October 10, 1968
It was snowing in Detroit that morning, and the wind was picking up, rattling the soot-filmed plate glass windows in my small office. Some of the coating remained from the black smoke of the downtown fires during the July Riots of ‘67. The trip through the Western Ohio region had been long: Tuesday through Friday. For the past eighteen months, I had averaged a thousand miles per week on the company’s Chevy Biscayne.
Instead of returning to Home Office, I spent a second day in Findlay. Marathon Oil supported that office. They turned over delinquent accounts at 120 days, and other than sending bills, did no collection effort. The bills were mostly credit-card accounts. We had a manager with over two years on the job, a good crew and regular profits.
My daydream ended. I was back in my office with “Western Ohio Regional Manager” stenciled on the door in faded gold paint. I contemplated the grime on my single window overlooking Hudson Ave. I daydreamed frequently, sometimes unaware that my attention had wandered.
I never accepted how lucky I was to have a white collar job, even one with a ring around it. Me, sporting my fancy high school diploma, smart mouth and small respect for authority with no tolerance for foolishness except my own.
I perused morning mail from my five branch offices, noting the latest income figures as well as hirings and firings. There was an iron-clad rule in Monday morning meetings with the other three regional managers. The president of the company and the company founder both demanded that if you couldn’t report good news, be damn sure you report all the bad. Turn-over was incredibly high; pay incredibly low. The job was unpleasant in the extreme.
I listened to a Dictabelt from Bill Bannister in Columbus. A recent rare good hire from Beneficial Finance, the former loan man recited a grocery-list of problems he was valiantly attempting to overcome. These included a huge backlog of ill-will from creditor/clients that had been ripped off by previous staff at First National Credit. Fraud was rampant. I recognized the defeated tone of voice, and guessed I would be looking for a new manager in Columbus soon. I sighed, and chewed a ragged cuticle, feeling the first beads of sweat begin to run down my sides.
This was day three without a cigarette, and my fingers still smelled good like a cigarette should. I gathered myself for the trip down the hall to the office of Robert R. Shallert, the company’s president. Taking a deep breath, I knocked lightly on the dark mahogany door and stepped inside.
Shallert’s office was a corner space roughly 15’ by 15’ with grimy windows on two sides overlooking downtown and the riverfront area. In the smoggy distance, the bridge to Windsor, Ontario was barely visible. The room was crowded with smoke, Depression-era furniture, and two equally round, diminutive men in their late fifties. One had a cigarette in his mouth: the other sucked on a black cigar. They seemed like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee from the Twilight Zone.
Behind the desk, Shallert stubbed out his cigarette in an over-flowing ashtray; but not before the drooping ash fell into his ample lap. He coughed, sneezed, and brushed ash from his double-breasted charcoal suit coat. The other round man continued looking out the window. Shallert said, “Mike, good morning. Sit down.”
I settled into a dull red leather chair and caught myself reaching for a cigarette again. The founder, Ted Masserman, kept his back to me. Pungent smoke rose in a cloud around him. After becoming a lawyer on the G.I. bill, he brought S.O.P. into the collection business just in time for the Depression. It was great timing if you wanted to start a collection business: there were plenty of unpaid bills in the twenty years after the Great Crash of ‘29. From Detroit, he opened offices in Michigan and Ohio until he had 24. Most were profitable until credit cards took over in the mid-nineteen sixties.
Ted swiveled his chair around to face me. I imagine he believed he looked grim; not ludicrous, which was my impression. I struggled not to laugh at his Halloween pumpkin scowl.
Shallert exhaled blue smoke and cleared his throat. “We need to know what’s going on in your region, Mike. The losses continue, both in dollars and in trained personnel. What are you doing to stop these losses?”
The silence grew thicker than the blue air in the cramped room. Ted, still showing his owl scowl, suddenly leaned forward in his chair and kicked me in the ankle. My perpetual numbness thinned into something darker. He continued his tirade as though nothing had happened. “Talk to us, boy. You’ve had almost two years and your results are terrible! What is your plan of action?” His face grew purple spots on each cheek, and he sucked violently on the soggy end of his cigar.
I could have told him the facts. That this was the beginning of the end for his tawdry little empire. That credit cards had already taken over. That he was a cosmic joke, and evil incarnate. Instead, I grinned. Standing up from my chair, I straightened my tie, buttoned my glen plaid suit coat over my vest and picked up the ashtray from the desk. I emptied it onto Ted’s shining head, taking care to get maximum concentration on top dead center. It took a long moment – it was large and full to overflowing. Ted was shocked into immobility. I carefully set the ashtray back on Shallert’s desk, patted my hands together, and walked to the door.
Turning in the doorway, I smiled as they gaped at me. “Ashes to ashes, gentlemen.” They were both slack-jawed with disbelief. Ted began fluttering his hands about his head and shoulders. Sputtering came from his mouth. I closed the door, walked back to my office and cleaned out my desk.
Riding down the elevator, through the lobby, and outside on the street, I was still grinning like an idiot. Change was in the air. Or maybe it was the Tigers finally winning the World Series that day, 4 games to 3, against the St. Louis Cardinals that had people on the street smiling back at me.
© mikewhitney 2009