Interview with Wayne Statler, 12/26/2010

“As I tell people, this is the Wild West. It really is. It’s the last bastion of independent people.” So says Wayne Statler regarding his ODOT coworkers. Statler is Project Manager for Region 1 (read: Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties) of the Oregon Department of Transportation. In this candid, in-depth interview, Statler begins by detailing ins and outs of his work for ODOT, but as the interview progresses Statler expands the definition of his role with ODOT and his role as a human being. What does it mean to work? What does it mean to be human? And how can you reconcile the two? — JM

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JM: What is your title?

WS: Project Manager Region 1, but I’m also referred to as a Supervising Project Manager or a Construction Project Manager.

JM: What is your job description?

WS: My job description runs to about fifteen pages and no human being alive can do that work. In general, once a project has been bid and a budget has been established then I get the project executed in the field.

JM: What does a project being “bid” mean?

WS: Let me go back to the beginning. The State of Oregon highway department, the Department of Transportation (ODOT), is charged with building and maintaining the road system in the State of Oregon — but not all the roads, only the roads the State of Oregon owns, which would be the highways. There are ORs, which is Oregon Highways. There’s US routes, the interstates for instance. Those are the roads we are in charge of. Local roads and so forth, we have nothing to do with.

JM: So the city is in charge of neighborhood streets.

WS: Neighborhood streets. The county is in charge of county roads. Sometimes we (ODOT) transfer streets to local agencies. Highway 26, which is right out behind us, part of it is owned by the City of Gresham and they have to maintain it.

JM: So that’s why you’ll drive along and all of a sudden it’s all potholes?

WS: Where I live, in Hillsboro, Maintenance used to kid about the 28 block highway. Oregon 10, which is Farmington Road, between 170th and 198th, is owned by ODOT. All the rest of it is owned by Washington County. It gets very little maintenance because it’s only 28 blocks. We’d be glad to give it to Washington County, but they won’t take it until it is brought up to current standards. Well, we have literally thousands of projects on the docket and we don’t have money for them all so it has little priority.

Back to the point, they have what is called STIP, State Transportation Improvement Program. We’re doing the STIP for 2013-2014 and all these local groups — cities, counties, Federal Government, whatever — come to the table and they have their projects they want done and they put them in a big pile on the table and they prioritize them, in essence, which ones are going to be done. It’s a book — I mean, the book is two inches thick — and that’s not all of them. They go out to these projects, look at the scope, figure out a rough estimate, and all that. Then we start putting these things in some kind of order. So now we’re just guessing. We do road condition surveys — the State does them — what kind of condition the road is in; is it excellent, fair, good, what? That’s part of this decision process. All these local agencies participate in this, citizen groups you can get on and influence what gets on the STIP.

Now we just have a rough scope and rough estimate. It gets further down the line. Finally one of these projects gets to the top of the pile. It comes into design. We start designing the project. We start refining the budget. We start getting funding sources. Funds can come from many different sources for a project.

For instance, if you lived in a small town, Estacada for instance — I pick them because they are unique in that you can see a limit to Estacada — if we have project going on there, they may come in and say, “We want to update our streetscape, sidewalks.” To which our answer is, “That’s fine, but you have to produce the money.” So then they go out and get a grant or go to somebody and get the money and they put money into it. Clackamas County may have money; we can put money in, so now we have a pot of money. Now we have to decide does the pot of money and the work we have to do match. You can imagine … generally there’s less money than what people want.

So now we start designing and we get into this negotiation with people, “Well, we don’t have the money to do that. Can you get the money?” We have to match the money and the scope and we make a design. So now we have drawings, plans we call them, we have a budget. Now we need a contractor. There’s a very complicated bidding process, done by [ODOT headquarters in] Salem. We advertise the project. We don’t tell the bidders what we think it is worth. We don’t tell the bidders details of the schedule. We give them a begin date and an end date and that’s it. Most bidders are low bid, period. There are some other bidding processes. But most bids are low bid. This is mandated by the Federal Highways. Federal Highways puts money into our projects. The rule is if there is one dollar of Federal money, it’s their rules. So, now it’s bid. It’s anywhere from three to six weeks from the time it’s advertised to the time it is bid. These are open publicly down in Salem. They open the bids, post the numbers, and it is public record. You can look up everything they did.

Okay. I participate in that design piece as a member of the team, but I don’t lead it. All I do is talk about the construction pieces. Once it’s bid, then I become the lead. In essence, instead of being a member of the team, now everyone works for me.

JM: You advise as it makes its way toward bid.

WS: I participate in that on construction issues and contract issues. I’m a project manager, but really I’m a contract administrator. I live by the specifications. The designers live by designing standards. They really don’t know a lot about construction specifications. They know a lot, but they don’t know the administration aspects.

JM: So the contract says it’s an on-ramp heading east, you make sure that happens and that it’s not going the wrong direction. Do they get artistic?

WS: No. I build what they design. That’s the rules. If I’m going to build something different, I have to contact the Engineer of Record and I have to get them to agree to do something different. If they don’t agree to do it differently, I can’t do it.

JM: Is the Engineer the person who has done the design?

WS: Yes. And there may be as many as 20 of them on a project. In other words, one person on the roadway, one person who designed the bridge, one person who designed the walls, one person who designed the traffic lights: each one is an Engineer of Record in his own area of expertise. As a professional engineer, I’m a PE, I can sign anything, but actually I am constrained by…. I’m not supposed to sign anything in which I do not have expertise in. So, that’s why you have these different Engineers of Record. You have a person who’s an expert in traffic signals. He’s willing to sign the papers in traffic signals, but he’s not willing to sign for pavement.

JM: So in a way they become part of your team.

WS: It’s absolutely a team effort. We sit in the room and we have these discussions about it. People can ask questions, but the expert is the expert. At the end of the day, they have to sign off. When the whole package is put together and we have all these different pieces, there’s a state engineer, Kathy Nelson, she signs on the cover sheet of the entire package. What she is in essence signing is that she recognizes all these other engineers as being PEs [professional engineers] and that they work for her. Now I’m also required to be a professional engineer. It’s a requirement of my job. If I lose my PE, I lose my job.

JM: Is that a certification that needs to have follow-up courses?

WS: It’s a test. Generally speaking, to become a professional engineer it can be in any field of engineering, you need to have a college degree (generally) then there’s a test called Fundamentals of Engineering. It’s a very comprehensive test, it covers virtually all areas of engineering and it’s … it’s a killer. Most of us take that right when we graduate. Then you have to have a certain length of time when you work for a PE then you can take the PE exam. It’s given twice a year. Generally speaking, 50% of the people who take it fail it the first time they take it. The reason they fail is because they haven’t studied for 8 years. Then you become a professional engineer and you’re under OSBEELS, Oregon Board Examiners of Engineers and Land Surveyors. If you practice engineering without a PE, they can fine you. The general fine is like a $1,000.

JM: Does it depend on what project?

WS: No. It depends on whether you portrayed yourself as an engineer. Usually it’s someone’s license has lapsed and they do engineering, or for instance, a surveyor does something that is deemed to be engineering, then they will be fined. I’m not a professional land surveyor. If I tried to go register a plot, they could fine me for working outside of my license. I don’t have a license to be a land surveyor. Every year there are several cases. They put out a publication that shows who got their hand slapped. The whole purpose of this is protection of the public. It’s to ensure that people have at least the basic level of skill to do this work to protect the public. Most professional engineers are quite serious about this. I am quite serious about this, which is one of the reasons that I will not sign [off on] anything where I don’t have the expertise. It would not be safe. The whole system was developed because in the early days anyone could call themselves an engineer. Anyone working under the supervision of a PE doesn’t have to have one but the PE must sign the work.

JM: What’s a typical project?

WS: Generally we have two types of projects: bridges and roadways. Inside that, it can be an infinite number of variations. Roadways can be preservation — a pavement is bad, but not too bad — down to very intricate sidewalks, water quality swales. It can be a new bridge, one span or wide span, a huge multi-million-dollar bridge. Sometimes it can be a combination where you do a bridge and a small portion of the roadway. We do other things, like traffic signals. The whole project could be traffic signals or variable message signs, sometimes the project is just erecting these variable message signs.

Region 1 is basically Portland and the surrounding counties: Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas. We spend 40% of the money and we do at least 40% of the work in the entire state, but this is an extremely built-up area. When we get into a project, part of the complexity is everything is in the way. Telephone poles are in the way….

JM: Businesses….

WS: Businesses … everything is in the way. Consequently we do a large amount of our work at night because of traffic. If you get out into Eastern Oregon, they do most of their work during the day. To give you an example, I-5 and I-84: the daily traffic on those roads is between 150,000 to 170,000 vehicles per day. When I first came on to ODOT I had a job out near Heppner, Oregon. We were doing something with the culvert. The ATD (average traffic per day) was four. In the morning, two people drove down the road to work. In the evening, two people drove home.

JM: [laughs] That’s amazing.

WS: Yeah. That project was nothing … and not only was it two people per day going back and forth, sometimes they’d stop and come talk to us. If we delayed them for ten minutes, they didn’t care. They’d come talk to you. But here it’s much different.

JM: What’s a typical day for you? If a lot of the staff, people you coordinate, work during the night then what’s your day?

