Monday, June 4, 2012

The Tragic Story Of Albert's Fingers

I’ve written a lot on this website about the advantages of hiring ex-convicts. By overlooking their time spent as Involuntary Guests Of The State, you can sometimes hire brilliant people, hard workers no one else is willing to take a chance on, often for half the wages that their skill levels would otherwise demand. You must be willing to tolerate Parole Officers, Probation Specialists, Drug Testers and their ilk, all calling your employees away for useless bureaucratic “counseling” sessions at odd hours. Those wanting good workers at half price will find a way to deal with the inconvenience.

If that sounds like exploitation of the unfortunate, let’s see you walk into your boss’s office with a warped colony of Registered Sex Offenders and try to get ‘em hired. Let me know how it works out for you.

About 10 years ago, my employer cooperated with a church organization called Narrow Gate Ministries, a charity which gave ex-cons a 2nd chance at jobs, housing, and society. Some of Narrow Gate’s clients were outstanding people who just happened to get caught with a nosefull of Bolivian Marching Powder. Others had a drinking problem. Narrow Gate took in thieves, smugglers of Mexican illegals, forgers, sex offenders and addicts, and tried to straighten them out. We then hired almost all of them, whether they were straightened out or as warped as the Titanic’s shuffleboard court. Lordy, it got bizarre.

One the Narrow Gate clients was a guy named Albert. (Not his real name.) Albert was a talented pianist and singer who often performed for Narrow Gate events and at the dinners for the street people that my church sponsors. The man could do gospel songs like an angel. Like many recovering addicts, he was a deeply spiritual man, a nice guy, polite and respectful to everyone he worked with, and he loved cocaine more than he loved life itself. We put him to work in the plastics shop. “I love my job, I love this opportunity, and I love this second chance The Lord has given me here,” he would say to anyone who would listen. He should have added “But most of all, I love cocaine.”

By most accounts, Albert did a good job for about 3 months. Then he vanished for two weeks of narcotic bliss, inhaling white devil dandruff. The plastics manager fired him for job abandonment.

Because he had ingratiated himself with one of the company owners, we discovered that Albert couldn’t be fired. He could only be shifted. This benevolent company owner (a great guy, friend to all) unfired Albert and had him placed at our wood shop, three miles down the road.

“I love my job, I love this opportunity, and I love this second chance The Lord has given me here,” Albert said. Some employees corrected him, and claimed that Albert was up to at least chance number three. Seventeen or eighteen if you include the rehabs, the prison stints, and the other jobs that didn’t work out. But Albert had no yesterdays, only tomorrows.

Albert worked at the wood shop for about a month and then missed five shifts because he was riding the white rails at some friend’s house on the east side. (Insert a recording of Jackson Browne’s cover of “Cocaine, running all round my brain” here.) The wood shop manager doesn’t take that kind of crap, and he fired Albert for job abandonment.

Albert’s sponsor-owner-savior unfired him some more, gave him another stern talking-to, and then transferred him to work for me at the metal shop. I had already been warned about Albert. My fellow shop managers told me that Albert was deeply religious, deeply spiritual, deeply committed to doing a good job, and even more committed to cocaine. They also told me that I would get the best two weeks of Albert’s life out of him, and that I should fire him some more when he disappeared to go a-snorting through the Bolivian Poppy Patch.

I met with Albert, and welcomed him to the metal shop.

He said “I love my job, I love this opportunity, and I love this second chance The Lord has given me here.” He went on to explain what the apostle Paul REALLY meant in the book of Romans. I don’t remember the details.

At the time, I had about 100 employees working 3 shifts. In addition to my typical homegrown sprinkling of Brothers, Homies and Rednecks, I had Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Bosnians, Serbs, and Croatians. (I’m happiest when my crews represent multiple eras of failed U.S. Foreign Policy Adventures. When the boatloads of Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans arrive on our shores to escape the devastation we’ve made of their home places, I’ll be waiting for them with job applications.)

I had two drummers, three guitarists, and one Mexican who was pretty good on harmonica.

