Encounters with The Admiral
I still got a lot of bullets in me, though
I was at the office, minding my own business, when a fellow I call “The Admiral” walked by my cube, clucked his tongue a couple of times, and said: “Looks like we got everything under control here. All under control and you’re doing a good job. Thanks for showing up.”
I call him Admiral because he usually comes to work wearing a baseball cap with the name of the aircraft carrier upon which he served our nation embroidered on it. He’s one of the unionized clerical workers at the Wall Street company where I work, part of our Customer Service Center. These seasoned clerks, deemed to be the best in the company, no longer process regular financial transactions, working instead as troubleshooters. Still, the unit routinely scores a below-30% satisfaction rating on customer surveys, in part because they are surly, know nothing, and goldbrick with the impunity of the unionized. The Admiral has a gin blossomed nose and a comb-over so spindly that I think I could count the hairs over his bald pate. He always has four or five fat cigars (not cheap ones either) tucked into his breast pocket.
Long time, no see, I tell him. I was wondering where he’d been keeping himself, despairing a bit at the thought of the workplace losing a man of his caliber. He was one of my favorites among the elite clerks, right along with:
• The guy who photocopied an image of an elephant on a summer shirt I wear and tattooed it on his shoulder;
• The guy I overheard saying he had finally found his “glitch in life”;
• The guy who bought his wife and two sons 7-day Metrocards and spent a family vacation riding different bus lines from beginning to end so that “all of them would get a chance to really see Brooklyn.”
“Six weeks,” the Admiral said. “I was out sick for six weeks.”
I told him I was sorry.
He said: “Yeah. I had walking pneumonia. Really bad. They treated that. And chlamydia. And mono. I also had mono.”
The chair in the cube has wheels, and I felt myself rolling backward, the chair moving under its own power like a planchette over an Ouija board.
“I came to see the nurse this morning and she asked if I was really okay to work,” the Admiral said. “I said ‘I am right now.’ She gave me this look. Bitch. Do you know her?”
I said I did.
“Fucking bitch,” he said. “Fucking bitch. Do you know what I mean?”
I said I never had a problem with her, and looked around. To my relief, the people around me weren’t looking up.
“Fucking bitch! Fucking bitch is what she is, that nurse. I liked the other one that was here before. Donna. She was with us for four years. But the one before her...she was the fucking worst. She was a...” The Admiral poked his cheek with his index finger.
I might have looked confused to him, though I wasn’t confused in the slightest at what he was trying to convey. “She was a...” the Admiral repeated, and poked his cheeked harder, pulling down the flesh. “Do you know what I mean?”
Unfortunately, I knew exactly what he meant. Here I had two choices. I could nod and have him think I was somehow allied with him, a choice that would inexorably lead to someday finding myself on an elevator alone with him and him blurting out: “You know what’s wrong with this place - too many fucking niggers. Am I right?” Or I could play dumb and pretend I didn’t know what he meant, and maybe it would all go away.
I decided to play dumb. In the corporate world, decisive stupidity always seems like a sound course of action.
“She was...” he said, rolling his eyes upward in exaggerated indignation, then in a stage whisper continued, “...a black!”
Like a piece of toast, my head popped over the wall of the cube and I looked around. I saw the backs of heads. Everyone around me was staring at their glowing color monitors, completely oblivious to the Admiral. They were just doing their work, their keyboards clacking. And I thought of the opening lines of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
“You were fucked with her if you were white,” said the Admiral. “If you were a black, it was come right on in, I’ll take care of you. I’ll give you a note and you can go right home. If you were white, it was sit your ass down and wait for awhile. No matter how fucking sick you were. If you were white. Thank goodness a fucking pig like that is gone, right?”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I said.
“Today...right now...I’m feeling better,” said the Admiral. “You’re doing a good job here. Thanks for showing up.”
“Aye aye,” I said, and gave him a wan salute as he walked away.
The Admiral Redux
On another day, I heard the cluck.
“What’s wrong with your hands,” the Admiral asked, noting my wrist braces.
“I’ve got problems because of all the typing I do,” I said.
“That tunner carpet shit?” he asked. I said yeah.
“Ooooooooh, I got that too,” the Admiral said. “It burns right up to my neck. They send me to physical therapy. This woman bends my wrists back and it hurts like hell. But after it’s over, it relieves the pain.”
I said that was good.
“I still got a lot of bullets in me, though,” the Admiral told me, and walked away.