For almost a year after I left my father’s foundering advertising agency, I was without a job. Eventually, I found work in the advertising department at the Pine Bluff Commercial, the only daily newspaper in our town. I worked there for about a year, then I was enticed away by the promise of more money by the manager of a Haverty’s furniture store, one of my accounts at the newspaper. I despised working at Haverty’s from the first hour of my first day, and I knew immediately I had made a mistake. The manager must have realized he had made one, too, because he fired me after a month. A few weeks later, toward the end of 1982, I went to work for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
I had interviewed for the Firestone job with a regional manager who came down from Little Rock. One of the questions he asked me concerned my expectations for my future if I was hired. Without any hesitation whatsoever, I told him I expected to have his job, and I may have insinuated I would accomplish this feat in the not-too-distant future. It was a ridiculous remark, because I had no idea what my expectations were. I wasn’t even sure what kind of job I was applying for. As we sat talking in the front window of the store, plainly visible to the traffic on the street, all I could think was, “I hope nobody I know sees me here.”
I found out later that my false bravado had impressed the man, and it was the primary reason behind the job offer. A few days after the interview, before I officially reported for work, I was given a supply of uniforms consisting of red shirts and blue twill pants. On each shirt, affixed just above the pocket, was a patch with my name on it, just in case I should ever forget who I was. I put them in my car and drove home, filled with dread and shame.
The next day, when I put the uniform on for the first time, I thought for a moment I might cry. In the six years since I had returned home from college and begun working, I had lived in a world of coats and ties, associating professionally with bankers and business owners and real estate executives. As I stood in front of the mirror that morning, taking stock of how far I had fallen, the image I saw reflected back at me could have easily passed for a janitor. All that was missing was a floor buffer and a big ring of keys.
Along with the uniform I found so humiliating, Firestone gave me the important-sounding title of Service Sales Manager. It was akin to putting lipstick on a pig, because the job was not nearly so lofty as the title made it sound. My primary duty was to call people on the telephone after they had left their cars for a simple oil change and convince them to buy tires, brakes, shocks, mufflers and whatever else I could find that needed replacing, and usually I found a lot. Most of the cars we took in were older, owned by people who didn’t have a lot of money, so there were sales opportunities aplenty. Repairs were expensive, but Firestone offered a solution in the form of easy credit. All they asked in exchange was timely payments at twenty-one percent interest and a little piece of your soul.
Our store had a full-time staff of six, including me. The assistant manager was Eugene, a tall, imposing man with a voice so soothing he could have worked at National Public Radio. He was a master at convincing malleable customers to apply for charge accounts they could hardly afford. A simple phone call was all it took, and within minutes most applications were approved with a $500 credit limit. This vote of confidence almost always put people in a spending mood, especially young men newly vested with their first credit card. They were putty in Eugene’s hands. Like a trusted uncle, he would guide them to the wall where the custom wheels were displayed, and in a tone that even I found hypnotic, he convinced them they could not possibly achieve the level of cool to which they aspired without a new set of chrome rims.
The store manager, our boss, was Hugh, a wiry ball of energy with a mustache like a scrub-brush and a voice that was much too deep for the body it boomed from. Hugh was devoted to his job, his family and his church, but not necessarily in that order. He liked Red Man chewing tobacco, and he was constantly searching for his spit cup. As far as I knew it was his only vice. He treated every employee with a friendly respect, and I never heard anyone, including the mechanics, who were not exactly known for their discretion, say a bad word about him. This, I would learn later, was a rare quality to find in a boss.
The balance of the staff consisted of three mechanics and a man, or boy, I was never quite sure, named Bubba. Bubba could have been eighteen, or he could have been twenty-eight. His age was always a mystery to me. He only worked on Saturdays, and his job was to mount and balance tires. He would show up hung-over most Saturdays, and sometimes he wouldn’t show up at all. Bubba was a good-natured fellow with an infectious laugh, but he was also dimwitted and I’m pretty sure he was illiterate.
