I was driving the Recycling Truck for the Bloomfield Department of Public Works when I found her. Her pale face was exquisite: a perfect cameo, with high cheek bones and cool blue eyes. The arch of her pale eyebrows suggested she was thinking, I should be surprised—but I’m not. Those red lips were parted in the hint of a smile, daring you to say something clever. Her small head was tilted to the right, quizzical but encouraging. Like Jane Fonda in Barbarella, her magnificent breasts were just the right size, in the sweet spot between what my co-workers called squeakers and honkers. She was bald, which only added to her allure and oh, she had no arms.
She was stuffed head-first into a garbage can on Watsessing Avenue, not far from my apartment in Bloomfield, New Jersey, June 1981. She was half a mannequin someone didn’t want anymore. I was a tall, scrawny, divorced shipwreck someone didn’t want anymore. I brought her into the truck’s cab and stuck her between my co-workers, Schatzie and Chad. Chad named her Lovey after Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island.
Our truck was 607, a dinged-up canary yellow four ton dump truck. There was the vague promise of a new recycling truck on the horizon but we had to make 607work for us until it arrived. Our assignment was to drive through town, different neighborhoods on different days, and pick up the residents’ curbside newspapers, bottles and aluminum cans. Chad was the youngest and smallest of our crew. He looked like Tweety Bird as a rock star with long golden hair, a golden moustache and wispy goatee. He was a good natured boy with a cowboy swagger, a booming voice and an abrupt hearty laugh. It was easy to make him laugh.
Schatzie was full-bodied, dark-haired and ruddy. He had soulful brown eyes, a permanent five o’clock shadow and a pretty mouth that lisped like a baby’s. His specialty was sound effects: sirens, airplanes, car crashes, animals (especially monkeys and elephants) and the tribal war chants he learned from Tarzan movies. His remarkable imitation of zipper opening and closing was accompanied by a nod to his crotch and the words, “Skull for one,” his rococo version of the standard “Blow me.” It became the favorite snappy come back in the break room. Schatzie’s real name was Robert. He was 28 and lived with his parents, the Schatzingers. I was 30, had a 10 year old son who lived his mother. Chad, Schatzie and I were all hired at the same time two years ago and we each spent those two years bouncing from department to department. Our randomly tossed together boy band was, luckily, a harmonious one. Though we were always covered in grime and slightly behind schedule, we laughed most of the day.
We were a little shy around Lovey at first; we just stared at this beautiful creature tucked between us. Then we looked at each other and busted out laughing. As we drove, I got an idea: I took off my blue denim shirt and put it on Lovey. I sat at the passenger window and put Lovey in my lap. I poked her head out the window while I stared straight ahead. I turned Lovey’s perfect little head slowly from side to side so that she looked like a queen who was curious about her subjects. If she had arms she would have waved. We drove through the center of town several times just to make sure people got a good look at her. About three out of five noticed her and the reactions varied: a shout, a wave, a whistle, a hoot, a honk. Somebody threw a donut at us. I had to keep a straight face because I was, you know, used to a beautiful bald woman in my lap, in my truck.
After an hour of Lovey’s Grand Tour we pulled in front of Buff’s Diner and howled for fifteen minutes. We put Lovey under wraps, locked the truck and went inside for our usual monster breakfast: pancakes, bacon, fried eggs, home fries served by Rose, our scowling but tender-hearted waitress. Every time we thought about Lovey’s Grand Tour we howled.
“You ain’t laughing at me, are you?” Rose asked as she squirted whipped cream on Chad’s blueberry pancakes.
“No, baby. Never.”
“Then I don’t give fuck,” she said and shook her copper-red head. “The way I figure it
every knock is a boost.”
“Yes,” Schatzie said, “and it’s important to know your boosters from your knockers.”
On the way back to the yard we stopped by my place on Watsessing Avenue so I could drop Lovey off at her new home. I wouldn’t bring something so beautiful back to the maintenance yard. Those animals would destroy her.
When we got back to the yard we were called into the management office. Our foreman, Richie Rastiello waited with his arms folded.
“Are you ladies done playing with your dollies?”
There were reports from all over town about the beautiful bald passenger incident. He tried to make it a general accusation but his focus kept drifting back to me. All I could do was shrug. “It won’t happen again.” Though I couldn’t guarantee it.
Richie was short and dark with big, moist brown eyes and a glorious, towering pompadour. Even when he was being stern his eyes twinkled. He looked like a heroic mouse from a fairy tale and some of the guys called him Mouse or Ratso to his face. Though he got the job because he was Chubby Venello’s son in law, he was a by-the-book professional and I appreciated that
Lovey had an exalted place in my spare and sunny apartment, where she sat between a mimosa bush and a little maple tree. My apartment, furnished with stuff I found on my route, was above a barber shop on Watsessing, a block away from the train station. The barber, Willie Feather, was also the super of the building. He was a wiry little bird of a man who looked like he’d fit right into the ensemble of a Preston Sturges movie. The barber shop didn’t do much business. It was mostly a hangout for the remaining older white men in the neighborhood. Though Willie was pleasant enough, he always called me Randy, which wasn’t my name.
The Watsessing section of Bloomfield was in the town’s funkier South End, on the border with even funkier East Orange and it was in rapid decline. The halfway decent diner down the street closed suddenly and the bar across the street from it went topless and got shut down. Half of the storefronts were vacant. The Watsessing train station was just a dark scary platform that a handful of commuters used to get to Newark, New York or Hoboken. I assumed the name Watsessing came from some Hessian who helped us out in the Revolutionary War--General Gunter Watsessing! While we walked through Watsessing Park my son told me the word Watsessing actually came from the gentle Lenni Lenape tribe, the area’s original inhabitants, and it meant crooked. The crooked thing it referred to was the Third River, which may have been a real river once but now was just a sluggish stream that zigzagged through the neighborhood and collected shopping carts along the way.
Lovey was the perfect roommate. She was quiet, for one thing, easy on the eyes and very soothing to the nerves. Like me, she enjoyed listening to the radio, WNCN, the classical station and funky, listener-sponsored WBAI. Her perpetual sidelong glance was non-judgmental no matter how foolishly I acted when I was with someone or alone. Though my day times were loud and lively, most nights were solitary and sleepless. A few times when I was really drunk and lonely I brought her into my lumpy fold out sofa bed for a chaste cuddle. I just wanted something to hold on to. While I held Lovey’s hard body, I thought this is really, really sad and that realization along with the gin acted like a sedative. I felt like a failure. There were a million reasons why I couldn’t stay married but I missed being a full time dad and I especially loved the bedtime stories part.
Chad usually brought his mini boom box to the truck and we had it cranked up to the two best rock stations most of the day. Schatzie loved Rush, Chad and I weren’t crazy about them but the way Schatzie sang along with Geddy Lee on Limelight so impressed us that we actually shut up and listened to him. Chad’s theme song was AC/DC’s Dirty Deed Done Dirt Cheap. We all joined in the chorus with Chad’s rock star gravelly pipes taking the lead. My band for that year was Foreigner. I could hit the high notes on Waiting for a Girl like You and, no matter what the situation, I always had to dance to Urgent.
