Putting a New Face on Things
I returned to the streets and the sidewalk more discontent than ever. There were two saving graces for me at this point. For one thing, I could avail myself of the mission’s overnight program whenever I wanted. Second, I finally got placed on a steady work ticket, renovating a Wal-Mart, at the temp agency. Not only was I guaranteed work, but I could now afford a whole extra hour or so of sleep before I had to be there.
Even more than restaurants, I have logged more hours at retail stores of various types than at any other kind of job. They all run on the same principles but occasionally apply their idiosyncratic terminology to the concepts. Pulling items forward on the shelves is what I’ve always referred to as “fronting,” but Wal-Mart calls it “facing.” Whereas “clean-up” is sufficient to describe the common sense idea that you shouldn’t leave a mess, Wal-Mart emphasizes the importance of “maintaining your zone.”
To a greater extent than other places I’ve worked, Wal-Mart is a stickler for safety to the point of being ludicrous. If someone can be injured by an empty box on the ground, they shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house, let alone drive to the store. I understand, though, that a place with a big pocketbook would be an attractive lawsuit target. So we put the yellow safety cones out around our zones to alert the customers that work is being done. Since only the temps from our agency had to wear steel-tipped boots, I was waiting for the moment when hardhats became mandatory. Safety first and foremost.
And then there are people like me. Wal-Mart may be worried about liability, but I’m just a temp who wants to have fun. In these environments, I’m usually the first to volunteer to get something when a cart or pallet jack is involved. To me, those things are just big toys. I may be playful to begin with, but commandeering these devices certainly enhances this attribute. I like to make a game of it, where the object is to go as fast as I can without losing my load or hitting anyone.
Recently, this need for speed prompted a manager to call me over for a word. “Hey Speed Racer! I know you’re just eager to be as productive and efficient as you can, but could you please slow down when you’re taking skids out? If one of the corporate big shots saw that, they’d say you’re being reckless.”
“Sure, sorry about that, Officer. And thanks for just giving me a warning. Any more points and I’m toast.”
“Thanks, boss. Besides, you don’t want to work so fast that you guys all get done too soon and miss out on work.”
He had touched upon the subtle calculus that every mindful temp must perform. Work too slowly and you’re canned in favor of another, but if you work too fast you’re unneeded sooner. The golden mean was to work slightly better than average so as to distinguish yourself as retainable, while still secretly trying to milk the clock and the calendar. This was especially true with regard to short-term assignments, but the principle was universally applicable.
* * *
Between all the women customers in this somewhat affluent area and the pretty girls we worked with, it’s a wonder the men got any work done. I was often paired up with a very attractive girl who was just out of high school. Summer was a seasonal temp from a more respectable agency. When fall arrived, she would be going to college in London to study international business.
She seemed to draw all the guys to her. Her generous display of cleavage, in a job that frequently entailed bending over, obviously had something to do with that. But Summer also had, if you will, a warm personality. Anyone who gives me their last cigarette has to be a nice person.
She seemed, at first impression, like a vacuous Valley Girl, if only because she was a pretty blonde with a slightly distinctive accent. I fancied myself as somewhat skilled at recognizing one’s geographic origin, but she had me stumped. Curious, I asked her yesterday if she grew up in the area. She said she had just moved here from Utah, where she grew up.
“Utah, huh? What are you doing here?”
“My parents moved out here over the winter, but I stayed until I finished school.”
“So, I’ve gotta’ ask—”
“Yes, I was raised a Mormon.”
“Really? Holy Moroni! But you—”
“Yes, I smoke. I kind of left the faith a couple years ago. I also drink coffee.”
I was going to add, “And are into black guys,” but I didn’t know her well enough to joke around like that.
After work, I went down to the river to drink a couple beers before I headed up to the mission. I sat underneath a bridge so I was not visible from the road. Two guys in the trademark Mormon white shirts and ties were walking by. Because I acknowledged them, they stopped to perform their missionary duties. I humored them but simply wanted them to leave so I could get back to drinking and smoking. I told them I already had the Book of Mormon in storage and didn’t want anything more to carry around at the moment. We prayed together, and the Lord must have answered my prayers because they left when we were done.
