Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"JON" HARBAUGH PERFORMANCE REVIEW




Live feed from a parallel universe, where the handsome owner of the Purple Bird Bus Company is meeting with Jon Harbaugh for his annual performance review:

"Biscotti?" the owner asks Jon.

"Excuse me?" Jon replies.  Seated on the opposite side of the owner's large desk, Jon appears puzzled—although it's hard to tell as his expression often shows signs of confusion and uncertainty, as if he is unsure exactly how he's arrived at this place in life, because his only other experience with school buses before being hired to drive one was washing them.

"Would you like a biscotti?" the owner clarifies.

"Oh, I thought you were saying that was your name.  Because it is something like that, isn't it…Biscotti?"

The handsome owner smiles.  "Let's not worry about that right now.  Let's move on."

Jon stands and heads for the door, mistakenly believing the meeting is over.  (Jon has difficulty managing time, especially in critical situations.)

"No, Jon," the owner calls to his driver's back, "we're not finished."

"Oh."  Jon returns to his seat and smiles politely.

"Let me ask you this," the owner offers hospitably, reviewing reams of paper pertaining to Jon's bus driving, "how would you rank your performance this past school year?"

"Excellent," Jon replies without hesitation, which is one of the factors the owner has always liked about Jon: that he is tirelessly positive even in the face of truly horrible circumstances.

"Excellent you say…" the owner ponders, trying to conceal his doubt.

"Thank you."  Jon's smile broadens from polite to genuinely pleased, thinking he's been complimented.

"Even though," the owner points out, "you only got the children to school before the opening bell half the time.  And in the past five years, you've gotten them there late more often than on time."

"Yes.  But remember how often the bus broke down.  And how we kept having to change mechanics to fix it."

"Oh, I'm well aware of that," the owner replies.  "In fact, I think we're still paying one of those mechanics even though he hasn't worked on our bus for two or three years."

"Yes."  Jon nods as if this is a factor in his favor.

The owner begins to feel that slight pinch at his temples that warns a headache is coming.  "Let me ask you something, Jon, and I probably should have asked this before now, but do you know how a bus runs?"

"Runs?"  Jon thinks he's picked up on a trick question.  "Buses don't run Mr. Biscotti, they drive.  They're a machine."

"My name isn't Biscotti, Jon.  I was asking before if you wanted a biscotti to eat."

"But I know it sounds like Biscotti."

"Let's not concern ourselves with that right now."

"Biscutti?" Jon takes a guess.

"Let's get back to the bus.  Because what I was asking is: do you know how a bus operates?  Mechanically?  Do you know how all the pieces and parts are supposed to work in unison?"

"You put your foot down on the accelerator and it's goes.  You put on the brake, it stops."  Jon smiles, then remembers, "And you turn the wheel and the bus goes left or right…depending on which way you turn the wheel."

"But what about the engine?" the owner inquires.

Jon appears puzzled (or maybe not).

"Do you know how an engine works?" the owner asks Jon.

"No, sir, that's the mechanics' job.  They make the engine go."

"But you're supposed to tell them how you want the engine to go.  How you want the entire bus to go.  You're supposed to be the leader, to give the bus its identity."

"It's a bus, sir—that's the identity."

"But what kind of bus?"

"It's a school bus," Jon delicately points out in case the owner has forgotten.

"Yes, I know, Jon, but what kind of school bus do you want it to be?" the owner encourages.  "When it comes down the street and people see it, what image are you trying to convey?"

"It's yellow."

"Yes…"  The owner takes a deep breath.  "…it is yellow."

Jon smiles.

The owner is inclined to rub his temples, but that will acknowledge his headache, and he did not get where he is today by giving credence to every pain, cramp, and distraction that crossed his path.

The owner turns to another tabbed page in the report, one of many tabbed pages—in fact, there may be as many tabs as there are pages, in many different colors, a different color for each consultant who has had a turn with the ladle stirring this muddled-as-pea-soup document.

