from JOB SLUT

Chapter 21

Brian at the Racetrack

 

“YOU EITHER CLEAN UP OR GET THE FUCK OUT!”  That was the note the landlord affixed to my door while I was out one night.  Later, Kendra came up at his behest to see if I had any rent money.  She said he was pretty peeved about my rent and me being so slovenly, an unnecessary clarification of his unambiguous note.  I gave her about $150 from my final check from the plastics factory.  It was surely foolish to trust a rider of the white horse with that money, but she did indeed return five minutes later with a receipt.  That bought me a little more time.

 

            With the omnipresent threat of eviction hanging over me, I found some work at a day-to-day temp agency.  Their official motto was “Get paid today for today’s work.”  To which one may as well add, “Get fucked up tonight.  Maybe come back tomorrow.”  Since the earliest I could possibly get there was two hours after the earliest birds had arrived, my deployment options were limited.

 

            After a couple wasted days there, my first ticket was a two-day enterprise at Crowne Carpets, referred to in shorthand as “CC.”  I would be working with John, whom I had learned was very annoying within my first five minutes of observing him at the agency.  Since so many jobs had classified him as “Do Not Return,” he also spent a lot of time idling at the agency.

 

            As a survival mechanism, he was one of those people whose irksomeness led him to adapt by employing generosity.  “Sure, John, I’d like another smoke.”  “Yeah, thanks for the burgers.  Appreciate it.”  His ingratiating nature entailed that I at least had to suffer him with some good humor.

           

            For others who needed nothing, his nature produced the expected effect.  I had to correct another temp who referred to him as “[my] boy,” especially since it involved his inevitable yet evitable ass-kicking.  I could shrug off that threat by association, but it was his effect upon the boss at the carpet job that had more bearing upon me personally.

 

            In part because John kept playfully referring to a younger store employee as a “knucklehead,” the boss had to inform him that such talk was bête noire under his watch.  When we later realized that our ride from the temp service was not coming, I quickly learned the obvious truism that their prime directive was getting us there to fill the ticket.  Getting us back was not a great priority.  I also learned that John’s presence was a liability; getting any real employees to go out of their way to give us a return ride would be difficult.

 

            “John,” I said quietly, “quit fucking around because we need a ride back.  My buddy’s picking me up in the city around five, and I can’t dillydally by waiting around for buses.  What the hell are we CC riders going to do?”

 

            “I know!”  He jumped on a carpet we were about to hang, exactly the type of behavior that I was referring to, and began singing Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.”

 

            I had to admit to myself that if he was a pain in the ass, at least he was occasionally creative in his obstreperousness.  Aside from my newfound cynicism about temp services’ genuine concern for our well-being, I realized this line of work entailed that I would be indelibly linked with people like John.

 

* * *

 

The following week, I was able to get placed on a steady ticket for a second shift at an electronics warehouse.  This obviated my need to get there so early, but presented another challenge.  Will said he would make a special trip to pick me up around 8:00 in the evening a couple times, but I would have to work something else out after that.

 

            Luckily, my first night there, I was able to hook up with a young guy from Halifax who said he could run me back almost every night.  Such aid was especially impressive, because he usually ended up driving back to the Harrisburg area to sleep at his girlfriend’s place.  Additionally, in due time I met a Mexican guy who lived in my town and was also able to accommodate me.  Neither was concerned about gas money, but I intuited that he would be more reliable than the young buck.

 

            This was my first job in a warehouse, but I quickly grew to like it.  I applied for a position with the company, knowing I could excel at a job that was mentally challenging for some of the other laborers.  I heard one of them comment about picking orders, “This is like brain work, man.  You really have to think.”  Our supervisors must not have deemed me capable of working mine too hard, because I was often assigned to make boxes or load the truck.

 

            On one of a string of days where I was on the truck, I worked with an older guy from the temp service whose physical build made him a no-brainer to put on the truck.  We got along well, and I was intrigued by his all-encompassing enthusiasm for everything.  When we met up at the agency the next morning, he aped my money-saving habit of taking the bus to the job site.

 

            “Damn, Slim, why didn’t I think of that?  Let’s roll out together, and I’ll show you where we can get breakfast and some brews.  It’s mostly a brother place, but you’ll be alright there.  Pretty chill place.”

 

            I was of course accustomed to drinking in the morning before work, but I felt out of kilter to do so while eating a traditional breakfast.  I felt the way a normal person would when they drank wine from a plastic cup.  As we got on the bus to go to warehouse, I realized Daryl was, in AA parlance, “off to the races” after three beers.

