Ted Burke 1 p.m., May 27
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 10
As I sat across the desk from him, squinting through the fumes of his Tanqueray and tater-tots lunch at the strip club, M.G. Electric co-founder Frank Moe looked over my application with a subtle frown, which concerned me, littered as the app was with that college theatre degree and writing tutor stint and the desperate blather I’d added in the “employment objectives” section about ultimately wanting to be a writer (I knew I should’ve left all of it out), and he glanced up at me a bit warily from behind his off-the-shelf reading glasses. When he expressed concern that I might leave for the first writing job I came across, and that they needed someone for the long haul, I assured him that I only wrote at night, more like a hobby really, and that I wanted a good day job I could count on, because they would be able to count on me. I did have that courier experience, I reminded him, which had given me a navigational knowledge of the county like no one else he could possibly interview. I was practically one of the Thomas Brothers, I joked. It took him a moment to get it.
“Thomas Brothers,” he said flatly and without a chuckle, eyes returning to my application. “They make the map books. Right. So you know your way around. That’s a big plus.”
Much better, that’s what I wanted to hear. Rent was due, I was late on the phone bill, and Top Ramen was on the menu far too many nights. I desperately needed the money.
“I’ll be the best driver you ever hired,” I told him, in another rare burst of self-promotion.
He put my application down on his desk and took off his reading glasses. “To tell you the truth,” he whispered, “I used to do a little writing myself.”
Bingo. I was hired.
I’d sold him, sold myself, better than I ever had. But why? Why did I waste it on an eight dollar-an-hour driving job? Why couldn’t I sell myself as a writer, or at least try for something more lucrative and challenging, with anything approaching that kind of confidence? Karen sure wondered why. She was having her own life-crisis, for some reason convinced she was an ancient loser at thirty-one, “Almost thirty-two,” she’d lament as if it were sixty. And she could never have children, she was always reminding me of this, she could never give me a family, and because of it she needed to get her life in realistic order, start thinking beyond next month, and stop worrying about things she could never change, about her or me. She was especially sick of being a renter and having roommates, she wanted to buy a place of her own, and she’d wanted me to look for a better job, something with a bigger paycheck, something with more of a future, so she could feel like we had one (even when she knew we didn’t).
But I just couldn’t put myself out there for more or better or bigger, and I couldn’t figure out why. The truth was, though it took me years to figure out, I didn’t want more. Even aside from the freedom to write that these driving/gopher/pauper jobs allowed me, and though I knew I wasn’t looking to settle down for Karen, I genuinely did not want a job with greater responsibility than taking things from point A to point B. I didn’t want greater employment responsibility. I didn’t want anyone to count on me for more. I’d only let them down. The damaged little boy remained. A damaged little man. I felt inferior to my increasingly raging core. And my chronically bad back was proof. Better that than a complete nervous breakdown. Better that, the warring brain believes. Better than pulling a spoiled middle-class Howard Beale, stripping naked in TGI Friday’s one happy hour and dousing your champagne soaked body in margarita salt while screaming at the top of your lungs, “I’m mad as hell and I AM going to take it for the rest of my life, like the little wimp I will always be!!!”
It’s easy to say that I should’ve simply tried harder, done more, aimed higher, not settled for being such a relentless underachiever. And I cursed myself for it often. But I came to realize this is like wishing you were another person, in another body, and short of HGH and a brain transplant, I was stuck with the being I was.
* * * * * * * *
I met Hank my first morning on the job at M.G. Electric. Hank, whose frustrated and bemused and angry email started me off on this soggy spew of nostalgia. Hank, the tough and gentle hearted one, the fire cool redhead freakboy escaped from Bakersfield and returned to hometown San Diego via the punk rock van in which he’d stowed away. Hank, the baffling one, the sweet one, the confusing one, the hilarious one, the contradictory one, the downright f-cking infuriating one, and the priceless one. Hank, who has ached for belonging and family more than I have, though he would never admit it. Hank, who loves his cats more than he loves himself. Hank, my friend to this day, two decades later.
We were both twenty-three then, more limber and less immovable than our current selves, thicker of hair and thinner of skin. He drove me around on a multi-customer delivery run that morning, giving me the lowdown on the trucks (we were in the smaller of the two, a Japanese compact with a flatbed and stakes), showing me where some of our regular customers were located, and offering a few carefully chosen (it was my first day, after all, and he didn’t know me) bits of personal info about the company – how, for example, the warehouse manager, Ray, and the shipping/receiving guy, Tommy, were good for a fistfight about once a month, they hated each other. Mostly what he talked about, however, was the hangover he had.
“I just feel all Gumby this morning,” he yawned, turning into a parking lot in the alley behind a Bird Rock lighting shop. “Too many beers, too little sleep.”
I remember thinking that I’d never heard Gumby used as an adverb.
“And you have to watch out where you park here,” he continued after a moment, running his fingers through that blazing red hair. “The jewelry store has all the spots except two. Last week I parked in that one space there for like five minutes, and when I came out there was some rich old hag in a Rolls Royce yelling at me, telling me she could have me towed. Her little rat dog was yapping and snarling at me the whole time.” He started laughing here. “Rich La Jolla people are too much. She coulda just parked next to me, it’s not like the lot was full. I mean, do you see anything written on that space? Does it say it’s reserved specifically for her wrinkled ass?”
