Sometimes salvation comes in the most unlikely form

“Two small mocha lattes, skinny, please”

The wind whipped and swirled through the office buildings, dropping the temperature at least another ten degrees.  The coffee truck barista thumped the two cups in front of him at the window.

“$8.50, please”

“Keep the change,” he said placing a ten on the counter just below shoulder-level.

“Thanks, and happy holidays!”

It wasn’t that large a tip but his coffee dude seemed pretty pleased about it.  Still he probably wasn’t as pleased as Gregory Thomas would be once he got inside.  Gregory Thomas worked in the mail room at BD & W; part of their Community Outreach program.  He had no idea how long he had been there; it wasn’t high on the list of “things he needed to know to advance” in his first six months.  He’d been trying his best to be a sponge since he had graduated from State and was hired entry level.  No internships, no connections and no prior networking at the company meant he tried to meet everyone and as unobtrusively as possible, pump them for all the information they would offer.  It was part of hustling.  Gregory Thomas, on the other hand, probably didn’t know the meaning of the word.

He couldn’t really place Gregory Thomas’s age.  He had that innocent, boyish thing going on behind those impenetrable glasses and goofy grin that probably masked a much older man than he appeared.  Somehow, out of an odd coincidence, their paths had crossed on just his second day at the office.  Gregory Thomas Olbingen (he was always referred to by both his first and middle name) had a clockwork route delivering the overnight mail that made his path identical to Joe’s for the first 30 or so yards in the building every morning.  It was rare that the two didn’t see each other and chat just a little, usually about cars.  He knew Gregory Thomas was challenged but not by what condition.  What he had picked up by their third or fourth encounter was his vast obsession with everything automobile.  Gregory Thomas loved cars, almost as much as he loved coffee.  Coffee with a little chocolate to take bite off was like the nectar of the gods to him and most days Joe picked him up a cup.  He got two smalls both for economical reasons and just in case Gregory Thomas didn’t show.  Truth be told the only time he missed him was when he didn’t walk through the front doors of the office at about 7:45.  If he ran late or early by ten minutes their paths didn’t cross.  Such was the precision by which this challenged guy operated.

“Morning, Joe, thanks for the coffee,” Gregory Thomas grinned that trademark smile and accepted the cup.  “You’re the best dude; a real classic!  Sort of like the Camaro Z28.”

“Oh yeah?  I’m flattered Gregory Thomas.  That’s one sweet ride.”

“You bet it is Joe.  You know it was almost called the panther?  And that Camaro doesn’t mean anything?”


“Yeah, no kidding.  The Z28 became one of the most popular “upgrade” models of the pony cars.  It took over when the Mustang’s popularity and sales slumped with horrendous design changes.”

“I’ll bet.  Some of those years were awful for the Mustang.  Was the Z as fast as the ‘stang back in the day though?”  He knew this would get Gregory Thomas started.

“Oh, Joe, it whipped the ‘stang, sorry to say!” and he was off.

Joe let Gregory Thomas’s monologue drift into the background as they passed Accounts where Christine worked.  It wasn’t every day that he saw her but sometimes he got lucky and she was up from her desk.  He tried not to appear obvious or rubberneck even though he realized he probably did.  Today he was fortunate.  She rose from her cubicle just as he and Gregory Thomas strolled by and through the glass doors he gave her a small wave.  She smiled back and waved then went on about her business.  He’d never figured out how, short of being awkwardly forward and going into the “fishbowl” as they called it, and striking up a conversation, to talk to her.  Not that he didn’t want to.  From a distance she looked great.

“Isn’t that funny, Joe?  Joe?  Isn’t that weird how the Z28 started to nosedive along with disco?”

“Yeah, really a coincidence.  Death to disco and death to the Z, huh?”

Gregory Thomas snorted as he chuckled.  “You’re right, Joe.  Hey, you going to the holiday party tonight?  I think they’re having a dance there.”

“Sure thing, Gregory Thomas.  You?”

“You bet!  I like dancing and I’m good at it.  It’s right up there with cars and coffee for me!  We’ll have to cut a rug out there together, huh?”

“Sure, Gregory Thomas, you know it.  Hey, I’ve gotta get at it.  We’ll see you later, okay?”