Our entire company (wood, metal, plastic and office) had 300 employees at the time, and only one decent piano player. Albert.

A couple of weeks after Albert joined us at the metal shop, I told Albert, the piano player, to operate the shear.

A shear is a giant pair of scissors activated with a foot pedal. Mash the pedal and the blade comes down, slicing whatever is being fed to it. If you’re cutting a lot of metal into small pieces, say, 1”x4” strips, you can get a nice rhythm going, feeding the metal into the blade while marking time with the foot pedal. Chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka feed it in, hit the pedal feed it in hit the pedal feed it in. Get a new strip of metal and feed it in. Chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka. Do it for several hours. Chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka feed it in hit the pedal feed it in hit the pedal.

Oh, and one other thing.....Keep your hands out of the blades. 

We needed some scrap sheet metal cut into 1”x4” strips that would eventually be drilled and folded into a bracket.

And I told the Albert, the piano player, to operate the shear.

By the end of his shift that day, Albert was on autopilot. Zoning out. Chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka feed it in hit the pedal feed it in hit the pedal feed it in.

You know that feeling when you’re getting out of your car and your brain tells you that the keys are still in the ignition, but your brain can’t multitask and tell your arm and hand not to slam the car door with the keys inside? Weeks later, that’s how Albert described what happened next. He knew his hand was under the blade when his foot hit the SLICE pedal. There was nothing he could do about it. Chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka chunka feed it in hit the pedal feed it in hit the pedal. But remember to get your hands out of the way before you hit the pedal, remember to get your hands out of the way before you hit the ped…..!!!

I’m not going to repeat Albert’s damn explanation in any damn detail, because I’m the one who told our only damn piano player to operate the damn shear.

I was in my upstairs office when my friend Mike ran in and out of the doorway saying “You gotta get Albert to the emergency room ! He just sliced all his fingers off in the shear !!” I followed Mike down the fire escape stairs three at a time and ran toward my truck – a red Ford Ranger. Panic was dripping across the parking lot as far as I could see. Battle-scarred welders and sheet metal specialists were gathering and ungathering in conversational knots of freak out. Brent, my co-manager, was helping Albert walk in a circle, his hand wrapped in our white emergency towels. Albert was slowly wading through the invisible panic, mumbling and praying.

After getting Albert into my Ranger, they told him that I was going to drive him to the Harris Hospital Emergency Room and that he was going to be fine. Easy for them to say, because they didn’t have to drive through all the blind freakin’ panic that was spreading from the door of the Fabrication Shop all the way to the hospital. Brent handed some stuff through the window and said something about extra towels if I needed them. I put the towels between Albert and me and stomped the accelerator. We were off.

It was 4:00 in the afternoon, the time when Interstate 30, Fort Worth’s shortest distance between the two points of Work and Hospital, moves with the starts and stops of a drunken caterpillar. It was infuriating. Didn’t these people know that I had a bleeding cokehead in my passenger seat? Albert was weaving back and forth, clutching his butchered hand and singing softly...

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me….

I can still see the bus that was moseying down the highway in front of me, doing a safe and prudent seven-point-three miles a freakin’ hour, blocking my path to the emergency room. Jesus H. Christ, what was wrong with these people?

I once was lost, but now I’m found,

Was blind but now I see.

Speaking of lost, I considered going off-interstate for a while, but that area had been under construction ever since LBJ was governor. Plus, when I get turned around I sometimes can’t find my way out of a sack.
I could imagine explaining why Albert had bled to death in my truck: “See, I thought I was still driving towards Harris Hospital, but when I finally saw a familiar landmark, I realized I was about three miles from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco….” So I stayed on the interstate, moving slightly faster than the crew who had laid the original asphalt. Albert kept singing:

“Through many dangers, toils and snares,

We have already come….

We’d gone less than half a mile from the shop, God help us. I was blowing my horn and cussing the traffic. What would happen if we both started screaming? What level of panic would I hit?