WS: What’s my day? One of the reasons I’m in construction is because no two days are alike. I’m the dividing line between the construction crew and management and design. I know about 10% of what my people are doing, and my people know about 10% of what I’m doing. A lot of my personnel — I have 19 people working for me. Personnel issues take up about half of my time. Personnel issues: not in the sense of discipline or anything like that, but personnel issues like assigning them to projects.

[WS points to a white board mounted to the wall. The white space is graphed. In each box is information: a site name, dates, stats, different colored markers for different information, and a list of project names down the left hand side.]

WS: The situation is constantly changing. If it rains, it changes everything. If a contractor comes in and says I’m not working, it changes everything. So getting people in the right place; making sure their records are kept; making sure they get reviews; making sure they have the right equipment, vehicles; participating on project development: I do use my people to do that. Others do regulatory issues. I have to keep up to date on that and make sure my crew is complying with the requirements of the regulatory agencies, fish issues for example.

JM: Does that mean you attend a lot of meetings?

WS: I attend a lot of meetings. I’m on the computer a lot. You’ve heard of the Peter Principle?

JM: Yes! I was going to ask you about that, actually.

WS: I’ve advanced to the point where I can no longer do what I like to do. I like to be out on the field, being on the projects, but I have reached the point where I spend virtually 95% or more of my time in buildings and in offices. Every once in a while I’ll rebel and block a day out and I’ll jump in the car and visit all the projects just to go see them. I’ve Peter Principled not to the point where I am not qualified to do the work, but to the point where I’m doing something where I’d rather be doing something else.

JM: The level at which you’re working, where you are in charge of so much, is there a lateral slide to someplace else? It seems ODOT is a pinnacle, unless you change states.

WS: I could be a project manager someplace else. In actual fact, I don’t want to go anywhere else. The reason is pretty simple. In the construction office, people are very, very pragmatic. The reason is we are dealing with the real world. It either is or isn’t. You go out to the site: the asphalt is either on the ground or it isn’t. The people downtown are removed from that. First they are looking at drawings, these nice neat lines. There are political issues. I’m not saying political issues aren’t to be addressed, but they are fuzzy. Starting here, it’s a one-to-one model. It is what it is. You take the drawings that say it’s supposed to be one way. Well it can’t be that way so we make the changes to make it fit. As I tell people, this is the Wild West. It really is. It’s the last bastion of independent people.

JM: Tar-slinging road builders?

WS: This is the Wild West because we don’t build anything in here [the office]. It’s all built out there. So I have to train and provide leadership to people and expect them to perform when I’m not there and expect them to perform as I would perform as if I was there. Now, do I always agree with everything they do? Well, no. But the general rule with my shop is that they come and tell me what they did. They don’t come and ask me what to do because they know what to do.

JM: It’s getting things done.

WS: And these guys are all gunslingers. I have a young engineer I hired here. [She’s] 5’ 5”, maybe 110 pounds. I put her on a project, down at 99E, at night by herself and here are these contractors, gorillas, okay? These guys are on these paving machines and this heavy equipment. They’re not bad guys. They’re just big honkin’ guys, you know? They were doing something and they needed to do it differently and she said, “Stop what you’re doing. You need to do it this way.” And, of course, four or five of these gorillas come up and are [makes confrontational sounds] and she faced them down. She faced them down. And after she faced them down, they all laughed and said, “Okay, we’ll do it.” They tried her on. Would she back down? If she had backed down, they would have kept going. But she wouldn’t back down.

Just because it’s the Wild West you don’t have to be big and tough. They aren’t going to hit you or anything. It’s psychological. Head games. But that’s the kind of people I have, all of them. If they go out there, I trust them to be looking after the interests of the State of Oregon. I support them in that. And that’s one of the reasons why they do it, because they know if they tell the contractor something, I’ll support them.

I tell ya, I’m going to retire in four years. It scares me to death. Not because I’m afraid of retirement. Because there will be no more projects. I’ll describe to you what that’s like.

JM: The empty table.

WS: The crew is my family. I love these people almost better than I love my kids. My projects are my children. I tell you, all these people, we’re all the same. We’re crazy. This is what we do. These people don’t want to retire either.

JM: They are making things, tangible things.

WS: They are making things. When we get done with a project and these people are riding around with their wife, their kids, their friends, they say, “Oh yeah, I built that! That’s my bridge, this is my road. I worked on this.”

Guy out in Region Four — you can retire after 30 years — well, he retired after 57 years. And he retired because they made him retire.

Construction people are unlike anybody else. There’s no other industry, there’s no other activity like it. I’ve known I wanted to do this since I was 13 years old.

JM: What was the turning point when you were 13? Is there a memory?

WS: Yeah! I got a book for Christmas. The name of the book was High Steel, Hard Rock, and Deep Water. After I read that book, I said that’s what I want to do. And that’s all I’ve done. Now, I’ve done all pieces of it: I’ve been an estimator, I’ve been a cost engineer, I’ve been a project manager, I’ve been a field engineer, been a surveyor. I’ve done all this stuff, but it’s always been in construction.

Some people never quite figure out what they want to do … they have my sympathy. Now, do all of these people [working for ODOT] start like me? No. But they’ve all come to the same point. This is what they want to do. I have no problem getting people to come to work because the people who like it, it’s beyond liking it.

During the height of the construction season, it’s very common for these people to work 80 hours of overtime in a month. Not only are they working 80 hours overtime, sometimes they work days then they work night, and going back and forth nights and days, weekends, that kind of stuff. I have never heard anybody complain. Not one word.

JM: So turn-over rate is low….

WS: I haven’t had anybody….

JM: It doesn’t exist?

WS: Pretty much doesn’t exist in my crew. The last time I had somebody turn-over was [one of my workers] took a job: she got a promotion. I was talking to her recently and she wishes she hadn’t taken it. She wishes she was back here.

JM: Do you think that is because of how clear you are? When I first met you, you had a job post that you presented and you presented the gruesome facts about it, you didn’t pretty it up. Do you think that’s why people … they know what they are getting into?

WS: Why do they stay? Okay … I’d like to tell you what a great leader I am [wry smile]. First it’s construction and they like construction. But also I take the position that everyone is a professional and they are supposed to do what they are supposed to do and I will back them up when they do what they are supposed to do. If they don’t do what they are supposed to do…. Anyway … if you have not worked in construction, it’s hard to describe it.

JM: It sounds like you give— kind of like Google and other companies give staff a certain amount of time to develop whatever they develop and it’s for the company or not … that you are giving staff the room to make their own decisions and follow through, and that’s really rewarding.

WS: Not only giving the room, I expect them to make their own decisions. Also training. My general policy is I have a budget. I tell them I don’t watch my budget for training. If you need training or want training and we don’t have to have you out on the grade inspecting, go take it. Every one of my inspectors has seven certifications they are supposed to have [specific to inspecting] and I have quality control people who have seven separate certifications [specific to quality control]. I have people taking AutoCAD. If they say they want to take that training, go take it. The rule is, if I need you to inspect, I need you to inspect. That comes first. Then, if there’s time, go take that training. I have at least two, maybe three, people who take MicroStation drafting. My designer certainly takes it, but I have three others who take it as well.

JM: It makes sense, that cross-over. It makes them that much more astute in their work.

WS: There used to be something called management by walking around (MBWA). In the morning, I just walk around and see who’s here. Talk to whoever’s here. I do not have an open door policy. Open door policy means I sit in my office and you come in and bow and scrape and say, “Oh can I talk to you?” If you want to talk to me, you catch me. You catch me … just talk! If I’m sitting here working, you just walk in and get my attention and I stop what I’m doing. And sometimes they’re just telling me what’s going on. “I just wanted to tell you thus and so.” That’s great.

I’m at least 21 [years old]. I’m from before the time of computers, before texting, cell phones…. By the way, I have a cell phone. Only one person has the number and that’s my wife. I don’t text. I hardly use the cell. I have a state issued cell phone; it’s rare I carry it. I’m not being a Luddite. What I’m saying is if I want to talk to you, I want to talk to you face-to-face. Or, if you call me, I don’t want to be in a position of being forced. Leave me a message. I’ll get back to you with the answer.

I’m old enough to be despairing about the fact that this connection between people is diminishing because of these electronics. I like to play simple computer games. I find them relaxing because I can think of other things while I’m doing them. Spider solitaire, Freecell, Mine Sweeper; many of these are simple games. Last week, I was sitting there kind of chilling out and I thought, ‘you know, this is a terrible waste of time.’ So, I’ve initiated a new program. I allow myself to play those games on Saturday evening only. Other than that I’m going to read, talk to my wife, pet the cats; I’ll do something.

JM: Do something in the tangible world.

WS: Do something in the tangible world. That’s another draw of construction: the tangible world. It’s absolutely pragmatic. It either is or it isn’t. You go out there and you can tell — anybody can tell — is there asphalt on the road? Yes. No. There’s no in-between.

JM: Do you think there will be something other than asphalt?