It came on the radio one late summer morning while we were on a quiet street near the Glen Ridge border. I was on the truck stacking the piles of newspaper in a crisscross pattern based on a crochet double stitch I learned when I tried to quit smoking. It really did keep the papers from tumbling over. I started my Urgent dance, which included a lot of fist pumping, kicks and jumping up and down. I imagined that my long hair looked like David Lee Roth’s when I tossed it. It didn’t. When it got to Junior Walker’s scorching sax solo, I ripped my shirt off and waved it in the air like a flag and as the song powered down I jumped off the back of the truck into a perfect dismount, landing on my feet. Chad and Schatzie cheered and I put my shirt back on. When we got back to the yard, Richie called us into the office.
“What the fuck! When you ladies ain’t playing with dollies, you’re stripping. Nobody wants to see your bony ass, Ribs.”(One of my nicknames was Rack O’ Ribs) “Can you keep your fucking clothes on and pick up some fucking newspapers for a fucking change? His tone was withering, his delivery spot on but his big brown eyes still twinkled. “And P.S, Ribs, your blouse is on backwards and inside out.”
We also went through patches where we said everything with exaggerated English accents. Chad had to stop at home to pick up his radio. He’d told us his mother had been born in England and that his full name was Chadwick. I saw his mom waving at him from the window. I loved the movie The Lady Vanishes and when we pulled up I did my Dame May Whitty impersonation as Chad’s mother, “Oh look, it’s Chadwick, stopping in for a spot of tea. I do hope he likes the crumpets and watercress sandwiches.”
Our fantasy was that people would put out their newspapers in bundles neatly tied with twine, but they rarely did. They liked to stuff them in brown paper shopping bags, which were not recyclable. The shopping bags were like ornery brown life forms, hard to fold and hard to tear. No matter how skillfully we crumpled and crammed them into every available inch of the truck, they always sprang back to spiteful life and defeated us. When I talked to Richie about it, I channeled Walter Cronkite using my deep voice and big words. Richie smiled as he listened and gave us permission to put the bags into garbage cans IF we were ahead of the garbage trucks. I was proud of the way I used my vocabulary to create a system that made our job easier, body and mind working as one. Our new system lasted only three glorious days. On the morning of the fourth day, as I stuffed shopping bags into a couple of cans at the curb I heard a scratchy female voice behind me.
“Hey you, Get away from my garbage can! Get away from my can!”
I turned and saw a scrawny old white woman in a faded pink robe and pink slippers, with pink curlers in her hair, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, defiantly standing on her lawn.
“It’s OK, Ma’m. We’re from the town’s recycling department. We got permission from the town to put the paper bags in garbage cans if we were ahead of the garbage trucks,” I said feeling and sounding reasonable. The poor woman just didn’t she understand how important this system was to us. Not yet, anyway.
“Get the hell away from my garbage can or I’ll call the cops!”
“It’s okay Ma’am, The garbage truck is a block or so behind us and they’ll take it all away. I promise,” I cupped my hand to my ear. “Listen. You can hear them.”
“Get away from my house, you! I’m calling the cops!”
I started walking toward her. “Ma’am, you don’t understand. We work for the town. See our truck and the town insignia?” And can’t you see how smart and presentable I am? I’m even using my Walter Cronkite voice for you.
“Get away from me, you! Get your ass off my lawn. I’m calling the cops right now!”
I lost my temper. I pointed at her. “Get back in the house!”
“Fuck you!” she said, backing up.
“Get back in the house right now!” I kept pointing and advancing. My voice was big and filled the block. She backed up toward her door, still yapping.
“Get back in the house! Get back in the house!” I kept jabbing my finger toward her until she was back in her house, yipping at me from behind her screen door. She held her pink Princess phone in her hand and was talking to someone. I heard a distant siren and braced myself for a big scene.
As I approached 607 the siren got louder then sputtered into a raspberry. It was one of Schatzie’s sound effects. He and Chad were howling.
When we got back to the yard, Richie was aware of the dust up and surprisingly mellow about it. Apparently the old bag called the cops all the time about something. But because of her we lost the paper bag/garbage can option and my experiment in combining my body and mind through diplomacy failed. I was just a guy on a truck.
Besides paper bags some creative town folk used duct tape or panty hose to bind their newspaper bundles. One family used pet droppings as a glue to keep their bundles intact. We came across a big pile of these waste product monstrosities and as I sifted through them, I did the Dame May Whitty voice, “I say, Chadwick. Look at these bundles! How bizarre!” “Bizarre!” became our word for soiled, unrecyclable newspapers that went into their own pile of shame. The glass and aluminum we picked up were kept in barrels on the truck, which we tied together to keep from tipping over. We had three bays in the maintenance yard, a small one for garbage (bizarre!), and two bigger ones where we dumped the aluminum and the glass at the end of the day.
We took the newspapers to Garden State Paper, one of the first newspaper recycling plants in the country and the last vestige of the late great Newark Evening News which had patented the process. It was nice to get out of town and a pleasant ride on Route 46, along the Passaic River to get to the recycling plant in Garfield. Garden State Paper was a big white complex that took up 16 bustling acres. We had to check in at the front office where the smiling ladies always offered us cookies. Then with our paper work squared away we lined up behind other trucks to get onto the ramp. We turned the truck around and backed on to the ramp, making sure we were lined up properly with the restraints that kept the truck from sliding off it.
We got out and watched the ramp lift our truck and dump its newspapers into a giant vat, the size of a backyard swimming pool, full of swirling soapy water. An enormous, jagged wire arm stirred and swooped through the water, snagging and scooping out any debris like string, staples or glue. The washed paper was funneled into another big vat where it mixed with water to create slurry, the base component from which new paper was created. It was thrilling and somehow soothing to watch the flowing, swirling process. The gray slurry looked like the gruel Oliver Twist had to ask for more of at the workhouse.
This satisfying tail end of the operation was efficiently overseen by a tall wiry Polish man whose name tag had a lot of consonants on it. As a joke I referred to him Lazslo Pierogi. He was always remarkably pleasant, as were the rest of the guys in the plant and the gals in the office. You knew they believed what they did was important and as a result the whole place hummed with purpose, like a working class Oz.
One day, after a couple of puffs on a joint, Chad slipped and called our Polish friend Lazslo Pierogi to his face.
“Hello, Lazslo Pierogi!” he said in his booming voice.
“Lazslo Pierogi? Lazslo Pierogi!” our Polish friend repeated, making sure he heard it right and then he let loose with a wonderful cackle. Every week after that, we always boomed out, “Laszlo Pierogi!” as he approached us. This tickled all four of us immensely and we wound up laughing too much. Then Laszlo had to say, with a smile, “OK. Knock it out, you guys. Knock it out and let’s get back to work.”
Garden State Paper was later bought by Enron, yes that Enron, and when they went belly up they shut down Garden State Paper in 2001 and 750 people lost their jobs. The blue collar magic of the place lingers on a Facebook page where former employees reminisce about the good old days and plan reunions where I imagine Lazlo is the DJ and unleashes his joyous cackle.
Before I got the DPW job I worked for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad as a carpenter. We rarely built anything, instead we knocked things down before they collapsed and killed somebody. I was there for five years and watched the railroad die a slow, gasping death before I got laid off. Then I was out of work for six months with no job prospects as the economy tanked even deeper.
I was the sole support of my wife and son then and for a while we were on food stamps.
