western pa blues

from the trenches

You Can’t Just Feel Sorry for Yourself (the Company Vehicle)

11760192_10100707353305576_4324747077363844911_nSo now I live in an F-150. I mean, I don’t live in an F-150, I have an apartment with an address and washer and dryer in the basement and an annoying dog next door that barks at me and pisses on my side of the fence, but I spend so much time in the company vehicle (the F-150) that that kind of feels like my home. It’s where I have my morning coffee. It’s where I write in my journal. It’s where I listen to music.

It’s a 2012—white with the company logo on the side. It had less than 6,000 miles on it when they gave it to me.

This isn’t how I wanted the past year to go. What I wanted to do was live on a boat half the time and live in the apartment half the time. I wanted to do a lot of writing. Play a lot of music. Go back home and help my dad clean up the junk yard behind his garage. Work on a boat. That didn’t happen though. I don’t have anyone to blame but myself. It makes me sad just typing that.

Now I’m a painter. Seems like if you work in building trades long enough at some point you become a painter.

The F-150 is too much truck for someone like me. It’s enough truck for, say, the boys that live a few houses down from me. They have a Ford Bronco on a lift kit that they park in the alley behind their house. They have the words “COUNTRY BOY” in a decal on the back windshield. They are in their garage day and night working on their Ford Bronco and a bunch of other cars. They stare at me whenever I drive by in my actual car. They aren’t intimidating. I think they’re just curious. Why would a person drive around in a car with that much rust? Why would a person not change their air filter? Why would a person let their muffler bang around like that? Why would a person not fix that high pitched squealing noise?

My girlfriend says the F-150 makes me look small. She asks if my coworkers laugh at me.

Right now, the morning commute is the only time I feel somewhat at peace. I wave to John across the street before I get in the truck. Sometimes I give his wife, Donna, a ride to the bus stop. It’s summer so Pittsburgh looks slightly less miserable. The main street in Brookline is lined with coffee shops, pizza places, tattoo parlors, a bike shop, a drive-thru beer distributor, a couple bars, the Mexican grocery, the Sunoco. My thoughts stop racing during the morning commute and they narrow down to one main concern. The radio sounds better in the morning. I notice it after I drive down a long curve that leads to Liberty Ave and I stop at the traffic light by the McDonalds. I can tune out the dj’s. I drive past a shit-load of car dealerships and my favorite beer distributor (which is closed for some reason) and the bronze works and then drive through the tunnel. On my way to the shop, as I drive over the Allegheny River, I look out to see if the Gabriel is taking loads up to Cheswick. When they are I think to myself, “They’re in for a long morning but it’s better than the one I’m going to have.”

When I get to the shop I scribble a few things down in my journal. I write down the jobs I did the day before and make a few notes about whatever I did after work. I’m always in a rush when I do this. I’m always in a rush anymore when it comes to everything. I rush when I’m writing in my journal for a few reasons but mostly I don’t want my coworkers to see me. Something about writing makes people suspicious.

The shop is an old steel mill that has been repurposed as storage space. Our shop is in the corner. It has thin steel walls and no ceiling. When you look up and you can see the rafters and the 10-ton crane that still hangs from the ceiling of the main building. In the office the half-dozen other guys that I work with sit around and talk about movies and lawnmowers and women and cartoons and how their jobs went the day before. Our supervisor gives us our paperwork—our jobs for the day—then I head back to the F-150. I make sure I have enough tape and paper and plastic and paint chemicals and sandpaper and tack cloths and caulking and papertowels and all the shit that a painter needs. We paint bathtubs and countertops mostly. It still sounds ridiculous to me now even though I do it every day.

I get back in the F-150 and drive to my first job. Some days I only have one job but some days I have three or four. Some days I have a prep-guy and some days I’m on my own.

