Scotch and Cigars

I saw the glow of the fluorescent lamps from the street.. The lights in the garage, or the shop as Tom called it, were on and jazz played in the background, not modern or progressive, but “real” jazz like Duke Ellington. Something flickered through the fence and I saw he had finally bought the fire pit he had been talking about for a long time. I called out to him, opened the gate as I had many times before, and walked into the backyard. Several people were sitting in a semi-circle in the driveway around a blazing fire. Tom was standing behind something new, some sort of portable bar.

“What do you want to drink?” he asked.

The shop was filled with his vintage motorcycle collection, a Moto Guzzi, a Triumph, a British racing green Norton Commando, a 90’s era Ducati and a partly dissembled ‘47 Indian  among others. The covers had been pulled off the bikes, the paint which appeared to be polished seemed to glow in the light.

“A bar?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s not everyday that Mark turns sixty. So what do you want?”

I lifted my plastic grocery bag and said, “I am drinking Cab tonight. I brought a really good Justin.”

“You sure? I’m pouring Blue.”

“Blue. You bringing out the Blue?” It’s not everyday that he serves one of Johnny Walker’s finest.

“Yes, no shop scotch for a night like this.”

I hesitated, then said, “That’s tempting as hell but I think I will stick with wine. Scotch knocks the hell out of me.”

Jorge Manuel, J.M. for short, came up to me, put his left hand on my shoulder and shook my right hand with a firm grip.

“How are you doing my friend?” he asked.

“Excellent!” I said. “Retirement is on the horizon!” I raised my glass to toast his. “Glad you are here. Can’t wait to hear how yours is going.”

“Where is Mark?” Russ asked.

“He is running late. Traffic on the 405 is worse than usual,” Tom said.

“That’s not possible!” he said sarcastically.

I pulled the Cab and a wine glass from the bag, uncorked the bottle and poured a large glass. Robert came out of the house and Marisol pulled the gate open and joined us in the backyard. Sitting with me was a group of people I have spent long hours with, some for just a few years, others for as long as three decades. The youngest were in their early fifties, the oldest just over seventy, most of us were about sixty. We had started our lives all over the globe; England, the Caribbean, Venezuela, various places within the U.S., somehow ending up here, on this fall evening, in the backyard of a good friend, in a city that most of us had never heard of when we were young, and none of us would have picked as the place to raise our families and spend our adult lives. Fate has a funny way of assembling things.

We are at various stages in our careers. One retired a year ago in the first wave of the massive industry layoffs that followed the 2014 oil price crash; a second retired earlier this year; and Tom retired one month ago. The company that most of us worked for was evaluating alternatives after the price collapse caused a change in strategic business strategy; several of us were now on the verge of retiring, whether voluntarily or through no choice of our own. A couple of people are too young to be eligible for a retirement package, but they are not sweating an involuntary separation, yet.

We gathered to celebrate Mark’s sixtieth birthday, or at least that is the catalyst for this gathering. I suspect most of us want to hear the latest rumors and talk to the recent “retirees” about life after corporate America. Those that can’t retire yet want an opportunity to lament that their only choice is to stay behind in “Newco” after more than two hundred of their colleagues, many of which are close friends, will leave, and the company’s focus shifts to perpetual cost cutting. We are all there to drink with our good friends and a couple are also there to smoke the fine cigars Tom brings out for these occasions.

Marisol approached the bar and opened her arms wide. Tom walked into them and they hugged. “It’s been a long time,” she said.

“Way too long! What do you want to drink?”

“The strongest you have,” she said.

“Make that two,” George added. “Can’t wait for this restructuring to be over.”

Marisol and George are leads on the restructuring team. They have the pleasure of figuring out how to reduce overhead, which in management speak means how to eliminate people. For months they have carried the burden that the cuts will be severe and will affect people’s lives, some positively, some in devastating ways. I can see it on their faces.

“Bad day?” Tom asked. He pulled the Blue out and poured two large glasses of scotch.

“Splash of water in mine please,” George said.

“Neat for me,” Marisol said.

George took a long sip then answered Tom’s question. “All of them have been bad lately.”

“I remember those days. Don’t miss them one bit,” Tom said.

Tom acted as if it had been long time since he had been involved in layoffs and corporate America. It had only been one month. He could have been joking, but I think he was serious. I have been told some people can walk away and quickly completely push aside a job that had been a big part of their adult lives.

