Pieces of Nick

The picture. It was late. Nick had been invited to the opening of a new exhibit at Pittock Mansion. As his Parks guy, I went with him. We got an amazing tour of the things the public don’t see, hidden doors, third floor rooms, the basement cast iron elevator motor. We viewed the exhibit, and as always happened, people sort of lined-up to talk to the commissioner. Pittock had their own photographer. I went to extricate Nick. The woman in the picture would not take a clue. When they sent me all the pictures to pick the ones we wanted, I said, “And print me a copy of this one.” This picture still makes me laugh because it is so damn honest. I framed it for my home office.

I hate writing these essays, these memorials, celebrations and lamentations. But I have to do it. When I suffer a great loss, like the passing of my friend Commissioner Nick Fish, I am frozen, standing on the ground at the edge of a spinning carrousel of stories and thoughts and emotions. The only way I can free my feet and heart is reach up, grab some of the passing memories and pull them onto a screen or a piece of paper. So now, if you are reading this, you are caught in how I try to make sense of absence. 

I spent the best part of a decade working with Nick. I could write endlessly about his dedication to public service, a commitment exceeded only by that of watching his family grow and change. But let me tell a few little things about my friend, the pieces of Nick that will stay with me.

Driving

Nick was a New Yorker with all that implies. He walked impossibly fast and drove the same way. He covered thousands of miles back and forth across the city in his little car. He loved a good road trip. I rode with him a few times and let’s just say he quickly and loudly critiqued other drivers.

During the day, TeamFish members staffing the commissioner drove. It gave him time to read the talking points and talk on his cell phone. Nick would have had no issues if someone Crazy Glued that phone to his hand. More than once, the driver of the day came back swearing they would never do that again. Nick’s detailed driving critiques could be harrowing.

I am a car guy. My greatest discovery when I took over as the Parks Bureau liaison was that the Portland International Raceway (PIR) was a city park. Who knew!? I had a track modified Mini Cooper S and did full-speed track days at PIR. I arranged for Nick to speak at the official opening of the track season. On cold Saturday morning, we met at the paddock with a about 100 car geeks and their hot cars. I knew the organizers from my track days. They were very excited that I had arranged for the commissioner to be there.

As Nick was speaking, Gary Bockman, the president of the Friends of PIR, came over and put his hand on my shoulder.

“We have surprise for the commissioner. Got get your Mini and bring it around to the starting line. When he is done, I will bring him to you and the track is all yours for 3 laps.”

I was psyched. This was going to be fun. When Nick walked up to my car, he started to go to the driver’s side. Gary led him to the other side of the car.

“Oh no, Jim knows what he is doing. You are the passenger.” 

Nick got in and buckled up. When Nick was nervous his mouth fell open, a goofy look of mock surprise. 

Gary leaned into my window, “OK Jim, it’s all yours. Remember, the track is cold. Your tires are cold. Be smart out there and don’t put it into a wall. We don’t have any emergency gear here today.”

I laughed and turned to look at Nick, “You ready?”  

Before he could respond I grabbed gear and squealed the tires. I did the first lap like a tour guide. Talking about the racing line, pointing out my favorite corners and the geese in the infield. Nick’s head was on a swivel. He didn’t say much but he seemed to be having fun. As we came back to the long front straight, I said, “Hang on. Now let’s have some fun.”

On a track day, my little car would hit 105 MPH before breaking into the first corner. I knew better and kept it at about 80 and braked gingerly into every corner. Still, I had to concentrate so as not to spin my boss into the infield. At speed, turn 6 feels like you are going to fly out of the passenger window. It felt slow to me but when I looked at Nick his left hand was dug deep into the seat bolster. His right hand was crushing the door handle. As we dropped down into the back straight and gained speed, I heard a little high-pitched whimper of some sort.

“Isn’t this great? You good?” I asked as I grabbed a gear.

“Oh yea,” Nick said his voice an octave too high.

