Start-Up Beatdown

Chapter 5: Joel Vs. Hempstead

 

The first per­son in the office every­day was a man by the name of Sean Hemp­stead. Sean Hemp­stead was the omega wolf of the office. Sure, I was giv­en the shit­ti­est jobs to per­form, but most of the time, peo­ple treat­ed me with at least some respect (to my face, at least). Hemp­stead, how­ev­er, was treat­ed like worm-infest­ed shit. All bad vibes, bale­ful thoughts and evil juju were inevitably focused at this man like a beam. Per­haps it was because he would take it, when any nor­mal per­son would have quit or killed every­one in a shoot­ing ram­page …

Sean Hemp­stead had a desk next to mine in the hall­way. He was a tall, rather thin man, with a shock of blond hair, thick glass­es and the demeanor of an unin­vit­ed house­guest who made him­self at home. Often­times, I would find him stretched out in his chair, casu­al­ly shelling peanuts and poop­ing them in his mouth, while surf­ing the Inter­net. Though he looked to be in his thir­ties, Sean Hemp­stead was in his fifties, a Viet­nam vet­er­an and a grand­fa­ther. He was also an incred­i­ble geek. He was Seashel Pro­duc­tions IT spe­cial­ist, and would men­tion the Mac’s supe­ri­or­i­ty to the PC so reg­u­lar­ly that I thought he was per­haps receiv­ing a sec­ond pay­check from Apple.

Nobody ever called Sean Hemp­stead ‘Sean,’ or even ‘Mr. Hemp­stead.’ Instead, every­one just called him ‘Hemp­stead,’ or, to be more pre­cise, ‘HEMPSTEAD,’ as it was usu­al­ly yelled. I would hear his name harsh­ly invoked numer­ous times on any giv­en day, usu­al­ly fol­lowed by a vit­ri­olic, “why haven’t you …” or “the god­damned machine is …” And Hemp­stead would shrug off the abuse with an “oh, what-would-you-peo­ple-do-with­out-me” atti­tude that prob­a­bly only made peo­ple hate him more.

Hemp­stead arrived at work at 7:30, a full hour-and-a-half before every­one else. It took him over an hour to com­mute to the office every day, which mean he left his home before 6:30. When I found out he came in so ear­ly, I asked him why. “It’s in my con­tract. I come in at 7:30, and I get to leave at 4:30.” When I point­ed out that I had nev­er once seen him leave at 4:30, he added, sheep­ish­ly, “Or as need­ed. It says, ‘4:30 or as need­ed.’ They kind of got me on that one, huh?” True enough, Hemp­stead usu­al­ly left after I did, and I aver­aged leav­ing between 6:30 and 7:00.

As need­ed” also includ­ed being called back to the office in the mid­dle of the night. One night, some co-work­ers and I were work­ing late. Hemp­stead was excused to leave at around 7:00, but by 11:00, Sean Etin was bel­low­ing for him. “Where the hell is Hemp­stead? Why isn’t he here?!?” Flo explained that he was excused and left. “Well, get that piece of shit back here. Now!” And sure enough, Hemp­stead was back in the office a lit­tle over an hour lat­er. This appar­ent­ly hap­pened often …

One morn­ing, some­thing strange hap­pened. I had just got­ten in and was slow­ly sip­ping a Moun­tain Dew, in my usu­al morn­ing stu­por, day­dream­ing about still being in bed. As usu­al, Hemp­stead was already at his desk, next to mine in the hall­way, and was try­ing to engage me in a con­ver­sa­tion about the supe­ri­or­i­ty of the Mac­in­tosh. “You read today’s arti­cle in CNET?” he asked me, obliv­i­ous to my men­tal state and lack of inter­est in the sub­ject. “More virus­es found in PCs. Win­dows is gonna need a patch. Of course, Macs aren’t affect­ed …” As usu­al, I gave my non­de­script grunt, sym­bol­iz­ing both every­thing I felt on the sub­ject, and noth­ing, and usu­al­ly the only way I could com­mu­ni­cate that ear­ly in the morn­ing.

In order to get to their desks in the morn­ing, all Seashel Employ­ees had to squeeze past me and Hemp­stead in the nar­row, clut­tered hall­way. Joel, the sec­ond meati­est mem­ber of the Seashel staff (only Sean Etin him­self out-massed him), sashayed past our chairs as we scootched into our desks, and went into the senior staff room. A few moments lat­er he roared, “HEMPSTEAD!”

Hemp­stead swiveled his chair in the direc­tion of where the ugly noise was com­ing from. “Yes?” he asked in a con­ver­sa­tion­al man­ner that sug­gest­ed he was quite used to Joel’s tone.

My god­damned pass­word won’t work! What the fuck did you do?!?”

Patient­ly, in his slight South­ern drawl, he called back, “There was a secu­ri­ty issue with the net­work this morn­ing. You’re gonna have to cre­ate a new pass­word.”

No, Hemp­stead, no! I’m sick of this shit! Get over here right now and give me my old pass­word back.”

Hemp­stead leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “I can’t do that, Joel. Just make a new pass­word.”

Tak­ing a page from the Sean Etin book of intim­i­da­tion, Joel charged out into the hall­way like a bull, but unlike Etin, who would get right in someone’s face, his immense body hulk­ing under his suit, while spit­tle and vit­ri­ol rained down upon his vic­tim, Joel stopped short at the end of the hall­way. In terms of intim­i­da­tion, it wasn’t near­ly as effec­tive, even with his large build (he prob­a­bly out­weighed both Hemp­stead and I put togeth­er) undu­lat­ing angri­ly with every breath.

Hemp­stead,” Joel said in a con­trolled tone akin to some­one speak­ing to a dis­obe­di­ent dog, “I want you to get up off your ass and do what I say.”

Joel, lis­ten, we can’t just –“

Just do it! I don’t want to hear any of your idi­ot­ic excus­es!”

To be fair, Hemp­stead always seemed to have a windy, cir­cuitous excuse or speech handy for why we should or should not do some­thing that it was sim­ply too ear­ly in the morn­ing to deal with, even with this exchange quick­ly sober­ing me up. What Hemp­stead said next shook off what­ev­er sleepi­ness that still remained.

You’re the idiot,” he mum­bled under his breath.

What did you say?!?” Joel was incred­u­lous.

I said you’re the idiot, Joel!”

The tim­o­rous, inured Hemp­stead was gone. The loud, bel­li­cose Joel was still there, now enraged. Hemp­stead stood up from his chair, clench­ing and unclench­ing his fists. Vio­lence was immi­nent. Two phras­es were pound­ing in my skull – “Get away. You’re a wit­ness. Get away. You’re a wit­ness. Get away. You’re a wit­ness.” I was with the com­pa­ny long enough to know that I did not want to be involved in any way with what­ev­er insan­i­ty came from this con­fronta­tion. I need­ed to get away.

YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU!” Joel screamed.

Go ahead and try!” Hemp­stead coun­tered.

I’m, uhhh, gonna see what’s going on out­side …” I mum­bled weak­ly to no one in par­tic­u­lar. I got up and left the house – down the spi­ral stair­case and out the door. It was sun­ny and pleas­ant out­side. I sat on a patio step for about 15 min­utes, watch­ing crickets*1 hop around, and lis­tened for screams or crash­es. With no noise ema­nat­ing from the house, I came back in. The hall­way was now emp­ty. I peeked my head into the kitchen and saw Hemp­stead mak­ing him­self a tea, mum­bling angri­ly to him­self, his fists still clench­ing and unclench­ing. I decid­ed to leave him alone …

 

At lunch, I played bas­ket­ball with my three friends who worked under Joel in the cre­ative depart­ment (which I was sort of a mem­ber of as well). They secret­ly saw and heard the whole exchange from their room at the end of the hall­way, and filled me in on what I had missed when I left. “They were yelling at each oth­er for a while and then Joel went into the senior staff room and came with the time clock*2 and was like, ‘I’m gonna bash your fuck­ing head in with this time clock!’” CJ said.

So, Joel threat­ened him with some­thing phys­i­cal? He could get fired for this!” I said, rather excit­ed­ly.

Nobody else got their hopes up. “Not gonna hap­pen,” Per­ry said. “If any­thing, they’ll fire Hemp­stead.”

I real­ized he was right. Know­ing how this com­pa­ny oper­at­ed, and how much every­one seemed to despise him, Hemp­stead was prob­a­bly on his way out.

I didn’t want Hemp­stead to be fired. I didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly like the man, but I didn’t hate him either, and in this com­pa­ny, that said a lot. Sure, he was annoy­ing, but he wasn’t con­niv­ing or evil or need­less­ly cru­el. With the abuse he took on a dai­ly basis, it prob­a­bly was best for him to leave, but I want­ed him to do it on his own accord, not fired for being near­ly mur­dered.

I went back to the office with the guys, not look­ing for­ward to what would prob­a­bly hap­pen when Etin bull­dozed into the office at the end of the day – though I did feel con­fi­dent that I had man­aged to side­step any chance of being sucked into the insan­i­ty that would fol­low his arrival. Hemp­stead was now sit­ting at his desk, look­ing much calmed. “How’s it going?” I asked.

