Friday, August 7, 2015

Chapter 9: Go Even Further North, Young Man

Chapter 9: Go Even Further North, Young Man
(Jobs 6, 7, and 8)

So there I was – and here we are – at the start of my adulthood. I've actually been dreading this part to some extent. I've seldom felt like I've done a terribly great job of being a responsible adult, and I'm not sure I've ever completely figured out why that might be. I've had a goodly bit of counseling over the years (thanks to the encouragement of my good lady wife), and I've spent more than a little time on introspection. In fact, working on this project is helping me to realize some new insights. But still, I have nagging doubts about my worth as a person, and downright mystification at some of my past behavior.

Before we go any further, then, I thought I should get some of the self-loathing and self-pity out of the way. I've already spoken of how my father was a critical and judgmental parent. It seemed like his only criterion for a meaningful life was work. He emphasized it to the point that the idea of work started to seem terrifyingly stultifying to me. Physical labor didn't appeal, and I had no mind for business. My dad would sometimes tell me of some young man or another he had heard about who had taken a simple idea and turned it into a highly profitable business. That sounded like death to me.

I leaned more toward the creative side of life, particularly writing. Unfortunately, I lacked the self-confidence to ever dare to submit my work to a publisher. I also seemed to lack any kind of drive. I was like Ferdinand the Bull – all I wanted to do was sit just quietly and smell the flowers. As my father would be quick to point out, however, no one pays anyone for flower smelling.

Along with a stunted attitude toward work, I also lacked financial acumen. In fact, most of my adult life has been characterized by fiscal irresponsibility. I'm not trying to be glib about that – It has made certain things difficult; my credit rating is a joke of cosmic proportions, and it has damaged relationships with certain family members and friends. But do not feel sorry for me. I can do that very well on my own, thank you. I made most of my decisions with a reasonably sound mind, although sometimes I wonder just how sound (and so will you later).

When the plane home from Japan landed, I didn't know what I would be doing for work, but I had already decided where I was going to try: as far from my parents as I could get without a passport (which I had, but I wasn't interested in emigration).

One of the places I had visited on my Alaska vacation was Juneau. I had a good friend in high school named Tammy who had married a nice man named Greg, who was stationed in the Coast Guard in Juneau. Since it was a place with which I had some familiarity, and there was somebody there I knew, I decided to move to Juneau to start my life. Of course, myopic idiot that I am, I didn't tell Tammy that I was coming. I guess I just figured that she would be so surprised and happy to see an old friend that it would all work out. And for the most part, it did, but I still cringe when I think of what a rude and self-centered act that was.

I had some money, probably graduation gifts, and some of my relatives were happy to “grub-stake” me a little cash for my great undertaking. I flew into Juneau (the only way in or out of Juneau is by boat or plane), and found Tammy and Greg's apartment. They were out at the moment, so I left a cryptic little note that said, “I was here, where were you? - Rimpy.” I then found a place to wait for their return. I may have been hiding, or I may have just returned from a reconnoiter when I saw Tammy reading my note. When she said, “RIMPY!?” in shock and confusion, she turned and saw me standing there. It was a memorable moment.

Tammy and Greg were very gracious. I guess I somehow expected that there would be no problem with me staying with them, and thankfully, they acted like there wasn't. If they had, I suppose I had enough money to get a motel room, but I hadn't thought that far ahead. In fact, it's a good thing I didn't have to pay for lodging upon arrival. To thank them for letting me stay, I offered to pay for dinner that first night. We ordered pizza, and when I got the bill, I realized that the cost for goods and services was much higher in Alaska than what I was used to in the lower 48. That one dinner put a goodly dent in my meager budget. Tammy and Greg nodded knowingly and said, “Yep.”

Over the next few days I started blanketing Juneau businesses with applications and seeking living quarters. I rented a room from a man across the street from the Alaska State Office Building, and next door to Bullwinkle's Pizza, which is still there today, although my old residence (just to the right in the picture) seems to have lost its top story – not surprising when you consider its age and condition and the way it would shake when the infamous “Taku winds” would roar down off the nearby glacier. A local legend said that a meter was once installed to measure those winds, but it was blown away.

My place was a small, two-story wooden house which was probably built in the 1940s. There was a living room, kitchen/dining area and a bathroom downstairs. The bedrooms were upstairs. In fact, my “room” was little more than a laundry space at the top of the stairs. My landlord-slash-housemate's room, which had a real door and everything, was on the end of this space, opposite the stairs. In other words, he had to pass through my room to get to and from his, so there wasn't a lot of privacy to practice my favorite hobby.