A typical week:

Monday – Countertop @ Club at North Hills

Spot Spray Repair @ 19 North

Tuesday – Tub @ Mifflin Estates

Countertop @ Squires Manor

Showerpan @ Park Place

Wednesday – Full Bathroom @ Williamsburg Place (tub in white, tile in Almond Crust)

Thursday – Tub and Surround @ Governers Ridge

Tub @ JJ Land in Shadyside

Friday – Shower stall repair @ Hickory Hills

Tub and surround @ Hickory Hills

My days last from 7:30AM till whenever. Usually around 5PM but sometimes as late as 7PM. Once I worked until 10:30 at night. Everyday ends at the tailgate of the F-150. I pack everything up, clean out the paint guns, then get in the truck and send my boss a text message so he knows I’m done for the day. Then I get in the truck and call my girlfriend. She’s usually upset because I’m late. I’m getting used to it.

On the commute home I listen to talk radio. I don’t know why but I have no desire to listen to music at the end of the day. Usually I get stuck in traffic just before I get to the Liberty Bridge and I listen to Mark Madden. He’s an asshole but he’s not arbitrary. He has a code and I think people respect that. I admire him because he can go on a radio station in Pittsburgh and say “Steelers fans are whiny bitches” and still have a show. When I drive over the Liberty Bridge I look out over the Monongahela for towboats. When I see on I curse myself. When I don’t see one I curse myself. The Liberty Bridge is one of the highest in Pittsburgh. To the west you can see the Station Square dock with the Gateway Clipper Fleet and the Point and the Ohio River and the coal barges tied up along PWEL. To the east you can see the South Side and Downtown and the riverfront Tech Park along Second Avenue. Straight ahead you can see the bluff of Mt. Washington. I have this fear that the bridge will collapse one day while I’m stuck in traffic and I’ll fall to my death in the F-150.

When I get home I park the F-150 in front of the house. I put my paperwork and my journal on the dashboard. I meet up with my girlfriend and struggle to find something for dinner in my small refrigerator then we watch TV for awhile.


First Hitch (aftermath)

My first hitch goes well but it’s mostly a blur of locks and dams and building tow and feeling like a dumbass. Building tow is the main part of the job. We go out onto the barges and string them together with heavy metal wires and lines made from recycled plastic. They are rarely organized when we pick them up so we have to jockey them around before we can head down the river. The pilot and the lead man have a plan for the tow but they don’t explain it until we’re standing out on the barges. This is what causes me to feel like a dumbass. Someone will say, “Tighten that ratchet,” or “Take the slack out of that line,” and I have no idea what they’re talking about because of all the pronouns. Chad, the lead man on my first hitch, tells me that this is normal. He says it took him almost a year before it all clicked and he knew what the hell was going on. Still, this doesn’t prevent him from getting pissed off and yelling when I don’t know what he’s talking about. While I’m out on the tow feeling confused and stupid I try to tell myself that what I’m doing is good. It’s good to do something challenging that keeps you humble. During the hitch, however, I’m not sure how much of this is true and how much of it is just me trying to comfort myself.

On the last day of my first hitch we tie off a tow of six barges and then “lightboat” (that’s what they call it when you’re heading up or down river without a tow) to Mon City. We pile off the boat and into a large white van. I’m in incredibly high spirits on the ride back to Monessen. We take our gear out of the van and when I say thanks to Chad his response is to look at me, expressionless, and say nothing. Before I get into my car and head back to Pittsburgh I talk to Rob, the guy that does orientation and scheduling. He asks how it went and I tell him I think it went alright. As I’m leaving his office he says, Don’t drink too much beer!” and I call back, “I’ll try not to but that’s where I’m headed right now,” as if beer is a destination somewhere. I appreciate how he says not to drink too much beer. It gives his statement naïve and innocent quality. On the drive home I listen to Big Boi really loud and then get stuck in traffic on 51.

I have trouble explaining the job to my friends when I get home. When my room mate asks what it was like I say, “I don’t know where to begin.” When the Girl I’m Seeing asks I try to explain what goes into building tow. We sit on her bed and on her computer I bring up pictures of ratchets and side lines and towing lines. Later that day, she and I go to dinner with a friend of mine from out of town. I talk about the people on the boat and mention Chad’s apparent disdain for me.

