Thursday, July 20, 2017

In the Trenches. First in a Series.

"In the Wake of the Bottles."
By James Robert Smith.

In one of my jobs as a laborer I knew a guy named Jimmy. Jimmy had a lot of good stories and I used to enjoy hearing them. Some of them seemed outlandish, but others were more down to earth. One that straddled the territory between the two was his yarn of cleaning gasoline storage tanks.

For years and years--decades, really--Jimmy spent his life as an itinerant drunk. He was rarely unemployed for long periods of time and always seemed to be able to not only find steady work, but to hold it until he felt like relinquishing it due to boredom or the itch to move on. But wherever he was and wherever he worked were in the wake of the bottles.

However, I don't think Jimmy was an alcoholic in the classic sense. That is, he didn't drink because of addiction, but merely because it was a way to pass the time. Mainly, he told me, he drank only beer. And not just beer, but shitty American beer. Occasionally he would drink bourbon, but that cost too much and he saved that for special occasions or moments when he was flush with cash.

To back up my impression that he was not an alcoholic, he told me of the day his wife finally managed to get through to him with her pleading that he stop drinking. "As long as you drink we will never have anything and we will never go anywhere."

That simple moment of pleading seemed to hit home and...he stopped drinking. Just like that. He said he tossed out the last case of shitty beer and never drank again, and never missed it. Frankly, that doesn't sound like an alcoholic. At least one that I've ever heard of.

As for the story, he said that during one of the stretches when he wasn't working but was mainly drinking, he walked out of a bar one evening--drunk, of course--and sat down on the curb with his feet in the gutter. A big, shiny sedan drove up. It stopped. The window went down. Not a roll down, but an electric window, which was pretty rare in those days.

"Hey, buddy," a guy inside said.

Jimmy looked up. It was hot out, even though the sun was going down.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"You look like a guy who needs a job. You want a good job?"

Jimmy stood up and erased the one foot separating him from the car. He put his hands on the dark, glossy door of the new car and leaned in. It was cool inside. Air conditioned. Also not a given back in those days. The guy inside was well dressed. Suit. Coat. Tie. Not cheap shit, either. The real stuff, from a tailor. Jimmy knew how to spot that kind of suit because his brother had made it as a businessman and wore those sorts of duds.

"What kind of job?"

The guy reached into a coat pocket and produced a card. He handed it to Jimmy.

Jimmy looked at it. The guy's name and an address. The card stock was pretty nice, with sunken lettering and raised outline in black ink. He ran his finger across it. "Getty Oil?"

"Yeah. I have a contract with them. We always need people who are willing to work. Good wages."

"What kind of work?" Jimmy blinked in the failing light and glanced again at the card. He had been at this bender for a while and had been drinking mainly and not eating. His face had a good two days growth of whiskers. His clothes were okay, but wrinkled and dirty. He was not penniless, but he knew that he sure didn't look like someone a general employer would think of for a job. Especially not when he had been sitting on the curb with his feet in the gutter.

"You got transportation to that office? If you don't, I can pick you up tomorrow. Too late today. But we can explain the work to you and give you a run through tomorrow morning. Good pay," he reiterated. "You interested?"

Jimmy nodded, his greasy black hair falling down across his high forehead. Someone told him once that he looked like a skinny Frankenstein monster. Even Jimmy had to admit the smartass had been close to the mark.

"Sure, yeah. I can get there."

"What's your name?"

"Jimmy Macy," he told him.

"See you tomorrow, Jimmy. Ten in the morning."

And the guy drove off.

So here we were, twenty years later, me and Jimmy working in a shop that made pool covers. We were on lunch break. The room was full of smoke. I was the only person in the joint who did not smoke. Jimmy might not have been an alcoholic, but he was one serious nicotine addict. He could not go more than fifteen minutes or so without a lit cigarette in his face. Through a cloud of Camel smoke Jimmy asked me if I'd ever put gasoline in a milk jug. "You know, for your lawnmower or any kind of small engine?"

