“Once you understand that potatoes have a standard angle of repose in a storage bin, and that angle is scientifically determined using the most modern methods, and that angle is 44 degrees, not more nor less, then you can begin to entertain vague notions of a future with this company.”
This is Don Birkman’s theory of potatoes. I had been anticipating it the whole time I sat in his office. There are theories of sugar beets, rutabagas, and carrots. Theories of turnips and yams and radishes. But the potato theory is the one that counts. Toledo, the engineer in the cube next to mine who I’d met just a few minutes earlier that fateful morning, warned me about it. “He’ll talk about the machinery,” Toledo said, adjusting the wide white belt that matched his shoes. “Then you’ll get the potatoes. He’s got a glass eye, you know,” he added, tearing the day before’s date off his little desktop calendar. You get a calendar when you sign on here at Systems Solutions. Your choice of ‘The Far Side’, ‘Doonesbury’, or ‘Funny Country and Western Lyrics’. Toledo had chosen the latter. That Tuesday’s lyric was “I’d cry my eyes out over you if I could only see,” by Blind Willie Hawkins. Toledo has designed every root vegetable peeling system at Systems Solutions since 1968.
In a community of slightly dingy, subdivided cubes, Birkman has a mansion of an office. Four walls to the ceiling. Paneling. A door that opens and closes. Why shouldn’t he have it? Systems Solutions is his baby. His father built it forty years before. There’s a picture hanging in the shop bathroom of his father holding a champagne glass, wearing a tuxedo and a welding helmet. He was ahead of his time.
Birkman doesn’t waste his well-deserved walls. They’re covered with animal heads. There’s an elk, an ebu, and a springbok. There’s a water buffalo, a mountain lion, and a mangy grizzly bear. In the corner on the floor, there’s a little gray spider monkey. Its face is winsome, its little paw outstretched, as if to shake hands or ask for a quarter. I learned later from O’Malley, the technical sales manager, that Birkman had shot everything in the room, and that there were 300 more animals at home in Atherton. “Everything,” he’d said, winking. The wink, I realize now, was for the monkey.
On the wall behind Birkman’s desk, there hangs a topographical map of the world. It has bumps to show mountains, and different countries are shaded in different dull earth tones: beige, a sickly orange, a muddy brown. Birkman was going on and on about the company mission, the canned spiel. The customer comes first, total systems solutions, installations worldwide, state of the art, we’re in business to grow your business, etc. I tried to make eye contact and look interested, to communicate my personal passion for expanding the world potato chip market. It wasn’t easy. The glass eye. I knew if I looked at Birkman for long, I’d find myself thinking about the eye. I’d stare. (It’s not hard to guess which one it is.) Toledo said he’s sensitive about it. It makes him self-conscious. Maybe it gets him thinking about his weight. Birkman is a big man. He goes six feet and well over 300 pounds. The broad-striped suit he was wearing that day did little to understate his size. I focused my gaze at a point just over his left shoulder. It rested on the key to the map. The key read ‘Root Crops of the World’. The muddy brown indicated potatoes. Most of the Soviet Union was brown. So was Idaho and Peru.
Suddenly, Birkman was on his feet. He’s sprightly for a man his size. He lunged across the desk, with a bear paw of a hand outstretched to welcome me aboard. I’d never seen so much hair on a human appendage. I got up to meet him and stumbled, still struggling to get my sea legs with the new wingtips purchased especially for the occasion, my first day at my first real job. “Let’s get going,” he bellowed, as Tiffany, the receptionist and Birkman’s personal secretary, carried in a tray of donuts. Tuesday is donut day here. Boxes and boxes are delivered to the coffee room. Birkman has a dozen set aside for his personal use. Crullers. Tiffany smiled weakly at me as she wobbled out on her heels. I noticed that her eye mascara was running. “Let’s see action!” Birkman cried, grabbing two, three crullers and shoveling them into his mouth. It was reassuring, somehow, to see one’s leader displaying such a lust for life.
Birkman wanted action, and action there was. My phone was ringing as I reached my cube, and Travel Division was on the line. Travel Division is not the travel division of Systems Solutions, a woman named Stella informed me quickly, though 90% of their revenue is generated by making travel arrangements for Systems Solutions’ employees, who are flying around the world to service various installations. “You’ll be flying to Pocatello, Idaho in an hour and twenty minutes,” she said. “Don’t worry about warm clothing. It’s been a mild fall and you’ll be mostly in the plant anyway.”