My housemate was a decent sort. He was probably in his mid-thirties, and looked a lot like David Crosby. He had worked on the Alaska pipeline. Because he had a college education, the other roughnecks he worked with had dubbed him “Doc”, although I think he only had a Bachelor's degree.

Job #6: Busboy

In short order I managed to procure job number 6, as a busboy at one of Juneau's finer restaurants, called Yancey Derringer's (no longer extant). I had to buy a long-sleeved white shirt and black pants for my first real, grown-up job (even if “boy” was part of the title). The store I got them at let me have them on credit until my first paycheck. Things were rather laid-back in Alaska.

The manager and the chef were also the owners of the restaurant, and it was quite popular with tourists and more well-to-do residents. Sometimes we would have staff meetings, where the chef would basically scream obscenities at us. I couldn't understand what he was so angry about, or why he thought he could talk to people like that. I was just glad that I seldom had to deal directly with him.

One of the best parts of the job for me was that the wait staff had to put their tips together, and then it would be divided equally between all of us. I suppose the waiters probably didn't think this was fair, and I think that busboys probably got a smaller percentage, but some nights I would leave work with upwards of 18 dollars in my pocket. Life seemed pretty good.

Unfortunately, my time there didn't last long. One day I was setting tables for the dinner shift. The manager passed by and said that I was going to have to move faster. This surprised me, because I hadn't been aware that there was a problem. Maybe my anal retentiveness (which has bordered on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder at times) made me spend a little too much time getting the placement of cutlery just right. I tried to move quicker, but a few minutes later the manager suddenly reappeared and grabbed my tub of clean silverware and napkins and said, “That's it, Rimpy. You're out of here”, as he began slapping down place settings. I wasn't sure what he meant – I had never been fired before, but I was pretty sure it actually involved the word “fired”. I thought maybe I was being given an unscheduled break or something. Seeing my confusion, he kindly explained, “You're too slow. You're fired.” Ah. Now I understood.

This was a bit of a blow to my self-esteem. After a few more years in the work force, I realized that fast-paced jobs and I were not a good fit. I am a good, steady worker, and I like to produce quality results. Jobs that require some sort of super-normal pace are not for me. At the time, though, I was rather devastated.

Job #7: Building a Back Office

Through the local employment office, I got temporary job number 7, helping to build a new office space at the back of a downtown store. I didn't have any construction skills, but I didn't really need any. A Native American man and I helped the store-owner. After we had nailed up the drywall, but before we applied the skim coating (I had to look that term up, because I certainly didn't know it at the time), I insisted on signing my name and the date on the sheet rock. My employer thought I was weird, and he was probably right. I knew it was going to be covered up and no one would ever see it, but I felt this need to have my name on this – my first (and pretty much only) construction job. Sometimes I wonder if that sheet rock wall still exists with my name hidden away on it.

Job #8: Dishwasher

After that job, I found job number 8 as a dishwasher at Sally's Kitchen, a cafeteria style diner next door to the State Office Building (and therefore just a short walk from my home). After being declared “too slow” at my previous restaurant job, I was a little nervous about how well I would fare at this job, but I received no complaints about my speed. Sally T. and her husband (last name withheld because there is currently a bed and breakfast up there with the first name “Sally's” ; it's a shame I can't use it – because it's a great name and I'm amazed that I still remember it all these decades later), were very nice people.

That was a great job. I could eat there for little or nothing. Sometimes slices of cellophane-covered pie that had passed their prime in the refrigerated display case out front would find their way back to my station for disposal, which usually meant into my perpetually hungry teenage belly.

One of my favorite parts of the job was setting up the grill for the lunch-time hamburger crowd, which included preparing the soft-serve ice cream machine. I would pour the mix in the top, then do other chores while the machine chilled and stirred it. When it was ready, I would squeeze off a sample cup, you know, to make sure it was mixed properly. Quality is job one, after all, and “waste not, want not”, so of course I would wolf that down as well. I only weighed about 150 pounds back then, stretched over a 6'1” frame. I was always starving, and I could eat anything without worrying about gaining weight. Sigh. Those were the days.

