Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Part IV: The Way Mike Worked -- This job stinks!

"This job stinks," I complained to Ronnie.

He looked at me over a pile of dirty laundry. Smoke from a Marlboro wreathed his face. He removed the cigarette and exhaled a big cloud. "Do what I do."

I stared. I was dense. "What?"

He unrolled the pack of cigs from his T-shirt sleeve and popped one out. He walked over to me, stuck the cigarette in my mouth and lit it with his Zippo. "Inhale," he said.

I inhaled. I'd smoked a few cigarettes before, usually late at night at a beer bash when anything seemed like a good idea: smoking cigarettes, skinny dipping in a gator pond, driving on sidewalks. In the summer of '69, I was a latecomer to nicotine. My parents smoked, as did most of their friends. Some of my buddies smoked. But I was a jock in high school and coach commanded that we not smoke. I wanted to do what coach said. 

"Watch me," Ronnie said in his Tennessee drawl. He gripped the end of the rolling container with its mound of laundry. You could almost see the fumes coming from the sheets and towels accumulated in 24 hours at the nursing home. "Let the smoke drift up into your nose -- that knocks out the smell." He pushed his cart out the laundry room doors and down the corridor, smoke trailing behind him. I followed with my load. Smoke rose from my mouth to my nose to my eyes. Within seconds, my eyes watered. I kept close to Ronnie, lest I run over one of the dazed oldsters wandering the halls. I was getting it -- the smoke blocked the smell. It also burned my nose and eyes, but it was a small price to pay for not smelling the smells of incontinent old people. I was 18, Ronnie my elder at 25. We were usually not burdened with inconvenient odors unless we let loose with a fart as we drove to our appointed rounds for the Acme Laundry (not its real name) of Holly Hill, Florida. But that was different. We were not old.

When we finally wheeled our loads up a ramp into the step van, our smokes were burned down to nubs. We tossed the butts on the ground as we returned to the truck cab. My eyes still watered as we continued on our rounds. Ronnie was already on another smoke. "See how easy?" he said. 

I just nodded.

I became Ronnie's assistant one hot Florida July afternoon. I worked in the laundry, loading washers and dryers with towels and sheets from old folks homes, beachside motels, and other businesses. I had left my job as bagboy at the Pantry Pride grocery store because I needed to make more money for my upcoming college expenses. The laundry doubled my salary. The work was tougher and sweatier than hauling housewives' groceries out to their station wagons. I hated the laundry, doubted I could make it to the end of August. One day, after Ronnie delivered a load to us peasants chained to our machines, he came over and introduced himself. He was a big guy with Elvis-style hair and tattoos. He looked like something out of 1955 instead of 1969. I probably did too, with my Howdy Doody face and short haircut. 

"My helper just quit," he said. "Want the job?"

"When do I start?"

"Tomorrow at 6."

"Six in the morning?"

He laughed. "See you then."

What a reprieve! Riding with Ronnie started an hour earlier but I didn't care. We hit the mainland businesses first as the laundry only started piling up in the late morning at the beach motels as the housekeeping staff worked their way through the rooms. Sometimes Ronnie picked me up in his muscle car as I had sold my own car as it was a POS after three years of hard use. We knocked off at 3 just as the world really heated up or burst into an afternoon thunderstorm. 

Ronnie just got out of the Navy the year before. He served a stint on a ship off of Vietnam and had accumulated some tattoos and a dose of the clap in the Philippines. He got a kick out of the fact that I was off to be a Navy ROTC student, someone who one day might be an officer giving orders to the likes of swabs like him. For now, he was the one giving orders. "You ain't no officer yet," he'd say if he caught me loafing. "Yes sir," I'd say. His response: "I ain't no sir -- I work for a living. That's what my chief used to say."

I think about my 18-year-old self. I was excited and scared to be off to college. I was sad to leave my girlfriend behind -- she was attending a school 300 miles from me. I loved her and I said so and she loved me, or so she said. What did we know? Our family home burned down that summer but all 11 of us survived. We lived in a small place while waiting to rebuild. Problem was, all the clothes I'd collected for college burnt up in the fire or were impregnated with smoke. Early in the summer my surfboard had been stolen and, for the first time in four years, I felt left out of the beach scene. 