“Crispy’s!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Boy, you sure are green. By the way. You’ll be traveling with D. Birkman.”
I hung up in time to hear my name being over paged over the intercom. “Bill Haley, call 298. Bill Haley, 298.” I cringed. I hate my name, or more accurately, my namesake. It wouldn’t be long, I was convinced, before strangers would be stopping me in the hall, snapping their fingers and bobbing their heads, aping ‘Rock Around the Clock’ as they thrust their imaginary guitars at my chest.
The voice on the intercom was Birkman’s.
I sat down in my cube and dialed 298, wondering which calendar would suit me best. The phone rang once and Birkman picked up. “You drive,” he said, his voice obscured by probably the eleventh cruller.
“Good. Pick me up in front in twenty minutes, if you will.”
I ambled down the line of engineers and hung a left toward MIS. I had been scheduled for a training session on the CAD/CAM that afternoon with Herb, the MIS manager. That appointment would have to be canceled. Rounding the corner to the Data Processing room, I heard yelling in a foreign tongue. It sounded Russian. One man, seated at a computer, was pointing anxiously at his screen. Two others standing behind him were gesturing wildly at a long printout that unfolded from the adjacent printer. Herb, sporting a wide red mustache and slightly bucked teeth, sat aloof from the hubbub, staring serenely at his CRT. He looked up and motioned me in.
“How’s it going, Bill?” he asked. “What do you think so far of our operation?”
I glanced nervously at the Russians, whose voices were rising. The man at the terminal slammed his fist on the arm of his chair and muttered something that sounded like ‘cabbage’.
“Those gentlemen are programming the sheet metal lasers,” he said. “Very exacting specifications. A multi-million dollar system.” He paused to let this sink in. “The ponies are running today over at Tanfornan. The boys think they’ve worked out a program to call the Trifecta.” The men stopped bickering and smiled at Herb.
“I’m sorry, Herb. I have to cancel our training session.”
He nodded his head understandingly. “Idaho, I surmise?”
“How did you know?”
“Crispy’s. He likes the bins at that installation.”
“The bin design is different there. A variation. For the spuds.”
“Oh. I’ll check in when I get back. To reschedule.”
“I’ll be here.
The old Westclox hanging above Toledo’s cube said it was time to get the car. I hustled out through the lobby, where Tiffany was perched up on a packing crate, stringing Christmas lights in the front window. The date was November 14th. She was sobbing quietly.
There is a large parking lot at Systems Solutions, and it was mostly empty. The spaces are reserved for potato division employees. Technically speaking, I’m ‘general root crops’. Maybe in a few years I’d make potato grade. I jogged a half mile down the street to get my car, which was parked next to the San Bruno Wastewater Disposal Station.
Birkman was out in front when I sputtered up in my ‘81 puke yellow Datsun. I was a little ashamed of my car at that moment, even though it had pulled me through some 168,000 miles. There are some plastic ducks on the hood, glued there by an old girlfriend. The ripped seats are covered with old drapes from another old girlfriend’s apartment. The car is a failed relationship museum. Not the best vehicle for impressing your boss.
Birkman was oblivious. In fact, he was positively giddy, like a child embarking on a long-promised trip to the zoo. He had two big suitcases, and a long, thin case. I was concerned that the case might hold a gun. My one almost-trip to Idaho involved guns. A blind date I had met through the personals (‘SWF seeks engineering-type for adventure and independence in pristine setting’) picked me up in an armored car. “It’s got extra gas tanks,” she said, stroking the bullets criss-crossing her breasts. We won’t have to stop until Idaho.”
“Idaho?” I’d said, thinking we were heading for a costume party at Lake Tahoe.
“Right. Up in the mountains. I’ve got some food stashed up there. Ammunition. We’ll have enough to get by. At least until the first attack.”
I got out this side of Sacramento.
We loaded up the Datsun, cramming the suitcases, which seemed to be carrying machine parts, into the back seat. The long thing went in the trunk. It was a good thing I’d ‘forgotten’ my luggage. Between Birkman and his bags, we were down to the springs. Fortunately, it’s a short ride to the airport. Planes taking off from SFO can easily disturb a conference call at Systems Solutions. As we reached the terminal, Birkman cursed and smacked his hand to his forehead with an audible pop. “I forgot the damn coupon,” he said.
