The Soft Shoe and the Whole Damn Thing

Twenty-six union business managers are squeezed together along a row of doubled white linen-covered tables. Across from them are twenty-seven business-suited contractors. With the width of two tables separating both sides, the echoey room has to be large. This room’s expansive windows, unlike others in the smaller meeting rooms, are covered with adjustable blinds that come from the bottom. They are set at half way up, strategically allowing the sun to shine directly into the eyes of the people occupying the far side of the tables. The faces of those near the windows, union representatives from across the province, are obscured by the bright light behind them.

The central union figure, Sandy, is a large-faced, large-bodied man dressed in his severe dark blue “negotiations suit”, red patterned tie included. He is working himself up to a rousing crescendo. His angry words are hurled, along with occasional theatrical spit, toward the smaller man opposite. Even as his face is darkened by the shadow, his redden features and neck can be seen to be bulging with emotion.

The recipient of the barrage, Clay, is wearing a sober face, though his tightly shaved mustache twitches occasionally. His mostly bald head is bracketed by a herringbone suit, which manages to have the appearance of both a newly-stiff collar and worn elbow-pads. Under the verbal onslaught, Clay slowly sinks lower into his suit in an attempt to use the lapels as earmuffs.

Sandy’s body rises with his crescendo and he suddenly pulls off a shoe and bangs it on the table, Khrushchev-like, yelling. “And we WON’T BE PUSHED AROUND ANYMORE!”

Most of his own side support the outburst. They all mumble or grunt various levels of approval as Sandy plops back down, satisfied with his performance. Sandy pulls a hanky across his face to wipe the sweat away.

On the other side, all but two of the twenty-seven contractor-representatives are startled. They quietly exchange worried looks. Clay glances to his left, checking on Henry, his “Co-Chair” and newly appointed Director of Labour Relations.

With the shoe banging, Henry is thinking, May we have a translation of that please? as he remembers the 1960s story of Khrushchev’s UN shoe-banging incident and Harold Macmillan’s dry English comment.

Henry is younger than all but one at the table. He is taller, with a thick black mustache and full head of black hair. Henry’s light, striped suit is calculated to blend in to most backgrounds. With this sun shining directly on it, the suit glares in the face of the union reps who look at him. So they don’t. Within, Henry is as concerned as the others in his group. Outwardly, he has learned to strictly control his facial muscles. They remain perfectly relaxed, because he has willed them so.

Allowing the reverberations to die down for a minute, Clay’s head rises fully above his collar. Seeing him out of the corner of his eye, Henry is reminded of a groundhog poking up in a field on his farm. Thinking, He’s more like the grizzly playfully scratching his back on a tree then suddenly taking off after you with a big mouthful of grinning teeth.

“Thank you, Sandy, for expressing your views about this clause. And, of course, we will take it under advisement.”

Sandy and Clay exchange neutral nods.

“And now, I would like to suggest that we adjourn talks for this first day. Over the afternoon we have been able to exchange our positions frankly. We have a lot to consider in caucus. Before we commit to the dates for further talks, are we agreed to reconvene tomorrow at eight?”

The young union rep from London has to get in with, “That’s a.m., right?”

Sandy’s head snaps angrily toward the newbie, who shrinks back into his seat, away from the glare of the Toronto union boss.

Ignoring the newbie’s comment, Clay looks across at Sandy and receives a nod when Sandy turns his head back to him, then both look up and down their sides of the table. No dissent.

“Fine, then. A productive day.” Clay turns to Henry, “Caucus for half an hour for our side, then freshen up and for those who want, we can meet in the bar at seven?” Clay is directing that to his people but glances at Sandy, whose nod comes at the same time as Henry’s.

Entering the bright, noisy hotel bar, Henry stands before the maître d’.

“Would you like a table, sir, or do you prefer the bar?”

Henry is new at this, freshly hired out of university with a degree in labour relations. He did very well in class and as a graduate student. Now in the real world, he fully understands that there are many different things to learn. Henry prides himself on being a sponge for knowledge. His attitude is, I am here to learn.

To the maître d’, “Not sure… I’m handling the union negotiations?…”

“Of course, sir. We have a quiet table in the back corner. How many would there be?”

“Make it a table for four, but it is likely to be just two of us. I think the others are going to be at the bar.”

He notices groups of his people and theirs, and a joint group happily and sometimes roughly partaking of the libations. Their main concentration appears to be on the hockey game being shown on two televisions above the bar.