WS: Oh, always. Continually there are different kinds of asphalt and they are trying different varieties of materials. Asphalt itself is just variations of asphalt. To give you an example, Oregon had something they called F-Mix. [Mixes are A, B, C, D, E, & F.] The idea was they would use large rocks only and then there would be openings. Then when it rains like it does here, the water would go down the openings and drain off the road. Well, first, if you drive on it, it’s very loud. Secondly, dirt fills up all those little holes and it doesn’t drain any more. And lastly, the rocks tend to what we call rattle, come out. On I-5, out by Wilsonville, this spring, there were piles of rock along the road. We don’t use F anymore. It was a good idea, but we don’t use it anymore.

There’s something called warm mix. Normally we heat asphalt to about 315 degrees. They are heating this to about 295 or 300. It saves fuel and all this kind of stuff. It’s a type of mix, different gradations of the rock. They are trying all these experiments for something to replace asphalt. Not in the near future, but eventually.

Used to be all the roads were concrete. Then they went to asphalt, it’s cheaper. Of course you have to replace the asphalt more often, but it was cheaper in the first place.

JM: In your job you hire staff. You also offer advice to people. You job coach?

WS: That’s private. That’s not in my job description. Now I do talk to my boss, one of my many bosses. I have talked to my boss to say, “I’m doing this.” And they say fine. It’s in line with ODOT’s general thrust of trying to uplift, develop the community. But it’s not part of my job description.

JM: Part of the philosophy of ODOT.

WS: Part of the philosophy, but there’s no specific requirement to do it.

JM: So you are volunteering?

WS: Um … yes. Volunteering in the sense that I see benefits from it. Very hard times right now, it’s always hard times in actual fact. I’m trying to get people— there are any number of people who would like to take your money and give you fluff. Give you feel good. I’ve been in construction too long. I’m a very pragmatic person. That’s not how you save people. You’ve got to tell them the truth. Once they know the truth then they can act on it, then they can progress. If you give them a bunch of fluff and fairy stories, when they get into the real situation it’s confusing, it’s demoralizing.

JM: What’s an example of a fairy story? Is that like The Secret?

WS: I’m trying to think … when you were here with those other ladies [JM met with WS along with some friends to discuss resume writing], there is no format for your resume. Anyone who tells you there is is telling you a fairy story. They say, “I know the right way and if you follow me it will be perfect.” It’s not true. It’s not true. Your resume should not look like everyone else’s. It should look like you.

JM: And be appropriate for the job you’re aiming at.

WS: And all those things. This idea that this is the form you have to use. It’s not. It’s not. It’s a lie. And this idea that a person tries and tries and tries this method and it doesn’t work, it just discourages them.

When you visited that first time, I put things in there that are contrary to what the job consultants will tell you.

What’s a resume for? To eliminate you! A job consultant won’t tell you that. Generally these people are trying to give you feel good. You can sell greed and you can sell hope. What these people are doing, they are taking people who are really up against the wall, who are really having a hard time, and they are selling them false hope. That’s a crime. And selling greed is, you know, buy a lottery ticket.

JM: You have what’s called a chum resume that you recommend.

WS: Oh, a chum resume!

JM: Yeah! What is this?

WS: Okay. It’s like, what’s the old elastic fabric design? One-size-fits-all? It’s a lie. A resume has to serve your purpose. If you have a specific job you are looking at, you need to provide a resume that addresses that specific job. However, with electronic media and other things, you can put a resume out that floats everywhere. That’s the chum resume. The resume that you aim for a specific job, my recommendation — not necessarily for everything — is that it be one page because in your 10 to 30 seconds that you’ve got [the 10–30 seconds HR looks at your resume before recycling it] that’s about all they are going to read. But if you are just broadcasting a resume, putting it on a website or whatever you’re going to do with it, you don’t know what the job is; therefore you can put out a longer resume, maybe two pages, where you have all these things. That way people are more likely to go through and screen out here someone who has some of this and this and…. But you’re not aiming at a particular job, but you don’t want to pass any up. So that’s chum. You’re throwing it out there and hope one of the sharks eats it … and then calls you!

The chances if you chum your resume out there, the chances of someone calling you, are not zero. But they are not very high because they are also using truth tables. There used to be a whole class of people who were recruiters (headhunters). They’d use truth tables. They’d scan a resume, look for qualifications.

So that’s my chum resume. After I found a job, I was still getting jobs five years later. The most interesting one that I had, after I was with ODOT, was a company in the Midwest, Kansas I think. It was an ice cream manufacturer. They were looking for a cost engineer. So I had a conversation with the guy, asking him if I got free samples. He said, “Sure, you can get all you want.” Finally, I had to say, “Well, right now I’m sitting in the corner office. Can you offer me a corner office?” He said, “No, you’re a cost engineer.” I said, “No thanks.” That was about four years after I came to ODOT.

JM: You interview people. What’s the one question that people tend to flub up?

WS: Why should I hire you?

JM: How should they answer?

WS: I have no answer to that. That’s the question they flub up.

JM: They balk? Or….

WS: They’ve never thought about it. They are so intent on getting the job that they never sat down and rationally thought out why should this person hire me? Really that’s the first question they should ask themselves. Why should this person hire me? Because that helps you direct your resume and your interview questions and everything to answering that question. That’s really the only question I ever have. Why should I hire you?

Now, I say flub up. It’s the one they struggle with. They don’t flub it up. They just struggle with it because they haven’t thought about it.

What’s your story? It’s another thing they haven’t thought about. Not only have they not thought about what I want. They haven’t thought about what they want! [laughs]

JM: So the elevator pitch….

WS: Yeah.

JM: And the employers needs, rather than … as a person needing a job, you’re walking around thinking “I need this job. I need this job. I need this job.” And you don’t think, “Oh, I have these skills that are going to fulfill their needs.”

WS: Right! If you want a job you have to say, what does the employer want? What is the employer looking for? You’re not being altruistic. That’s where you get your job. Now, what are they going to give you? They’re going to give you pay, benefits of some sort … you’ll negotiate that. First you have to get in line to get the job.

These job consultants, they don’t teach that. When I’m hiring somebody, I’m absolutely ruthless. I’m going to get the best person I can get to do what I want done. When I say I don’t care about them, in the job sense that’s true. In the personal sense I do care about them as people. In the job sense, I don’t care what they want. I don’t care what they need. I only care what I need. That’s why I’m hiring someone in the first place. [laughs]

JM: Right. They should have filtered themselves in the first place.

WS: Yeah. Now the story is where you get leads. That’s where you can say what you want. Even then, if your story is only what I want — I want this, I want that — people are going to turn you off. Your story really has to be, this is what I bring to the party. “I’m an engineer. I’ve written books. I would like to teach college.” What are you giving, what are you putting out there that people are going to use? I might say, “I want to work in construction,” or something like that. That gives a person an over-all picture. Even the people you are telling your story to have got to have some takeaway of what are you bringing, what are your skills.

JM: So part of what you tell people is that they should think about where they want to be in ten years. Is that also in that elevator speech? Is that implied or is that….

WS: Uh, no. When you’re looking for a job, it’s immediate. If you have a job, you can get a job. What you’re looking for is right now. It’s important for you to know five years, ten years. For getting a job, it’s not important; it’s what can I offer this employer. Once again, never lie, but how you present it is up to you.

I generally tell people if you read a job description and you figure you can do 50% of what’s written there, apply for the job. To tell you the truth, I don’t really expect I’m going to find anybody— the only people who can do 100% of the job description I have for them are the people who are already doing the job. That’s why I have a blank, because that person’s gone. For me to find another person to do that job, I’d have to steal them from some other crew. And even then the person wouldn’t be 100% because I run my crew differently from other crews. Every employer, same deal.

If you see a job description and you believe you can do 50% of the work, apply. What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t answer you?

The trouble with job searching is it is discouraging. It’s rejection after rejection after rejection … in a row! Phew! I did it four times and I tell ya, it’s crushing. But you have to just get through it. You can’t care. The people who really are successful at this, at least on the East coast, if you can’t help them they just kind of write you off. If you’re at the party and somebody asks what you’re looking for, you tell them your story. If they say, “Maybe I know somebody.” Fine. Great. If they don’t, move on. Just because you told your story doesn’t mean they are going to react.

When I get people in here who are doing their resumes, I don’t give them feel-good. Most of the time I tell them their resumes are junk. I wouldn’t hire anybody whose resume is like that. I’m trying to cure them. I’m trying to give them the wherewithal, the mechanism, the thought pattern to win. Because it’s like with my inspectors: I can’t stand out there and watch them work. I have to get them into a head-space where they’ll go out there and do the work, and come in and say I did the work. They’ll come in and say this is what I did. Good! I had one guy tell me one time — a young guy — he wanted to talk to me I could see. He’s talking about this … finally he says, “The contractor called me a name.” I said, “Good. You must be doing your job.” [laughs] He didn’t tell me what the name was, but he was all upset. I said, “That’s good. They’re going to call you another name some day.”

Edited by John Allen.

**CONTINUED NEXT WEEK**

Posted in

Carolyn Gregory, 12/19/2010

Current Occupation: Hospital administrator and freelance writer
Former Occupation: Hospital administrator and freelance writer
Carolyn Gregory has published poems and music reviews in American Poetry Review, Seattle Review, Off the Coast, Main Street Rag, Bellowing Ark, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Slant. She has published two chapbooks and a full length book, OPEN LETTERS, in 2009. Her next book, SCENARIO, will come out in 2011. She has worked in academic and research jobs for over 25 years. She is also a community activist.

