Chapter 21: Death, Birth and Canned Goods
Jobs 53 – 58
Like I said before, marriage and parenthood did not, unfortunately, automatically bestow employment stability. I now had a new incentive to always try to have income. It was no longer just me I had to worry about. I couldn’t be so cavalier about leaving jobs. Despite my new-found sense of responsibility to others, sometimes circumstances were beyond my control. And just as often, I simply made bad decisions.
Job #54: Self-Employed Gardener
One such bad decision happened sometime during 1989. I had been working for Scoop in his landscape maintenance business, off and on, for some time when I thought I might be able to make a go of it myself. There seemed to be no shortage of work for gardeners, especially during the warm months. If you were clever and industrious, you could also support yourself during the lean winter months.
I borrowed a bit of money from my long-suffering brother Dick, which I used to buy some used equipment from Scoop, specifically a small utility trailer, a mower and a blower. I think I bought a new weed trimmer. I got a nice rake for a father’s day present. Our only vehicle was a trusty old Datsun station wagon, so I found a welder who worked out of his home who installed a towing hitch for me, and I was on my way.
I started finding my own customers, mostly through references from Scoop, who had as many as he could handle at the time. I quickly found that I was in over my head. It wasn’t that I lacked for ambition. It’s just that I don’t have much of a head for business. I tended to lower my prices if my customers looked at all reluctant about my quoted price. I also realized that I didn’t really know all that much about the technical aspects of the business. Before I had just done what Scoop had told me to do. When it came to knowing exactly what height to cut a particular kind of grass, or the best way to trim a bush, I was way out of my element.
It wasn’t long before I decided that being self-employed wasn’t for me. I sold my equipment back to Scoop, who being a good business man, undoubtedly made a profit on the deal.
Job #55: Assistant Landscaper
I also worked for a time for another gardener named Kent. In some ways Kent and Scoop were very similar – they were both skinny dudes who were freakishly strong. That’s where the similarities ended though. I had gotten used to Scoop’s methods, and like I said, he was good at what he did. Kent was competent, too, and seemed to be able to keep himself busy, but some of his decisions left me wondering. He would sometimes forget to bring necessary items for an landscape installation job, and then say, “Oh, well, I’ll bring it tomorrow.” I would think of how Scoop would have handled such a situation –leave me doing the grunt work while he ran to get the items – and I wanted to suggest a similar course of action, but I was just the hired help. Maybe that was Kent’s way of padding out a job so he could charge the customer more hours.
Job #56: "The" Cannery
I also worked the swing shift for part of a season at the cannery – or rather: “The Cannery”, as most O-Towners refer to it - where they processed fruits and tomatoes (yes, I know – a tomato is a fruit, shaddap). It seems like everyone in town has worked at the cannery at some point in their lives. As implied, most of the workers were hired on a seasonal basis. If you worked one season, it was easier to get hired for subsequent seasons, and perhaps for earlier on and for longer each season than a new worker. A few people had been there long enough to have earned year-round positions there.
My first position was trimming pears. Two long lines of us would stand on either side of a conveyer belt where the steam-peeled pears would emerge from the coring machine. If we saw a pear with a bad bit, or maybe with a bit of stem still on, we’d grab it and lop off the offending piece with a small paring knife.
The work was easy, if a little boring. My pear-trimming cohorts were all Mexican ladies with little or no English. The cannery was so noisy, though, that it precluded casual conversation, even if I had been able to speak Spanish. I had never previously heard of “line hypnosis”, but I quickly came to found out how it could happen. As long as the conveyer belt kept moving, things were fine. Occasionally, however, it would stop. When that happened, if I didn’t look away from the belt, it appeared for all the world as if it were now moving in the opposite direction. The illusion made me feel dizzy and nauseous, like motion sickness.
One day I was pulled off the pear line and sent to work in a lonely corner of the plant whereunlabeled #10-sized cans of product (about 7 pounds) were brought in on pallets. My task was to transfer the cans onto a conveyer belt headed toward the labeleing machine. The TWO people who usually did that job were both absent for some reason. My supervisors must have thought that here I was – a tall and seemingly fit young man – wasting my natural gifts trimming pears with tiny middle-aged women.
