The summer after my freshman year in college, I could not return to my former job of lifeguard, because those jobs are lined up well in advance of summer and I was a thousand miles away at school, making job hunting in Nashville somewhat impractical. When I got back to Nashville, I began a job search, and good luck at finding a good summer job when you begin the second week in June.
I first had a brief, abortive attempt at working the graveyard shift in a supermarket, restocking shelves, during which time I learned something about the music of Jimmy Rogers, because that was what was on the station the store PA system radio was tuned to. I also learned to not use the box cutter on the sugar bags. Then I was laid off to make room for some friend of the family of the night manager.
After that, I tried earning some money via day labor, through Manpower Incorporated one of the first temp job agencies. Again, minimum wage, and sometimes the jobs lasted no more than a single day.
The best job I had during that time was driving the office mail run for Genesco. In the days before email and such, all interoffice communication was through those weird little brown envelopes with the holes in them that were closed by the red strings wrapped around the other red thing that I've never learned the name of. Genesco had a downtown office and one out on Murfreesboro Road, and maybe another drop spot, my memory fails a bit here. The job consisted of driving around one big circuit, dropping off a packet of interoffice mail and picking one up, no interaction with other people, except the occasional smiling receptionist, and listening to the radio as I threaded through the traffic.
I'd have loved to have had that job for the whole summer, but I expect I was just a vacation fill-in for the regular guy, whose family knew the manager or something. Not that I'm still bitter about Tennessee hiring practices from 40 years ago or anything.
Far and away the worst job I had during the Manpower summer was the one that involved unloading the logs from the box car. That was a one-day special, thank god. The logs were destined to become railway ties, if memory serves, and they were cedar, or so I think we were told. You couldn't have proved it by me, since wherever they'd been harvested had been wet, muddy, and now the dirt was caked on them to considerable depth, black and powdery, perfect for rubbing into the skin, hair, or dispersing into the air inside the boxcars, like black smoke.
Outside it was a typical Tennessee summer day, maybe in the mid-80s. Inside the box car it was considerably hotter, approaching sauna temperature. Our sweat mixed with the black powder dirt and covered us with salty mud in the first few minutes of the job. There was water to be had, and we used it liberally, both to drink and then to just pour over ourselves, washing some of the mud off, to be replaced almost immediately, by more mud. Not to get too gross, but we were spitting mud by midmorning, and blowing your nose produced black discharge.
But what the hell, it was only one day.
The day had begun with a ride out to the site with three other guys, all older than me by a fair bit. The driver was maybe in his mid-thirties with a sort of "all over beer belly" if that makes sense. He talked about his band, a bar band from the sounds of it. They did a lot of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry songs, with an occasional Elvis cover tossed in. It sounded like fun.
The next guy was a little older and scrawny. He told us that he preferred to work "janitorial," which I understood a lot better by the end of the day.
Rounding out our quartet was a middle aged black man who slept most of the way out, obviously a bit hung over. I think he was older than the other two; he certainly seemed older, and more worn out, or maybe worn down. I do not recall my other companions treating him with any disrespect, nor, to the best of my recollection, did I. We were, after all, in the same boat, or at least the same beat up old car.
We arrived at the work site at about the same time as another car from Manpower, and that one included the manager, whose job it was to synch up with the work site boss and get us all started. However, the work site manager, the guy representing the guys who were paying the bills, wasn't there, so the Manpower guy went off in search of him. It was still morning cool, though the sun was beginning to make its presence felt, and we looked around at the boxcars and the flatbed trucks that the logs were to be loaded onto, and, well, then we looked around some more.
At one point the black man, who'd wakened by now, but was still bleary eyed, came over to me and asked, "If the man don't show up, will you make sure we all get paid?"
I think I stammered something about how I'd do my best, or whatever, but the seeming weirdness of the request roiled my brain a bit. Me? What kind of grease did I have with the system? I was as clueless as I could be, and just passing through, so to speak. Fortunately, I didn't have much time to think about it, as our boss and their boss showed up pretty soon thereafter, and set out the work orders. I think they decided that the black guy was maybe too fragile to stand the hot work, so they took him elsewhere, I hope to do something to earn his pay for the day, but I never saw him again so I cannot report.
I've met broken creatures in my life. I once saw an institutionalized woman who talked of nothing but the wires that had been installed inside of her. There was a guy in Berkeley in the 1970s, known as "Serge, the Microbe Man," who would stand on a street corner and babble strange theories about organized crime bosses and "direct light encounters." Too much acid was the story told about Serge, who'd once been a promising student in physics. I've met meth addicts so far gone that they seemed like meat ghosts, no souls left, just reflexive need and motion. I've known people so depressed that they could barely find the effort to breathe.
The man who asked my for my help, help I really could not even think of how to deliver, he was not as broken as any of these other folks. He seemed more defeated than broken. Yes, I'm sure he was probably alcoholic, and maybe he'd have been better off if he quit the drinking. Or maybe he was just circling the drain, and trying to make the pain less intense.
But why me? I've thought about it over the years, and the best I can come up with is that I was still rising, still someone upon whom fortune was smiling. Sure, at the end of the day, I was as hot, dirty, and tired as anyone else on the crew, but I'd go home to a nice suburban home, shower, and get a good night's sleep, with the expectation that things would get better, if not tomorrow, then certainly in the weeks or months after that. I was the college boy. I was on the track to eventually, maybe, even be The Man.
And sure, matters of race and class loom very large in this sort of exchange. The fellow I spoke to was old enough to remember when lynching was a common thing in the South. Whatever schooling he'd had had been in a segregated school. Hell, it was only a few years earlier when he wasn't allowed to eat a most lunch counters in Nashville, and I imagine that he still didn't break out of the old channels very often.
In the years since, I've sometimes consulted for, and advised The Man, sometimes opposed The Man, and on occasion, I've even flirted with being The Man. I'm especially not good at that last one. Truth to tell, most of my dealings with The Man have been fairly problematic, so there we are. And I'm bound to wonder, how much of my failure at that particular aspect of human existence comes from the fact that I never, ever want anyone to look at me again like that old black man looked at me that day?