Thursday, July 30, 2009

“What a long, strange trip it’s been…”


When I graduated from Baylor, I hadn’t a clue as to what I might actually DO with the degree for which I had slaved (well, slid through and graduated in spite of everything).  The rule of thumb was, “Want a good job?  Get a good education!”  Ok, well, I had the education, now where was the good job?

Unfortunately, not as plentiful as I would have liked (kind of like today).  Stagflation was ruling the economy, employers were skittish---and I had no idea where to go or what to do.

I wound up at an employment agency I’d found in the classified section of the Dallas Morning News.  I wanted to move to Dallas, I had HAD it with little hick towns. 

The recruiter was, hmm, how to say this here, without using a naughty word…a North Dallas B****.  There you go.  She had the perfect hair and the perfect clothes and the perfect nails and was sitting in her perfect office looking down her perfectly perky little nose at me sneering “We don’t normally deal with GREEN GRADS; however, we might have a spot for you at Liberty Mutual.”  So off I went to interview with Harliss McMurray at Liberty Mutual.

In those days, you went to work for a company and trained, then after the formal training, they told YOU where you were going---and it could be anywhere.  They let us express three preferences, but were not bound by them.  I got my second preference, Houston.  I reported to training in Dallas and was assigned the company car I was promised (“The last training class got Cutlasses!”  us:  “OOOOOHHH, Cutlasses!!!!”  “But this training class, we’re giving out DIAMOND JUBILEE THUNDERBIRDS!”  us:  “WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”).

(Here’s a picture of my friend Bob and I, in the parking lot of the Executive Inn next to Dallas Love Field---Liberty’s training “dorm”---and that’s my Diamond Jubilee Thunderbird over Bobby’s left shoulder; it was dove gray with dove gray leather interior and a dove gray landau vinyl top.  STYLIN!)


Main post:

I woke up excited as all get out; today was the day.  Last weekend, I had driven my own car, a 1975 Nova, to Houston and left it at Robert’s.  My own apartment was ready (barely); I had to rent it on “pre-completion” because Houston was gaining 2,000 new residents a DAY at the time.

I had wanted Dallas, but Houston was big, booming, and mysterious; I hadn’t spent a lot of time there and was eager to explore the city.

Got to “work” at the training center of Liberty Mutual in Dallas, on Walnut Hill Lane.  My class had been a lot of fun; we were all pretty pleased with our assignments.  We were “ready for action”.  A guy named Steve Betts (who had been my roommate) was also going to the Houston National Risk office (we had “National Risk” and “Personal Lines”).  We were delighted because it was downtown.  We were going to do our “Bob Newhart” thing; we were going to be sophisticated urban dwellers, with our little hats and briefcases and trenchcoats----but with palm trees, in Houston….

So, there we sat in class, and Larry, our Training Supervisor, says, “Ok, kids, time to turn in your keys!”  Say WHAT?  “Yeah, these are only TRAINING CLASS cars!  Your REGULAR company cars will be waiting for you at the branch.  Now, here are your plane tickets for your trips.  Go ahead and call your supervisor and let him know to send an adjuster to pick you up at the airport.”

Ok, so my supervisor was a woman (OH, the SHAME!)  I called her, and in my most professional voice said, “Good morning, Miss Young, this is Nick Jones, your new trainee.”  “Who?”  “Nick Jones, your new trainee.”  “Am I getting a new trainee?  I wasn’t informed.”  “Uh, yes, ma’am, and I was told to call you and tell you what my flight is, so you can send an adjuster to pick me up.”  “WHAT?!?!  I DON’T HAVE A F*****G ADJUSTER TO SEND TO PICK YOU UP!  TAKE A F*****G CAB!”  “Uh, ma’am, I’m just telling you what I was told.”  “Ok, ok, I’ll send an adjuster.  Jesus!”

Well, THAT’s not a good way to get “in” with your boss!  Oh, well.  Maybe I did it wrong….

So, at 10:00, the Executive Inn’s shuttle drove me to Love Field, and I boarded a flight for Houston.  Arrived at Hobby Airport, and I’ll never forget the announcement droning over and over, in a middle-eastern voice:  “Shuttles now leaving for Downtown ‘eustin!  South-east ‘eustin!  South-west ‘eustin!” (To this day, when I arrive at Hobby, I can still hear that announcement).