As we came around to the stands, people were standing and waving at us. Ever the man of the people, Nick waved back. I slowed the car to do a final cool down lap. When we pulled back to the starting line, it was clear that Nick was a mess. I think he mostly wanted to throw up, but gamely held it together, wobbled out of the car and started shaking hands. 

Here’s the deal. What Nick never told me was that he gets car sick. Our fun 3 laps were about his worst nightmare. At the Monday staff meeting, he went on and on about his time on the track with me. Well, I also think he said, “Jim tried to kill me.”

Always a gamer, Nick still rode with me to events. I made him car sick again on the little winding road up to PIttock Mansion. When I switched the Mini for a BMW sports coup, he walked up to it the first time and said, “Jesus Jim.” Turns out Nick Fish was a closet car guy too, just for the fancy cars. One day on a freeway onramp, I reached down, punched the sport button and slammed him back in his seat as I accelerated. That got a happy, “Wow!” He was much better in a straight line.

One day, back from an event with Nick, a team member asked me, “Does he just drive you nuts as a passenger?”

“No, actually, he never says a word about my driving.”

“What?”

“Yea, the trick is that he is scared I will actually DRIVE my car, so we are good.”

Eating

In my memoir, I write extensively about Nick’s winning 2008 campaign for Portland City Council. I met Nick at a luncheon and few weeks later he called to ask me to join him on the campaign. After a month of writing responses to endorsement questionnaires, unsolicited, I went to see his first public forum. Afterwards, I told him I had many notes and he said, “Let’s get sushi and talk about it.” What I didn’t write about in the book was how Nick Fish ate. Watching him eat was just plain frightening.

That day, I first noted his considerable dexterity with chop sticks. With the precision of a surgeon he tugged, grabbed and dipped the tuna and California rolls then tossed them into his open mouth. “This man loves to eat,” I thought. And, he never stopped talking … not for a second. Chops sticks down, long gulp of icy soda and right back to the sticks and rolls. He was in continuous motion, reaching out with his other hand to point at something in my notes, “Tell me more about this.” Nervous, I had barely touched my noodles. He was done and scanning the room for our waitress to order more food.

Nick is the only adult man I had ever seen construct a bib at a table. Paper napkin, or cloth, if he was wearing a tie, he took the napkin, flopped it wide open then turned on the diagonal. Almost daintily, he tucked one corner behind the knot in his tie and spread the rest to get maximum coverage of his chest. Give him credit for being self-aware. Food flew in every direction as he worked his way through a plate. I am guessing there had been “accidents” to a number if ties.

In City Hall, we most often ate at our desks or in the conference room. I was a sack lunch guy. Nick sent someone out for sustenance, often a sandwich, chips and yogurt. None of us really wanted to see what happened next. With barely any interruption to his stream of consciousness talking, Nick took enormous bites of the sandwich. Chewing and talking the internals of the sandwich flew out onto the desk in front of him and on the floor. Before I had opened my bag of chips, his sandwich was gone. I began to wonder if it was possible to actually eat a sandwich in six bites. On to the yogurt. Can one call a living, milk-based sludge a victim? Somehow Nick turned the small white plastic spoon into a ladle, a continuous feeding conveyor to his mouth. The yogurt didn’t have a chance.

The endearing thing about this spectacle was just how little he cared about how he looked scarfing down his sustenance. He treated us like family, and he was merely fueling for the next thing. Generally, we tried to shelter the public from feeding time in the Commissioner’s office. I call that good staff work.

Eye Contact

Even in public, if you knew the code, Nick never stopped communicating the subtext of what he was really thinking. One of Nick’s greatest political talents was his ability to completely change his emotional and physical aspect in front of the public. He had one of the most incisive minds I have ever seen in action. We could be behind the door in his office and he could be absolutely ballistic about something, often to do with our bureaus or someone not meeting his very high standards. Senior staff learned that he had to have a safe way to blow off steam. We all do it, but for a politician it’s essential to know when and where.

