It’s just awful that I have to disclose the following information. Mainly because I spent the last two days dreaming of writing well-crafted bits of probing insight, and now I find myself telling you this tale. It runs a little long, sorry in advance.
I’m sure that comes as a complete surprise.
The Outfoxed crew went off on a work detail to another state on Thursday and Friday. Ordinarily, I love to travel once in a while where work is involved. It’s like a mini-vacation, we stay in nice hotels, eat far more regularly than when at home and certainly have more variety in our diet (how about broiled Wahoo with lump crabmeat on top, eh? Don’t see that at home very often.). And the lack of normal distractions that home life brings about in its’ natural way causes our work productivity, already at a high level for our trade, to zoom through the roof. When on the road, we typically do little more than eat, sleep and work. We get a helluva lot done.
So there we were, in the great state of North Carolina, installing cabinets and woodwork in a new county courthouse. A large and handsome building. A building built by a construction management firm out of the capital city of North Carolina. Which is an important thing to remember – construction management. That means the employees of the firm don’t actually build anything, they oversee the vast number of subcontractors who do.
And it’s also important to know that:
1. North Carolina has a peculiar habit of securing a great deal of federal funds to build things which could be built for much less. I’ll let your imagination regarding the Senator from this state run wild as to why, he has been in office for longer than many of you have been alive. And has a knack for getting mucho tax bucks appropriated his way.
2. When granted access to huge amounts of money to build something, the job tends to take the direction of not trying to finish, but trying to make this taxpayer sponsored ride last as long as humanly possible.
Now this goes directly contrary to the Outfoxed Crew Philosophy of Construction. Our main premise is to get in and get out as quickly as possible, while performing a level of quality work equal to or greater than anything seen before. We’re experienced, we have many tools, there is no reason to drag out the inevitable conclusion of the work. Hence, we go at it like carpenters on mind altering pharmaceuticals. It makes some contractors uncomfortable, to see the rate of speed we work at, I can almost see their unspoken thought process (“Humph. No way can they be doing a good job for me as fast as they’re going”). Inevitably, they are pleasantly surprised that they get a finished job from us in half the time that most of our colleagues could do it.
I mean, we do have better things to do than run around working all the time. Fishing comes immediately to mind, for example. Our free time is muchly cherished. So we get the work part over with quickly.
It always tends to stump me when I run across individuals who seem to prefer the plodding pace of “Your Tax Dollar at Work”. Which is an oxymoron in itself, I guess.
The construction management firm at this particular job is swanked out in a huge construction trailer with all the latest amenities. There was a Superintendent, a Project Engineer, an Assistant Superintendent, and an Assistant Engineer. Which are three more people than is actually necessary to manage anything, in my opinion.
An oily smooth and utterly humorless youth approached us as we disembarked from our Corporate Vehicle and entered the courthouse. Impeccably clad in button down shirt, freshly starched khakis and spotless Wellingtons. And an equally spotless hardhat (never a good sign. I usually take a new hardhat and throw it around the parking lot a few times before daring to show it in front of a burly bunch of steelworkers) . Clutching a spiral notebook and a digital camera. I hated him before he even opened his mouth.
“I am the Project Engineer”, he intoned, with much emphasis on the word “I”. “You people were supposed to sign in at the construction trailer and pick up your information packet.”
I looked at Stu and Stu looked at me. Information packet?
So I did what I normally do when confronted with a specie of limited common sense. I deflected and returned serve to the opposite court.
“Gee, that’s a nice camera”, I said with as much of a smile as I could muster. “Wanna take our picture?”
He must not have heard me because he started right in on us with a memorized diatribe. “You need to be aware that hardhats are required at all times on this project. Hard soled shoes and long pants. No smoking in the building, and the bathrooms are off limits to workers. Anyone found violating these policies is subject to removal from the site.” He was staring rather pointedly at Stu, who was fashionably clad in work shorts and leather sneakers. Which, to Stu’s way of thinking, was not such a bad choice on a 92 degree day. “Since this is your first day, I’ll just make a note of it in my daily report, but I expect you to be properly equipped tomorrow.”
I looked at Stu and Stu looked at me. Daily report? Properly equipped? And what’s all this shit about hardhats?
