April 18th, 2002


"Hello, One-Hour Photo. Can I help you?"

It would take me pages to describe what an asshole my boss was. He was the son of a Navy Admiral and obviously a huge disappointment to his parents. Not coincidentally, his whole management strategy involved belittling those of us who worked for him as much as possible. His daily nutrition regimen of three pots of coffee and hourly hits off his asthma inhaler made him tenacious with his insults and, unfortunately, hard to avoid. But, as it turned out, also surprisingly vulnerable.

Constantly floating debt and speeding out of his mind, he would never admit to forgetting any person or detail. He’d bluff his way through any confusing conversation, whether it was with bankers, vendors, or customers. He never went on the defensive. When he told particular egregious lies, he had the peculiar habit of clenching his butt cheeks, rapidly, over and over again.

Photo labs attract annoying customers. No negative was ever out of focus, no shot was ever un-centered, and no roll of film was ever mis-loaded without us taking the blame somehow. And John, our boss, would encourage it, yelling at us or making fun of us to impress his well-paying customers or his buddies from the Rotary Club, often promising better work, whether or not it was actually possible.

We had so many horrible regulars, that we developed a whole language to describe them. We called them creatures or creeches for short. We even made it into a verb. "Boy Gordon, you really got creeched on, didn’t you?" a coworker might say after a customer screamed at me because their underexposed film was "printed too dark". When a particularly horrible regular would come towards the door, someone would yell, "Creech alert!" and the last worker to flee into the back room would be stuck helping them.

I stayed at that job too long. Long enough to start figuring out how to use John’s personality and self-medication to my advantage. As the main photo printer, it was my job to answer the phone most of the time. I began recognizing creeches by the tone of their voice when they said hello. If they even bothered to say hello before launching into a complaint or impossible demand, that is. And I developed a simple strategy for dealing with all of these calls.

""I have 500 prints and I need to find the negatives that go with them but my glasses broke. Can you help?"
"Can you do a portrait of me and my cats?"
"My whole family wants to come down and decide on a Christmas card photo together. Will you help us decide?"

Or, most often:
"I’m a professional photographer and. . ."*

I’d answer all these questions in the same way. "Yes, it sounds complicated so I’ll help you personally. I’m the owner. My name is John."

The joy of watching my boss get trapped for hours by the worst creeches never got old, Never having talked to these people before, he was still unwilling to admit his confusion. Whenever he tried to get out of a particular situation the customers would start in with "But you said YOU were going to help me personally," and he’d see no way out. Every minute he was tied up with these projects was one fewer minute he could hassle us.

Eventually, our time now freed up a little, we made it into a sport. We’d guess numbers, and start a betting pool, throwing our dollars into the processed orders box. Then we’d take turns counting his butt flinches: closest number to the actual amount would win $5. We even videotaped a particular spastic episode once, his rear end perfectly framed in the middle of the screen. We made copies, and would sneak it into the store’s demonstration VCR whenever we got the chance. .

*It doesn’t matter what they’d say next. Real professionals don’t go to one-hour labs.