“Three more years and I have medical benefits. As soon as I get them I am out of there,” George said.

“Five more years for me,” Marisol said as she handed Tom the glass for a refill. “Three kids to put through college. My husband won’t let me retire until I have enough saved to pay for their degrees.”

Tom handed her the glass, pulled out a Cuban and gestured to ask her if she wanted one. She reached out and took the cigar. He offered to cut the tip but she politely declined and did it flawlessly. He pulled a lighter from behind the bar, one of those old style silver lighters, the ones with a flip top, and lit the cigar. She worked hard to get the cigar to light.

“This Cuban is tightly wound.”

“Lately, this Cuban is too,” she said.

Tom laughed. “You have to draw pretty hard to smoke it. You may need to knead it and light it several times to keep it going.”

She drew hard and the tip turned red, somewhat dull at first and then bright as she drew hard several times. Her checks contracted as she simultaneously drew hard while lighting it. The tip turned bright red and she exhaled a cloud of smoke. 

Some people think the smell of a Cuban cigar is a luxury; I am not one of those people.

“Well done,” Tom said. He turned to the rest of the group and asked if anyone needed anything. Everyone was fine for the moment.

He said, “Let’s sit down. Mark should be here soon.”

We took seats on the fringes of the semi-circle. The center seat was left open, reserved for the birthday boy.

“What’s the latest George and Marisol?” I asked.

George pulled on his cigar and exhaled a large cloud of smoke, looked at Marisol to get her OK, sipped the Blue, and said, “the meeting today was a bitch.”

Marisol nodded her concurrence as she drew on the cigar.

“So you guys know this is all confidential?” he asked.

We all nodded yes.

“What’s said in this yard stays in this yard,” he added.

“Of course,” several of us replied. “Of course” didn’t really mean it would stay in this yard, but it gave George and Marisol the go ahead to unload, telling us the latest news, or rumors, about the restructuring plans, and most importantly to some of us, the terms of a voluntary package, and to others, the likelihood that someone in this yard would be leaving against their will.

Tom got up and said, “I forgot the snacks. Wait a second.”

At that moment the distinctive and loud sound of Mark’s open exhaust pipes grew louder as the Harley entered the neighborhood and approached the house. He pulled into the driveway and revved the throttle to announce his arrival. Tom opened the gate and Mark rode the bike into the backyard and parked behind the chairs. Several of us got up to say hello and to wish him a happy sixtieth.

“What do you want to drink?” Tom asked him. “I am pouring Blue tonight and Mike brought Justin. There are also a couple of brands of 805 in the fridge.”

“Blue, of course! How can anyone turn that down?”

“Exactly,” Tom said. He looked at me with a frown, then said, “Mike did.”

Tom poured him a glass, topped off a couple of others and we moved back to the chairs. Someone poked the fire and wakened it. Tom led him to the center chair and gave someone a large jar of Kirkland almonds and mixed nuts to pass around.

“We were just about to hear the latest news about the restructuring. There are a few in this group with some big decisions coming up. George, Marisol, if you’d like to continue…”

J.M. stood up. “Sorry to interrupt, but in my country a man’s sixtieth birthday is a big event. So before we hear about the packages…” J.M. raised his glass and said, “Mark, considero eres uno de mis amigos más cercanos. Te deseo felices sesenta anos. Yo lo deseo mucho salad, felicidad y prosperidad.”

Besides Marisol, I don’t think anyone understood what J.M. said, especially Mark, but it sounded beautiful in Spanish. We toasted him then sat back down.

“Thank you everyone, especially you J.M.”

I have been waiting for months to finally hear the terms and timing of the voluntary retirement package. The study moved slowly, glacial at times, and in the absence of information rumors were rampant. At times the rumor mill forecasted no voluntary packages. At other times there was speculation there would be voluntary retirement but the terms would be poor. Of course, there was wishful thinking that the packages would also be lucrative as they had been in some other companies. The rumors took us all on an emotional rollercoaster, a ride that had been going on for months. Now the study was coming to a close and facts were about to be revealed, so with a little impatience and a lot of excitement, I asked, “So what’s the latest?”

As if to intentionally delay the big reveal, George drew hard on his cigar, exhaled and took a big sip of scotch. “There is a voluntary and an involuntary program. Everyone that can officially retire by the end of this year will receive a voluntary retirement package. The voluntaries have two weeks to decide whether to take accept the offer or reject it,” he said.

