Preview : NO MERCY

How often on your job are you given the green light by management to cut someone’s throat? In over thirty years it only happened once to me; this is that day!

I pull into the Formosa garage on my FXLR Harley. I see a foreman coming towards me before my helmet is off. Excuses and alibis flash through my brain to cover any stunt I’d pulled in the past week they might be “bringing me before the man” on. To my relief it seems I’ve been chosen by upper management for a “special work load” code named, “No Mercy.” Some 90-pound, pencil-necked geek in Kansas has done a bunch of number crunching on production results for the new AT&T (formerly Pacific Telephone). On paper, our minutes per case were too low. In common English, we weren’t hustling.

Seems L.A. needed a shake up to get us moving, get that production arrow on the old upward slant. If lucky, we might be able to get close to Seattle’s numbers! As I walk into the office still removing my leathers from the sixty mile ride into work from Acton, I run into a “suit” walking towards me with his hand out. The guy is from Corporate in Denver. He will be riding with me all day taking notes on how to get the job done “just like they do it in Kansas!”

We’ll call him Jim. Jim looks to be an ex-football type, late thirties, crew cut, wearing a three-piece suit with a nice tie, had plenty of pens and pencils and a big clipboard with lots of paper for notes. I tell Jim he should grab some coffee while I call dispatch for the first case of trouble for the day. Since I was the early man and started at 7:00 a.m., they chose me so Jim could be back in the garage by 3:00 p.m. and still have a full workday. Yeah, right!

When I call dispatch I’m told to just play along, don’t throw any fits over my jobs, I’ll be handed some warm, still steaming turds throughout the day but to act like it’s a day like any other. Before hanging up, Walt Hinkley, one of the few foremen I got along with, tells me, “Show no mercy. That’s the word from ivory tower in downtown. I hand picked you for this; I know you won’t let us down!”

My first repair ticket? Salvation Army’s hell hole on Skid Row. I nod to Jim, it’s time to roll. I can see sadistic grins on foremen’s faces as we drive by the office’s windows. Stopping at the garage exit on Formosa, I tell Jim in a friendly way he should tighten his seat belt, “we have a timed system down and have to meet the commit time.” To miss a commit means a hit in the company wallet. Just the kind of thing Jim is supposed to straighten us out on.

I stop. I look both ways. Then PUNCH IT TO THE FLOOR! We’re off on Mr. Toad’s wild ride, my specialty in bad traffic. Missing rearview mirrors on parked cars by inches, I sped down La Brea cutting people off and tailgating like a slack jawed simp fresh off the idiot farm. Jim tells me to, “Take it easy!” I skid to the side of the road, then jam the truck in park. I tell Jim, “Look, Fuck Wad, we’re not in Kansas anymore. If you want to work L.A. you better get off the Little Lord Fauntleroy routine or I’ll dump your ass right here!” He could have most likely easily kicked my ass in any other setting but not in MY truck going to MY job. No way. After ten or more years in Hollywood and downtown traffic, the homicidal maniac will come out of you too, trust me!

We make it to the front of the Salvation Army building with minutes to spare. Jim seems distant since my outburst. I don’t think I’m getting high marks on all the notes he’s silently writing on his big clipboard. Live it up asshole, I think to myself “the day is young. If all goes well, he’ll be out of paper by noon.” Let me give you the lowdown on Salvation Army on 2nd Street, skid row. Imagine the crowd scenes in Night Of The Living Dead. This place was worse. Using a ploy taught to me by old phone Jedi Master, Big Ed, I choose the biggest, meanest guy in the crowd. It’s best to take your time; then choose carefully from the milling mass of humanity that surges around you as you step out of your truck. Each with their own problem that only you can solve – “Got a smoke?” “Spare change?” Gee, no. How about a twenty instead?” Dream On!