This morning, when I saw the supposed apostate, I had to relay the uncanny story to her. “I’m on to you, Summer. I think you’re still secretly a Mormon and you went home and prayed for me, didn’t you?” She laughed and said that she’d pray for me if I wanted, but not that I’d become a Mormon.
At lunch, I hooked up with a guy I called Tennessee Ed. We were at the mission together, but he’d gotten kicked out shortly after I had, in his case for smoking weed. He was currently sharing an apartment with some friends. When I learned that he was a pothead, it explained a lot. He already came across as a little slow, but a lot of that was because of his psych meds and his southern drawl. Contrary to my initial suppositions, he wasn’t stupid.
He had a joint and we needed to find a place to smoke it. Luckily, our lunches were an hour long, so we would not feel too rushed. On our way out of the store, he said, “I’ll tell you what, man. This shit is so good you’ll end up with a grin as big as that.” He pointed at the Wal-Mart smiley face logo.
We found a wooded area beside one of the restaurants in the shopping complex. As we were making our way down the steep embankment, Ed slipped and slid a couple feet. He was okay, but he had stained the back of his pants and his right leg. Although he was holding the joint, he managed to neither drop nor crush it. Now that’s a stoner.
When we finished smoking, Tennessee Ed began to express his infatuation with Summer. “Man, she sure is sweet. If I just had a car, I’d definitely ask her out.”
“And she’d definitely turn you down, so don’t worry about not having a car.”
“Gee, thanks! Is that what you learn in psychology? How to crush people’s self-esteem?”
“Just being realistic. You’re even older than me, and you’re not rich. If I were you, I’d invest heavily in the lottery until she leaves for school. If you hit it big, she might consider you a suitable breeding partner.”
“It’s like in that movie, Dumb and Dumber. ‘So you’re saying there’s a chance’?”
“Or, why don’t you try stalking her? I’ll be working with her when we get back—if I make it, that is. Maybe I could get a lock of her hair to get you started.”
“You’re a pal, brother. A used tampon would be nice, too. I just need to find out where she lives.”
Our giggling got progressively louder and stereotypically stoner-esque.
“Take it from me, though, don’t chain her up in your basement unless it’s soundproof. Do your parents have a lot of land in Tennessee, somewhere isolated you could build a shack?”
“Man, you know your stuff. I could see you doing that, too. You’ve got that evil look. I could see you chaining her up, spoon-feeding her soup to keep her alive.”
“No, she’d be on a strict cum diet. Straight from the tap.”
“‘Eww. It tastes salty’.”
“‘Gross-a-rama! You’re just like my dad’!”
Someone hollered down to us. “You guys all right down there?”
“Yeah,” I yelled, “just wanted to get away from civilization for a little on our lunch break.”
“Okay, just checking. Heard some noise.”
To Ed, I said, “He probably just smelled the weed and wanted some.”
Regardless, we took that as our cue to leave. As we were walking back to the store, I asked Ed if I could ask him a frank question.
“How do you know that cum tastes salty?”
“Shit, how do you think I got the weed?”
While we were entering the store, Ed whispered to me. “I should’ve told you before, but that shit was laced.”
Just as the greeter was saying, “Back for more?” a girlish “What?!” escaped my lips. I was so stoned already that I think I would have qualified to be one of the retarded greeters.
“Just messing with you, man. But that is some good shit, ain’t it?”
“You better head back to Tennessee, Ed.”
Coming back to work after getting high can be a far-out experience, especially when your tolerance is as low as mine has gotten. I felt like I was in a completely different world, surrounded by aliens. We had been setting up shelves before lunch, a fairly simple feat, even for someone as mechanically incompetent as myself. After the joint, I may as well have been tasked to the Manhattan Project. To make things worse, it was far too bright for my liking. A true chromophobe, I naturally prefer the dark, but these lights were especially unforgiving to my bloodshot eyes.
As I fumbled with the pegs that we were inserting into the backs of the shelves, Summer out-paced me by a laughable amount. I had marijuana-induced amnesia about something I had done so capably a mere two hours ago. Noticing my struggles and apparently smelling why, she suggestively asked, “How was your lunch?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Here, let me spray some of this on you.” She pulled out a small spray bottle from her pocket. “It smells girly, but I think you should try this.”