Things changed when Jimmy Carter initiated the CETA program (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). I was one of a dozen or so men, including Chad and Schatzie, hired by the DPW under it. We were all of diverse ethnicities and ages because diversity was part of the mandate. For all of us, the program and the job were lifesavers and the goal was to do well and be hired by the town as a permanent employee. The pay and benefits were decent, the hours were easy and you didn’t have to commute.
Before CETA most of the guys got their jobs through nepotism and most of them were from the connected Italian families in town. Everybody had nicknames, sometimes more than one. Chubby Venello was the Director of Public Works and Chubby Tortola was in charge of street signs. There were two guys named Junior and one Tiny, who, of course, weighed three hundred pounds. Stinkweed and Useless were the nicknames for the pair who drove the “honey dipper” the truck dispatched to handle sewer backups. There was Binky, Blinky, Shakey Jake, Tony the Horse and Ray the Horse and Twitchy Guglilotta, to name a few. Twitchy’s other nickname was Deep because of his deep pockets and short arms and anything that wasn’t nailed down wound up in those deep pockets. He sometimes came to work in his pajama tops and left them on all day.
The DPW was the repository for the less than stellar relative who’d have a hard time keeping any other kind of job. A prime example was Lucius Castelli, the nephew of a councilman. He was 35 with the mind of a 12 year old, a short, solid body, a jack-o-lantern head with wide-set saucer eyes and a sweet grin. His mother ironed his impeccable shirts and pants every day and filled his gleaming stainless steel lunch box with fragrant, homemade calzones and sausage and pepper sandwiches that he ate very, very slowly. We worked together for one week picking up bulky waste and all day long he asked me the same two questions in his strangled little voice.
“What’s your name?” And, “how many girlfriends you have?”
I tried to come up with a new exotic name every time, as I would with a child.
What’s your name? Pinchus Marinkus.
How many girlfriends do you have? 27.
What’s your name? Shlomo Nostromo,
How many girlfriends do you have? 9 and a half.
What’s your name? Larry Caligari,
How many girlfriends do you have? None.
That last answer was accurate. I was gay. Lucius giggled every single time so it was hard to be mad at him.
Lucius had a huge dick according to Mugsy (Neil) McGinty, who was the grandson of an ex fire chief. Mugsy was short and talked like a Lollipop Kid from The Wizard of Oz. There were big flakes in his greasy dark hair and his glasses were taped at the bridge. The grimy, ripe blue jumpsuit he wore every day was covered with cat hair. After punching in he took a swipe at his assignment, and then went to the house cleaning service he owned. No job too big or too small was on his station wagon. What about cat hair?
He was married to a woman who looked just like him (Mrs. Mugsy) and their son, (Mugsy Jr.) completed the munchkin family portrait. Even though he talked about eating pussy all the time, Chief Inspector Mugsy knew what everybody was packing and reported on it, like an FBI of the urinal.
“Chubby Tortola needs a compass and a map to find his teeny weeny scaloppini.”
“Mike Tonzola’s piece got a big head with dents in it.”
“Lucius, the Doofus is number one. It’s like an elephant trunk--and Nicky Nardone is number two. His is like a sword—and it glows!”
“You mean like Excalibur?”
“How do you know all this stuff?” I asked him.
“Don’t worry, you ain’t doing so bad,” he answered.
There were a few Polish guys who were distant relatives of the Polish mayor. The three black men on the roster were Lawrence, in his fifties, tall, quiet and dignified (and number three on Mugsy’s list) and Lenny, close to retirement and playing the shuffling fool. The other was a gigantic young black man with an afro and beard who bristled with attitude, Bartlett Lee Ruffridge. He was treated like a star because he drove the street sweeper and handled all the heavy equipment like the front loader, back hoe, fork lift and bulldozer. He had a deep, booming voice and looked like he could snap any guy in two, though his wide open face looked like a happy baby’s when he smiled. He was referred to as Big Black Bart and I was warned not to mess with him.
At the end of the work day the break room was like a black-hearted social club with poker and gin games and darts that were sometimes aimed at your head. It took me a long time to adjust to the brutal gossip. Nothing was off limits, wives, kids, or mothers. I didn’t know men talked that way. The railroad’s locker room was no tea party but it seemed like a country club compared to this slugfest. For the first year, I kept my trap shut after Shaky Jake Fiore listened to me talk to Richie in the break room one day and announced to everybody. “Ribs, when you talk, it’s like, it’s like…fucking Masterpiece Theater!”
I was with a crew chowing down at Buff’s Diner on a blizzard night. Rose scolded them.
“My God, yous eat like animals. Why can’t you be dainty--like my boyfriend here? “She patted my head. The dainty thing took a while to die down.
I was weird, I was different. I was gay. I kept my trap shut and felt the buzz all around me until Twitchy Gugliotta broke through. Twitchy was a little cross eyed and I’d pegged him as dangerous. He marched up to me while I played gin with some summer college kids.
“So what are you, Cuban or Puerto Rican or what?” The whole room waited. I took a beat.
“None of the above.” It kept them at bay for a while but I had been breached.
A few months later Twitchy came up to me again.
“So what’s your name again, is it Garcia, or Jimenez or Rodriguez?”
“None of the above.”
It didn’t work as well this time and I became Rodriguez, then Regis, then Ribs.
Twitchy and I almost came to blows shortly after that. I was still married when his daughter and his two bratty grandsons moved on to our block. My son was seven then, smart and mellow with a wicked sense of humor and an iron will. Twitchy’s mutant offspring started to pick on him. He was no pushover and could handle himself. One Sunday afternoon I looked out the window and saw Twitchy’s brats sneak up behind him and knock my son off his bike. I bolted down the stairs and chased them down the street and all the way up to their kitchen, where their grandmother, Mrs. Twitchy, was at the oven, stirring Sunday gravy in a pot while they hid under her apron.
“Keep those brats away from my son!” I shouted and left.
The next day Twitchy confronted me in the break room.
“Stay away from my family, you spic. I can have you rubbed out for a measly hundred dollars.”
“Go ahead,” I said. I felt so righteous that I wasn’t spooked at all. Besides, I knew Twitchy would never spend $100 on anything.
I was still married those first two years before I got on the recycling truck. After one last scorched earth argument I stormed out of the house and left everything behind. I bounced around, sometimes sleeping in my car until I found the apartment on Watsessing Avenue. I was raggedy and raw and taking it one day at a time. The day Lovey and I found each other was a good day.
I bounced around the DPW too going from department to department. In the spring I was assigned to pot hole repair and street paving. In the summer I got assigned to the Tree Crew, the rock stars of the DPW and their truck was The Magic Bus. The same dinged-up yellow as the rest of the trucks, it had a hollow, covered wagon body and a long thick arm with a bucket big enough for one man. When its long, graceful arm was extended the truck looked like a dinosaur, the Diplodicus, as it grazed among the tree tops. It often trailed a baby Diplodicus behind it: the wood chipper. I liked working on Linden trees the best. Their branches sailed easily through the wood chipper and gave off a sweet spray. When you sawed them, the wood was soft and tasty looking, like fresh turkey breast. Best of all, in the summer the Lindens sprouted fragrant yellow blossoms
The tree crew was headed by volatile, charismatic Nick Nardone, number two on the Mugsy list. Short, wiry with black hair and coal black eyes, he sported a snappy Clark Gable mustache that he used like a prop. When he stroked it, you braced for impact. Most of us had mustaches but nobody used his for punctuation like Nick. He was married and had two young sons. When there were three men in the truck Nick insisted I sit next to him because he liked the way I smelled and the sound of my voice. We were usually elbow to elbow and when he shifted gears, the silky graze of soft hairs on our forearms gave me jolts of manly pleasure.