I looked at the blank parking space. “Nope.”
“Exactly. Thank you.” He downshifted here, self-conscious. “I’m just going off, that’s me, pay it no mind when you need to. But be careful, she’ll have you towed, I have no doubt. And sometimes the guy in the light store here is really slow going through his order.”
I took note of the advice. And sure enough, when we entered the store with the three boxes full of assorted lamps (which is what we called light bulbs), we wouldn’t get out of the place for almost an hour. The owner was working alone, and he was busy helping a customer, so we had to wait. And wait and wait and wait. We killed time the only way we could, by looking at light fixtures. Thousands of them, it seemed. Expensive light fixtures, too, La Jolla light fixtures. Desk lamps, which one could get at K-Mart for ten bucks, were three hundred there. They may have looked more shiny, or gaudy, or had more spangles and crystal and gold – adornments meant, no doubt, to compensate for whatever it is (small penises, chunky thighs, bad marriages, unsatisfying narcotics, an utter lack of creative capacity, boredom) that wealthy folks need to with all of their tacky and overpriced crap – but they were still just desk lamps. There were also chandeliers, so many of them, giant ugly chandeliers, crystal monstrosities fit for a haunted mansion, the kind that only a monarchy could love, and they cost ten thousand dollars, or twenty-thousand, or more. They made me think of a cavernous and cold dining room, of lonely people at opposite ends of a mile-long table, sitting in chairs as big as thrones, like a scene from “Citizen Kane” in his Xanadu. Even more, they made me think of theft – if I stole one and sold it for a quarter of the price, I figured I could live on the proceeds for at least a year, probably closer to eighteen months. Not that I ever would steal it. But I was always thinking of expensive trinkets like that. How long I could live on what they cost. Just sell that Persian rug and hole up in the apartment for six months to write. Would’ve been grand. (Of course, when I actually would earn the chance to do so, when I actually would make some money in the screenwriting game, I’d fold like a house of cards made up entirely of bad poker hands. All I’d think in my Hollywood meetings was “Why do they want to deal with a loser like me? I’ll only let them down.” Very bad pockets to deal yourself. That I would be having these self-immolating thoughts while sitting across the table from, say, Rob Lowe, himself looking for a career rebound, well, it just didn’t help. At least he still had his looks, and his industry ego/drive. What did I have but my inferiority complex? It was no contest.)
The customer in the lighting store, much like a pampered movie star, had her own issues, and the owner was tied up for a half hour trying to find her the perfect pair of hideous lampshades. Even when he’d satisfied her and sent her on her way, it took another twenty minutes to go through the order with him, checking every lamp against every number on the invoice, and keeping one broken halogen for a return. Finally finished, Hank and I headed back to the warehouse from La Jolla. Somehow we struck up a conversation about reading and writing, about creativity with words in general. Not somehow, as I think more acutely on the experience, since I recall the subject arose when a homeless guy crossed in front of us at a stoplight that had just turned green. Hank began to roll forward, then stopped abruptly, when the scraggly guy appeared in the crosswalk, surprising us both – first by his appearance seemingly out of nowhere, and second for his appearance in blue blood La Jolla. (On further thought, however, we both agreed later that it made sense. If you had the misfortune of being homeless, and you were in Pacific Beach anyway, you might as well try to sneak into La Jolla. You may not last long, but at least you had a little time at the resort.) The angry vagrant scowled at us and slapped the hood of the truck as he kept crossing against the green light. Hank made a growling face at the guy, who waved him off derisively and continued on his scraggly way, slapping another couple of hoods before making it to the other side.
“That’s so Bukowski,” remarked Hank as we drove away. “Guy’s lucky he didn’t end up pavement pizza.”
That’s so Bukowski. Hmm. I asked if he’d read any Bukowski, or seen the film “Barfly,” and he answered that he’d done both, and he seemed surprised that I would ask, and encouraged by it, if a bit cautious. Who was this college boy slumming and talking about Bukowski? Soon I’d find out we liked more than just Bukowski and “Barfly,” but John Fante too, and “This is Spinal Tap,” that we each had a soft spot for Stevie Wonder, and that we’d both been raised by single mothers and a series of boyfriends and stepfathers, producing the requisite half-siblings whom we looked nothing like. When he found out I’d written a few plays and other things, he confided that he wrote stories of his own, that he kept, interestingly, in a plastic Coleman cooler in his closet. Stories like “Chopper Jackson,” about a black biker with an afro too big to fit into a helmet, so he spray paints blue glitter on the ‘fro to look like a helmet. And a story titled “Thurston,” about a kitten who’d been raised by dogs, and who could bark but not meow. Always cats with Hank. By the time we returned to the warehouse that first day, we probably knew more about each other than we’d ever know about anyone else at M.G. Electric.
“Looks like they got your first solo run all loaded up for you,” Hank said as we pulled into the driveway.