The Project Engineer with his youthful authority turned to hurry off on other important Engineer duties (inspecting the dumpster or something, I suppose) but Stu cleared his throat in that way he has. It sounds not unlike a cannon shot from Civil War days. And the PE froze.
“’Scuse me a second, sonny”, Stu rumbled. “Who do we speak to about construction at this hot dog stand?” I managed not to grin, because I’d already seen it too, and I knew what was coming. That wall about 50 feet away was at least 3” out of level and it was one of the first things we were suppose to attack with a flurry of cabinets.
“Why . . . uh . . I’m in charge of all site-related matters. Do you have a question?”, the PE said, opening his notebook and fishing a pen out of his pocket.
Stu shifted his unlit stogie from one side of his mouth to the other. “Yep, sure do. Need you to grab a level and check that wall yonder and see what you can do about getting it right before we come in here and blow it up. How soon can you handle that?” editors note: ‘Blow it up’ in Outfoxed-speak means to perform carpentry tasks at high rates of speed. But I’m sure you would have figured that out eventually.
The PE looked uneasy. “Well, I actually don’t have a level. And the men who built the wall aren’t on the job today. I’ll make a note of it in my report, though.”
I decided it was time for me to put in my two cents worth. “While you’re at it, can you tell me the reason behind wanting to install wood baseboard in the Lobby today?” (we had gotten this request via fax). “In case you hadn’t noticed, they’re grinding the terrazzo floors out there where the base goes.” (a process involving large amounts of water and a car sized grinding machine, the water level was high enough to support marine life at the time, and water and wood base just don’t mix).
The PE was scrambling through his notebook by this time. “I know we couldn’t have made such a request, there’s a fax here somewhere . . . .” And he came to a halt with a flush as he found just the fax in question. “It appears as though there’s been a scheduling conflict.” I choked down the redundant “No shit Sherlock” before it surfaced.
Stu removed his hardhat, clasped it in both hands behind his back and assumed a parade rest posture. The PE snapped back to reality in an instant. "I really need you to keep your hardhat on at all times.”
We gazed up at finished ceilings, at light fixtures hung in place, at the carpet on the floor of the room we were standing in. At painted walls. A room lacking only for furniture and occupants to make it complete. “You’ve got to be kidding, sport”, I said. “What’s going to fall on my head? Something wrong with your ceiling?”
“That’s our policy, our company policy.” He rambled on a bit about managing work units and flow charts and jobsite cleanliness and how to write up daily reports to be “filled out and on my desk no later than 9 am the following morning.” Then he left to go hunt down other hardhat violators.
I have limited patience with people who refuse to think for themselves but I have no patience at all with those who go about it in an arrogant way. With those whose mission in life seems to run along the lines of making others miserable. And this guy had that attitude, oh boy did he have that attitude.
“Whatta prick”, Stu said. “I can see that this job is going to go south on us before we even unload the truck. Let’s go find the plumber.”
Finding the lead plumber is always important in these cases. It is usually a wizened little man who has followed the entire course of the job from beginning to end. Unlike us, who come in at the very end of the job. The plumber is an unofficial jobsite historian, and rarely have we found one who isn’t willing to talk ceaselessly about the state of affairs associated with anyone and everyone at the project.
We were not to be disappointed. We found the plumber in his little room that had been set aside for all the things a plumber could want. Sitting with his feet propped up on a cooler, he waved us in and began his spiel.
“I’ve been on this freaking job since September, and I mean to tell ya, this is the worst one yet boys. The worst of the worst.”
I frowned. “September? Gee, that isn’t so bad for this sized building. A year to get this thing out of the ground and damn near finished? That’s pretty good!”
The plumber shook his head. “You don’t understand. I don’t mean September 2001, I mean September 2000.
We both gaped at him. “No way. No way this thing has gone on that long.”
“Yep, it’s a fact. Lemme tell ya, you let that government money start coming in and these boys will ride it like a Alabama mule. This whole thing is a negotiated job anyway. Something about economic zones and such. Take a look at the bunch of clowns running this thing, they’re dug in here till the end of time. I tell ya, they don’t’ want the job to end.” The plumber was warming to his subject. “Hell, my boss told me to come down here and babysit this thing even if I didn’t have nothing to do. Says he gets to bill my time no matter what. Tapping that government kitty, I reckon.”
“So how much more do you have to do on this job”, Stu asked.