###

Office Flight

Piggledy-wiggledy headers and footers float
across the fragile green window
as a screen saver fades, eroding gold.

All night, eyes gone dry with insomnia
do a double take at tasks in Outlook –
Perhaps they are cloning in hyperspace.

The tired employee leans into her keyboard – no room –
and the spellchecker pulls up “BOSS” out of nowhere.
Is the machine haunted or jinxed?
There’s no telling when electricity collides with the clock.

The door slams, another sticks open
and twenty five twenty five year olds converge
on a conference room.

The nurse says “The Dream Study’s underway”
and assistants go scrambling
with baselines and mice.

It’s all in a day’s work,
the empire of acronyms and misfired emails.
A radiant smile carries heavy weight,
diminishing down time and space.

Posted in

Jennifer McLean, 12/5/2010

Current occupation: grant writer
Former occupation: I’ve held a variety of jobs, including management consultant, conservation project director, legal secretary, policy researcher, sales rep., deck crew, canvasser, and farm worker
Contact Information: After several big city and small town adventures I have settled for good in Asheville. Some of my stories appeared a long time ago in Writ, The Trinity Review, and Off the Coast. I am back in the game! Fellow readers and writers are welcome to contact me at jmstory”at”rocketmail”dotcom”.

 

###

What do you do?

In the end, after several failed attempts to purchase a 700-square foothold in DC, I was decidedly catapulted out of the city and landed somewhere else, far far away. On my way out I glanced at a cubicle wall on which was pinned the brave statement: “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” A frightening thought.

There were a few polite visits to make before the day of departure. Not knowing I was on my way out, people would ask me ‘what do you do?’, as is the custom. Not ‘how do you do?’ but ‘what do you do?’. It’s generally the first thing anyone asks you here in Washington. I say ‘policy analyst’ – I really am – and hope that suffices. It’s a handy, all-purpose title and happened to be true in my case. If they persist by asking me ‘Where?’ I am coyly literal and say “just north of the Circle” and if they finally buttonhole me with “But who for?” I reply with equally aggressive calm, “a nonprofit”. I found myself having to take it the whole nine yards like this for an intrepid young woman interrogating me at a so-called party. It was one of those stand around and yack about your job gatherings that Washingtonians deem to call happy hour. It was at my friend X’s house, which had been a hopeful sign because, although still in her 20’s, she’s not boring like most of the career-heads her age.

Eileen is nice, I have been told. I have to take this on credit since she sounded pissed for having had to interrogate me. When the tables are turned I find out she’s not working for anyone at the moment but is poised to counsel the suddenly wealthy on what charities, i.e., nonprofits, to give their money to. In spite of myself I take her card.

“But you won’t be using your degree,” she says, in a tone that I could have to describe as aghast. If it were a hundred years ago I would have just announced that I was leaving my husband. She’s embarrassed for me, feels sorry for me. I’ve just told her I would take any job – at a deli for instance – if I could be happy with where I lived.

I push on recklessly, perhaps the microbrew I had been guzzling out of boredom did it, and say with a fair amount of swagger, “I’d rather be making sandwiches for a living. At least I can see the result of my work and know I gave someone what they wanted.” Hoo-hoo! Such a brave declaration of tangibility, honest work, and all that! It’s true I’d often gazed down from my office window into the alley where the men, jolly or grumpy as the case may be, emptied the trash or unloaded things for the restaurant next door. And I felt wistful. At least they know when they’re doing something right, I thought, as I turned back to my computer and peck at the keyboard like a listless battery hen. But your back would kill you, I argue reasonably. Not that it isn’t already.

Back at the party, a few more swigs of beer and I wax poetic, rebut the admonishments to remain wedded to the Cause and do Good Work. “I make the world a better place every time I smile,” I say bravely, matter of factly – or so I thought. But the ironic snickers from the ones standing around the snack table send it back to me sounding like a trite greeting card. Only the dog licking bits of fallen chip dip under the table would have understood but he’s not paying attention, too busy. It’s clearly time to leave.

Before going to bed that night I read a book on wallpaper that turns philosophical. I stop at something from one of William Morris’ influences, Ruskin or Carylyle – I forget which, disgusted with Victorian industry. I make a few edits.

People digital
Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith
in individual endeavor, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection,
but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions – for
Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle.
Information

Our own Whitman had talked about the same thing in more hopeful terms. “And there is no trade but the young man (or woman, I assume) following it may become a hero…” Yeah, yeah, no trade but the one following it may become a hero. Sounds about as sincere and as realistic
as the mottoes inscribed over the doorways of the great cold granite buildings downtown. In loneliness I have read these sorts of things here and there in books but I had never heard them spoken to me. Wait. Just once. Years ago. My father had told me something, after I felt I had to put down my factory job.

“You don’t ever need to be ashamed of honest work.”

It was completely unexpected and went straight to my heart, although I couldn’t have guessed the full significance of it then. Without my knowing, he had given me my ticket out of here – ‘here’ being this paralyzing culture of self-consciousness and accomplishment. My father’s words came back to me and for the first time and for the briefest moment, I felt I might have been born with a tremendous advantage.

Posted in

Jennifer McLean, 11/28/2010

Current occupation: grant writer
Former occupation: I’ve held a variety of jobs, including management consultant, conservation project director, legal secretary, policy researcher, sales rep., deck crew, canvasser, and farm worker
Contact Information: After several big city and small town adventures I have settled for good in Asheville. Some of my stories appeared a long time ago in Writ, The Trinity Review, and Off the Coast. I am back in the game! Fellow readers and writers are welcome to contact me at jmstory”at”rocketmail”dotcom”.

###

Growing where planted

– a meditation on Art

Even in a law firm one can cultivate, one can get by. Even as a secretary to corporate lawyers, one can show creativity. It won’t be in what you wear (non-descript). It won’t be in your personal objects (none). It won’t be in your speech (limited) or your smiles (costly). But consider the in-box of your ill-organized and procrastinating boss who doesn’t want to be there, who knows she has a hearing tomorrow and won’t start on it until tonight. Instead, she’s shopping for harpsichords and swimming pools on the Internet. She doesn’t want to be in the office anymore. The in-box mounts. You dutifully turn it like a compost heap, put the most urgent things on top, even waive them at her as she walks by, ignoring you. It will be your fault. Nevertheless, you persist. Your personality survives somehow like a weed in the cracks.

There is the sagging in-box and there is the trash can. There are choices. And wherever there are choices – however few – there blooms creativity. Somebody must take charge. Somebody must weed the garden. And you are loyal. You want to serve and are proud of service, and service is at its best when it is not noticed. You quietly do her the favor of tossing out the Arthur Beren catalogue – no shoe less than $350, then again that’s her hourly rate. In its place you complement her on her sky-blue suit. She will smile this time just because you complement her sparingly, know your place, do not fatigue her with interaction. You pay this complement because the suit is the best of them (her taste and yours not alike). It fits her very well, is cheerful in color, and its obvious she’s hung on to it for years.

You learn brand names like new continents, as if you’d been asleep that day in school. You’d never heard of a trunk sale until you started working for her and got all these cards and phone calls. You select one or two of these invitations, pitch the rest. You put the seed catalogue near the top of the pile. You throw out the catalogues of garden and landscape books (reading is not doing, after all). You attach to the message that she’s required at a bill reading a message from the nursery that the lilacs are in. And that’s enough for today.

You say good morning, if there’s time. You don’t push it, you don’t do anything that would remind her of her manners – that would be bad form. You make sure the taco salad from the hideous but necessary deli next door has the sauce on the side. You strain to hear the radio announcer tell you the name of the beautiful concerto you half-heard while typing furiously to meet hourly deadlines, but the radio is always turned up just loud enough for that attorney to hear it. You try to hum a few bars to remember it, to take it home for later. You get by.

You know she knows that you know that she knows she works for crooks. It’s trickle-down for right now and you’re in on it. It’s been enough for you to buy a house on an eighth of an acre with space for a small garden. You persist.

Posted in

Gabriel Welsch, 11/21/2010

Current Occupation: Vice President of Advancement and Marketing, Juniata College, Huntingdon, PA

Former Occupation: Various: development writer, Lecturer in English at Penn State, landscape crew foreman, garden designer, sales rep for a water quality company, package handler.

Contact Information: I am the author of two collections of poems, Dirt and All Its Dense Labor (2006) and the chapbook, An Eye Fluent in Gray (2010). I also write fiction. Current work, fiction and poetry, appears in West Branch, Southern Review, Mid-American Review, PANK, White Whale Review, Right Hand Pointing, and American Literary Review, among others. I live with my wife and daughters in Huntingdon, PA.

###

Contracting

And so it has come to this:
tonight I make plans to pay someone
to mow my lawn, a task I once
collected money myself to do.
Ignore the shame in that—
myself, I’ll try and fail.
And they will doubtless fail
to meet the ideal I have pruned
to faultless form in my mind,
will blow clippings into beds
I now maintain as an afterthought
to the profession I pursue,
where iris and peony and daylily
root into a past nearly foreign to me.
Dirt has always felt the same
and always will. The ornament
of my garden no longer has the practical
defense of existence, of being part
of my wherewithal. It is a bauble,
the hobbyist’s fetish put up against
the neighbors’ displays, so we might all
wave genially on Saturdays, weeding
and clipping tidy piles we gather
to let rot in the unseen depths
of our back yards.

