My Most Expensive Mistake

There is the old idea that if you make a mistake at work that costs your employer money, that you should reimburse the employer. I do not subscribe to this idea, and this is why. Here is the mistake I made that cost the University money:

Parking is at a premium for my university, and so is space, so we had been operating a Park & Ride Shuttle service from our stadium parking, a mile from the main campus. My new manager decided to ramp up usage by offering free parking at the Park & Ride for the first two weeks of school. The idea was that if people got used to parking there, they might continue and that would reduce the overcrowded parking at the main campus.

When I moved into my position as “Assistant Parking Manager,” I had received about an hour’s worth of instruction. Oddly enough, POST doesn’t have a course in parking management. One of the things that I was told was that if I needed additional contract buses and bus drivers, that I should call “John.” There was a post-it note on my new desk with John’s name and phone number. That was it. I didn’t even know the name of the contract company until I called John to introduce myself and explain that I was the new Assistant Parking Manager.

The first day of school was a disaster. We had three university owned buses and drivers working, as well as three contract buses and drivers, and lines of people waiting. It was taking as long as 40 minutes to an hour to get to school…a mile away. Students resorted to walking the mile to the main campus. While I know that is not a hardship, I’m sure it would not encourage them to use the Park & Ride in the future.

The Chief of Police called me directly and ordered me to get more buses. I called John and asked for buses and drivers. He asked me how many and I told him, all you’ve got. Within two hours, we had everything down to a manageable wait time and students were getting to class without problems. But the demand didn’t die down after first two weeks of school. In fact, use of the Park & Ride Lot remained high, filling regularly and requiring the use of additional contract buses and drivers.

In October, the department’s Fiscal Services Manager called me and asked me where we were on the budget for buses and drivers.


The discussion went like this:

Me. “I don’t know. What is the budget?”

FSM/ “You don’t know the budget?”

Me. “No, isn’t that what you do?”

FSM. “No, I call you and ask you and you tell me and I keep track of where we are at.”

Me. “Oh.”

FSM. “Well, how much are we paying for buses and drivers?”

Me. “I don’t know.”

FSM. “Well, what does the contract say?”

Me. “What contract?”

FSM. “Don’t you have a contract?”

Me. “I don’t know. I don’t have one.”

FSM. “What do you have?”

Me. “Um…a post-it with a name and phone number.”

Long pause.

FSM. “Okay, I’ll take care of it.” He hung up.

I had been a police officer for six years and a supervisor for two and nothing in my police supervision training or experience had prepared me for this conversation. I thought I was going to get a letter of reprimand for this, minimum.

The following week the Fiscal Services Manager called me back. He told me that I was paying $38 an hour per bus and $28 an hour per driver. He told me that my budget for buses and drivers was $50,000 a year and that only eight weeks into the school year, I had spent $78,000. I was currently on track to spend in excess of a quarter of a million dollars OVER budget.

Now I was certain I was going to be fired.

Ultimately, it was determined that the need for the extra budget was there to get the Park & Ride Lot used effectively and they increased the budget. However, if it had gone the other way, as bureaucracies are sometimes wont to do, I could have been responsible for a $250,000 mistake.

As a state employee, I would have had to sell a couple of my children to pay that debt back.

Mental Illness as a Terminal Disease

After thirty years, there have been many bad days, and generally they involved people who had passed, usually tragically. Many colleges and universities have tall buildings that tend to draw desperate people to them. On one occasion, I was working as the Public Information Officer when a student, a young man had leaped from the top of one of our parking garages and had suffered fatal injuries near the front entrance of one of our service buildings. I avoided the scene, because I could. I was not part of the investigation; I was to provide appropriate information to the people and organizations that needed it. They say that things cannot be unseen; I have enough dead bodies in my head, I didn’t need to add any more. The day was long and sad for students, faculty, staff, neighbors, and others.

About an hour after the scene had been cleaned up and everyone had either gone home or back to their respective jobs, I was in my office, still a little time to go on my shift. The dispatcher called and said that the young man’s father was on the phone and there was no one else around to send him to, could I take the call? The Coroner’s Office had already notified him, but he obviously had some additional questions. Not having any real options, I told the dispatcher to send me the call. I couldn’t bring myself to simply let him stew until someone else could call him back, no matter how heart-wrenching the conversation might be.

The father spoke for a while first; he clearly needed someone to listen and I did that. He explained that his son had suffered from severe depression for several years, since his early teens, that he was on medication, and that he had to be hospitalized several times, including an emergency mental health hold that he had just been released from about twelve hours before he had taken his own life. And then he asked me, “How could I have failed my son, like this? How could I be such a bad father that he had to kill himself? There must have been something else I should have done.” (I’m sure that is not exactly how he said it, but it is how I remember it).

When he finally paused, I explained to him that his son suffered from a serious illness and that he needed to think of it like cancer. Sometimes, even if you go through all the treatments and procedures, the cancer wins and takes the patient’s life. The same is true of mental illness. His son didn’t kill himself, he succumbed to his mental illness; he fought long and hard, but ultimately lost his battle with depression. And nothing the father did caused this.

Mental illness is a killer and the victims need the same support and resources that we provide to people with cancer and other deadly illnesses.