I’m sure they quickly regretted that decision. For some reason they couldn’t find me a partner, so I was expected to do the work of two people, and that kind of mindless, back-breaking labor at a fever pitch is the sort of work I hate most. I don’t like the idea of having to keep up with machines. The pear belt moved at a human pace, but I couldn't get the cans onto the belt fast enough to satisfy my robot overlords. I was reminded of that famous scene in “I Love Lucy” where she and her friend tried to work at the candy factory.
At one point a young lady showed up at my work station. I said, “Oh, good, am I finally going to get some help?” She said, no, she had been told to come ask me if I could work any faster. I gave her a hollow assurance that I would try, then I kept working at a pace I could handle.
My night of torture finally ended, and for some mysterious reason I was never invited to do that particular chore again. The next night I returned to my hypnotic pear belt for the remainder of my time there. I was hired quite late in the season, which soon ended, so all in all, I probably only worked there for a few weeks, but without the usual fuss and muss of quitting or being fired.
Job #57: Olive Cannery
This job I just remembered today as I was writing about “The Cannery”. There was another cannery in O-Town. It was nowhere as big as “The Cannery”, because it specialized only in olives. They cured the olives in long, open vats. When they were ready, we would scoop them out of the vats and into wheeled tubs with big plastic shovels with holes drilled in them to let the brine run out more easily. We then trundled the tubs to the head of the line where they’d go through the pitting machine, and then onto belts where the ubiquitous Mexican ladies would cull the funky ones.
There were other positions at the olive cannery which I got to do, such as working on a machine where the recently picked olives arrived from the orchards. It was similar to the dreadful machine in Job #27 (nut company), but I vastly preferred it to working in the vat room. The vat room was the oldest portion of the factory, and it was literally falling apart. One day we came in to find that a large chunk of one of the rotten wooden beams which held up the vast corrugated metal roof of the building had fallen to the floor.
Another day, we were having a heavy autumn storm. There was much creaking and groaning from overhead. Our supervisor told us that if we saw any movement in the ceiling we were to get out as quickly as possible. I was a nervous wreck until the storm abated. I figured that by the time we detected any movement, it would be too late for us to get out before the whole thing came crashing down on us.
We survived the day, but I decided something needed to be done about the situation. People shouldn’t have to work in a place where they needed to keep one eye on the ceiling. I made an anonymous call to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and told them about the conditions there. A couple of days later I saw some of the managers leading a couple of people carrying clipboards around the place. Later it was revealed that not only had they ordered them to replace their ridiculous old roof, but the inspectors had found a couple of other violations, such as there being no emergency eye wash/shower station in the vat room, where harsh chemicals were often used (let alone the unlikely event of someone falling into the brine). I felt justified for my whistle-blowing. I left the olive cannery before they started replacing the roof, and I was glad of it.
Jobs #58 and 59
1990 and 1991-1992
My next two jobs were actually another instance where I worked in the same place on two separate occasions, this time separated by a period of time with no other jobs in between. The second time ended up being the longest-held job I’d had up to that point, so that’s noteworthy.
I got hired as a temporary Program Assistant (fancy federal language for “clerk”) for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, which is quite a mouthful. Basically, this is the department of the government which pay crop subsidies to keep prices stables. They also sell crop insurance and make sure that farmers are following various rules for conserving soil and wetlands. Oh, and we never called the people we served “customers”, or even “farmers” or – God forbid – “clients”. “Producers” was the only acceptable term. People who receive free money from the government to not grow stuff don’t want to be associated with something so vile as “welfare”.
The office was quite small. Besides myself, there was the director and three permanent Program Assistants. Our office was also quite behind the technology curve. The computer terminals were connected to a main computer in a back room, but not to anything outside the building, even though the internet was becoming a thing by then. I think new data had to be loaded by disk or tape. We didn’t even have our own fax machine. When we had to fax something, we had to walk to a copy place within the business complex which contained our office. I couldn’t believe it. This was the federal government, and we might have as well have still been using telegraphs.
I had been hired for the busy summer growing season, and when that ended, I remained unemployed until the following year, when I was hired back at the ASCS. I tried to find work, but there wasn’t much available. I got unemployment benefits because I had been laid off from my job. I’m not ashamed to say that we also got evil welfare, and I think I probably worked for Scoop some more during those lean months.
