• Big Momma Aint Happy, Nobody Happy



    Man, I was walkin’ in tall cotton. Just finished my MBA, albeit in the bottom five percent of the class, and had landed a job with TWA in the Big Apple. A pass so that I could travel anywhere in the world including Nairobi, Hong Kong and Bombay. Of course it was a standby pass; I could get bumped and then stranded at any time (and did) – making it back to work a couple of days late each time.

    My boss was of a different persuasion, never been married, and looked his newly minted MBA as being forced down his throat. He quickly found I knew nothing about air travel or TWA and accused me of seeking the job only for the free travel. Shocked, I told him the reasons I had joined – a great company (it wasn’t), a chance for personal growth (what the hell does that mean) and an opportunity to use the sophisticated business skills I had from graduate school (I had no skills period). Looking askance at these frivolous and untrue statements, he told me not to screw anything up. Our communication from then on was written. When I went into his office one day to ask a question, he immediately said, “Is it important?” Well I thought it was, found out it wasn’t and our relationship continued downhill, bottoming out right before I went to work for someone else, who saw some minimal value in me.

    I’d been at 605 Third Avenue, TWA’s headquarters for about a month when Roger told me to go down to the copy center and get his presentation copied, collated, and bound for a meeting at the end of the week. I lollygaged a bit and decided I’d better head down on Wednesday. I was having lunch with another wobegotten business school graduate who had also made the mistake of the century by getting in the airline industry. Scott was making $875 a month, somewhat better than my $833. I was telling him about my dislike of my job and my boss and how I felt like I was stuck. Then I said I’d better get going, since I had to go to the copy center. His eye’s flew open to the max and he slid his chair back violently. “Have you not been down into the belly of the beast?” “What are you talking about?” “I still have Bell’s Palsy from the first time and only time I had to go into the den,” said Scott.

    “Big Momma rules the copy center, and she has for the last twenty years. Everyone is frightened of her, from the president down to underlings like you and I.” “No problem,” I said, “I’ll just have one of the secretaries do it for me.” “Right, not a prayer in hell.” “You are done for my friend, I’d suggest you find another job.”

    I asked Angie my boss’s secretary if she would take down the papers for me. She said, “Not only no, but hell no. I would rather sacrifice my newborn daughter to a crocodile than go down there. If you don’t come back I’ll know what happened to you.”

    This had to be all nonsense so I strolled in, acting like I was somebody. There were four women sitting in vinyl chairs busily engaged in reading, smoking and dozing – they were gigantic. I went back out the door and looked up, sure I had made a mistake, and had walked into the DMV. Nope, sign said Copy Center. Went back in, cleared my throat with a distinct MBA cough. The four Buffet Queens looked at me, then one sauntered over to the counter. When I told her what I wanted, she yelled toward the back office. There was a rustling in the far rear office – dim lights. Slowly, as if she was on casters an immense black (could have been orange, green or polka dot – no difference) lady, smoking a cigarillo slid up to the counter like Jabbette the Hutt.

    “Wha Cho Wan, Boy?” I hadn’t been called boy since my grandfather was ready to kill me for tracking cow manure into the living room. “I have this presentation that needs to copied, collated and bound by tomorrow at 9:00.” “Do tell,” she said, “What about all the other work I have?” “This is a rush job for my Boss,” I said.

    “You tell him that it will be ready when it’s ready, understand, boy?” “But, But!” “No buts about it, I’ll call you when its ready.” She blew a smoke ring in my face and stared back to her lair, then turned and said, “Wha yo name boy?” I told her Joe, not wanting to disclose my last name to her various associates. “What the hell kind of name is that – Joe’s Bar and Grill, Joe’s Shoe Shine, Joe’s Cafe, Joe’s liquor store. Who gave you such a stupid name?” I stuck my chin out and said firmly, “My parents.” Well, what was wrong with them, were they idiots, now get out of here, I got work to do?” “I retreated, cursing under my breath. Here I had a graduate degree from one of the best business schools in the world and I couldn’t even get some copies made?”

    When I got upstairs, ready to confess my shortcomings to my boss, my friend Scott was there to greet me. “How was that, lots of fun down there in the catacombs?”

