Monday, August 8, 2011

Little Lord Fonzie

My Dad is blue collar all the way. A pure jerry-rigger, grease-monkey blue blood. As a boy, I watched him build our house from the ground up. Laid the foundation, posted studs, wired it, and nailed the shingles on himself. Well, with a little help from his indentured servant sons.
I learned the names of tools from my Dad, all laid out on a soiled sheet of cardboard in the garage: crescent, chisel, Phillips, socket, flathead, hacksaw, sparkplug, drill bit. All the artistry of his trade. I once asked my Dad if he knew the names for every tool ever made. He was grunting and sweating trying to turn over a pesky bolt on our beat-up old tractor rusting in the grass, paused a second and wiped a beaded brow, “Well, reckon if I don’t, I’d just build one and name it myself.”
That was my Dad.
My Mom did her best, trips to museums and kid’s programs, a home library full of classics: Robin Hood and David Copperfield, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Good Earth, and of course there was her kitchen. Mom specialized in deserts: chocolate fudge and Christmas divinity, German strudel and lemon meringue, cookies of every flavor and filling, and pies of such soft mouth-watering crust as to inspire even Marcel Proust to put pen to paper.
I learned kitchen utensils from my Mom, neatly stacked and stored in tight fitted pantry drawers my father hand crafted out of wood: spatula, egg-beater, ladle, measuring cup, potato peeler, thermometer, even a tea cozy. I once asked my Mom if there was anything in the world she couldn’t bake. She was humming to herself peering into the oven poking a marble cake with a toothpick, smiled a moment at me with her eyes and said, “That’s the magic of the kitchen, my dear. It’s where wishes come true.”
That was my Mom.
Sundays are where we met in the middle. After church, Dad would drive us to a different “nice” restaurant, which meant more often than not some completely inedible pizza and mashed potato buffet joint. But every so often we’d stumble upon some country elegance: fold out menus and white table clothes, fragile wine glasses and stiff napkins held tight with rings men dressed as penguins would unfold and lay in my lap. I learned rules at these tables: “Children should be seen and not heard,” and “Don’t chew with your mouth open,” “No elbows on the table,” and “If you want desert, eat your peas and carrots.”
Many Sundays I remember thinking how we just left church which had its own set of rules: “Honor your Father and Mother,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and now I was sitting at a table with even more laws and bylines. Yet still to this day I can explain what the four forks placed to your right are for and why each fork tine is significant, that and why cleanliness is next to Godliness.
Those were Sundays.
Dad must have sensed I needed some balance and so he sent me to work early, picking raspberries at 13 with migrant workers during the summer. Lisa and I would get up way before the sun and catch a bus heading out into the baking July heat to stand in the dirt with our fingers all cut up dropping squishy bloody berries into slushy pails for two bucks and hour.
We weren’t alone, a lot of Colton kids roughed their knuckles up this way and were better off for it.
It paved the way for a whole host of random dead end jobs I have held in my life: scrubbing toilets, shoveling stalls, delivering newspapers, cutting wood, pushing lawnmowers, shelving books, flipping pizzas, hustling videos, laying cement, painting apartments, pushing brooms, and even catching shoplifters.
I learned as much working blue collar jobs as I have in my professional career. How the customer is always right and time is money, and how to earn a hard day’s pay. And I learned this too, no matter how much the blue collar worker is smiling and shining on the white collar professional, he secretly hates his guts.
That’s what I got from working manual labor.
After a couple of summers of working the fields, Dad finally sent us to the Stayton cannery. Now, standing in front of speeding conveyor belts, I found myself picking out sticks and dirt clods and dead rodents as green beans and zucchini and radishes rolled by.
Sitting in the break room, far removed from my parents, I learned a whole host of new and vibrant expressions: “Quitting time is Miller Time,” and “Stick it to the man,” just exactly what “4:20” was and how to “Take this job and shove it.”
I was better off for it, hanging around hard working men and women with elementary school educations and how they resented me and hated me for being on the college track.
I became a punching bag for this one supervisor, Landry. Oh, he saw me coming a mile away with my rolled up jeans and Chuck Taylors hiding a copy of Yeats in my work locker. Landry with his big beer belly and stretched out T-shirt: Moustache Rides, Two for a Dollar.
Oh yes, Landry had this huge walrus moustache he used to straighten with a comb, stuffing his flat head into a yellow “manager” hard hat and belly into a white jump suit, barking orders and leaning into his tool belt laughing as I scrambled like a madman at the conveyor belts beneath him. He had a bug up his butt for me ever since he caught me walking through the main office.
“Hey, kid! You ain’t allowed in here.”
I explained that I’d locked my keys in my car and I was going into my Dad’s office to get a wire hanger. I’d seen him open a car door this way before.
Landry grunted in disbelief and I stared back at him from the top of the stairs with this, “Yeah, douche bag, my Dad is your boss,” sort of sneer.
After that he made my life hell, tortured me like some prize: “Rich kid,” “College boy,” “Bring your silver spoon today, huh?”
I took the ribbing for a while, determined to pick my spot of revenge well. Landry used to call me, “Little Lord Fonzie.” I guess he confused the Happy Days character with the painting of the blue boy in curls by Reginold Birch who goes from poverty to princedom. Either way, I finally let him have it.
“It’s Fauntleroy, you idiot. Fauntleroy, you got it?”
We were alone in the break room staring eye to eye with one another.
“You making fun of me college kid, is that it?”
Landry towered over me, sticking his beer belly in my chin.
“You think your dad’s going to save you, huh?”
I stood up. “Do you know what the difference is between you and me?”
“What, college boy? What, Little Lord Fonzie?”
What I said to Landry made him sit down, close his mouth, and never speak to me again.
Yes, I would say I learned a lot by working manual labor. I learned that the food throw out from one patrons’ plate could feed an illegal immigrant dishwasher’s whole family for a night. I learned that the man driving the truck with his name on it got that way on the hard working backs of his drinking buddies who were too busy laughing and not thinking. I learned that the guy cutting checks had to say “No” a thousand times to lazy family members to sit in that chair before a ledger. And I learned to never, ever be rude to people serving me, because in any moment, you can be either servant or master.
But that’s just me.
So you go ahead Mr. Italian waiter. Go preen and scowl and let your hair glisten in the sun. Hold the bottle out before me and let me read the label. Pop the top and let me smell the cork. Let me tell you again how the wine glass must be held by the stem and not the bowl, or body temperature will disrupt the cabernet’s bouquet. Because I know what your kitchen looks like, how your sinks smell, how grime collects at the bottom of grills and must be scrapped off with chemicals that wear away the skin off your hands.
I know all these things because I’ve passed through this fire and will never return.
That’s what I told Landry. How he may hate me and my life, but only because he can’t understand it. Yet as for me, I hate him and everything he stands for a thousand times more, and that’s why I will win.
I thought of you today Landry. I hope you made it, but if you didn’t. The wine I drink tonight is for you.

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