 

            “Yo bro, let’s stop at the liquor store on our way there.  We’ll just have to walk a couple blocks out of the way.”

 

            “Sounds good.  I’ll get some vodka for tonight.”

 

            “Dig it.  But I’m getting me some Mad Dog for today.”

 

            “So that was the ‘juice’ you were drinking yesterday?  I got you.”

 

            “Yo driver, don’t forget to stop at this mall!  My boy and I here gotta’ make a pit stop.  Come on, come on, come on,” he implored the bus to move faster.  The drumming of his fingers on the adjacent headrest grew more impatient.

 

            I spent an inordinate amount of time on buses while working there.  There was one bus that ran from my half-horse town to Harrisburg at 6:30 AM, returning around 4:30 in the afternoon. I would catch that first one, jump off near the temp service, then ride downtown, then catch a transfer from there to the job.  By the time I returned around 8:30 in the evening, I had little downtime with which to drink myself to sleep.  The landlord could see that I was making an effort to get caught up on my rent, but paying ten to fifteen dollars a night must have been a nightmare for his bookkeeping practices.

 

* * *

 

I should not have been surprised that I would encounter people like John and Daryl in this line of work.  Perhaps they would help me adjust to what I saw as a viable state job I thought I would be a good fit for:  Teaching in the state prisons.  While Will was getting nowhere in his attempt to get into the state system, I kept receiving these letters of interest from state prisons.  Unfortunately, they were all part-time jobs, either 20 hours a week or one 40-hour week per month.  Until a genuine full-time one of these arose, I would sit out.

 

            People like Ted and Arthur seemed to be more of my ilk.  The three of us were placed together on a computer repackaging task the one day.  Ted indicated that he had been a religion major in college.  The company he had worked for since college had recently gone under.  When I noted the similarities in our backgrounds, I could not help but joke about where we were in life.

 

            “Gee, maybe the atheists are right,” I mused.

 

            “Don’t say that!  I could never believe that.”

 

            “Calm down now, friend.  I was just kidding.”

 

            “You know what?  You would be a good person to maybe answer a question I had.  I didn’t study Buddhism much, but the other day I was reading that—“

 

            “You don’t want to get mixed up in that devil’s religion,” Arthur interjected, “it’s some baaaaad shit.”

 

            We both looked askance at the quiet guy whose soft-spoken nature did not seem to match his bold statement.  I don’t know if Ted knew that Arthur had done over 20 years in prison, probably for murder, but neither of us felt emboldened enough to immediately challenge his statement.

 

            “I was kidding there, too,” he chuckled.  “I’m actually a committed Buddhist.  Took my vows about ten years ago in the clink.”

 

            “Really?”  Ted was astonished.

 

            “So while a lot of guys were finding Christ or Allah, you…”

 

            “I guess I was just too stupid to find them.”

 

            “That’s really interesting,” Ted added.  “What exactly, or more or less, did lead you to that path?”

 

            “I have a lot of violence in my past.  Received it growing up, dished it out as I got older.  Same thing with suffering.  The Dharma to me was a way out of the trap.  And it was a challenge, for me not to exhibit those behaviors in a place where it’s expected.  But you need something like that in prison to keep sane, and to avoid becoming a thug.  I should say, stop becoming a thug.”

 

            “Damn, Ted, people are always full of surprises, aren’t they?”

 

            “Since we have a couple hours to kill in the morning before we get here, I’ve got a bunch of books at my dad’s place down the street from the agency if you want to borrow any about the subject.  Depending on what it is, you can just keep it.”

 

            “So are you like an evangelical Buddhist?”

 

            He laughed at that comparison.  “If you like, sure.  I’ve also got a pool table.  And a ping pong one, too, but people are usually more into the pool.”

 

            “Shit!  Ping pong’s my freaking game.”  I was excited, as I had hardly played in years.

 

            “You any good?”

 

            “Yeah, relatively so.  Practically raised on a table.  Could have been conceived on one, for all I know.  I like pool, but I’m not as consistent.  My game with that is like my tennis game and my underwear.”

 

            “Like tennis and your underwear?”

 

            “Streaky.”

 

            Despite my evocative imagery, Ted declined the invitation, but I made it a part of my routine to get in about an hour of playing time every morning (that I showed up, that is).  Arthur was one of the few I’ve played on a regular basis who was better than me, in his case just slightly.  As Arthur and I became unlikely friends, we had the kinds of heated arguments about the score and related points that Craig I used to frequently have.