As Henry steps to follow the maître d’, Clay arrives. He gets the maître d’s attention with a raised hand, “Hold the table for us, please, but we’ll sit at the bar for a few minutes.”

“Fine, sir.”

Clay heads right for Sandy, who has been alone at the bar for at least one drink so far. His tie is missing and the top two buttons on his shirt are open. Henry can’t help but notice the chest hair spilling out. Seating himself next to Sandy, Clay smiles, “Nice display.”

Sandy grins wryly, “Thanks. Needed that for… you know who.” He nods at Henry, who seats himself beside Clay. “This is new for you?”

Glancing at Clay, “Ah, yes. Very interesting.” Henry is not sure why they are speaking so openly to “the opposition”.

Clay grins.

The bartender arrives, “What can I get you gents?”

“Whiskey. Neat.”

“Ah, a screwdriver, please.”

The bartender quickly serves Clay his whiskey then prepares the screwdriver.

Henry takes his tall glass, “Thanks. Ah, please put the whiskey and my drink on my room tab? 401.’

“Of course, sir.”

The hockey game takes their attention for a minute.

Sandy then turns to Clay, patting his arm, “How’s Shirley doing?”

Shaking his head, “As well as can be expected. You know how it is. The chemo is really tough. I try to keep her spirits up, but… you know.”

Sympathetically, “Yeah. Tough. Took my Mary three months of torture… Thank you for coming to the memorial, Clay.” He pats Clay’s arm again.

Henry didn’t know about Clay’s wife. Nor Sandy’s. Much to learn.

Sandy changes the subject. “Have you filled in your new boy?”

A wry grin, “He’s a university student, Sandy. Give him time.”

“Teach him how to dance… Got to go.” As Sandy rises he leans toward Henry, “That Khrushchev was for my Ottawa guy.” He winks. “Claude still thinks he can get another two bucks plus the bump to 15 minutes break. Oh. Clay, keep away, stay away from Popovich from Sudbury. He’s spoiling for a fight.” Sandy half-nods, looking for a positive response.

“We’ll see.” Clay flashes a pixy smile on then off. “Might need to shake things up some time… Talk later.”

Sandy will not be dismissed. He puts his face close to Clay’s ear, “Fuck off. Don’t use him, for both our asses. He’s a time bomb.” Clay nods and pats Sandy’s arm encouragingly as he and Henry drop off their seats as well.

Making their way to the table, Clay lowers his voice to Henry. “The secret to construction negotiations is, it’s a dance.” He winks at Henry as they seat themselves at their table.

“A dance.” Henry takes in this next morsel of information.

Clay settles in, then leans toward Henry across the table. “It’s a dance. We all know the moves. The key is not to step on someone’s toes… Even the small fry – they can squeal every bit as loud as the others. The dance moves are already known. Everybody follows the steps. It has to be predictable, Henry. If someone screws up, there’s millions of dollars worth of projects at risk. When it comes down to it, who cares a rat’s ass about Billy’s Plumbing in Tillsonburg. But if the nuclear plant is delayed by a week, all hell’s going to break loose.”

Clay relaxes back into his seat. He looks around, satisfied that nobody is within hearing distance. “It’s not just the money on the line. If we put a crimp in the government’s pet projects, or if the public starts yelling at them, the government’ll throw some mediator at us and then cook up some artsy-fartsy legislation to threaten us and, as likely as not, the mediator’ll be clueless about what’s really going on. That would not be good for either the business managers or our major owners. Nobody wants that… Except for a couple of the old-time rabble-rousers from the bad old days who don’t know any better just ‘cause they got a commy burr up their ass. So Sandy had to make like a commy to feed them their shit… Anyway… You did well. Just follow my lead. Don’t say anything unless I ask for it… Hah! Sandy’s still fuming about the idiot from London who opened his trap. NObody speaks at the table but the two friggen speakers. If I ever ask you a question, just tell me exactly what I want to hear and then shut up…” Clay softens his tone, “Sorry. That’s one of the dance no-nos. His London guy’s your age. Still learning…” He is about to reach for papers in his coat pocket. “Here, Brian from Windsor gave me his psych notes.” Clay smiles. “Oh. You notice they’re sitting with their backs to the window?”

Henry nods.

“Old trick. It’s like who’s going to grab the baseball bat handle first. If you know how many hands it takes to get to the top… You ever play ball?”

Nodding, “Yeah. Figured that one out fast. If the bat got tossed to me, I’d take a hit on the head just to grab it at the right spot.” They both smile.