Good,” he said. “I’m on my way out in an hour or so.”

Oh?” I guessed the ax had already fall­en.

I have a den­tist appoint­ment, and I made it a month ago. If they think they can get me to can­cel it, they can think again. I know my rights!”

Hemp­stead was still worked up. With­out prompt­ing, he added, “I wish Joel did hit me. I would have sued him and the whole damn com­pa­ny!”

For a moment, I wished Hemp­stead had been hit too. The idea that he would be the one to take down the com­pa­ny (or at least Joel) had a ‘Made-for-TV’ elo­quence that I appre­ci­at­ed. Of course, this ignored the facts that Seashel Pro­duc­tions was in innu­mer­able law­suits already, that Sean Etin loved fight­ing them, and that he and Joel could lie bet­ter than Hemp­stead could tell the truth. Per­haps it was bet­ter that Hemp­stead wasn’t hit, and that he was leav­ing for the day. It would give every­one a chance to calm down and even delay what­ev­er inquiry was bound to occur for anoth­er day.

Of course, I was wrong on both accounts. About an hour after Hemp­stead left, I heard the hoofs of Sean Etin, as he pow­er-walked from his side of the house to the work­er side. I scootched my chair into my desk just in time as Mr. Etin charged through. Thank­ful­ly, he didn’t acknowl­edge me, and I returned to what­ev­er pid­dling task I was work­ing on. About ten min­utes lat­er, Flo came into the hall­way and spoke to me. “Dan­ny,” she said, “can you please join us in Sean’s office? We’d like your account of what tran­spired this morn­ing.”

As I walked to Mr. Etin’s office, I was weigh­ing in my mind just how much tes­ti­mo­ny I was will­ing to give. Was the slim prospect of get­ting Joel fired worth get­ting myself entan­gled in what­ev­er crazi­ness they had going on? As soon as I reached the office, I real­ized that the answer was a resound­ing ‘no.’

For­get­ting where I worked for a moment, I some­how expect­ed this to be a pri­vate meet­ing between myself, Sean Etin and Flo. Instead, the entire senior staff was seat­ed in his cramped room. Rita: Seashel’s HR per­son, Sean Etin’s sis­ter, and a good friend to Joel. Jim Heff: Seashel’s roly-poly para­le­gal who often act­ed as Joel’s lack­ey. Mike Hahn: Seashel’s comp­trol­ler and for­mer col­lege and Euro­pean bas­ket­ball play­er, who, despite is tow­er­ing height, man­aged to make him­self invis­i­ble dur­ing the office con­flicts and crazi­ness (which I great­ly respect­ed and envied). Last, but not least, sit­ting mere inch­es away from where I was stand­ing was Joel him­self, look­ing smug and relaxed. Being in this room with all the senior staffers made me notice for the first time that Hemp­stead was the only work­er above the age of thir­ty-five who didn’t work in the senior staff room. Throw­ing a kan­ga­roo court where the defen­dant wasn’t even there to defend him­self seemed hor­ri­bly low, but it was nowhere near sur­pris­ing that it would go down like this.

Tell us what hap­pened this morn­ing, Dan­ny,” Flo said.

I want­ed out bad. Any­thing that I said that would dis­par­age Joel (such as the truth, for instance) would cause me prob­lems in the future. Every­one in the room hat­ed Hemp­stead to begin with. My need to defend an inno­cent man and save his crap­py job was superced­ed by my need to avoid any added dis­com­fort at work. I wasn’t going to sell Hemp­stead out, but I wasn’t going to stick my neck out for him either.

Joel and Hemp­stead had an argu­ment,” I replied, try­ing my best to stay neu­tral.

What did they say to each oth­er?”

They were argu­ing. A lot of things were said.”

Did Hemp­stead real­ly call Joel an idiot?” Sean Etin asked.

I’m sure both Joel and Hemp­stead said things in the heat of the argu­ment that they regret.”

Did he call me an idiot or not?” Joel prompt­ed me, impa­tient­ly.

My defense of Hemp­stead end­ed there. I want­ed out. “He did, and I left imme­di­ate­ly after, so I don’t know what hap­pened after that. Sor­ry I can’t be of any more help, but I didn’t want to be around an argu­ment. Am I free to go?”

