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Prima Donna

Aug 31st, 2012 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

The prima donna story probably is worth telling. I really didn’t mind it too much at the time. It kind of became a badge of honor, and it probably fit, in a strange way. Within the core group of drivers running impounds at Retriever Towing in the late 80s/early 90s, there were some very individualistic personalities who sometimes conflicted. It was inevitable. You really do have to be a little imbalanced to be good at impound towing. You have to be confident, for sure. You have to be smart, and a little thick-skinned.

When I ran impounds, I tried to keep to myself as much as possible. I worked swing shift mostly, and for many years was the only swing shift driver on duty, which suited me just fine. I enjoyed the freedom, and I enjoyed being trusted to work without supervision. I sometimes went weeks at a time without interacting with my supervisor. I wasn’t a completely by-the-book employee, but then again, neither were any of us. I often gave the appearance of being a by-the-book employee, which is just as effective if you ask me, and provides better results. That’s one of the things working alone can do for you.

I did like to keep the other drivers doing things by-the-book, however. This is one of the secrets of gaining an advantage in a commission-based pay system. Commission drivers compete with each other, just like commission salesmen. A lot of managers and owners and faint-hearted commission drivers and salesmen will try to tell you that the workplace should be a team atmosphere where we all work together and strive for harmony and peace and all that crap. I’m sorry, but that’s not reality. You can help each other, yes. I do believe that. And the one or two drivers I worked with over the years who I actually liked and respected, I was more than happy to help. Everyone else — they were on their own. And you know what? They got better because of it. They had to find ways to be self-sufficient, and to accept and deal with my chicanery — as I did theirs — and we all got better as a result.

As I was saying, part of the chicanery was to strive for the double standard of getting away with cutting corners and stacking the deck, yet shrewdly exposing similar efforts from others. I don’t know how good I was at that, but judging from the animosity I regularly faced from my co-workers, I must have been relatively proficient. There were many complaints to my supervisor from other drivers, but they were sadly lacking in significant factors like evidence, documentation and proof. Fortunately, this is still generally an innocent-till-proven-guilty society. I, on the other hand, rarely complained to my supervisor about other drivers, mostly because I wanted to avoid all contact with him, but when I did, it was accompanied by voluminous documentation and, in some cases, photos. I also liked to accumulate reportable data, because an avalanche gets so much more attention than a daily snowball, so to speak.

Our graveyard shift driver was a former company manager who was bitter about how that adventure ended, and he seemed to like being on his own even more than me, so graveyard shift was perfect for him. For most of my time with that company, we had the contract to impound all of the abandoned vehicles for the City of Portland, which meant that every weekday they would call in a list of vehicles to be towed, and we had 24 hours to complete the tows. In the first years, our dispatcher would write down each tow on a call slip, and he/she would dole them out one at a time to the drivers. We used a complex rotation system for the drivers that had many nuances, one of which being that drivers did not have to take an abandon unless another driver was clear. Abandons were obviously low-priority tows. They paid as well as a regular police tow, but there was no telling what the condition of the vehicle was, and some of them were from distant corners of the city. Not to mention that they took you into some interesting neighborhoods. You could take an abandon if you were the only clear driver, if you wanted. I came up with the idea that you should be able to take two abandons at once, because they were often close to each other, and sometimes one was gone or moved, and it just made sense to not have drivers criss-crossing and zooming around willy-nilly in search of old pieces of crap.

The hidden wisdom of this clause was that it gave you the opportunity to “shop” the abandons, especially if you somehow got ahead in the rotation. You could take two call slips for vehicles close together and choose the ripe Ford Escort with inflated tires over the GMC Vandura with no wheels and a vile stench. Of course, once you committed to one of the two, the other one was fair game. This was where the conflict started that led to prima donna.

The graveyard shift driver was covering a day shift for someone, and he had taken two call slips from the dispatcher. The abandons that day were close in, and we were knocking them out quickly. Once he committed to one, I took the other, because it was a nice easy one. I made it back to the lot just after he did, and when I got there, he was haranguing our dispatcher, a relatively gentle, passive young man who clearly wasn’t used to being questioned about his integrity.

I came into the office and saw the graveyard shift driver, who was about 6′ 3″ and outweighed the dispatcher by a good 75 lbs., pointing angrily and yelling at the dispatcher for “giving away” his call, the second abandon that I had taken. It was not pretty. Now, I’m not an imposing figure, but I couldn’t resist pointing out how he didn’t seem able to grasp the finer details of the rotation system and how the abandons were portioned out. It was like he was just waiting for me to intervene. He turned to me, re-pointed the finger, and I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it started with this:

“Listen, you little prima donna …”

Other people were within earshot, and that’s how it got blown out of proportion. He was upset, there was no doubt about that, but he knew I was right. It wasn’t really about the abandon. Most outward rage isn’t really about what is happening right at the moment. It was about other things I had done to upset him, about other drivers making more money than he was, about working a day shift and not having control over everything that happened during his work shift, about making sacrifices to become a manager and then having that not work out. I could see all of that. I let him have his say. I didn’t complain to my supervisor about the outburst. We would have other conflicts that were scarier, late at night, without others nearby to save me from getting pummeled, but 95 percent of the time, we got along just fine.

Sometimes the imbalances balance each other out.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper