My hands are shot. They are cracked, scarred, and broken up from years of working with cement and stone. They have thick calluses on them, sometimes which get to be a half inch thick in the summer; I never need to wear gloves, because I never feel anything on them anyway. You can always tell a guy who works outside doing heavy labor- his hands are rugged and scarred, and his cigarette packs are always crushed. I’ve called out a couple construction workers before they even opened their mouths because of these two things, and I’ve never been wrong.
I was going to write about a time at my job when some hot headed Italian asshole wanted to fight me over a parking space. I was going to write about how he used every curse he knew to try and intimidate, and about how a couple buddies of mine of ill repute began walking up behind him with bricks in their hands. I was going to write about it…but there was no fight, so I couldn’t see the point of explaining it all just to have an anticlimactic ending. Plus I just worked a 13 hour day pushing rocks and shoveling shit with a couple guys who have been arrested more times than either of them can count. That means I’m tired, and everyone will have to deal with that.
Anyway, I hate my job. Sometimes. When I get a nice size tip, or realize the crazy experiences I’ve had because of that place, I dig my job. But mostly I hate it. It’s a ball breaking job that rips the muscles off your bones and makes your back feel like a box of rocks at the end of the day, for mostly little money. It’s not a union job, there are no paid holidays, and you don’t get a raise every year…it’s certainly not the most entertaining thing I could be spending my time on.
For a while it was tolerable when my buddy was alive, but he’s long gone now. With his death, everything there changed; my other close friend couldn’t deal with the strain of working there anymore after such an event, and so for the last year, it’s been me alone. Yea other guys work there, but I am proverbially alone. I have been there for 6 years, I’m one of the older ones, and I am a veteran; a lot of responsibility is on my shoulders. At least, for a couple years, I got to share that responsibility with my buddy, as he was a dependable guy who would rather lead guys than follow. Again, though, it is just me left here.
I guess I should mention that I work at a stone yard, which is part of a large garden center. I used to enjoy the work more when I was younger, and I didn’t need the job. There was something about being a kid working a hard ass blue collar job that seemed cool to me, working with truck drivers, with blacks from Newark, with white trash from the trailer park. I felt akin to these guys, to these working fellas. They’re never the brightest, or the strongest, or the guys who were at the head of the class. No, they were the troublemakers, sometimes the drunks, many times the inmates. But they were good guys. Most of them would have taken a baseball bat to your head just because I told them too, or would jump the fence and run to Drug Fair and get me cigarettes when I was 16. If they didn’t know you, they would fuck you over quicker than you could blink, and after shaking their hand you’d better make sure your rings were all there. But they were good guys. They are good guys. I felt like the Bob Seger song that Chevy has butchered: “I was eighteen/ Didn’t have a care/ Working for peanuts/ Not a dime to spare/ But I was lean and/ Solid everywhere/ Like a rock.” Might sound corny, but damn was it true. Leaning on a couple pallets of stone, smoking a cigarette in the thousand degree summers, driving a forklift both underage and still drunk. It was a better time than it sounds like on these pages, and it brings a smile to my face.
For those couple of years that my buddy Ryer worked there, I got spoiled. He was a big guy, a bodybuilder type, and he was on my side. If there was an argument in the yard, everyone knew that if you fought one of us, you’d have to fight the other. No one crossed that line. It was a good feeling, to have someone else to take charge once in a while when I was too drunk on a Saturday morning, or to take a delivery out when I was sore from lifting rocks all day. Sometimes you need a break from having one look to you for the answer, of from having to break the balls of those that are so lazy they can barely hold this shit job. It was good once in a while.
After he died, I hated that place. The building seemed to put off an evil aura, as if was laughing at me from behind its brown walls- “You will be here forever! You will not leave, you will not get a better job, you need me!”. I guess it sounds a bit strange to look at a building like that, but it was a damn depressing place after he died. The cold winter followed, changed into spring and summer, and then winter again. It did not get much better.
However, the impossible dream was realized for me a month ago, as I’d gotten a job at a liquor store in my hometown. I was thrilled. Closer to home, less heavy work, not too mention it’s indoors. I had it made in the shade brother. Then, the first day came.
I realized that day that liquor stores are possibly the most boring job in the history of jobs. Everyone is quiet, except for the useless banter between cashier and customer. The managers are nice, but flavorless. They go through the motions, get their jobs done, and say little about anything. The guys I work with are so worried about losing their seven dollars an hour that they rarely mutter anything aside from a greeting. The worst part is, of course, that I’m the only smoker. You would think that at a liquor store, there’d be more smokers working there, at least for the fact that it, too, is a shitty job, and a cigarette is always an excuse for a five minute break. But no, everyone else there is on the straight and narrow, collared shirts, healthy looking, smiling once in a while, all the while pulling bottles of whiskey to the front of the shelf, moving wine bottles from shelf to shelf. I wanted to burn that place down within the first hour.
I got to the garden center today at about 10 in the morning. I knew that I wouldn’t be home until at least 10 that night, and would be doing backbreaking work for at least 5 of those hours.
And as I sat there, having my morning Marlboro and drinking my coffee that was painfully short of sugar, I looked across that icy, windswept parking lot. Somehow, this place, this yard, the beat up yellow forklift with its rusty 80 lb. chains, the curses scrawled on the walls in the warehouse, it has changed me. At the liquor store, I feel like a caged animal, dying inside those four walls (so ironically filled with booze. Ironic for me, at least).
These things from the stone yard, my boss’ stories, the broken pieces of pavement, the old propane shed with enough rust to scare the Titanic, they are ingrained in me. I swear like a truck driver- at the liquor store I sound like a cretin; at the garden center, I sound like everyone else. If you don’t smoke at the garden center, you are in the minority, if you can call two people a minority. If you’ve never been arrested, then you may as well find another job, because we like’em a little crooked.
For the next month, I will work at the liquor store, seething at the walls that keep me in. And when I can get my hours back at the garden center, that liquor store will never see me again. Because for as much as I hate it sometimes, that place carries the memories of years for me, in every square foot, in every old pallet. So, inevitably, I will keep working out there in the sun, at least for a couple more years and enjoy, as an old friend used to say, my “office with a really big fucking window”. And one day, when I’m old and gray after I’ve quit smoking and after life’s lost its thrill, and those hot days come around, I know I’ll reminisce about that place, and that powerful mixture of strength and grit that I felt when I worked there. Maybe I’ll even look down at my hands, and remember how strong they used to be, and how thick the skin got in the busy seasons, the product of 50 hours a week and some heavy rocks. And I will miss it.