And then something magical happened, something I was privileged to experience. Albert, doubled over in pain, stopped in the middle of the verse. He looked at me and said “Sing it with me, Brother Allen. Sing it with me.”

There was no rage, there was no anger. There was only Albert’s acceptance of the situation as we edged down the interstate, and his invitation for me to join him.

T'was grace that brought us safe thus far,

And grace will lead us home.

All modesty aside, I can harmonize with a chainsaw. I threw a tenor part on top of his melody. Damn, we sounded good. It was getting surreal in the red Ford Ranger.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun…

Albert’s voice was that of someone who had tried his best and been defeated so many times that he saw life as something to endure rather than enjoy. Albert didn’t care if he got out of this alive. Some of us go through life with a bumpersticker that says “I Make Shit Happen”. For years and years, Albert’s bumpersticker had read “Shit Happens. To Me.” He’d carried the monkey on his back for so long, watching it grow from a cute little baby chimp - to be brought out for fun on weekends - into a full-grown hairy-assed gorilla that demanded attention and feeding and money, 24/7. Albert is the only person I’ve heard sing about heaven and sound like he looked forward to going there.

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,

Than when we’ve first begun.”

We hadn’t covered half the distance to the hospital, and the cloth on Albert’s hand was soaked red and dripping down the truck seat. Holy Jesus, holy Jesus, let me get to the hospital. Albert was almost my height but probably weighed the Opium Diet Optimum of 130. Could I possibly abandon the red Ford Ranger on the side of the road and carry Albert on my back to Harris?

Shall we gather at the river,

Where bright angel feet have trod?

With its crystal tide forever,

That flows by the throne of God?

I didn’t want to gather at the river, even if it flowed by the collective thrones of Princess Di, Princess Grace of Monaco, or the Demon Baron Of Hell (from Doom 2.0). I wanted to gather at the Henderson exit from I-30, and quickly. I sang anyway.

Yes we’ll gather at the river,

The beautiful, the beautiful river.

Gather with the saints at the river,

That flows by the throne of God.

At this time in my life, I was coming off a crisis of faith of sorts. But I had to admire Albert’s worldview. I had nothing to hang onto. Right or wrong, Albert had something that I’d lost. I was envious. Would I give up some fingers to have it again? I dunno. Albert was armed with a Defense Against The Dark Arts, and I had nothing. If I’d fed my fingers into a shear, I wouldn’t be singing about the peace in my soul.

I've got peace like a river

I've got peace like a river

I've got peace like a river in my soul

I could see the hospital in the distance, there by the river in my soul with the crystal tide forever on the far side of the toils and snares and saints and all that other crap gathered at the river where I was blind but now, thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus, I see. I could see the hospital.

Once I turned off the interstate we made better time. The hymn festival ceased. It was time to think, time to run stop signs and red lights, time to drive on the damn sidewalk if necessary. Albert started mumbling prayers through the red Ranger roof. How in the hell does he do this? I thought. If I cut my fingers off, I would be screaming and cussing.

Getting into the parking lot was a relief along the line of the bomb squad correctly snipping the red wire instead of the blue. Albert had sweat running down his face to a degree that, combined with the blood loss, made me worry that he would pass out and leave a pile of dust in my truck seat. I pulled into the emergency room overhang, threw the truck into park, and got out to help Albert inside. Attendants met me halfway with a wheelchair. I briefly explained the situation and they told me to park the truck and come back.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “This is Albert, and he plays the piano, and….”

“Sir, do us a favor,” the attendants said. “Go park your truck.” (I must not have looked like a normal human at this point.)

“But he plays the piano,” I said stupidly.

“Go….park….your….truck !” they snarled. This was obviously not their first rodeo. They’d obviously seen guilt-stricken metal shop managers who had chopped off their piano player’s fingers before.

I parked the truck and called our Human Resources manager. I explained that Albert was now in good hands, and that I would keep everyone updated.