Now the magic trick. In the walk from his corner office to the door of our conference room Nick transformed. He fired questions: who is at the table; why am I having this meeting; how long; what do we need; what do they want. Every staffer had to be able to relay that information in short bursts. He was changing gears on the fly. Reaching the door before me he would sometimes put his hand on the knob, turn to me, smile with his eyes and take a breath. Door open, he ushered me in and began greeting the room before he sat down, sometimes making his way around the table shaking hands. From that instant on, the people in the room believed that they were the most important meeting he was having that day. In a long day, that could happen a dozen times. I never stopped being awed at that skill.

Generally, I sat at Nick’s right elbow. Nick, always the lawyer, could be an intense questioner, not so much intimidating as conveying rapt attention. For some people this would be their only City Hall meeting. He made sure they got what they wanted most, his attention. For bureau staff, this was their one chance to make their briefing count. You got to see people, nervous, but at their best.

Now the other part of the meeting began, the hidden fun part. As the meetings went on, Nick was narrating his thoughts to me, and those of us who knew, in real time. With a quick glance, subtle adjustments of his mouth and eyes, the parting or closing of his lips and even the outright change of his face directed only to me as he changed postures, Nick told a story. 

Variously he communicated: What am I really doing here? I really like this person. What an idiot. How much time? This is fun. I am tired. I am not happy. Did you hear that? What are they talking about? You need to jump in now. I got that right … yes? But the one silent message I got most often was a slight widening of his eyes. That is the one I always thought of as “How am I doing?” 

Even holding court, looking and sounding supremely confident, Nick sought reassurance. Most of us have our underlying insecurities. But we don’t get to test them all day long like he did. My response was always: eyes raised in return with the slightest nod. “Yea, you are fine.”

The subtext didn’t stop there. Our conference room office windows faced the stairs to the mayor’s office. We always had an eye on who was going up to, or coming down from, meetings with the mayor. Certain people meant movement on issues completely disconnected from the meeting we were in. Quick glances between us confirmed we both just saw who was in the building.

Some of the most fun ever was watching Nick do a stand-up outside our office door with a local TV reporters. Most of those reporters come and go so are really clueless about local issues. Inevitably, while someone else ushered the reporter and videographer out to the hall, we would linger in Nick’s office doing a rundown of what he wanted to communicate. 

Nick liked to try out answers out loud. He’d toss out a sentence and look for a reaction. It was our job to say: Good or No. Try this word. You need more on that. Don’t go there. You have it now. With each critique, he edited in his head, and said the new version. I had seen him do this on the 2008 campaign when we worked in his law office. He dictated his speeches for his admin to type. Even before we had anything on paper, I would say, “No that sentence doesn’t work and you need to start the paragraph differently.” He would rewind in his head, give it back to me using the same words making the substitutions. I had never seen anything like it.

Out the door, gracious with his small talk, Nick cleverly set the reporter up with the questions we wanted to answer. I leaned against the wall an angle where only Nick could see me. As the interview progressed, he would catch my eyes for confirmation he was hitting his points. Eye shift from him. Head shift from me.  If he needed more or forgot something, slight motion with my eyes off to the distance. Slight raise of his eyebrows and away he went. It was a thing of beauty. You had to know the code.

Writing

Nick Fish was serious about writing. To work in our office, the candidates had to do a writing test. They were handed a one-page ordnance, placed in front of a computer and told they had 20 minutes to write the commissioner’s talking points. Good lord, I felt so sorry for those young people. But that was how important the writing was to Nick, thus, all of TeamFish.

I wrote many of the large, set-piece speeches with him. It could be an excruciating process, starting with our tools of choice. Nick and I were both eccentrics about our writing implements. I favor a fat, mechanical pencil with a double hard lead. He was very old school, using a yellow, ink cartridge loaded fountain pen. We did this little ballet were occasionally we registered gentle concern about each other’s implement choices. We were unified in our abysmal penmanship.

