The first thing you noticed about Josef Peuster was that his shiny head was tiny for how tall he was, and he looked to be at least seventy-five. Peuster ran a duplication machine at Bayer Leverkusen, where I worked for a few months after returning from my first trip to Paris. (See previous installment in this series.) My job was to learn how the machine and related processes worked so I could fill in for Peuster when he went on four or five weeks of vacation.
To get to work, I had to get up at about 4am and catch a tram and a bus and another bus to Leverkusen, one of the most polluted, unhealthiest environments in the world. Sometimes, when I went to lunch or ran an errand to a distant building, I took a company bicycle and rode through spectacularly human-hostile areas, where yellow and black, foul-smelling steam spewed from gigantic pipes and made it hard to see and breathe.
Peuster, the duplication machine, and I were in an office with six engineers who were part of the equipment maintenance organization. This work environment was all-male, all-white. Work orders would come in large cardboard folders, often with architectural drawings attached, for some sort of planning. Peuster and I would get copies of the documents and duplicate certain forms that were routed around other departments for signatures and approvals, material requisitions, or other bureaucratic routines. The work was simple—we didn’t even have to think about which forms went with which work order. Check marks on a yellow sheet told us all we needed to know. We picked the right forms, ran them through the duplication machine to copy certain basic information onto them, crammed them into their folder, and put all the folders to rest in our outbox, where a messenger retrieved them.
Peuster’s mission in life was to slow the process down and make work as miserable as possible for everybody. He let folders sit instead of processing requests, telling people inquiring about the slowed flow they were tyrants and slave drivers. On Monday mornings especially, but also at other times, he would insult anybody who came across him. “You need lots of paper because you put out so much shit,” he’d say. Or, “That’s too much paperwork to cover up the fact that you don’t have balls.” And so on. When he felt friendly, he said, “What is this crap, you don’t really need this, do you?” When somebody got impatient or irritated, he would say, “What’s the matter with you… she didn’t let you do it?” He went on long breaks, during which I would catch up. He told me why he hated people—somebody had made a joke at his expense ten years ago, somebody else always seemed to look at him in an unfriendly manner, another colleague was a socialist and active in the union, and so forth. Peuster didn’t like anybody. He tolerated me because his job needed to be done while he was gone. He didn’t mind when, after a couple of days of training, I just did the work and let him sit around for a few weeks until his vacation started. Somebody must have listened to Peuster describe how complicated and demanding the job was, because that lengthy training was not at all necessary. Or maybe they just heeded his request so he wouldn’t be even more of a pain to be around.
He always talked while I worked. Peuster was in his late fifties, but already had severe health problems that he complained about. Once I was familiar with his repertoire, the conversation was entirely predictable. Without any need for me to chime in, he simply spouted all day. “The damn doctor told me to quit smoking,” he said. “That idiot doesn’t know anything, he’s too young. He doesn’t understand what it’s like when your wife won’t let you sleep in the same room because she misses it and you can’t do it. I often have a hard-on in the morning, but it’s just because I have to piss. It’s nothing that works. The damn drugs don’t help, either. I get exhausted when I go upstairs to the bathroom. Damn these glasses, I can’t see anything in this crossword puzzle. Look at those idiots, do they think we’re machines? They’re just stacking up those folders like they expect us to stay until midnight. The hell with it. I’m too sick to work so hard. Another couple of years and I can retire, if I live that long. Look, there’s the chief engineer, pretend you’re busy, or he’ll be on my case, that damn jerk. Sheesh, what a stupid face he has, like a sheep…”
And so on, eight long hours every day. Eventually, Peuster went on vacation. While he was out, I managed to do the work in about four hours every day and spent the rest of the time reading and smoking. I still had to be there for eight hours, because somebody could need forms to be duplicated any time.
When Peuster returned to work, he was worse than before. His face was always red, probably because he was so angry. He would curse people and everything else. He had lost weight and looked unhealthily thin. He fixated on the chief engineer, a much younger man who never got upset with Peuster’s antics. Complaining about this man took up much of Peuster’s day.
The chief engineer’s last name sounded almost like the German word for “cripple.” One afternoon, when the chief engineer’s office was empty, Peuster shouted across the area, “Time to stop pretending you’re doing anything, boys. The damn cripple is gone.”
Except he wasn’t. The chief engineer was behind his desk, looking for something on the lowest rung of a bookshelf. He glanced our way and did not say anything.
Peuster was back at work the day after, but then he was gone. Somebody had persuaded him to take retirement early. Peuster had spent almost twenty years plaguing his colleagues, but his memory and shadow did not linger. Nobody ever mentioned him. I worked for another week or two, and then my time was up and I started taking courses at the university.