Near Do Well (excerpt: on the job)

One of my first projects is to run a steam generator all day long, cleaning about two thousand off-white, plastic folding chairs. Which get surprisingly dirty, mainly because people insist on standing on them. The steam genny runs on kerosene and stinks like the tailpipe of a diesel dump truck. Even while running it out of doors the kerosene fumes burn the lungs. There is plenty of something like Oakite that we cut into the steam carried along by the velocity of the flow, lo and behold, the chairs get somewhat clean. I set them up in the parking lot behind the building, next to a huge junk wood pile, and in front of a bunch of retired trailers that have been scavenged for parts.

At lunchtime I notice that the only thing I can taste is kerosene as I section a mango.

“What’s that?” Kyle asks, pointing with his cigarette.

“A mango, you wanna a piece?”

He screws up his face, “What’s it taste like?”

“You haven’t had mango?

He shakes his head no.

“Just try a piece, I can’t tell you want it tastes like.”

“Is it like an apple?”

“No,” I chuckle, “nothing like an apple.”

He leans back in his seat and continues smoking, “You know, of all the fruits, I like apples best.”

“Uh huh,” I nod, “Do you guys have any air masks, like a filter mask, . . . painting mask?”

Kurt nods, “Yeah, you need a mask?”

“Yeah, I need something . . . that kerosene is killing me.” I can’t help thinking of the Big Black tune. I also imagine I’m knocking years off my life.

The phone rings, I slide my chair back and grab the huge black handset off the wall receiver, a rotary dialer with big clear chunky buttons to select the line, “Good afternoon, Warwick Shore Rentals.”

“Do youse guys rent bone sauces?”

“Excuse me?”

“Youse guys rent bone sauces?”

Suddenly it hits me, Row-die-lanese for bounce houses, ah, “No, sir, we don’t have those.”

“Bounce house,” I say to the guys as I hang up, “but I swear they asked for bone sauce.”

We have a good laugh.

Soon enough I’m back outside with a white painter’s filter on my face. I crank up the genny again, hit the sparker, the coils get hot. It stinks immediately, a heat vortex rises out of the huge cylinder and distorts my vision. I’m beginning to feel a little nauseous from the fumes but I stand firm. I am no pussy.

It takes about an hour to wash forty chairs. There’s only so much room so the back rows have to be moved back into the stacks as they dry. The back pad is a mucky mess, oil, grass masses, wire and twine piles, the entire place is covered in a variety of trash. It needs to be cleared off weekly.

It’s tricky business to clean things while standing nearly ankle deep in oily shit. I am careful to not let the steam blast touch the ground and launch the mess into the air.

When I’m done cleaning chairs for a bit, I’m hammering dried cement out of the returned cement mixers, or I’m splitting wood for the wood-stove situated in the middle of the garage. This last bit I’m expert at, having been so well trained by my old man, but the wood is the worst of the unsaleable junk, stumps and rotten logs, the stuff my old man would never stand for. Landscapers have basically talked the guys into letting them dump this refuse wood here for free. Another angle of the bottom of the food chain, how to save a dumping charge.

It’s rather astonishing how many of the landscapers who come in to get their equipment serviced are incapacitated in some manner. Most of them limp, a few of them severely. One of the fellows can barely bend. He walks with a kind of forward swing of one of his legs and posting it, catches up behind it, then swings it out again, like a Monty Python silly walk. Quite a few of the fellows are missing digits. One of them is clearly hunchbacked, the guys refer to him as “Lumpy”.

One of the more terrifying of the fellows, hasn’t injured himself in any usual way, but he has a great many skin tags around his eyes, sprouting like little plant buds. I find it very difficult to look at him. His regular visits are upsetting. He has the look of a bush-nosed Plecostomus, something tremendously appealing in an aquarium fish but horrifying in a person.