For 7 years, I wrote the speeches for the “We the People” high school Constitution competition. Nick was always a judge and gave the closing speech in front of an enormous audience of kids, parents and educators. I started coming up with ideas and a first draft 2 months in advance. Nick gave me free reign to pick a topic and link it to the Constitution and what was awash in the zeitgeist. The speeches got longer and longer every year. 

Nick had awful eyesight. He would brag about the prisms in his glasses. Anything he edited had to be in a 22-point font, triple spaced. We went through reams of paper. The font for the final copy got even bigger. There was always someone on TeamFish with the honored title of “formatter.” 

I have a fondness for the rounded paragraph, metaphors, tangential wit and the sprinkling of emotion. Nick was the master of the lean, clean, precise declarative sentence. Always the lawyer, he was a communicator. My first drafts were a bloodbath of his changes. I knew that the words had to come out of his mouth. He had to be comfortable with the language. Still, for the next 15 or 20 drafts (that’s right … 15 drafts was nothing) my goal was often to keep little bits of soul in the text. 

It went like this. We each got printed copies of the draft. Nick would read the text and mark up his copy. Either sitting on his couch or at our conference table, I would track along with him capturing some of his changes but mostly making notes on what was working and what wasn’t. He would try out parts of the text aloud and we would both let the words hover in the air above us as we considered them. When we finished, I would take both copies back to my office, lay them side by side and start editing. Well, not quite. Nick’s skinny, linear fountain pen scrawl was mostly indecipherable. I could figure out maybe half of what he wrote. The rest I took to the Nick whisperers.

Always, there were at least two people on TeamFish who could read his writing. Sonia, the longest on the team, was first among equals. I would write what I thought he wrote and show it to her. Somehow, I have no idea how, she would quickly read his scratches. More often than not, I had completely mistranslated every word. Oh, my version had a reasonable contextual meaning, it was just completely wrong. 

Consider that several people were writing for Nick every day, talking points, vote statements, media announcements, op eds. Paper drafts flowed in and out on Nick’s office all day long. He took drafts to council meetings and edited while listening to testimony. He took drafts home. He read drafts while being driven to events. There were few points in his public service where he was not editing something. 

TeamFish had a joke about the final copy. Nothing was final until it was final … final. Maybe even final … final … final. Even if he loved a final draft and we locked it down, when he handed us back the copy, he had used to deliver the speech, there were hand written changes in the text. I would stand in the back of the room and watch him make changes siting at the dais right up until the moment he was introduced. Nick had a vision of the perfect speech he was always chasing, and he relentlessly challenged himself to reach that untouchable star.

We had this thing, Nick and I, where we would complement each other’s writing back and forth. He would read a sentence and look up and say, “Yea, this is good.” Or, he would make a change and read it back to me and I would say, “Yea, that’s better.” But it was when we were cutting out each other’s writing where it got funny. 

Can you keep a secret? I think that many times I had better sense of what words or descriptions would touch an audience. Nick was a little reluctant to go there. Sometimes, a draft would come back to me with one of those paragraphs crossed out. I would note the change and send back a draft with the wording deleted. Then, on the next version, I would put it back. Without fail, he said, “I like this part,” to something he had once deleted.

Curiously, I never saw Nick deliver one of the “We the People” speeches. Held in the huge auditorium at Lake Oswego High School, the closing speech started at different times based on the competition and there was barely enough room for all the parents and students. On the day after, we all waited for his review. I only needed to hear one word, “Homerun!!”

For the last speech I wrote in 2017, I wanted Nick to be the one to reassure the students and their parents that the competition had equipped them to handle whatever came in the age of Trump. From graduate school, I am a bit of a wonk on the election of 1800 so I equipped Nick with the invective Adams and Jefferson threw at each other to establish for the audience what we have survived in the past. Nick then took the audience through a journey of the resilience of American institutions amidst chaos. I thought it was our best work.

