Battered and shattered, I fell to the canvas floor of my psychic boxing ring. I had just been fired by my boss for sending a fax on the wrong stationery. But this wasn’t just any boss. This one was also my Father! A total knock out!
The bow-tied referee, with either a halo over his head, or horns — I couldn’t tell which through the fog of broken dreams — stood over me counting to 15. I couldn’t really hear him through the swirl of emotions pulsating through my head, body, or tendrils. How exactly was I going to get a new job? I had already made the supreme effort, by previously leaving this place of temporary employment. Small businesses are the job creators of America, so the politicians always say. Gee, I wish they could have created one for me.
Dazed, I made my way back home in the strangeness of an early afternoon. What do you do when you get home after being fired for faxing a document with the wrong return address? As a fan of film noir, I knew immediately. I pulled out the Scotch bottle and poured a finger into a tumbler. I sat on the couch and took a sip. It tasted horrible. I hate Scotch; I only keep this shit around for guests who like to drink it.
Film Noir au Pissoir. Photograph by Robert Frank.
I sat there, immobile, until my wife got home. It must have been a surprise for her to find me on the couch, drinking. “Uh oh,” she said when she walked in, dropping her arms, “what’s wrong?” She doesn’t miss a trick.
“I had a really bad day at work.” I have always been fond of understatement.
Later on the next day, my Mom listened to me attentively on the phone. She urged me not to take it too seriously. “Huh, what?” I said, “Are you kidding me?!”
“You know your Father,” she purred with reassurance. Of course I knew him, I’d known him all my life. “How about you taking my place and getting fired? How would you like that?” I felt like saying to my Mom. Then I could tell her, “you know your Father.”
She didn’t seem to take this too seriously at all. In fact, she never did.
After a day or two, Dad called me on the phone as if nothing had happened. He asked me some mundane question, like, “do you know where the TDPS file is?” To which I responded, “How was I supposed to know, you fired me 2 days ago for sending a fax on the wrong stationery!”
“I did not fire you!” he snarled. “Come back here and help me find it!” He barked and the line went dead.
Whah?! Now, I wasn’t fired and I was supposed to know where some file was?!
I sauntered over to the office to find Dad arguing with Mujibhar, the Patents Operations Manager.
Mujibhar, or “Mike,” as he was called in the office, had been hired in 1977 to run the daily patent renewal payment system. His job was to oversee the scheduled reports, pay the annuities either directly to Patent Offices or to our Associates from Caracas to Colombo, and answer the mail whenever clients had questions about renewals, patent receipts, accounts, etc.
Originally from Nepal, Mike was a funny guy. For example, he taught me the swear word “ma chigny” in the Nepali language, taking care to instruct me on its proper usage. “When you are driving in Kathmandu (which is something I did 2-3 a week), and the holy animal (a cow) is blocking the road, honk the horn and shout “ma chigny” to the Gā’ī (गाई),” he explained in his peculiar Asian intonation, complete with a mischievous grin .
A typical ma chigny situation in Kathmandu.
Occasionally Mike would bark at Gloria Mazaway like some crazed terrier as she would serve (or “soive”) cut up peaches during “fruit time” (which would hit around 3PM every day.)
Mike bent over backwards to keep the clients happy. His replies were quick and authoritative. And the cients loved him for it.
Anyways, back to the argument. This situation had to do with that large European manufacturing client I mentioned last week in my post “BUCKED OFF.” They had repeatedly requested a formatting change to their patent data, namely to prefix their patent numbers with the grant year. Dad wouldn’t hear of it. Let’s call this key customer “Mondo-Carbo Limitado.”
Mike tried reasoning with “Mr. Olcott,” which was usually futile. “Mr. Olcott, we could program an exception for Mondo-Carbo in the system to give them the extra digits. This would not affect the other clients.” Sounds reasonable, right?
Dad liked to make exceptions. However, usually only when they were his idea. In this case, maybe he wanted to keep the annuity payment program as exception-free, or as simple, as possible. Reducing the probability of error was a paramount concern. Or perhaps it was the case that the entire client patent data file was maxing out on storage and he didn’t want to buy more tape drives. In any event and for whatever reason, he thought it was a lousy idea and he was dead set against it.
It was typically at this point when he would pick up the correspondence from Mike’s desk and exit stage right to go find Ralph, his personal secretary. Since Dad didn’t type, it was Ralph’s job to take his dictation to put down, yet again, and hopefully for good, Mondo-Carbo’s proposal. Dad would have made a great veterinarian in his later years.
This time, Mondo-Carbo’s response came back blazingly fast by overnight fax – my favorite method of communication. They were more insistent than ever. This provoked yet another argument with Mike who pleaded on their behalf in vain. As before, Dad grabbed the fax and marched back upstairs to Ralph. This time, I think, Dad’s response was too stern by half.
They went back and forth like this for weeks. I wasn’t solicited for my opinion but I thought it was clear that it would not be too terribly difficult to make this client happy and satisfied.
Eventually, after showing an inordinate amount of patience, Mondo-Carbo had had enough. They sent back a reply stating that they wished to terminate our services. Dad’s response to this was instructive. Instead of relenting to his client’s wishes, he poured through the 5 year contract OI had with Mondo-Carbo and promptly served notice that they had 2 years left to go! If they wished to sever the contract prematurely, fine, But they would be liable for penalties as stipulated.
Now all of this was smart on my Father’s part (to read the contract and find exceptions to his benefit), but I was nevertheless horrified. This wasn’t what you call a surefire method to promote an ongoing business. To the contrary, this was the perfect way to manage shrinkage. Generally, you want to be writing more contracts with new clients, rather than reading the riot act to a large and excellent client that you should have accommodated – and kept – in the first place.
After all, I asked myself, didn’t Dad agree to customized reporting to several large Japanese clients through our friends TDPS in Tokyo?
Alas, I was young. But I was starting to smell the coffee that my Dad, the brilliant inventor, had an unfortunate capacity for being a bucking bronco at times and trashing everything within reach. His unevenness was not just dangerous to me (economically and maybe spiritually). But to his real wife, Olcott International. Unless I could do something, there could be nothing left in a few years.
Welcome to my own Cage Aux Folles. Photograph by the author, 1978.
It may seem to the Dear Reader that this was obvious or should have been to me. But you have to understand that this was a realization that I just really didn’t want to make. I hid the truth from myself until that moment when I realized that I just could no longer deny it.
And occasionally, he could still do things that were cutting edge and totally high on the cool scale. Which gave me ample reason to keep giving him another chance. I owed him more than the benefit of the doubt. Much more.
Next week: Cutting Edge and Totally Cool.