Lenny, the old black fool, wore the same khaki flak suit every day and may have worn it on duty in Korea way back when. His long, convoluted stories usually included some reference to Korea and were meant to assure the white assembly that he was harmless--and a patriot. If he went on too long, I noticed Big Black Bart groaned and left the room. One morning Lenny walked in to the break room and announced, “Hey Ribs. I was driving by your building last night and I saw you. You had on your little short shorts and you was skipping across the street with your little boyfriend.” I did not see it coming-- from that direction.
Everybody stared at me. I huffed and puffed but had nothing to say.
I considered, that wasn’t my boyfriend, just some guy I met at a bar.
Just in time Richie came out of the office.
“Okay ladies. Time to get on the road. Move your asses out!”
Some guys heard Lenny, some didn’t. Some understood what he meant, some didn’t. I was big and strong and worked hard but I was weird. Wasn’t I married? Wasn’t I seen around town with my wife and kid? How could I be gay? I didn’t proclaim it. I didn’t hide it. I didn’t back down from it. I gave up a lot to be a gay man and there was no turning back. Lenny’s proclamation nudged the gay fact forward again. Some of the guys didn’t care. And some did.
I was on the tree truck with Nick that day. When we got to our first stop he turned off the engine and stared at me.
“So. Are you gay or what?”
“I knew you were fucked up. Now you’re even more fucked up than I thought you were.”
Now when it was just the two of us in the truck, Nicky often took his big dick out, “to give it some air.” It did glow like Excalibur but it was golden in the sunlight.
“Look at this, Ribs. Look but don’t touch.” Nick said.
“For a fag like you this is a fucking banquet, huh?”
“Oh yes. For all us fags, you know, everywhere.”
“Okay,” he said, as he waved it back and forth. “I was just checking to see how much of a fag you are.” Then he put it away.
A storm blew through town and knocked over more than fifty trees. We were out all day and into the night, cutting them up, and pushing them through the wood chipper. I was tearing through a juicy sycamore with a power saw. Its spray choked me and made my eyes water and I was pouring sweat. Nick came up behind me and pressed up against my butt.
“If only your little friends on Christopher Street could see you now,” he whispered in my ear. I wished I had little friends on Christopher Street who could see me.
One morning he had to go up in the extended arm of the bucket to reach some upper branches.
“Come with me,” he said, holding open the little hinged door.
“There’s only room for one,” said.
“It’ll be OK.”
I squeezed in, in front of him and we rose, shakily, into the upper reaches of a Norway maple. I used the pole pruner with the extended arm to trim the lighter branches while Nick tore through the sturdy ones with a power saw. He was pressed up against me with his hot, Chesterfield breath on my neck. His own pole pruner was extended and I felt its hot nudging at my butt.
“This is nice, ain’t it, you and me way up here alone?” he whispered.
“I bet you’re thinking about what it would be like to in bed with me, huh?”
“I certainly think that would be, um, interesting.” We laughed, but with the wood and the sweat, one twitch and he would have been inside me.
They came in waves, the airings, the unsheathings and the whispers. Always when it was just the two of us. Yes, it was a big beautiful cock. And yes I was gay but two and two did not have to make four this time. Nick had a hair trigger temper. His mighty sword waved but it was attached to a stick of dynamite.
One otherwise pokey afternoon I watched him play gin with a couple of new CETA hires in the break room. Suddenly, he whipped out a switch blade and sliced the wrist of the guy opposite him because he thought he cheated. Another CETA hire, a scrawny Latin guy with a bad attitude was assigned to the tree truck before me. Nick was in the truck, the guy was yapping outside of it. Nick jumped out, punched him in the face and pushed him to the ground. The guy went home bleeding and never came back. In the DPW yard, Nick Nardone was the boss.
Nick did what he did and I smiled. He was playing me and I was playing him. This mating dance was just sexy enough for me as it was. Anything else was too dangerous and not worth it. So that was that.
And then it wasn’t.
Nick and I were at the Preakness Pub for lunch. We all loved Kitty, the pretty blonde barmaid. Some of the guys asked her out but she turned them down. She had plans: she was working her way through business school and wanted to open a chain of nail salons. Her voice was tuneful and perky and her dazzling smile was genuine. I had a bit of a crush on her myself and always asked her about school.
Nick worked her over from the minute they met. He flattered her, built her up, and then knocked her down. He tantalized her, then demeaned her, rotating his weapon array so that she was always off balance. After a few months of Nick’s toxic attention, Kitty smiled less, gained a little weight and seemed scattered and anxious. He had her where he wanted her. I was sure Nick was fucking her because he never bragged about Kitty the way he did about all the others.
It was pay day so Nick and I split a Preakness Pizza with the works and drank boiler makers. He told Kitty her hair looked pretty all hanging loose.
“But I better not find one of them bleached blonde hairs in the pie.”
When Kitty turned to get us more whiskey shots, Nick said, “Oh yeah. That’s my favorite view. And it looks like you went up a pant size, Mama. More to love.”
Kitty looked crushed and she spilled some of the whiskey.
I went to the bathroom and was at a urinal doing the final shimmy shake when Nick came in. He stood at the next urinal.
“Look at this, Ribs. Look at this thing.”
I looked. It throbbed and glowed even in the dreary bathroom light. Was that for me or for Kitty? How many birds can you kill with one big dick?
“You want this, right?” He shook it.
“You want to suck on this, don’t you?”
“More than anything in the fucking world.”
“I bet you dream about sucking on this, right?”
I was drunk. I was pissed off. I didn’t like the way he treated Kitty. She was a good kid.
And—most important--never tell me what I dream about.
I zipped up and stepped toward him.
“Yeah. I want it. I want it right now. I want you to give it to me right now:”
He looked scared. His cock got soft.
“It’s just you and me here right now. Nobody has to know.” I blocked the door.
I held out my hand and beckoned him, beckoned it.
Nick backed up and wound up against the toilet stall door.
“Yeah, that’s good, baby. I can do you in there. More privacy,” I said.
I locked the bathroom door, stepped toward him and growled.
“I want it. Give it to me, now. Give it to me. Come on. Give it to me.”
He screamed like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, squeezed past me, unlocked the bathroom door and ran out. When I came out, he was gone. I paid the check and found him in the truck. “Let’s get back to work,” he said and we were quiet for the rest of the day. That was the end our mating dance. Now and then a few sparks went off and fizzled out.
Nick, of course, was the one who developed the system for rating breasts. Big ones were called Honkers and small ones were Squeakers. Nicky and crew felt it was their duty to let women know how their racks rated. They would lean on the horn and yell out, Nice honkers, sweetheart! Or: Show me those squeakers!
On the way to a fallen tree one morning, we saw a pretty, well-dressed woman in her thirties crossing Broad Street just in front of us. I got the feeling this was a big day for her, a new job, a new dress--something was up. Nick blasted the horn and shouted, “Gorgeous honkers, sweetheart!”
The pretty woman jumped. She was startled and upset. You could see she lost her momentum. Nick started to honk again.
