Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Oct. 8
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 4
It’s odd to think of how much different it was looking for a job twenty years ago. For decades, millennia perhaps, job hunting went largely unchanged. In the summer of 1989 you still read through the want-ads in a real newspaper, got your fingers stained black from real ink, circled the ads that looked promising, then started calling or sending out resumes. You started hitting the pavement. It might as well have been 1925. Today you log onto Craig’s List and not only can you instantly peruse and reply to all the employment want-ads in the world, but you can also set up a casual encounter with, say, an orthodox Jewish transsexual looking for a clandestine after-hours bondage experience at the museum of textiles – which may or may not include a pet bearded dragon – and who also might be selling their used lawnmower or, for the right price, an almost new recliner that a friend of theirs had “won” in some dubious sounding raffle. (Not that I once bought a hot La-Z-Boy from a casual encounters ad or anything. Cough.)
But it was still the 80’s then, and there was no easy access to anonymous sexual encounters with museum elves, no keystroke ready opportunities to procure stolen furniture. I’d have my unsuccessful interview at the Union-Tribune, then at a few other jobs that actually required college degrees and a measure of creativity, if nothing approaching a full scoop. At these interviews too, though, I had to admit that I wasn’t exactly exuding enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming the next great company man, and I never did cut my hair nor purchase anything capable of being tied in a half-Windsor. Not surprisingly, I was hired for none of these positions.
But I still had that cheap rent, I didn’t need much to cover it, and I was still writing, all night sometimes, which is what I truly wanted to do, and so I didn’t much want a “real” job that would interfere with it, hence my apparent self-sabotage, which served as a double-dose since it also kept my relationship with Karen on an always uneven keel. I only needed a job with a small j, something with no responsibility beyond the forty hours I was there, and soon I was in the employ of the American Courier Company, perspiring tropically in that 5% cotton uniform, driving a thousand miles a week in my battered Nissan Sentra, and eating enough drive-thru junk to push my weight to its max: two hundred and twenty pounds. To this day it’s the heaviest I’ve ever been. The inside of my car took on the appearance of a dumpster behind an In-N-Out franchise.
I came home one evening from a day of delivering random crap all over town, fetid in my sopping American Courier uniform, to discover we had a message on our machine. Probably from my girlfriend, Karen, I thought. But it wasn’t Karen’s voice I heard when I pressed the Play button. A voice wasn’t the first thing I heard at all. For about five or ten seconds I heard a ghostly, muffled sort of moaning, and a whooshing, a kind of echo, soon accompanied by a plastic banging like someone had dropped the phone in a cave or a bunker or a dungeon somewhere, the phone connection as tortured as the captives I believed I was hearing in the background. Then came the voice, that of a black female I surmised, apparently very drunk or very high. She was pissed. And she knew whom she wanted.
“Sonya?! You hear me SONYA?! I know you DO! You better KNOCK this motherf-ckin’ CAR sh-t off! I’m telling you NOW, girl! NOW!!! I know where you LIVE! I know where you HANG OUT! I know who you F-CK!!! This car sh-t is OVER!! YOU HEAR ME, B-TCH???!!!”
Slam! Beeeeeeeeep! End of messages.
Hmm. I was anxious for a moment. While I didn’t think Sonya could have ever lived in that same apartment, still, you never knew. That would be a fitting end. A mistaken hit. And it would have nothing to do with Genghis-the-Con…at least as far as I knew. (Truthfully, Sonya’s stalker will grace us with other messages later, exonerating Genghis entirely. But I still think he might have me whacked just for writing this.) At that point, as per usual many afternoons, and adding to the end-of-day pipe and slippers mood, the noise would commence: the lesbian couple below us would start to fight, things quickly getting thrown against the wall, while across the courtyard, no doubt, one of the kids would be bashing his Tonka truck against the steel entry gate. Between the love brawl and the Tonka thonk, and all the other rackets, it was often like being inside a spinning dryer full of rocks. Home sweet home. Nothing like a little peace and quiet after a long day of delivering blueprints and legal briefs and even medical specimens and samples.
I remember picking up many blood samples at the dialysis center, and other types of samples at another clinic, where the sealed vials and containers would come in large Styrofoam packages, cooled with dry ice or some other refrigerant, labeled “BIO-HAZARD! HUMAN TISSUE!” in glaring red stickers, only to be entrusted to a crew of couriers with inevitable B.O., who drove overworked and testy vehicles, and who were lying to their insurance companies about how much they drove their car, thus, in the end, most likely rendering their insurance worthless. (I hope all that hazardous human tissue I shuttled had a piece of the rock.)