“How much?” asked Russ.

“Two weeks pay per year of service. Of course you will get all retirement benefits, including the bonus payment for this year,” Marisol said.

“Not great,” I said, “compared to the packages Exxon and Shell gave, but a whole lot better than my cousin. IBM gave him four weeks of pay after thirty-five years of service. And it is a whole lot better than the one your company gave, Tom.”

“What if I decline it. Will I know where I will work, who I will report to and what I will be working on?” asked Russ.

“No,” Marisol said. She took a big sip of her drink. “You will make a huge life decision knowing only how much the severance payment is and when you will leave if you accept it.”

Russ shifted uncomfortably in his chair, then asked, “Will I even know if I have a job if I turn it down?”

Marisol drew hard on the cigar and looked at George. He replied, “No.”

“That sucks! What kind of treatment is that after almost forty years? What are the consequences if I turn it down?” Russ asked.

“If the company doesn’t get enough people to volunteer, the involuntary program kicks in to reach the job elimination targets. You will still get to retire, if you qualify, and you will get the retirement benefits, but you will leave earlier and get half the severance,” George answered. He took a large sip of his drink and finished it. Tom refilled his glass with a generous pouring.

“I’m not ready to retire,” Russ said. “I still want to work.”

“Russ, you are sixty-five. You’ve been working on the same fields for thirty-five years. When are you planning to leave?” Tom asked.

“I don’t know. I love what I do. And I am not sure what I would do with all that extra time. I really just want things to stay the same,” Russ said.

“Well they aren’t going to stay the same. You’ll figure out what to do with the time once you have some time to think about it?” Mark asked.

“I just don’t know. I have been using vacation days for years, taking Friday off to make three-day weekends, and I am bored to death by Sunday afternoon.” Russ said.

“So you look forward to Monday morning?” I asked.

“Well, I didn’t say that! At least work ends the boredom temporarily and by Thursday I am ready for the weekend.”

“I know what he means,” J.M. said. “I have been retired since April, four months, and I am bored too much of the time. I just don’t know how to live without goals.”

“I wish I could take it. I know what I would do with the time,” Marisol said. “I am so jealous of you guys!”

“Jealous?” I asked. “Don’t be jealous. You want to be sixty years old right now?”

She let out a huge amount of smoke. “You make a damn good point. So are you going to take it Mike?”

“No doubt. Those numbers are good enough. It could be more, but I have been waiting for this moment since I was twenty-five. I have put off too many things. It’s time to get started.”

“Did I mention I am jealous?” Marisol said. “What are you going to do Saul?”

“Well, I’m not 55 so I don’t qualify for the voluntary retirement. I have limited options.”

“I think they are going to offer the option for anyone to take a voluntary package. Same terms as the voluntary retirement, you just won’t have retirement benefits,” George said. “You are a world class programmer. Has to be something you could do.”

“I told my staff to have plan B prepared just in case. I have been working on mine. I looked at the possibility of taking a voluntary, or what I would do if I was offered an involuntary. I could start a consulting company or go to work for someone else. But unless they let me go, I will stay here. Bakersfield is our home. My wife has a job here and my entire support system is here. My friends, my church, they’re all here. Unless they force me out I’ll stay here until I can retire.”

“How come we never talk about football and motorcycles anymore?” Hal said.

He hadn’t said a word and then he spews out some random thought. The group looked at him in disbelief.

“Don’t worry, you will after you retire. You’ll do a lot of things you used to love but for some unknown reason you mysteriously stopped doing them,” Mark said.

“How’s retirement going for you, Mark?” J.M. asked.

“It was difficult at first. I hadn’t planned for it. I still have a son in high school. I figured I couldn’t retire for at least another three years. When my supervisor offered me the package I immediately told him I was going to turn it down. But I thought about it and I woke up one night at 3:00 A.M. and thought, ‘I can have three years of life!’ How can I turn that down?”

“So it’s been great?” Russ asked.

“It’s been difficult. I was financially prepared. At first I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then I joined a gym, started eating lunch with friends, hanging around with people who had retired before me. I think what really helped is one of the guys I hang around with told me to relax, that it is uncomfortable for a while, but its normal. That was a turning point. I started reading fiction again, listening to music, taking walks on the beach. Now I don’t know how I had time for a job!” Mark said. “How about one of those cigars Tom?”