I grabbed his arm. “Let them live, Nick. Let them live.”
He stopped and stared at me with his blunt black eyes and shook his head at my strangeness. Later that day we passed another good looking woman and Louie (Rags) Ragazzi reached past me for the horn. Nick stopped him.
“No, Rags. We can’t do that no more. Let them live! Right, Ribs? Let them live!” he said in a whiny singsong voice.
In the fall, all power was deployed to leaf removal and Richie was like a general leading his balky troops in battle against the forces of nature. The bright green leaves of summer were now the crispy, red, brown and gold enemy, clogging streets and drains. With his walkie talkie glued to his ear, Richie seemed to be commandingly, adorably everywhere. Some of the guys called him Mouselini but if it weren’t for him the town would have been smothered in leaves that were dangerous when wet and even more deadly if they froze.
Don’t mess with Bart. I learned why one golden autumn afternoon. I was one of the Mousellini’s army of peons raking leaves into piles. Bart was working the Front Loader. He scooped up the piles of leaves in his bucket and dumped them into a fleet of waiting trucks. We rakers decided to take a break but Bart wanted to finish for the day. He singled me out of the crowd and shouted in his booming voice, “Move your bony ass, Ribs!” I didn’t look up or turn around, just leaned on my rake and gave him the finger. I didn’t see him jump out of the loader. I was 6’2 and 180 pounds. Bart was 6’3 and packing around 300. He grabbed me, picked me up like I was sack of dirty laundry and tossed me into a truck where I landed on a bed of fragrant, crunchy leaves. It was fun to fly through the air and land safely. I should have been pissed but I wasn’t. Bart and I nodded at each other in a guarded friendly way after that.
A month later there was a blizzard. We got the word a few hours earlier and were sent home to prepare. I knew that I might be on duty for 24 hours or more so I laid out my thermal long johns, fleece ear warmers, a bulky sweater and two pairs of heavy socks. I slathered my work boots in mink oil and set a small bottle of sambuca on my kitchen counter. Then I lay down with Lovey and tried to sleep while I waited for the call from Richie. I never used an alarm clock. I would set my mind to the time I needed to wake up and that system worked for me. Now that I had Lovey, I placed her within view so I could wake up looking at her sidelong glance.
Richie had me on his short list of first responders because I was dependable and good at the prep part of a blizzard, getting the trucks ready by attaching the plows and putting chains on the tires. It was a tough, cold and sometimes dangerous job, but it was important and made me feel valuable. I didn’t mind getting dirty.
The trucks, lined up in the garage bays side by side, were shuddering, slobbering, behemoths. We jacked up their rear ends and wrapped the cold, coarse chains around the big wet tires, sliding under the truck to make sure the chains were securely connected on all sides. It was disgusting and sexy to be underneath the truck, our faces intimate with its greasy, fragrant rear end. We worked quickly just in case the heavy duty jack decided to collapse under the truck’s grunting, shivering tonnage. After a couple of hours the rest of the crew showed up and took the trucks out. There was a pair to every truck, plow guy and wing man, since not everyone was proficient in plowing. I usually got stuck with the peons with shovels, sometimes with Schatzie and Chad. We would often be out all night and came up with a rule: you get to say ‘it’s cold’ three times. Anytime you let it slip after that, you got a face full of snow.
Don’t mess with Bart, Lesson Number Two came when I was part of a crew clearing out a municipal parking lot. Bart was working the front loader and I had a shovel. I was cleaning around a parking meter and Bart wanted me out of the way so he could scoop out the whole lane. I held up my hand, wait, and he blasted the front loader’s obscene Fanfare for Satan horn. I jumped out of my skin and shouted, “Fuck you, you fat bastard!” I wanted to say ‘You Fat Black Bastard’ but, luckily something stopped me. On his throne way up high Bart stared at me and leaned on the horn again. I knew he hated the cold and wouldn’t get out of the warm cab so I was safe. I stood my ground and held my shovel in front of me like a lance, the village idiot squaring off against a dragon. In one graceful swoop, Bart scooped me up in a bucket full of snow and dumped me and the snow into the body of a dump truck. It was big, bad and wrong, just like Bart but so bold and brilliantly executed that I was exhilarated.
The next big snow, he slipped on ice getting off the front loader and sprained his ankle. I was there when it happened and drove him to the Emergency Room at Columbus Hospital. I stayed with him through the waiting room and treatment and we talked the whole time. He said my two brave, stupid stands with the rake and the shovel tickled him and he thought: Who the fuck is this guy? He didn’t know whether to kill me or kiss me, so instead he just tossed me. Bart was a year younger than me and unhappily married to his tough, pretty high school sweetheart, Kayla. They had a beautiful two year old daughter, Kenya, who looked just like Bart. Instead of going back to his tense apartment, Bart began to stop by my quiet pad with beer and pizza or a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and hang out. He often didn’t show up when planned and but would pop by unexpectedly at other times
“What’s up with that?” I asked.
“It’s a black thing,” he said.
Bart had a crush on Lovey. One night he picked her up and held her in the air in front of him. “She’s the perfect woman, “he said. “She’s beautiful--with no voice for nagging, no hair for shedding, and no arms for grabbing.” Then he kissed her on the lips and I thought I saw a blush on her alabaster cheek.
One night snowy night we were assigned plow detail. I had never operated the plow and wanted to learn how but Bart only let me be his wing man. It wasn’t a big snow and we were just cruising around, racking up overtime until Richie told us to stop. We listened to the jingle bell chant of the truck’s chains, talked trash and got buzzed on my trusty little bottle of Sambuca. The truck was running smoothly but we kept hearing a strange, rhythmic whirring sound. We were near the Animal Shelter and pulled into its quiet dead end street. Bart turned off the engine and we still heard the sound. He turned it back on and we heard the sound. Bart was a gifted amateur mechanic and tinkering with cars was fun for him. On/off. On/off.
In the quiet of the cold night I thought the whirr sounded like a shy little flying saucer looking for a safe place to land and I said so.
“No, it’s not that. I know this sound,” Bart said. “Let me think.”
He stroked his goatee and announced:
“The belt has slipped off the alternator and now it’s just a motor.”
“What?” I asked him to repeat it.
“The belt has slipped off the alternator and now it’s just a motor.”
We were completely buzzed on the Sambuca now.
“Say that again.”
“The belt has slipped off the alternator and now it’s just a motor.”
I took his hand.
“I think that is one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever heard,” I said.
He blushed, completely taken by surprise. We started making out and I wound up blowing him in the truck while the possible little flying saucer hovered around us sending photos of skull for one back to Mars. When we stepped out of the truck to pee, I noticed that the flashing red beacon light on top of the cab was out. It was still turning but the light was dead. We got into the truck and Bart flipped a switch above his head. The whirring sound stopped and the Martian invasion was averted.
