On the loading dock

Company Culture #8

When I listed everyone who worked in my department, I somehow stupidly forgot to mention Juan. He was a good guy, so not introducing him was a huge oversight on my part. Sorry, Juan.

At the insurance company, two teams worked in the basement — the slicers (opening mail), and the auditors (prepping and mailing new policies). Juan worked in the basement, too, and reported to the same boss as the rest of us, but he wasn't on either team. He worked alone, part-time, afternoons only, stocking the company with stationery.

His job seemed to be purely physical. He was the guy who toted boxes of stationery piled high on a pushcart, all through our 7-story office building. He kept the company's printers and scanners stocked with paper and toner. At an insurance company, toner and stationery are the lifeblood of the business, so maybe Juan wore overalls, but what he did mattered more than anyone who wore a tie.

On one of my first days at the office, I met Juan and we shook hands, and after that he always shouted a cheery "Good afternoon Doug!" every day when he got there. He was white, gray, and friendly, an outgoing man about my age, a few inches shorter and magnitudes nicer than me. I never saw him grumpy, and what's oddest is, his optimism never annoyed me.

Company-wide, Juan was famous and beloved for his clichés of encouragement — “Today’s going to be a great day!” was his basic line, but four days a week you’d hear “One day closer to Friday,” and every Friday you'd hear “Best day of the week!” After your first cliché from Juan, if you saw him again that day you’d get a different cliché, like “Everything's great for me — how about you?” He rotated through a dozen other happy lines, and always it seemed sincere.

As you've maybe guessed, there was something 'off' about Juan. His facial expression signaled it, along with his slow, deep speaking voice, with some words sometimes slightly mispronounced. It took a week to be sure, but yeah, Juan was what's now called mentally challenged. He could read and write, talk about the local pro and college football teams, and he drove to work every day, but he couldn’t keep up with normal adult conversations about current events, history, or the plot of a superhero movie.

What he lacked in brains, though, he more than made up for with with his chipper outlook, and an occasionally naughty sense of humor. His work — stocking supplies for everyone in the building — meant there was nobody in the company who didn't know Juan, and to know him was to love him is a cliché, but just this once it's true. 

Me, on the other hand — I didn't let anyone know me or love me. I didn't want to hear about your weekend, or your daughter's Christmas concert, or anything else. To avoid being hated, I made some minimal effort to not completely ignore everyone in the office, but mostly, I ignored everyone in the office. 

Sometimes, though, Juan and I had actual conversations, one human to another. He told me about his own life with a blunt honesty that knocked a hole in my ordinary walls, so I got frightfully frank with him, too.

Our first big conversation was when, somehow, we started talking about being bullied. That's a topic I almost never go into, with anyone. It's too painful and embarrassing. But with Juan, I talked about it.

I'd often been taunted when I was a kid in school. Less often but not rarely, I'd been beaten up. I was an easy target — the weird, quiet kid who didn't fight back much. It was awful, of course, and that's why I don't talk about it, but you can’t imagine how much worse it was for Juan.

He told me that in every class at every school, he was immediately, obviously “the dummy.” Other kids called him awful names, and tried to beat him up. Whenever a teacher wasn't in the room, he'd be insulted or hit, and having another kid on his side was rare. Most children were 'middle-of-the-road', he said — meaning, they didn't tease him or hit him, but they didn't say or do anything to stop it when it happened. Sometimes they watched. Sometimes they walked away.

"Did you ever fight back?" I asked.

"Oh, sure, when I had to." He looked at me all sad-eyed and added, “I never wanted to, though. Even the worst of them, I wanted them to leave me alone, that's all.” And damn, that resonated with me. 

My torture at school ended when I dropped out. After that I was an adult, and despite being just as weird and quiet now as when I was a kid, here in the world of grownups almost nobody openly calls me names or punches me. That hellish part of life was behind me, but not for Juan.

He had no family, and lived in what he called a house, which sounded like a halfway house. It was a residence for disabled people, and the man who lived in the room next door taunted Juan. He knocked on Juan's door in the middle of the night, and when nobody could hear, he called Juan a retard, or worse. Imagine coming home to a bully — in your home. Imagine it when you're in your late 50s, as Juan was.