#

Destination

Right off the plane, strutting tight jeans—
he rocks a faux-faded silkscreen
of Japanese, she an off-the-shoulder
black and white dragging the eighties.
They bump hips, and she rests
her fingertips in his cradling palm,
as if auditioning for a Palmolive commercial.
He has studied bedhead, her crafted tresses
suggest she abandoned her hair atop her skull.
They kiss and sway near the departure gate,
his white rimmed sunglasses crunching
the hair atop his head just a little.

The regular fliers hump back and forth.
Cap-toed Oxfords abound, blue shirts, wide ties.
One of the managers bothers to restrain
his tie with a little gold chain. We wear blazers.
We slouch the chairs, our mouths downturned
in weary concentration. Some of us pop open
company issued laptops. Some of us drink
bottled water. We try not to make a mess
of our fingers, our sandwiches, our laps.
We disdain the pretty man. We consider
what to read, what we can read,
what last night’s sleep will let us focus on,
and we default to USA Today. We tell
ourselves we’re serious. We see the pretty man,
white flip flops, snakeskin belt, and hope
we were never conspicuous, however much
we still may wish to be.

We ignore our Dockers, the similar shimmer

of our watches, our slim phones. Someone jokes
about the Michigan loss, and we chuckle.
It’s easier to live without the work
of yelling your unique self all the time.
Few of us care. We know, and that’s
enough. Our friends know—who’ve given
nicknames, who tell and retell the stories
that mute the rugged person we have
buried, that show all that is now unlikely,
all we see inside, apart from the world
before us on the airport table: the Tums,
the breath mints, the boarding pass, the pair
of cell phones for different orders, the file
folders, the new shoelaces for a pair of shoes
we hate to endure, and the empty chair
we like to look at, and love to wonder
who might some day sit in it.

#

The Day Job

Mondays work as re-invention,
the reincarnation of the to-do
list. Desktop littered in books
and menus, napkins and pencils

and the four-chambered heart
of a calendar in quarters. How
did I climb to this hushed
room and its skeletal lamps,

how did I find these words chewed
like a crust, and what is the density
of memory? Birds at the window louder
than keystrokes, the processor whir

signals that at least something
is thinking, approximating living.
The desk chair creaks more
the longer I work in it.

We find our way out of the grass
and air. We find our way into reams
of work, we find our way into envelopes
and scribbled notes that take

what we think and twist the ends
into a new language. How can we speak
what tendrils through our fingers
far from the beat of our heart?

Posted in

Ray Succre, 11/14/2010

Current Occupation: Stay-home father / novelist/ student pursuing teaching credentials
Former Occupation: Broiler attendant/Dishwasher/MSN Tech Support Representative/mining corporation microfiche filer/student/telemarketer/pan-handler/delivery driver/thief/Medical Transcriptionist/cook/secretary/graveyard shift Alzheimer’s ward caregiver/sandwich artist…
Contact Information: Ray Succre currently lives on the southern Oregon coast with his wife and son. He has had poems published in Aesthetica, BlazeVOX, and Pank, as well as in hundreds of others across dozens of countries, online and in print. His novels Tatterdemalion (2008) and Amphisbaena (2009), both through Cauliay, are widely available in print. Other Cruel Things (2009), an online collection of poetry, is available through Differentia Press. For inquiry, further publication history, and information, visit him online (http://raysuccre.blogspot.com), or feel free to approach via Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/raysuccre). 

###

Spiraling Liberties

At my mid-teen, my father worked in a candy factory,
a machinist above his toolbelt, guts tooled in whiskey.
He brought home buckets of hard candies the company
gave its employees, candies fallen from loose conveyors,
or that hadn’t been wrapped in the ideal spiral,
or were simply in the way of the human weldment.

When this factory fired my father, he drank
with a blast-worthy friend, a blackbearded tub-belly,
then he returned to the factory, far into night, bottle-hopped
with his drunken friend, and shot his angers at the building
with a large caliber handgun.

They came to our house at a scrunch of morning,
and arrested him silver-wristed and furious.
The correct motion of the house was to cry,
though my stepmother waved he’d be fine.
I watched a movie and waited for her
to retrieve my father from the jail in town.

The vehemence, acceleration, sour mash, the crawls…

Before the bench, just previous my father’s hearing,
another big-gut man was tampered two years in prison
and five-thousand dollars for fishing in the reservoir.
The heavy gavel of this outcome was horrifying.

Then my father was before the bench, young,
full of blood, hair streaked wild and brilliant black.
He was going to Hell, and his sons knew it.
But the world sparked, and the judge passed our father
on two-thousand dollars, the fine and then advice,
and sent him home, unemployed, lost, and free.

There was no meaning to any of it.

#

One of the Employers

He needed it done and the cost was my low wage.
He found another for pennies less, the lowest wage,
and relieved me indecently,
transported the work to the worse next.

A profits-man punctures deeply when he smells
even a miniscule savings. A trifle.
Oh, he rode a buck home pleased.
That good buck with many points and some
pennies, the more. A cup of coffee a week, about.

I woke under devastating air for months, looking
and asking for work, approaching the fruition of
a looming, crash event.

The ones that assail you worst always give
brief and empty apologies first. And then
you’re gone. They continue.

Of all the stealing, conning, and fining I’ve seen, they are
the savings of others that have always hurt me worst.

Posted in

Jean Rover, 11/7/2010

Current Occupation: Salem, Oregon freelance writer/editor
Former Occupation: I worked for several years in corporate and marketing communications for a large insurance company.
Contact Information: After years of writing about loss ratios, risks, new products and dealing with organizational politics, I finally escaped the dreary, gray world of cubicles. I am now on a happy, new path of writing fiction and poetry. Feel free to contact me at jearov@msn.com

###

BEST TIME

Ah, my day’ s best time,
perched on a counter stool,
alone in my kitchen, before dawn,
my cocoon on a cold winter morning,
drinking coffee, nibbling toast,
jotting crowded thoughts into
a notebook of wide blue lines,
not wanting the day to break.
It’ s dark outside and quiet, except
for the furnace humming softly,
blowing warm air and the distant,
faint sound of a beckoning train,
the world out there, pulsing, chugging,
passing through, moving the stillness
like blood through a vein,
the dog still sleeping, the cat
wanting to go out.

Posted in

Lauren Henley, 10/31/10

Current Occupation: Substitute Teacher
Former Occupation: Special Education Assistant/ Social Rec. Coach
Contact Information: Lauren Henley is a full-time graduate student and a part time substitute teacher at various high schools in Northern California. She has worked as a waitress, a hostess, a nanny/housekeeper, an English tutor, and an aid for the physically and mentally challenged. Lauren has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Projector Magazine, White Pelican Review, Eclectica and other magazines. She’s grateful to have a job and to be a student.

###

One Note Workaday Song

This is why I can’t work for anyone again—
the boss lady comes into the café where I sit as a patron
reading Kinnell’s Selected, and she’s got the usual four heads,
all of them having three eyes a piece. The guy with the twelve-gauge
captive bead ring in his septum leans against a wall,
clad in a dirty apron, push broom in hand,
like he’s going to burst into a song of work and minimum wage,
a song of the lowly student who swipes pieces of bear claws,
éclairs and the crusts of quiche people leave on plates
in the grey tub by the water pitcher.

One of boss-lady’s heads goes right for the worker,
Chanel Number Five lips peeling back to show white teeth,
flashing wolf spider fangs, and a voice
like black berry tart three days old,
says, If you’re leaning you should be cleaning.

I have heard that voice since seventeen
when I got my first job at the Macaroni Grill. No, I have heard that voice
since the 19th century,
when I squeezed the teats of cows and cobbled shoes,
later when I stood in cobblestone allies with my boobs
shimmied up to new heights, the madam watching from the window,
whispering, higher, higher.

I heard the complaints of managers and overseers
over my mother’s own cooing,
as I passed through the birth canal.
I set to building useful objects with primary-color blocks
in my bassinet. Just rest, just rest, she’d say but I knew better.

When I take yogic breaths on a blue sticky mat
I’m breathing out that voice.
When I inhale it comes in again. When I moan in pleasure
I’m wondering if it’s a good enough moan, if it was bottled and sold
would I make any profit after the cock took its share.
When I do something for free
I calculate in my head how much my time is worth,
before and after taxes. When I’m jingling change in my pocket,
it’s to the beat of workaday drums.
The lyrics are floating in the industrial sink, they go down the drain,
they come back up.

Posted in

Matt Love, 10/24/2010

Current Occupation: English teacher, Newport High School, Newport, Oregon
Former Occupation: Sportswriter
Contact Information: Matt Love grew up in Oregon City and is the publisher of Nestucca Spit Press and author/editor of The Beaver State Trilogy, Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon’s Sesquicentennial Anthology, Super Sunday in Newport: Notes From My First Year in Town and Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker. He’s a regular contributor to the Oregonian, Oregon Coast Today and Bear Deluxe magazines, and writes the “On Oregon” blog for Powells.com. From 1998-2008 he served as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Tillamook County. In 2009, Love won the Oregon Literary Arts’ Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award for his contributions to Oregon history and literature. He lives in South Beach and teaches English and journalism at Newport High School. He’s currently working on a book about the filming of Sometimes a Great Notion.

