S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “On Being a Factotum, Part I,” Park shares some of the 50 jobs he’s held over the years.
The best part of being retired is the same as the best part of growing dope, i.e. it beats working for a living. Just as the best part of these Risen Apes columns is what they’ve taught me about myself. So today I thought I’d combine the two by ruminating on jobs.
I’ve had roughly fifty of them over the years. That’s a staggering number for an introvert who, since he was a child, has coveted time alone. (Well, when sober, anyway.) The notion I traded so much of it for so little in return, both monetarily and otherwise, would be unfathomable if I couldn’t blame it on the writing.
It’s the only ambition I ever had, so what difference did it make what I did in its service?
It was a rationalization that first surfaced in the Summer of ’65. I was eighteen and had just been fired from a busy breakfast and lunch counter in downtown Portland. I ran the place alone: waiting on customers, cooking the food, washing the dishes, working the cash register, cleaning the counter and grill. It might have seemed overwhelming, except an old gal named Elma had done it by herself for decades. (While smoking three packs a day in the bargain: they don’t make ’em like that anymore.)
Anyway, as punishing as it was I’d gained valuable experience on my previous job, at Betty’s Ice Cream Parlor in Beaverton, Oregon. I ended up the only employee there, too, after Fat Pat, the rancorous five-hundred-pound owner, chased off or fired the rest of the help. I stayed on because I was too lazy to leave—it seemed to me, even at that age, that the only thing worse than a job was looking for one—and I have to admit Fat Pat’s family intrigued me. For openers there were the weird teenage twins, Rick and Dick, a couple of devious porkers who stole cheeseburgers from the grill and tips from the tables.
Stranger yet was Betty, the parlor’s namesake and Fat Pat’s wife. She had dull features and put her lipstick on with a rag. Seriously. It was all over her face and, inasmuch as the family never mentioned it, the employees didn’t either. Harder to ignore was the way she spoke with her mouth full, spraying ice cream on anyone nearby. It’s obvious now that she was heavily dosed on downers (as the day wore on she sounded more and more like Daffy Duck), but back then all I knew about tranquilizers was after a doctor prescribed them for me, and my mother got a good look at me under their influence, she flushed them down the toilet.
Betty and the kids followed dad’s lead and ordered me around like a dog. I put up with it until he accused me of stealing, when (to my great relief) I discovered I had some self-respect left after all. We stood toe-to-toe in the front of the parlor, accusing each other of being the fattest and skinniest assholes in Portland, after which he chased me across the parking lot with a table over his head. He missed when he threw it, but not by much: he’d been a shot-putter at Oregon State back in the day. (And this is what I mean about lessons from this column, in this case how many times I’ve been chased by fat guys with bad intentions.)
What would I have thought if I’d known Betty’s was just the sideshow, that the real circus lay ahead? I hit up a classmate’s father for the lunch counter job, and because I’d been Senior Class President he figured I was responsible enough to handle it. I didn’t tell him that had been a failed experiment, too, and if I were honest with myself I didn’t share his high opinion of me either. (Not as a worker, anyway.) This proved prescient when—after nearly three weeks in that hellhole—I couldn’t take the customers’ bitching anymore: most of them were regulars and old Elma had spoiled them rotten. I flung a spatula in the air, told them if they didn’t like the way I cooked they should come back there and do it themselves.
I’m proud of myself for that, the way I created a “Do-It-Yourself Dive.” Imagine walking in from the street and there’s a six-six beanpole smoking cigarettes behind the counter while local secretaries or businessmen work the grill. That’s what the owner did, barely a week after we began. He saw Roy the bank officer back there, flipping burgers with a Big Chief apron on, and fired me on the spot.
This working summer jobs to save money for college had been a real bust so far. My father couldn’t help me (he was selling lightbulbs door to door at the time), and the supermarket job I’d had in high school barely covered my gas and cigarettes. So I was vaguely desperate, even if that’s no excuse for what happened next. I left the lunch counter, walked aimlessly towards the wino section of town. I’d gone maybe two blocks when there was a commotion in the alley to my right. A door opened at the top of a stairway and a bow-tied character stepped out with a bum in tow. He marched him to the edge of the stairs and gave him a shove.
