NEEDHAM, Mass. It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday and Ted Flemm is in high spirits as he makes his rounds delivering mail at Red Sauce, a cloud-based “gig economy” company that allows people to use their own cars, Uber-style, to deliver pizzas for pay. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my job,” he says as he turns the corner at the firm’s office building overlooking Route 128, “America’s Technology Highway.” “It’s just that I get such a kick out of being a Spanish-American War re-enactor on Sundays, I can’t help myself.”
But Flemm’s sense of exuberance as the weekend approaches translates into a problem for many of the company’s young workers, since it causes the 82-year-old to break out in whistling, a dying art form that was once a source of pride among men but which is now considered a breach of decorum on a par with smoking or spitting.
“Who the hell’s whistling?” Jason Kravetz yells over the edge of his cubicle as Flemm blows the tune of “Peg of My Heart,” a cloying number that he learned listening to Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians on the radio during Sunday breakfasts with his family growing up. “It’s Ted again,” says Chloe Woodbury, a twenty-something demand pricing specialist as she reaches for her headphones.
Flemm is protected from firing by age discrimination laws, and the decision to take him on as a part-timer for low wages is now seen as a critical business mistake by the company’s venture capitalist backers. “That guy is a major drain on employee morale,” says Todd Rashell of River Styx Fund IV, a major shareholder. “The only people left in the world who whistle are referees, serial killers and senior citizens.”
The human resources department had given Flemm a warning that if he continued his obnoxious practice he could be fired, so Flemm did what so many Massachusetts residents do when faced with a personal problem in a state founded by religious fanatics; he appealed to his state legislators to draft a law protecting whistlers from workplace discrimination.
“People like Ted are what made this country great,” says State Senator Jay Filardi (D-Needham). When it is pointed out that Flemm by his own admission didn’t serve in the Korean War because of flat feet, Filardi doesn’t back down. “I don’t care about Korea, they send their teenage girls over here to steal golf championships from hard-working Americans.”
And so for now, Flemm is protected but he’s trying to keep a low profile nonetheless. “If I get fired now and sue these guys I’d get nothing,” he says quietly to this reporter. “If I wait until they go public, I’ll strike it rich.”