Friday, August 21, 2009

The Summer of Growing-Up II; or, Paint It Black

In my previous post, I told you all about my summer of 1973, and my dad's 'intervention' in my young life, and how I lived on my own, at the YMCA in OurTown, and learned to make my way in the world in a non-fatal manner. It really was a watershed in my life - an experience that left me changed forever. A few more thoughts occur to me, about things I learned that summer, that I thought might be worth sharing with you all. . .

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Growing up Up North, I really did have a fairly 'sheltered' upbringing. Life was pleasant, and for me at least, pretty easy, adoptions and parents' divorces, and things like that notwithstanding. I never lacked for anything, and I pretty much lived in the midst of congenial people. We weren't rich, but solidly middle-class, for sure. Really, for me, growing up was pretty easy. Even when we moved toward the end of my senior year, we moved to the suburbs of a large metropolitan area, which is a different form of 'congenial comfort' than what I'd grown up with, but still pretty easy, all things considered.

But living at the Y in downtown OurTown, and working for Manpower, I was rubbing shoulders with very different sorts of people than the ones I'd grown up rubbing shoulders with. There were guys with drinking problems, for whom Manpower was their last hope of showing they could be disciplined enough to hold a job. Then there were guys at the Y, who lived on the 4th Floor, which basically amounted to a minimum-security jail. Other guys treated women vastly differently than anything I'd ever seen from my dad, or any other man I'd grown up around. . .

One time, I got a job for a whole week (which was nice, knowing on Monday that I was gonna be working every day that week), setting up a fabric store in a vacant building. The trucks showed up on Monday morning, full of all the fixtures and displays, and we had the week to get everything unloaded and set up. The air conditioning in the building went out about noon on Monday, and that entire week was a record-setting scorcher, with temperatures above 100F every day. The AC was finally repaired on Friday afternoon, just as we were finishing the final cleanup. The other thing I remember, is that our 'boss' - the guy from the store who was supervising us - was only on-site with us for about 2-3 hours every day, just to make sure we knew what we were supposed to do, and then to check out what we'd done at the end of the day. About ten every morning, a woman would show up at the worksite, and before long, the two of them would leave together. Then, about three or four in the afternoon, they'd reappear, and he'd pick a few nits on our work for the day, and then the next day, we'd do it all again. It took me a couple days (naive 17-year-old that I was) to figure out what he was up to. But even so, it was something I'd never seen before.

Another time, I got a job working in the evening, moving some furniture in a high-rise office building (in OurTown, 'high-rise' means anything over four or five stories). As I walked back to my room at the Y, sometime after dark, I noticed a couple of fairly seedy-looking women standing on the street corner, across from the Y, directly in my path. Now, I had recently read The Cross and the Switchblade (which was one of the Christian 'hot reads' of the early 70s), and so, with a couple minutes' concentrated thought, I deduced that these were hookers. And there was no way for me to avoid walking past them. What was I to do?

Fortunately (or at least, so it seemed to me at the time), I'd recently read The Cross and the Switchblade, and so, inspired by David Wilkerson's example, I smiled, and walked straight up to the women, saying, "Do you ladies know Jesus?" Which was not really their first choice of conversation-starters right at that moment. One of the women, who was black, asked me, in a challenging tone, "What color is He?", and things went downhill from there. But only for a minute or two. Before long, a police car drove up, and the officer rolled down the window and told me to run along and be about my business. (It wasn't until many years later that the penny finally dropped all the way, and the realization dawned in my brain that the women weren't 'real' hookers after all. . .) That was another experience unlike anything I'd ever seen growing up. . .

Even apart from anything 'sexual', though, living where I lived, and working some of the jobs I worked, exposed me to a whole different, uh, shall we say, socio-economic than what I'd grown up with. One time, I was sent to work at a small machine shop. The owner was a heavy-set man whose hawaiian shirt nearly covered his massive gut, while he chomped on the remnants of a cigar he'd lit maybe three days previously. That day, the shop was making weldments that fitted on the back deck of UPS trucks (I still see them on UPS trucks to this day, and they make me smile). The 'temporary help' that day (there were two of us) had two jobs - one of us had to take the freshly-welded parts and chip the 'slag' off the welds, and then load them into a wheelbarrow and take them back to the other 'temp' who was painting them in the 'paint room' in the back. We'd trade jobs every couple hours.

