Tuesday, April 28, 2009

scorched earth policy

If change it was then let it come, I was ready for it and more than ready.

You know the guy at work who doesn’t give a quick shit about anything? The one who the supervisors really can’t tolerate because the very existence of such a seemingly carefree presence inside their holy temple of the almighty paycheck is an affront to their own fragile dignity and an intolerable challenge to their flimsy self worth? The guy whose mere entrance into an office is the equivalent of someone pulling the pin on a grenade and rolling it into the room? The happy asshole that never seems to be bothered by anything no matter how bad things get? The one who comes back to the salt mine smiling and whistling a happy tune the day after he’s burned his last sick day? The misfit? The fuckup? The loser?

I was that guy but I had lots of company.

The place was the railroad and I’d been working on it for ten long years and had heard all the jokes but go ahead if it makes you feel any better. I worked in the largest RR station in the second largest city in the good ole U.S. of A., right smack in the middle of the country. Every passenger train in the nation that was heading from one coast to the other or anywhere in between passed in and through our little world, along with 20 or 30,000 suburbanite commuters dashing out of their morning trains and into their office cells and then bolting back to their evening express’ and subdivision prisons each and every day.
It was fun in the winter to watch the crowds freeze their asses to work while you kicked back to sip coffee and it was much better in summer when you got to enjoy the non-stop parade of tits and asses bouncing into and out of the station. Dodging supervisors in order to enjoy the sights wasn’t always easy but after 10 years most RRers considered work to be “optional” and avoided its assorted indignities with collective blue collar aplomb.

A lean decade ago I’d been busting my ass selling hardware and outdoor BBQ grills during the day and then liquor at night. I wasn’t any good at either but I did become adept at robbing the supply of airplane bottles (back in those days they sold them off a rack right behind the counter) from the store’s inventory and in some ways was sorry to see that gig go but I had an apartment full of mini-bottles to ease the pain and I hadn’t yet sold a single BBQ grill at the hardware store so when a drinking buddy mentioned to me about a job on the RR (sweetest deal you’ll ever find he assured me) it sounded like an idea. He’d been there sucking it up for years and enjoying his good life and I figured maybe it was my time. I was damn grateful.

I started off my illustrious RR career humping food to the kitchen cars on long haul trains and in my 10 years there I’d done most everything imaginable while I worked my way up to Janitor. It was a big place with plenty of opportunity to go nowhere.

There was the actual Union Station, which had been built in 1921 and remodeled in the 80’s before I got there; its exterior buildings squatted over two massive city blocks (one building a neo-classical Grand Old Lady and the other the ubiquitous 70’s glass and steel box brick) and were surrounded in two squares by eight main downtown arteries with traffic and an army of taxis buzzing it like twin hives. One building was strictly for office use and the other contained a health club for yuppies along with numerous shopping opportunities and both buildings were jammed with fast food places (and the army of workers that were needed to staff and clean them) to feed the huge herds of lazy fat ass office slugs who poured in daily to stuff their faces with grease. There were even a couple of pathetic bars catering to the commuters that wanted to talk big city tough before they walked all of a hundred yards to get on their trains back to their split levels and faceless condos with their sterile oasis parking lots filled and their 4-wheeled pride and joy waiting faithfully to confirm the righteousness of their existence.

It all got going around 5 in the morning and didn’t stop until after midnight. Depending on the season and where you stood around the Station, it was a great place to waste time or hunt for pussy. If you had to work somewhere there were worse gigs, I’d had a lot of them.

Then there were the Yards- About 3 miles of tracks stretching north and 3 miles south along the river with the station right in the middle like the head of a giant octopus. Around a hundred commuter trains shared the 20 or so tracks with Passenger rail trains daily. It was no small operation. All those miles of track required daily maintenance and it required working in the sub-zero winter and blazing hot summer to do it and so, consequently, I avoided those jobs whenever possible.

Just under a mile south from the station was the largest post office in the nation and the tracks ran right underneath it. We hauled mail on the trains and had a huge decrepit facility for loading, unloading and shipping it up top to the postal guys. This cooperative enterprise had been in existence since the 20’s and had seen its better days.

The mail terminal was an ancient 3 level labyrinth (only one of the levels being above ground) filled with vast tunnels too long to walk through (so we raced through them on little battery operated tugs used to haul heavy loads), dim 30’s lighting, cubbyholes, steam pipes, chutes, ladders, dilapidated conveyer belts that went nowhere, weird mad scientist machine shops and decrepit locker and lunch rooms used for sleeping, drinking and watching TV.
Sometimes we had lunch there too.
The tunnels were so endless that a legion of cats had taken up residence years ago and roamed freely as they feasted on leftovers and whatever else lived down there. Everyone was happy they were there because we all considered the alternative, which surely would’ve been monster horrorshow rats.