On Friday I head up north to Clintonville to see my parents and have practice with the band. My parents think the job is just the coolest thing in the world. Mom wants to know what the cook feeds us and Dad wants to know what happens to the coal after we drop it off. After dinner I go to band practice. My friends in the band don’t ask about the job and I don’t offer any stories about it. On Saturday, still at my parent’s house, my sister shows up for dinner and asks what kind of people I work with on the boat. She’s surprised when I tell her, “Rednecks. A bunch of hillbillies from Southern Ohio and West Virginia. The type of dudes that carry around Gatorade bottles to spit tobacco into and say things like, That dog just ain’t gunna hunt.” My seven days off go by quick. I head back to Pittsburgh on Sunday morning. On Monday I chill hard. I watch documentaries on Netflix (one a conspiracy theory about the JFK assassination and one about the Unabomber). On Tuesday I go to Wal-Mart with the Girl I’m Seeing. I buy a new pair of gym shorts and a pair of sandals. We spend the night watching cartoons. The following day, Wednesday, I’m back in the crew van heading toward the Allegheny River. The driver drops us off at Lock Two and, because of a lock delay, we have to wait two hours before we can get on the boat.


After the interview and the physical I’m not feeling too great about the whole thing. I wake up every morning still tired, after eight or more hours of sleep, and think to myself, “How am I going to operate on less than six hours of sleep a night? How am I going to handle working six hours on six hours off for seven days straight?” I think a lot about the girl I’m seeing. How is she going to handle seven days without me around? How will we fit two weeks worth of hanging out into the seven days when I am around?

On May 8 I get an e-mail from one of the guys that did the interview. The tone of the message is cold, straight HR talk, but when I read the bulk of it I start to perk up. It has a list of things I’ll need for my seven day “hitch”:

1) 1-2 changes of work clothes (jeans shirts, undergarments etc.)
2) Steel toed boots-minimum of 6 inches in height
3) Twin fitted sheets. Complete set, I for under, 1 over.
4) Sleep wear
5) Personal toiletries (shampoo, soap, washcloth, towels, toothbrush/paste etc.)
6) Televisions, DVD players, computers etc. These are at your discretion. We are not responsible for personal effects.
7) Enough tobacco products for the hitch (we do not go to store during hitch)

…and then a series of items required to obtain a TWIC card.

On May 12, when I head over to the East Liberty Target to purchase all of these things, I start to feeling better about the job. Something about the East Liberty Target makes me feel good as well. Normally any retail experience intensifies my anxiety but whoever designed this store must have spent a lot of time and focus group attention on attenuating the anxiety of consumers that actually hate shopping. Plus, I really like the location of the East Liberty Target. East Liberty, to my understanding, has had a reputation as a rough neighborhood until just recently. Whenever I’m driving guests around at the hotel where I work, I will often overhear some of them, usually college kids whose parents went to school in Pittsburgh years ago, talking about how East Liberty is to be avoided at all costs. This reputation didn’t prevent Google from placing their Pittsburgh headquarters in an old Nabisco factory in East Liberty, however, and now the area from the Google headquarters on out is thriving as a tech/yuppie hipster hotspot. There’s a giant pile of dirt and several cranes across the street from the Target where some new building is going up. There’s a dance theatre down the street. They have Coffee Tree Roasters and Starbucks nearby and there’s a Trader Joe’s, the beacon of organic-gluten-free-hipster hope that I’ve never been to but everyone says is really great because they give health benefits to part-time employees.

Inside the Target I pick out a shopping cart and place it in the “Carts Only” escalator next to the presumably Humans Only escalator that you have to take up to the sales floor. I walk first to towel section, pick out a set of blue towels, and then over to the bedding section where I locate a set of gray twin sheets. After that I head to the luggage section where I spend most of my time trying to decide which duffel bag to purchase. I also pick up one of those blindfolds that they usually hand out on airplanes and a small bag for my personal toiletries. I pick up a few items from the “Travel” section next to Health and Beauty. I run into Kim, one of the laundry ladies from the hotel where I currently work and then, after one final trip to the luggage section where I second guess my decision to go with the “American Tourister” 5-7 day duffel, I head to the check out.