"Jon," the owner says softly, always concerned with the morale of his employees, "do you know the pothole on Pratt Street?"

"Which one?"

"The one right in the middle of the road, shaped like a burro flat on its side.  The one angry citizens have spray painted orange in hopes the city might fix it before it needs its own zip code."

"Oh, yes, sir, I know that pothole.  That's a very big pothole.  Deep.  Monster hole."

"Yes, it is.  And you hit it every day.  Which could be contributing to how often the wheels fall off the bus."

"The wheels are the wheels mechanic's job," Jon points out.

"So it's his fault then, that when you hit this admittedly very deep pothole, every day, and the wheels fall off—it's the mechanic's fault?"

"Yes, sir," Jon proclaims definitively.  "The wheels mechanic is in charge of the wheels."

"Mm…"  The owner wishes Jon wouldn't have said that, because he really, really likes Jon.  Jon is a very nice man.  Jon has a very nice family.  The owner hired Jon.  Jon won a school bus driving championship for him.  "Let's talk about weather," the owner proposes, hoping this might be a better topic.

"Beautiful day," Jon says, looking out the wide windows of the owner's spacious office.

"Yes, today it's a very nice day.  But some days it rains."

"Oh, yes sir, boy does it."

"And when it rains, no matter how hard it rains, you always drive the same speed."

"Yes, sir," Jon says proudly.

"You remember when it rained so hard and we had those mudslides?" the owner asks.  "Those three mudslides the year we won the championship."

"Do I," Jon chuckles.

"And do you remember driving straight into those mudslides?"

"I sure do," Jon laughs.  "Because I remember thinking when the bus got stuck: I'm glad I just drive the bus now and don't have to be the one who washes it anymore."

"Do you remember how the bus got out of those mudslides?"

"I put my foot on the accelerator and pressed down like hell!"

"Well, that...  But do you remember Ray and Ed—they were seniors that year—how they got out of the bus and pushed it out of the mudslide.  Every one of those mudslides."

Jon squints, almost certainly puzzled now, because he's also shaking his head.  "No…no, sir, I don't think that's right."

"Jon, we have video.  I can play it for you if you like.  You know we videotape every mile you drive, from every angle?  Overlapping angles."

Jon remains puzzled.

"You don't remember Ray and Ed pushing the bus out of those mudslides?  Uphill?  In torrential rain?  And how in that one really deep mudslide, when the bus was sunk in up to its chassis, how Ray and Ed rallied all the other students and got them to get out of the bus to help push."

"But I was the one with my foot on the accelerator, sir," Jon points out.  "Without my foot on the accelerator, that bus wouldn't have gone anywhere."  Starting to get hungry, Jon gestures to the plate on the owner's desk.  "Are those cookies?"

"Biscotti," the owner specifies, graciously pushing the plate towards Jon.

"I knew that was your name."  Jon takes one.  As he chews, crumbs fall over his lips.  He coughs.  "Dry," Jon says of the biscotti.

The owner turns to the page of the report that was tabbed by every consultant involved in Jon's evaluation.  "Let me ask a hypothetical."

"All right."  Jon sits back and looks out the window.

"I want to ask you, Jon."

"Oh."  Jon returns his attention to the owner.  "I thought you had a question for the guy who replaces the windshield wipers."

"No—his name's Hy Portera.  I said 'hypothetical.'  But never mind what it's called.  Maybe that wasn't the right choice of words anyway."  The owner pauses.  Sometimes these meetings with Jon cause him to question the functioning of his own mind.  "Let's say you're driving the bus…"

"I am the bus driver."

"Yes—and let's say you're driving the bus and traffic is really, really busy.  The roads are jammed.  Maybe even closed.  Maybe there's been an accident."

"Oh, dear."

"Now, your plan—as your plan always is—is to drive thirty-five miles per hour, right down the center of the road, from the moment you leave our station, through all the stops picking up the kids, until you get them to school."

"That is my plan," Jon proclaims proudly.

