Summer for me usually meant about three days of vacation, followed by 14 weeks of crazed servitude. I attended college prior to the days when the state government looked at higher education and said, “What? Why should we subsidize that? I ain’t never gone there and I done just fine!” (Thank you, Gov. Walker. You can sit down now…). As ridiculous as it seems now to my students, a decent summer job combined with an unyielding work ethic could almost pay off the next year’s tuition and even bankroll a little spending money. Now, the only way you can pay off your tuition via a summer enterprise is a) drug dealing or b) selling an organ on the black market.
My traditional summer job was one I really hated. I worked behind the register at a gas station with a small mini-market area. It was attached to a two-bay garage where we had one really good mechanic with anger management issues and one mediocre guy who was nice enough and smoked cigars that smelled like fertilizer.
The place was owned and operated by a guy named Ray, who used to womanize older ladies who came in for service and drink like a fish on weekends. When he would come back from “camping” on a Sunday, you’d look at his nose for a telltale sign of if life would be good or bad. Pale was good, red was bad. He’d curse and accuse you of stealing and various other acts of bad manners. The first couple times, he freaked me out. However, when he’d forgotten all about it the next day, I learned to worry less and just get through it.
To be fair, the job was great for a number of reasons. First, it was always there. Between the types of people he’d hired throughout the year (usually single women with “boyfriend problems,” who had a penchant for quitting after two months) and the desire for everyone on staff to use vacation in the summer, he always had an opening of some kind for me. Second, I didn’t go home smelling like a McNugget, which I considered a plus. Third, and most importantly, although the job paid like shit, the sheer volume of hours gave me a good amount of money and a limited summer window to foolishly waste it. I was almost always guaranteed to go back to college bone tired and with a solid bank account.
One year, Ray told me that he didn’t have much work for me behind the register, so he was going to put me in the garage for part of the time “just like last year.” In my desperation to keep the job, I didn’t bother to tell him that he never put me in the garage at any time. I also failed to mention that I was so inept at mechanical stuff that I was likely to light the place on fire, if put in the proximity of anything flammable.
I worked every day from about 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the station. After that, Ray’s wife would come in and relieve me. I’d go in the back, change from the button down shirt and tie into the mechanic’s blues and set about being abused by Tom, the master mechanic.
After two oil changes went south on me, Tom opined to anyone who would listen that I was “as useless as tits on a bull.” His opinion of me didn’t improve when I relaxed my grip on the tire machine one day and had the iron pry bar come whipping off the machine and nearly take my head off. Still, I had to be there, so my job essentially became answering the phone, because Tom hated to do that, ordering parts that we didn’t need because Tom was pissed at the part he was installing and picking up wrenches and hammers after Tom would throw them across the room. He once kicked a lit torch across the garage, which led me to believe that despite my novice status, if arson hit the garage, Tom would be a much better suspect than I would.
After six hours of Tom, I’d go home and eat dinner. On several days, I’d come back at 6 p.m. in the tie and work the register until 10. This was my schedule for 5 or 6 days a week and it provided about a dime more per hour than minimum wage.
And so it went: May, June, July and August. Each day brought new weirdness, odd challenges and a general sense that my life was becoming a Kafka story. To wit:
- One day, I came to work and was told to go home and put on a tie. Seems that working behind the register required some decorum and a tie was going to be the way to go. This lasted for about three weeks, until I had to check the transmission fluid in someone’s car while performing a full-service gas fill up and I nearly got strangled when the tie found the cooling fan. The tie rule was rescinded. A week later, we got company issued clip on ties.
- To avoid paying a landscaper, when business was slow in the garage, I was sent out to pick weeds from the shrub areas surrounding the property. Half of them were out of sight, so my boss demanded that I check in every 20 minutes to make sure I wasn’t needed. In other words, do something, but don’t do it for a long enough stretch to actually do it well.
- On a weekend one year, a kid and his mom stopped in and the kid asked to use the bathroom. About five minutes later, he came back and told me he locked the key inside. I had a spare, so I went to retrieve the key only to find that the kid had shit and puked all over the bathroom floor, garbage can and sink. When I told his mother that her son was ill, she demanded that I take it back and how DARE I accuse her son of doing such a thing. She later returned and apologized when she found the child wearing no underwear, as they were in the garbage can full of shit. I got a $20 tip that day. It wasn’t worth it.
- Tom listened to Laser 103 out of Milwaukee, which played hard rock of the day. Guns ‘n’ Roses was popular and whenever “Paradise City” would come on, Tom would sing, “Take me out to Atlantic City, where the girls are hot and they got big titties.” He also had a version of Soundgarden’s “Blackhole Sun” that had a refrain about a “Butthole Son.”
- One day, I was told to go clean the restroom. As I tried to refill the paper towel dispenser, I found a porn mag stuffed in the slot. I reported it to my boss, who took the magazine and made a huge deal about it being important that we not give the restroom key out to lowlife people who use it for such horrible purposes. I later found the magazine stuffed between a couple parts catalogs on his desk in the back of the shop.
The list of oddities could go on and on, but eventually, I learned that it came with the territory. I managed to keep the gas pumps on, the squeegee buckets full and the bank deposits balanced. I also figured out how to do a satisfactory oil change, tire rotation and tune up. I even got the tire machine to work after a fashion. One day out of the clear blue sky, Tom looked up from what he was doing and said, “Y’know. You’re not as fucking useless as you used to be. You’re not like tits on a bull any more. Tits on a boar, maybe, but still…” He then dropped something and started cursing.
The summer of The Shutdown at the Daily Cardinal, I didn’t go home for the summer. Mr. A got me a job in Madison so I could stay close and work on the paper. I never went home again for a summer.
The gas station eventually changed hands a few years back. I saw a note in some local paper that Ray had retired. I heard from my aunt that he had also divorced his second wife, who was a nice lady and probably deserved better. The garage was knocked down and a carwash took its place. Ray did it before he sold the place. Turns out, we had about 9,002 code violations in there or something, but it was cheaper and easier to just put in an auto wash.
On occasion, I’ll still see Tom in Milwaukee driving around in his classic El Camino. Usually, by the time I realize it’s him, he’s a stoplight or two away. I haven’t talked to him in years.
Today, I’m late with this post because we were having a rummage sale. One of the many items dotting our lawn and driveway was a Murray 6HP lawn mower my father had tried to throw away.
“Fucking thing doesn’t work at all,” he explained while showing off the mower he’d bought to replace it. “I’m just going to leave it on the curb for the junk guys.”
I looked at it a while and figured, what the hell…
“Can I have it?” I asked.
“The hell for?” he shot back. “It’s broken.”
The mower came home with me and a day later, it was running like a top. A new blade and a new plug came from Farm and Fleet. I disassembled the carb and rebuilt it in about 20 minutes. Adjusted choke lever, new gas and some restoration work on the battery helped out as well.
When I first tried to start it after putting it back together, it cranked, but wouldn’t run. I only felt slightly more grateful than stupid when I realized the main issue was that I hadn’t installed the new spark plug, so the plug wire was hanging out there and the port was just a gaping hole to the engine block.
A quick bit of muttering later and it ran. I sold it today for $80.
“Amazing,” Dad said when he saw it. “It runs great. I just don’t know how to do that stuff to the carb like you were talking about. That really is something…”
Tits on a bull, indeed.