I make eye contact with the pick of the litter, slip him five bucks, tell him if he carries my big leather drill bag up to the security doors in the front I’ll get him a bed. Watch out crowd, we’re coming through! Another bum reaches for my bag. He gets a size 16 in his mug, instantly stopping any more foolish moves on us. No small thing in a crowd of five hundred street people. I really didn’t need the drill. From prior repair visits, I knew its weight when swung could keep most of the nuttier guys away. We make it to the front security doors. Up close, the building security force keeps the crowd in line. Following behind my new pathfinder I notice Jim is a little spooked. I tell him in a hushed voice to, “Stay close, don’t show any fear!” It was just a bunch of crap. We were under the eye of numerous security cameras the whole time. As planned, my man had parted the Red Sea of hobos by swinging the canvas drill bag yelling, “Out of the way, Mother Fucker!” to every third bum.

Once inside the security doors, if a street person, you’re given a chit that allows you 24 hours inside; you’re assigned a bunk, can shower, even pick out some new duds donated from the public. Or, if you want, wash the ones you’re wearing while borrowing a loaner Salvation Army jump suit until your clothes are cleaned. This building had an unusual set up. If you came in on the 2nd Street entrance, it was men only. If you used the 1st Street entry, women only. That’s how big this place was. It took up an entire block and was ten floors tall. The phone system was old cord pair switchboards, four in a row. The power feeds were numerous large power supplies in the basement. These were located just past rows of six-foot-tall industrial style washing machines and dryers.

Cables in these old switchboard’s cabinets were so old you had to use a soldering gun to make the connections. Since old cables are wrapped in cloth, it is quite easy to set fire to them if you’re not on your toes. I step up to the thick glass partition next to a second set of security doors (no crashing this party). I inform security, through a series of one inch holes through the glass, that the big black guy holding my drill bag is with me. I wonder if he can go to the head of the class. Surrounding us are bunches of twenty guys let in one at a time to be processed through a second set of doors. The guard says, “No problem!” He gives my bag man a chit as a couple guys start fat mouthing me. I remarked to them, “How about I get your raggedly asses tossed out?” Hey! The grumbling stopped.

My bag man is ecstatic! He drops my bag, grabs his chit, shakes my hand and gets buzzed in next (NOTE TO SELF: Wash hand immediately! Guy last took a shower when Kennedy was in office). I tell Jim he’s to take five and to keep his eye on the drill bag. I’ll talk to the switchboard supervisor and find out what kind of troubles they’re experiencing. I’m buzzed through the second set of doors, leaving Jim to deal with the crowd of bums instantly surrounding him now that our attack dog is out of sight. I talk with the desk super. All their problems sounded like blown fuses.

Buzzed back to the ante room, I hand Jim a plastic milk crate I’d grabbed off a stack they kept by the door. These are for the guests to put their personal effects into until they are processed. I suggest for Jim to use it as a seat. As he sits down, I begin removing the back covers of the switchboards, exposing wiring and cord pairs. Bringing Jim over, I sit him on crate and lay a cloth wired cord pair in his lap (an out of service spare one). I leave him sitting with this tangled mass of wires in his lap, telling him he should try not to move around as I test in the basement, “you bust some wires, we could be here for hours!” On leaving I tell Jim, “I’ll be in touch from the basement.” As I look back from the safety of the interior office, I instantly lose sight of Jim on his crate as the crowd of bums surround him. I get my security tag for my shirt and hop on an elevator for the ride to the basement.

As I figured, some fuses had popped. It happened all the time on old, overloaded switchboards. I line my eye up so I can look down the face of the nearest power unit to spot the blown, bayonet-type fuses with little flags the size of tooth picks sticking out. A neat little device, quite handy when phone rooms in a twenty story building have 20,000 fuses in a hundred power supplies. I replace two of about twenty blown fuses, then call one of the switchboard attendants and have him check on his errant lights. Surprise! Some of them are back in service. I now ask him to inform my assistant that progress is being made. Jim is sitting in front of him on the other side of the bullet proof glass. I end with, “Tell him, for gosh sakes, don’t break any wires!”

I hear my instructions being relayed to Jim through my test set. I give a cheery, “Thanks, Pal!” I wrap up my test set, hang my tools on my shoulder, walk to the middle of basement and get buzzed through security into the women’s side of building. Once through women’s security, I walk to the elevator, ride up to the lobby floor on the 1st Street side and head right across the street to coffee shop in Little Tokyo. I order breakfast then read the paper. After I finish a hearty meal, I go to the pay phone by the bathrooms and call the switchboard attendant to inform Jim I’m plugging away, “but you know this old equipment!”