If you got in an accident, and several of us did, it could easily mean the end of your courier career (and a surprisingly decent paycheck) if any real mechanical damage were done and insurance had to get involved. I managed to continue working after being side-swiped the first month by, thankfully in this screwy context, an uninsured woman, and I drove the rest of my courier stint with the entire driver’s side of my flimsy Sentra crumpled from front quarter to rear. It looked like they’d started to demolish the car but had stopped when I arrived, like a warden bearing a last-second governor’s pardon, and rescued her from the crusher. Still, it kept running and got ridiculously good mileage, the kind you only see in hybrids today. Which is interesting, the mileage thing, and mostly infuriating, if I think about it too long.
* * * * * * * *
“What the hell, man?” Bashir said in his Lebanese accent, one slow day when a few drivers were hanging out in the office lounge and bemoaning this or that. “This is easy drive, for easy money,” he chided them with a smile. “Stop complaining. I tell you about a hard drive. Real hard drive.” And he wasn’t talking computers. He was talking about Beirut.
By the mid 1980’s, Bashir – a short and pot-bellied father in his forties – had endured all he could in Beirut, the city was completely chaotic and destroyed, violent and volatile, bleakly divided, and his larger family, as I remember him describing it, was too mixed (too divided?) for their own good (so much, in fact, that I don’t remember what HE actually was, though I want to say Sunni.) A Druze here, a Christian there, a Hindu I think I heard, they even had Jewish relatives. The family was a melting pot inside a firestorm, it was too much heat all around, and he said that it seemed there was always someone to hate them, no matter where they went, that he really didn’t know how they’d made it as long as they did. So he finally bought tickets to flee, for his wife and mother and two young daughters, on a boat bound for Cyprus, a little more than a hundred miles away. There was just one problem: the drive he’d have to make from their home to the dock, on a dangerous road that “went down the middle of every sh-t.”
I remember a hair-raising account of a frightening morning drive across Beirut to the dock. There were different groups to shoot at you all along the way, but the only thing Bashir could do if he wanted to get his family to Cyprus was to make the drive, to hope and pray and get lucky. He said he took his first gunfire about five minutes into the twenty-minute drive. Several bullets were fired, but he was able to get away with only minor damage, none of it human, a shattered blinker or something. They’d survived, and he was grateful, but it made the drive even more anxious. His wife was crying in the passenger seat, pleading with him to turn around before the next bullet hit one of their daughters, but he told her they had no choice, they could not go back. His mother was in the back seat, comforting their fearful young girls.
Bashir drove faster, he said, faster than he should have, weaving to speed around slower cars when he could, which frightened his girls more, his wife screaming at him the entire way, but the speed was working, no more gunfire had been directed at them, and they were within a few minutes of their initial destination, a boat to Cyprus and, if not freedom, then relief from the daily war. He said he even, just for a few seconds, felt like he’d made it.
“But then, holy sh-t man!” Bashir exclaimed. “They shot a f-cking ROCKET at my car!”
Like some action movie, he said the rocket sailed past him in the opposite direction and he saw it explode behind him. His audience of three couriers was speechless. Bashir seemed as if he were reliving the experience, and the astonishment he felt at simply being alive, at the miracle of it.
“It just f-cking miss my car,” he said with still fresh amazement. “How is this possible? How do you miss with rocket? It was God.”
God indeed, it would seem, was on Bashir’s side, as they managed to make it to the dock.
“But the minute I see the boat,” he said, “I knew it was bad.”
It was an older and smaller vessel than he’d expected. So small you could hardly call it a ship, and it was rusted all over. And there were too many people getting on it. There was nothing official or professional looking about the situation at all. He was worried right away, but, as he’d said to his hysterical wife as they cheated death on the drive, there was no turning back. When they piled on with the rest of the emigrants, he noticed there were not nearly enough life jackets or lifeboats for everyone, not even close. So he prayed, they all did, as the ship set off from the dock.
“And the second we leave the dock,” Bashir continued, his memory raw and clear, “they start shooting at us from land! Boom, boom, boom! Pop, pop, pop! It was like nightmare that does not end.”
The passengers all crowded, overcrowded, to the side of the ship facing the ocean so they wouldn’t get shot. Bullets, Bashir added, were perforating the ship as long as it was in range, like the shooters didn’t care whom they shot, they just wanted a kill, and the shooting seemed to go on forever as they moved away from port far too slowly. Weighed down on its starboard side by terrified passengers, the vessel listed severely, felt like it might flip over, everyone screaming and wailing in fear. Miraculously, however, the rickety tub righted itself “by the hand of God.”
