S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “On Being a Factotum, Part II,” Park shares some of the 50 jobs he’s held over the years.
After the cafeteria fiasco it was time to get serious, and that’s when growing up with rich kids paid off. My father never had much, and what he did have was taken by the IRS when I was fourteen, but wherever we lived he always settled us in the best possible school districts (i.e. the wealthiest ones). I can never thank him enough for that; I received a superb education as a result. Even as it confused friends and readers later, who were surprised that a privileged kid adapted so readily to the underbelly.
But my brothers and I were only visitors at the mansion, posers from down the hall. So just as I’d used a friend’s father to get the lunch counter job, I went hat in hand to the parent of another one (still playing the ol’ Class President card), and the next thing I knew I was working at Meier & Frank, a local department store. I wore my high school graduation suit and sold sporting goods on commission. It made those previous jobs look seedy by comparison (well, at least until I moved to a whorehouse that fall).
I might not have looked it, but there wasn’t much I didn’t know about sports, and the rest I made up. What’s more I adapted quickly to the white collar slog: unlike most of my male friends, who needed to be outside to express themselves, I preferred indoor work. (If it weren’t for walking I’ve often wondered if I’d go outside at all.) I slouched around the department in between sales, perfecting my looking-like-I-was-doing-something skills, and decided I enjoyed commission work, too, as how much I earned was strictly up to me.
Yet except for selling meat door-to-door in Watts a decade later (where I was chased by rabid German shepherds and earned nothing), I never worked in commission sales again. Instead I went from that Meier & Frank job to stints as a janitor, box plant worker, truck loader, airlines ramp agent, bank operations officer, car washer, typist, pulp mill cleanup man, corporate clerk and surveyor, all in the span of two years, before ending up back in the Bay Area in late ’67.
I went from that Meier & Frank job to stints as a janitor, box plant worker, truck loader, airlines ramp agent, bank operations officer, car washer, typist, pulp mill cleanup man, corporate clerk and surveyor, all in the span of two years.
I wrote in an earlier column (“A Christmas Story”) about Gumbo pouring a bottle of Novocain in my ear. At the time I was overdosed on a “Green Machine,” ostensibly LSD but more likely some combination of horse tranq and strychnine. I’d been having sinus trouble lately and was sure I’d developed an earache, which prompted Gumbo’s Novocain ploy (“When he’s on acid you’ve gotta give him more!”)
Afterwards my other friends, who were too drunk or lazy to drive me to an emergency room, dragged me to Valley of the Dolls, a movie about people killing themselves with pills.
It seems funny now, of course, but only because I can still count to ten and remember my name: neither of those were givens in the Green Machine’s aftermath. I was an incoherent, ground zero babbler for days and little more than a zombie in the weeks ahead. It was scary because I was new to brain damage then; I’d only had a few concussions and the d.t.’s were in their nascent stage. I had to be patient and hope the fog would lift.
In the meanwhile I hid under the covers in my wino hotel room. I’d have stayed there until spring if I didn’t need money.
But where to find a job? What was I capable of doing under the circumstances? To ponder the dilemma I did what my young self usually did and headed for the nearest drinking establishment. This was Sir Lancelot’s, the only place crazy enough to run me a tab. I was drinking a pitcher by myself when this Jeremy character, who I barely knew, walked in. We got to talking—or rather he spoke and I drank—and finally he tells me he’s working as a “shopper.” This meant slipping into stores with other losers and trying to catch employees stealing.
“The secret,” he said, “is to look unemployable yourself. I, for instance, am the group ‘hippie’.”
Somewhere, for the first time since the Green Machine/Novocain incident, my muddy brain stirred. I made myself concentrate, then leaned forward and cleared my throat.
“Say,” I croaked. “You wouldn’t need a burnout, would ya?”
“Well you know, High, now that you mention it …”
Ah, sweet Providence, that saved a wretch like me so often over the years. There I was, virtually unemployable, and the one job I could manage strolls up to my table … it was better than knowing rich kids. I interviewed with an older woman at IDI (“Internal Detection Inc.”) the next morning.