So Summer was a party girl, familiar with the art of covering up illegal odors? She’s just full of surprises. My eyes began to burn even more. I thought about buying some Visine, but I couldn’t think of a way to make such a purchase without risking discovery of my condition.
Ed came over to join us. “I was told to come help you guys in the bath section.”
“You’re going to take a bath with us?”
“He looks like he needs one. What happened to your pants?” she asked, pointing to the dirt stains.
“I told him not to eat those three breakfast burritos, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Recalling our earlier jokes, Ed and I burst into mutual laughter at her comment. We had been relatively restrained in the wild, but in this sober environment it was pretty obvious that we were stoned. I had to excuse myself and went to the bathroom to get a hold of myself. It took me about two hours to adjust to working while that high, but I was eventually able to rise to mediocre performance.
* * *
The store was located across the river from Harrisburg. My dad used to live nearby with his girlfriend, and I spent a lot of time in the area when he was alive. I had lost touch with his girlfriend and her family over the last year and a half, but it was good to see one of her sisters and then her dad at the store in the same week. They were pleased to see me as well, and they surely took my employment there as a sign that perhaps I was getting my life a little more in order. My nadir had been so pathetic that it was in fact an improvement for me to be working at all.
I also had to face the fact that working here in and of itself will do little to really improve my life. I will try to use this temp job as a springboard to getting directly hired by the company, but besides that this just gives me a little money to play with in the meantime. Maybe I can get a cheap hotel room for a week or two, but my priority should be to find a real job and save some of this money to subsist on until I get that first check.
My dilemma is the same as it is for most of my fellow temps. At all of the branches of this agency I’ve worked for, I’ve forged a large number of casual friendships with my co-workers. Except for the fortunate who get placed on a good ticket—as happened to me twice in Lebanon—we were essentially at the bottom of the work force. We were even lower than fast food workers, who at least carried the responsibility of regular attendance.
The chief commonality I shared with most of these people was that it was the distractions of life that kept us where we were. Not only was our attendance and reliability sketchy, but the prospect of daily pay in particular appealed to us, even when the work we did warranted larger paychecks. Just like I keep telling myself, I’ve heard so many of them hope and plan to soon leave the life of the temp behind for something more stable.
We tended to exhibit a devil-may-care anarchism with regard to the serious things in life. Bills, taxes, insurance, child support, legal fees, obeying the law—it was all so burdensome and boring. Just give me my 50 dollars and I hope to be back tomorrow. Tonight, I want to have fun.
And then there were people like Jake, the guy I preferred to ride with. These were the staid people who took the above responsibilities seriously. Perhaps they worked as day-to-day temps to supplement their other means of income, or perhaps they had just hit an unexpected hardship. Since these people were more likely to have cars, they were the lifeblood of our apparatus. No drivers equals no work.
Jake was an older guy whose career as a carpenter had hit hard times. He currently worked at a grocery store and did the Wal-Mart job two or three days a week. His last employer had ripped him off for about two months’ pay, and I wondered why he didn’t put some of the tools in the back of his van to creative use in exacting some old-fashioned street justice. But the kind of guy who would worry about getting home so he could feed his cats and turn on the air conditioner for them is not the kind of guy to beat someone with a hammer.
Although a pretty serious if not boring guy, Jake always laughed at the jokes I told (the ones he got, at least.) My penchant for riding with him might have been based simply on his refusal to take my gas money. He diligently collected from others who were just as down and out as myself, but he always told me to turn that five dollars into a sandwich. Great, that freed up another five bucks to turn into alcohol or tobacco.
As we were riding home today, I was still feeling a mild high from the weed I’d smoked with Ed. I was thus pretty quiet, which can seem conspicuous for someone who otherwise tends to be more loquacious. It had been cloudy all day, with rain seeming to tease at its arrival at any moment. Yet as we headed east, the sun was starting to come out.
From out of nowhere, Jake gave me a light punch on the arm and sang, “Gray skies are gonna’ clear up/ Put on a happy face!”
I looked at him in astonishment and laughed. This was very unlike him. “Now Jake, I thought we had an implicit understanding that I was the entertainer on this cruise. I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s Friday. The only face I care about is the shit-face I’ll be sporting by nine o’clock.”