Kyle laughs at my squeamishness, he refers to the growths by the large, blustery fellow’s name, calling them “Lutheroids”. I’ve had nightmares about Lutheroids growing out of my face all over, around my mouth, eyes, nose, terrifying, but why the Lutheroids, wouldn’t it be worse to be unable to walk? Why doesn’t Luther get them removed? Does he see it as a kind of unnecessary cosmetic foolishness? Luther famously tells the guys a story about letting a homo give him a blow job for twenty-five dollars. The story seems remarkable in that Luther himself is amused by the punchline that he’d only be a homo if he didn’t take the money.

Later, I find out that this is a story from a Hunter S. Thompson book about Hell’s Angels. Why was Luther telling this story? Another popular story involves a lovely woman luring you to her home with sexy promises and sweetness and after rubbing herself all over you and playfully getting some handcuffs on you, reveals a lunatic boyfriend who jumps from a closet with a huge hard-on. Who, dressed as Batman, and singing the “Batman Theme”, proceeds to rape you. The guys swear up and down that this happened to an old landscaper named Crosby, and can’t imagine why the fellow would relate such a legendary tale about himself if it weren’t factual. I have to admit it’s a conundrum.

Every one of the landscapers expects a kind of preferential treatment, they expect their equipment repairs to take priority over others, when they run across one another, dropping off or picking up gear, they are cordial, like bears in the wild, until they’re alone with us, and then they tell stories. I’m amazed to find out that a few of these guys are police or formerly police. Boss Morrill has had interestingly amiable relations with many of the Warwick cops.

They come in, hang around, and tell bad jokes. . . . “So this guy, he goes up to a taxi and says, ‘I’ll smooch your pickle for a ride to the hotel’, and the taxi driver says ‘git the fuck outta heeya!’ he he he, so he goes to the next one in the line, ‘I’ll smooch your pickle for a ride to the hotel’ same result, the taxi driver tells him to fuck off, so he goes to the third taxi and just says, ‘how much to go to the hotel?’ and pays it, but as he goes by the other two taxis he gives them thumbs up and grins.”

Har har har, we all laugh. I marvel at the phrase “smooch your pickle”, is it impossible for this cop to say “suck your cock?”

Another of the boss’s landscaper cop friends tells us about a traffic stop he had, abusing some poor Asian guy as though it were the most enjoyable thing he’d done in his life, like he got lucky to have found this Asian guy he could take his frustration out on.

“I took the bastard’s keys and locked them in his trunk! Har har!” the guys all nod appreciatively.

There was some consternation about him going to Brown. “My kids don’t go to Brown,” he croaks. Implication being, why should this “gook” kid be going to Brown? Officer Kennedy . . . what a piece of work. . . .

At least while doing these outdoor jobs I’m not expected to chase after customers, but, as business picks up the idea is to go back in and help. I rush back in as I notice a few customers come in, and grab the phone, “Good afternoon, Warwick Shore Rentals.”

“Do you guys have one of those things that you attach to your car that follows along behind you?”

I’m at a loss for a second, “A trailer?”

“Yeah, how much?” I give her the price, and she hangs up suddenly after shouting the price to someone on her end. Just then the U-haul line rings. Dammit, she’s not going to be able to attach it to her car, most cars don’t have anything but a plastic bumper and so the temporary hitch can’t be attached. She’s gonna send her husband down for it, and be pissed off.

I press the button for the U-haul line, “Good afternoon, U-haul.”

There’s a curious pause and then a gruff voice, “Can I blow ya?”

I hang up with a sigh. I walk out to the front counter and help Kyle set up a floor sander rental, grabbing the various sheets of sanding grade and demonstrate how to attach the sheet to the barrel of the big sander, bending the ends in the bending slot on the front of the machine, showing them where the wrench to tighten the sheets to the drum is deposited on the back of the sander, “Don’t forget to bring that back!”

The main reason I’ve been hired is that I can hoist about eighty pounds to my chest without much issue, I can put the sander in the trunk of a car and lift it out, which, often enough is more than the customer can do. Often they get home only to find out they can’t move it.