I started out painting. The 'paint room' was a pretty fair working model of a dungeon. The walls - in fact, everything in the room - were coated with black paint. There were no windows; in fact, no ventilation at all, as far as I could tell. From the ceiling, a single bare light bulb dangled, providing the only light. And along one wall was a large 'bathtub', full of black paint. A wheelbarrow-load of parts would be brought to me; I had a supply of hooks. I would pick up a part with one of the hooks, drag the part back-and-forth through the bathtub of paint, then hang it on an overhead rack to dry. Not terribly difficult. But after you've spent 20 minutes or so dragging parts through black paint, you've pretty much mastered the art of it, and you're ready to move on to something more challenging and interesting. Besides which, 'black paint on everything' is a pretty depressing decor. So, I was more than happy when it was time to 'switch places', so I could try my hand at something new.

The other job, 'slag-chipping', was a tad more mentally engaging - you had to at least check each part you'd chipped, to make sure that you'd gotten all the slag chipped off. And every 5-10 minutes, when the wheelbarrow was full, you got a quick break from slag-chipping to run the load back to the poor schlepp in the paint room. The downside of slag-chipping was that you had to work directly with the owner of the place (Mr. Hawaiian-Shirt-Beer-Gut Guy), who kept up a steady, crude banter the whole time. And when I told him I was headed to college in the fall, he seemed to take that as a particular provocation. So that, when I returned with my empty wheelbarrow from the paint room, I found about 20 parts piled up on my table, waiting for the slag to be chipped, and the Boss was angrily chiding me that I had to keep up. So I went to grab my chipping hammer, and it wouldn't move. I tugged at it harder, while the Boss kept welding more and more parts, and hollering at me. Finally, I saw it - he had welded my hammer to the table, and the joke was on me. He roared with laughter as I broke my hammer free from the table, and then he enjoyed the 'break' he'd afforded himself while I caught up with the backlog, by deriding me and all 'college boys who thought we were so goddamn special'. . .

As I said, that summer was just crammed full of education for me, of the sort for which you can't just write a tuition check. . .

9 comments:

Sailor said...

Funny, I love the image of the fat-hawiian-shirt-wearing-cigar-chewing guy chortling, as he welded the hammer, thinking of your face when he did so.

Cocotte said...

One of my "mottos" is...."The worst people I ever met was while working minimum wage jobs."

Your stories top mine!

Michelle H. said...

These are the best stories, IMHO. Minimum wage jobs lets you see and experience the most fascinating things you won't ever find in an uptight boardroom.

Bruce Coltin said...

Actually Desmond, I just stopped by after seeing your comment on Suldog's blog. I'm glad I did. I like your story telling style.

Desmond Jones said...

Sailor - Well, I'll admit to having been a little bit flustered. . .

Cocotte - I've met some pretty nasty people in high-paying salaried jobs, too. . .

And hey, I'd love to hear some of your minimum-wage stories; this ain't a competition. . .

Michelle - Well, not that I've ever been privy to the goings-on in any uptight boardrooms. . .

But, perhaps in part because of my experiences of that summer when I was 17, I've always had an appreciation for life at a more, uh, down-and-dirty level. . .

Bruce - Thanks for stopping by! And glad you enjoyed it. . .

lime said...

there are just so many portions of our life education you can't write a check for. having just deposited #1 at college i am wondering how many she may have this year.

Desmond Jones said...

Lime - Good to see you here, now that you can breathe again. . .

And of course, the most valuable life-lessons tend to be the ones we pay for with other-than-cash. . .

flutterby said...

Also, I think a lot of life's lessons are appreciated more and understood better once a little time has passed.

He really welded your hammer to the table, huh? Not sure if I'm disgusted or entertained. I'm "entergusted", maybe.

:)

Desmond Jones said...

Flutter - Or a LOT of time, as the case may be. . . ;)

Yeah, he really welded my hammer to the table. It was just a little 'tack weld', but it was enough that, when I went to grab it, it wouldn't move. But once I knew what the deal was, it wasn't hard to break it loose. It was mostly all in good fun, altho I'm sure there was a good portion of mockery in the mix. No big deal; learning to laugh at yourself is one of those 'valuable life lessons', all in its own right. . .