Zeke's worries

Company Culture #4

Zeke was my next-cubicle neighbor on the auditing team, so we talked sometimes, but when he said something it was usually batty. He was extremely political, far to the left and always eager to talk about it. He was disdainful of most elements of pop culture, so when anyone said anything about Real Housewives of Miami or something, he'd add something harsh. He didn't like his landlord. He didn't like the newspaper. There were lots of things he didn't like.

Mostly, though, he talked about work stuff, and took the job far too seriously, as if the fate of the free world hung in the balance with every insurance application.

Zeke was almost exactly my age — mid-50s — but he looked older, probably because he never told a joke, never laughed, rarely smiled, and always, always worried. He was an odd man, but I liked the guy. Most of his oddities were at least more interesting than yet another 'normal', you know?

Being a quiet guy, it took weeks before I asked him the expected questions — where are you from, where did you go to school, and all that. He sidestepped every query, though, so I soon stopped asking. Zeke talked a lot, but he really didn't like talking about himself. Even people who’d worked with him for years knew essentially nothing about him.

He never asked me many questions, either, which was great. We were kinda kindred spirits, the office weirdos, and got along fairly well. Eventually, without me inviting it in any way, he literally loosened his tie, and began telling bits of his backstory, which was a humdinger and a half. Over several months of occasional conversation, here's what Zeke finally said about Zeke:

As a boy, he'd been emotionally and physically abused by his natural father, and then bounced around between distant relatives and foster care. The relatives abused him, his first foster parents ignored him, and his second foster parents beat him. Then his natural-born parents reconciled and took him back, so he got a second extended battering from his father.

At 15 he ran away and lived on his own for a year, before the social services crew found him, and forced him back into foster care. Finally, though, something went right for Zeke, and he lucked into a foster family that treated him decently. That's where he spent the rest of his childhood, but his foster parents — the only people he‘d ever considered family — were killed in a car wreck, a few weeks before Zeke's 18th birthday.

“Cripes, what a crappy childhood,” I said, and he smiled, one of about three smiles I ever saw from him. My childhood was bleak and boring, but Zeke's was just a long string of tragedies.

“That’s why I don’t talk about it often,” he said. Well, yeah.

After his foster parents died, he’d left town (somewhere in the South, is all he ever said), and traveled, working all over the country, from Vermont to Oregon. After several more stops, Zeke wandered into Wisconsin in his 40s, found it to his liking, and settled here. Like me, he’d started at AA as a temp, and then been hired full-time.

And he wasn't a born Zeke. He told me his birth name, which I shan’t share because I promised I never would, and also because I’ve forgotten it. He'd legally changed his name, to remove any reminders of his father from his existence. He took his foster parents' surname, and selected Zeke as his new first name, just because he liked the sound of it. "Nobody here knows the name I was born with, grew up with," he said, "and I like that."

I liked it, too. Envied it. Just philosophically, ain't it fierce to decide your name for yourself, instead of living with whatever name your parents announced while you were still wet from the womb?

One afternoon Zeke told me that he’d never had any particularly close friends, and said that I was probably his best friend. That was sad and awkward, because to me, at best, Zeke was a pal. Despite respecting the man and having some things in common, someone who doesn’t laugh can't really be a friend of mine. We never had lunch together, went to a movie, or did anything except work a few feet from each other. (Well, until lots later.)

At work, he'd been “the first auditor,” years and years earlier. The company had decided that too many policies were being finalized and mailed with errors, and Zeke was already working there, known for his keen eye for detail, so he became the auditor. He worked alone (he told me he’d loved working alone), until workflow became too much for one person to keep up, and a second auditor was hired.

There were six auditors by the time I got there — business had picked up a lot, over the previous several years. Despite being the first auditor, though, and the guy who'd written most of our rules, Zeke wasn’t the auditing team's lead. It took only a few days for me to figure out why:

As auditors, when we spotted anything wrong with a newly-issued policy, we’d fix it if we could, or send it back to the New Policy processors. There were 17 checkpoints for every policy, and once you got into a rhythm, it was rat-a-tat-tat, looks good, and on to the next policy.

Zeke, though, never, ever got into a rhythm. He was always worried that something was wrong, with every policy. He would zoom in on some picayune detail, and delve deep into it, as if he was Sam Spade and every application was a mystery to be solved.

If, for example, the signature on one document seemed less than a perfect match for the same person’s signature on an accompanying document, Zeke would bring out his magnifying glass and study both sigs. If he remained unconvinced, he would print both documents, overlay the signatures, and hold both pieces of paper up to the light.

Love ya Zeke, but that's just kooky. With signatures, all we were supposed to do was make sure every document was signed. We weren’t trained to be signature police.

And it wasn’t only the signatures that got his attention — Zeke was suspicious about every aspect of every policy. For any of the rest of us, deciding whether a policy was right or wrong took a minute or so, but with Zeke's magnifying glass mentality, he often spent five or ten minutes, even half an hour, on a single policy.

Of course, that meant Zeke approved far fewer policies than anyone else. His numbers sucked, he got awful performance reviews, and he deserved them. He had weekly ‘special meetings’ with the boss — remedial sessions, where Daniel told him, again and again, that he had to work faster. Zeke, though, could not or would not do this.

So he thought he was about to be fired. Always. Once he'd decided I was a friend, Zeke sometimes pulled me into a side room after his meetings with Daniel, to tell me he knew he was going to lose his job. It was keeping him awake nights, and he had prescription pills for the anxiety — but Zeke never changed, and never stopped scrutinizing every line of every application.

Yet he was never fired, because once in a while his suspicions paid off.

Half a dozen years earlier, Zeke had noticed that three different policies in a week, all sold by the same agent, had the same address. It was something nobody else would've noticed, but it made Zeke curious, so he went through 100 of the most recent policies that particular agent had sold, and found a dozen that listed the same address. Then he went to Lexis-Nexis, the creepy on-line database that tracks everyone, and with a few clicks he ascertained that this recurring address was a rented maildrop box. With a few more clicks, he saw that among the many, many people who received their mail at that address, one of them was the agent.

Zeke took this information to the company's Fraud desk, which opened to an investigation, which led to that agent’s arrest for a complicated scheme that had already cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Zeke got a fat bonus, and a handshake from the CEO.

But wait, there's more. While we worked together, Zeke nosed out another fraudulent scheme, this one involving an agent who’d sold life insurance policies to several people who were already dead. That's frowned upon, you know. It led to another fat bonus for Zeke, and another handshake from the CEO.

After those two handshakes, the CEO probably would’ve overruled anyone who tried to fire Zeke, but that didn't stop Zeke from worrying that he was about to be fired. He also worried that his landlord might evict him, that his abusive family might find him, and that his liverwurst might be past its expiration date. Dude was always worried, never lightened up, and that was probably what did him in.


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