Those were tough times for us. We had been living in a federally subsidized apartment, so our rent was based on our income. It was always reasonable, but when we had little or no income, our rent was almost non-existent. Unfortunately, the compressor of our central air conditioning unit blew one day. They replaced it in a timely manner, but the residue of the burnt unit stayed in the duct work. Even after the smell faded, our throats would burn and our eyes would water whenever we ran the system. My wife is especially sensitive to such things, and it was miserable for her. We begged the property managers to either clean the ducts or move us to another unit. Our entreaties fell upon deaf ears, however. We even had an inspector from the city come check it out. The dumbass took a sniff and declared there was nothing dangerous. I explained that it wasn’t something you could smell, but he didn’t think there was anything to it.
Eventually we decided to take our chances and move out of the apartment. We put most of our stuff in storage, and at first we stayed during the week with our friend Sue and her kids. Those were fun times. We all got along great. But Sue had a difficult relationship with her husband. He worked and lived in the Bay Area during the week, and would come home on the weekends. Then we had to make ourselves scarce. Some weekends we would stay at a motel when we could afford to, and other times we stayed at Mrs. R’s mom Jordana’s place. She shared a small house with her mom, Mildred, so those were crowded weekends. They had a hide-a-bed couch for Mrs. R and I and Rimpy Jr., and Step-Rimpyette slept on a cot.
Finally this nomadic lifestyle became a little too much bother. I summoned up the courage to call my parents and ask if we could borrow the camper so we would have something to live in while we tried to save money to get another place to live. I felt bad for asking, because my dad been diagnosed a while before with colon cancer, and it was terminal. Dying certainly hadn’t improved his disposition. He angrily said that I could have the camper, but it would be the last thing I would get from him. In so many words, he said I would be written out of his will if I took the camper.
I was hurt and angry myself. I only wanted to borrow the darned thing. I thought his reaction was a bit overboard. Maybe my dad thought that making such an ultimatum would make me “grow up” and find a way to house my family without his assistance, in exchange for some reward after he was gone. Being the stubbornly immature person I was, I hadn’t given a thought to my parents even having an “estate”, let alone what it might mean for me. I was desperate enough and angry enough to think that I didn’t care about any will, so I accepted his cruel deal.
My sister and her family were going down to Cambria to visit the parental units, so I hitched a ride with them. We arrived in the evening. Buff and Roy and their kids went in to see Dad, who was in bed most of the time by now. I couldn’t bring myself to face him, at least not at first. Sometime after they had cleared the bedroom, I finally summoned up the courage to go see my father. He had fallen asleep, so I was spared for a little while longer.
I did eventually talk with my dad, but I don’t remember much about that visit. The next day I drove the camper back to O-Town. I couldn’t seem to get the heater working right in the cab, and by the time I got home I was a shivering mess.
We parked the camper in the driveway of Jordana and Mildred’s place. My dad had made the camper a fairly self-contained unit. There was a small solar panel on the roof, and a tank-less water heater and a shower stall/toilet unit. We hooked up a garden hose for water. We let the grey waste water run out into the empty field next door. We used the bathroom in the house by day, but we used the camper’s toilet at night, both for convenience, and to not have to disturb Jordana and Mildred. When the holding tank got full, I had to drive the camper to a campground to use their dumping facility.
We got along pretty well that way for a while. Then our old friend the city inspector (who had been so helpful with our apartment air conditioning) drove by one day and noticed that there were some people living in a camper in a driveway. It turned out there was an ordinance against that. We were forced to move into the house. I had never wanted to murder a petty bureaucrat so badly.
There was actually a third bedroom in the tiny house, but we hadn’t used it before because it was being used for storage. We moved all that stuff into the camper. Mrs. R and Rimpy Jr. and I slept in the spare room, and SR (Step-Rimpyette) would sleep on the hide-a-bed in the living room. After a couple of days a nice policeman was sent around to make sure we were in compliance with the ordinance. I showed him that the camper was now so full of junk that no one could possibly sleep in it. He was satisfied, and said he would tell the little so-and-so inspector to mind his own damned business. I wished he could have been there when the twerp had come by the first time.
While we were staying at Jordana’s, I had gone back to work at ASCS. There was a change of directors shortly after I returned. Our mild-mannered Kathy was replaced by a horrid woman named Dolores. In case you don’t know, that name means “Sorrows”, and that what’s she brought upon all her underlings. Despite this hardship, I did such good work that when the regular summer season ended, I was kept on indefinitely. I also started taking on more responsibilities. I somehow ended up being the person in charge of a complicated program that had fallen into disarray. There was another branch of the USDA next door to our office – the Farmer’s Home Loan Administration. In order to qualify for a home loan, the farmers had to come to us to prove that they were in compliance with certain regulations for which we were responsible. For whatever reason, our office had fallen down in its duties to this inter-agency co-operation, and the loan applications were badly back-logged.