I sit back down and have another cup of coffee and finish the paper. I stroll back across street, retrace my steps, replace the rest of the blown fuses and then I call upstairs. I make sure to complain about the terrible heat from the dryers. I ask if all the lights are back up and are all the lines working. Affirmative is the reply. With a “job well done,” I get into an elevator and ride up to the main floor. I then take a seat at an empty switchboard position and pretend to call my dispatcher. While reading a National Geographic, every few minutes I would look up to Jim and give him a solemn look letting him know that I am aware of his situation, but that “I am doing my best to get us out of this hell hole.” After testing the switchboards, I am buzzed back into the anteroom where poor Jim is still holding his cord pairs, which I put back into the cabinets and replace the covers.

I notice Jim is a little shaky. I tell him, “Were in luck, only took an hour and a half this time. You can spend all day here sometimes!”

I call dispatch from a row of pay phones by the security officer’s desk. I inform them we’re ready for our second repair case. It turns out it is the Gay and Lesbian Hot Line, located by Melrose and La Cienega. They’re sworn enemies to anyone from AT&T. On the ride over, Jim wonders if we can grab something to eat on the way. I have bad news, “No way, we’re on a schedule, it will just have to wait!” as I burp under my breath, trying to hide the smell of bacon. We arrive at the La Cienega job. No sooner are we in the front door than I am assaulted by a fat, gap-toothed lesbian who starts screaming about their last bill. It was hard to argue with her. AT&T had been screwing with them big time on equipment they didn’t want or need. Unfortunately, they were stuck with it from some contract an ex-Hot Line person in charge had signed. I think it was binding for two thousand years.

I tell her I’ll look into it and ask, “What’s out of service?” Now that it’s around 11:00 a.m. in the middle of July, it’s kind of warm in the office with no air conditioning, especially in a three-piece suit like Jim’s. As usual, to find the switch we have to access the attic. I find a pull-down ladder attic access, unfold it and up we go. I ask Jim to hold my flashlight, since the bulb was out on the ceiling fixture. Boy, it was hot up there! Seeming to get hotter every minute. Within five minutes, I had sweated so profusely I could have easily raised Koi in my butt crack. I take a quick glance at Jim while checking paging. Jim looks ready to faint! With a concerned tone to my voice, I suggest Jim head on down the ladder and grab a Coke from the vending machine in the lobby. I toss in an, “I’m conditioned to such extremes from many years exposure; I’ll finish up testing by myself.” When I take the flashlight from Jim, it’s soaking wet. I didn’t have to ask him twice.

Soon as Jim is gone, I reset paging and crossed my fingers, giving a test page. Hallelujah! It worked! I shout a silent thought of praise to the phone gods. I climb out of the oven. My T-shirt is stuck to me like glue from sweat. After getting yelled at about the billing from Snaggle Tooth for a few minutes, I use the phone in the lobby to call for our next repair ticket. It’s the SPIKE pool hall and bar on Santa Monica Blvd. A hardcore gay leather club for fruit bikers and their bitches.

Look up the word “Dive” in the dictionary. You’ll see a picture of the Spike bar next to it. Parking in the back lot, I enter through the rear door, telling Jim to cover his nuts with his clipboard as we walk into a pitch black room from the glaring sun as we left the parking lot. Jim starts to ask why. He gets his answer as soon as his eyes adjust. The joint is full of men. Men who are all checking out the new meat. Me? The old fake bloody booger is nestled in my mustache. I’d set it in place while getting my tools out of the back of my truck (a year’s supply for six bucks at Hollywood Toys and Masks).

I talk to the manager finding that their credit card machine is out. Jim is approached to dance. A slow one is playing on juke box. Jim politely refuses, telling his new admirer that he’s a phoneman, too! On hearing this, I pardon myself from the manager and tell Jim in a loud voice, “Ahhh, go ahead, remember what I said about being shy!” Then I spin, and duck into the barkeep area under the hinged bar top. I start checking out the credit card machine. The job is a quick fix. Spilt Coca Cola had shorted-out a modular jack. Repair time? Five minutes max. I notice Jim has another admirer hanging on his arm.