    “You know I didn’t, what is the deal?” Well, Evelyn has been here 22 years and has run the copy center for the last 15. She is determined to stay until she has earned every nickel of pension money she can,” said Rod. “But she’s a disaster, how does she keep her job?” I said. One answer, civil rights, she knows every law and has contacted every civil rights attorney in the city, just in case. Management can’t get rid of her.”

    My boss Roger, had little sympathy for me. You have a Stanford MBA and you can’t get copies made?” he shook his head in disgust. “I don’t know why we hired you. I’m telling you, get it done.”

    I snuck back down to the copy center where Big Momma awaited me. I told her I needed the original back to make some changes. “Wait a minute, I’ll see if I can find it.” Fifteen minutes later it was in my hands. Silence reigned.

    I hate to admit it but I went to an outside copy center and paid for the copies and bindings myself. My boss was appeased, and I was back in his semi-good graces, although minus $116. I went down to the copy center in a couple of days just to see if I could befriend, bribe, threaten Evelyn, or in some way cause her death. I told her I had a project coming up and I wanted to know how much in advance I needed to bring it in. She was in a worse mood than normal, and I ventured to ask her if she was having a good day. Her reply was expected: “Big Momma Ain’t Happy, Nobody Happy”. “Bring your work at least two weeks ahead, and hope I’m in a happy mood.”

    Within the next week, my boss had another project to go to the copy center. I was petrified. I couldn’t face Big Momma, and my outside copy funds were gone, so what should I do?

    I understood from asking around that bribes had been used, threats from the Vice Presidential level, and bringing in work a month in advance. Most had finally resorted to going to outside copiers and having the company pay. No such option in my case.

    It was a Monday morning, I had to head down into the bowels of the building, the large project to be done. I hesitated as I came out of the subway, fear rippling through me, bowls churning, hoping for an inspired answer. A short swarthy man shoved a bouquet of flowers in my face, saying: “These will get you a long way, buddy.” These flower vendors were low level mafia wantabees. The roses came from JFK thefts where fresh ones were flown in every day from South America – the mob took their cut as flowers came off the planes.

    Then one of the few times I have received direct revelation from on high came into my mind. I coughed up five bucks to the flower vendor, thought a moment and then bought another bunch before heading into work. After throwing up a couple of times I took my flowers and copy work down to the pit. As I approached the counter, Evelyn Johnson (Big Momma) looked over and gave me the “Stink Eye”. “You again boy, what is it this time?”

    I whipped the flowers from behind my back like Houdini and said, “Miss Johnson, I thought you might like some flowers to start off your week?” Then I cowed back, waiting to see if she was going to throw a fax machine at me. Instead, she actually teared up, and said, “Are these really for me?” “Yes, of course.” Her face was overcome with kindness and she said, “In twenty-two years this is the first time anyone has done that for me.” “Thank you.”

    Then she said, “Do you have something I can do for you?” “Yes, I do, it’s another presentation that needs copied, collated and bound.” “When do you need it?” she asked. “Well, tomorrow would be good, but I’ll understand if you are backed up.” “You’ll have it by noon today, you are now first in line – always.”

    Life from that day on improved dramatically. I staggered the days, but each week, I brought Big Momma flowers – I varied the type and size and vase. She always exclaimed how happy they made her feel. Once a month I brought in posies for the entire Buffet Queen Staff – I liked being worshiped. My work always went first and I had other peers in my office give me their work once they found out I could do magic in the copy center. I was only there a year and a half, but I made two good friends, Big Momma, and the Mafia Thug in Training who sold me the flowers. Once a week he would pick the best of the best bouquets for me. Yup, you are right, his name was Paulie.

    Big Momma told me how she had grown up in the projects, her marriage at fifteen to a drunken physically abusive husband, and then the difficulty with her children – I don’t think she had expressed her sorrows to anyone before. I reciprocated by telling her about my imagined terrible upbringing in Utah – stating I was thinking about her advice to change my name.

    She was a memorable person in my life – and proof that sometimes even the slightest kindness can move mountains.

    Joseph Ollivier
    November 2014

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