###

Improving Writing Scores

In April, Newport High School (7-12) where I teach English and journalism received word that only 37 percent of sophomores and 22 percent of seventh graders met or exceeded the Oregon state writing standard. These results represented a significant decline from last year’s scores.

Yes, the state tests are politically-driven bullshit that require students to write on the most ridiculous prompts (choose a slogan for a t-shirt and write the reasons for your choice). But still, our scores really suck and I found the results depressing because I have so many great writers turning out far more interesting (and less pretentious) material than I typically read in literary journals.

Naturally, the news sent a shock wave through the administration and faculty, especially the English Department. In response, the principal convened a Writing Task Force to study the problem and implement strategies next fall to improve student writing. The problem is, no one outside of me on the task forces writes on a regular basis and most of them never write at all.

It begs the question: how can teachers of writing who don’t write teach writing?

I’ve heard various theories from teachers explaining why Newport students performed so poorly on the tests. I can’t say I buy any of them. To me, these theories seem more like myths and reek of defensiveness. They also happen to originate from teachers who don’t (or can’t) write but have the responsibility of teaching writing. I liken this contradiction to the PE teacher who weighs 350 pounds, the civics teacher who doesn’t vote, the biology teacher who doesn’t believe in evolution, and my favorite, the sex education teacher who doesn’t have sex or even masturbate.

Let me introduce the myths:

Myth 1: Students demonstrated concrete proof of their apathy with their abysmal writing scores.

Myth 2: Addiction to email, texting, cell phones and multitasking destroyed students’ ability to concentrate and write clearly.

Myth 3: Because Newport is a relatively poor community and many students suffer from serious poverty, we can’t possibly score as well as the rich schools.

Myth 4: Students from previous eras wrote much better than today’s digital drones.

Myth 5: Students rarely show evidence of thought in their writing.

Myth 6: It’s not my fault. Newport elementary teachers did a terrible job of teaching writing.

In my experience and study of history, people and organizations that cling to myths while trying to reform something never end up implementing any meaningful reform. But clinging to myths does allow the alleged reformers to dish out excuses when the reform initiative inevitably fails. This is especially true in public education, and both reform charlatans and teacher unions are complicit in defending the myths.

Limited editorial space prevents me from thoroughly debunking these myths, but I could easily do so. All are demonstrably false. The first step to improve our writing scores is for teachers to let go of all these myths and start asking tough questions without easy answers already in mind. If we don’t, we’ll never improve. They also might want to start writing.

Posted in

Kenneth Pobo, 10/17/2010

Current Occupation: Professor of Creative Writing and English
Former Occupation: Busboy
Contact Information: Kenneth Pobo teaches at Widener University in
Pennsylvania. Catch his radio show, Obscure Oldies, on Saturdays from 6-8pm
EST at WDNR.com. He likes to garden, listen to sixties music, read, and
write. He particularly enjoys the films of Ingmar Bergman.

###

WHEN I WAS A BUSBOY

I thought about sex a lot,
my hands greasy,
pits wet. I worked with cute

busboys, used to play
Pong with one. It never went
any farther, honest. Some

customers thought about sex
a lot too, lovers who’d get seated
five minutes before midnight—

we’d kill time waiting for them
to finish dessert, but no,
they’d coo and kiss. Waitresses

talked about sex a lot. One
changed boyfriends faster
than I could bring water

to a banquette. She was more
interesting than college reading
assignments. So, I thought

and thought and thought
and thought about it. Got
my tips. Drove home alone.

Posted in

Interview with Matt McCormack, 10/10/2010

For years, I had a hankering to interview Matt McCormack of Portland’s premier typewriter repair shop: Ace Typewriter. Matt doesn’t mince words and isn’t much for long monologues. A typical conversation with Matt revolves around your busted typewriter. He clips open the lid and with a little shrug says, “Oh yeah. I can fix this.” In our interview, we get behind the scenes at one of Portland’s rarest occupations. — JM

Claire (CF) and Julie (JM) interviewed Matt (MM) March 8, 2010 in his shop located at7433 N. Lombard, Portland, Oregon. If you want to speak with Matt directly, check out the company website for contact information: www.acetypewriter.com

###

CF: [in Monty Python voice] What’s your favorite color?

MM: Purple. Note the tee shirt. [He’s wearing a purple shirt]

CF: And the Remington in the window?

MM: Yes.

JM: Is this a family business?

MM: Since 1960.

JM: Why did the business begin?

MM: Well, my father worked for Underwood in 1948 and was kind of familiar with typewriters. When he got out of the Service … [points to a picture of his father in a group] that’s him in ’48; they drank a lot more back then.

JM: Yeah, everybody did.

CF: So have you lived in Portland your whole life?

MM: My whole life, yeah. Made it to Montana once. That’s about as far as I’ve gone.

CF: Did you have an interest in typewriters from the cradle?

MM: No it’s by default more or less. All my brothers had the good sense to get out while they could.

JM: Were you trained for something else or?

MM: My college career was a Motorcycle repair class at community college.

CF: Is there a big difference between a typewriter and a motorcycle?

MM: Well, yeah.

CF: Well, I mean like what? Gears, obviously.

MM: Gears, internal combustion engine. They’re a lot more fun.

JM: Do you still work on motorcycles?

MM: No. Haven’t even ridden one in about fifteen years.

CL: What was the first motorcycle?

MM: Always my brothers’ hand-me-downs.

JM: You have a lot of siblings?

MM: We were a family of 12 originally. Down to 8 now. Two of my sisters still live with Pops. That’s weird. I warned you, there’s nothing fascinating.

JM: But it is!

CL: It’s not fascinating to you but …

MM: I think I’m the most boring person you could interview.

CL: You’re not the most boring. We drove past that guy on the way here.

JM: There were four of them together, they all looked the same.

CL: You know how those men wear purses?

MM: Oh yes. They were all just in here selling cologne.

CL: That’s what it is! They all had matching purses!

MM: One had a tweed hat.

CL: Yeah.

JM: They were all kicking on each other as they were going. It was weird. They went into The Perch.

CL: We thought they were a gang of homosexuals on their way to a throw down.

JM: Like West Side Story.

MM: That’ll go over real well in The Perch.

CL: So, do you use a typewriter to write or do you prefer to write with a pen.

MM: I rarely write. Not in years.

JM: Do you read a lot?

MM: Oh yeah. Not as much as I used to.

JM: Do you have a favorite?

MM: No author in particular. Mostly historical … I just got membership in the Chippewa tribe so if I get a little money that’ll be nice. I might get my knee fixed.

JM: Is your knee a genetic failing or did you have an accident?

MM: It was a car wreck years ago. Didn’t think much of it at the time but over the years it’s swelled up.

JM: Is the car [a slick, powder blue Pontiac parked outside every day] yours?

MM: Yeah. Again by default. I’m too cheap to buy anything modern.

[Phone Rings. Matt tells the caller he has parts for a Portable Noiseless]

JM: What’s the oldest machine you’ve worked on?

MM: There’s one up there [he points to the top shelf of a rack of typers next to the register] from about 1880 but it doesn’t work so I can’t take credit for it. The second one in.

CL: Wow, look at that. It’s like an organ.

MM: Now this one’s 1892 [referring to a small, shiny typer in a display case] and it works but, this little Blickensderfer.

JM: Does it type well?

MM: It does. It has a little ink roller that has to be inked every time you type on it but otherwise … his great-great-great grandson came in and tried to buy it from me so apparently there is some value to it.

CL: Which one of these is your favorite?

MM: The purple Remington.

JM: Is that because of the color?

MM: Pretty much. You just don’t see a 1930 machine in purple, so.

CL: None of these have flames painted on them.

MM: No. I’ve been asked to do that.

JM: Do you do it?

MM: No. Jacob at Blue Moon has been after me for years to paint one.

CL: Why not?

MM: It’s too much work, the pin striping. And I just, takes me a couple hours per machine, getting out the spray gun would be … there goes all my free time.

JM: And the health considerations.

MM: Nah. I’ve had my hands in lacquer thinner since I was eight years old.

JM: Is that how the machines get cleaned?

MM: It used to be. Fire inspector fell on us about ten, fifteen years ago. We had to change our ways.

JM: Is that because it’s super-flammable?

MM: Oh yeah. And super dangerous.

JM: What do you use now, or is that a trade secret?

MM: Kind of [laughs]. Mainly paint thinner these days which is much less toxic, caustic.

JM: Does it take longer to break down the oils?

MM: Yeah.

JM: So you have to actually soak for an amount of time?

MM: Lacquer was instant.

JM: That’s routine, right? You soak the machines regardless?

MM: Not necessarily. Like, something like this [indicating Claire’s machine he repaired this week] is in such good shape it doesn’t need it.

CL: I take it you’re not a smoker?

MM: [taps his shirt pocket, a hard pack is there]

CL: Whoa, you live dangerously.

MM: Didn’t expect to live this long.

CL: [laughs] This cigarette tastes like lacquer! [laughs all around]

JM: Do you get saturated with grease by the end of the day?

MM: Oh yeah.

JM: So it’s like being an auto mechanic.

MM: It is.

