The Muffin Man

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I spend a lot of time on the road and you would think, with all the miles I drive, I would have the whole, “where to stop for a bathroom-break” thing figured out, but I don’t. I generally just look for an exit with a gas station or a fast-food restaurant when the time hits. Then, of course, every time I do stop at one of these places, I always feel guilty for using their bathroom and I end up buying something. At a gas station or convenience store it’s usually just another coffee. However, stopping at a fast-food place is a whole other thing.

Stopping at fast-food place is always the best idea and the worst for me. The best part is I know they have a bathroom, so that is a plus, (Side Bar: Don’t you hate it when you stop somewhere, and they give you an attitude when you ask if they have a bathroom? Pardon me for being human!) The worst part about stopping at a fast-food place is (confession time) that I can’t be trusted. Instead of grabbing a coffee in exchange for the use of their bathroom, I’m buying breakfast sandwiches and hash browns. It’s fast-food after all, and I know I can grab and go and still make my meetings on time.

Pretty soon my suits are fitting tighter than they are supposed to, and there is this disturbing layer of skin that is starting to fold over the collar of my shirt. That is when I realize I should have a serious conversation with myself about making better choices regarding where I choose to stop and go…

It’s just before 7am and I’ve already had three cups of coffee, which by the laws of human capacity, is more than I can hold at one time. I start looking around for any sign of a gas station, or a rest area.

Soon I am dancing in my seat, desperate, when I see the sign for exit 7. “Yes!” I say out loud. I know this exit. There is a nursing home here that I used to work in before I was promoted and there is a fast-food restaurant just down the street.

As I take the exit, I start giving myself a pep talk, “You’re just going to use the bathroom,” I say. “People do it all the time. You don’t have to buy something every time you go in there.” I take a right off the exit and head into town. There are two ways to go, I can drive straight through on Main Street or I can turn left onto Palmer Drive and make a half circle around town.

Considering my growing dilemma, I turn left onto Palmer Drive hoping it will be a faster route. I drive as quickly as I dare through the back streets of town and finally come to the end of the road. I’m now at the intersection of Chester Road. To my right, about 500 feet is the glorious golden arches with a friendly atmosphere, a clean bathroom, and more temptations than I can probably handle. To my left, about a thousand feet further away is the nursing home I used to work at. Mustering up all the willpower I have, I take a left toward the nursing home.

Visiting a place you used to work at but haven’t been to in a long time is an interesting experience. Even though I have cleaned every corner, edge, toilet, and floor in the whole building (dozens of times), and even though a lot of the staff is the same, there are still enough changes to make the familiar seem like a bad case of déjà vu.

I found a parking space on the far-left side of the building and made a beeline to the side door. There is a staff bathroom just inside the door to the right and for a moment I think I may be able to get in, use the bathroom and get out, without anyone seeing me. But the door was locked. Damn it!

I looked through the window to see if I could get anyone’s attention, but no one was around. Quickly, I headed to the front entrance hoping to be able to walk right in and use the public bathroom that was across from the elevators on the left, without being noticed. The problem was that I had to walk past the administrator’s office, the business office, the director of nurse’s office and the receptionist just to get there. I took a deep breath, trying to calm down my biological needs, and walked in trying not to look as pressured as I felt.

“Ralph!” It was Sandy, our long-time floor tech. She was just coming off the elevator pushing a large bin full of dirty laundry when I walked in.

“Hi Sandy,” I said almost whispering, hoping no one looked up from their offices. I looked at the bathroom door. It said, “In Use.” Damn it! I started to walk down the hall toward the laundry room. “Are you working in laundry now?” I said nonchalantly. There is another bathroom across from the laundry room in an office that used to be shared with housekeeping and central supply.

“No, laundry called out,” she said, “second day in a row.” One of the wheels on the cart started squeaking and she repositioned her weight lifting the wheel off the ground as she pushed the cart down the hall. “Did you hear?” she said. “I put in my notice this morning.”

I stopped. “What?”

“Yeah,” she said leaning against the laundry bin, wanting to talk. “I can’t take it anymore…”

“Sandy,” I said cutting her off. “I have to use the bathroom, but then we’ll talk,” I reach for the office door.

“That door is kept locked now, remember, because of central supply,” she said reaching into her pocket for a set of keys. “But I can let you in.”

“Thank God,” I said and went in. When I finished, I went looking for Sandy.

“I didn’t know you were going to be here today,” Clayton said, as I walked into the laundry room. Clayton worked in maintenance and had one of the dryer ducts pulled apart. He was on his knees cleaning it when I walked in. He got up and extended his hand. I took it.

“Me neither. I was just driving by and needed to use the bathroom,” I said smiling. We all laughed.

“Yeah right,” Clayton said. I laughed, agreeing that it did sound like a dumb statement. “Did you hear Sandy put in her notice?” he said gesturing toward her.

“I told him when he first walked in,” Sandy said.

“Is that why you’re here?” Clayton said. I shook my head.

“No. It’s a coincidence. I was just driving by and thought I would stop in,” I decided to lie. “You’re really quitting, huh?” I said. Sandy shrugged and nodded.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she said.

“It’s not like it was when you were here,” Clayton said. “The manager we have now doesn’t do anything, and…”

As if on cue a young guy in a shirt and tie came walking into the laundry room eating a muffin. Sandy went back to filling the washing machine. Clayton didn’t move.

