He screamed a lot if you made a mistake. He swore like a sailor. He threw things such as his cell phone at men (never at women, although I was sure he wanted to) when he thought they were stupid beyond his reasonable expectations. Over the years I learned how to duck quite vigorously to avoid flying cell phones, pens, staplers and such. He didn’t care what people thought about him. He knew that some of us were deadly afraid of him, and said to me once that fear, in his opinion, equals respect.
We were afraid of his tantrums. We were scared for our lives to make a mistake, and always checked our work at least three times before submitting it to him. We spoke in whispers so that he could not hear us if we were not sure what numbers to use, how many tires to order or how to calculate a sales price.
In 1995 I graduated from the University with a Master’s degree in Library Science. Lithuania was bankrupt and a lot of people were poor. But the environment for business development was not too bad, the economy was weakly but steadily kicking, and even the purchasing power of the population was increasing slowly. New privately owned businesses were emerging all over the country.
My first language was Russian, but in 1990s the Russian language wouldn’t do you any good. Fortunately for me, at the university, I studied in Lithuanian, and learned the language so well that when I spoke it no one could determine that I was Russian.
It served me good until I started looking for a job. Then I found out very quickly that no one would hire me because of my Russian name. An interview would go pretty well until someone would clarify my first name with a question “Your name is Russian, isn’t it?” After my confirmation, all I got was a polite and cold smile followed by “We’ll call you.” Of course, I never heard from them again.
He didn’t care that I was Russian. All he cared was that I had a university diploma, spoke Lithuanian, could type and was willing to work long hours. I became an Office Assistant who used a typewriter (yes, in 1995!), answered phones very quickly, served coffee to the clients, filled out customs paperwork and lied to my boss’ wife about his suspicious whereabouts.
It didn’t take me too long to notice that when a certain two men wearing sport suits came in to talk to my boss, he would always close the door behind them and never would ask me to bring coffee.
One day, however, my boss had an appointment at a bank that he could not miss. He decided that I could handle the meeting with the two sport suits. That morning he came to my desk, dropped a Wal-Mart style plastic bag in front of me, and said that his two good friends would be coming in to pick it up. My job was to make sure they got the bag.
The bag was wide open, and I froze when I saw that it was filled with very valuable currency, US dollars. Right now I would say “hell no,” or ask how much was there, and if I should recount, and maybe if we should seal the bag. Back then, I took the bag and put it in my desk.
The two sports suits came in the office a couple hours later. It was an odd experience because neither of us said a word. We looked at each other and nodded like good old acquaintances. I pulled out the plastic bag from my desk drawer and handed it to them. They looked inside, then at me, and that’s when I got really scared. A wild thought crossed my mind “What if they think I stole money from this bag?”
In those days, no matter if you were in the business of recycling aluminum cans, having a barber shop or selling tires, as a business owner you had to pay what we called “ a roof fee” (a security fee) to the mob in order to avoid any physical or economic harm. Mostly physical.
A few months later my boss stopped paying the “roof fee“. I didn’t know it until one day some man brought a car into our auto service that was located in a small garage. According to this man there was something wrong with the engine. Two of our mechanics took the car in, and luckily for both of them, they decided to take a smoke break outside of the garage. Meanwhile, whatever was in the car exploded, and the garage burned down to ashes.
The firm survived in spite of the big loss. However, we had to move to a different location, to the outskirts of town, because the mob did not allow my boss to do business in town anymore.