“Alcohol or drugs?” she asked.
“Uh huh. And those clothes? Is that a costume, or do you look like that all the time?”
“It’s the real deal,” I said. “Plus you get the glassy eyes and stuttering for free.”
“Can you stay sober on the job?”
“Oh y-y-y-yeah,” I lied. “I OD’d on horse tranq recently, so I’m laying low.”
“You’re hired, High. No one would believe you work for a living.”
That was the hook: you had to fool the store help, and I was a natural at that. Not because I looked worse than my fellow “detectives”—we had everything in there but blind guys: hippies, cross dressers, peeping toms, junkies, porkers, anorexics, the handicapped, etc.—but because I didn’t give a damn, my mind was far away. The rest of them believed they could mosey into a grocery, pick out the thieves on sight (i.e. anyone who was black, Mexican or tattooed). We’d pull up to a chain store in a station wagon, and four or five of us would fan out in the aisles, picking up nonperishable items to purchase. Then you’d lug them back to the cash register and try to find clerks stealing. I don’t remember all our methods, but prime among them was the “buy-back.” You’d wait until the cashier had the items totaled and his or her cash drawer open, for instance, then suddenly remember the carton of cigarettes you’d forgotten. If they rang up the additional purchase they were honest; if they totaled the amount in their head, then made change from the drawer, they were probably stealing.
We received a dollar bonus for every thief we caught; one lousy buck for ratting out our peers. So while the rest of the team raced around, trying to get first dibs on the “obvious” thieves (“Hey! Greaser on check stand three!”) I laid back and dawdled, content to take whatever cashier remained. Which was usually some innocent-looking white kid who stole everything in sight.
Then I’d walk back to the station wagon and none of the “experts” had caught anyone. “Lucky” they called me, as if I were choosing the culprits myself. I might still be working there if Lonesome Louie hadn’t intervened, offering an even sweeter deal. For a while I was down in Texas and Mexico, being chased by cops and Federales, and after that I picked beans, cleaned toilets, counseled alkies, typed in a secretarial pool, sold clothes, washed dishes, drove a truck, loaded freight cars, worked on construction and plumbing sites and fed boxes into a gluer. All in the span of another two years.
The future promised more of the same. Is it any wonder I ended up growing pot for a living? How negligible was jail time—even death—after everything I’d seen and done?
As to the Green Machine fog: it lifted gradually over a six-week period, even as I’m not sure I was ever the same again. I didn’t seem to miss who I’d been much, and if I needed proof I was the “get back on the horse” type I had only to look at my chemical future. I have friends who experienced similar scares on hallucinogenics and never took them again. Me? I doubled down hard. It’s not like I kept count or anything, but I’d guess I swallowed psychedelics (acid, mescaline, mushrooms, peyote or MDA) several hundred times in the decade ahead. I’d still be sampling ’shrooms except after my cirrhosis/hepatitis scare I was left with a working liver the size of a golf ball: it’s functional as long as I don’t tax it with psilocybin.
So I ate my last handful of “Liberty Caps” the night of the 2000 Millennium. I have a picture of myself, just before midnight, standing on Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge with my friends Jake Schultz and Hollywood Zart. We were smoking cigars and surfing the ’shroom rush when Zart suggested a photo.
I miss that guy; he reminded me of Gumbo, the way he couldn’t walk to the mailbox without an incident. He put his camera on a bridge piling, set the timer, then hurried back to pose with Jake and me.
In the photo you can see the motorcycle cop behind us as the flash goes off. It blinded him apparently, because he veered left, rammed into the curb, then tumbled into the exit lane with his bike.
I’d been hoping for a new century so weird I wouldn’t need mind benders, and ten minutes into it I’m being chased by a cop.
Fortunately we pulled away quickly: he was limping, and we ran with Mescalito.