At first I was terrified about accepting the responsibility of trying to comprehend all the steps involved in the program. After I had studied it a bit, however, I realized it wasn’t so very complicated. I soon developed a streamlined means of processing the applications, and the back-log quickly was a thing of the past. The director of the Farmer’s Home Loan office was so pleased that she wrote me a really nice letter of commendation, which I still have today. It hasn’t helped me get a better job, but I’m very proud of it.
There were significant developments in my personal life, as well. My father had succumbed to his cancer. He had arranged to have his ashes scattered at sea by the Neptune Society, and there was no funeral or memorial service. He was always a practical fellow, and I suppose his final arrangements were admirable from that perspective, but they also sound like the actions of a depressed, anti-social man who didn’t care much for himself or his family. I also think it’s significant that his wife or children never saw fit to defy his wishes.
I’ve heard some allegations about the Neptune Society mishandling some peoples’ “cremains”, and I sometimes wonder if my dad’s ashes ever got the respect of his very minimal wishes, or if they ended up sitting in a storage locker or just tossed in the trash. I’m sure he wouldn’t care, and I don’t much either, sad to say.
On the brighter side, another significant event was that Mrs. R had another bun in the oven! It wasn’t all fun and games, however. That pregnancy ended up being pretty rough for her. She had gestational diabetes, and started to have congestive heart failure. She ended up at a hospital in Sacramento. I had to quit working in order to take care of her and the kids. All in all, I had worked at ASCS for about one whole year. A new record!
Rimpyette was born six weeks early. The doctor decided to induce labor because my wife’s life was in grave danger if she tried to carry the baby to term. Those were scary times. Rimpyette was tiny, but otherwise healthy. She stayed in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Jordana and Mildred had moved to a different house. We has still been staying with them, but I didn’t want to have to bring my new baby to a place not our own.
Since I had traded my future inheritance for the camper, I decided to sell it. With the proceeds we rented an apartment in College Town. I’m not sure why we – or more likely, I – decided to live there, further away from our small support network in O-Town. I told myself that my chances of finding employment would be better in the larger town, but I think another factor was motivating me. I certainly didn’t have anything against my in-laws, but I think that I was trying to show that I could be an independent husband and father, without help from family, mine or Mrs. R’s.
Well, that didn’t work out so well. After a difficult pregnancy, Mrs. R fell into a deep postpartum depression, and here she was stuck in a strange town where she couldn’t see her mother and grandmother. SR, who was in junior high school, was also having a hard time adjusting to the new situation.
After a few months, we had to admit defeat, and we moved back to O-Town. Jordana and Mildred reluctantly agreed to let us move back in with them. Even though their new place was larger, it only had two bedrooms. One room was quite large, and the other was a dinky thing which had been added on next to the living room. It didn’t even have a real door, but those flimsy bi-fold things. It was probably never meant to be a bedroom, but more of a side lounge or something. At least it had a closet, so that was something. Jordana had been sleeping in the little room, but she moved into the capacious real bedroom with her mom.
Well. This is perhaps my longest chapter yet, and this seems as good a place as any to stop. Soon both my employment and our living situation were going to improve.
I would like to add one last anecdote about Rimpyette’s birth. I’ve never considered myself any kind of a psychic person, but some time after Rimpy Jr. had been born, I started experiencing a strange thing. Whenever I would see the time 9:21 on a digital clock, something about it kind of “jumped out” at me. If I glanced at such a clock at that time, it gave me a bit of start. I didn’t know what, if anything, it could mean, but something about that combination of numbers seemed to have some great significance.
Well, Rimpyette was born about two hours into…you guessed it…September 21st. Right after I greeted my little girl, and when she had been carted off by the nursing staff, I turned to Mrs. R and said, “Now I understand the significance of 9:21”. After that those numbers stopped leaping out at me from digital clocks. Now you may laugh, but from an early age Rimpyette has shown signs of being a medium of considerable power. It pleases me to think that my daughter could have been sending messages to her daddy about her future birthday, starting from before she was even conceived. Woo-OOO-ooo!