Some friends and I were talking about all the things we didn’t know about the adult world when we were kids. Believe it or not, most of the talk centered around work. One friend, who does something mysterious and lucrative with computers, said he always knew he’d have to work. What he didn’t know was how much.
A good point. Well into my twenties. I harbored the strange delusion that work was supposed to be just one part of life, something in harmonious balance with lots of other things like social life, hobbies, political involvement, smelling the roses. But in this workaholic generation, we’ve learned that the better the job, the more of life it consumes. Remember, as a kid, vowing that you and your best pals would all grow up to live in houses on the same street? Now you know that even if you did, you’d never see each other because you’d all be at work. Of course, the other big secret of adulthood is that we want to work as much and as well as possible, because we define ourselves by what we do-and because unemployment is worse than the most workaholic of lives.
These thoughts and the onset of summer brought back memories of my first jobs in high school. My first real job, with a W-2 and everything, was at a little barbecue joint next door to the Garland police department and jail. The job had its onerous moments (most of them caused by the boss’s son Walter, who was home from college and proud of it). But it was a step into a larger world, as first jobs should be.
The boss put me in the care of a wizened old man called Shorty, no last name, who’d been chopping barbecue and nipping cheap whiskey most of his life and had a neatly severed thumb to show for it. Every morning we’d sit out behind the café and peel fifty or so pounds of potatoes that were destined to be garlicky French fries on the lunch specials, and as we peeled Shorty told me stories about his life. He had a wife and kids somewhere but he didn’t see them much. He lived in a rented room a few blocks away and didn’t have a car (an adult without a car?), but he’d been to Detroit and San Francisco and New York and anyplace else I asked about.
The restaurant had a contract with the police department to provide some meals for the prisoners, and it was my job, an hour or so before the lunch rush started, to make up stacks of barbecue sandwiches and take them next door to the jail. Influenced by Shorty and the songs of Bob Dylan, I imagined the inmates as innocent victims who, if not exactly freedom riders or draft resisters, were probably just two-wheeled gypsy tramps heading down that long, lonesome highway when they were busted by The Man.
To show solidarity with the oppressed, I began making the prisoners’ sandwiches larger and larger until I was smushing a half a pound or more of choice, sauce-slathered beef between the buns and smuggling in mountains of fries. This was great for my romantic imagination but awful for the inventory, and the boss soon turned the jailhouse run over to Walter, who dealt out cruel and unusual punishment with dry, day-old beef and stale buns, hold the sauce.
When Shorty failed to show up for work one day, the boss didn’t even seem surprised. It turned out that the old man came through every few years and worked for a month or two before moving on. He just couldn’t stay in one place for long. If this were a nostalgic movie, I guess I’d recall some life-shaping lesson taught me by this king of the road, but this will have to do: watch those free spirits-they’ll leave you to peel every damn potato by yourself.
The next summer, rearing seventeen. 1 got the kind of career opportunity only the older, more experienced worker can hope for: dishing up popcorn and cokes at the Garland Road Drive-In, later a McLendon two-screen and now the parking lot of the Hypermart. My boss was a Mr. Antonelli or Antolini, an Easterner with a rapid-fire accent thai always eluded my provincial Texas ears. As he poured out orders, praise, and damnation in long, babbling torrents, I just listened for my name (always pronounced “Tuckah”) and tried to fake it.
Aside from Mr. Agonetti, the job was heaven. In those days people you might want to know still went to drive-ins, and the typical movie didn’t require more blood than a MASH unit in an air strike. I loved catching the new movies before my friends, and it was fun to wink knowingly at guys who came in blinking, hair tousled, trailing girls with passion marks blooming on their necks. And yes, a woman taught me about romance there one night. Of course, she didn’t know she was teaching me. I had taken some snacks back to the guy in the ticket booth, and on my way back the first show ended and the lights came up. There in a Chevy I saw a couple locked in sweaty rapture, oblivious to passers-by or the confections being hawked on the screen. They didn’t even hear the dancing jellybeans singing “Five, five, five minutes till showtime.”
My favorite part of the job was changing the marquee on Thursday nights. My buddy Cliff and I would take boxes of big plastic letters and clamber out on the walkway, taking plenty of time so the maximum number of people would see us. We always joked about putting up some insulting message about a friend or teacher, but we took the job pretty seriously. And with good reason, When we were finished, mister, In the Heat of the Night was gone and Cool Hand Luke was in town.
Sadly, it was too good to last. One night Mr. Artobelli gave Cliff permission to take off right after the first show. He was meeting a girl he really wanted to impress, and it had been a hot night at the popcorn popper. Just before intermission, he asked me to stand in for him while he went back to change shirts and splash on a new killer cologne, some kind of musk-cinnamon-leather-ground antler concoction. The line quickly slacked up and I fell behind, so I ducked into the office and found Cliff, shirtless, with huge red welts growing on his face, neck, and chest. He was allergic to Instant Impulse, or whatever it was, and the stuff had triggered a coughing, wheezing fit. Then, as I was getting him a glass of water, 1 began to smell the popcorn I’d forgotten.
I don’t know how much burnt popcorn you’ve been around. That batch was enough to last me a lifetime. Mr. Altonini probably would have fired me anyway, but I was really doomed by the presence of two anonymous “checkers” from the home office who just happened to be nosing around that night. “Two checkahs! Two checkahs!” he screamed as they scribbled on clipboards. “Tuckah thoo! Tuckah thoo!”
For the first and only time. 1 understoodhim. Tuckah was definitely thoo. But I didlearn one valuable lesson from that littlefiasco. Our writers and editors can splash onwhatever they like, and good luck. Me, I’mstaying right here at the typewriter. I happento like this job.