Sunday, June 30, 2013

Food Building

In the late 90s I worked for a carpet cleaning company.  We would occasionally get sent to a town called Bessemer, which was generally the only time I ever went to Bessemer.  It was unfamiliar terrain to me, and I got lost a lot.

One day my partner and I were trying to find a house that was lost down one of the squirrelly little roads that capillary their way off the main streets through the town, and it wasn't going well.  Understand that GPS was not on the map, so to speak.  All we had was a big dusty map book, and Bessemer was shell-gaming us, sneaking that little road past us at each turn.

Eventually we'd stop at a gas station, buy some Corn Nuts (my staple diet at the time) and beg for directions.

"Just go on up that way till you pass the Piggly Wiggly..."

"All you gotta do is hang left when you see the Piggly Wiggly..."

"When you see the Piggly Wiggly, take a right..."

 Everybody's directions (And we asked a representative sampling of Bessemer residents) hinged on the Piggly Wiggly.

After about an hour of this we finally accepted that the big not-Piggly Wiggly grocery we kept passing as we zigzagged along the grain of peoples' directions must have once been a Piggly Wiggly before leaving the franchise and renaming itself Food Building or We Got Groceries or whatever.  Everyone's directions made perfect sense from there and we found the client's house instantly.  At this time Bessemer was not a flourishing economic center, and I find myself wondering if that stagnation was cause or effect of the locked-in folkways that prevented the Good People of Bessemer from informing us of the "Piggly Wiggly's" binary identity.

A few months later I was in Bessemer again.  This time I was alone, tooling around the back roads, searching for an even more obscure address.  It was night.  I got lost in the woods, and something went awry.  What was it?  Did I just veer off the road into a ditch?  Or was there a more robust mechanical failure?  You tell me.  Those vans broke down all the time; the cleaning gear was in fine shape, but the vehicles were old and strained, and at least one got towed to the repair shop every day.  Anyway, I try to remember the details of what went wrong and it's a smear.

But the van was in a syrupy ditch, and the wheels would cut no traction into that mess.  The road was virtually dirt.  It was dark outside my headlights.  Surrounded by woods, with little desperate dwellings here and there.

We had CBs that we used to communicate with base, but in that dead zone I couldn't get a signal through.  I had, as it were, no bars.  My only option was to walk till I found a phone.  I'd passed a little gas station some ways back, so I hoofed it.

At one point I passed a little watering hole.  Rough customers stood outside talking loud, then went silent as I passed.  There was a pay phone out front, but the scowls of the locals inspired me to press on.

I got to the (well lit) gas station and placed my call.  Home base told me to go back to the van and wait for the tow truck.  A handsome young man was waiting by the phone.  "Don't go back there," he told me.  "This is a BAD neighborhood at night.  I'm waiting on some friends to get me out of here.  You tell them to come here and pick you up."  (Let me point out that he was of the same race as the locals, and I was not).

Why didn't I take his advice?  Or why didn't I beg him to get his friends to drive me to my truck?  Look, if I'd been a problem solver, I wouldn't have been working where I was.  Marry a problem solver like I did (a decade later), folks, so you can learn like I have.

So the guy's friends arrived and took him away, leaving me alone outside a closed gas station.  His uneasy company had been some comfort, but the florescent light was bleak now.

A dutiful dope of a drudge, I walked back, through the dark, skirting around the watering hole.  Then I sat in the van, worried and frustrated.  Like a schmuck, I ran the engine, grinding it, the tires shrilling and spewing mud; loud, loud, worthless effort.

A tense-looking middle-aged man came out a door, glowered at me in silence for several minutes.  It was pretty late.  I prayed he'd offer me some help, but he just stood in the porch light like an icon of justifiably angry poverty.  Then he went back inside and the light went out.

Somehow I got the truck on the road.  Did I push it?  Did I rock it?  I dunno.    Was the trip complicated by a flat tire, a wobbly wheel, a twist of some snarled mechanism or other?  I got no clue.  I was frantic.  I got to a different gas station, an open one near the highway.  I contacted base (with the CB this time) and they rerouted the tow guy, who fussed at me for not staying put.

Next week I did something I'd been yearning to do for the entire year I'd worked there.  I quit.

You know why I worked there as long as I did?  Because at my interview they laid a guilt trip on me about how they didn't want to hire people only to have them quit after a month.  They expected me to work there at least a year or two.  That's why I stayed.

Suffice it to say I don't sell my own happiness so short now.