the first appearance of Idris Blake

the Humble Grocer #fantasticdrivel

excerpt from The Humble Grocer. first draft.

This was no accident. It was a message.

Which made Frank the messenger. Frank and Tyler. While the younger man seemed to enjoy the whole thing as a kind of olfactory knavery, Frank hated this part of his job.

He’d driven trash trucks in Brocklee since the early 80’s. A quarter of a century. It wasn’t a glamorous job by any means. It was hard work. Grubby and sweaty and smelly. Blue-collar heavy lifting. But it was an honest day’s work for a respectable wage. And he was performing a public service. Public servants are the backbone of our great nation, as his Pappy liked to say.

When Wastes of the West folded, Frank was relieved to learn that the folks at BIG wanted to keep him on. They needed good drivers, good trash collectors, they’d said. They needed men and women who knew this city well, drivers who could navigate the streets efficiently even if their routes seemed counter-intuitive. It was a complicated thing, this whole Superecyling business.

“We’re making a complicated thing very simple—from the consumer’s perspective, that is. That’s the best way to get the most involvement. Make it simple. The consumer just puts everything on the curb. We pick it up and they leave the rest to us.”

“Now we all know it’s not as simple as the consumer thinks, is it?” Idris Blake said with a knowing smile. The corps of drivers shook their heads and chuckled ruefully. What an understatement! “We all know that. But we’ve got a job to do, a service to provide. This is a service industry. And like any service industry, people expect magic. We’re magicians, as far as they are concerned. An industry of magicians working our industrial magic tricks.”

Blake smiled again, but this time he met with a room full of blank stares. Chuck Schmidt looked mildly consternated, but it was a look he wore most of the time so it didn’t seem out of place. Someone yawned. Idris was in danger of losing his audience.

“What I mean is that it seems like a magic trick. To the consumers. They take all this stuff they want to be rid of—and some of it is really nasty stuff—they put it out on the curb and poof!” he snapped his fingers, “it’s gone. They never see it again. Like magic.”

A few nodding heads encouraged him to continue. “In fact, that’s why we collect the garbage in the middle of the day, when everyone is at work or school. They don’t even see us. They just know it was there on the curb when they left and it’s gone when they return.”

“It’s magic!” Tommy Fitzhugh gasped from the second row, giving his best impression of awestruck wonder. The room burst into laughter and Blake breathed a sigh of relief.

“Exactly! And we don’t want to ruin the magic for them. If we do our job right, it’s never anything more than a magic trick to them, to the consumer. They don’t know how hard we work, how much we sweat, the awful smells we have to put up with, the disgusting things we have to pick up…” Blake began to rev up his speech like a Pentecostal preacher. “They don’t know, when the bags break, who has to shovel that trash off the street. We do. They don’t know, when they fill a receptacle with sticks and thorns and briars, who has to reach into that inhospitable place and break free that tangled mess. We do. They don’t know, when they throw out a 64-oz fountain drink cup with 33-oz of liquid still inside, who has to contend with that foul fluid as it sloshes around in the bottoms of their trash cans. We do.”

The air was thick with charismatic affirmations: “amen!” “damn straight!” “you got that right!” Idris Blake was clearly a man who knew their struggle.

“Of course we don’t like it,” Blake continued, “but after looking through your employee files—hell, after just looking around this room—I can tell that you all have put in your blood, sweat, and tears in serving your communities for all these years. Somewhere along the way, you accepted that there are unpleasant aspects of this job. You know it’s a dirty job, and you also know that somebody’s gotta do it.”

The drivers basked in the glow of Blake’s unabashed admiration. He reined himself in somewhat as he adopted a more businesslike tone.

“That’s something you can’t really teach, you know? You can teach a kid how to drive a truck, how to haul trash, sure. But learning how to provide a service, learning that the same things that make your job dirty are the things that make it valuable, learning that they’re a part of a much larger team, working on a much larger ‘magic trick,’ that’s not a lesson you can teach in a two-week training course. That takes years. Years spent out on the pavement, working in the heat and the cold. Not two weeks in a classroom.”

The drivers exchanged puzzled looks. They agreed with everything Blake was saying, but what is this talk about two weeks in a classroom?

“Look, I’m probably not supposed to tell you this…” Blake leaned forward conspiratorially and lowered his voice. The drivers also leaned forward, listening intently. “…but there was talk, early on, about wiping the slate clean. Laying off all the drivers who worked for Wastes of the West and training up a brand new crew of rookies to take over for BIG.”