Sally and her husband also owned a liquor and convenience store on the north side of town. Another duty of mine was to help make sandwiches which were wrapped up and sold at the store. Occasionally I would go out to the store to help unload a truck. I called it a “liquor and convenience” store rather than one or the other because of a curious quirk of Alaskan law, at least at the time. A store that sold food wasn't allowed to sell alcohol, and liquor stores couldn't sell food. Why, I don't know. Even though Sally's liquor and food enterprises were under the same roof, they complied with the law by having a dividing wall down the middle, with separate entrances for the two halves. The same cashier would serve both sides from a central corral with a cash register on each side. If you wanted chips and beer, you had to buy one, then go outside and in the other door for the other. It seems a little silly, and this setup was probably pretty common, but it struck me as a rather clever work-around.

Another interesting thing about Alaska was that the drinking age then was 19. I bought my very first legal beer while living there. When I returned to California, where the drinking age was 21 (like it would be nation-wide in 1984. See? Orwell was right!), it was like being sent back two years. I had to wait to be able to legally continue my burgeoning alcoholism.

The only thing I didn't like about my dishwashing job was how early it started. I had to get up at some ungodly hour like 4 AM for work. But I got off early in the afternoon, and the rest of the day was mine. As long as I got to bed at a reasonable hour, I was fine. One evening I was talking to my parents on the phone. I had the handy (and true) excuse of concluding the conversation in a timely manner because of having to get to bed for my early day. My dad said that so did he. There was something in the way he said it that sounded like he was proud of me, and I remember feeling very good about that. It wasn't easy to get my dad's approval, and he seldom specifically said it in so many words. After all the lectures about work, it's seems silly that it should have mattered to me, but it did. Such is human nature.

All in all, life in Juneau was pretty good. I had even managed to talk the owners of Bullwinkle's into starting a tab for me. I felt like quite the swell, being able to order pizza and beer without money, then walking about 20 feet to get home. I probably could have worked at Sally's Kitchen indefinitely, but then the Alaskan winter descended upon this California boy like some sort of metaphor. Juneau is quite southerly for Alaska, and the waters of the Gastineau Channel are warmed somewhat by the Japanese current, so their winters are nothing like what is experienced further north and inland, but it still seemed like Siberia to me.

A funny thing about people who moved to Alaska is they tended to build they way they had in the lower 48, with no consideration for extra insulation and such. My old house was no exception. Some nights I would take my laundry right out of the drier and put it in my bed and climb in after it so I could get to sleep while still warm.

Eventually the cold and long, long northern winter nights (which take up much of the day, as well) became too much for me, and I decided to head home. In true form, I didn't inform my parents of this ahead of time. I did, however, tell Charlie, and he picked me up at the San Francisco Greyhound station (I flew from Juneau to Seattle) because he was attending school at Berkeley at the time. He was about to travel to O-Town for the Thanksgiving holiday, so I rode with him. I surprised my mom by just walking into the house behind Charlie on the pretext of a friendly visit on his part. She was very happy to have me back. She had never been too keen on my choice of new residence to begin with. It had to have been hard for her to see her last child leave the nest (and leave her with only my father for company). My dad, for his part, wasn't impressed with my quick return. After all, I had only been gone about 4 or 5 months.

So now I was back in my parent's home. My mom hadn't been so cut up by my departure that she hadn't wasted any time converting my former bedroom into an approximation of the arts and crafts room she had enjoyed in southern California. I had to sleep on a sleeper sofa that barely fit between the wall and an upright piano. I can't remember when my parent's got that piano – perhaps during my absence. Certainly no one in the home played. I 'm sure my mom had plans to learn, but I don't think she ever did.

This situation was not acceptable, even if I did plan on staying – which I didn't. My dad had always said that I could live at home rent free if I would attend college, which would probably be a pretty sweet deal for someone who didn't mind his parents' company. If I stayed at home and didn't find work, there was the ever-present threat of having to go back to school. The choice seemed simple to me: the first order of business was to get a job, and then a place of my own.

But despite the cramped conditions in my former room, I still spent a few days enjoying the mild winter weather of California and just sort of taking it easy. Looking back on it, I was acting as though I had just returned from some taxing adventure and was in need of rest and recuperation. Like I said earlier, this was one of those time when I really wonder what was going on in my head.

During these days of slack, I got another bad idea – one that really makes me wonder if maybe I wasn't a bit schizophrenic at times. This astoundingly bad decision sent my nascent adult life off the rails for a bit, but you'll have to wait for the next installment to hear about that.

The end.

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