"Yeah, sure," I told him.

"Well, have you ever left it sitting in a tool shed or storage building for a long time?"

"No. I always use it right away. Maybe a week or so. Why?"

"Well, if you leave it in there for a while--say a month, and you go back to get it and look at the jug, you will see a layer of crap at the bottom of the jug."

"What? In gasoline? Does it react with the plastic jug?"

"Naw. It doesn't matter what you put it in. Glass. Metal. Plastic. There will be a layer of brown sludge at the bottom of the container."

"What is it?"

"Well, gas has solids in it. Suspended in solution. You let it sit long enough and that stuff settles out. It sinks to the bottom."

"Okay. What's that got to do with the job the guy was offering you."

The next day Jimmy did as he was supposed to do. He showed up at the address listed on the card. A nice office in an industrial area near a tank farm. Those big areas where they have the enormous above-ground tanks where they store gasoline.

Once there the guy with the nice suit and the new sedan with electric windows and air-conditioning ran through the offer with Jimmy and three other guys. After the presentation two of the other guys got up and left. Only Jimmy and one other remained.

"What was the job?" I asked.

Jimmy and the others had watched a film. The job for the tank farm was to suit up like a fireman covered from head to foot in some kind of rubber. Boots, pants, coat, hood. All of the parts were sealed together so that when you were in it you were protected from liquids and gases. There was a very long hose attached to the hood (which had a glass mask so you could see out). The hose fed you air. Not oxygen, but air. A re-breather kicked out your breath so that the suit wouldn't fill up with CO2.

What then happened was that a pair of workers would go up there with another guy--a safety tech. The tech would suit up the other two and connect the hoses and start the air pump and keep watch on it. Then the two workers would open the same number of man-sized lids on the top of the tank and descend a ridiculously long metal ladder to the bottom of the tank. The tank would have been drained of all of the liquid gasoline. On the floor of that tank was about two feet thick of gasoline sludge--that solid shit that they can never quite get out of the gasoline that you buy at the pump. It had to be suctioned out before the tank was refilled with new gasoline.

Once down in the hold, Jimmy and the other guy would be fed a suction hose and they would basically walk around the floor of the tank vacuuming up the annoying brown sludge. The job paid $14 an hour, which was a shitload of money in those days. Especially for a guy like Jimmy.

"Fuck," I told him. "That sounds like a horrible freaking job."

Jimmy just shrugged. "It didn't bother me for a while. We would just go down there and suck that shit up until almost all of it was gone, then we'd climb out. When they took the suit off of us you couldn't even smell gasoline. You'd think some of it would go home with you, but my wife never smelled it on me."

"How long did you work it?"

"About three months."

"Why'd you quit?"

One day Jimmy and one of the other guys got to a tank. They suited up and went down just like always. They siphoned up all of the sludge and it was time to go back up. The other guy was a few steps faster that day than Jimmy. But Jimmy didn't notice. He just climbed up and got to the top and crawled out of the small opening up there so high above the floor.

The guy who suited them up was standing at the manhole gesturing for Jimmy to hurry. So Jimmy hustled up the last few rungs and as he stuck his arms out, the worker pointed to the other side of the tank.

Jimmy's co-worker in the tank was lodged halfway out of the manhole. He was covered in flames which were shooting out like jets. Blue flames. The guy was a cinder. That quick, surrounded by the blue fire. The safety guy helped Jimmy peel the suit off in double time and they scurried across the roof and descended the tank.

"Goddamn. It didn't blow?"

Jimmy shook his head. "Naw. It kind of burned itself out. Killed that guy pretty much instantly. They told me some kind of static charge set it off when he was climbing out."

Both of us sat there in silence for a while.

Jimmy smiled. "I never went back. They sent me my last paycheck in the mail."

"I never went back."

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