“I thought Travel Division said the tickets would be at the gate.”
“The parking coupon! Two dollars off a day. We’ve got to go back!”
“But Mr. Birkman. The flight leaves in twenty minutes. We’re sure to miss it if we go back now.”
“We’ve got to go back,” he repeated. He stared straight ahead, his bottom lip curling over his teeth, an expression of determination that said we could either sit there until the next Ice Age brought Idaho to us, or go back and get the coupon. I hand signaled my way back out into the traffic.
On the short ride back, he was chatty. Perky, almost. He joked about Toledo’s belt. He spoke highly of the engineering department of my alma mater. He told me about a bear he didn’t kill in Montana. “He was there in my sights. An easy shot. But why kill him? I had him already. A mental image, if you will, frolicking about in the clover and whatnot. Anyway, I’d already shot 11 bears. The thrill was gone.”
I pulled right into the Systems Solutions lot and parked in the visitor’s spot by the doorway. Somewhere in my heart of hearts, I thought we could still make the flight. I engaged the emergency break and tore at my seatbelt. Birkman gingerly squeezed out the passenger door. There was a curious grace to his movements. “Rest easy, Bill,” he said. “I’ll get it.” I waited in the car.
The seconds passed like days, with every second a lost opportunity. I imagined our flight number flashing on the Departure monitor. We race through the terminal toward our gate. Birkman insists that we bring his luggage on board, rather than stowing it below where it belongs, and guess who’s stuck carrying it? I pant and heave, but make the gate just as the flight attendant begins to close off the entry. I turn around, delirious, but there’s no Birkman. How can a man that size disappear? Then I see him. He’s stopped at a refreshment stand, and is licking the business end of a boysenberry waffle cone. The flight takes off without us, and we’re left with three hours to waste in the airport lounge until the next Idaho departure. I proceed to get soused on whiskey sours and spill out my soul, the magnitude of my perversities spoiling any hope of my remaining employed, let alone advancing, with Systems Solutions.
Picking up a coupon shouldn’t take all that very long.
Birkman stood at the counter for a few moments, talking to Tiffany. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and began dabbing at her eyes, which were moist. The seconds screamed by. Tiffany wobbled out from behind the counter and gave him a hug. Together, they walked toward the wall and plugged in the Christmas lights. They were the twinkling kind. Tiffany was crying, but smiling a bit through her tears as Birkman reached into his back pocket. He peeled off a twenty, forty — no, $100 — and pressed it into her hand. They hugged. Tiffany walked out of the lobby, hopped into her Fiero, and drove off. Birkman wiggled his fingers good-bye as a jet rumbled overhead. We could almost reach out and touch it.
Birkman was reflective on the ride back to the airport. “Tiffany’s having a bad day,” he said quietly, as I veered toward the long-term parking lot. The flight was past tense, I thought. We may as well lug our bags a bit and suffer.
“We’re a caring company, Bill. It’s my role — when I can — to be there. I’m a bit like a father to you all.” I looked over, expecting to find him smirking, but his face was as innocent as that of a little boy who’s just asked mom where his baby sister came from. I offered to carry our bags, but he grabbed a porter and tipped him a twenty. I began to think Idaho wouldn’t be so bad. I could learn to enjoy a little skeet shooting, though I couldn’t bring myself to shoot at an animal.
Everybody at SFO seemed to know him. The man at the ticket counter. The women at the security checkpoint. A pilot we passed. They all smiled genuine smiles. They really liked him! We passed a refreshment stand and he didn’t order a waffle cone. He didn’t even look in that direction. Our flight number was no longer flashing, but we walked to the gate anyway. The sun was shining on the hills of San Mateo.
We turned to face the most beautiful flight attendant I’ve ever seen.
“We couldn’t hold your flight. But we’ve made arrangements for you and your companion to travel on a different carrier. They’ll be taxiing by in a moment to pick you up.”
“Will there be an in-flight meal, Jenny?” he asked.
“I’m sure we can arrange something,” Jenny said, winking.
“Maybe something in a potato!” I couldn’t resist adding. Birkman laid one bear paw on my shoulder while adjusting his glass eye with the other as Jenny scurried off to see what could be arranged.