“So with the sun behind them, we can’t see their faces, their expressions. Brian is sitting off to the side and he’s really good with body language. Read his stuff.”

Clay finishes reaching into his coat pocket to pull out a small pack of sheets folded into three. He hands the papers to Henry. “Look it over. Brian also figures Claude and Poppy are the loose canons. Think about how that can be used if we ever need it. Oh, and give me your thoughts on Alexander. His company’s in trouble – lost that big pulp mill job two days ago to Fox. Don’t want him screwing us up with some behind-the-scenes deal, right? Don’t do anything yet, but give me some options. Ok?”

“Right.” Henry remembers to pull out a scrap of paper to write down his notes. “Do we use electronics –  I mean, like, hire surveillance pros?”

Clay shakes his head, “Naw. Leave that shit to the unions.”

The server arrives at their table. “Have you gentlemen decided?”

Clay is amused, “Huh! With what? Didn’t bring us the menus.”

“Oh! I’m very sorry, sir! I’ll be right back…”

Clay waves a hand. “No no. I know the menu by heart. Henry?”

“Well, I have an allergy to onions. Can you recommend something?”

During their wait for the meal and over the meal itself, Clay continues passing tidbits of information about how the real world of bargaining goes, interspersed with gossip about the characters on both sides.

Henry sponges it up. “What about Sandy. You two must have crossed swords for a lot of years?”

“We don’t cross swords. We’re the medics. MASH. When anything goes wrong at our table, everyone suffers. You remember four years ago? The whole construction industry went out. Know why?”

Henry had been in third year at university. The topic had been discussed in a poly-sci class. He recites to Clay that the prof’s conclusion was that the strike had been inevitable because of the provincial political battles at the time and the black-knight attempted takeover of the major engineering firm which was bidding on the huge nuclear power station contract.

“Naw. It was mosquitoes and hunting.”

Henry is about to let a laugh escape. He turns it into a smile. “Ok. I’ll bite. What happened?”

“Ha. Ha. Bite. Ok, there was that large food plant being built in London. And the SOB business manager for the UA, the previous one. And, there was the nice sunny weather that summer. The whole f..” Clay looks around for any raging grannies, “the whole friggen industry – from the managers down – everybody’d booked their two weeks hunting vacation for the open season. So when some kid apprentice goes running to the union about there being too many mosquitoes when he was climbing the building’s outside ladders, the business manager says, Down tools! Even then, Sandy and I could have stopped it, but the boss of the project firm, who wasn’t even in London, picks up his phone, yells at both the government and the media, and we couldn’t do a damn thing. Hands tied. Two weeks later, everybody hauls back from camp with their empties and a moose or two, and we’re back to work. Millions lost. Government hopping mad. Legislation changed… ‘Course, it was that legislation that got you your job. So, good-news/bad-news, eh?”

“Mosquitoes, huh?”

Clay rubs his hands. “All right. I’m ready for dessert!” He waves for the attention of the server.

Time passes a bit longer than Clay wants. He is not in the happiest mood when the server saunters by.

“What pies you got?”

“Thank you, sir. Here is the dessert menu.”

Clay takes it and quickly settles on, “Pecan. Pecan pie. And not a little sliver, mind!”

It is Henry’s turn. “The apple, please.”

“Excellent choices, gentlemen. I’ll be back shortly.”

Several minutes later, the server returns and, with a flourish, deposits two large plates before them. Each plate has an elegant, almost visible circle of caramel drizzled around the perimeter. A hint of frosting has been introduced over the feature contents, which are each an engineering marvel of the thinnest slices, still standing vertically, of what must have been apple on one plate and pecan on the other.

Clay is not pleased.

“I said pie. Not a tiny sliver of pie. Mine isn’t even thick enough to have half a pecan in it sitting sideways!”

The server starts a chuckle, thinking Clay is joking, but Clay’s facial expression of anger stops him from digging a deeper hole.

“Sir. I am very sorry that our dessert chef has prepared these so, ah, thin. I will be back immediately with more substantial pieces.”

He is about to whisk the plates away when Clay catches his hand. “You didn’t understand me. When I said pie, I meant PIE! The whole damn PIE!”

“Ah…”

Henry jumps in. “The whole pie, please.”

Well, the server does return with two whole pies. They are big ones.

Henry has to ask for a doggy box for the rest of his. Clay finishes his pie off in record time. The whole damn thing.

On his way back to his room, Henry’s stomach is not comfortable. At all. Walking into his bathroom, he mumbles, ”He may dance the soft shoe but lord help anyone this guy wants to kick in the face.”

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