The mail terminal had once been a booming enterprise.
Back in the depression years and all the way through the 60’s it’d been the one sure place where a man could make a honest living and get a decent paycheck to feed his kids with, but in the 90’s, it had fallen on hard times and its giant ghostly caverns of disrepair, echoing past gold rushes, were nothing but a sad reminder of the beginning of the end. Still, somehow, the mail terminal crews (now numbering only about 50 when once they’d been in the hundreds) retained a bitter, salty pride and tenaciously defended their territory. During rush hours when all the trains in the station would be gunning their engines at idle and pouring diesel fumes everywhere we’d crawl out of our underground locker/lounge/lair to go up top and sit and wait for the mail cars to back into our docks so we could pop the doors and unload. Sometimes we’d have to wait for 10 or 20 minutes, sometimes more and while you were up there you could see the air, it was an oily blue and it smelled of gasoline. The Old-Timers would plant themselves in their seats, light up and blow clouds of cigarette smoke through that oily blue air as if they were kicking back on a sunny beach next to the ocean while working on their tans. That was how they were. The collective personality was that of a mean old dog who knows his best days are past but is patiently waiting for you to come just a tiny bit closer so he can show you what he’s got left.
The favorite saying over there, snarled at all newcomers who dared invade their domain, was-
“You don’t want to work, go home.”
The hostility bubbling out of their mouths as they spit the words at you. I always felt perfectly comfortable there.
As it was considered “man’s work” women were generally unwelcome and, reading the writing on the wall, generally avoided the lovely environment altogether.

Then another mile or 2 down the river were a trailer and another loading dock used to transport truck containers onto and off of the trains. This department was dominated by a 17 year and up crew of 7 seniority drunks who were so solitary, surly and out of control that everyone, supervisors included, was happy to leave them alone and adrift at the end of our RR outpost. A lot of fellow employees tried to tag my buddy as the ringleader but I happened to know that he had no real interest in the position, perhaps it came to him naturally but to be sure he had no designs on it. They were known as the “River Rats”. No one went there to check on them and no one cared to and their place ran just fine until some management genius got the bright idea to fix the situation.
While the Rats were there the place ran like clockwork and had made a profit ( in spite of or because of their drunken antics no one knew), one of the few enterprises on the RR to do so, but after the genius’ solution it was another government money pit and the Rats headed back to the Station. I was already there.

I’d done just about every job in the place by that time. I’d hauled baggage, hauled food, hauled garbage- shipped, wrapped, loaded and unloaded every conceivable bike, bag, box and body- swept, mopped, scrubbed, wiped, vacuumed, power-washed and detailed every inch of its millions of square feet- I’d took tickets, checked baggage, answered questions, gave directions, fork-lifted pallets, hand-cranked wheelchairs holding giant fat asses into and off of the cars- I’d kicked ass, kissed ass and got booted in the ass more times than I could count and still I came back for more. You see I didn’t know much else.

So after my long decade of soul destroying labor and mind numbing monotony that zoo of a RR reminded me of nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than jail and in more ways than one.

First but not least, it was populated by what had to be the absolute lowest end of the social spectrum- dropouts, lead heads, mental defectives, lazy malcontents, the otherwise unemployable and guys that didn’t have the drive to become drug dealers. And scattered into the mix, just to keep it interesting I guess, just plain unlucky fucks who had somehow ended up there through little fault of their own. I fit right in somewhere and tried not to think about that too much.

Second, it’s overriding objective, the order of the day, the main theme on a minute to minute, hour after hour, day by day till the days turned into months and then those months turned into years grind and you finally understood why those nuts show up at work with automatic weapons; it’s very reason for existence seemed to be to finally, utterly and completely crush all individual hope of something better then ceaselessly pound the inmates into complete submission while simultaneously pulverizing any dreams of escape until the lowlifes who ran the place (desperate lifers themselves clinging tooth and nail to any firm hope of income and security) had everyone marching in line and saying “Yes sir” and “No sir” most sincerely only because it fit comfortably into their tiny vision of their tiny, dried up, lifeless world. Well maybe it wasn’t that much fun but almost.