“Put in a couple of sinks. You boys are here to put in the cabinets, right? Well, you’re the ones I’ve been waiting for. Once you get those cabinets set and I get my sinks in, I can get the hell outta here, and not a minute too soon if you ask me. That PE runnin’ around on this site is gonna drive me to drink anyway.”
“Yeah, we ran into him on the way”, I said ruefully. “Looks like he’s the resident asshole, huh?”
“Oh my god you have no idea . . . “ And the plumber regaled us with story after horror story about beaurocracy made flesh over the course of two years. Trucks sitting idle, hundreds of laborers pushing brooms in a five square foot area for a week to boost billable hours, waste and paperwork and red tape run amok. Project Engineers who hadn’t constructed anything substantive since they played with Flintstone Building Blocks. “By the way”, he concluded, addressing Stu. “How did you manage to get on site wearing shorts anyway?”
Stu grinned. “It’s my first day. Guess he figured I was just ignorant.”
“Oh you can take that to the bank”, the plumber said. “He thinks every trade on this job is ignorant. You might as well get used to that. He’s in management, don’t you know. Management I say.”
We left the plumber in peace so that he could spend a little more time inspecting the ceiling from his battered reclining chair and doing an inventory of his supplies (which he had no doubt been doing for weeks, and coming up with the same twelve sinks and fittings every time).
And we went to work.
By the end of the day we had blown up 75 cabinets, laid waste to a quarter mile of countertops, sculpted and whittled and nailed off a couple hundred feet of wood trim. Not too bad for one day, about our normal rate. We were satisfied with it. The 4 pm beer beckoned.
The plumber happened to stop by on his way out of the door and hailed us with a smile. “So, what do you think? Can I maybe put my sinks in next week sometime?”
I was tossing drills onto our tool cart. “Brother, you can put them in right now if you’re of a mind to.”
He stopped smiling. “Huh? Whaddya mean? I’m not supposed to leave this gig until next week sometime! The boss is gonna kill me! He’s already penciled in those billable hours! Y’all were supposed to take two weeks to do those cabinets!”
“Well shucks, friend. It ain’t two weeks worth of anything. And I know you could plumb a dozen sinks in two days, couldn’t you?”
He nodded. “Sure, of course. Hell, my helper could do that. Hell, my wife could probably do that.” He pondered the situation. “But then I’d have to stay here until the billable hours ran out, I’d have to fill out those daily reports so that they knew I’d been here . . . . “
I could see where he was going with this. Someone in construction management had decided to allot enough time to install sinks so that there could be no error, enough money to do the job 5 times over if need be. Someone in construction management whose closest knowledge or involvement with the installation of a sink had been to watch it on Saturday morning how-to television shows or read it out of a textbook. Or worse, a government construction accounting manual.
Stu and I breezed out of the door and stood watching the hot Carolina sun dip low on the treeline. He fired up his requisite Macanudo as we paused just outside of the entranceway. From out of nowhere, the oily PE trotted up, seemingly emerging from a rabbit hole.
“There’s no smoking in this building!”, he cried. Stu eyed his adversary, giving him a long moment to reconsider. Blowing out a stream of fragrant smoke, he cleared his throat. “Am I in the building? Does it look like I’m in the building to you? Looks to me like I’m outside of the building. Hey Outfoxed, does it look to you like we’re outside the building? I could have sworn we were. Lemme check. I’m standing on a concrete sidewalk, there’s some grass over there, a tree there. Yep. I’d definitely say we’re outside the building.” And while Stu’s expression never changed and his voice never lost its’ reasonable tone, there was a coolness in his stare. I’ve seen that stare before, he uses it when speaking to disobedient children who get a little out of hand around his backyard pool when their parents are not around.
The PE sputtered. “You know what I mean. No smoking inside the building. I just wanted to make sure you were aware of that policy.”
Sigh. There it was again, the ‘policy’ word. “Quite fully aware, friend.” Stu was soft in his reply, but that stare never wavered.
“Oh, and I’ll need your daily report, don’t forget. Did I give you a copy?” The PE produced several pages of a fill-in-the-blank report form and handed them to me.
I studied the form for a minute. “Hmmm, let’s see. Hours for carpenter, hours for foreman, hours for laborer, materials used, deliveries taken, weather conditions, safety violations and disciplinary action taken. Where’s the part I fill in for WORK COMPLETED??” I was a little loud on that last item, I’m afraid.