One Saturday night he wanted to go out but he didn’t have any money. That’s OK, I said, I have money. I had twenty dollars. When he showed up it turned out his idea of no money was twenty dollars, so between us we had forty, just enough to make some noise. We drove into New York and wound up at The River Club, a big gay dance warehouse in the far West Village. It was Bart’s first time in a gay bar and he was nervous. A pack of sweet guys from Staten Island thought we were a cute couple and offered us coke and bought us drinks. It’s Raining Men was blasting through the club and I didn’t want to spook Bart by leaving him to go dance but our Staten Island friends came and dragged us onto the floor. Bart was a good, showy dancer. At one point he picked up the smallest Staten Island guy, tossed him in the air—and caught him. It caused several involuntary ejaculations throughout the club. We got cranked and hammered and danced all night long, crawling through the Holland Tunnel at 10am. I wondered how he squared this with Kayla, who was no pushover. All I had waiting for me was Lovey, sitting propped by the window like a beautiful Mrs. Bates, you know, Norman’s mom. She didn’t have to be apologized to, walked or fed and her shapely shadow at the window kept burglars at bay.
Bart and I fucked around a couple of more times but it wasn’t about sex at all. We had great chemistry and lots of mutual nerve. I knew I was a mess, always skimming just a pubic hair’s length above disaster. Scrawny, broken-hearted, hungry I was full of some kind of hissing juice that could be sweet or turn sour in an instant. I was in freefall. Bart chose to tag along for the ride. It could seem like fun sailing through the air but the direction was down, down, down and the landing wasn’t soft. The stakes were different for Bart. He was playing at being crazy but I really was crazy.
Hanging with Bart fueled the hothouse gossip of the break room. We came in together from a job and Nick stood up, smoothed his mustache and announced,
“Well, well. Here comes Mr. and Mrs. Ruffridge.” All eyes were on us. He pointed at us and said, “I don’t wanna say nothing…BUT I’m not sure who’s fucking who here. One always got a hole in the front of his pants and the other one always got a hole in the back.”
In response, Bart kissed my hand and I curtsied.
Whenever you heard that phrase, “I don’t wanna say nothing,” it was always followed by a big BUT and something hateful being said.
Chester (Binky) Binkowski was the supervisor of the Water and Sewage Department. He was a notch above Richie in seniority and a sour little Humpty Dumpty with a crew cut who always had a Parliament dangling from his frown. Binky’s wife was a big shot in the Board of Education. Binky cruised around town on personal errands in his pickup and showed up at job sites where he watched, hands on his hips, and barked out a few orders. Nick called him Meat Byproduct. Binky got sick, was out for awhile. It was cancer. He came back to work for a bit and looked terrible. One afternoon, he was in the full break room talking and then he left. For some reason he didn’t go all the way outside. I could see his shadow in the doorway.
“I don’t wanna say nothing, Nick said, touching his upper lip “BUT who wants to get in on my pool?”
“What pool?” Twitchy asked.
“Pick the month that Binky dies.” I looked at the shadow in the doorway. It shuddered.
When the town decided to start a curbside recycling program, I was happy that Richie chose me for it. As a former hippie I believed in recycling and faithfully brought my newspapers and glass to the one recycling center in the area. Recycling was an important and satisfying job and, despite some hiccups, life was good on truck 607.
“RECYCLING PROGRAM REPORTS PROGRESS” was the headline in Bloomfield Life, below which was a picture of us loading the truck. “In an average week the Bloomfield Recycling Department picks up between 16 and 20 tons of newspaper, glass and aluminum. The program has brought $25,000 into the town treasury in less than a year.”
Hot on the heels of that headline, a black cloud descended on our glorious, well-reviewed Camelot of Refuse and his name was Fausto Farina. He had been appointed Recycling Supervisor to oversee the operation. Fausto was the aluminum siding czar of Bloomfield. Just about every house in town was covered in aluminum siding and posted a sign with his name on it. His wife, Albertina Farina, was the town administrator’s secretary, a powerful position. Her picture was always in Bloomfield Life, dressed up in a toga gown at function or dressed down at a Little League game. With her olive skin and bleached blond hair she looked like a grouchy cocker spaniel.
Fausto wore black all the time, including a black trench coat and a black fedora. He was short and dark with slicked back thinning hair, a broken nose and dazzling white caps that accentuated the cheerlessness of his infrequent smile. Tinted shades always covered his bulbous eyes. You could tell he knew something about something: who stole the meatballs and where they were hidden. I wondered if this job was some kind of pay off for him, like if he landed the rumored new experimental truck, he’d get the contract to cover Town Hall in aluminum siding and nobody had to know where those meatballs were—ever.
We hadn’t heard we were getting a new boss so we were surprised when Richie introduced Fausto to us one morning as we were getting the truck ready to pull out.
“You guys been doing an OK job so far but now that I’m in charge I want one hundred percent performance one hundred percent of the time.” Fausto said. “We are on the short list for a brand new recycling truck and I want to make sure we get it. If you got a problem with any of this, better speak up now so you can kiss this job goodbye.” Then he added, “Capiche?”
“Nice to meet you too,” I said.
Chad and Schatzie looked at the ground and I looked at Fausto in disbelief and a displeasure it was impossible to hide. We were off to a bad start. A brand new prototype recycling truck had been designed in Canada. Thanks to our work and the aggressive recycling program, Bloomfield was on the short list to try it for three months. If that test went well, we might even get to keep it. Fausto, with his greasy combination of skills and connections, was brought on to ensure that we got a shot at this miracle truck. Schatzie already had a voice for the truck, a seductive whisper with a lisp. In our fantasy we drove around town and our new truck whispered in its sexy voice to the refuse collected at the curb, “Come to me. Come to me”. The papers would then fly through the air like swans and the bottles and cans would march to the back of the truck like little soldiers and hop into the back of the truck to be happily crunched.
We had to be on our best behavior because we were often trailed by a mini fleet of state officials and reps from the recycling truck company to gauge if we were worthy of this sexy whispering miracle truck. They all dressed in black, just like Fausto, and followed us in official black cars. And, like Fausto, they even wore silly little black fedoras. Schatzie called them The Black Hat Brigade.
For us it was like Lent. We had to give up singing, dancing, weed, monster breakfasts at Buff’s and getting into fights with ugly old women. The Black Hat Brigade sometimes got out of their cars and watched us at particular stops. They talked about us like we were lab rats but never directly to us. If they did have a question they asked Fausto who had to ask us since he didn’t know anything about the job. All this trailing and stopping and starting, in addition to daily reports we had to fill out, put us consistently behind schedule.
Fausto sucked up to the Black Hats and when they were gone, tore into us. He started at a growling sneer and worked himself into something like a scream. His rage was so out of proportion that it stunned us into silence at first. He used the word sabotage a lot. I was surprised that he knew it. We were just doing our job as usual so I didn’t know who the saboteurs were. I had never seen someone froth at the mouth before. His fits sucked all the joy out of our merry band.
The miracle recycling truck had passed its trials in Quebec and three big towns in the province bought them for their fleet. I didn’t hear this from Fausto but from Rose, our Buff’s waitress. I bumped into her at Food Town, in her civilian clothes with her copper hair in big pink rollers covered by a big pink scarf. She was worried about us because we just disappeared, thanks to this punishing new schedule. She waited on Fausto and Chubby when they met with reps from the truck company. From what she gathered, the Canadian reps were going to drive the truck down in a few days and present it to us.
A few days later I turned the corner at the DPW yard and saw a big, beautiful green entity through the chain link fence. There was a small crowd around it. A first glance it looked like a jolly Disney-fied stegosaurus without the bony plates on its back. It was our gorgeous new recycling truck: 20 feel long, 8 feet wide, almost 9 feet high. It had two axles, 200 horsepower, and a 5 speed manual transmission and weighed over 30,000 pounds. Schatzie, Chad and I all got to it at the same time and jumped up and down, clapping our hands.