 

            I realized I had to acquiesce in them more than I would have liked, since I didn’t want to lose chances to play an opponent who challenged me.  Plus, I did not want to be the recipient if he had a murderous relapse.

 

* * *

 

Will and Jessie picked me up the one Friday after work for a special trip to the racetrack.  I had never been before, but their rundown of what to expect made me feel like I would be particularly skilled at this form of gambling.  We would watch the riders parade their horses in a circle, allowing me to tap into my special knowledge of human and animal nature in an easier way than it was to divine the mechanical inclinations of lottery and roulette balls.  “I’ve got a feeling about this” is not so ridiculous when it can be pinned on something observable like a confident gait.

 

            Still, it was overly optimistic.  Of the 30 odd dollars I allocated to gamble, not one was spent on anything that won.  I had fortunately done most of my drinking from the vodka bottle on the drive there, but still spent about ten dollars on overpriced beer.  We had met up there with Ian, my former neighborhood bully, and Ryan, a younger neighborhood kid (the one who had dated June).  They had been there all day, as evidenced by the stack of losing ticket stubs they had piled in front of them.  With a frustrated swipe, Ian knocked them all to the ground before they left.

 

            I realized I was, so far, a lousy gambler, but I also knew that the two were very drunk.  That much was not too hard to determine regardless of their gaits.  As Will and Jessie looked on with a mixture of pity and embarrassment, I began picking up the forsaken tickets.  I went over and began feeding them into the payment machine.  I watched in amazement as the winnings added up:  Four dollars, then twelve, three-fifty, and so on, leading to a total of slightly over 70 dollars.  Small potatoes, I know, but it was a lot to me that night.

 

            To this day, Will tells me, the group still refers to instances of dumb luck as “Brian at the racetrack.”

 

* * *

 

I should have been more ambitious about revealing that I had enough brains for the highly cerebral job of reading things like “15 A 06” off a ticket and finding that location in the warehouse.  When the workload dropped, I was one of those cut from the ticket.  I still tried to make it to the agency about every other day, after which I would seek out steadier employment in the area if they did not send me out.

 

            “Hey buddy,” Arthur greeted me one such day, “you up for some work this weekend?  I know you’ve got your transportation problems, but my old man said you could stay with us until Monday.”

 

            “Hell yeah.  Doing what?”

 

            “Me and some guys have been helping out this guy on the weekends.  He’s moving, so you see everything is going into storage until it gets trucked out to Wisconsin.  He needs to be out by Monday, so I’ve got a much bigger crew going in this weekend.  Ten bucks an hour, ten hours each day, maybe more.  But I’ve got to tell you, you can’t get all boozed up Saturday and not be able to work on Sunday.”

 

            “Yeah, man.  I can do that.  Both things.”

 

            “He’s a nice guy and all, but he is a major hoarder.  Like, pathological, newsworthy hoarding.  You’ll have to see it to believe it.  Trust me.”

 

            “So you, as a Buddhist, are counseling him on the error of attachment?”

 

            “That would be easier, but I’m actually enabling him.  He may be weeding some stuff out, but he’s really just taking most of his mementos with him.”

 

            “‘Mementos,’ like…?”

 

            “Like receipts from 20 years ago, ‘cause they’re always fascinating, right?  And, of course, everyone saves sales fliers from a store that went out of business a decade ago, you know?”

 

            “I’m sure I’ll complain once we get there, but it’s a dysfunctional behavior that will bring me some money.”

 

            I don’t know how I could have been prepared for the filth and clutter I saw those two days.  I was especially confounded that this was after a lot of work had already been done on the house.

 

            “Good god,” I said when I took up my position in the basement.

 

            “Not here,” one of the veterans said, “this is definitely an unholy kind of mess.  Look at this shit.”

 

            “I know,” scanning the boxes and boxes.  And boxes.

 

            “No, I mean literally, this shit over here.  Who the hell saves this?”

 

            He pointed to a big pile of plastic bags filled with cat litter and excrement.

 

            “I started on that right away, to maybe make the air a little cleaner, but he said to just leave it there.”

 

            “Maybe he’s taking it with him but he’s too embarrassed to let on.  He’ll come down later and load it up himself.”

 

            “I don’t think he’s that sick, but he doesn’t have any shame at all.  He’s got a ton of gay porn stuff, and he didn’t try to hide that from anyone.”

