When you say ‘Fantastic’

I once knew this guy, my grandfather’s friend. When I was a boy he came by to visit every once in a while and he and my grandfather would sit out on the side porch and drink iced tea, talking late into the night. My grandfather’s house was in upper Silver Spring, MD, on a heavily wooded acre and a half. Deep into a neighborhood bordering the Northwest Branch – a forest preserve with a river running through it – night at my grandfather’s place was deceptively rural. At night, the sense that we were in the bustling suburbs of DC would fade away to country darkness, full of the sounds of animals lurking through the shadows. My grandfather and his friend would speak in low, hushed voices.

We’ll call him Sam. He once pulled me aside and gave me what he said was the only advice I’d need.

“How old are you now?” He asked.

I answered that I was 12.

He nodded. “In a few years you’ll be part of the workforce, kiddo. When I was 12, I wish someone had told me what I’m about to tell you. Ready?”

I nodded.

He told me that, when I became a cog in the wheel, wasting my life year after year in some “goddamned corporate hellhole,” I’d have to learn how to get along with the mindless chumps all around me, and the “half-brained peacocks” who would be my bosses. His technique was simple: Instead of telling these people to fuck off and die, he’d only say nice things. But, of course, he would really be saying the bad things in his head.

He struck a dramatic pose and said, “When some cow is telling me about her stupid kids, I give her a big shit-eating grin and say ‘Faaaaaantastic!’” He bent down to look me in the eyes, “But what I’m really saying to her is that she’s a fucking stupid, smelly cow and her kids can go jump off a cliff for all I care.”

He posed again like some strange ancient orator. “When the boss says I need to get my shit together, I say ‘Yyyyou betcha, buddy!’” Then, again, he looked down at me. “But what I really mean is ‘I hope you get cancer and die so I can take a dump on your headstone.’”

My grandfather asked me, after Sam left that night, what he’d told me. I repeated Sam’s advice and my grandfather laughed. “That’s Sam. And that’s some good advice!” He patted me on the head and told me to go play my video games.

Sam’s long dead now. Shortly after he died and we went to West Virginia for his funeral I was struck that nobody from his family showed up. I knew he had a wife, though they were divorced, and three kids. But none of them showed up at his funeral.

“Oh, they hate him.” My grandfather said at the bar afterwards. He said how Sam’s coping methods for the office actually filled his life. He wasn’t able to ever say anything nice to anyone because, in his mind, it meant the opposite. He didn’t praise his children, he never complimented his wife.

“He thought,” my grandfather told me, “That it would be dishonest to be kind to them.”

I suggested that such behavior was, frankly, insane, and now sad that it ends like this.

“Family ain’t what it used to be,” my grandfather said. “We’ve forgotten how to be loyal to each other, no matter what we say and do. If his wife and kids couldn’t hack it, then they don’t deserve to know Sam.”

I briefly took Sam’s advice when I entered the working world. For over 20 years I worked in the customer service industry. There you almost have to adopt Sam’s policies. You can only say nice things, even when the customer is threatening your life. The things customers have said to me over the years are astounding, inhuman, cruel. Yet if I ever spoke up and defended myself, I’d get a demerit. I’d be hauled out on the carpet and my boss would force me to listen to the call and tell me that it’s poor customer service. How dare I speak back to someone who said things like “I hope you die and rot in hell” and “I’m going to come down there and blow your goddamned head off.” How dare I take offense to these things and speak out!

I’d nod and say, yes, sir, I’ll do better. But I wouldn’t mean that.

The more I did that, the more I felt the anger in me fester, boil, and then harden into something that could never be chipped away. It took a long time to realize that I had to stop, get out of the service industry, learn to let go of my anger.

I’m still practicing. Slowly, I’m starting to mean what I say.