About a week before I quit the laundry, Ronnie took me to his trailer for lunch. He wanted me to meet somebody. We got out of the step van and walked to the door. A woman answered. Ronnie introduced us.. 

"Hello ma'am," I said. 

The woman wore long gray hair pulled back in a braid, a pleasant face etched with tiny lines around the mouth and eyes. "Don't call me ma'am -- I'm Shirley."

"OK, Shirley." 

Ronnie planted a kiss on her lips and I suddenly realized this was his wife. I'd called her ma'am because I thought she was his mother. I was surprised and a bit embarrassed for me and for Ronnie. Shirley served us tomato and mayo sandwiches and lemonade. She as nice and had a good sense of humor. She wasn't really that old, maybe in her late 30s or 40s. Old enough to be my mother but not Ronnie's. As we ate at the trailer's tiny table, she asked about me, what I liked to do, my plans for the fall. 

"You got a girl?" She smiled.

"Yes ma'am..."


"Shirley, I have a girlfriend."

"She's pretty, too," Ronnie said as he chewed. "Drives a Firebird."

"It's her dad's," I said.

"Your girl going to the same college?"

"No. We plan to see each other for football games, and during school breaks.,"

"That's good, hon," she said. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."  She explained that she and Ronnie met at a Daytona bar after she left Georgia after a bad divorce.They hit it off and married after a few weeks. "Newlyweds," she said.

Earlier I had caught a glimpse of an unmade bed at the far end of the trailer. I imagined the two of them in that bed. I didn't want to but I couldn't help it. The trailer began to close in around me and I was relieved when Ronnie said it was time to get back to work. We said our farewells and that was the last time I saw Shirley. 

As we returned to our route, Ronnie, as if divining my thoughts, said, "She makes me happy." 

I just nodded. He drove the rest of the way in silence.

On my last day at work, Ronnie and I sat in the step van in a motel lot watching the waves break. A half-dozen surfers bobbed in the line-up.

"Those good waves?" he asked.

"Pretty good."

"We could have brought your surfboard with us on some of our runs. You could have done some surfing."

I told him that my board had been stolen. 

He nodded. Handed me his Zippo. On its side was a U.S. Navy emblem. "Going-away present."

"Thanks," I said. "I may try to give up smoking."

"No matter. You can light some of your marijuana cigarettes with it."

I laughed. "They're called joints, Ronnie."

"No matter. All you kids smoke it. My shipmates did. A lot of the guys in Vietnam. I tried it a few times. Just made me tired. I'll stick with beer and whiskey."

I thanked him again.That afternoon, I said my farewells to Ronnie and the laundry. My girlfriend picked me up. A week ;later, we said our own forlorn farewells during a last walk on the beach. 

Somewhere along the line, I lost the lighter and I lost my way. Shall I pin the blame on marijuana cigarettes? It's more complicated than that. 

Blogger's Note: I changed the names of the characters in this piece and the name of the laundry. I had to reconstruct the dialogue because it was 49 years ago and I wasn't taking notes. Most of the rest of the story is true. 

Another blogger's note: The Laramie County Public Library kicks off the fall season with the Smithsonian exhibit, "The Way We Worked." Sponsored by Wyoming Humanities, the exhibit "engages viewers with a history of work." It opens Sept. 22 and runs through Nov. 13. Grand opening is a "Hands-on History Expo" on Sept. 28 where you can "dial a rotary phone, draw water with a hand pump, enjoy old-fashioned refreshments (make your own ice cream!) and much more." You can see antique tractors, a wheat-washing machine and an old-fashioned library card catalog. I viewed the exhibit-in-progress yesterday. Great display of tools used to mine, log, and build railroads and dwellings in the West. I finally understood the difference between a dugout and a sod house or "soddie." One thing I know -- I would have gone stark-raving mad living in either one. 

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