Blog 88

Ronald did not get fired

In about one minute on a Friday, Armand destroyed a fragile family which was trying to make a go of it. Most of the crews Armand sent out could fix a few common problems. 

As advanced training, Armand had told them: “If you don’t know what to do, say that it’s too serious to fix on site, and bring the unit back to the shop.”

Ronald worked in the back, fixing air conditioners. I was Armand’s office manager, meaning that I got paid a dollar above minimum wage, and kept track of invoices. Armand loved oppressively hot, stifling July days when New York became unbearable. It brought in business.

George was Armand’s best repairman: a mechanical genius and a junkie. Sometimes when George was stoned real bad, Armand would send us out together, instructing me to keep an eye on him. 

One day as I sat in the passenger seat, without warning George pulled the truck into a sharp U-turn, cut across the heavy 14th Street traffic, gliding into a parking space. Without a word, he jumped out and hurried up the street. 

I followed, wondering what the emergency was. He ended up in Tad’s steak house, ordered, paid, took his tray, sat down, and ate with single-minded intensity.  

Not until he was halfway through his meal did George explain: 

“Most of the time I am not hungry. When I do get hungry, I have to strike while the iron is hot.” He talked about how, as a child, he would sit in his mother’s kitchen, enjoying her cooking. “I was her favorite,” he said.

We got to our destination late. It was a commercial call, which was why Armand sent his best man. It was a busy office with a lot of cubicles and an office manager who was obviously annoyed at our late arrival.

George turned on the defective unit. He stood there saying nothing. The office manager, a middle aged woman dressed for business, uneasily watched us from her desk. George closed his eyes and started to sway slowly, going into a nod. The office manager got up and came over. 

Looking quite distressed, she said to me: “He’s drunk!”  

“He’s not drunk, ma’am,” I said, speaking with such certainty that she could not argue. To my surprise, she returned to her desk. George pulled himself halfway out of the nod, opened his eyes, and mumbled almost indiscernibly: “Compressor clip is shot.” 

He opened his toolbox, got out a screwdriver, and quickly pulled the inner guts of the machine out of the cover. In a minute or two, George had cut off the rusted compressor clip, soldered the wire onto a new clip, attached the clip to the compressor terminal, put the cover back on, plugged in the unit, and turned in on.

Before you could say, “Jack Robinson,” the unit was humming, and you could feel the cold air blowing. George got his tools in order. As we headed out, I smiled and waved to the astonished office manager. The only thing lacking was that George was not riding a white steed which did not turn and rear up, and he did not proclaim: “Hi-ho, Silver, away!” 

One day, Ronald, walked into the office to tell Armand something. Armand looked at him and said, “Get out of here, Ronald. This isn’t a zoo!”  Other repairmen, white men, had come into the office now and then, and I had never heard Armand chase them out or insult them, as he had to this black man.

Ronald left, swallowing the humiliation. Ronald did not dare talk back. He was trying to put his life together as a responsible family man.  He could not risk getting fired. With his prison record, Ronald could not afford to lose this job.

Some things, though, are hard to swallow. You hold back your feelings here, but they burst forth there. When Ronald left that day, you could not see the hurt boiling inside. On Monday, his wife came in to tell us that Ronald was in jail. She asked Armand for Ronald’s paycheck. 

Armand refused to give it to her. Finally, holding the hands of her two small children, she left. 

I asked Armand why he did not give her the paycheck.

“She doesn’t deserve it,” he said. “She is collecting welfare and is not supposed to have income from a hidden job.” Armand, of course, was morally upright. To the naive observer, it would seem like Ronald had been given a chance to make good, but could not stay out of trouble. 

Whenever I think about this incident, I feel ashamed of my complicity for not speaking up when Armand made the disgusting “zoo” remark, and for not advocating for his wife while she was there.  

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