“I knew it!” cried Lydia Busch.

“Those sons of bitches,” muttered Tommy Fitzhugh.

Blake had struck a nerve, and was quick to stem the tide of disgruntlement. “But that was early on. Months ago. Over a year ago, in fact. This deal has been in the works for a long time. And I made it clear that I would not be onboard if they planned on canning all the veterans and filling the ranks with a bunch of kids who will work for less. I don’t care how slick their two-week class is, you can’t tell me some rookie is going to be able to come in and do this job and do it right. They will destroy the magic. They will lose the public’s trust. And no matter how much money you might have saved paying those kids to work for pennies, you’re gonna lose it all when this thing falls apart and you have to repair the damage. If that’s the way they wanna go, I told them, they’ll have to find somebody else to run their fleet because I ain’t gonna do it.”

The drivers were dumbstruck. This guy had put his neck on the line to protect their jobs before they had even met. Before they even knew their jobs were in danger!

“So what did they say?” Frank asked.

“They came back with a counteroffer,” Blake winced as if the memory pained him. “They said they’d let you keep your jobs if you’d take the cut in pay. Work for what they were gonna pay the kiddos. I said you can’t send a man home from work one day and expect him to come back the next and do the same work for less money. And you sure as hell can’t expect him to come back the next day and do a harder job for less money. It defies reason.”

Everyone in the room agreed that reason would be defied by such an arrangement.

“What do you mean ‘do a harder job?’” Chuck Schmidt asked the question they all were wondering about.

“Well, it’s not really that the job is harder…” Blake chose his words carefully. “In fact, in the long run it might wind up being a little easier. It’s just going to be a little different is all.”

“Different? You mean we’re getting different jobs?” Chuck was flummoxed.

“I thought you said all drivers got to keep their jobs,” Billy Porter said. His tone was accusatory.

“No, no, you do! That’s not what I meant.” Blake’s composure unraveled slightly as he scrambled to explain. “You all get to keep your jobs as drivers. It’s just that Superecycling is—complex. Even the most forgiving model simulations show that economic viability is not easily achieved without continuous scheduling control. Pure concurrency works fine in a more traditional model, but with Superecycling we kept running into deadlock and resource starvation. Lower level scheduling algorithms couldn’t keep up. There’s a top-level appearance of concurrent workflow, but that only is true to the extent that parallelism exploits concurrency. In other words, Superecycling requires that multiple processes run in parallel in order to maintain throughput above the baseline set by our cost of operation…”

The drivers cast worried glances at one another. Blake might as well have been speaking in tongues. Hell, maybe he was. Were they supposed to be understanding all this? Maybe this was why there was a two-week class. A few minutes ago they felt like valued veterans ready to lead the way into a bold new era of trash collection. Now…as much as they hated to admit it, this stuff sounded way above their pay grade.

At some point, they noticed that Blake had stopped talking. Had he reached some conclusion? Had his vocal cords succumbed to exhaustion? Or maybe they had drifted off, and he had called on one of them and was waiting for an answer.

Apparently that’s what Clyde Campbell thought. “Um, could you repeat the question?” he asked.

Blake smiled kindly at Clyde and then looked up at the clock on the wall. He needed to wrap this up.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I get a little carried away. You don’t need to know any of that stuff.”

The drivers breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“You don’t need to know it because I do,” Blake continued. “It’s my job to manage this fleet. It’s your job to drive those trucks. I tell you when and where you need to make pickups, and you go make those pickups, even if it’s not the route you’re used to driving.”

“So….you’re saying we keep our jobs, we’re just getting different routes?” Paco Alvarez clarified.

“Yes!” Blake beamed. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. Thank you! Geez, I don’t know why that was so hard for me!” He rolled his eyes and gave a self-deprecating laugh of exasperation.

Everyone else laughed too. The mood in the room suddenly felt relaxed and friendly.

“New routes!” Blake declared. “New routes for everyone! They might not be the same every day, and they might not make a lot of sense on their own. But that’s because you’re all a part of the master plan. And I will always tell you where you need to go and what you need to do. That’s my job. Your job is to go there and do it.”

“Well that’s simple enough,” Billy said. “They didn’t think we old-timers could handle that?”

Blake shrugged lamely. “Oh, well, you know what they say about old dogs…”

“Don’t let ‘em sleep on the sofa.” Chuck said matter-of-factly.

Idris would have said more, but Chuck seemed very satisfied with his contribution, so he simply adjourned the meeting.

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