The PE looked at me blankly. “Oh, you can use the back of the form for that, if you want. It’s really not important that I know that.” He actually said this to me.
“Wait a minute. Is this a construction project or am I in the wrong building? I always thought the point of all this was to finish work, complete tasks and move on to the next one. Or am I wrong? Maybe it’s just to show up and hang out all day? Have I been doing it wrong all these years?”
The PE just sniffed. “Don’t forget, I need it by 9 am tomorrow. And no shorts, remember.” A perfect beaurocratic reply. Ignore the sarcastic question and stick to the book. Establish your authority over the minions. He left Stu and I and headed back to his palatial construction trailer.
Stu exhaled. “Whatta prick. Did I already say that? Whatta total prick.”
“Yeah, you already said that.”
“Well it bears repeating. Prick prick prick. Punk. Asshole. Lemme go use the facilities and we’re outta here.” Stu headed for the nearest outhouse.
He came back grinning. “Looks like we’re not the only ones. Outhouse graffiti, don’t you know. They’ve got the PE stenciled all over the inside of that sucker. Lots of barnyard scenes with him and a goat and some phallic symbolism. The use of ‘asshole’ is quite frequent, too. You ready to go?”
I was indeed. We checked into our luxury hotel and I sprawled on the bed and opened my Day Planner to note our progress. One of my daily rituals, usually performed while sipping on a frosty Coors Lite. The PE’s daily report form fluttered out of the Day Planner and onto the floor. Stu picked it up and looked at it.
“So, you gonna fill in the form?”
“Hell no I’m not gonna fill in that silly shit. What good’s it gonna do me?”
Stu assumed a lofty tone. “Oh? I think you should, I really think you should. Look here, there’s a space for disciplinary action taken. Why don’t you fill in how you spanked me for wearing shorts on the job? Took away my beer and had a safety meeting? Or how about that big room full of stuff we installed today and how I took off my hardhat because my head was sweating and all? I really think you should.”
I shrugged. “Give it over. I’ve got time to kill.” So I filled it out. Where it said Foreman hours ______, I wrote in ‘enough’. Where it said Carpenter hours________, I wrote ‘not enough’. I wrote up Stu for his shorts and hardhat violations, summarizing the disciplinary action and stating (quite eloquently by the way) our company policy and the review of mission statements and corporate by-laws and a few other legal issues. Just to keep up with the theme of the daily report, understand. On the back, I wrote ‘Made You Look!’ in large block letters and colored in the ‘O’s’ to look like eyeballs. Handed it to Stu for his chuckling review. “Perfect”, he said.
We went out and had our Wahoo dinner with the lump crab meat and new potatoes, watching the sun set over the nearby waterfront, at peace with the world and bantering with the waitress. Off to sleep, in our air-conditioned room.
As an aside, it should be noted that Stu has one peculiar sleeping habit other than snoring like a congested bear in hibernation. He likes a cold room, he leaves the windows open in wintertime, says it helps him sleep. So he fiddled with the air conditioner until it blew arctic blasts before he settled in for the night. Icicles formed, glaciers advanced, fjords froze. I shivered under blankets in the middle of August as sleep came in the form of Krionic Encapsulation.
Stu awoke the next morning and shook the snow from his head. “Damn, I had a dream last night about clubbing a baby seal. Weird. Let’s get some breakfast.”
We returned to the job at 6 am and passed by the construction trailer, vacant and locked. “Gosh Stu, looks like I won’t get a chance to hand in my daily report. What a shame. Guess management doesn’t show up for work this early.”
“Oh I think you can wait until 9 am. Matter of fact, I wouldn’t turn it in one minute sooner than that.”
We sawed and drilled and sweated our way through the morning, basically finishing up what we had done the day before and running out of materials. Which is our goal, of course, to run out of stuff. Leave the storage room empty of materials, so that any idiot can see that there isn’t anything left for us to do. “Where did the Outfoxed crew go? They left the job! Oh, I see, they ran out of stuff.” That sort of thing.
So I didn’t make it over to the construction trailer until nearly 11, and was on the receiving end of the PE’s glare as I strolled through the door, report in hand. He tossed it in his in-box and went back to his computer without so much as a thank you. Which lit the fuse, as far as I was concerned.