“You bet, thanks for the coffee!”

They parted company as Joe veered off toward his cubicle.

Things had been slowing down in advance of the holidays for the last several days and honestly he didn’t like it.  He always kept one eye open for ways to stand out, add value to his position and take on new and creative things but honestly in the first few months he couldn’t say he had been successful in doing so.  Tonight’s dinner and dance for the Christmas party could be important.  He had hopes of striking up a conversation with John Christensen.

Christensen headed Sales placing him three levels up the food chain from where Joe sat.  Stan, Joe’s supervisor, was a nice enough guy but in his fifties, comfortable and more than likely resigned to his position.  Stan wasn’t a guy who was going to give Joe a leg up.  It wasn’t that Stan didn’t like him; they got along fine.  It was just that Stan wasn’t motivated or wired that way.  Joe needed a benefactor, a mentor, someone who would help him channel his creativity and energy to bigger and better things.  Tonight could be the start of that relationship (he hoped) but for today he had to try and crack through with Williams and Stevens, a tough nut by all rights.  It would be a long enough day without strategizing how he could get alongside Mr. Christensen.

As he straightened his bow tie in the mirror early that evening at the hotel he couldn’t help but think he looked the part for the mission.  His two-pronged goal was to look for an opening to say hello to Mr. Christensen now while people milled about after dinner and to strike up a conversation with the lovely Christine.  He’d rented a tuxedo because he knew the exec’s wore them and he wanted to appear, on the outside at least, to fit in somewhat with that crowd, to place himself above the other guys who wore suits.  Granted these were suits far more expensive than he could afford, but suits nonetheless.  Secondly, he hoped his appearance might catch Christine’s eye and make an impression.  He gave himself a little internal pep talk as he left the men’s restroom and stepped back into the hallway.

He heard the elevator music from the mobile DJ before he opened the ballroom doors.  Inside he surveyed the room as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer lights.  Christensen’s table was at 12 o’clock dead ahead.  Packed with people and a few standing around chit chatting with its occupants, it presented no opportunities.  Christine was at a table at 3 o’clock farther back in the room.  He couldn’t see if she was there because of the crowd but he assumed so.  As his gaze swung back to the left again he thought he heard a loud sniffle and a cough at his far left where the high-top cocktail tables sat.  It was Gregory Thomas and he was not in a good way.

“Gregory Thomas, what’s going on, man?”  He almost hesitated to ask since it was clear the night wasn’t going well for his cars and coffee acquaintance.

“Oh, hi Joe.  I’m just hanging out here away from those jerks.”

“What jerks, Gregory Thomas?”

“Oh, the guys at my table.  They’re jerks.  You’d think none of them ever heard about cars before not even the Boss 302 Mustang.”

Gregory’s department store suit was a size and a half too big and his tie was askew.  A small dark spot was on his vest (clearly gravy) was as evident as the fact that he’d been crying.  The poor guy looked kind of a wreck.

“Don’t take it too hard, Gregory Thomas, not everyone’s a car guy like you and me.”

“I know Joe but it’s not just that.  Those guys are from my unit and they all pal around and joke and have nicknames for each other and I’m just not part of that.”  His voice broke and he saw his chin quiver.  He looked down as he wiped his eyes.

“Oh, man, don’t feel bad buddy.  I’m sure it’s not that they don’t like you…”

“Yeah, but I’m not part of the group, Joe.”  His voice caught and his lips curled as large tears spilled down his cheeks.  “I just want to be one of the guys.”

Joe winced inwardly.  Something about what Gregory Thomas said struck him down deep reaching a part of him he didn’t like to own up to.  Still, maybe he could fix things for Gregory Thomas though.

“Hey, Gregory Thomas, how about if you had a cool nick-name like those other guys?  How about if we got you a kick ass handle that made you stand out from those goobers?”

Gregory seemed to brighten as he looked up.  “That would be awesome, Joe, but everyone just calls me Gregory Thomas all the time.  That’s just so stupid and dorky.  Gregory Thomas, Gregory Thomas, Gregory Thomas Olbingen.”