I went into the emergency room and the desk guardians allowed me to go into the back room where they were working on Albert. Albert was staring at his ruined hand and telling every passing doctor and nurse “No morphine. No morphine. No morphine.” Can you imagine the willpower that took? Hell, if you’re a recovering addict and cut your fingers off, don’t you get a free pass for just one day and get a little shot of something to equalize all the bad karma?

I called Mike and Brent back at the metal shop, and told them that I’d made it to the hospital and that they were working on Albert’s hand.

“Are they going to be able to re-attach them?” Mike said.

“Re-attach what?” I said.

“His fingers.”

“How can they attach his fingers,” I said.

“Allen, they can do surgeries where they re-attach fingers.”

“What do you mean, re-attach his fingers? I said for the last time. Mike was obviously speaking an Ebonics dialect of Choctaw, while I could only speak in the informal Pig Latin variant of Sanskrit.

“We gave you his fingers, didn’t we?

“When in the shitting damn hell did you give me Albert’s shit damn hell fingers?”

“Dude, when we gave you all those towels, some of those had Albert’s fingers in them.”

There were three seconds of silence on the phone. Then the sheer (I typed that the first time as “shear”, as in the slicing machine. Freudian slip.) , the sheer godawfulness of the moment overwhelmed me. I hung up without saying a word.

I ran out of the E.R. and into the parking lot. Where did I park, where did I park???

Then I saw it, my beloved red Ford Ranger. It was sitting there, throbbing, with Albert’s fingers somewhere inside. You know those movie scenes where the camera zooms in and zooms out several times, just to increase tension? My truck wasn’t doing that at all. My truck just sat there, pregnant with fingers that I was going to have to deliver.

I unlocked the truck. I reached in for the remaining unused towels in the middle of the seat. The top one didn’t have any fingers in it. Nor did the second one.

The third one was full of fingers. Yep. The fingers were wrapped in towel number three.

I picked up the towel, which was warm and squishy, and trotted back into the emergency room with it. Marched right through there and into the treatment center. They’d given Albert something (not morphine-based) for the pain, and he was in a fingerless blissful state.

I found a doctor and handed him the towel full of fingers.

“Here. Y’all might need these.” I said, and got out of there.


The doctors weren’t able to re-attach Albert’s fingers. It turns out that he only sliced off the tips of some of them, less than a knuckle’s worth on any of them. The stuff that Brent and Mike had given me in the towels was just some mangled finger meat of a type that I never want to handle again.

Albert eventually collected a handsome Workers Comp check. He was still able to play the piano. We lost touch with him years ago.

I’ve thought a lot about that intense, horrible, wonderful ride down Interstate 30 towards the hospital, singing those old hymns and gospel songs with Albert. I thought a lot about how Albert seemed to have something that I’ve lost. He had something to get him through the bad times.

Whatever it was that Albert had, I’ll never own it again. I can’t go back there to that childlike faith.

You see, I’m the man who allowed Albert to slice off his fingers, and then lost the fingers.


CenTexTim said...


Just ... wow ...

JT said...

Whited, what struck me most, among the beautiful prose and vivid imagery, was the distinct portrait of your character.

How many other managers, in an organization your size, would know everyone's name, much less their personal circumstance and musical ability? And to know those things about people that society has given up on.

This is a lovely allegory on faith - no matter where you find it. I think my choice of verbalization would be distinctly different in the same situation - but we can't ever know for certain, unless and until we are in the situation. We might be surprised.

Hot Sam said...

Wonderful story, but Albert let Albert slice off his fingers.

There isn't any blue collar job that a person can't get himself killed doing if he's bound and determined to do so.

I'm just wondering why you didn't call 911.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

CenTex, I'm glad you liked it.
Harper, I catch more fleas with honey than vinegar.
HotSam, I don't really remember.

Glad you folks liked it.

CenTexTim said...

Allen, if we ever meet I'll show you my finger. I did just about the same thing Albert did, but with a chain saw. Fortunately, the tip was able to be reattached and the finger is serviceable. However, no one would call it attractive.

And no, alcohol was not involved...