Saturday, September 21, 2013

Maintenance Wars

From my experience managing hotels, I can tell you that there is no such thing  as a decent maintenance man.  By that, I mean one worth a tinker's dam at fixing anything.  While I was running a hotel, I could have cared less if one was decent or not, as long as he could tell which end of a screwdriver to put in his hand.  Unfortunately, service guys with even that small level of competence were few and far between.

To be fair, I'm limiting the remarks above to the Continental United States only.  A friend of mine is a maintenance man at a nice hotel in Hawaii, so I will begrudgingly grant him the benefit of the doubt--at least if he doesn't take too long to invite me out for a visit.  (Albert?  Are you listening?)

A few of the maintenance men I have worked with have been spectacular trouble--real  "ruin your whole year" kind of trouble.  "Kevin" (I can no longer remember what the bastard's real name was) was a prime example.  Kevin wandered into the old Jack Tar Hotel one day and asked for a job in construction.  Looking back on it, I suspect that his car was out of gas and he couldn't figure out how to leave the island.  No matter--that hotel was always  in need of maintenance--that poor 'ol aging beachfront hotel had seen way too many years and hurricanes, and being located only about two hundred yards from salt water hadn't done her much good, either.  I could have hired Jesus Christ as a maintenance man and the place would have still needed more help.  One carpenter--even a miraculous one--couldn't have fixed all the troubles.

I hired Kevin on the spot, and gave him and his wife an aging room in the oldest section of the hotel to live in.  When suitably motivated, Kevin could work, but he turned out to be a much better magician than maintenance man.  Anytime there was a really nasty and dirty job Kevin could vanish for hours at a time. (For reference, the picture is me, after I finished cleaning the hotel's main boiler.)

As a matter of fact, Kevin was so good at vanishing that one day he did it completely.  I mean, he just flat disappeared.  The first I knew of it was when his wife came looking for him.  She had lunch waiting, and he hadn't shown up.  By that night, he still hadn't shown up.  We didn't think he had run off, since it was payday, and he hadn't collected his wages. 

After he was missing a whole day, I got the housecleaning staff together and we searched the whole hotel.  This was a long, two-story hotel, with multiple buildings, hundreds of rooms, two restaurants, three bars, basements, and tunnels connecting the buildings, so there were thousands of hiding places.  We looked all day long--I called in all the employees who had a day off.  No Kevin.  So we called the police and the next day, the police helped us search everywhere, again.  No Kevin.

After about a week, Kevin's parents got into the act.  After being threatened with a lawsuit, we searched that hotel a third time.  By now, we had spent a hell of a lot of man-hours, at considerable payroll cost, searching for a guy who we suspected just wasn't there.  His paycheck, his wife, his car, and his clothing were still there, but...No  Kevin.

Eventually, we gave up.  Kevin's wife moved out, we rented his former room, and I mostly forgot about Kevin.  Then one day, I picked up the newspaper and read a story about the unidentified remains of a man being found in the swamp at the east end of the island.  If you drew a line on a map between the hotel and Tuffy's Bar--a place on the far eastern tip of the island frequented only by the locals--it would pass right through that swamp.  Could it be Kevin?

I called up the police, who connected me with the coroner, and I described my missing man.

"He was over six feet, thin, with sandy blond hair and a beard, and wearing shorts, a khaki shirt, and boon-docker laced boots," I said.  I had given that description so many times, I could do it in my sleep.

"Yeah," the coroner said.  "This could be your man.  You better come view him."

Most people who know me would probably say that I'm not exactly the squeamish kind.  Quite a few might even be emphatic making this point.  Still, I did not  want to do this.  Kevin--if that was him--had lain in that swamp during the summer for months.  I will spare you the grisly details, but there are....critters....that live in a coastal swamp.

So I went down to the coroner's office and viewed the body--what was left of it.  Years later, I got a degree in Anthropology.  I have taken a few classes where you have to identify bones and determine the sex of a skull, etc.  But even then--without any formal training--I could immediately tell that the body I was viewing belonged to a short, stocky, black man, who had been in that swamp for only a few days.  Not Kevin.

Later, of course, I found out that the coroner was a sadistic bastard who had everyone come view every body, identified or not.  Evidently, it's lonely, being the only person alive in a large walk-in refrigerator.  Twisted evil troll!  I hope he ended up in his own cooler.

Eventually, about a year later, we did find out what had happened to Kevin.  His body was found 50 miles away in Houston, inside a stolen van, which had been abandoned inside a storage locker.  According to the police, a motorcycle gang had stolen a van load of leather jackets, and decided to hide all the evidence in a locker which had been prepaid for a year.  Only Kevin knew their connection, and he wasn't talking.  This will never be on an episode of "Storage Wars!"

Kevin wasn't the only problematic maintenance man: there was also Hobo Joe.  Hobo Joe was--and here you may be way ahead of me--a hobo.  He drifted in and out of town, usually working just long enough to qualify for some form of benefit, then reentering premature retirement.  Unfortunately, during one of his brief forays into gainful employment, I discovered him face down in the back of one of the hotel bars.  Although he was supposedly cleaning a drain, he had elected to clean out a case of hotel beer instead.

When I fired Hobo Joe, he was angry enough to file charges against the hotel with the local Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) people.  According to him, the hotel's basement was a dangerous working environment.  Specifically, in one corner of the vast, labyrinthine cellar, there was a pit, eight feet square and about six feet deep.  At the bottom of the pit were powerful pumps that would switch on automatically in the event of flooding.

According to both Hobo Joe and the people from the office of OSHA, it was a potential hazard that needed both protective rails and a covering grate.  I was notified that an inspector was coming.

Two weeks later, when the inspector finally arrived, I led him down into the basement and to a corner where the inspector could see about 200 square feet of fresh new paint on the floor.

"What happened to the sump pump pit?" the inspector asked.

"When I realized that it was a working hazard, I had it filled in." I answered.

Satisfied with our compliance, the OSHA inspector wrote out a warning and left, happy and content at having demonstrated his bureaucratic power.

I suspect that he would have been a little less happy if I had led him to the correct corner.  Paint is cheaper than railings.  Any good maintenance man will tell you that.

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