The next day, Nick didn’t say “Homerun!!” He looked at me and said, “Jim, a dad came up to me after with tears in his eyes to say thank you.” 

I wish I would have seen Nick deliver that speech.

The Parting Ritual

I was a project leader and manager in high tech for almost 20 years. There was one important part of leadership where I woefully weak, offering praise to my team members. I worked in a world of eccentrics and perfectionists. Mostly, we were all harder on ourselves that anyone else could ever be. I, especially, had trouble giving myself a compliment and that bled over to how I treated others. But I wanted to be better. So, consciously, slowly I worked to master the little moments of praise for individuals and the grander gestures of celebration for teams. The more I did it, letting go of self, the more I enjoyed it. By time I left management, how my team members felt appreciated and supported was a hallmark of my leadership style.

As far as I could tell, Nick had never had a staff like TeamFish. He worked in groups, served on boards, did campaigns but didn’t have the experience of being the boss of his own team over time. From the start, Nick was pretty good at recognizing hard work. He was quick to poke his head in a doorway and say, “Good work” or “Nice Job.” If he caught your eye from the dais or down a hallway, he gave you a thumbs up. TeamFish is a high functioning team, always buried under too much work, so those quick hits of praise were important.

Nick also loved to honor people and organizations in public. He was forever bringing proclamations to Council or calling out people in the audience for recognition. Some would say he was effusive. OK, others said he could be over-the-top with his almost nineteen century formality when praising others. But there is one special ritual that only a few of us saw.

Every day, especially on Fridays, there was a flurry of activity on the run-up to the commissioner leaving for the evening. We assembled a package with briefing papers, memos, talking points for events, maps and staffing assignments. And, inevitably, some of us had one more thing to tell him before he parted. The call would come out from our scheduler, “Nick is about to leave!” People would drift out to our common office area and Nick would emerge from his office, coat on, holding his hopelessly overstuffed, ratty looking briefcase. He would stop somewhere around the center of the office and look around the room. He often looked exhausted as he was already 12 hours into his day and was needing the energy boost of a crowd at his evening event. 

The parting ritual began like this:

“I think we had a good day,” he would say to no one in particular.

Then Nick would work his way around the room recalling something that each of us had done. Acts big and small were assembled, often with his version of self-deprecating humor, into a picture of the collective accomplishments of the team. 

If someone had an especially big part in the successes of the day or week, Nick would face them, raise both hands in the air toward them and almost yell, “Ladies and gentlemen!” 

And then he would say that person’s name loudly several times like they were a world championship fighter entering the ring. He started the applause, hands in the air and everyone joined in, adding whoops and hollers. The honored soul sometimes nodded or bowed or responded with a wave. When it happened to me, I felt a cool chill go down my body. Better that than a tear that wanted to find my eye. 

And with that, Nick swept out of the room and to the front door, calls of “Have a good night! Thanks commissioner!” at his back. I sometimes watched him through the glass doors, marveling at his long strides. He was off out into the night, to the next thing, as happy about it as when he walked in the door that morning.

This wasn’t a one-off. In some variation of the form, it happened all the time. One night my wife came to pick me up. Sitting in our waiting area she was one of the rare outsiders to see the parting ritual. 

As we walked out that evening she said, “That was amazing. I have never had a boss that did anything like that.”     

Nick never lacked for people complimenting him on his work. In politics, some of that was sincere, some strategic. When I thought Nick did something especially well, or took a position on policy that was contrary and hard, something he struggled with for days, I wanted him to know it counted. Politics is a world of constant handshakes, but in my blue-collar upbringing, offering your hand to another man was a special thing, especially between men of a certain age.

I would wait until Nick was in his office alone, walk in and interrupt whatever he was doing. I walked up and offered my hand across his desk. He always seemed a little startled but then clicked in and locked eyes with me. 

Shaking his hand, I said, “Good job Commissioner.”  He held the handshake a little longer and said, “Thank you.”

Then without another word, I would smile, turn for the door and slip away.

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