“Hey Jon,” Clayton said.

“Hi,” he said. We all looked at each other. I put my hand out.

“I’m Ralph.” I said. Jon popped another piece of the muffin into his mouth and then wiped his hand on his pants and offered it to me. I took it.

“Oh, I figured you guys already knew each other,” Clayton said. “I’m sorry.”

“No worries,” I say. I see that Jon is the housekeeping manager and feel the need to explain who I am. Though we both work for the same company, I no longer oversee the actual operations in this area anymore, plus he is a new manager with the company, and our paths just haven’t crossed yet. He smiled and continued to eat his muffin, adding an occasional “Oh,” when I pointed out the connections between all of us.

“Sandy and I started in this facility about the same time,” I said, but Jon wasn’t listening anymore. He walked over to the trash can, threw away the paper wrapping from his muffin, brushed off some crumbs from his shirt, and announced that he was going after another. I looked up at the clock on the wall; 11:15am. “Lunch is in 45 minutes,” I say.

“Yeah, well I’m the manager,” he said with a smile. “I can take a break whenever I want.” He started for the door. I looked over at Clayton and Sandy. They were both looking at me shaking their heads. “We told you,” their look said.

“Can I talk to you in your office?” I said, following him out.

“Seriously?” he said confused. We went across the hall to his office, which he now shared with Maintenance. No one was in there.

I fought the urge to cross my arms over my chest and instead found my belt loops and held on with my thumbs. I wanted to yell at him. To tell him the arrogance he just displayed in front of his staff was not only rude and uncalled for but was counterproductive to what he was supposed to be accomplishing; serving his staff. Ensuring they have all the time, tools, and training to get their jobs done. And, at the very least, making it so they didn’t quit.

“Jon, I know you don’t know who I am, but trust me on this; you should do yourself and everyone who works for you a favor and not walk around eating muffins while everyone else is working.” He shifted his weight from one foot to another and sighed, making sure I knew he was not happy.

“Seriously,” he says again. “You’re giving me crap over eating a muffin?”

I shake my head. “You weren’t just eating a muffin. You were rubbing the fact that you could eat a muffin, whenever you want, in everyone’s face.” I paused, waiting for him to meet my eye. After a moment he did. “Because you’re in charge.”

“It’s true.” I continue. “You can eat a muffin anytime you want. In fact, there is little stopping you from taking a hundred breaks a day.” He nodded in agreement trying to suppress a smile.

“But the question is not IF you are in charge, it’s how long you are going to be.” My thumbs slip from my belt loops and I start using my hands to talk. “In housekeeping it’s all about clean vs. dirty. If the building is clean, despite the way you treat your staff, then you will be in charge for a long time; no harm, no foul. However, it has been my experience that arrogant managers, the ones that spend all their time in their office or walking around eating muffins all day long, generally have a problem getting people to do what they are supposed to do on a consistent basis.”

When I get mad or excited, I start to talk faster, with my arms flailing. “It looks like your laundry has called out for a couple of days now. Which means you have been pulling your floor tech to cover laundry, which means she hasn’t been sweeping, mopping, or buffing the floors, and instead of pitching in to help you walk around eating muffins all day.” He looked at me, his smile gone. “Because you can,” I said sarcastically.

“I bet if we were to go upstairs right now, the floors are going to look like crap.” He nodded; agreeing.

After a minute he said, “Is that it?” I shook my head, frustrated. Most of the time, my goal is to lead a person where they should go. Jon needed a push.

“No,” I said, “this is what I want you to do. I want you to grab a floor scrubber; I want you to go upstairs and I want you to start earning the right to be in charge, or I guarantee that you won’t be in charge for much longer.” We stared at each other for a few moments and then I followed him out of the office.

I watched him go to the housekeeping closet at the end of the hall and begin to take out the floor machine. I headed to my car.

I’ve seen this hundreds of times, maybe more. It’s romantic in a way; being in charge. The idea of having people respond to your every command; it can be intoxicating. At first it seems like the only thing we need is the title. “Manager,” it says under your name. “I’m in charge.” But soon there are call outs and attitudes and dirt piling up all over the place, and at some point, you realize it’s not the title that leads, it’s the person.


Sandy did quit, despite my best effort to talk her out of it. At first, when I received confirmation that she did indeed leave, I was mad. I couldn’t believe it. She was hardworking, dedicated, and the type of employee that you never want to lose. In retrospect, however, Jon needed this to happen. There is this great quote about sailors that says, “Calm seas do not make a good sailor, storms do.” Well, if Jon is going to be a good sailor (manager), he is going to need to experience some rough seas. Even if they are brought on by himself.

*When Jon “The Muffin Man,” found out that I wrote about our encounter, he was understandably upset. I heard through the grapevine that his interpretation of events was quite different than mine and he wanted to a chance to tell his side of the story. I declined.

It was not just a case where I had seen this type of behavior a million times in the past, it was that I saw me—and my behavior, in the past. I’ve made every mistake as a manager, including this one and I knew the one thing he needed, above everything else, was time. Time to grow. Time to reflect. Time to understand and time to be better. I knew he could be better.

A couple of years later our paths crossed again; he had not only gotten better, he got promoted.

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