As Service Sales Manager I had other duties besides calling customers on the telephone. I was also in charge of the shop, so technically I was boss over the mechanics. This was when I learned that mechanics are not the least bit interested in being bossed by anyone, especially a twenty-eight year-old “college boy”, which is what they often called me, sometimes even to my face. I had no previous experience being the one in charge, and starting out on mechanics was a rough baptism. I often wished I could have trained on people more cooperative, like librarians.
I got along best with an older man named Bruce. He was by far our best mechanic and he could fix almost anything. Bruce arrived in the mornings nicely cleaned and pressed, but by quitting-time he looked like he had been tumbled in a clothes dryer. His hands were scarred from years of struggling with rusty nuts and bolts, and at some point during a typical day, they were also red with trickles of blood, because wrenches do slip, even in the most capable hands. The fading tattoos on his arms gave him away as a Navy veteran, and whenever he came up against a nut that wouldn’t budge, his latent sailor would come to the surface, and he would shout curses at it and slam his tools around, making a terrible racket.
My job at Firestone was hot, dirty work in the summer and cold, dirty work in the winter. Dozens of times every day, I removed heavy wheels from cars and trucks to look for worn-out brakes. I hoisted cars up on lifts to check underneath for loose suspension parts. I installed batteries and did oil changes if the mechanics were busy doing other things. I mounted and balanced tires when things got backed up or when Bubba slept it off. I mopped and swept the floors and wiped down the equipment. And for good measure, I unloaded trailers full of new tires a couple of times a week. My arms grew muscled and I lost weight, and most nights I went home dirty, greasy and very tired.
I worked at Firestone for a year and a half, and I was embarrassed about it the entire time. The ultimate insult was having to wear the uniform. I was ashamed for my friends and my family to see me in it. I was too young and immature to understand there is dignity in any job done well. All I knew was, in the span of two short years, I had gone from advertising executive to advertising salesman to a guy in a uniform who went home dirty every night. In my mind, I was a failure. But I showed up every day and I did the best I could. I even entertained thoughts that I might have a Firestone store of my own one day.
Late one afternoon, the regional manager who hired me called Hugh and told him to fire me. I overheard part of the conversation, and I could tell by the pained look on Hugh’s face that something bad was happening. He pleaded for my cause, but to no avail, and I think it hurt him to tell me the news more than it hurt me to hear it. It was another insight into the decency of the man, and besides, by that time I was an old hand at being fired.
I found Hugh a few months ago on Facebook, and I told him that being fired from Firestone was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it set me on the path I am still on today. And with the benefit of maturity and hindsight, I realize that working at Firestone for that year and a half was also one of the best things that could have happened to me. It taught me to appreciate the job I have today and to take nothing for granted. Now when I interview job applicants, I look for someone with an entry on their resume that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the picture, a job they took because they had to, for reasons more important than themselves, and if it took some of the wind out of their sails, so much the better, because I think that was probably good for their character, like it was good for mine. I believe they will appreciate the job I have to offer them, more-so than someone who is always looking for greener pastures.
In time, I was also able to reconcile my feelings about the uniform. As an immature twenty-eight year old, I had seen it as the symbol of my fall from grace, from the better life I thought I was entitled to. Now I see it for what it really was – work clothes. I wear branded shirts in my job today; a uniform, of sorts. The only difference is the shirts come in multiple colors, and they don’t have my name on them. One morning, not too long ago, I put on a red one with a pair of dark blue Dockers, and when I passed in front of the bathroom mirror, I stopped cold. For an instant, I flashed back to the first time I saw myself in my Firestone clothes. The feeling was surreal.
About a week after I was let go from Firestone, I called the regional manager and asked him if I had done anything wrong. He assured me I had not. The company had decided to eliminate my position to save money, and I was one of many casualties across the country. I thanked him for his candor and for giving me the opportunity in the first place, and I told him he could stop looking over his shoulder and relax, because I wouldn’t be coming for his job after all.