I was raised to believe in the power of the paycheck. My father fought to instill this in me at an early age; and whether it was the fact that I was his favorite (my theory) or the fact that my brother and sister were much faster at getting on a bike the minute work threatened to rear its large, sweaty head (their theory), I tended to be the only one my father approached any time the opportunity to make money reared its large, sweaty head.
“Hey, Pearl! How’d you like to make two bits?”
My first discovery in the world of work? Contrary to the sound of it, two bits was not two of anything but rather a single, lousy quarter.
And so the ground floor of servitude was laid; and from that time forward, I was employed.
That is, until I was 32 – when everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, including being fired.
The week before Christmas.
During my performance review.
I was confused and tearful. Nothing my boss had written in my review sounded anything like me or my work habits. How had I failed? How was I not a model employee?
Nancy, the smug, ostentatiously wealthy woman seated comfortably behind my walking papers, shook her head in a mock display of concern. “I’m sorry,” she said, smiling. “We could put you on a performance plan, but you’d just burn anyway.”
A week before Christmas.
I was given a box and escorted out of the building. Nancy followed.
I turned around to face her as I left the building. She had been astounded—just two months prior at the company Halloween party—by my intuition and ability to tell her things about herself. She’d even offered to introduce me as a psychic to her friends.
I used this now.
“I’ll never see you again,” I said ominously. “But I can tell you this: neither of your daughters will graduate high school on time.”
Nancy’s mouth fell open.
I continued. “One will drop out in the eleventh grade. The other will leave in the middle of her senior year to have a baby.” I smiled at her. “You will be terribly embarrassed and will not tell your parents.”
Sure, it was childish, but the look on her face kept me from crying as I drove home.
The end of December, all of January, these are the worst times to be unemployed. As January slipped into February, I started to worry.
And then I got a call from my brother.
At the time, my brother owned a hardwood floor company: installations, patches, refinishing. He wanted to know: did I have a valid driver’s license?
Don’t do it! My brain screamed. Don’t do it!
“Of course I do,” I said. “Why?”
And so began the worst job of my life.
When someone asks you a question like “Do you have a driver’s license?” what this means is that you are soon to find yourself in the company of people for whom the answer to this question is “No”.
“Do you,” Kevin asked, “know how to drive a stick?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“What about drugs? You doing any drugs?”
“I’m unemployed,” I told him curtly. “I can’t afford drugs.”
“What about young men?” he asked.
“I can’t afford those either,” I said.
“No, I mean are you okay with working with men? Men who may have criminal backgrounds, sudden meetings with their public defenders, men with various interesting dental problems?”
“OK, Kiki,” I said. “What’s going on here?”
Kevin laughed. “I’ve got the majority of my workers in the workhouse right now. They can leave for work but we have to pick them up. I got other business, so I need you to drive them to the job sites, maybe do some work, and drive them back.”
I was intrigued.
And then Kevin said something that cinched the deal.
“I’ll pay you $15 an hour. Cash.”
Kevin dropped the van off at my house that night. “She stalls,” he said, “and there’s no heat. You’ll want to keep the scraper on your lap to keep the frost off the inside of the windshield. Which reminds me, the driver’s side windshield wiper sticks, so you’ll want to stick your hand out the window to give her a good slap every now and then, except when you unwind the window, don’t do it all the way or it won’t go back up. Oh, and the tires are a little worn, so you’re going to want to slow down well in advance when you need to come to a full stop.”
“Oh, and if the brakes don’t work—and I’m not saying they won’t!—but if they don’t, the hand brake works pretty well.”
There was the briefest of pauses as we considered the implications of using a hand brake to stop a work van and the conditions under which Kevin knew that it would work “pretty well”.
He tossed me the keys. “Payday’s on Friday,” he said. He handed me a map. “Don’t be late picking them up!”
Pick up time at Parkers Prairie was 6:30 a.m., which meant that I was out of the house and coaxing the van down the road by 6:00.
February in Minneapolis is a blue-tinged month, a month of brittle air and reluctant machinery. The van moved, glacier-like, from residential area to freeway, where it blocked traffic and pulled vile words from passing motorists, a mobile example of what happens to nice girls who don’t go to college.
My little criminals were waiting for me when I pulled up: Boomer (burglary), DuWayne (child support, driving after revocation, driving without insurance), Randy (burglary), Jeff (vandalism).
DuWayne was rolling a joint even before he climbed into the backseat.
“Pearl!” he shouted. “Long time no see!”
DuWayne and I had grown up in the same trailer court.