I can hear Kurt’s cranky customer saying, “Fuh dat price a nigga should come wid it! Haw haw haw!” He wants to rent the wood chipper, a mechanism of legendary misuse and peril. Wood chippers are famous for pulling in the branches faster than workers anticipate, the branches often whip people silly, pull their clothing or glasses off which get shredded before they can be retrieved. And then there are the people who have been maimed or killed as well as the outrageous urban legends. A specific story of a wife killed, frozen and run through it, the outlet chute firing all her bits into the sea, supposedly the killer didn’t wash it out when he returned it and so he was caught. This story is recounted so frequently I begin to understand that there might be a bit of a desire around it. The worst I witness is someone running about a million pounds of potatoes through it, causing us to wonder about the massive servings of mashed potatoes being prepared.

On the way back into the shop from hefting the sander into the car, I run into Pete from Pete’s Lawncare, he’s shoving an off-kilter Lawnboy mower into the shop for Kurt to look at. Pete’s sneakers, looking like he may have been wearing them since the 70’s, leave little puddles of green-grass juice on the concrete as he walks. The mower he pushes is off-kilter because its wheels are worn through and are now only the hollow sides of wheels, but instead of replacing them, he’s filled them with acorns.

“Hey Pete,” I offer as I pass him.

Pete’s got a glass milk bottle of something that looks like tobacco spit tucked under his arm, he opens this now and takes a slug of it, “Hey Ted, is Kurt here?” he replies, wiping his grizzled chin on his sleeve, his voice is mellow — that’s cool — relaxed.

“Yeah, man, he’s right up front, he’ll be right back in a sec.”

“It’s a wheat germ juice,” he adds after he notices my eyes on the jar.

“Why’s it black?” I can’t quite tear myself away.

“Well I add a few other elements, you know, . . .” he chuckles.

“It looks like motor oil,” I screw up my face as I look over my shoulder at him.

“Naaa man, I put a beet in there, they’re loaded with folates, that’s good for your dee en ay . . . what we gotta worry about is free radicals . . .” he swirls the jar in the light, I notice that it’s got a deep reddish tinge now.

I go around the corner and let Kurt know that Pete’s back there.

Once the front of the shop quiets down again Kyle asks me, “Did you get the cock-sucker?”

I laugh as I suddenly realize they know about the blow job call I got, “I did, is that a regular call?”

“Yeah, he’s about a weekly call on the U-haul line, usually right about this time,” Kyle chuckles, shaking his head, letting a pen tap on the counter. “One time we all grabbed the line when he was on and started asking him if he was a real life cock-sucker, and what it’s like to be a poor bastard jerking off on random phone calls, but he just hung-up.”

“Crazy, I wonder what he expects?”

“Who knows!”

I circle back into the repair room, and Pete is showing Kurt the Lawnboy with the acorn wheels. Kurt is on one knee, already has the air cleaner off, and is listening to the piston as he pulls the recoil, no-compression, bad.

“I can’t afford new wheels, man,” Pete moans, “I tried to raise my rates, but they said that they might have to get a more respectable lawn service,” he smirks a kind of resignation. “What can I do?”

REM is on the radio, Kurt has already given the song altered lyrics: This one goes into the one I love, this one goes into my boyfriend’s tight be-hind!

“How’re ya stocks doing,” Kurt wants to know.

“Ah, you know, nothing’s movin’ right now, it’s flat-lined, it ain’t like it was, man.” Pete walks back out to his F350, creaking door hinges, a bible on the dashboard. Pete, of course, walks with a distinct limp. While he has all his fingers and toes, he’s got a distinct layer of grime all over him, enhancing a fierce, blue-eyed stare of a depression-era, Walker Evans photo. Free radicals, he says.

I wander back to steaming the chairs, the idea is to have a good portion of them done for the weekend, busiest time for chair rentals. The dirtiest have been being set off to the side so they don’t go out for rental, and the clean chairs are getting scarce.