And just like jail what you mostly got in response was drugs, drunks, fights, passion plays and bitter hatreds simmering steadily in slow-witted but deadly animal brains. The cast of characters was about the same as the slam too: every breed of nut, goofball, freak, psychopath, straight-john, honest-Abe, hustler, bullshit-artist, dope-fiend, boozehound, cocksucker, snitch and just plain fuck-ups represented equally, stirred into a hot pot and left to boil as soon as you punched the clock. It was about the same color as jail too. About 80% black, 10% white, 5% Latin and 5% Other. I was in the Other category and wouldn’t have had it any other way even if I could’ve but you can’t anyway, you know?

And it was all about Time.
The place ran on a seniority basis and that was the biggest fact of life and the most important factor in your RR existence. Every single inmate had his seniority date (date of hire) memorized and could quote it to you on demand, which we often did. The most moronic 20-year bum (and there were plenty to choose from) was infinitely more important in the scheme of things than any hard working go-getter with two years and no clues. Merit didn’t mean shit and if you struggled with that idea your life only got worse as the years crept past you. We’d say,
“There’s the right way, the wrong way and the railroad way.” And everybody knew what the hell that meant if you managed to punch in there everyday for ten years or so.
You had to go along with the ride.

My personal RR mentor, Marshal Decket, a handsome blue eyed devil, 20 yr. vet and besides Keith Richards the coolest white man on the planet, used to tell me between puffs on his cancerous non-filtered cigarettes as we kicked back and enjoyed the show,
“Hey Kid,” he called everybody Kid, “You can work hard or you can work easy,” then he’d pause to lean in with the punch line and his crocodile grin,
“But the pay’s the same.”
Once I learned that simple lesson the ride got much smoother. It only took me about 5 of those 10 years and a little drink every now and again to help shake out the kinks.

About the only difference between Us and the slam was that the constant threat of overt violence wasn’t always present as in the shithouse and also, more importantly, no one seemed to ever want to escape or just ever be free from it all. Every goofy jackass, desperate loser, smug winner and solid citizen clung to that gig and fought over it like two starving rats on the last piece of cheese. Oh they complained constantly and non-stop about how much they hated the place and everyone in it but when you said,
“Why don’t you just fuckin’ quit then.” Right into their faces they looked like they’d been slapped.
“I gotta pay those bills, you know.”
Yea don’t we all brother, don’t we all.

There were crazy old janitors, 30 year-plus lifers (janitors mind you! you know with the mop and the broom and the little dustpan all piled neatly onto their little cart they wheeled around with that familiar zombie shamble) working there who made 80- 90,000$ a year because they, literally, never went home. They’d work double shifts, 16 hours, swabbing out toilets, sweeping up cigarette butts and emptying garbage cans, in between long leisurely breaks of course, then wrestle for the third consecutive one when a young guy’d call off sick. If the cheese gave them any shit about not being able to work 3 consecutive shifts due to safety regulations they’d raise holy hell and quote Union rules and make phone calls until the bum ass supervisor would gratefully cave and give them the shift. This only happened when there was a rookie boss that hadn’t yet learned about life on the RR and wasn’t properly broken in yet. Then these lunatic lifers would do their third consecutive 8 hour shift, at time and a half of course (about 22.50$ per hour), again, slide into the locker room and sleep for a few hours (they had beds set up in there) then catch a quick shave at a locker room sink and come right back for their original morning shift smiling like they just got a blowjob from a movie star.
They took a day off every couple of months or so and took their 4 weeks of vacation every year and other than that they lived at the station.

I had a locker next to one of the oldest. An Irish character named Jim “peek-a-boo” Levy. He looked like W.C. Fields and had a similar misanthropic disposition. Everyone called him Peek-a-boo because he was always around but it was next to impossible to find him. He detested physical labor and successfully avoided it whenever possible. On the occasion of us meeting at our lockers to change, me into or out of street clothes, Peek-a-boo to change into a different blue uniform, always spotless, (in my ten years there I never saw Peek in anything other than his matching blue work pants and shirt with the same tired old boots), I’d say to him,
“Hey goldbrick, ain’t you dead yet?”
He'd squint at me sideways and retort.
“Yea the funny thing is, Rangel” here he’d almost snicker, “I’ll be going to your funeral.” winking, “Maybe take a nice piss on your grave.”
Then he’d make a to and fro peeing motion in front of our lockers, his pot belly sticking out hard and firm as a basketball.
We were very fond of each other
Whenever I came in to do my eight straight if I didn’t see that old bastard at least once I just figured he croaked. It was that rare not to spot him on the job sometime during the day or night. He had the vigorous pallor of one of those moles that lives under ground that you see on the Nature Channel and he waddled around the station like a suspicious spy and furtive pipe bomber.
And he was nowhere near the strangest of the bunch.

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