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The Cocoon: "Bosses"

When I first arrived at college, one of the first things I did was go check out our school’s rock climbing gym. It was this nice, state-of-the-art indoor wall with detailed and intricate moldings, made to look just like real rocks.

If any of you have climbed in an indoor gym, and you know those bright orange and purple hand holds? Yeah, none of those.

I had brought my own climbing shoes with me from back home. I’d been climbing for about a year with some high school friends.

The fact that I even had my own climbing shoes made me feel legit — like someone who shows up at a pool hall with his own cue. Or someone who bowls with their own custom ball.

At the very least, I thought there might be some cute girls there and this would be a way to really impress them. Y’know. With my ability to cling on to a wall like a spider monkey. Girls totally dig that.

So I arrive at the rock wall, put on my lime green climbing shoes, and pull out a few moves. In no time, I work up a sweat, and I hop off the wall. Well, pretty cool, but no girls have talked to me yet, so I best head out.

As I’m heading out, I hear someone yell: “hey you, wait!”

I knew it! I knew somebody would be checking me out. But it wasn’t quite who I thought it would be. It was a dude. A tall, wiry guy with a twanging Southern accent, dyed black hair, a nose ring, and oddly enough, dark sunglasses on. In the gym.

He went by the name of Kentucky Pete and he was yelling at me… to offer me a job. At the rock climbing gym. Me. He said he saw me climbing and liked what he saw and as the manager of the rock wall, wanted to offer me a job on the spot.

Well, I hadn’t even considered this possibility but I was dumbstruck and flattered and sure, yeah I’ll take the job.

Only later did I find out that the true reason he hired me was because he saw me climb… and thought I was truly and utterly terrible. I guess it’s easier to build something when you don’t have to tear it down first.

And that was the first of many hard truths I encountered over my 2 years working as a trainer at Kentucky Pete’s rock climbing wall.

Here’s another fun one: at the time that he hired me, Kentucky Pete was also involved in a fun little legal battle with a former student employee… whom he threatened with a knife.

So, as you might infer from that tidbit, Pete ran a pretty aggro operation. The rock climbing wall was a tiny fiefdom within the entire school gym — run and operated entirely by the mad king Pete. He created a hierarchy — unique to this 20 foot wall of his — which consisted of 4 ranks.

There were Reds, at the top. This consisted of his top lieutenants who’d helped create the rock wall with him. They were all legit climbers, so respect to them. They were also all Asian girls. More on that later.

Then there were Oranges, next in line. In the absence of Pete or any Reds, they were in charge. After that Yellows. Then after that: Greens. Where I started, and stayed, for 2 years. Unheard of, in the organization, but there I was, a pioneer.

Another thing to mention: shifts were chosen in exactly that order, by rank. You could bet your bottom dollar that yours truly would be manning the wall on Saturday morning at 7AM.

So despite the early flattery, or perceived flattery, I think I was at odds with Kentucky Pete from pretty early on. To him, everything was some sort of Machiavellian power struggle.

He would always wear his sunglasses when you wanted to talk to him about anything — whether it was getting a raise, or even changing the music that was playing. It was his way of intimidating you, with his blank poker face, devoid of human recognition. Which I think was probably better than the knife option. But still infuriating.

Kentucky Pete’s management method was yelling and yelling louder. Didn’t matter the time, didn’t matter the subject. Yell if you screwed up. Yell louder if you got it right.

So the crew— it was pretty easy to break down the people who worked there. Either they were small, pretty Asian girls, or they were wiry white guys who shared something in common with Kentucky Pete — a pierced septum, or a scraggly ponytail. Personality-wise, however, they couldn’t have been more different — I loved the people I worked with, they were all sweet and caring folks. But I could see that it was Pete’s perfect little world — perceived clones of himself, and Asian girls. And then, of course, me — the token Asian guy. The one outlier in his Utopia.

So, let me give you an idea of how bad it got. After a couple of years of auditory abuse, I’d become, frankly, an obedient dog. The whole crew was taking a trip up to the Gunx in the Adirondacks. So, on the first climb of the trip — it’s me climbing, with my friend Aaron belaying.

It’s an 80 foot climb. My first serious outdoor climb too. And climbing outside is totally different than climbing indoors. Everything suddenly becomes real. Your palms start sweating after the first couple of moves, and you become painfully aware of the height… and the jagged fall below.

So I concentrate on the climb… try not to look down, even as I past the tree tops and lose sight of Aaron and Pete. The air is clean up here… the sky is blue. And before you know it, I’m at the top of the climb.

So: I’m finally at the top. What now? I hear Kentucky Pete’s voice booming from down below.

“CLIP ON TO THE WALL!”

I look around. All I see is the top bolt where the rope is anchored to — the top of the route. I take my carabiner and clip myself to it.

“UNTIE THE ROPE!”

Uh… is he talking to me? I try and shout back: “What??”

“UNTIE THE ROPE GODDAMNIT!”

Well shit, I’d been yelled at by Pete enough to just default to doing what he says… so I did what he said. 80 feet up on a tiny ledge, hanging by one tiny piece of metal, I untied my rope — the one thing linking me to ground and safety — and held it in my hand.

“LET GO OF THE ROPE!”

I let go.

I saw the rope slither out of my hand and spiral down to the ground… through the treetops… whipping down to the ground.

There’s a moment of silence.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”

Wait, seriously? Didn’t he just tell me 1.) clip on to the wall 2.) untie the rope and 3.) let go of the rope?

“BOY, YOU’RE FUCKED NOW! WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO? WE’RE GONNA LEAVE YOU UP THERE!”

So, when you seriously fuck up and find yourself in true danger, you enter this strange, meditative calm state. You kind of hope and assume everything will be alright. No — it will be alright.

I stayed up there on the side of the cliff for what must have been half an hour. I watched the sun climb through the clouds. I saw an eagle flying by. I saw trees rustle in the wind. I really needed to pee.

Finally, after 30 minutes, another one of my friends manages to lead climb the route with a rope in tow. He loops it through the anchors at the top and hands me the rope. I tie it to my harness and then unclip my lifeline, my tiny carabiner strapped to the cliff. Aaron belays me down to the ground and I finally take my first shaky steps on land.

Needless to say, plenty of yelling ensued, but it was all the same to me. I quit as soon as we got back to the city. I mean, it’s not every day that your boss kinda tries to kill you.

 

William Tran