At the checkout I get stuck behind a woman with a full shopping cart who is apparently paying for each item in her cart individually, one transaction for every item. The woman at the cash register looks at me and says, “I might be a minute, or two or three or four… She has a few more transactions to do.” The woman with the full shopping cart somehow communicates inaudibly with the cashier. She uses multiple credit and debit cards and puts the wrong pin number in multiple times before finally paying for everything. The cashier says, “Nope, you put the wrong pin number in,” and the woman says something that I can’t hear. While this is going on I have a flashback to my days working at the Rite Aid downtown and want to say something about how I understand to the cashier, but her shift must be over because she is relieved by a much younger woman when it’s my turn to pay for my things.

Job Interviews and Physicals

Monessen: Monday May 5, 2014

At the interview they tell me that no one with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh has ever applied there. I chuckle out loud and the taller one says, “If you came in here and said ‘I’m just looking for a job,’ we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” The other interviewer concurs and says, “We’re mostly looking for people who give a shit.” Then he says, “We’re also looking for people who show up to work.” They ask if I’ve applied anywhere else and when I rattle off the names of a half-dozen or so marine towing companies, the taller one’s expression changes. Occasionally he gets excited when the interview leads to a place where he can talk about the company. I ask how far they go up and down the Ohio and the Monongahela and his eyes light up a little when he explains that they are expanding their reach on the Ohio “into AEP and Ingram territory.” (AEP and Ingram are two major companies in the marine towing industry) By the end of the interview they say that they’ll give me a chance because “you sound like you are familiar with the industry.” The one interviewer says, “The first couple months are going to be tough for you,” but says that I’ll be alright if I stick with it.

In the parking lot, immediately after my interview, I call my boss at the hotel and put in my two weeks notice. He says, “Take me with you,” and I can hear one of my coworkers laughing in the background.

Washington: Tuesday May 6, 2014

The job requires a thorough physical. After driving south on 79 and getting lost because the directions I printed off of the internet don’t list an exit number, I find my way to a doctors office in Washington, PA. In the waiting room, while I’m filling out paperwork on a clipboard, I overhear an old woman talking to her even older mother. The younger old woman asks the older woman if she’d like to have a feeding tube when she’s no longer able to eat on her own. I can’t hear the older woman’s response but I hear the younger old woman say, “That way you’ll live longer,” and I start to feel sick. On the drive to the doctor’s office, while I was thinking about how my life will play out if I get this job, I told myself several times not to think too far into the future. Just take this one year at a time, I said to myself.

The first thing I do is piss in a cup. The nurse asks me if anyone told me I’d have to give a urine sample and I say no. “They should have told you that,” she says, and then tells me that I’ll have to give a second sample before I leave. After that I breath into some kind of breathalyzer test and then they draw blood. I look away while the nurse sticks the needle in my arm. She says, “Does this bother you? Sorry, I should have asked,” and I say, “It does, but it’s not really that bad.” After that I sit in a soundproof box, about the size of a phone booth, and take a hearing test. Then I take an eye-exam. They don’t make me take my contacts out. I have a flashback to the military entrance physical I took in 2004: I took my contacts out, looked into the machine and said to the nurse, “I can’t see anything.” She laughed and said “You’re not going to pass anything“.

After the eye exam I’m lead to a cold exam room where I strip down to my boxer shorts and wait until feisty doctor shows up. She grills me about where I got my prescription for migraine pills filled. She hits all of my limbs with a rubber hammer and makes me stand on one leg and then the other. She tells me to hunch down and walk like a duck and laughs at me when I complete this task. “You really look like a duck,” she says. Luckily, she doesn’t have to feel my balls.