JM: You have this big stockpile of ribbons and supplies. These are all harvested over years of being in business?

MM: I go get supplies. Mainly the ribbons, we get. This is the most common ribbon I sell [he rotates the display so we see the lineup of boxes], the rest are in case someone needs an oddball. It’s all modern here.

JM: Are there ribbons made now you repurpose to fit old machines?

MM: Definitely, yeah.

JM: Is that a lot of what happens?

MM: Like those over there, or that one you brought in, the Smith Premiere, yeah, something like that is impossible to find so you re-ink it.

JM: So what happens with re-inking?

MM: It’s just a mess. There’s nothing … nothing specialized in that.

JM: Do you strip it from the cartridge?

MM: Yeah, I’ve got about a four inch board and a lot of felt.

CL: Are most of your clients older folks or younger folks?

MM: Time there was that would be the case, but now most everyone is under thirty years old.

CL/JM: Really? Wow.

JM: Do you have a theory about that?

MM: Well, you see a lot of tee shirts now with Hemingway and, uh, “the only psychiatrist I will submit to is my Smith Corona 3” [laughs]

JM: What’s the clientele like?

MM: It varies. Let me say there are a lot of people out there who consider themselves writers who, say, wouldn’t be out there twenty years ago. Have you noticed that?

CL: Anybody who can hold a pair of scissors thinks they can cut hair.

MM: True.

CL: Same deal.

JM: Aw, that feels good for you to say. [laughs] How has Lombard changed?

MM: It’s night and day compared to how it was thirty years ago.

JM: Is it more ‘hopping’?

MM: Safer. There were fights outside any given time of the day. It’s calmed down quite a bit.

JM: For the better?

MM: I suppose. I miss most of it anyway.

JM: So you’re nostalgic?

MM: Well … I hear Pop’s stories and yeah….

JM: How have people changed?

MM: People are the same. Less alcohol, or they hide it. It’s become trendy to hide it.

JM: It’s become necessary, I think.

[A customer comes in. A mid-20s aged woman with a typewriter for rebuilding. Matt says it will take a few weeks. The typewriter belongs to a friend of hers.]

[after the customer leaves]

CL: Are we allowed to see?

JM: Is there confidentiality?

MM: No, not at all. [He clips open the lid and turns the typer, a Royal, towards CL/JM]

JM: What year is this?

MM: It has plastic keys so … um … ’47.

JM: How do you know an age?

MM: They made this model from about 1939 to ’47. They started putting plastic keys [instead of glass] on after the war [WWII]. It’s all just a guess on my part.

JM: In order to know for certain you’d have to find the serial number and go online?

MM: I’ve never done that. I don’t prefer to look up a number. I understand there’s a site called what-year-is-my-typewriter but I’ve never been on for that. I’ve never been that curious.

CL: So you’re going to rebuild that [the typewriter on the counter]?

JM: Does it really need ‘rebuilding’?

MM: Yeah. It doesn’t move.

JM: [indicating q-tip stuck in the key strike-zone] does the Q-Tip have anything to do with that?

CL: Or is that a sacrifice to the typewriter gods. “Fix my carriage return!”

[laughs]

CL: Do you get a lot of used Royals?

MM: Oh yeah. There were a lot of them made.

CL: Is this one of the models you see frequently?

MM: Yeah. I don’t know if you can see it up there [points to several clippings hanging on the frame of the entry way] Robert Redford’s Sundance Catalog, he gets $700 for one of them.

CL: Unbelievable.

JM: Is there a most popular machine?

MM: That one in particular because apparently online somewhere it says that’s what Hemingway used.

JM: So people have it in their minds so they pick them up at swap meets or whatever?

MM: Exactly. Of course they made the Quiet Deluxe for fifty years so …. Did you happen to see the History Detectives episode [TV show: http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/video/5_pyle_full.html] they claim they had Ernie Pyle’s Corona 3. After that came out everyone wanted a Corona 3.

JM: Do you try to anticipate that and provide people with machines?

MM: Most of my business is repair. I don’t have time to keep the shelves stocked.

CL: Is there any famous person’s machine you’d like to repair? “These are the hands that repaired….”

MM: I guess my big claim to fame is working for a bunch of The Oregonian columnists but they come and go so ….

JM: Are there silly trends in the typewriter world?

MM: Did you hear about Cormac McCarthy?

CL: I saw that on your website!

MM: Did you?

CL: I read the link, yeah. The typewriter sold for several thousand. [$254,500, actually.]

MM: For three weeks I was getting calls for that particular typewriter [Olivetti manual typewriter]. The week before that I was selling them for $49.

CL/JM: Whoa!

JM: What’d you end up pricing them for?

MM: Well, I sold them all before I read the article.

CL/JM: Awww!

CL: What the market will bear.

MM: Yeah. That’s right. I should keep up on trends.

CL: I liked the article, in that he said he never would have it serviced or maintenance, that ‘I would just clean it out with a shop vac.’ So, what you’re saying about the lacquer, well, that’s pretty fancy!

MM: Real pleasurable typewriter, it must have been at the end.

JM: So you have some machines, electric, that plug in. Are those similar to work on?

MM: Uh, not really. This electric [points to a large, navy blue electric machine parked on an office chair] it’s just unbelievably complicated. Over the years, well, I have nightmares about them.

JM: HA! Please don’t bring one in!

MM: Right.

JM: Some have memory cards. Are they like computers?

MM: They used to. Those were mid-70s IBMs. I just hated working on those things. There was no way you could work on them even when they were current. So I’m glad to see them gone.

JM: There’s no way you’ll work on computers.

MM: No way. No. I have to borrow a computer when I have to use one anyways.

JM: How do you feel about the people who are repurposing typewriters into other machines? [see “steampunk”]

MM: I won’t deal with them. I get calls from all over the country looking for typewriters keys, glass, for jewelry.

CL: Does it make you upset?

MM: Meh… well, I’ve taken apart a lot of keyboards but they were all junk machines. My friend was telling me about this one typewriter that was on ebay. It was called a “white typewriter”, no one bid on it. He just caught [the listing] at the end. He called the woman and asked her if she still had it for sale. She said, no, she just cut it up for jewelry. He said, you realize you just cut up a ten thousand dollar machine? It was a one-off.

CL: Unbelievable. Do you feel there’s something kinda sentimental about a typewriter?

MM: I suppose. I suppose. More the beauty of them, in certain ways. I suppose that sounds kind of silly.

CL: Doesn’t sound silly.

JM: At one point we were talking about buying online, at auctions. You were saying you would buy with the purpose of putting something on the shelf. Is that ….

MM: I’ve done that quite a bit lately.

JM: Just to keep the shelves full?

MM: Yeah. I used to hit estate sales every weekend but the jewelry makers would beat me to them. Everyone I went to.

JM: It’s amazing to think a typewriter would sell for so cheap that it would be worth that for jewelry.

MM: Some of these keyboards sell on ebay for three hundred dollars. That’s three times the price I’d get for the machine.

CL: I’ve seen one kind like mine priced at five hundred, plus shipping. It’s ridiculous. It has become quite trendy to have a typewriter you don’t use.

MM: It has!

[laughs]

MM: Over the years most of what we’ve sold has ended up in closets. Might as well sell exercise equipment.

JM: That’s interesting. I wonder if there will be … was there a point where there was a wave where all the typewriters were being purged from closets?

MM: Yes.

JM: There were too many typewriters.

MM: Twenty years ago that was our main business [points at the electric machine] – these old IBM typewriters. Then all of a sudden I had a basement of these old manuals I couldn’t give away. Now there’s a market for them. It’s kind of limited but … eh.

JM: You think in twenty years (or so) when all these ‘hipsters’ are dumping their stuff that you’ll end up with it again?

MM: Are you familiar with Blue Moon up the street? He’s buying a cargo trailer. He wants me to buy all the typewriters I can and put them in the cargo trailer to hold on to for ten years.

JM: It’s a good idea. There’s a finite supply, right?

MM: There sure is.

CL: Typewriter museum. Hey, where is this coral from? [There is a cabbage sized hunk of white coral on a shelf by the register]

MM: When I was a little kid, these Pilipino sailors would come in and Pop would work on their typewriters. They would bring us gifts and they would bring in coral all the time.

JM: Typewriters for sailors?

MM: Years ago. Back when this, St. John’s, was a shipping community. All the sailors would come in.

CL: Is a sailor’s typewriter different from, say, a young lady’s? [laughs] A little dirtier, maybe?

MM: They were usually European typewriters.

CL: Do you see a lot of those with the different alphabets?

MM: Not lately, no. I get calls from all over the country for the Dvorak. You ever typed on that?

CL: No. I have a German one at home. East German.

MM: I tried typing on the Adler there on the end [points to the front window display]. Country kept ending up with C-O-U-N-T-R-Z.

JM: If sailors had typewriters and pretty much everybody had typewriters, do you think the age of the typewriter is over?

MM: Well, it’s all old equipment.

JM: No one is going to make typewriters new?

MM: They are making them in China. There’s no engineering left in the world, or mechanical ability as far as manufacturing goes. It’s changed.

Guy came in, wanted an Underwood electric typewriter, then he set up a website for me. So that’s how that came about.

CL: It’s a nice website.

MM: He did a good job. He’s still doing it.

