This is a work of fiction in honor of Steve Jobs.
Boss In Trunk
By DJ Cline
My boss was in the trunk and I was running out of time.
It was not what you think. Somebody asked how I got my first Mac. It’s complicated but I think you’ll understand once you’ve heard the whole story.
The first summer out of high school the family taking care of me lost their farm. Not much future in farming. The old man had a heart attack and died and the old lady followed soon after. I was on my own and knew it.
I planned to work my way through college, looking for any job to pay the bills. The 1980s were not happy times in the Rust Belt. Factories were closing and lots of people were out of work. I managed to get a summer job at the Woodland Factory in a small midwestern city.
They made machine parts, bearings, lathes that sort of thing. It was a huge plant, with a couple of dirty old brick buildings with grimy windows filtering sunlight. I swept floors and made myself useful. They had a print shop run by nice old guy, Arthur Magnus. I learned how to build and run their four-color press. I even learned how to use their composing computer, a big Linotype.
That computer was in the back of the Admin building. Built in 1939, the structure was a yellow brick Art Deco building with lots of glass brick and curved walls. The lobby ceiling was a mural in the Social Realist style depicting big burly workers welding and grinding industrial equipment. Most of the secretaries had green metal desks in an open space, but the managers had big offices with wooden paneling.
I’d come in at night to use the computer, backing up projects on tape and running the job overnight. I’d see the managers in their offices arguing or sweating over something and knew that business wasn’t good. I wasn’t surprised that they laid-off a bunch of people that winter.
The next summer I got another job there, but it wasn’t a happy experience. The factory was closing and they were selling off the equipment a bit at a time. I was hired to take some of the equipment apart and put it in crates to be shipped somewhere. That winter the factory closed.
Hard to believe, but I worked there again the next summer. The company that bought the property wanted to develop the land the factory was on. Unfortunately the buildings had asbestos in them and it had to be removed. They contracted out to another company and they hired me to help because I knew my way around. They gave me a big ring of keys for every building in the complex as we got to work. It was hot and dirty work, sweating in those suits and wearing a mask, but it paid the bills.
That proved to be a bad summer for everybody. The company that tried to develop the property couldn’t pay for all the clean up and went out of business. My last paycheck bounced. That winter the apartment building I was living in was condemned and I couldn’t find another place. I was packing up my gear and then found that big ring of keys I’d forgot to turn back in at the end of the summer. Frankly, there was no one to turn the keys over to.
I should say that I travel light. Most of my life I’d traveled from home to home with most of my possessions in one suitcase. I try to make do with what I can find. The most expensive thing I owned at that time was my car. It was a used 1970 Ford Pinto hatchback.
Go ahead and laugh, but it was paid for, about $150. It started in the coldest weather and used very little gas. You lifted up the hood and saw a sewing machine-sized engine and not much else. It was so simple you could fix it with used parts. The reason I got it so cheap was that it had been hit in the rear and Pintos were known for exploding when hit that way.
I figured the odds were good that it wouldn’t be hit twice and spent my money on extravagant things like tuition and peanut butter.
So I packed up my gear and drove my car through the abandoned factory gates on a cold December day. I parked in the president’s old space, grabbed my gear and sleeping bag and walked in the front door.
All the furniture was still there, like they were expecting to come back. Filing cabinets, photocopiers, and cafeteria, everything in place. Even the power was still on, though I don’t know who paid the bills. When a whole society and way of life collapses, little details like checking the meter get lost.
I moved into the president’s office because it had a small bedroom with a full bathroom. Lord knows why he needed that. I guess upper management work some long hours. Of course there are some things about management I prefer not to know.
For me this was living pretty high on the hog. Not many college students had unlimited access to electric typewriters and copying machines. My term papers were printed out in the president’s heavy bond paper, giving them weight and an air of respect.
I knew my situation, like all situations, was temporary. I had finished my shower one morning and was toweling myself off when Arthur Magnus walked into the bedroom. Art was the guy who taught me how to use the composing computer. I thought he had been let go along with everybody else.
“What are you doing here?”Art asked. He seemed mildly amused, not angry.
“I live here.”I said toweling my head. ”How about you?”
“I cut a deal with the city. I’m leasing this building to start my own media company.” He said, bragging like any small businessman.
“Great! Need help?‚” I asked as I put on my clothes.
“I can’t afford help yet.”
“You can if they can live here.” I suggested.
And that was the way it started. Art let me keep the president’s office while he moved operations into the vice president’s office closer to the front door. I went to school in the morning and then came to work in the afternoon. I learned a lot about the design part of advertising and media. I learned how to make slides for business presentations. How to lay down soundtracks for commercials. How to edit videotape. I learned how to estimate jobs and deal with clients. I learned how to keep a budget and make a profit.
One day he handed me a video tape.
“Watch this and it will change your life.”
It was a commercial but like a science fiction movie. Some woman swinging a hammer was running down the hall being chased by guards. She ran into a room with a bunch of people staring slack-jawed at a screen of some big guy rambling about something. The woman let the hammer loose and it smashed the screen. It was Apple’s 1984 Macintosh commercial. I turned to him and said, “Cool.”
“Cool indeed. We are going to get one.”