 

            Everyone’s nerves became increasingly frayed as Sunday evening’s ostensive deadline approached.  Fights almost broke out several times, Arthur’s pacifist attitude impressing me at every turn.  He was, however, quite a priggish taskmaster whom I resolved to never work under again.

 

            I did a lot of the work in the basement myself, noting the great pains the others took to avoid the room.  Making the progress all the more burdensome, many of the items had to be repackaged from their decayed original boxes.  Every so often I would happen upon a stray cat turd, adding more fuel to my frustration at the chore.  About the fourth time that someone promised they would be “right back” to help me, I told them they would have to get in line behind the tooth fairy.

 

            When the owner and Arthur ended up down there at the same time, Arthur started carting a box of glasses upstairs.

 

            “Please be careful with those!  If those broke, I’d die.”

 

            Perhaps because Arthur and I, in varying degrees, aspired for the goal of non-attachment, I wanted to go knock the box out of his hands and stomp on whatever may have survived my sabotage.  “Look!” I could point out, “you didn’t die!”  Will would later laud my reality therapy approach when I told him of my intervention.  And, of course, if the guy did keel over, I knew he had hundreds of dollars in his pocket to pay us, and that I had a quick getaway out of the basement door.

 

* * *

 

“What’s going on, Dude?” Will asked me as he picked me up the one evening shortly thereafter.

 

            “Any good news?”

 

            He was referring to my scheduled interview at a state prison in the nearby hinterlands.  It was for a bona fide full-time position, in an area of the state I would love to live in.   It seemed like a good way to dovetail my goal of growing into adulthood with an idealistic, noble profession.  And, just maybe, the daily threat of being shivved with a writing implement would provide the thrill that I sought with alcohol abuse.  Perhaps I could become an adrenaline junkie instead of a boozehound.

 

“You won’t believe this horseshit.  I asked myself, ‘Who is the most reliable and available person I could count on to give me a ride there?’  It wasn’t my Dad’s girlfriend, and it sure wasn’t Jessie.  I called my Uncle Bob, and he was happy to help.”

 

“So what happened?”

 

“He never showed up.  When I called later, he said he was really sick that day.  And I definitely believe him, so it just means he got very sick at the worst possible time for me.”

 

“Damn.  And you can’t reschedule those things.”

 

“I know.  I hate this expression—it’s so fucking trite—but maybe it just ‘wasn’t meant to be.’ 

 

“And, by the way, my neighbors Jerry and Kendra both got picked up by their POs.”

 

“So?  No surprise there.”

 

“It kind of sucks, but you’re right.  What do you expect when you’re getting high while on parole?”

 

“Can you still wash dishes downstairs?”

 

“No, at least not now.  The new guy doesn’t want to shirk his duty.  He’s a fucking crackhead too, though, so who knows?”

 

“For you own good, I hope they don’t use you anymore.  It’s not like you need more bee—Williard!  Check that shit out!”

 

“What?”

 

“Come on you blind fuck!  Right in the road up there!”

 

In all my backroad cruises through the years, I had never seen a horse running free on a road like that.

 

“Oh Mylanta!  What should we do?”

 

“You go ahead if you want to try and ride it.  I’m keeping my car away from it, but you can get out if you want to.”

 

My instincts were indeed to try some horse whispering to it.  Approach it and gently ask, “What’s wrong, my friend?  Let me take you back to where you belong.  It’s dangerous out here.”

 

I chickened out, as I was wont to do in such circumstances.  I felt all the more pusillanimous when an old lady arrived and started leading it back to where it did belong.

 

“That was so weird.  I swear, Brian, why do I see the craziest stuff when I’m with you?”

 

The question was largely rhetorical, as we both would have agreed that the answer had something to do with spiritual energy, synchronicity, and other New Age mumbo jumbo.  Instead of delving into that familiar terrain, I started singing.

 

“‘Wild horses/Couldn’t drag me away/Wild, wild horses/We’ll ride them someday’…”

 

Definitely a good song for an addict, whether he needs to decathect from booze, drugs, or cat shit.

 

* * *

 

Several years later, I read in the paper that two of the three brothers that ran the carpeting store were in a bad car accident involving high speed, and that the one we had worked with had died.  About a year after that, I frequently came into contact with John, whom I relayed the news to.

 

He didn’t even pretend to show shock or sympathy.  He was even colder than me.  “Dumb knuckleheads were probably racing.”

 

I also came into repeated contact with Daryl around that time, observing how out of control he could indeed get while drinking.  He was about fifteen years older than me, but he sure could run.

 

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