When he told me about his flatmate, I thought it over overnight and the next day I volunteered to help. I almost never fight back in the moment, because I'm a wimp and a coward, but when I've been wronged without an apology, I've sometimes taken matters into my own hands. In junior high school, I pushed a bully down a flight of stairs, and guess what? He stopped bullying me. In high school, I baseball-batted another kid's windshield. As an adult I've grown more tactful, but I believe in vengeance when it's warranted. Oh yeah. I liked Juan, so why wouldn't I offer to help a buddy? I offered.

He considered it, but said no. "It's just words," he said. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." I asked Juan to promise that if his tormenter at home ever escalated beyond words, he'd let me help, and he answered with a huge, cheerful smile showing all his dental work. "Oh, if that ever happens," he said, "I'll hit back and he'll be in a hospital." Makes sense. Juan was a little short, but he had some muscles from lifting a hundred crates of paper every day.

Me and Juan had a few genuine conversations like that. We talked about his parents, both of whom were gone from his life before he could remember them. We talked about his years in an old-fashioned orphanage, before such places were phased out and replaced with foster homes. He'd spent some years in foster homes, too, and we talked about that. We talked about the day he'd gotten into an accident while driving to work, and the other driver had been an MFer — lied about what had happened, and tried to have Juan arrested.

With what Juan had lived through, he should've become an asshole like me, but instead he was nice. This really blew my mind, and I never understood it, but I liked Juan.

Maybe best of all, despite being a chatty guy, he was OK with me not being chatty most of the time, which was usually Mondays thru Fridays. Our real conversations were rare. Usually we just traded his optimistic clichés. “Is it a great day yet, Juan?" I'd ask, and he'd answer, "Every day's a great day!”

He had some sort of sci-fi sixth sense, though, when I was pissed off about something or maybe just blue. Even if I acted the same as ever, Juan would simply know something wasn't right. He'd tell me a joke, make me smile, make me laugh, make me better.

Here's my favorite example of Juan's weird psychic abilities: There was a company-wide Christmas party every December, held at the super-swanky hotel next door. All employees were invited for a huge buffet lunch, all expenses paid, and we were encouraged to bring our families. The company would close early that day, the party would start at 1:00, and whether you stayed an hour or until midnight, all employees (and even temps) were paid like it was a normal workday.

Everyone loves a party, right? Well, I don't. Plus I'd only been working there a few months — I was barely comfortable saying good morning and good night to my few co-workers, and hardly knew anyone outside my department. No frickin' way was I going to the company Christmas party. Not even if they paid me, and fed me.

One afternoon, though, Juan and I were talking about snow or Snickers bars or something, and he asked if I was going to the party. It was a few days in the future and I hadn't yet chosen whatever made-up emergency would keep me from attending, so I smiled and said, "Sure," and went back to my work. 

Juan must've seen something in my facial expression as I'd lied. He said, "Doug, can we talk out on the loading dock?"

The loading dock was in the basement where we worked, but behind heavy doors, and nobody in the office could overhear anything. If a truck wasn't unloading stuff, the dock was where people went to complain to each other about the boss, or to curse the ceiling after a rude call from a customer.

I followed Juan to the loading dock, not knowing why, and when the door closed behind us he said, "You don't like the crowd at a party, do you?"

I nodded.

"And you don't have any family to bring?" 

"Well, there's my wife," I said, "but she hates parties and crowds as much as I do. She wouldn't want to be there, and Juan, I'm not going, either. How did you know?"

He smiled and said, "I'm a lonely guy, I recognize lonely guys." It crossed my mind that he might be making a pass at me, but that wasn't it at all.

He said, "I know everyone by name, and I like most of them, but the company party makes me nervous, too. I always sit with Zeke, because he feels the same way. He has no family, and I have no family, so we sit at the orphans' table."

"Huh," I said, still noncommittal. If I went, though, the orphans' table was where I'd want to sit.

"There are a few other orphans, too," Juan continued, "and we have each other to talk to. It makes the party better, so you should sit with Zeke and me."

Ah, a table for all the company's geeks and misfits. I looked at Juan, and loved him.

"We can have our own little Christmas party," he added, "in the middle of the company's big Christmas party."

It had been a long while since anyone reached out to me, and Juan had reached. Hearing his invitation in his awkward, slightly too-deep voice, I decided there on the dock that there'd be no planned emergency on Friday. I was going to the damned Christmas party, and maybe I even wanted to go to the Christmas party, to sit at the orphans' table with Juan and Zeke.

Company Culture

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  1. All of us misfits need a Juan in our lives. You are a lucky man.


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