After all that, I have to piss in another cup. I sit in a different waiting room and drink a half-dozen cups of water. The nurse tells me I can only have so much, we don’t want to dilute the sample, and says she doesn’t want me to throw up or anything. While I’m waiting for my bladder to fill up, the old woman and her even older mother (the ones from the first waiting room) show up and fill out some paper work. I offer my chair to the mother and then open the door for them when they walk out. The younger old woman looks at me through thick glasses, and says, “You’re mother raised you right.” I feel simultaneously proud and sad and guilty and then go back to summoning up piss. I pace around the room. I sit down. I stand up. I press on my stomach in hopes of stimulating my bladder and prostate. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, I piss constantly throughout the day, but a witness needs to be present when I deliver the second sample. The nurse says, “You want to make sure you really have to go. Sometimes people get nervous.”

At 11:30 I walk back to where the nurse is filling out paper work. She looks up and says, “Are you ready?” I give her a thumbs up and say, “Yeah, let’s do this.” She leads me back to the exam room where I gave the first sample and then we wait for the doctor to arrive. By this point I really have to go and I take to pacing around the room to take my mind off of the discomfort in my bladder. The nurse and I make small talk. I tell her I’ve lived in Western PA all of my life and she says, “Yeah, me too.” She tells me that her son just moved out to Las Vegas to live with his girlfriend. She says it’s in the 100’s out there. I empty out the contents of my pockets and take deep breaths. Finally the doctor shows up—a different, male doctor—and we rush into the bathroom. I drop my pants to the floor and fill up the two cups that the nurse gave me. The doctor says, “You’re golden,” and then, over two hours after the physical started, I head back to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh: Wednesday May 7, 2014

When I show up for work on Wednesday my boss says, “I’m not talking to you.” He’s kidding, of course, but I detect some hint of real pain in his voice. He introduces me to a new hire named Will, a scrawny young white kid with glasses, and says, “See, we already have your replacement.” I spend the day moving furniture with Will.

At three o’clock Travis, one of my coworkers, shows up. Travis and I, over the year and a half we’ve worked together, have spent a decent amount of time talking about education and college degrees and career paths. Travis says, “So I hear you’re going to work on a barge,” and I say, “Yeah, it’s happening.” He says congratulations and I say, “They told me I was the first person with a bachelor’s degree from Pitt to apply there ever,” and with this, Travis starts to laugh. It’s a deep, belly laugh. He literally falls down to his knees while laughing. I start to laugh too. When Travis catches his breath he returns to his feet and says, “You’re the first person ever?” and I say yes. “And you have an economics degree,” he goes on, “It’s not like you studied some liberal art or something and like, you didn’t know what you wanted to do with your life.” I say yeah and he says, “Well hey man, I’m happy for you.”

Part of Your Tuition

I was the only one outside of the library smoking that night, which was unusual because the hippies were usually out there taking drags on parliament lights and camels. They discussed things like the importance of tea to a cigarette and, I assume, rock climbing and kayaking. They all went rock climbing and kayaking. The dudes made me jealous because they had beards that came in thick and full and the girls made me jealous because they were attractive and had momentum—people were interested in them.

But they weren’t around that night. It was just me under the yellow lights that illuminated the entrance to the library. I was sitting on a bench. A light snow fell on the quad in front of me. I was still kind of high from the night before. I never smoked much grass but at Slippery Rock it seemed like a certain amount of marijuana came as part of your tuition and found it’s way to you whether you wanted it or not.

After awhile this guy came out from the library and stood maybe ten feet away from me. He was a big deal on campus. At least I thought he was a big deal, because I was still under the impression that such a thing could exist at a place like Slippery Rock. He wrote for The Rocket, the student newspaper. He wore a leather jacket with studs and patches and had slicked back greaser hair. Once I read an article of his about what would happen if Zombies invaded campus.

He put a cigarette in his mouth and pulled out a lighter. He made two or three attempts to light the cigarette but he only produced sparks from the flint. Each time he flicked the lighter the sparks drew my attention and lasted longer than I knew they were supposed to.  I watched him make a couple more attempts and it felt like thirty seconds or more went by between each try.

I expected him to turn in my direction and ask for a light but he continued flicking away in vain. Finally I worked up the ambition to call over to him and said, “Hey, you need a light, man?”

