the chance, nobody stood up and even whispered about the identity of the Mad Shitter. Anyone who knew would have disappeared the way Sakharov and Theremin did, so he escaped to crap another day.
Well, it's been twelve years since the Mad Shitter first popped up, and I still wonder if he's retired, or if he's still running around, his nightsoil-smeared face and shit-eating grin mortifying idiot managers everywhere. Either way, we could use someone like him to strike terror into the hearts of evil, and evil is all we seem to be getting out of business schools these days. Any retribution more subtle than his ways won't get the point across, so it's time to get up atop the city and turn on the ShitterSignal!
As always, lots of extras on the agenda this time, mostly because I haven't written a new installment in over two months. You know how it goes.
To start, for those tired of dealing with the usual rancid selection and attitude at the local Borders and Barnes & Chernobyl, the best option is to go visit Mark Ziesing Booksellers at http://www.ziesingbooks.com, and do it now. Mark's site underwent a major change in the last few weeks, so head on out and check out the new design and layout. Oh, and buy lots of books from him and his wife Cindy: I'm doing my best, but I'm just one person, and I'm going to need a new house just to hold the books I already have.
Secondly, I was hoping to be able to attend AggieCon this year at Texas A&M University the weekend of March 23, but finances got in the way. After the old car finally became too decrepit to move (when you realize that you're paying ten times in repairs what the car is worth, it's time to put a bullet in its brain), I had no choice but to pick up a new one, and that wiped out the finances for the next year or so. This doesn't mean that AggieCon won't be a blowout convention: go check it out at http://aggiecon.tamu.edu/ and take the time to visit when the bluebonnets and the redbud are in full bloom.
On New Media, the Dallas Video Festival ran this last weekend, and I ask everyone who couldn't get to Dallas to check out the official Web site at http://www.videofest.org and see what they have to offer. The Video Fest is one of Dallas' unique cultural traditions (being one that started here, instead of being copied and transplanted to wither in the sun), and a weekend at the Video Fest beats all hell out of hanging out with the drunken frat boys at the Greenville Avenue St. Patrick's Day Parade. (As Alejandro Riera keeps asking, why does everyone in the States keep blathering "Everyone's a bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day", but you don't hear the same general sentiment on Martin Luther King Day or Cinco de Mayo? Even Irish friends such as Paul Mears keep asking why we make such a big deal about St. Patrick's Day in the US, seeing as how the introduction of Christianity to Ireland isn't exactly something we should be celebrating in the first place. Me, I just always have fun watching all of the good Protestant kids all decked out in green, as oblivious to the origin of that tradition as they are to the pagan origin of the Jesus fish ornaments they put on the backs of their cars.)
And back to books, here's a little "Upcoming" update for those who are interested. Not only are the usual additions to Savant and Zealot coming this week (as well as a new major essay that should be in the new Science Fiction Chronicle so hie thee hence to http://www.dnapublications.com to see what else is going to be in that issue), but I'm starting a series of book reviews for Pop Matters (http://www.popmatters.com) for those who may be interested. Being trapped in a town where literacy isn't exactly prized, I've been so isolated from books that aren't available at the local grocery store that I figured that this is a perfect opportunity to get back up to speed with the more esoteric territories of the publishing industry. And considering that both books and radio are going to go through an interesting sea change in the next few years as the conglomerates that bought up every medium they could now realize they ate too much, I'm heartily looking at finding treasure among the vomit. And isn't that what makes life interesting?
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©1998-2001 Paul T. Riddell. Revised March 26, 2001.