One of the first things I learned from the AOL Help desk (and it was uurdala who taught me this) is to hang out with the smokers in the IT world. There's a lot of wisdom to this, since you get the chance to learn about the underpinnings of the industry: the blood, guts, sweat, cables and the people who man them. Not only to you get some small breaks, but most of the really good gurus also smoke (I am not sure why). And some of the stuff I learned in exchange for a higher chance of lung cancer has made me a better administrator, I'll tell you that. I also learn a lot of about the World of Warcraft. But I digress.
At AOL it was under the back entrance, or the metal gazebo. Smokers are a brooding lot and do not want to get rained on. In my current workplace it's a small sheltered area next to the building's loading dock. The alley we face shows some abandoned property, a kidney dialysis center, and is near a homeless shelter. Sometimes we get homeless people who try and bum smokes or money. It used to happen a lot, but as Silver Spring has cleaned up, there's less and less of them. Even moving the damn bus depot to our front door didn't gain many more moochers.
Most of these guys will ask, you say no, they say God bless, and move on. A few don't. This was one of them.
I don't even know if he was homeless, since he didn't smell bad and his clothes looked rather new. He had on a combo that looked like a jogger's suit and sported a backwards cap. His blunt nose and sagging cheeks sported two bugged eyes that made him look like an insect version of a basset hound in some terrifying alternate universe. He looked maybe Italian, probably in his late 40s. He slowly sauntered up to us, and asked if we had a cigarette.
There were four of us. Well, six if you count two ladies from another office. One lady left right away. The other one sat on a bench in a dark corner.
"I only got the one," said Brad. "I don't smoke," I said. "I smoked my only one," said the data center tech. "I don't feel like giving out my cigarettes," said the head of our network.
"You don't feel like giving me a cigarette?" the guy asked. He seemed a little incredulous, probably because he was not used to people outright refusing him so honestly. He had never met the head of our network, who is a small but powerful guy. The owner of the company once joked to me, "We gave him his own office after he threw a router through a wall." Maybe he wasn't joking. I would never cross this guy, ever. He strikes me as the kind of guy who would fight dirty with his face extended like an Ed Roth cartoon. But he was worn out and grouchy because he sat through a 90 minute meeting where one of the customers talked almost non stop with nothing to say.
The guy was too stunned to say much else at first, but asked the woman sitting in the dark, who declined with a quiet and powerful manner that reminded me of "The Oracle" in "The Matrix." So he went back to our network guy.
"How about I beat the crap out of you, and TAKE those damn cigarettes?" he said.
"Because there's four of us, and only one of you," I said. "Come on, now. You'd commit a violent act for a cigarette?"
"Damn right I would," he said. "How about I give you another black eye to match that one," he said, pointing to the network guy... who had NO black eyes as far as I could tell. I tried to emotionally read the guy, and came up empty. I had this fear he'd just wallop the guy, and I would pause too long. I suddenly felt, "this is going down." The guy was a full head shorter than I was, and I felt all four of us could completely do him in. My first thought when I realized this fight might happen was my iPhone. I put it in my pocket and stood up tall, thinking, "I may get hurt, but this might be fun. Can't hurt the iPhone, though."
I am such a nerd.
The network guy reached into his back pocket and pulled out a knife. Not openly, just in a slow and steady move that was meant for him and the greaseball only to see. He never opened the blade, but the guy took off his sunglasses. I started to look at the guy and figure out how strong the backs of his knees were in case I has to destabilize him.
It was just him and our network guy for a few moments. The guy was trying to use eye contact as intimidation, but the network guy was looking down at the hand that concealed the knife. I don't know if he would have opened it, but one of the things I learned from a former fighter was how much more useful a folded blade was in your hands than an open one. I suspected a quick strike from either one of them at any second.
But thankfully, it never happened. The guy stood down, said some stupid things I don't recall, and left. It was tense for a while, but pat of me was disappointed it didn't happen. Yes, I know the risks, and I am glad it didn't go down... but just for a second there...
"On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero. "