It would be the last good summer I would have for a long time. It started when I broke my hand on some guy’s skull in a bar fight. Since I was working as a bouncer at the time, I was able to collect disability for a month. That week I also received a windfall check for a thousand dollars. In my limited world it was like winning the lottery. I drank imported beer and ate sushi once in a while. I could fill the tank to half, instead of just-above-red. I was able to do my laundry in a coin machine, instead of stomping on it while I took a shower.
Not working was very good. Not having to steal car batteries to take to the recycler for a dollar each because of it was amazing.
That was a happy season, with plenty of wine, women, and bong. I got to rest and read, even scribble a few words down. I hiked and camped around northern New Mexico. I finally got a break from The Toil, and a chance to breathe and look around. Things looked okay.
It was short-lived. As the air started to cool, so did my hot luck. The good times guzzled up my fortune quickly, and soon I was stomping on my clothes in the shower again. All the leaves were brown and the sky was grey. Early one cold morning, I found myself pedaling a bicycle with a leaking front tire to Kwik-Labor. It was flat by the time I walked the bike up to the office.
I gave my information to a spent piece of mobile home trash with a beehive hair-do and turquoise eye shadow. I sat down on an orange plastic chair and looked around. Here was the cream of America’s temporary labor force: reeking alcoholics, toothless meth addicts, criminals, sociopaths, drifters, bullshit artists, and a host of other assorted nuts and dolts. I was now one of them and it felt rotten. “Well they call me the ‘working man’ …I guess that’s what I am.”
We sat around drinking metalic-tasting coffee until we got our job assignments. The guys with cars got the best jobs. The rest of us piled into the Kwik-Labor van. For two dollars out of our day’s pay, we got to be dropped off at the job sites in the most humiliating way possible, short of a squad car, or a bicycle with a flat front tire.
Company’s that needed people to do jobs they didn’t want to run off good workers doing, called Kwik-Labor. That van would pull up, the doors would open, and human refuse piled out. We’re here! Where’s the stuff nobody else wants to do?
I always seemed to end up digging in a hole somewhere. It was a cosmic metaphor, I’m sure. Most days, I didn’t mind the pick and shovel. Digging ditches was mindless, and I had plenty of other things to think about, like how to get out of the hole I had metaphorically dug myself in. I tried to stay stoic, but some days the hangover, combined with the stubbornness of the rocks, and the proximity of some blathering idiot, just beat it out of me. Despair was always tugging on my sleeve, tapping me on the shoulder, poking me in the pelvis with a trombone.
There were men who thrived under the circumstances. Jim was one of them. Jim was fucking gnarly. He looked like a cross between Charles Manson and a pirate, but more tan. He had a scraggly beard, and two rotten front teeth. They looked like burnt corks that hung down like twisted fangs. On his bicep was a tattoo of a green cartoon hand raising a “fuck you” finger, with stuff dripping off the tip, with the words “Fox Hunter,” underneath.
Jim was a drifter from New Hampshire who drove around in a diesel pick-up with an oil drum to store stolen fuel from farm equipment. He chased floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes looking for work as an equipment operator. He was a good operator, a hard worker, and immune to misery. He got hired on permanently with the same company as Marko and me. Because operating equipment made him higher on the construction food chain, he became our defacto supervisor. He rode us like circus pigs. Having to stop to drink water was scowled at. Taking breaks was “fah fairies.” He would eyeball a half-inch rise of dirt you didn’t level out and scream, “Yah left a fuckin’ mountain deh, yah numb nuts! Fix that shit! Keep tampin’!” We would fantasize about killing him with whatever tool we were using at the time.
One day during a snow storm, Marko and I were tying down heating hose to concrete reinforcement mesh, while Jim sat in the backhoe, barking orders. The two of us had our hustle on. We were trying to beat the storm. At one point, Marko was running up the hill with two rolls of 200 foot hose around each arm. He was trying to jam a piece of cold chicken into his mouth while running. The weight of the hose around his arm kept pulling the drumstick out of his mouth while he ran. Jim looked over and yelled at him, “Fuckin’ Mahko! Whah do you think this is? A fuckin’ picnic?”
Some picnic, indeed. Marko wasn’t spending A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jaffe, he was running up a hill in the snow trying to cram down some chicken, with Michelin Man arms. There was nothing picnicky about it. It was a snapshot of what sucked. But, in the brutal and desolate inner world of Jim, this was like playing badminton or croquet at a lake park, and he tried to make Marko feel guilty about it. We never forgot that.
I can’t remember what natural disaster finally lured Jim away, but we were thanking God for it. (I know that’s bad) There would be other people to endure, other pains in the ass, one replacing the other, in a never-ending conveyor belt of bummers. That life had a shortage of a lot of things, but not that. When you drink yourself to lower and lower worlds, the denizens of those realms tend to be unpleasant. I knew what I had to do in order to move out of the neighborhood, but I kept balking. I was scared I couldn’t handle it. But then again, this shit was no fucking picnic either.