“Don’t touch nothing,” Richie said. They’re gonna give you a demonstration.”
While Fausto, Chubby and the Canadian reps were having breakfast at Buff’s we crawled all over the gigantic yet fragile beautiful green monster. Its snub nose and two big windows gave it a merry face and personality and the complicated dashboard, loaded with dials, buttons, gauges and levers was like a boy’s wet dream. Bart jumped into the cab and instantly figured it all out, then he explained it to us.
When the truck reps and Fausto showed up they were accompanied by a television crew and some reporters. The jolly Canadian rep gave us a very cursory tutorial on the truck’s operation, playing to the cameras the whole time. A state senator breezed into the yard and, after a quick huddle with the other rep, went on camera to say, “This is a wonderful day in the history of recycling.” Then he left.
The truck’s cavernous rear end had a giant auger in it that leisurely turned and massaged the papers into its gaping maw. A TV reporter wanted a demo and Fausto barked at me to throw some paper in there. All we had on hand were a couple of filthy bundles from the bizarre bin that were tied with panty hose. The camera man gave me the cue and I tossed the bundles into the maw, pulled the lever and watched as they were spun and drawn deeper into the truck’s black hole. Later that night I watched the segment on the News at Seven. I saw my bony arms toss the bundle in and then the camera pulled back and showed me unhappily staring into the truck’s big ass as if I were going to throw myself in too.
That camera captured me looking at my immediate future. The truck was beautiful that was true but our honeymoon with it was short and Schatzie never did use that sexy whisper. Yes, the cab’s cool, sleek lime-green interior had a new baby/new car smell. Yes, the luminous dashboard looked like it belonged on the Starship Enterprise. Unfortunately the truck’s handsome head didn’t match it’s enormous, clunky rear end. And, in operation, the truck had the technical and emotional problems (its ignition didn’t like rain) of a French sports car. The leisurely auger in its big ass turned clockwise in a circular motion, like a washing machine. Papers tended to get jammed unless you inserted them, carefully, a few at a time. When it jammed, we had to open up the back and manually remove the paper. Time lost.
There were two jaunty square containers on the passenger side designed to hold glass and aluminum. When they were full, we pulled an equally jaunty lever and the containers rose shakily like little elevators in pre war buildings. When they reached the top, arms attached to their sides stretched out, tipped them over, and dumped their clinking clanking passengers into the truck’s hollow body. The containers often got stuck in the tipping position, which meant one of us had to climb up there, bang on them and help tip them all the way over. More time lost.
At some point every day, Fausto’s car screeched into our path. He jumped out and charged at us, screaming, “What the fuck! What the fuck! What the fuck!” He was in over his head and it was going to be our fault. Sabotage! Those hidden meatballs were coming back to haunt him.
I dreaded coming to work now. We were always off balance and felt stupid. Chad and Schatzie launched into long, soaring anti-Fausto arias in the safety of the truck but trembled under the assault of his foul, foaming mouth. I tried to keep my trap shut because when I piped up it usually got me in trouble.
We were behind schedule at a stop on East Passaic Avenue that had called in a complaint about their piled up recycling. We sorted through their bizarre newspapers and wet boxes overflowing with empty bottles of Old Crow bourbon. The auger was jammed and the jaunty containers were stuck in mid air. Since the bottles hadn’t been rinsed I was getting a nice buzz from whiffs of the cheap booze. It was a cold day in early November.
We heard the screech and there was Fausto.
“What the fuck! Why are you still here? What’s taking so long?”
We pointed to the jammed auger and the suspended containers.
“Fix it!” he screamed. “I’m tired of getting crap because of your lousy work, you bunch of retards.”
I saw Chad and Schatzie wince and shrink.
“You can’t talk to us like that!” I shouted.
Fausto’s eyes bugged out behind his shades. The spit bubbled around his shit-crack lips. He was right in my face, well in my chin, since I was a foot taller than him.
“Who do you think you’re talking to, asshole?”
“I’m talking to you.” My voice was bigger than his.
“You just made the biggest mistake of your life!”
There was a whoosh and Time Stood Still. It whistled with its hands in its pockets and played pocket pool. I was no longer standing on East Passaic Avenue in Bloomfield, New Jersey, next to a shiny green truck and two shrinking friends with an ugly little man spitting at me. I was transported to another dimension, the one where you rated the mistakes in your life. The sky turned into a giant green chalk board and on it, in white cloud chalk, every mistake I had ever made was being written, slowly, in a clear, open hand. All I could see so far were the glowing words The Biggest Mistake of My Life and the numbers: 1, 2, 3. It looked like the title of a new, bad game show. I thought number one was dropping out of college and knocking up my girlfriend. Nah. We had a few good years and I got my wonderful son out of that mistake. The Biggest Mistake of My Life! I was thinking hard about it in this wonderful timeless bubble when the radio in Fausto’s car crackled.
“Attention all Supervisors and Foremen. We just got word that Binky, uh, passed away. Please return to the yard.”
There was another whoosh and we were back on East Passaic Avenue. Fausto wiped the foam from his mouth, pointed at the truck and the stalled not so jaunty jammed buckets.
“Fix this shit.” He peeled away.
The miracle truck went back to Quebec for repairs, never to be seen again. Instead of assigning us our trusty old dump truck, 607, Fausto rented us vans from Rent a Wreck. We never knew the reason why. I didn’t understand and I didn’t like it. Wasn’t the program a success that brought in new revenue? It said so in the paper! Couldn’t we at least get our old truck back? We knew how to stack and pack a dump truck but the Rent a Wreck vans were something junkies used to move their soiled futons from one shooting gallery to another.
Everything was so clear before Fausto; our work was sunny and wide open, now we dreaded every day and the days were filled with shadows and secrets. There was a big lie in the middle of all this and we kept tripping over it. Along the way, the spirit of our merry band had been broken, a lot less laughter, no singing and dancing. The Case of the Stolen Meatballs had returned and I had an idea about who stole them. Whenever Fausto scolded us now, he ignored me and talked to Schatzie in a somewhat gentler tone. Schatzie did very few sound effects and Chad’s hearty laugh was seldom heard.
The first week of December was cold. We were now days behind schedule chugging around town in a succession of Rent a Wrecks that kept breaking down. One afternoon as we turned the corner on a busy street, the strap holding the barrel full of aluminum cans snapped in the cold. The can fell off the truck and rolled into the middle of the intersection, scattering cans in every direction. They sounded like a stampede of cowbells as we chased after them and tried to avoid oncoming traffic. Schatzie radioed the office and a squad car came. Two cops directed traffic while we cleaned up the mess. When we got it sorted out, we pulled onto a side street. Our carefully stacked newspapers (that crisscross pattern) had collapsed into a slippery chaotic sea of newsprint. When we had everything re-stacked and ready to go, the truck wouldn’t start. We sat in the dirty cab, tired and defeated, radioed the yard to get a jump start. We got the tire screech and Fausto.
“What the fuck is it now” He started at a scream this time.
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
“I ain’t talking to you, asshole.”
“Well, I’m talking to you!” I started pointing, usually a bad sign. “This is all your fault. We lost the new truck. We lost 607. We are going backwards not forwards since you showed up. You’re no manager.”