I went to school the next day. I told my friend Sam about it. He was majoring in computers.
“Yeah I saw it at the Superbowl party last year. The one you didn’t go to. It’s not a computer you want on your resume.”
“It’s an Apple, we use them in the computer lab.”
“Yeah but if you want a business computer you want an IBM PC. Nobody will hire you if you use one of these. It’s kind of fruity.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, look at the logo. It’s a fruit with a rainbow in it. Don’t you get it?”
”No Sam, I don’t and I don’t think I want to.”
“Well you go back to that old fart you work for and I’ll go work for DEC or NCR. They’ll be around twenty years from now.”
I didn’t see Sam much after that. I spent more time at work, taking over more of the sales and production. Art was calling in sick more and more often. He kept going to funerals for his friends. I thought they were old, but a couple of them were not much older than me.
One day the Macintosh and laser printer arrived. I took them out of the box and set it up. Within the hour, I was printing my first layout in PageMaker. I called Art at home and asked if he was coming in to see it.
He sounded very tired. ‚ ¨I don’t think so. I’m not feeling that well. As a matter of act, can you bring it over and show me?”
I went over to his apartment and was shocked. It had been a month and he looked thin and was covered with dark blue splotches.
“Is anybody looking after you?” I asked.
He leaned unsteadily against the kitchen counter. ”No. Most of my friends are dead or too sick themselves. Others are too afraid.”
That was the sad truth about that period. Everything was falling apart. Farms were failing. Factories were closing. I had heard that in hard times people in the community would move in together and share expense or take care of each other. This epidemic was too big. I wasn’t afraid. Hell, I grew up surrounded by agricultural pesticides and worked with asbestos, I wasn’t going to let this scare me.
So I took care of Art as part of my job. He continued to give me advice on running the business as he faded. I’d like to say the business was doing well, but it was Art’s relationships with clients that worked. It was as if Art was more important than the work he created for them. I was just his assistant. They wanted Art.
By the spring of my senior year in college, Art was so sick he had to go into the hospital. They treated him like he was radioactive material. The hospital staff wanted to know my relationship with him. They asked with a slight sneer. I said I was his nephew. After all, no one would do this for his boss. Hard times made most people see bosses as the bad guys. Maybe some were, but Art gave me the freedom to learn things they never taught in school. I can’t remember a single line of bull from my business classes, but I remember everything he taught me.
I got a letter from the city saying that the lease on the Admin building would not be renewed. They were going to ’implode’the buildings, which meant they were going to blow them up in a controlled manner in about two weeks. I had the letter on my desk when the hospital called and told me Art was dead. They wanted to know if I wanted to pick up the body.
I had given this some thought and done some checking. He was a decorated war veteran but the people at a local military cemetery freaked at having someone with this disease buried there. I checked with various private cemeteries and funeral homes and got the same panic response. Gee, he’s dead, people. He’s not going to date anybody. Shame on them. Then it occurred to me. I knew of a place that wasn’t Potters Field.
So I went to the loading dock of General Hospital and there he was, in a black body bag with red-orange biohazard tags and stickers on it. I went inside and confirmed it was okay to take it. No one would help me move it. I opened the hatch of the Pinto, folded the back seat forward, Moved the bag to edge of the loading dock, got down put the bag over one shoulder and eased it into the car. This is how I wound up with my boss in the trunk.
So technically my boss wasn’t in the trunk since my car didn’t have one. Part of him was in the backseat. I drove carefully out of the city, hoping I wouldn’t be pulled over and have to explain. I saw a Volvo station wagon with a little yellow sign that said “Baby On Board” and thought I should have one that said ”Boss In Trunk.”
I drove out to a small town near my old farm. They had a Quaker cemetery that would bury anybody. Funny how folks without weapons aren’t afraid of anything. So that is where Art is buried, decorated war veteran surrounded by conscientious objectors, abolitionists and peace activists. Their wars were over. Mine had just begun.
I went back to the Admin building and figured out what to do next. I wrapped up the rest of the outstanding projects and delivered them to the clients. I finished my final exams and picked up my diploma, not waiting for the graduation ceremony.
The company hired to implode the buildings hired me to show them around the buildings while they set the explosives.
On the day of the implosion, I packed up the Mac and the printer Art had left to me. I figured I could use them as a foundation for a new business. They barely fit into my car. I took my old sledgehammer from the asbestos removal days and swung it through the glass brick window of the Admin building just for Art’s sake.
As I drove out of town, I heard the muffled explosions as one building after another collapsed behind me. My future was in front of me.
In 2004 I was at one of those twentieth anniversary events for the Mac in Silicon Valley. I had set up my original Mac and printer for display. My old college friend Sam walked up.
“Still have that Mac?” He laughed.
“Not only that. It still works. Do you?” I smirked.
”I’m at HP at the moment. DEC was bought by Compaq which was bought by HP. Nothing is permanent these days.”
“It never was.”I agreed.
“You ever get a full time job?” He half-mocked me.
“ No. I’d rather work for a living.” I full-mocked back.
When the event was over, my assistant packed up the boxes and loaded them in the trunk of my Mercedes. The license plate said BOS N TRNK.
Copyright 2011 DJ Cline All rights reserved.