I was told to look for a young lady in a blue dress with brown hair (well, THAT narrows it down….).

Yep, here she comes, on tiny spike heels, smoking a cigarette, with frizzy brown hair:  “Hi, I’m Cheryl!  Are you Nick?”  “Yes, ma’am!”

So we go out to her car.  I’ve had a Diamond Jubilee Thunderbird, remember.  She opens the trunk of this rusty paste blue Ford Granada with no wheelcovers and a crappy tire.  The reason for the crappy tire was readily apparent:  the regular tire was in the back seat.  The front ashtray was mounded over with cigarette butts.  I thought, “Man, what has this chick done wrong to get this crappy car?!?” As we chatted and drove, she said, “Oh, this is the best car in the unit; I get it as Senior Claim Rep!” 

Um, wait.  I was promised a Thunderbird (Diamond Jubilee Edition).

Century_Building So we get to the office, at the Central National Bank Tower in downtown Houston.  (I later found out that this building had an amazing history; that’s another blog post.  Suffice it to say that, dirty, run-down, I still sat there and said, “Man, somebody put Venetian slate on the outside of this building, and carrara marble on the inside!  and it’s got a penthouse!” Ok, a tease:  it was built by Houston legend Glenn McCarthy (the real-life prototype for James Dean’s character in “Giant”) with the scraps left over from the construction of the Shamrock Hotel.  McCarthy moved his famous Cork Club there, to the penthouse, and it was graced by the like of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.  Of course, there was a penthouse pad for McCarthy, too, for when he met some cutie at the club….).

The old CNB building had seen better days.  Worn carpet led to a steel (?!) door, which opened to a reception area with bulletproof glass and a speak-grille; you had to be “buzzed” back.  Walked into the office:  gray linoleum square floors, gray steelcase desks, 5 to a row, 20 rows.  Green “Call Director” phones.  Each row of chairs was a different colour:  Harvest gold, avocado, tangerine, turquoise, seafoam.  Cubicles along the windows.  One glass corner office.  A blue haze of cigarette smoke extending about 4 feet down from the ceiling.  You were smoking, whether you wanted to or not.

Massive banks of card catalogues (like the library) along one wall, that’s how you indexed files (now, computerized, takes seconds).  People screaming into phones, cussing, phones ringing, typewriters clicking, adding machines going.

I reported to my supervisor; I had taken quite a bit of ribbing over reporting to a damn WOMAN (the indignity!).  “Good afternoon, Miss Young!” (best Eddie Haskell).  “Oh my GOD, you can’t be here yet!  Well, go sit somewhere and don’t bother me.  Here’s a “file-in-a-box”, go read it and leave me alone!”  “Um, ok ma’am!”.

So I sat down at the only open desk in the unit (next to the file room and the one and only copy machine, “makin’ copies!”).  I start reading the file.  Cheryl is turning the air blue behind me, while Wanda in front of me is talking seductively into the phone, “Oh, yeah?  Then what would you do?”  Bruce, next to me, is turning the air bluer than Cheryl.  EVERYBODY SMOKING.

I go back to my boss’s cube.  “Um, Miss Young?”  “WHAT IS IT?”  “Um, on this file:  is the accident date outside our coverage period?”  (In claimsworld, the very first thing you do is check the damn coverage.  Did the accident happen in our policy period?  If not, you deny and the claim goes to the correct policy.  It’s elemental, you have to do it---and nobody did on this million-dollar file).  “OH MY GOD!”  Since she had signed off on it (and so did the Branch Manager, and the Home Office Manager, and everybody else in the world, they were all in trouble---a million dollars paid on a claim we DIDN’T OWE!!!!  And had been paying FOR YEARS!!!  and yep, it was lil ol trainee ME that found it and brought it to light.  Not so good a start.