He started walking in my direction, smiled and said, “Yeah, the zippo doesn’t work as well as it used to.”

I handed him my disposable lighter and he lit up on the first try. I took the lighter back, told him to have a good night and walked off towards my dorm.

Johnny Cash, Iwo Jima, and the Allegheny River

Call him drunken Ira Hayes

he won’t answer anymore

Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian

Nor the Marine that went to war

-Johnny Cash “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

I’m on bow-watch as we head up the Allegheny River. Bow-watch involves standing at the front of the boat, first deck, and watching for pleasure craft and debris. The “boat” is actually a barge with three decks pushed along by a sixty year old towboat. The first deck has a bar and a dance floor. The second deck has a bar and a large gap that overlooks the dance floor. The third deck is and open-air deck on the roof of the barge. The whole thing is basically reception hall that floats. A Johnny Cash impersonator provides the entertainment for the evening. Towards the end of the trip, he will reveal to the audience (mostly senior citizens) that he drives a Pepsi delivery truck for a living.

The indigenous population of Western Pennsylvania named the two rivers that meet at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River. The names of these rivers, Monongahela and Allegheny, don’t translate directly into English. Monongahela means, roughly, “muddy banks that fall into the water and stir up sediment.” Allegheny means something like, “calm, peaceful waters.” These translations vary slightly with each trip as the different captains in the fleet explain them. The captains narrate the first half-hour or so of most trips. Right around the time we maneuver onto the Alleghany River the narration stops and the entertainment for the night begins.

Bow-watch happens in half hour shifts. The Johnny Cash impersonator starts singing The Ballad of Ira Hayes about fifteen minutes into my first watch. As a prelude to the song he says that he always likes to call attention to the men and women that have served our country in the armed forces. He says something about his niece that recently joined the Air Force. This song, the impersonator says, is for those men and women. He makes no mention of the indigenous population of the United States even though he sings this line:

Then Ira started drinkin’ hard;

jail was often his home

They’d let him raise the flag and lower it,

like you’d throw a dog a bone

Ira Hayes dies. He ends up dead in a ditch, killed by two inches of water. The song explains all of this and I listened to it as the sixty year old towboat pushed our barge up the river.

* * *

The Johnny Cash impersonator was actually pretty good that night. I had that “dune-chicka-dune-chicka” rhythm stuck in my head for the rest of the trip. I’m not trying to ridicule him or anyone else for missing what I perceived as irony in the performance of that song. If anyone should have felt ridiculous that night, it was me. I was a college educated white man eking out a living by working as a deck hand at a pleasure cruise company. I had to wear a fake “captain’s hat” that looked like something from The Love Boat during our hour-and-a-half boarding process. If you had told me, when I was seven, that twenty years later I’d be standing on the bow of a barge listening to a truck driver sing songs about a guy that raised the flag on Iwo Jima, I’d have thought you were crazy.

Between the Bus Lane and the Bronze Works

I walked out of the beer distributor. The halter-top girl and her boyfriend were long gone. The distributor was next door to a sandwich shop and an auto parts store. I looked into the sandwich shop as I walked past with my case of beer. A kid, a young boy, looked up from his sandwich at his mother. I put my case of beer in the trunk of the car and got into the drivers seat. I maneuvered the vehicle onto the four-lane highway (five if you count the bus lane) in front of the distributor and headed towards the tunnel that lead downtown. The highway curved passed a steep hill that was covered in billboards. They advertised useless shit like cellphone planes and sandwich shops and car dealers and insurance. This was in Pittsburgh in early spring. I liked that part of town because, even though it was kind of dreary in that it was just a four lane highway surrounded by retail outlets and car dealerships, it felt like it could take me somewhere. Mostly it felt like it could take me back to the house that I rented with two other guys where I could tear into the case of beer that I just bought, but it also felt like it could take me home. I drove past a bronze works and a ramp that led up to the bus way. The air was starting to get warm after a long winter. If I kept driving on the four lane road, I would have gone through the Liberty Tunnel and, if I headed straight north, I would have ended up back in Clintonville where my parents still live.. I didn’t do that though. I made a left before the tunnel and headed back to my house. When I got there I made rice and chicken for lunch at work the next day.