“We gonna have time to swing by my guy’s place?” This was Boomer.
His “guy”. Hmm. “No,” I said. “I’m not going to your dealer’s.”
The smell of marijuana drifted toward the front of the van.
“Hey, I’d really appreciate if you guys didn’t…”
“Didn’t what?” It was Randy. “Smoke a little dope? Come on, now! What else we got, huh?”
They all started talking: We got no women. We got no prospects. We sleep in a big locked room.
I sighed. “Do what you want,” I said. “I don’t care.”
And maybe it was the long hours. Maybe it was the outrageous amounts of pot smoke that rolled through the back seat of that van, but the two months I drove van for my brother’s crew was both the easiest and hardest way to make a buck. There was the equipment we loaded and unloaded in the snow, the nap Jeff took every afternoon in the back of the van, the runs to Subway for lunch, the winter gloom of arriving at the workhouse before the sun came up, the dark loneliness of the drive back home.
The worst day on the job was my very last.
When you’re at the head of the line of cars waiting for the light to turn, when you’ve managed to scrape a face-sized line-of-sight into the windshield, when it’s snowing and you are forced to unwind your window to stick your arm out, intermittently, to un-stick the wiper blades, when the stoners in the back are passing yet another joint, what happens next?
The light turns green and the van stalls.
The voices from the back rose in a chorus.
“Give it some gas!”
“No, you’re flooding it!”
“Well, pull over!”
“How’s she supposed to pull over, dingus? It’s dead!”
“Hey, are we sliding?”
We were. The van, at the head of a line of now-impatiently honking cars, was slowly slipping backwards.
“Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes!”
“I AM hitting the brakes!” I screamed. “We’re on ice!”
“Holy crap, we’re going to slide into the car behind us!”
“Get out!” I yelled. “Get out and stop this van!”
Four men, reeking of pot, bloodshot eyes squinting in the failing light, climbed out of the van and threw their shoulders into keeping it from rolling.
HONK! HONK! HOOOOOONK!
I looked in the rearview mirror to see the man in the BMW behind us, the car that would have a van in its grill were it not for the men with their shoulders against it, laying on his horn.
He had lowered his window: “Move that piece of @#$!”
I smiled feebly and held my hands up in the international gesture of futility.
Mr. Beemer was not amused. “Move it!” he screamed. “Move it or I’m calling the cops!”
The guys keeping the van from sliding start cackling. The cops? He’s going to call the cops on a stalled vehicle?
DuWayne turns around, leaned his back into the van and grins at him, revealing his missing teeth. “You want us to let this go, then?”
“I want you to move it, you low-life losers!” the man screamed.
And that’s when the van started slipping again. From my driver’s seat I heard all four voices from the rear of the van begin to shout.
“DuWayne!” It was Randy’s voice that rose above the din of the other men’s voices. “DuWayne, no!”
DuWayne was suddenly at the BMWs driver’s door, pounding at the window, which appeared to have been raised against the vision of the large, dentally-challenged man charging his car. “Who you callin’ a loser?! WHO YOU CALLIN A LOSER?!”
Various forms of the sentence “No, DuWayne, no!” hit my ears as I closed my eyes and put my right hand back on the keys. I begin an internal chant: Start. Start. Start. Start!
The van roared to life. In my rearview mirror I watched them pulling DuWayne from the hood of the car. I threw the van into gear, moving cautiously sideways as the tires sought traction.
“Get in the van! Get in the van!” I screamed. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
It took all of them to pull DuWayne away from the BMW. They threw themselves into the back of the van, and the sliding door shut as I drove away.
The BMW chose to stay at the light, a line of cars behind him, honking.
I started a “normal” job in an office two days later.
Boomer, Randy, and Jeff have gone on with their lives, I’m sure. Doing what, I have no idea.
I received a “butt-dialed” call from DuWayne roughly eight years later where I learned, through diligent eavesdropping, that he and someone named “Cherry” were down at a lake, drinking beer in his car, and (apparently) admiring each other’s swimsuits.
I hung up when they started removing them.
I no longer drive a van load of dope-smoking petty offenders to work every day.
And in hindsight, I kinda miss it.
Pearl writes a daily humor-based/observational blog called Pearl, Why You Little…. She lives in NE Minneapolis where she picks up litter, makes herself laugh while waiting for the bus, and endures the late-night phone calls her cat Liza Bean Bitey (of the Minneapolis Biteys) takes in the bathroom. Pearl works downtown, enjoys referring to herself in the third person, and is willing to write for beer. She can be reached through her blog or at firstname.lastname@example.org.