Joe smiled at Gregory as the light bulb went on in his head.  He hadn’t realized how he’d never put it together.  He slapped Gregory on the shoulder when it hit him.  It was perfect.

“Gregory Thomas I’ve got it!  You’re Gregory Thomas Olbingen.  That’s G-T-O.  You’re GTO, the “Goat” just like the muscle car.”  He thought Gregory’s face might split wide open with the grin that spread from one side of it to the other.

“Oh, man, you’re right!  I’m the GTO.  0-60 in 6.6 seconds and 13.9 in the quarter mile in 1969, arguably the most popular model Pontiac ever produced!  Over 27,000 still on the road and one of the most ticketed cars to this day!  I’m the Goat!”  It was the newly christened “Goat’s” turn to slap him on the shoulder.

“Thanks, man, I’ve always wanted my own nick-name ever since I was little and they started calling me Gregory Thomas.  You know there’s a lot in a nickname…”

Joe let Gregory’s voice fade into the first song the DJ was spinning.  As he scanned the room he noticed Christensen’s table had some gaps at it and John sat quietly almost looking directly at him.  He straightened himself up from leaning on the high-top and was about to turn to Gregory and excuse himself when he felt a pull at his sleeve.

“Let’s go do some dancin’ Joe!”

“I don’t know GTO, I should go over here and talk to some people.”

“Nah!  That can wait, Joe.  This is an excellent song.  I love it!”

For some inexplicable reason the DJ had chosen Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “I like big butts” as his second song of the night.  Maybe he thought it would break things up or make people laugh but not many people were on the dance floor.  As he perused the room he caught sight of Christine at the left of the dance floor, clearly one of the brave souls with her girlfriends unafraid to mix things up to this most inappropriate of holiday songs.  Gregory pulled hard again at his wrist.

“Come on, Joe.  Just one dance you promised.”

He hadn’t really thought he would see Gregory here and he’d hedged he wouldn’t remember the promise even if he did.  He also figured the dance floor would be crowded if they did find themselves out there allowing them to blend in unnoticed.  He was wrong on all counts.  Greg was about to separate his left shoulder.

“Okay, one dance with the new Goat!”

He got a puzzled look and half smile from Christine as they stepped on the floor.  He smiled back and hoped this was not the extended dance version.  He was wrong and then the DJ decided to mix and scratch it.  All those odd circumstances paled in comparison however to the Goat’s dance moves.

He’d seen the “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine danced.  He’d witnessed his niece’s dance recitals complete with modern dance, something he hardly recognized, but the Goat had moves he could not have imagined.  He jerked, he twitched, he hopped and he did a sort of faux handstand where he kicked one leg up in the air barely missing one of Christine’s friends who had danced closer out of curiosity.  It was like nothing he or anyone else had ever seen before and he, Joe Vissler, was dancing with him.

A smallish crowd had gathered and the DJ, assuming his mixing and scratching was getting people into it kept it up.  Greg whirled and jumped and bounced around like nothing Joe had ever seen and in a fit of energy lost his balance and stumbled.  He tried to regain control but he careened, tripping and flailing violently, to his right.  Joe hadn’t realized how close they were to the dessert table.

Later he would re-tell the story and ask the question, ‘Who puts the dessert table right next to the dance floor anyway?’  Like a much less bloody scene from “Carrie” Greg lurched out of control toward the table and Joe watched helplessly as the Goat slammed into the beautifully laid out plates of cheesecake, pie and cake.  There was an ominous thud and gasp from the crowd as the round table leg collapsed and the remaining plates slid to the floor, many ricocheting off his dance partner.  It was as if time and the music had stopped all at once and a gasp went up from the crowd.

He ran the few feet to where his friend toppled to make sure he wasn’t hurt.  He could see the embarrassment and the remorse and tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

“GTO, you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.  Joe, I’m so sorry…”  The tears were starting to spill.

“Don’t worry, Goat.”  He helped him to his feet.  “They’ll bring out more dessert.”  He brushed a cherry or two off Greg’s suit and turning his head alongside Greg’s whispered, “Dude, that was freaking epic!”  The Goat beamed and they walked off the dance floor to a smattering of applause.