An Astral Affair

I was patrolling in an area where we usually found prostitutes working their clients. I saw a vehicle that was out of place, there and that there were two people in the front seats. From what I could see, it appeared that the couple in the front seat were engaged in some intimate activity. I contacted them and saw immediately that the driver, whose head had appeared to be in the passenger’s lap, was a transgender woman.

I separated them and obtained their IDs. I asked if they know one another’s names, as prostitutes and clients tend not to know each other’s real names, people in that situation tend to give fakes. The driver told me the passenger had identified himself as (let’s say David). The passenger said the driver had identified herself as (let’s say Marie). I looked at the IDs and saw that Marie was actually Mario on her ID, but that was her middle name. Her first name on her ID was Angel. I saw that David was the middle name on the passenger’s ID, his real first name was Lucifer. (Who the hell names their child Lucifer?).

It became clear that this was a very recent pickup in one of the nearby bars and that they had found the closest dark location to get to know each other better. However, it also became clear that “David” was unaware of “Marie’s” gender situation (or more likely, was embarrassed that he was caught with her) and was getting agitated and angry. Another officer assisted me in keeping “David” away from “Marie.” When we were done, we sent “David” away on foot and allowed “Marie” to drive off.

I let them off with a warning, because there was no prostitution going on, but how many people have had the opportunity to witness an Angel giving Lucifer a blowjob?

Independence Day

Working as a university police officer, I felt that education should be a part of what I do. With that philosophy, anytime I worked on the 4th of July, I would give people the option of answering a question in order to get out of receiving a ticket. I would ask people if they could name one person who signed the Declaration of Independence. Many people would answer George Washington, but it turns out that General Washington was busy preparing to defend Manhattan from the British and wasn’t available to sign.

I had a significant number of people who were able to answer the question properly, more than you might guess, but the people that answered the best were usually immigrants who had or were currently studying for their naturalization or elementary-school aged children. I once had a University athlete who couldn’t name anyone, but his ten-year-old cousin, in the passenger seat, was able to give me six names.   

On a particular 4th of July, I spotted a homeless man, drinking an alcoholic beverage from inside a brown paper bag. I detained him and obtained his identification and even began writing his citation. Then I remembered my rule and reminded myself that it wouldn’t be fair not to give him the same chance that I had given everyone else.

I told him that if he could name one person who had signed the Declaration of Independence, that I would let him go without a citation. He thought for a few moments and then I saw him reach an epiphany; I could almost see the light bulb appear above his head. He reached into the brown paper bag and lifted out a brown, glass, beer bottle with a familiar blue label.

“Sam Adams!” he shouted.

I wished I could have given him extra credit for having visual aids.

Chinese Line Dancing

This entry originally appeared in G. Allen Wilbanks’ blog when I guest blogged for him, in June 2019.

A while back, my best friend and fellow author, G, asked if I could write a guest blog for his webpage. Being the dinosaur that I am, I asked what does it need to be about? Are there any criteria? What are my boundaries? Deadlines? G refused to give me a straight answer on anything. Whatever you want it to be, he said, casually, like that meant something. No boundaries and no deadlines. Perfect. Six months later, here we are. But I have a story to tell. An absolutely true story. Believe it or don’t.

Many years ago, I was providing a police presence at a sporting event on the University where I worked. I know that it was a Pan-Pacific tournament between the USA and China, and I remember it being a women’s volleyball event, mostly because my memory of the time is filled with young women in shorts and kneepads; I don’t really know what that says about me. Anyway, this was a day-long event with multiple games on multiple courts; I couldn’t begin to tell you how many games were actually played, but it seemed like a lot.

In between each set of games, the arena floor was cleared, country music would play, and a group of middle-aged, Chinese women in jeans and yellow T-shirts walked out onto the hardwood floor and began line dancing. I heard Achy-Breaky Heart way too many times (two?). After the second or third time they appeared, I moved close enough to read the red lettering on the shirts and was not significantly surprised to see Chinese Line Dancing Association of San Francisco. I asked one of my co-workers if line dancing was a fad in China and this was some way of honoring them for their appearance at our campus.

My co-worker simply replied, “Wes, I’m Korean. Why are you asking me about Chinese culture.”

I tried to explain that I wasn’t asking her as an expert on all things Asian, but I gave up, recognizing the playful dig for what it was, albeit a little late. We actually engaged in conversation with many other employees in the arena that day about the oddity that was the Chinese Line Dancing Association and why they were appearing at this particular, University hosted sporting event. Was it a fad (already discussed)? Was someone in the Association related to someone producing the event? Was it an organized crime thing (you want the event to be safe, you take my mother-in-law’s dance group)?

Finally, near the end of the day, I happened across the University building manager who worked directly with the production company managing this Volleyball Tournament.

“Hey, so why is the Chinese Line Dancing Association of San Francisco performing between each match? Is it a fad or does someone in production owe money to a loan shark?”

The building manager looked me in the eye and said, “The production manager told his assistant to find Chinese Lion Dancers.”

Thank you and enjoy.

  San Francisco Chinese Line Dance Association

 Chinese Lion Dancers