CL: What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had?

MM: [silence]

CL: With a typewriter!

MM: [laughs]

JM: Outside of being interviewed. [laughs]

CL: Yeah. Outside of us. [laughs]

MM: Well, that’s going to take a while.

CL: You can get back to us. We’ve got time.

MM: Pass. [laughs]

CL: What’s the dog’s name? [indicates cute, wiggly sweetie shadowing Matt]

MM: Frankie Lee.

JM: Do you always have a shop dog?

MM: There’s a picture of ol’ Keb up there [points to the door frame]. He was up here for 15 years, never missed a day of work. I wasn’t planning on getting another one but she was a rescue dog, about twenty five pounds, I couldn’t pass her up. I still need a goat. [joking]

CL: Yeah, you can have up to three without a permit.

JM: What are some of the machines here? [grabs at a vinyl cased machine on a table by the door]

MM: Those are all Blue Moon’s. He’s flooding me with repairs. [Opens a case]

CL: These look like they are marketed towards secretaries or women.

JM: Women on the go. Yours is that powder blue, yeah. Totally for women.

MM: I have the same typewriter as yours (CL) in the back in pink.

CL: In PINK! [laughs] Yeah, that one in the satchel. That’s interesting. What are these big things? [two bulbus glass and metal things on the top shelf]

MM: There was an old machinist across the street years ago. He had Alzheimer’s and started giving things away. They’re old oilers from the turn of the last century. I have to come up with a story about how they are from a typewriter.

JM: What’s the story with this humungous Burroughs? [indicating a hubba-hubba stacked typer]

MM: That was only made in one year, 1932. It’s an electric return, electric tabulation.

CL: Why’d they only make it the one year?

MM: Have you looked at it?

[laughs]

CL: [imitates Ride of the Valkyries/Apocalypse Now]

JM: Do figuring machines, adding machines, do those ever come in?

MM: Oh yeah. I’ve got one in the back from North Carolina right now. The guy calls me about once a week. I keep telling him I can’t figure it out.

JM: You can’t figure a figuring machine? That’s pretty good.

MM: It was all frozen and he tried to make it work so he broke it. All of these [he indicates the wall of adding machines] have been on display for twenty years and none of them have sold.

JM: They’re cool lookin’.

MM: Yeah. They’re just cool enough looking for me to not move them.

JM: People don’t purchase them?

MM: No one knows how to do it anymore. You can go to a ten key and do it.

JM: Do you get people shipping stuff for you to repair?

MM: Yeah. I tell them I don’t like it but they do it.

JM: Is that because …

MM: It’s this damnable website.

JM: But how many people repair typewriters anymore?

MM: A lot of people claim they can, but I’ve seen a lot of bad work done. Does that sound arrogant?

CL/JM: No.

JM: There used to be some (repair shops) in Washington. Are those gone now?

MM: Yes. I get people from Seattle driving down three or four times a week wondering what happened to all the typewriter shops.

JM: So it’s good you have a website.

MM: I suppose.

JM: Or be like the watchmaker who vanishes all of a sudden.

MM: Are there any watchmakers left?

JM: What’s the farthest away someone has shipped to have repair?

MM: Any east coast town.

JM: It’s not international at this point?

MM: No. I had people calling me from Quebec. I told them I didn’t want to deal with shipping and customs. Still need the work, though. I need money. I just don’t have the time.

CL: Will your rates go up?

MM: I suppose I need to raise my rates.

CL: Haven’t changed much.

MM: No. Pop was probably charging more thirty years ago. Got to be what the market will bear for a while.

JM: If you have this new thirty and younger client base, it might be good to ring them in.

MM: It’s amazing how little money some of these hipsters have.

JM: Well … some are faking.

CL: They’re picking some of this stuff up for fifteen dollars at an estate sale, too. … I’m glad I got in under the wire.

JM: I saw you were interviewed before. Have you been interviewed many times?

MM: I suppose. I can think of three articles I was interviewed for that never made it to print. Like I say, I’m just not fascinating.

CL: Says you.

JM: So… what does the actual job entail?

MM: Eh?

JM: We saw someone come in. You quickly assess, give them a time frame, then what?

MM: Mostly the time frame. If they ask for an estimate, I give them an estimate. I usually bid high because something like that I never know what could be involved in repair. Could be an hour, could be four hours, or seven. I don’t actually charge an hourly rate but … Like Jim Rockford said, “I like to sum up the clientele.”

JM: So you’ve got this machine, then what? You have ten or twenty machines you put it behind in a queue?

MM: No. Actually, I just work on whatever I feel like.

JM: The time frame, you’ve given yourself more than enough time to complete the job.

MM: Yeah. I’ll have that [the machine dropped off today] done in a week.

JM: Are there tools that, like, the best tool?

MM: Pop opened this shop up. He was at an auction and found a box of typewriter tools.

JM: Are those the same tools you are using?

MM: The exact same.

JM: Have you had to sharpen or file, repair them?

MM: Yeah. Most of the tools I use I either repair or make. You can’t go to the tool supply company and buy typewriter tools anymore. It’s not that complicated work.

JM: How do you make a replacement tool?

MM: I have punches and grinders.

CL: You weld your own?

MM: Yeah.

JM: You’re metalsmithing?

CL: In addition to being a mechanic, fixing typewriters, and …

MM: It’s just like driving a fifty year old car.

CL: You’ve got to know all the skills.

JM: I suppose the work desk … is it a desk or a bench?

MM: You can see it. Come on.

Matt leads us behind the counter. We meet “Pop”, Matt’s father, the founder of the business. He has rosy cheeks and wears a plaid jacket. We shamble down a narrow aisle – one side is a shelf of assorted typewriters stacked to the ceiling, the other side is hip-height with parts, cases. Along the floor, as we approach the rear, is a neat row of closed and opened cases, the machines up for repair; little white invoice slips tucked around their rolls. At the back is a chair surrounded by tools splayed on a wonky looking desk.

Everything has a sort of grime layer. It reminds me of a print shop or a mechanics garage. The nature of the work necessitates this grey film on nearly every surface. It’s not disturbing. It doesn’t really seem dirty. More disheveled, in use, busy. Drawers and shelves are everywhere. To the left there is a corner to take that loops us back toward the front but it’s a dead end; a passage only made when Matt’s looking to prize parts off old machines.

I see a Corona on a stair leading to the back door (which leads to a yard where the dog plays). A little overwhelmed by this working area, I ask about the Corona.

JM: What’s that flower print?

MM: That’s her bed [the dog].

JM: The dog bed? No, I mean the Corona.

MM: Oh this? That’s just mottled. They would mix ether with the paint and it would mottle.

CL: Is that the lacquer smell? What is that? [Inhaling with rapture] It’s wonderful.

MM: It’s a little bit of everything.

JM: Reminds me of a print shop smell. These are all the parts? How are these organized?

MM: They’re not. I know where everything is.

CL: Rollers… What is this?

MM: It’s the ribbon drive to an Underwood No. 5.

JM: And you just remember that? Or you know it when you look at it?

MM: I know it when I need the part.

JM: Screws, nuts, “portable parts”….

MM: Joe’s portable parts. My brother died thirty years ago so we haven’t changed a thing.

CL: What’s this [large metal disk which looks like it’s made for shaping tacos]?

MM: It makes things like this. [He pulls a sheet out of a folder. The sheet has letters cut out of it.] Use it for making stencils for marking things about my garage or whatever.

JM: Has that been here forever or is that something you found along the way?

MM: I traded an industrial sewing machine for that a few years ago.

JM: Do you ever use the first aid kit?

MM: It’s mostly for the fire inspector.

JM: What does a fire inspector look for in a typewriter repair shop?

MM: Just about everything you see.

Matt lifts a roller (a Platen) from a canister of water in a sink, rotates it so he can submerge the opposite end in the canister.

JM: What’s that? Is that hot water?

MM: Boiling water. Used to be boiling water. It’s so I can slide the rubber off and put it on another machine. Kind of primitive.

JM: Does the water make it so the key marks on the rubber go away?

MM: No. That’s why I would replace it.

JM: So it loosens the rubber so you can skin it.

MM: They glue them, so thus the water.

JM: You have an air compressor?

MM: Oh yeah. That’s my main tool.

JM: A lot of the job is blowing junk out?

MM: Otherwise when I dunk the machine it clogs the sink.

JM: Lots of drill bits….

MM: Yeah. Nothing out of the ordinary.

CL: For you! So you were here a lot as a kid?

MM: Oh yeah.

CL: Is there a place out back where you live?

MM: No. We have a house (down the road).

JM: Tray full of springs?

MM: Whole chest of drawers (full of springs). [He points upward and we see a slender tower of drawers.]

JM: Slide tension, compressing? What makes a spring behave differently from another spring?

MM: I’ll show you. Spring like this pulls it together. Compressing spring pushes apart. I’m not sure that’s the technical term.

CL: Thank you for showing us back here. We’re very curious.

JM: [As we leave I spy the backside of a typewriter with a very clear brand name] What’s a Torpedo?

MM: Probably early thirties. A German machine with the Z in the wrong place.

JM: This is a pre-war machine?

MM: It has the SS on the machine. Some people would pay $5000 for it. Those Neo-Nazis pay good. [laughs]

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