Ok, so they’re all pondering this imponderable and it’s getting on towards 4:00 pm.  I’ve not seen nor heard of a company car and I have no ride home---I’d planned to drive my T-bird directly to Robert’s, where I would occupy the couch until I got into my apartment.  I called Betts on the phone; he said, “Nobody’s said anything to me, either, what should we do?”  “I’ll ask.”  I go over to Rhetta’s cube.  “Um, Miss Young, about my company car…”.  “I DON’T HAVE A G-D CAR FOR YOU!  WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE, GENERAL MOTORS?  HICKMAN IS IN CHARGE OF CARS, GO SEE HIM!!!!!”  So off I go to the Assistant Manager.  “Um, Mr. Hickman, about my company car…”.  “Who ARE you?”  “Um, I’m your new trainee, sir, and this is your other new trainee, Steve!”  “I DON’T HAVE ANY G-D CAR FOR YOU!”  “Um, sir, how are we supposed to get home?”  “GO AWAY!”

About an hour later, he calls us both into his office.  “Ok, I’ve got a Ford and a Chevy, who wants what?”  Me:  “I’ll take the Chevy!”  Steve:  “Ford for me!”  So Hickman gives us the keys.  “They’re in the sub-basement; why don’t you boys just knock off and GO HOME!”

So, crushed and glad to escape, we head for the “SUB-basement” (“Sub-basement???”). lugging all our gear.

It’s Houston. It’s 1,000 degrees in the shade.  It’s hotter than Hell in the sub-basement, probably because the sub-basement is so close to Hell itself.

chevrolet-malibu-18 We find the cars.  A puke yellow 6 year old Malibu Classic coupe with the windows shattered and the vinyl top slashed.  A puke blue Ford Torino with a flat tire, but glass intact.  grand-torino-elite-1974-01-01 I survey the broken glass on my “new” car and say, “Steve, maybe you can drive me home.”  “Yeah, ok.”  He opens the Torino---and retches.  The prior adjuster had just thrown all the Kentucky Fried Chicken, Church’s, McDonald’s, Arby’s, and whatever else wrappers in the back.  It was up to the back of the front seat---in Houston, at 100 degrees.  The stench was overwhelming.

We drove my Malibu (hey, it only smelled like freeway exhaust, what with the windows open…) home. 

And that’s the way it happened, Wednesday, August 1, 1979---thirty years ago today, the very-first-day of my now 30-year-old career.

You know, I’ve worked in a lot of claims offices.  Usually the Claims Manager was a fat 50-something dude in the corner office, with a bottle in his desk drawer, a cloud of smoke from the chain-smoking, and a bottle of antacid on his desk.  I always swore I’d never be that guy.

Pardon me while I go into my corner office and pop some Tums.  I don’t chain smoke (any more; I started at Liberty because, why NOT?  I was inhaling enough smoke, might as well enjoy doing it----and I DID enjoy smoking…), nor do I have a bottle of whiskey in my desk drawer (it’s at home, and I have a drink every day when I get home from this madness), but I am, in fact, the fat old dude popping antacids in the corner office with the title “Claims Manager”.

30 years.

Absolutely amazing.

 nick long hair 1



Nick and Robert, in Houston, at Greenway Plaza, sitting on somebody’s Mercedes and dreaming of success, on the start of the grand adventure of life, 1979:

Nick & Robert 

(I’m posting this Friday, July 31; I thought Friday was August 1---shows the advanced stage of elderly decay…and the result of too many antacids, too much scotch, too many cigarettes, and TOO MANY CLAIMS!…but I’m not going to be able to post on Saturday, August 1.  I’m going to Dallas---to see my friend Robert; he’s buying a house and wants my opinion.  We’ve been friends for 37 years and counting.)  (And now I’ve got the theme from “The Bob Newhart Show” running through my head.  Suzanne Pleshette, what a knockout!)


  1. I think this is absolutely your best ever. It's a wonder we're not all dead from second hand smoke. When I taught at PA, they had two teachers' lounges--a smoking lounge and a non-smoking lounge. Well, absolutely nobody hung out in the non-smoking lounge, so there I would sit in the smoking lounge in the middle of all of that haze. I've never smoked a day in my life. I had asthma as a child, and the smell of my daddy's cigarette smoke used to drive me crazy. Anyway, great memories. Happy anniversary!

  2. I loved reading this..I forgot it was a blog post for a minute, it reads like a great story.

  3. Thanks, both. Coming from talented writers such as yourselves, those are big compliments.