The bigger stake-bed truck was waiting for me. On its rack, which extended from above the cab to the rear of the bed, were twenty pieces of electrical PVC conduit, the gray stuff, four inches in diameter, ten feet long. Ray, the harmless if dim warehouse manager – dressed in his uniform of jeans, cowboy boots and plaid shirt (all three usually brown, parka vest optional) – flicked his tongue through a space where two bottom teeth should’ve been, and handed me a clipboard. I looked at the address on the invoice and saw that I was headed to the to the SDSU area.
“Just take College west up the hill,” said Ray, flicking his tongue so obsessively that I thought he was part snake. “The jobsite’s a few blocks past Montezuma. I gotta piss.”
As Ray headed for the restroom, Tommy the shipping/receiving guy – a bulldog city kid, maybe five foot six and two twenty-five, a fire hydrant with a moustache – snickered in his wake. “You better double check your address there, young man,” he said to me. “Ray’ll send you to the wrong place once a day, I promise you.”
“Shut the f-ck up, Tommy,” sniped an irritated but restrained Ray, shutting and then locking the men’s room door behind him
“You may wanna check that truck, too,” added Tommy.
“For what?” I asked.
“Just make sure it looks alright before you go.”
I walked a circle around the truck, giving it a good once over. The tires were all inflated. The gauge said it had plenty of gas. And I made sure to recount the lengths of PVC up on the rack – all twenty present and accounted for, just as my invoice had noted.
“Looks fine to me,” I told Tommy.
“Okay then,” he replied with an odd grin. “You’re off. Good luck.”
An odd grin indeed, I thought. But I could make nothing more of it. I suppose I should have expected as much. But I didn’t. I was green, naïve, a college idiot whose blue collar was a little too tight around his neck that first day. So as the light turned green for me at College Avenue and Alvarado Road, half a finger west of Interstate 8, I accelerated a smidgen more firmly to give myself an extra push up the hill toward SDSU, and when I heard the plastic pipes come crashing down behind me, when I looked up in the rear-view mirror and saw them sliding off the rack onto the pavement, racing down the hill like long gray rolling pins, when I saw traffic at a standstill because of those oversized pick-up sticks blocking the road, when I heard all the angry horns honking at me, it really didn’t cross my mind that I’d been set up and played. I scrambled around for fifteen minutes chasing down ten foot lengths of runaway PVC on College Avenue, causing a traffic jam of quite impressive magnitude, but I managed to retrieve every piece undamaged, though I did have a close call dislodging one from under the front tires of a VW Bug, which was driven by an angry blonde gal yelling at me that she was missing her sociology mid-term. Only when I was finished with my retrieval mission, when I had all twenty lengths back up on the rack, did I realize the stuff had never been tied down. I was sort of surprised but, sadly, I was too green to fully appreciate that it definitely NEEDED to have been tied down, and thus I still couldn’t quite put one plus one together.
Back at the M.G. Electric warehouse, however, I put them together rather quickly.
“I told you to check that truck!” exclaimed Tommy, laughing his ample ass off.
“I can’t believe it stayed up there until that hill!” cracked Hank. “That’s so perfect!”
“I wish I coulda seen this college boy’s face!” guffawed Ray.
The laughter lasted a few more minutes, as I took my ribbing and recounted more of the disaster. But then Tommy caught sight of something on one of his invoices.
“Goddammit, Ray!” He yelled. “I told you not to sign for anything!”
“Then what the hell is your name doing on this Regal shipment?”
Ray paused, caught and mumbling. “Well the Regal one, yeah, I had to sign for that one.”
“No you f-cking DIDN’T have to sign for it! And guess what, you forgot to count the sh-t again! We’re short! AGAIN!!!”
They kept yelling at each other, spit flying, trading insults, inching closer, until they were chesting up, nose to nose. It appeared that I’d started working just in time for their monthly fistfight.
“They’re early,” Hank nudged me. “It was just last week they threw down. Here we go!”
Boom! The fight was on! They jumped each other and hit the ground hard, throwing punches that didn’t land and cursing like drunken sailors after the same skirt. They rolled into a pile of boxes, cardboard falling on top of them, but the fight continued beneath it. Hank and I pulled them out and off each other with the help of two other employees, Drunk Jim and Hairy Hands Mike (HHM). Drunk Jim was pushing sixty, an old hippie, bearded and irregularly bathed, and he hid little bottles of booze all over the warehouse so he could always be near a nip when he needed one, which was about ten times a day. HHM was an inside salesman, short and hyper and in his late twenties, and he’d gotten his nickname when someone had called asking for Mike, and when informed that we had two Mikes had clarified by saying that he wished to speak to “The little one with the hairy hands.”
As we separated Tommy and Ray, both tried to get at each other again, and in the ruckus Drunk Jim tumbled over onto the pile of boxes like an inebriated rag doll. HHM laughed so hard at the sight that he ran out of the warehouse into the parking lot, laughing so loudly that it echoed off the pre-fab concrete walls. Drunk Jim remained on his ass in the pile of boxes, belching Vodka vapor like a tipsy tuba. Even Ray and Tommy laughed at him. And the fight was over. For the time being.
“Welcome to M.G. Electric,” Hank said to me. “Make yourself at home.”