They dis­missed me, and I ran off, ashamed that I didn’t do more to help Hemp­stead. I real­ized as I left, that there were three oth­er wit­ness­es who saw and heard the entire con­flict in secret, and could do a much bet­ter job defend­ing him than I could – but forc­ing my friends to come for­ward, into the mael­strom of chaos if they could afford to avoid it was unfair to them and not my call to make. So, I just left for the day.

 

I came in the next day, expect­ing it to be Hempstead’s last. Dur­ing lunch, Joel invit­ed me and my three friends to eat with him. Being our imme­di­ate boss, we decid­ed to accept his invi­ta­tion. Joel spent the hour bad­mouthing Hemp­stead, quizzing us on how much we dis­liked him, and end­ing the lunch by announc­ing that Hemp­stead won’t be with us for much longer. It was awk­ward, and thank­ful­ly, the only lunch we ever had with him.

Joel was wrong about Hemp­stead, though. The worst of the storm had passed, and Hemp­stead had weath­ered it with no pun­ish­ment oth­er than his usu­al dose of ver­bal abuse. Things were back to ‘nor­mal’ that day, with Hemp­stead ask­ing me if I had seen the new Mac com­mer­cial …

There are dif­fer­ent kinds of sur­vivors. Some, like Joel and Sean Etin, sur­vive by kick­ing, claw­ing and goug­ing their way to the top, and using what­ev­er means nec­es­sary to ensure that no one can take them down. Then there are those like Hemp­stead, who, like a bar­na­cle, could with­stand wave after wave of pun­ish­ment and still hang on. I was lat­er shocked to find out that Hemp­stead was tech­ni­cal­ly the most senior work­er at Seashel, hav­ing been there twice as long as the next most tenured staff mem­ber. He’s seen count­less employ­ees come and go, unable to han­dle the insan­i­ty of the work­place (even Mike Hahn, who man­aged to avoid all con­flicts, left sud­den­ly, short­ly after this events took place). Hemp­stead would just, for the most part, sim­ply keep his head down and take his dai­ly beat­ing. Had he stayed here for no rea­son, I would have felt pity or even anger at him – but he had a plan. Hemp­stead worked there for near­ly two and a half years. After three years with the com­pa­ny, an employ­ee can take advan­tage of prof­it shar­ing. I don’t know if he thought Seashel was due a huge mon­e­tary vic­to­ry in their major lit­i­ga­tion, or if he sin­cere­ly believed in their prod­ucts even­tu­al­ly being prof­itable, but he was deter­mined to stay. He would be the only employ­ee to take advan­tage of this ser­vice, and, in this way, he could get his revenge on Sean Etin, who, for the most part, treat­ed him worse than any­body else. What­ev­er suc­cess Sean Etin achieved from that point on, Sean Hemp­stead would get a cut. The idea of this must have made Etin furi­ous (as many things did). I had actu­al­ly won­dered if Etin had con­scious­ly treat­ed Hemp­stead so poor­ly in order to get him to quit, and if Joel’s argu­ment (which real­ly did come out of nowhere) had been an entrap­ment that didn’t go as planned.

Of course, it was hard to say. His shab­by treat­ment could have just come from the fact that many of the mem­bers of the senior staff were dicks …

Either way, his stick-to-itive­ness elicit­ed a mix­ture of respect and repul­sion in me. Cer­tain­ly, it was some­thing I could nev­er do. In fact, I promised myself that the moment I was treat­ed like Hemp­stead was, I would quit. They may give me bitch work, but I will not be treat­ed like a bitch. And I’m hap­py to say, when was inevitably I treat­ed like a bitch, I left …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*1 – The crick­ets that I watched were most like­ly put there ear­li­er by me. One of my tasks was to go to the pet store a cou­ple of times a week and buy crick­ets to feed to the com­pa­ny chameleon (which was the house chameleon before Etin’s kids lost inter­est in it). I would have to put the crick­ets from a plas­tic bag, into a crick­et cage and from there, into a tube, where I would coat them with pow­dered cal­ci­um and feed them alive to the chameleon. Any time I had to trans­fer the crick­ets, I would do it out­side, just in case they man­aged to get away. In the begin­ning, this was a good idea, since I was not very good at get­ting them smooth­ly from one place to anoth­er, and some man­aged to escape. When I final­ly got the hang of it, I still set one or two crick­ets free, prob­a­bly to make myself feel bet­ter about caus­ing so much death at work …

 

*2 – Every day, we had to time clock punch when we entered, left and ate lunch. This was to make sure that we worked a full nine-hour day, (though usu­al­ly we all worked for much longer) and there would be hell to pay if some­one came in late or left ear­ly. I was lat­er told that as salaried employ­ees who got no over­time, this was ille­gal.

 

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