Those Laboring Days

by LINH DINH

In the 1980’s and 90’s, even a klutz like me could find work as a manual laborer. I painted houses, washed windows and cleaned apartments and offices. At my first house painting job, I propped a ladder upside down against the wall, don’t laugh, and was not let go. Once I was so hungover, I had to climb down from the ladder five or six times to throw up, and still wasn’t fired. My boss, Joe LeBlanc, just laughed it off. In fact, he even paid me a full day’s wage, and told me to go home. When times were good, everyone made out OK, and was more generous towards each other. They drank more, and tipped more at the bar. After work, we often ducked into The Office, a rather skanky strip joint, and certainly no “gentlemen’s club,” before heading to McGlinchey’s for Rolling Rock and Jameson. At The Office, a black chick grinned, “I’ve heard you Chinese guys can have sex, like, a hundred times in a row?” I didn’t have the heart to disabuse her of that invigorating and lovely notion.

Joe was a Canadian who had gone South to join the US Army. He fought in Vietnam, was dishonorably discharged, then just ended up living here, illegally. Days removed from the war zone, Joe shot at an Oakland street light. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t know. I was just fucked up.” A gun freak, Joe was erecting a dome dwelling in an all-white Kentucky county. He gave me an open invitation to come down and try his large assortment of assault rifles, but shit, man, I didn’t want Joe to have some nasty flashback. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! He might finish me off if he saw me with an AK-47 in the middle of them woods, you know what I mean?

Like us all, Joe had his rough spots, but he was a very good man, I’m convinced, because he treated his workers well, and was willing to hire goofs or even fuckups. When work was scarce during winter, Joe lent me money, in envelopes stuffed through my mail slot, and twice he even said, “Forget about it,” when I tried to pay him back. Joe hired an old guy, because he knew grandpa was hurting. Laura was rather large, so he had her paint first floor windows, to spare her from climbing up ladders. Joe employed a guy who was so slow, he was nicknamed “Smooth.” It was like seeing Marcel Marceau with a piece of sand paper. A chemist of sort, maybe even an alchemist, Smooth was hooked to a special cocktail of pharmaceuticals, and actually died at the sink, standing up, before he reached 30. Tony had served 13 months for drug dealing. He and his brother had taken Amtrak for their monthly Philly to Miami run, but business got so good, they decided to buy an asskicking muscle car. They were busted after a stupid traffic stop. Tony died at 35. Tony said that some of the prettier dudes in prison had their assholes slit with a razor, not voluntarily, of course, to make them more penetrable. I incorporated this detail into a short story in my collection, Fake House.

Any man who’s willing to be boss to such a lame roster is OK in my book, but like I said, times were good then, and everyone could find work. I also knew Tumi, a German drifter who traveled strictly by Greyhound, and could be on the bus for three days at a time. When not in Philly or rain dancing in North Dakota, he was often in Santa Monica, where he slept on the beach. Out of cash, all Tumi had to do was stand in front of a paint store, and a contractor would hire him before too long. Tumi needed just enough for his daily all-you-can-eat buffet meal, then lager in the evening. His real name was Ludwig, by the way, with Tumi adopted because he was somehow Muslim. No genius, Tumi educated me, “An olive, my friend, has as much protein as a steak.” Also, “A bone must take so long to make. So long!” Joe also hired Tumi.

Now, Joe wasn’t running a charity, but a regular business, and we didn’t loaf and do drugs on the job. We actually worked our tails off, when we weren’t throwing up, that is. Joe hired us because there was actually a shortage of labor, at least for the kind of grunt work we were doing, but now, you’ll need a college degree just to serve latte or park cars. With legions diving after so few jobs, soon we’ll have PhD’s chirping, “Original recipe or spicy, Sir?” Or, “Would you like a Holiday Mint McFlurry with that?” Recent majors in Postmodern Linked Verse Deconstruction will be pole dancing, then asking, “I’ve heard you Chinese guys can have sex, like, a hundred times in a row?” You must flatter the clientele if you want a decent tip, capisce?

Last week, I popped into McGlinchey’s just before noon, and found it nearly empty. If lowlifes can’t even drink a cheap beer for lunch, you know the economy is nosediving. “Where’s everybody, Ronnie?” I asked the owner.

“Well, you’re here!”

“But this ain’t right, Ronnie. Where’s everybody?!”

“I think people’s drinking habits have changed, that’s all.”

“You sure it ain’t the economy?”

“No, no. People just don’t drink as much as they used to. Before, you never had people come into a bar and not drink, but now you do.”

“What do you mean not drink? You can’t come in here and not drink!”

“Well, you might have a table of four people, and one or maybe even two might not drink at all.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Or people will just buy beer from a store, then drink at their apartments. That way, they can also smoke.”

“Oh, come on, Ronnie, people have always smoked weed!”

“I guess you’re right. Maybe it does have something to do with the economy.”

Of course, it is the imploding economy. One of Ronnie’s bartenders, Alia, told me that business was down by about a third. Many regulars who had come in daily, she now saw maybe once a month. Alia herself was cutting back, by eating out less. There was nothing positive about this economic mess.

For some business owners, it may be too painful to admit the obvious. They will latch onto “recovery” even as they sink and their neighbors go belly up. As a downtown dive bar, however, McGlinchey’s may be resilient. When swankier pubs go bust, their ex clientele, now not so flushed either, yet still parched, throatwise, will drift over to settle into these cushionless booths, and onto these ratty and leaning stools. “What’s the beer special today? What’s the cheapest you have on tap?”

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union

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