I don’t make friends at work. I’m just not good at it. Beer’s to blame. Kidding (sort of). The real reason is that I’m scared. I’m also private, too private. I get nervous when I feel someone getting too close. I don’t want them to see some part of me, although I can’t say what part for sure. I just know that it makes me uncomfortable.
The why about my no work friends thing is complicated, but it started early (like in my genes as it relates to the privacy compulsion) in my career and has continued since. I can identify its origin, but I can’t adequately explain its longevity, outside of admitting that I consider it to be another strong (and annoying) weakness of mine.
When I was 21, I got a job as a management trainee with a big trash company. 2 weeks out of college, I loaded up the Chevy Vega my parents had bought me with all the stuff they thought I’d need and made the 9-hour drive from Havertown PA to Detroit, Michigan, my new home. It got lonely halfway through Ohio.
My first assignment was at a garbage transfer station the company operated in Inkster, MI. What we did was simple. Trucks filled with trash picked up from the homes in the neighborhood were dumped into large hoppers, or on the floor, and subsequently transferred into tractor-trailer type trucks that would be driven to the company’s landfill in the next county to be dumped and buried.
The operation made money on the spread between what it charged the small trucks and what it paid the landfill. The arbitrage was tonnage. The commodity, trash.
The transfer station used two huge hydraulic compactors, each designed to squeeze as much garbage as possible into trailers connected to them by thick steel hooks, shaped like J’s, that the guys would attach and ratchet tightly into place. As the trailer filled up, the power of the compactor’s solid steel ram would push it forward, straining it against the hooks holding it in place. It reminded me of a car trying to move with its emergency brake set. When the ram was fully extended, it hit a ‘limit switch’ which told it to back up, causing the trailer to appear to deflate, as if a little air had been removed from its body, as if it had burped.
My job was to help my supervisor, Jerry, do things like weigh the inbound and outbound truck and review or complete activity summaries, driver paperwork, TPS reports, you name it. Although I was a complete greenhorn, I was also a hard and curious worker. I got dirty. Rather than sit in the tiny office all day, I wanted to learn everything, which included running the compactors and positioning the trucks onto them when they were empty and away from them when they were full. I learned how to drive the trucks to the landfill and dump out the trash, which could be gross and fun at the same time, at least for me.
Giant Mugs and Free Popcorn
I also learned how to ‘make’ friends at work, which I was anxious to do because I didn’t know anyone in my new surroundings. The transfer station guys were union guys. Teamsters. The closest in age to me was maybe 35, the oldest nearing retirement. Johnny was one of the older ones. Maybe 5’ tall, he wore thick glasses, and a chain that connected his wallet to a belt loop on his uniform pants. I don’t know what he had in there, but it was exceptionally thick, like it held his entire week’s paycheck in $1 bills. He wore a cap that reminded me of a train conductor’s and I would come to later learn, surprisingly, that he and his wife were nudists. Evidently, that’s not something that just appeals to young and attractive people.
They liked to get together after work at a bar up the street, and before long they started inviting me to join them, a friend-making opportunity that I jumped at. At the bar, we’d drink beer from oversized mugs, and eat the free popcorn. Two of those and I was catching a buzz. Tony, John (not Johnny, another John), Dan, Billy and others would be there most nights, and it soon became a daily kind of thing for me, as it had long been for them. We’d be friendly. They’d make lighthearted fun of one another, and me, and we’d all laugh. I thought we were ‘connecting.’
Over time, I noticed that some of the guys started challenging me in little ways, especially after Jerry went home for the day. Charles would complain about me doing too much of ‘his’ work, but when he didn’t feel like running the compactor anymore on a certain day, he’d ‘suggest’ I do it myself. Other times, I’d ask a guy to do something I knew he had time to do, and instead of a yes, I’d get an excuse for why he couldn’t, or wouldn’t do that thing. Like Charles, he might ‘suggest’ I do it myself.
Not being the sharpest tool in the shed, it took me awhile to get what was happening. Jerry could see it and he could have ignored it, and me, like the little nothing of importance I was. Instead, he helped me understand. He’d been a union supervisor, a driver, a colleague and a friend of these guys before being promoted to the management position he now held. He was wise about people, particularly these people. He knew how they thought. Jerry told me that the guys might think they want to be my friend, but they don’t understand why I’m here; what I’m being trained to do, and be. He said they won’t understand when I might need to discipline them for being late or ask them to work overtime when they want to go home instead. That isn’t what their “friend” would do, particularly not their ‘bar friend,’ he told me.
Moving Past The Bar
Having had my ‘friends at work’ well contaminated early on, I’ve never felt completely safe about taking another drink from it since, although I’ve been tempted. It may be why I don’t eat popcorn anymore either. I’ve been a ‘boss’ since my first job out of college and I’ve rarely, or maybe never, felt like I had a colleague at work, someone that owed me nothing and to whom I owed nothing in return. The kind of person that could be a no-strings-attached friend. A real friend. And my privacy proclivity is a self-generated shield that only makes it tougher. It’s hard for me to put it down.
I learned from Jerry to be careful with the friend thing in my work relationships. It’s something I haven’t forgotten, and it’s quite possible that I’ve adhered to it far too rigidly. Maybe, and perhaps likely, to my detriment. Intellectually (to the extent that word can apply to me), I know that having friends at work, real friends, is not only possible, but maybe preferable as well. I hear people talk about how they’ve made great friends at work, even with their boss or, on the other hand, someone they manage. I just haven’t been able to do it – and maybe no one wants me to anyway.
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