S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “My Way,” Park talks about cheap living in Longview in the Sixties and working at the sawmill.
Longview, Washington was a grim, dark town in the Sixties, but the grants and waivers the community college offered, along with the easy availability of jobs in the local mills, were elements that drew me back again and again (particularly when I was on the road, broke with nowhere to go).
The cheap studio apartments on Commerce Street were another draw. It was Longview’s main drag at the time, and when I returned decades later to find it boarded up I thought that was fitting, as those lodgings above the stores had always had a ghostly element to them, anyway.
Their layout was interchangeable: you’d climb creaky stairs to the second floor, step into a dark hallway with six to eight doors. Behind them were mostly identical rooms with a hot plate, a small refrigerator, a Murphy bed, a threadbare rug and a single table and chair. Thirty dollars a month, bathroom down the hall and the Gold Bond ambience for free.
The town had only a single rest home then, so the old and poor came to those rooms to die (I saw a dozen stretchered out in my time and was always the youngest tenant by decades). I didn’t know this when I first saw the AFFORDABLE STUDIOS sign, of course, but it’s not like it would have mattered much, as I’d lived in far sketchier dumps in my travels.
Those places were an upgrade, in fact, like a wino hotel with perks. All this for a buck a day! I thought, stepping into one for the first time. You can’t top this!
Plus the hotels had noisy drunks in them, while the apartment hallways were still as graveyards. I rarely saw any of the old timers until they were in body bags, and if they had radios or televisions they kept them to a murmur.
And it’s odd: even at that age (my early twenties) I had great empathy for those pensioners and was sure that—if I lived long enough (so far so good)—I’d die alone and penniless, too.
Which no more troubled me than the dead who’d preceded me in those rooms.
It sure bugged my visitors, though. Like the hotels none of them ever returned (well, to be fair, the beer can beds turned them off, too), and when my fellow millworkers discovered I lived in the “Tombs” (as they called them), I never heard the end of it. (They’d already nicknamed me “High-ly Flammable” and “Sparky” for things I’d blown up around there.)
“Hey!” one millwright might say to another as I walked by, loud enough for me to hear. “See that giant fat guy over there? That’s Sparky!”
“The fuckup who lives in the Tombs!?”
“The fuckup who likes it!”
When I worked the occasional “double” (i.e. consecutive shifts), I was given a meal voucher for the mill cafeteria. I found I really enjoyed the hot offerings, as I pretty much survived on sandwiches, cold beans and hard-boiled eggs at home. (The small fridges in those studios barely had room for beer, much less food.)
I was so enamored of that cafeteria grub, in fact, that I asked Buck, the other stooge on the cleanup crew, why I couldn’t eat there every day.
“Come on,” he said. “We work eight-hour shifts with a twenty-minute break for lunch. How would you get from the pulp yard to the cafeteria, then eat and return, all in twenty minutes?”
“Oh sure, Big Boy,” he scoffed. “That’d be something to see.”
My high school teammates would have agreed. But Buck was standing there the next day when, at precisely eleven a.m., I took off in a dead sprint. (Or a reasonable facsimile, anyway: I was wearing three layers of clothing and—at two hundred and seventy pounds—my thighs rubbed together.) I stumbled into the cafeteria at 11:03, caught my breath while I filled my tray and sat down at 11:06, then wolfed my meal by 11:15 and was back outside a minute later, jogging back to the pulp mill with a donut in one hand and a chocolate eclair in the other.
In the beginning the other millworkers looked on in shock, but that soon devolved into hooting and hollering as I chugged past. More irritating was the way the salaried employees in the lunchroom glowered at me (or so it seemed, on those rare occasions when I looked up from my plate).
And that was all right, I assumed it was more of the Sparky/Tombs abuse, or even my scorched face. (I’d been smoking weeks before when I stuck my head in a gas tank, and the subsequent explosion burned off all the hair beneath my hard hat (including my eyebrows and beard).)
I was lucky to still have a head; was learning the hard way about operating heavy machinery on drugs, alcohol or both. (I tried to stick to joints after that, only used other substances when I was sure to be alone.)
I had nothing but a hangover, though, when after a week of cafeteria visits a flunky from the mill office tracked me down.
“High?” he said. “Mr. McMaster wants to see you in his office.”
That surprised me. “McMaster?” I said. “The personnel guy?”
“Right. Please follow me.”
It beat working so I trailed along behind him, covertly squeezing Visine in my eyes. I figured I was going to be fired (assumed that on most jobs, in fact), just didn’t know for what. Hoped the whole matter could be settled with a minimum of time and embarrassment.
I was plotting my next destination when I sat down at McMaster’s desk. He was a short ruddy guy with a bowtie (he’d seemed particularly reluctant to hire me and probably felt vindicated now), and he looked me up and down with a scornful expression on his face.
“Damn, High!” he said finally, his teeth clenched. “Who the hell do you think you are!?”
“Well, uhh ….”
“Where do you, a shift worker for christ sakes, get off going to the cafeteria every day? You’re union, son … you get twenty minutes for lunch.”
“That’s what this is about?” I asked, shocked. “Where I eat?”
“Do you know what you look like, son, a guy your size running through the yards twice a day? Not to mention gulping pastries on your way back? The whole mill stops to watch you … people think you’re nuts.”
“Hey! The point is I get to the cafeteria and back in twenty minutes. I’m there at ll:03, sit down by 11:06, finish eating by 11:15 …”
“Oh come on … you call that eating? I’ve been in there, High. When you became the talk of the mill I went over there to see for myself and my God, man … do you even chew your food first? You suck it up like an animal.”
I figured I was going to be fired (assumed that on most jobs, in fact), just didn’t know for what. Hoped the whole matter could be settled with a minimum of time and embarrassment.
“That’s the ticket, pal, that’s why you stick to the soft stuff like pasta or mashed potatoes, anything that goes down fast.”
“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” he said, leaning forward and pointing at my shirt. “There’s some mashed potato stains right there, and here’s some gravy and spaghetti and what’s that on your collar? Old whipped cream?”
I looked down, saw he was right. (And I’d been worried about red eyes.)
“High,” sighed McMaster, sitting back and scowling, “if it were up to me you would have been fired long ago. The union’s the only reason you’re still here but I promise you: if I ever hear of you stepping foot in that cafeteria again you’re gone. Are we clear on that?”
“Oh, absolutely,” I said. I hopped up and sauntered out, vaguely offended but glad they hadn’t searched me for drugs. Felt a distinct chill as I passed through the main office, noticed the clerks and secretaries giving me the evil eye. (How dare that pig eat in our lunch room?)
When I reached the door I turned, raised my arms above my head.
“Take a good look, lackeys,” I said. “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
Two weeks later I was. (I remembered leaving town abruptly, but was cloudy on the details: I’d been in a rail yard accident at the mill and suffered a severe concussion.)
When I returned that Fall (still hunting the easy grant money), I ran into Buck in a tavern. He gasped like he’d seen a ghost.
“Sparky? What the fuck … we thought you were dead, man.”
“Well, everyone, I guess. You quit so suddenly last winter, and we knew you’d hurt your head badly, then poof! you were gone. We told the police and they went to that room of yours in the Tombs. Said they found suicide notes on the floor.”
Suicide notes!? “Hey … that was alkie haiku, pal.”
“Whatever, Sparky. I know they dredged the lake for you.”
“Really? That’s a first.”
I was so touched I bought the next round.