Tuesday, August 5, 2003

three cheers

Once, when I was a younger man and possessed of a higher margin of optimism and/or foolishness, I packed a box with books, loaded it into my car, and drove across the United States to California, presumably to make my fortune. Only a couple of long weeks later, my pockets were empty and the car had begun to stink from dirty laundry and hot nights spent sleeping parked on quiet, inconspicuous residential streets. It was then that I first began to seriously consider the possibility of my own homelessness. Being lost in a city with an already inestimable population of homeless was, needless to say, not very reassuring in this respect.

Luckily, work came along in the form of a few days cantaloupe harvesting downstate, not far from the Sequoia National Forest/Park. I speak no Spanish (save cucaracha and Fritos and stuff like that), leaving little opportunity for fraternization with my co-workers, and so the days were spent merely sweating, stooping and rising, and occasionally staring contemplatively off toward the horizon. My exposure to California up until that time had been limited to the Bay Area and all points north, so the flatlands were a novel experience for me.

The cantaloupe fields in which I worked were adjacent to another farm and many more acres of tilled, aisled earth, but planted instead with onions. This neighboring farm was also harvesting, a process which caused the papery shell from around the onions to slough off in fluttery flakes all over the ground. When the wind blew, it kicked up a veritable blizzard of onion paper, which would whirl and dance and cling in your hair and seemed to exhilarate half my fellow work crew in a tickertape-paradey sort of way and blind the other half cursing and spitting into the dust. I was fascinated by this dichotomy, and occasionally the feeling of those moments rushes back to me, and I am standing outside in 100° weather, looking out across a long flat stretch of southern California and watching it snow.

One of these occasional rushes came over me this morning as I drove to work. I recently traded in my old blue station wagon for a newer pickup truck, a big white GMC with power windows and a working stereo and 50,000 fewer miles on the odometer. Driving it is heaven, and I finally feel as if I blend into my redneck surroundings, but I’ve noticed a considerable drop in fuel efficiency. And by considerable I mean expensive. The effect is eased somewhat by my refraining from use of the truck’s air conditioner, a luxury whose unfamiliarity makes it easier to do without. But nonetheless, it’s Georgia, and it’s August, and it’s hot, and I'm only human, and it's only money.

Cooler temperatures leave the morning the most tolerable time of day to travel AC-free, and thusly was I rolling along this morning, windows at half-mast, the damp air blowing seductively in my ear. Marvin Gaye was on the radio, asking big questions, and I was zoning out a little, wooed by the breeze and the music, when suddenly a tractor-trailer boomed past me, hauling a full load of chickens to their certain doom. I snapped awake, and it took a moment for me to figure out what was happening. At first it seemed I was seeing spots, and for an instant I even thought I might have collided with the transfer, that this was what dying was like, until I realized I was only watching the soft descent of the ten or twelve white feathers that had been sucked into the cab of my truck when the chickens roared by.

Since I was a child, I’ve had trouble waking up. In the mornings I struggle, sluggish and slow, slurring and surly, nodding in and out of consciousness like a junkie. Regardless of the amount or quality of sleep I receive the night previous, such is the case each new day, again and again, almost without fail.

I have come to accept this as the way things are, the way I am, and have tried to adapt. Currently in my favor is the fact that I make my own work schedule. I do not clock in, and neither do I clock out. And whether I arrive at 7:30 or 9AM is left to my own discretion. This is a privilege of which I take liberal advantage.

The lengthy explanation is to distinguish the fact that I make the drive from home to work at a fairly wide range of different times each morning, depending on when I’ve managed to forcibly drag my sorry carcass out of bed. Yet somehow, against the odds, nine mornings out of ten, I pass the same old man walking carefully to his mailbox.

Carefully, yes, but not so carefully as to take almost three hours. Surely, I think, he must walk up and down his driveway from seven to ten for exercise, thus avoiding the danger of walking the busy road. What else could explain it? It’s too early for the mail to have run. But perhaps he’s sending mail out. Perhaps he’s retrieving the day's newspaper. It seems unlikely that my stilted schedule would be shared by anyone else, but who knows? Maybe he has trouble getting up in the morning too.

Tonight I had one of those moments where you’re in the midst of laying waste to a delicious meal, and in working your way across the plate you notice a bit of Chinese egg noodle stuck to the edge, all by itself. Your hand flies out, grabs the shred, and it’s into your mouth and gone. And then, with an audible clank, the wheels in your head start turning. You wonder, why did I clean each and every morsel of food from my plate yet leave one solitary tatter on the sidelines like that? Did I leave it there on purpose? Oh no, did I drop that on the floor? Did I drop it on this nasty, nasty floor and then forget about it?

By which time, of course, it’s much too late to make any difference.

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