Tom handed him one. Mark lit the Zippo and started drawing. “These cigars are tight.” He kneaded the cigar and slowly it began to flow. He exhaled a cloud of smoke.

“You know what the best thing has been?” Mark asked.

“Tell me,” I said.

“Freedom. I don’t think I realized what that concept really means. Yeah we have freedom in the U.S., but how many people actually exercise it? We get out of college and start tying ourselves down with mortgages, debt, buying and then upgrading shit, and then we aren’t really free to do what we want because we have to work to pay for all that stuff.”

Another draw, another huge cloud of smoke. 

“Now I don’t worry about money, schedules, business plans and all that shit I used to think about. I have freedom to do anything I want every day. My days are not motivated by making money anymore.”

Russ shifted in his chair. Took a big sip of his scotch, then said, “I don’t know what I would do with all the freedom. I bet my wife does. Yeah, she will have all kinds of things for me to do. I can’t imagine spending 24/7 with her.” 

Russ looked at Marisol as if he was apologizing for saying something wrong.

“Don’t look at me. I can’t imagine spending all day with my husband either.”

“I think I’d rather do business plans and go to mandatory safety meetings,” Russ said.

“You know what else is great?” J.M. asked. “Sunday night. I used to dread Sunday night, but now Monday morning has a completely different meaning.”

“Yes, that is a great feeling. I used to spend Sundays on the living room couch watching football or golf, and sometimes even soccer. Tension would build in my back when I thought about the weekend winding down and I would dread the next morning. Now, as long as the wind is blowing, I am out kiteboarding on Sundays,” Mark said.

“Any regrets with your decisions, Mark or J.M.? I asked.

“I wish I would have retired earlier. I missed my window. I didn’t plan for it when I was in my fifties and then spent my entire sixties putting it off,” said J.M.

“Me too. I wish I would have retired earlier before I got so damn old,” added Mark. “So what are you guys going to do?”

“I’ll second that,” said Tom. “In one month I have already lost twelve pounds just walking in the mornings. Blood pressure is way down too. I should have done it years ago. I could have. Now I wish I did.”

“As someone told me, do it as soon as you can.” Mark added.

“There something that really surprised me. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I left work.” He pointed to the garage where his motorcycle collection was housed. I was going to work on my motorcycles, restore several of the older ones, put the Indian together. But I picked up the trumpet I used to play in the university band, started taking lessons, and I haven’t worked on the motorcycles at all. I know I only left recently, but after thinking I would restore motorcycles for the last decade, I have no desire. I just want to learn how to play the trumpet as good as I can.”

“Wow, after all these years. I can’t believe it,” I said. “What about the Indian?”

“I really want to ride it. I will probably hire someone to put it back together for me.”

“I think I will take the package,” Hal said. “I really think my job is at risk. Our group doesn’t fit in with Newco’s direction. I have been through too many of these downturns and it absolutely sucks spending time constantly cutting costs. I don’t think I can hear the CEO say “cut the costs, just don’t do anything stupid” and then watch everyone do really stupid things. I can make it work, financially, and if I don’t like it I can live off the package for awhile and look for a job.”

“I’ll just suck it up and do what I need to do until I have enough saved for my girl’s college,” Marisol said. “And maybe I will rethink what I really need to live on when I leave.”

“There’s one other thing you guys should think about,” Mark said. “We talk like retirement means you don’t work anymore or you don’t earn money. That’s one way of looking at it. But some of the people I hang around with live a completely different way than us corporate guys. I met a man who was an insurance exec in L.A. for his first career. At sixty he got sick of the commute, spending long days at the office and on the road. He retired, but he wasn’t ready to sit on his ass. He gave himself a year to relax, to undo some habits that had been developed during his career. He told me around month eleven he was snorkeling in the Caymans, sitting on Seven Mile Beach and decided he wanted to start a winery. He bought some land in Paso, planted some grapes and started one. He had a lot of fun, loved the work and made some money. When he turned seventy-five he sold the winery and decided it was now time to have a more conventional retirement. Now he kite-boards whenever the wind is blowing.”

Hal put his glass into the air and said, “Here’s to making wine!”

Everyone raised their glass and said, “To wine.”

“So what do you guys think the odds are of the Raiders moving to Vegas?” Hal asked