"But is it wise, I wonder, to keep driving thirty-five miles per hour when you see there's nowhere for the bus to go?  When the roads are jammed with cars?  Do you ever—oh, I don't know—think about making an adjustment to the plan?"

"An adjustment to the plan?"

"Yes.  You know, a different course of action.  Take an alternate route, perhaps.  Maybe even put on the brakes so as not to slam into all the cars stopped ahead of you."

"Sir, with all due respect, consistency is the twin brother of discipline.  And I should know, because I have a brother, and he is neither consistent nor disciplined."

"I know your brother, Jon.  He rode the bus you now drive when he was a student.  Once he even threw the driver off the bus and drove it himself because he thought the driver was going too slow.  And got into a scuffle with the police for driving without a license.  I think he was ten at the time."

"He's always getting into scuffles with the police."  Jon leans forward and whispers as if sharing a secret, even though no one else is in the office.  "My brother has a problem with authority.  But don't worry, sir, it's not genetic.  That's my brother, not me.  I drive straight down the middle.  Thirty-five miles per hour.  Rain, sleet, snow, fog, mudslides, traffic jams…"

"Potholes."

"Yes, sir—and potholes.  Just keep going thirty-five miles per hour."

"And get the students to school by the start of class less than fifty percent of the time."

"Not over my entire career.  Over my career, sir, I've gotten those kids to school on time way more than they were late.  And won a championship."

"Yes, and I am grateful for that…but since Ray and Ed graduated…  The last five years…  These have not been good years, Jon."

"I really don't see what this Ray and Ed you keep talking about had to do with anything.  Keep in mind, sir, it was my foot on the accelerator.  My foot," Jon determines proudly, then remembers, "And these hands on the steering wheel.  Turning left.  Turning right.  Making all the turns.  All the turns.  I'm your driver, sir.  Driving that bus.  Yellow bus," Jon adds, recalling something earlier in this meeting about the bus' identity.

"Yes."  The owner smiles through the full-bloom of his headache.  "Yellow—that'll make us stand out."  He shoves the report—tabs and all—into the recycle bin, making a mental note to circulate a memo that he is not, under any circumstances, to be told how much that report cost to create.  "Good meeting, Jon."

Jon stands.  "Thank you, Mr. Biscotti."  He shakes the owner's hand and leaves, whistling, unless the owner is mistaken, a tune that has something to do with luck and the Irish.

The owner stands and moves to his wall of windows, where he is awash in sunshine and has a view down to his prized bus in the parking lot.  He watches Jon climb in the bus, start the engine, and pull into city traffic, shifting gears until the bus is going 35 miles per hour.

His beloved bus.  Maybe next year things will be great again, like they were once.  Maybe next year they—

The owner's blindly-hopeful thoughts are interrupted when one of his chief assistants rushes breathlessly into his office.  "Sir!  Where's Jon?"

"He just left."

The assistant dashes to the window and looks outside.  It's too late—the bus has already turned the corner.

"What's wrong?" the owner asks.

"There's been a building collapse on Charles Street.  Which caused a sewer line break.  Which felled electric poles.  The road is impassible."

As the owner clutches his chest, a series of horrible sounds reach his ears: a school bus going 35 miles per hour plowing through vehicles whose drivers foresaw danger and stopped, then plunging into a three-foot-deep gorge of raw sewage, before being electrocuted by downed power lines, and ultimately crashing to a halt in a hundred-foot-high pile of concrete, brick, and steel.

"Don't worry, sir," the owner's assistant assures, "we'll have it fixed up in time for the start of the next school year.  We're very upbeat about a new group of students coming in to fill our needs."

"Our needs…" the owner bemoans, collapsing into his chair.  He read that report with all the tabs.  They need everything.  At every position.

He finds himself reminded of an anonymous note he received the day after they won that championship, a note he discounted at the time as sour grapes sent from someone involved with the bus company they beat—or maybe from Jon's brother—a note foretelling his future once Ray and Ed graduated, a note that read: Now you'll see what kind of driver you've got.

Copyright 2017, Preston Pairo

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