Out of Retail

I applied at the hotel in May after my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I needed a job, any job, and the only requirement that I had was that it wasn’t in retail. Before starting school at Pitt, I had worked for just shy of two years as a cashier at a Rite Aid downtown. The job was boring and gave me a wicked case of plantar fascaiitis. I wanted to do anything that didn’t involve standing in one spot for six to eight hours a day, and I felt a janitorial position would offer just that. Plus, I had no job skills other than a willingness to rise early in the morning and show up for work.

The hotel was in an east-end neighborhood of Pittsburgh called Shadyside. I drove over on a rainy day and parallel parked the car along the sidewalk. The hotel was inconspicuous, which is probably bad for a business looking to attract customers. The front of the hotel faced fifth avenue while the right side and the rear were bordered by rows of trees. A narrow parking lot with narrow parking spaces occupied the space behind the building.    The parking lot ended suddenly and short steep hill filled the space between the parking lot and the sidewalk. It was maybe a six foot drop from the lot to the sidewalk down below. The left side was bordered by an alleyway and a four story apartment building.

To get to the front desk you had to walk underneath a breezeway and through a courtyard. A cement path ran through the middle of the courtyard and was bordered by grass on either side. Narrow beds of mulch separated the cement path from the grass. The sky was still overcast as I walked through the courtyard but the rain had stopped.

The front office was quaint. Two young women sat at low wooden desks. They both had large computer monitors in front of them. A bowl of apples sat at one end of a long desk and a tray of cookies under a glass lid occupied the other end of the desk. One of the secretaries, a bookish girl with straight, dark red hair, gave me an application. I filled it out in the “demo suite” opposite the office and returned it to her. She fetched her manager who in turn fetched the nephew, the guy that owned the place.

The Nephew appeared in the doorway to the main office. He was tall and starting to go bald but he attenuated the affect of his widows peak by wearing his hair closely shaved to his head. He had on a black blazer, a white v-neck shirt, and jeans.  He wasn’t overweight, really, but he was bulky. He had wide shoulders and probably a bit of a gut but the blazer made it hard to tell. I followed him back to his office, which was merely an old suite that they were using as an office. The accountant for the hotel had a desk there surrounded by mountains of papers, mostly old bills, and dozen’s of cardboard “bankers boxes.” It was dimly lit. We stood between an old desk and stacks of boxes.

I don’t remember much of the conversation. I told The Nephew that my only goal was to work in a non-retail environment and that I had a great attention to detail. He told me a lot of what I would be doing was running around. He said that someone might call me, when he did this, he put his hand to his ear as if holding a phone, and say that the need a plunger in room 207. I said that I thought I could handle that.

On the craigslist ad they said they needed someone to do landscaping and I told him I was interested in doing that. The accountant perked up when she heard this and said, “We have a lot of landscaping to do!”

I do remember, very specifically, The Nephew’s reaction when I told him what I studied at school. He asked if I went to Pitt and when I said yes he asked, “What do you study?”

When I said, “Economics,” he looked up from my application, made eye contact for one second, rolled his eyes over to the other side of his head, guffawed and said, “Spare me.”

The Real College Experience

Jami looked up from her cup of coffee. It was a disposable mug with one of those brown strips around it that prevent you from burning your hand. “This feels like a real college experience,” she said. We were sitting on a patio by the Athletic Training building. Around us, the rest of the Slippery Rock University student body wandered through the quad. Some of them huddled next to the entrances of buildings to smoke cigarettes while the rest shuffled between classrooms and dorm rooms.

I looked down at my coffee mug and said, “I kind of feel like a tool.” There was something about the mug itself, the image that I felt it wanted to portray, that felt insincere to me. I was studying marketing at the time so when I looked at the mug I could imagine the guy that worked for the vendor that operated the library coffee shop at a meeting talking about “brand experience.” The kids that go to college, he would be saying, they want to be conscious of the environment, so we’ll put a 100% recycled cardboard sleeve around the cup so they don’t burn their hands. They’re consumers. They don’t think about what they’re doing. If they did they likely wouldn’t be in college in the first place.