They headed toward the men’s room.  Greg was going to need some cleaning up.  Cake and frosting and dessert of all kinds clung to his clothes.  There was even some in his hair.

“You go wash up, buddy.  I can’t give you a ride home in my Mustang pasted with pastries.”

“Really, Joe, you have a ‘stang?”

“Yep, it’s not a classic, it’s a 2014 but it’s still pretty sweet.  I’ll give you a lift.”

“Cool!” and he disappeared through the doors.

As he leaned against a love seat outside the restrooms he tried to wipe off some crumbs from his tux.  He had smudges of all kinds of desserts from helping Greg up and walking him over.  He was definitely not sharp any more.  This had been quite a night.  Someone touched his shoulder and he turned to see Christine looking at him curiously again.

“That was a nice thing you did there.  You’re a pretty good guy, Joe,” and she pecked him on the cheek.  “Come in and say hi some morning on your way in.”  She walked off before he could stammer out, ‘’Sh-sure.  I will.”

‘What do you know?’ he thought.  That was odd.  As he watched her walk away he heard the men’s room door close and turned expecting to see his pal the Goat heading toward him.  Wrong again.

John Christensen’s hand stretched out toward him warmly.

“I don’t think we’ve met, I’m John Christensen, head of Sales.”

“Uh, yes sir, Joseph Vissler.  Nice to meet you.”

“Gregory’s just about got the majority of the carnage wiped off.  He’ll be out shortly.”

“Good to hear, you know him?”

“Yes, I know Gregory, or should I say, the Goat as he’s told me he’s to be referred to.  My oldest was in his high school class.  I started our Outreach program with Gregory in mind.  He was our first participant and we now have six employees in the program today.  Thanks for hanging with him and taking care of him.  He’s a sweet, sweet guy.”

“Yeah, we’re sort of coffee buddies most mornings.”

“I know, I’ve seen that too.”

“Oh,” was all he could think to say.  He wondered if there was anything John Christensen didn’t see or know.

“You know belonging, having a place that’s your own, was a big reason why we started Outreach.  You might not realize it but that nickname you came up with for Gregory may just be about the biggest thing that’s happened to him in a long time.  Nice job.”

“Thank you, I was just trying to make a friend feel better.”

“Well, it was very creative.  Say, I’m putting together a new team to address some of our processes and procedures company-wide.  We could use all the creativity and outside-the-box problem solving we can get.  Why don’t you come by my office on Monday and I’ll flesh things out a little more for you and you can see if you might like to be part of it.”

“Sure, sure, that would be great!”

“Well, I better get back to the dance.  Pleasure meeting you.”

“You too, Mr. Christensen.”

“Please, call me John.”

“Okay, John.”

He was almost in a daze as he drove GTO home.  Greg was thrilled to be riding in a Mustang and filled him in on Lee Iacocca and the design and specs of the first models and how their arrival in the market began a new era.  He knew he wouldn’t remember all the information but the Goat kept going; until he didn’t.  There was silence as Greg looked at him inquisitively.

“I’m sorry, GTO, I’m spacing off.  What did you say?”

“You met my friend John?”

“Mr. Christensen?  Oh, yeah, just tonight while you were in the restroom.  Seems like a nice guy.”

“Yeah, he’s a great guy.  He saved me you know.”

“Saved you?  No, I’m afraid I didn’t know.  What do you mean?”

“He gave me a job after graduation, gave me something to do and because I make money I can live in the apartment I do that’s part of the Connections program.  He saved me from having to live in a crummy care facility.  He saved me.”

“Huh, I guess you’re right, GTO.  Good for you.”

“Yeah, Joe.  You know, I bet if you want, he can save you too.”

Serendipity is a heckuva thing especially if you mix in some almost-divine intervention.  Any way you slice it it’s nice to see good guys finish out in front once in a while.  

I write every week about the quirks and twists and turns this ‘ol life has to offer.  If you would like to read more, click here and you’ll go back to my home page.  If you like what you read here or there I hope you’ll subscribe to my blog.  Subscribing is free and it just means on Saturdays you will get an email from me with links to the week’s posts.  I never sell or share emails so you won’t get a bunch of junk.  You can subscribe at the blog or here by clicking this.