“You’re a dead man,” he said. His eyes bulged and the mouth foam flew into my face.
I kept pointing and he started backing up.
“You’re pathetic!” I shouted. “You fucked up somewhere and now we’re stuck with this stupid truck and nothing works anymore. We were doing great until you showed up with your lies and your meatballs…”
“Meatballs? What are you talking about, you stupid spic?” He looked scared. I hadn’t meant to say meatballs. To me, he was now the same as the yapping old lady. I kept pointing and advancing.
“You’re pathetic! Get the fuck out of here. Get the fuck out of here!”
He got in his car, wild-eyed and screeched away. Chad, Schatzie and I were quiet until we got a jump and drove the truck back to the yard. I thought I was defending us, defending them. Did I go too far? Probably. I was a stupid spic--and crazy too.
The next morning in the break room we were told that Fausto had a heart attack that night and was in Intensive Care at Columbus Hospital. Everybody looked at me and then looked away. The looking away took root because nobody really looked at me again after that. Fausto was right. I was a dead man. I was right there in front of them but I was not to be seen, for any reason. Except for the end of that day when we assembled in the break room and Nicky stroked his furry upper lip.
“I don’t want to say nothing,” he said “BUT--Ribs you gave that man a heart attack.”
Was I supposed to feel bad? I didn’t. I was a wild animal like the rest of them now and it was him or me. I was braced for a big, ugly payback.
Richie gave us back trusty old 607 back but Schatzie and Chad were quiet and glum now. The bond was broken. Schatzie started to give orders, in a new voice with the same lisp. Chad’s girlfriend was pregnant and he was getting unhappily married. The job limped along, drama-free and joyless. Fausto was making a recovery, damn it. Christmas was around the corner and the CETA guys were supposed to get a bump in pay. I was a Dead Man Walking, except to Bart. He said it would all blow over.
The morning of December 23rd I went to punch my time card. It wasn’t there but in its place was a handwritten note: report to the office. Chubby Vennello, handed me an envelope and said “Sorry.”
Richie, the beautiful mouse, shook my hand and squeezed it. I wanted to kiss him. I was terminated with two weeks’ severance. I walked out, went to my car. My ears were ringing. I drove to my apartment. I turned on WBAI and lay on the couch with Lovey next to me with her quizzical look, what happened? My head was spinning. Me and my big mouth. I asked Lovey: Was this the biggest mistake of my life? I thought she turned her beautiful head a millimeter and lowered her eyes infinitesimally, which I intuited as Ask Again Later.
Merry Fucking Christmas!
I had been fired for Misconduct and my unemployment claim was denied. I appealed it.
An appeal tribunal was scheduled. The town had a long list of complaints: lewd behavior, foul language, terrorizing a senior citizen, insubordination, (insubordination!) among other crimes. The hearing took place in a windowless back room in the unemployment office. I was flattered that so many high-ranking officials, including the town attorney and star witness, Mrs. Albertina Farina, were assembled to testify against me. The arbitrator was a pretty young woman, Miss Silvestri. She was well dressed and looked familiar. Wait. Was she the woman Nick spooked when he hit the horn and yelled out “Nice Honkers?” Maybe.
“And another thing you may not know about me, Miss Silvestri, is that I said, Let Them Live when they tried to honk the horn again and no woman was ever harassed again, thanks to me,” I wanted to say. It would certainly help make the case that there was a pattern to the universe.
I wore a jacket and tie to each hearing and brought one of my favorite books with me, Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Her bracing prose helped me focus. I borrowed Lovey’s cool, steady gaze and felt rooted in what I knew to be true. Whenever a charge was leveled against me, I channeled Lovey. I tilted my head, raised an eyebrow, suggesting I should be surprised, but I’m not. The magic word was inscrutability.
“You punched in late 150 days in a row,” the attorney said. They had doctored my time cards. He waved a fist full of them in my face. They were out for blood.
“That’s not true,” I said. My voice low and calm. It seemed to stop everybody in their tracks.
“He drove around town with a naked dummy!”
“That’s not true.” She was wearing my shirt and she’s no dummy.
“He attacked my husband and almost killed him,” Albertina said.
“That’s not true.” It was just luck that he had the heart attack.
“Nothing personal,” the angry villagers said to me as they walked by after lying about me.
“Nothing personal,” I said after I calmly testified that this witch hunt was created to cover Fausto’s incompetence and some shady deal that lost us the new recycling truck. You know, the stolen meatballs caper.
My Lovey-inspired inscrutability spooked them. There were three hearings. After the third hearing when the angry townsfolk left with their pitchforks, Miss Silvestri squeezed my hand.
“You’re right and they’re wrong. There’s something fishy here,” she said.
I didn’t win the appeal but by then the six week penalty period was over and I was able to collect unemployment benefits.
I fell behind in the rent. I told Willie about getting fired and the unemployment thing.
“That’s a tough break,” he said, looking at the ground. “I don’t know what to tell you, Randy.” (Which wasn’t my name.) “The landlord wants you out of the building.”
A day later someone banged on my door. I was doing pushups and opened the door with no shirt. Fuck it all.
It was the landlord, a waspy, handsome man in his fifties. He was startled.
“Nothing personal,” he said, “But I can’t have this. You’re going to have to leave.”
There was a whoosh and time stood still again.
I was struck by a thunderbolt of courage and logic. My back was against the wall and I had nowhere to run. I would not run. Enough is enough. I felt calm and strong. I was Excalibur and I glowed with righteousness.
“I understand. I’m not going to give you a long sad story. I lost my job and I’m not collecting unemployment so I have no money.” I said in my steady appeal tribunal voice.
He was startled. He started to walk away and then turned back.
“Can you give me something?”
“I can’t promise that right now,” I said. I took a beat. “So you do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.”
Those words rang out loud and true like my own private Liberty Bell. They sounded so good in the timeless bubble that I said them again.
“You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.” I smiled this time.
“I understand,” the landlord said. He smiled too. He was impressed (phew!) “Keep me posted.” He shook my hand.
“I will,” I said.
“Thank you!” He was still smiling.
I was shaking after I shut the door. I picked Lovey up and lay down on the couch with her.
I held her above me and there was a glow in her cheeks. Was it the sunlight or was she, could she be-- proud of me? I kissed her and lay with her cheek to cheek. She felt warm. I thought I felt a tremble in her cheek. Was she smiling? Was I? We fell into a deep, happy sleep even though things were really, really fucked up.
Though he has always been a writer, Manuel Igrejas is known in theater as the longtime publicist for Blue Man Group, among many other innovative artists. Igrejas fiction is included in Men on Men 4 and “Egghead Payne” is available on Amazon.com. His poetry is included in A New Geography of Poets, among other publications. His first two plays were the well-reviewed Shrinkage, Kitty and Lina. Other plays: Miss Mary Dugan and Hassan and Sylvia (Best Play Awards at the 2010 and 2011 Fresh Fruit Festivals). Margarita and Max was named Best Short Play in 2013 Midtown Festival. Miss Mary Dugan, Hassan and Sylvia Margarita and Max and NSA are available at www.indietheaternow.com. NSA, was an O’Neill semi-finalist 2013 and well-reviewed in its Stage Left Studio run, July-August 2014. Other plays include Chantal, Doofus, Chair and Pittsburgh! www.mannyigrejas.com.