Jami laughed. It wasn’t the laugh of someone pleased with the situation or genuinely amused, it was a confused laugh, one that people usually reserve for confounding moments when something that has worked a thousand times miraculously fails. Like she was installing ink into a printer and then, when she went to print something, a paper emerged covered in Rorschach tests rather than words written in English. “What do you mean?” she asked.

I tried to explain. The mug, I said, it’s something about the mug. It makes me feel like I want to be something cooler than I am. I guess it’s just pretentious, the whole coffee shop thing. Why can’t they just give me my coffee in a Styrofoam cup and tell me to recycle the damn thing.

Jami left and I went to work. I went to work from school a lot. I made the fifteen, maybe twenty minute, drive from SRU over to Grove City, pulled into the County Market parking lot, donned my polo shirt and black apron, and pushed watermelons around on the sales floor for a few hours.

Penultimate Semester at SRU

Principles of microeconomics met in an auditorium style classroom. Around two hundred underclassmen wandered in every Tuesday and Thursday morning, sat down behind desks that ran the length of the room, and stared straight ahead. At Slippery Rock, a good number of them were hungover and some of them were still high from the night before. Around nine twenty-five a short, balding Venezuelan named Jesus Valencia entered the room. With an overstuffed binder under his arm he made the long walk from the rear entrance of the auditorium down to the whiteboard. Once there, he placed his binder on the desk at the front of the room and addressed the class.

“Salute,” he usually said. He explained several times that this was a traditional greeting in his country. A few kids in the front row returned the greeting. Some of them, the ones that studied Spanish, exchanged further South American pleasantries. The rest of the class, the majority of the class, remained silent throughout this process. I sat a half-dozen rows back. Every morning, I made the half-hour drive to campus accompanied by a travel mug of coffee. If I timed everything right my fleeting caffeine buzz hit it’s peak right around the beginning of class. On a good day this kept me alert through the entire hour and fifteen minute session. On a bad day my head would start to drop and I had to pinch myself to stay awake.

I don’t remember much about Jesus’s lectures but, because I went on to major in economics and the university bookstore wouldn’t buy my textbook back, I know what we discussed. After addressing the class everyday Jesus turned to the whiteboard and drew the first quadrant of the Cartesian plain with a black marker. He droned on in an indeterminable monotone about comparative statics problems. Basically he drew supply and demand curves and then shifted one of those curves depending on what he wanted to illustrate. Next to none of it made sense to me, but a lot of that had to do with lack of effort. As a young undergrad, I assumed that by merely showing up to class I would somehow absorb the information presented. I didn’t realize at the time that studying economics took hours of ball-breaking, huddled-over-a-desk-in-the-library work.

I made the walk across the quad every Tuesday and Thursday after microeconomics. Slippery Rock has a large quad that, despite it’s name, is surrounded by six buildings. After every class, students poured out of each building and huddled next to each other while they smoked. I took microeconomics and composition II during the fall semester so, for the first couple weeks, the weather was actually nice. The weather and the campuses I attended in Western PA seem to collude every year. It’s like they’re trying to fool incoming freshmen and their parents into believing that they’re pleasant places to spend time. The sun comes out. The clouds disappear and reveal blue sky. Then, after the first two weeks end, the sky turns gray. It starts to rain. After the rain it starts to snow. During the winter, when it first got down into the thirties, I remember hearing one of the kids in my dorm say, “It’s so cold here,” while he was talking to his mom on the phone.

There was a dude named Mike who was in the same microeconomics and composition class. We talked to each other once in awhile before or after class while he was standing outside smoking. Mike was a tall guy with red hair and a beard. He smoked some manner of promotional Camel cigarettes that came in a burgundy pack. He studied marketing, same as me, but I had every intention of changing my major.