“Wait a second. Aren’t you gonna look at my report? Spent a lot of time on that, I did (about half of a beer, which isn’t very long, if you’re interested in knowing). Besides, we’re just about done here, getting ready to pack up the truck.” That got his attention.
“What do you mean? Has there been an accident? Why are you leaving?”
“Nope, no accidents. We’re done. Going home. See ya later. Been swell.” I was heading for the door.
“Wait! You can’t leave! I’ll need a report from you for today!”
I swiveled and went to his desk, put my hands on the edge and leaned into him, about two inches from his oily face. “Listen pal, here’s my report, and you can fill it out anyway you desire to. We’re finished. Is that reporting enough for you? Get out of your chair and go out to the building and if you can avoid finding any missing hardhats for long enough you might see how the bloody job is going. Or is that something out of your purview?” I was steaming just enough that it slipped out in my voice. And I really liked the part about ‘purview’, it seemed to have just the right amount of legalese in it to confuse him. I’m not sure he had encountered too many minions who had a literate vocabulary on the jobsite to that point, but you never know.
I walked out in silence, the Assistant Engineer peeking up at me as I clumped off, a little cowering motion, not sure if I was going to whip a hammer out of the heavy tool pouch and beat a rhythm on his head or not. Angry construction worker with sharp tools, yikes. How crude. heh heh heh. The little thrills.
We were about an hour down the road, watching the Carolina countryside flash by and listening to some jazzy tunes when the cell phone rang. A number I didn’t recognize came on the screen but I answered it with my usual “This is Outfoxed can I help you?”.
“Oh . .heh . .Outfoxed. This is Paul from ABC Construction. You’re doing the work on the courthouse for us.” Paul was the Senior Project Manager and Vice-President of ABC. I’d talked to him briefly before, and for all his titles, he seemed to actually know a little something about construction. I had a feeling that he had swung a hammer in his day. Before the corporate heavyweights got their hands on him and put his talent to use in an office.
“What’s up there, Paul?”
“Well, I hear you left the jobsite in kind of a hurry. Any problems, anything I should know?”
“No, no problems. Matter of fact we’re done. Got your stuff installed. I’ll send you my bill.”
There was silence on the phone for a couple of seconds. He seemed to be having a bit of trouble with the concept that we had finished work that had been penciled as a two-week timeline in a day and a half. But at least he was a realist. He acknowledged the possibility of such a thing. And I could almost hear a bit of longing in his voice as I described what had been done. He almost sounded like he missed the field, the action.
“Hey, the PE said you refused to give him a daily report. What’s up with that?”
“Paul, he’s a prick. A 100% certifiable one. He can blow me. On second thought, maybe he’d like that a bit too much. I don’t know exactly what his function is, or what those reports are all about, but you can tell him to back the hell off. We came, we worked, we left. Not much more complicated than that.” Stu was driving the truck, listening to all of this and nodding sagely.
Paul laughed. “Oh, those reports end up on my desk at the end of the month. I usually just stick ‘em in a file somewhere. I guess if some Congressman or Senator or the GAO wants to see how hard we’re working they can ask for ‘em. But they never do. All they want to see is the money. They sure seem to love to hand it out, can’t get it here fast enough. Never seen anything to beat it. Government appropriations, you gotta love it.”
I snorted. “Yeah, you sure do. Tell the Senator he ought to come by the job some time, see how well his money gets spent. The damn building could’ve been finished 8 months ago, and you know that as well as I do. I can’t quite see the point in dragging it out like this, and I can tell you for a fact that I’m not gonna sit on a job for two weeks just because I can. Pays the same either way, two days or two weeks. Hell I’m busy enough as it is, got jobs going all over the place. Besides, that PE of yours was downright inhospitable. A real pain in the ass.”
“Yeah I know”, he said. Whatcha gonna do? He’s perfect for that place.”
“Can’t argue with you there. See ya later Paul.”
I clicked off and thought about it for a minute. About how you can’t fight City Hall. About beaurocrats and engineering that isn’t engineering at all. The hopeless morass of government and what the Outfoxed crew has seen.
Beaurocracy. You can’t beat it, but every now and then you can kick it in the pants and stealthily run away, to giggle in the underbrush of a Watering Hole and dream of brighter days.
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