Big John’s career in window installation ended one day when he had a disagreement with the sun: It rose.
According to John, the sun’s arrival was approximately four hours to the early side. Had the days begun with an eleven a.m. sunrise, Big John might have kept the job with Grace and Sons Windows. Alas, he had no way to alter the Earth’s rotation. He didn’t bother to call Mr. Grace or any of the sons. He just stopped going in. It was the third job he had quit in four months.
One early afternoon, while staring at his bedroom ceiling, Big John, my upstairs neighbor in apartment 3-G, had a revelation. Constantly quitting jobs was not working for him. From then on, he vowed, he would no longer leave jobs just because they were boring, dirty or arrived too early in the day for his fragile metabolism.
Instead, he would be fired from them.
Big John had done some research on the subject and discovered that if you are let go by your employer, you may be eligible for unemployment checks from the state. If, however, you quit your job, the state leaves you on your own to find income. This research came from an expert. His name was “Mac”. He tended bar at Hershey’s. He also collected a check from the state, every two weeks, for being unemployed.
Suddenly, Big John had a new attitude. It was possible for a thirty-something to make it in this world without a high school diploma, motivation, connections, or three consecutive sober days. Unemployment, he thought. That’s the ticket. Soon, he would be living a dream, all expenses paid. The bill would come to the state of West Virginia.
The two hundred eleven dollars the state handed every two weeks to those without work was just about enough to live on if you spent wisely. Big John was not thrifty. He had expenses. He knew that he would have to find additional income. Like his friend, the bartender, he would have to subsidize the allowance from the state. His grand scheme was devised in three parts. First, he would have to be fired from a job. Second, he would have to file for and receive unemployment. And third, he would have to find new employment that paid cash, under the table.
Burger Boy seemed like an easy place to lose a job, but it took nearly seven months of spitting, cursing and refusing to do what he was told by Barry, his manager (and just plain not showing up). Losing a job was hard work – harder, in fact, than actually working. Finally, one Tuesday afternoon, Big John completed step one in the process of living his dream.
He was fired.
A month later, he received his first unemployment check.
He was on his way.
The third part of Big John’s latest scheme turned out to be the most difficult. He soon learned that when an employer is paying you an honest wage and reporting that wage to the authorities, that employer can sometimes be slow to pass judgment on his employees. It took Big John those seven months to get fired from Burger Boy because the company, being above board, had to answer to higher authorities. There are rules. There are laws. But, he soon learned, when a guy is paying you five bucks an hour under the table to wash dishes, he’s not so lenient. There are no rules. There are no laws.
The attitude toward employment that Big John acquired in his days of living above board carried over to his career as a scofflaw of the state. He was fired from the dishwashing job, a cleaning service let him go and he was told to leave the lot at an under-the-table valet parking gig. It was a tough week.
Just after he collected his third paycheck from the state for doing nothing, I saw him in the hallway. He was wearing what looked to be a brown shag rug. He passed me, wordless, with a look that said not to ask. I asked.
“I’m a bear,” said Big John. “I’m the Bargain Bear. They’re paying me in cash. I gotta go. I’m gonna be late.”
I drove past him on my way to work. He waved from the sidewalk, beckoning me into the new Bargain Bear store. It was 85 degrees. Dressed in that same brown shag rug, giant boots covered with fur and a fiberglass bear’s head, he was holding a bunch of limp balloons, unenthusiastically waving a gloved hand at passing cars.
There he is, I thought. There’s my friend, the smartest man I know, a guy who has figured out a way to beat the system.
He’s living a dream.