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.