Friday, August 06, 2004

The Samurai Boss 

b4b.jpgThanks to Jay over at The Zero Boss for coming up with the idea of Blogging for Books. Here's my entry for #2: Servitude.

Updated 8/10: And thanks to Jay and Kim for choosing this as one of the seven finalists this month.

I'm an architect. Some years ago, I had a job that I loved. My boss was one of the two partners in the architectural firm; I'll call him Nelson.

Nelson was a charming Japanese-American man. He was sophisticated, clever, cultured. He was always impeccably groomed. He was quite a storyteller, and lunchtime often found a group of us clustered around the break room table, Nelson entertaining us with stories about his family. He was particularly proud of his surname, which was, he told us, an old Samurai name.

Nelson had, through talent or luck, hired a group of architects who got along remarkably well, both professionally and personally. Never before or since have I had such great coworkers. One day, after several very long weeks finishing drawings for a complicated project, Nelson announced that he was taking the project team (those who hadn't gone home to sleep) out to lunch. We went to our favorite lunch spot, a nearby Mexican restaurant popular for its margaritas. Larry, Tara and I ordered a pitcher of margaritas. Nelson ordered a beer. We ordered lunch; Nelson ordered another beer. Our food arrived; Nelson ordered a beer.

As he drank his third beer, and then a fourth, Nelson told us another story about his family. This, however, was a darker story, about his childhood on the south side of Chicago. His parents, looking for a good place to raise their sons, had settled in a white ethnic neighborhood near downtown. Nelson and his brother were the only Japanese kids in the neighborhood, and the white kids picked on them. Then black families began to move into the neighborhood. For a short while, Nelson hoped that the black kids would become his allies, but they bullied him, too. And the white families began to leave. His parents, disturbed by the racial tensions, moved the family to a different white ethnic neighborhood farther south. The pattern of black influx, racial tension, and white flight - and bullying of two Japanese boys by both racial groups - was repeated... three more times. Nelson had to protect himself and his younger brother. He came from Samurai blood, warrior blood. He learned how to fight.

The part of me that wanted margaritas and a celebration was not at all interested in listening to this. However, the former psychology student in me found Nelson's story fascinating. His childhood explained so much: the perceived insults and discrimination (where I saw none), the hot temper, the pencils hurled, knifelike, across his office when he was angry. As a boy, I imagined, he had internalized the warrior aspect of the Samurai, without the Buddhist principles of acceptance and self-control.

By the time we left the restaurant, Nelson was somewhat... impaired. We had come in his car. It was a new silver Lexus of which he was quite proud, and so protective that he had parked near the far end of the parking lot, away from most other cars. As we walked towards the car, I was thinking about whether he was really OK to drive. "It's only six blocks. But he's not always the most careful driver..."

My internal monologue was interrupted by a stream of cursing. Nelson had spotted his car... and the enormous Lincoln parked immediately adjacent to the driver's side. It was a brand new car, dealer plates still on, and clearly its owner had not yet learned how to park something of that size in only one parking space. The car was perhaps a foot and a half from Nelson's car.

Nelson slid between the two cars. "Can't the jerks who drive land-yachts learn to park the damn things? Is that too much to expect?" He unlocked his car door, opening it slowly until it rested gently against the other car.

And then, as my coworkers and I watched, Nelson turned and slowly dragged his car key through the Lincoln's pearly white paint. He left a visible gouge about a foot long. In that moment, strangely, I expected to see blood welling up.

Nelson looked up from the damage, and saw us standing dumbstruck. "Damn straight I keyed the damn car. Teach that asshole a lesson!" We were silent. "Come on, let's get back to work." We got into the car. The drive back to the office was silent, and thankfully without incident.

Back at the office, Tara, Larry and I gathered in my cubicle, stunned, not quite believing what we had seen. Our boss, our sophisticated, urbane boss, had committed an act of vandalism... in front of his employees. We didn't know what to do. In our shock, none of us had gotten the license plate of the other car. I'm sorry to say that we did nothing.

And Nelson did nothing, acted as if it had never happened. Once honor and respect were lost, the Samurai's only chance for redemption was seppuku, ritual suicide. I don't know what Nelson might have done to regain our respect. But, by making no attempt at all, he destroyed the team that he had built. Within a year, every one of us had left the firm.

It has been nearly seven years since Nelson keyed that pearly white Lincoln, after having one beer too many and digging around in too-painful childhood memories. Writing this, I again feel stunned, and saddened. I still miss working with that group of architects. And I miss the Samurai boss I knew, before his dishonor.