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  • Gary Gruber

Hell on wheels


I am certain most of us have been stuck in a hellish job at some point in our lives. Whether it was the type of work, the people we worked with, or the slobs that managed us, something sticks out as a misadventure of sorts and we are grateful that the passage of time has separated us from the pain and misery we thought impossible to endure.


I have spent most of the past twenty five or so years on the road, moving temporarily from job to job, town to town. Software engineering is like that here in SOCAL – opportunities disappear as quickly as they arise, much like the mirage from the desert floor that I have lived on for so long. Spending five nights a week in a motel and the weekends with my wife and daughter, while arguably not the most conducive arrangement for family unity, has provided me with a lifetime of adventure, often punctuated with events that catapulted me to the edge of justifiable calamity.


After a nearly three year stint in Silicon Valley, flying home every weekend at company expense, I felt the need to be closer to my family and sought employment nearer to home. It should have raised a bright and bold red flag when the guy who interviewed me led his questioning with “How much sleep do you need?” The mid to late 90’s were an industrial boom time for computer science driven industries, and I have heard first hand accounts from friends in the business who were forced (not coerced, forced) to sleep under their desks at night or lose their jobs.


Despite the warnings, the extra 25K per year was a dubious incentive to get me to sign on the dotted line. It would put me driving distance from home. Driving distance back then was anything six hours or less, and this was a mere 120 minute door-to-door hop to Rancho Cucamonga.


The sad part of this tale is that the company is still in business, run by the same egregiously narcissistic lunatic I butted heads with back in the day. They developed business software written in a language I was a master of, and were eager to add my skill set to their inventory. There were 16 male developers, one female secretary, and the big boss. The guys were your usual bunch of programmers – friendly and high spirited, easy to be around, but with nervous tics that were so profoundly obvious that the happy veneer got peeled away quickly in the same manner a deft cook can remove the skin from a potato ready to be boiled.


The thing about spending a lifetime with dual personalities (pro photographer / software architect) is that the photographer side of me saw everything. I see details that most people miss. I may not see dead people, but I can easily spot a deadly one. It was a time in my life when I was going through both physical and spiritual transformations, so the abrupt downward spiral manifested by the boss and encouraged by the rest of the crew left me flailing to catch my breath.


It is a hackneyed but accurate stereotype that wealthy and powerful men can sometimes devolve into a more primitive state – one marked equally by lust and desire, seeking the feigned approval of those who can’t afford to disappoint for fear of failure.


This was one of those situations, and I was to become the thorn in his side, the guy who would not submit. He tested the waters by calling me into his office one day and telling me a story. Now these tales came out of thin air, out of whole cloth, completely unrelated to anything germane to the moment. He had one of those thousand-dollar-a-foot thirty foot boats docked in the harbor a bit farther south. He took his friends on ‘fishing trips’ to Mexico, but I never saw photos on his walls of any of his catch.


“I really love the Mexican hookers with the torn stockings.” That ping ponged inside my head for a few seconds. I wanted to bolt for the door and find the nearest bar open at nine in the morning for a quick shot of bourbon, but for some inexplicable reason I didn’t. He was looking for affirmation from me, but I was in a mild state of shock. Mind you, I’m no shrinking violet. I have faced down 2 guns, 2 knives, and multiple attackers on 2 occasions. I’ve been chased and assaulted more times than I have fingers on both hands and have found myself at the scenes of murders and assaults more than once. Forget about my black belt in karate and the permits that allow me to carry concealed weapons in 38 states.


Mexican hookers with torn stockings stopped me dead in my tracks, frozen with fear for what this guy (married with several children) was going to spew next. Didn’t take long,


Just before Christmas, Julie, the secretary, hung festive decorations around the office. The boss came around to talk to the guys while she was out of the office, inquiring whether any of us had the opportunity to look up her skirt while she was on the ladder putting up the ornaments. My eyes swung wildly, doing a 180. The nervous tics started to reverberate throughout the place. A foot tapping here, an arm being scratched over there, nervous fingers drumming and strumming in other locations.


It was as if an army of cicadas had descended on us, the chirping of legs rubbing against their bodies creating a crescendo that drowned out all other sounds. I drew a line in the sand, loudly voicing my disapproval to this blizzard of bullshit. And man did I not get thanked for doing it. In fact, it was the secretary that penned the notice that went around to all of the employees about the pending ‘Christmas Party’ and what I could shove up my ass if I didn’t approve.


The party, which I did not attend, featured two strippers with a double ended dildo performing on the conference table -- which drew a standing ovation from the other 15 developers. After the gymnastics display, one of the young ladies marched naked into the boss’s office to see if there was anything else she could do for him. He demurred, probably because she lacked the requisite pair of hosiery.


When I returned to work the following day, I was branded as the pariah, the outcast, the one who couldn’t go along to get along. After all of the holier than thou sneers, I decided I had had enough and took two weeks unpaid medical leave to try and sort things out. I never returned to that job – but it tattooed my brain, my psyche, and my soul.


For the rest of my career in software engineering, any time a recruiter would peruse my resume, they would stop specifically at that job and inquire about it. I could tell they were probing for the juicies, and when I recounted my time there they would open up and reveal it wasn’t the first time they had heard stories about the venue and the antics therein. I did not find that reassuring, but like a photo of a devastating disaster, once seen it cannot be unseen.


Perhaps it was karma, but my next gig with National Realty Trust in Mission Viejo was as close to heaven as you can get. It was a singular experience in my 25 year career – a dedicated team of brilliant and friendly people, and supervisors that made the effort worthwhile. We pioneered the very first business web app used nationwide long before the actual software tools required for the job came of age, providing the intricate framework essential to the development of this type of application. Many others tried and failed, we succeeded.


It took away the sting and stench of my previous job, although one thing was for certain: tattoos are forever.

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