Bashir’s wife and mother and girls were crying more intensely as the elderly ship finally got clear of gunfire range, lumbering its way across the sea toward Cyprus, where it finally landed several hours later. They’d made it. And it was then, Bashir said, that he joined his wife and mother and daughters in their weeping. Only now they were tears not only of sadness and fear, but of joy as well.
“And now look at me,” Bashir concluded. “Working with you complainers here. And I don’t even get a sandwich for lunch today.”
That same sly smile crossed Bashir’s lips as he winked at me. One of the two other couriers in his audience actually said he’d buy Bashir a sandwich, whatever he wanted, they could even head up the block to Arby’s, it would be his treat. I don’t recall if Bashir took him up on the offer or not. But I do remember thinking that Bashir probably didn’t care, as I obsessively did, about the body stench created by our sweatsuit uniforms, that it was far down his list of concerns, if it were on the list at all. He was happy to have that uniform on his perspiring back, and not the target that was on it in Beirut.
* * * * * * * *
“SONYA!? Ohhhhh, SONya!! You hear me SONYA?!”
The voice was familiar, and terrifying, when I heard it on the machine the second time. She was growling now, calling from that same whooshing, echoing, moaning dungeon somewhere, this time with a man in the background, a partner, who finished her angry sentences with “Mmm-hmm” and “That’s right” and call-outs of that sort.
“Now I don’t know what to DO with your ass, girl! I don’t know whether to call the POLICE and have you ARRESTED. Or if I should call the MORGUE to find out if you done had people KILLIN’! Like I KNOW you have!”
“That’s right,” chimed her partner behind here. “Damn straight.”
“And I done TOLD you already, that you had NO RIGHT puttin’ MY SON’S CAR in YOUR F-CKIN’ name! And now I’m gonna come GET your ass!”
“Your big, black, BRO-HAM DRIVIN’ ASS!”
Here she was referring, I assumed, to a Cadillac Brougham, which was, I found out from my local dealer, traditionally pronounced in one syllable, like broom with a long o sound. But I preferred her version.
Your big, black, BRO-HAM drivin’ ass.
It was perfect. Insulting and intimidating and just right.
“So you got ONE DAY to get that car outta his name, miss RICH BITCH! Or I will come DOWN there, wherEVER you are, where I KNOW you are, and I will motherf-ckin’ END you!”
There was a short pause, as she coughed, as her partner chimed in behind her. “You alright, baby, you alright, give it to her.”
“THIS…is a THREAT!” the caller roared in conclusion, then slammed the phone down, ending her message.
Somewhat more spooked at this point, I started to think maybe I should ask the building managers if a Sonya had ever lived in the apartment. But then J and his girlfriend, Quinn, came home. J had met his pretty British gal at the paper, and I was jealous, I had to admit. She had this accent that just mowed me down, I adored the way she said everything. It reminded me of falling in love with Julie Christie when I was a kid and my mom took me to see the movie “Heaven Can Wait." It was the same way I woke up depressed the morning after we’d seen “Foul Play”. I was so in love with Goldie Hawn I could barely stand the thought that I’d never meet her. (I think mom and I might have been better off seeing action movies or a genre not inclined to aggravate that Greek Tragedy always rooting around my psyche. Julie and Goldie and mommy, and all the rest, women women women, it was all my little brain could think about then.)
I played the new message from Sonya’s stalker for J and Quinn. They were both dumbstruck by it, found it darkly humorous, of course, but they were still a tad worried as I was. J changed our outgoing message immediately.
“Hello, you’ve reached J and Dave, please leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. And if this is the woman calling for Sonya, please stop. We beg you to stop. Sonya doesn’t live here. We don’t want to die.”
We all had a laugh, and then J and Quinn took each other’s hand and looked at me, smiling, almost giggling. Something was up.
“We’re engaged!” J blurted out.
He was beaming back at me, they both were. I was surprised, had him repeat it, only to learn that, yes, they were indeed engaged to be married, and she showed me the gold and diamond ring. He’d proposed to her that afternoon as they were bowling, and I assumed he’d planned it that way and hadn’t simply overreacted to the thrill of rolling a 200+ game. I congratulated them, and I was happy for them, but envy was again biting me, as my own relationship was as hot and cold as ever, and boy did I want to hear more of that alluring British accent.
But mostly I knew that their pending nuptials meant one unpleasant thing: I’d have to find a new place to live in a few months. And, almost assuredly, I’d have to spend more. Love could take a flying leap, I needed my bargains. And, once again, I would find myself floating in between. Always floating.