Breaking free from his crowd of “new best friends” Jim whispers a frantic, “I’ll meet you back at the truck” and is out the door in a flash. Pussy! I fix the jack, get a free cheeseburger and Cherry Coke, play doubles on Ms. Pac Man with a shaved head biker-type who kept glancing at the booger in my mustache. I kick ass on Ms. Pac Man, then say goodbye to the gang since I had already called dispatch while lunch was cooking.

We’re off for next case of trouble – the insane asylum. I couldn’t mess with Jim as bad as I’d have liked after our arrival. He wasn’t on the security list. I stick my pass on, park Jim on the first floor bouncing idiot room for almost an hour while I watched Shane on the nurse’s break room TV. As soon as Jack Palance hit the floor, I called for another case of trouble. Nothing was really wrong at the nut house, just a nice place to put the burn on Jim. Have to hand it to dispatch, they were really on their toes.

Our next ticket makes me burst out laughing while I’m holding the pay phone receiver talking to dispatch for our next winner. Heading for a notorious bathhouse, the place is rampant with towel droppers. We head for the place in the Silver Lake area. On the way to the job I try to give Jim some tips on how to act when we go inside. Rule Number One: don’t look at their cocks! Rule Number Two: don’t drop anything! Since my phone truck had no air except for what blew in windows, it’s easily in the high 90s. Jim’s three piece suit is not the hot set up. Jim tells me he has to take off his vest and jacket or he’s going to die. I tell him to go ahead, “it’s not impressing me.” Jim remarks to me in a polite way that I have some snot in my mustache. I tell him, “In about five minutes you’re going to wish you had some!”

Remember those old “Cherished Moments” commercials by Kodak years ago? I wish they had gotten a shot of Jim’s face as we walked past the main desk and on into the hallway leading to the steam rooms and community baths. DICK CITY! Big dicks, bent dicks, black dicks, brown dicks, a few hard dicks. I remarked to Jim over my shoulder, past my screwdriver handles sticking up from my tool belt, “Remember our little talk in the truck now!”

HEY! That man over there has a penis in his ass! What rude behavior! Once again, Jim bails on me. I told him to take the booger. I fix a five-button Merlin wall set, then get sent on our last job of the day, Larry Flynt’s house, the guy who owns Hustler Magazine. I’ve yakked with Larry numerous times over the years, but those conversations are for another story. Larry lived up at the top of Sunset Plaza, where all the streets have birds’ names. On this visit, Larry wasn’t home. But our purpose wasn’t to see Mr. Flynt. It was for the well known long walk to his house on his hot asphalt driveway in the broiling sun. This long walk was a common complaint from many phonemen over the years, even in the best of circumstances. Phone trucks weren’t allowed up the long driveway.

I change out a bad handset in Larry’s kitchen. On our return walk down his driveway, Jim is staggering. He looks ready to drop. I suggest we hit my pal PJ’s 7-11 on Sunset Blvd. on our way back to the Formosa garage, so we can grab a couple of Slurpees. Jim seconds the motion.

On arrival at the 7-11, I end up parking on the side street. The front parking lot was packed. As we leave the store with big straws in our mugs, we come upon a large black hooker in torn stretched bicycle riding pants. Her stomach is hanging over the waist band, while her huge balloon tits are jiggling in her tank top with each Eurrppp she was making. She was still in the process of vomiting all over my phone truck’s rear bumper. She was holding herself up with both hands on my van’s back doors.

Grabbing Jim by the elbow, I guide him back to the front of the store while whispering, “Let’s give the little lady a couple more minutes.” I then take a big suck on the straw of my Slurpee and act like it happens every day.

We get back to the garage around 4:00 p.m. I drop Jim off in front of the foremen’s offices and say a cheery, “Adios, compadre!” I close out my last ticket and head for home on my cycle.

The next morning I’m the cat’s meow! I’m the new darling of management! As usual, it didn’t last long.

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