I was shocked: the poor bastard hit every step on the way down, rolling to a stop not five feet from me. I figured he was dead; then he moved his head and feet and slowly straggled to his knees, like this was something that happened every day.
He crawled to the wall to puke while Bow Tie looked me up and down.
“Hey, buddy,” he said finally. “Want a job? We just had an opening.”
I remember that moment for what should have gone through my head, things like common sense and caution. How instead of that brooding psychopath repelling me (much less his victim, gagging behind some garbage cans by then), I was vaguely intrigued.
Or maybe I’m selling my young self short. Maybe I sensed, even then, that there was no such thing as a good job.
I dragged on my Galaxy cigarette and shrugged.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
Thus began the first day of the rest of my (low) life; for all the self-help and positive thinking tomes I’d read in high school I was still a born cynic. This was disappointing on some levels, encouraging on others (particularly the veneer it provided: every factotum needs one of those). Take the cafeteria job that bow-tied “Buzz” offered, working with a six-man crew in food preparation. If the work was minimal and moronic so was the pay, and my coworkers were seedy winos who drank their draws every night.
It was hot, sweaty and close in that kitchen and, other than Buzz, I seemed like the only guy who showered regularly. After three days he drew me aside.
“You’re a smart kid, High,” he said. “What are you doing in a dead-end job like this?”
“Ehh, you offered it to me … Buzz,” I said.
“Uh huh. There’s something wrong with you, isn’t there? You’re one of those beatnik ‘rebel’ types.”
“See that storeroom behind you, wise guy? I want you to straighten it out. I’ll call you out here when we fall behind.”
“Great,” I said.
“And don’t be sittin’ on your ass smoking cigarettes. That’s what that last clown was doing before I threw him down the stairs.”
So for the next few days I sat on my ass and smoked cigarettes. (It used to puzzle me that I could be equal parts defiant and indifferent, but now I see they’re sides of the same coin.) I’d close the door to the kitchen and there were plenty of cans on the shelves, so every once in a while I’d knock one over for effect. I figured Buzz was testing me but I’d stood toe-to-toe with Fat Pat: I wasn’t afraid of his scrawny ass. Plus part of our pay was a free lunch every day, and the more of those I’d eaten the queasier I felt; maybe I’d been hasty in my job choice, after all.
But come Friday morning I was needed on the line again. (The customers would have rioted if they’d seen who prepared their food.) It was salads this time and we were making Thousand Island dressing. The first wino put mayonnaise in the bowl, the next poured in ketchup, the third a handful of diced pickles.
It was my job to stir them up. It sounds simple enough, of course, but these were shaky street bums; they were hurting bad in the morning and smelled like the alleys they lived in. (I couldn’t have known that a similar fate awaited me, as I’d barely—and unsuccessfully—experimented with alcohol at the time.)
I’ve had roughly fifty of them over the years. That’s a staggering number for an introvert.
I did have a soft spot for rummies, though. I’d long fixated on the town drunks in Westerns, for instance, and loved Steinbeck’s Doc Ricketts character. This cafeteria crew was a good deal realer and seedier, of course, but I handled it right up to the moment the pickle guy puked in a bowl. It was only watery bile, but there was lots of it.
I was shocked when it happened, then aghast when the guy straightened up, wiped his mouth, used the same hand to toss pickles in the bowl and shove it my way.
“Just stir it in, Stretch,” he sighed. “Happens all the time.”
“We puke in all the food here,” he said. “Why do you think we don’t eat it?”
“Because you’re fuckin’ winos!?”
The others laughed.
“No,” said the guy on the other side of me, “but that is why we’re puking.”
“Yeah, Stretch,” said the ketchup guy. “How’d you like those ravioli yesterday? Taste a little sour to you?”
I was back on the street five minutes later, propelled by self-preservation as much as conscience. (I’d never call the Board of Health on Buzz and the boys … no sense overdoing it.)
I was even, I felt, starting to get my footing as a factotum. Unfortunately it was the last of July and I’d only saved twenty bucks for college.
At the end of the alley I passed the guy I’d replaced a week earlier. He was leaning against a wall sipping Muscatel.
“Hey, Stretch!” he croaked. “How’d you like the raviolis?”