Friday, November 30, 2012

Memoirs of a Frenchman: the Working World

My dad, in fits and starts with lots of prodding from me, is slowly writing his memoirs.  His story is just too incredible not to tell.  You can find more, including life in France, coming to America, and life in Kentucky, and learning to speak English over here.

When I’d graduated from high school in 1960, I claimed to want to be a veterinarian, since I had to be something. I went to University of Kentucky, signed up for my 18 hours, met the dean of the Ag school who expressed high hopes for someone with such elevated SAT scores and a diploma from one of the best secondary schools in the nation.  I returned to my dismal dorm room that I shared with a country boy and hit the books.

I did so well at first. Then I fell in with other guys from the east side of Louisville, we all pledged Sigma Nu under the table and we all flunked out. It felt really bad… starting out by missing the MTWRF 8:00 chemistry class, then finally all of them, in a stupor that I didn’t seem to be able to shake.

My mother got me a job a Liberty National Bank in Louisville, and I bought my first car: a 1955 Austin-Healey 4-banger, with louvers and a bonnet strap, and a windshield that you could lower for that real race-car experience! That was cool, because you never got the “comfortable car” experience. Really hot in summer, really cold in winter, even with its little red leather top up and the side-curtains. Seven quarts of oil—had to use the hand crank in the wintertime to turn over that long-stroke engine. Leaked oil, leaked water, leaked everything, but it was a cool car, and sometime I’d just look at it and say, “Hey, that’s mine…” and feel really good. All my friends had such cars and we all drank a lot. My girlfriends never much cared for the Healey, being not particularly into the “real race-car experience,” being much more into the “wow, the tachometer cable isn’t dripping black oil on my nice white linen skirt” experience. So sometimes I’d borrow my mother’s 56 Chevrolet station wagon.

For $1.25 an hour, I worked in the transit department of Liberty Nat’l, in the main office. Lots of adding up checks on a manual adding machine with 64 keys and making sure that you balanced at the end of the day; you stayed until you found that 34 cents. But some mornings I’d get to go out on foot to collect on bad checks from various businesses in the rougher, more industrial part of town, businesses that did things with hides, roots, and ginseng. I’d walk by the Savoy Burlesque, which just at that time had quit being a real burlesque house and had started showing nudie and exploitation films. I’d walk through the outdoor vegetable and meat markets, trying to not let my suit touch anything, clutching my little leather briefcase. I’d stop for a coke at a Walgreen’s, the same place that sold a steak lunch for $1.25, one hour’s pay. I’d wander back in after a couple of hours, turn over the money to the head teller, a guy who I just knew was gay but totally closeted to the point where he’d “flirt” with the female tellers, and then go back to adding up checks.

I thought I should try again at college. Work at the bank was dismal and seemed to have no future, even though a vice-president started to take an interest in me. I wanted to be rich, just like that. The thought of working my way up, constantly kissing ass, working on boring stuff, so that I could be middle-class just depressed hell out of me. I really didn’t know what I wanted. I just wanted to be independently wealthy and have fun all the time. I knew that those VPs, their suits and ties notwithstanding, were just more working stiffs, paid more than me, but not that much, really. They took two-week vacations; I wanted work to be a vacation. They drove top of the line Buicks. I wanted to drive a Ferrari. You had to own a bank to get rich at banking. Working for one was good for your prestige, perhaps, but as Pete Seeger sang in “Teacher, Teacher, Why Are You So Poor?” you can’t eat prestige, nor buy a Ferrari with it.

So I signed up for a couple of night classes at the Indiana University Extension in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just across the Ohio from Louisville. I took Freshman comp and World Literature, courses that would be easy for me. Wilder, my VP, praised my decision: you had to have a college education to really rise in the banking world!

Soon after my enrolling in night school, I quit the banking world, having lined up a job with Neighborhood Oil, a Phillips 66 distribution company based in South Louisville, an oddly rural slum. On some days I’d drive a 49 Ford pickup that I’d loaded with tires, cases of oil, batteries, and various gas station stuff, like Stop-leak, Bardhal, spark plugs and gas caps. I’d write up the invoice, let Ed deGaris check it, arrange my route and deliver all that crap to Phillips 66 stations in the Louisville area. Other days I’d deliver kerosene and white gas in a little tanker truck, trusting the manager to tell me which tank to pour it in.

Alvin, a small dapper redneck, was the salesman. His white Phillips 66 shirt stayed immaculate even when unloading tires, and he had a black and cream 55 Buick convertible that he let me drive once to go get coffee. It was a very well maintained car that smelled terrible inside. I didn’t mention that to Alvin, since his letting me drive it was obviously a mark of signal favor. Alvin felt himself superior to me, and it tickled me no end to watch him come in, walking like a little rooster with a bald head. He was full of shit, but we got along all right.

Joe D’Antoni, one of the partners, did not get along with me. Another partner, Bill Gossman, who’d hired me since I knew his son, was a preppy 45-year old who drove a white Corvette convertible with an FM radio tuned to the classical music station. Let me say it again: an FM car radio. Classical music. 1963. Mr. Gossman was my idea of middle-aged cool. He’d come in to the office late, leave early, was obviously there because he had money, and liked me just fine. Joe D’Antoni and Herb, the company rep, did all the work. Ed de Garis, a really good guy (and once a redheaded sailor whose photograph appeared in a 1945 Life magazine), very funny and ironic, was kind of the head clerk, and a tarty middle-aged woman was the secretary. She and I were the only ones in that office who didn’t smoke cheap cigars.

What a job! What a bunch of weirdoes run service stations! There was one guy who actually said he was going to shoot me—he was pretty drunk, so I just got out of there without collecting. But I came back the next day, and he paid, apologized, and offered me a beer, which I accepted. And then there were perfectly normal and dull people too, of course. But the drunks and the ex-cons, barely out of jail and heading right back to it, those guys were more fun. Sure gave me stuff to write about for my composition essays.

Unlike the bank, Neighborhood Oil didn’t work past 5:00, so I could always make my classes. Boy, did I love them! I’d started to acquire a social conscience by then, and Mrs. Webster, a passionate middle-aged woman with a speech impediment, kind of validated that. She wore a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) button, a white equal sign on a black background. We read The Crucial Decade, stories by James Baldwin, and all. And we wrote.

I wrote a descriptive essay. Sometimes the Healey wasn’t working, and I’d be taking a bus across the river or home, and I’d walk through the neighborhood to get to the bus stop. I described that walk—the tiny black yards, the peeling paint, the collapsing porches, the sounds of curses, screams, yells, the smells of cooking, etc. I wrote with some feeling, I guess, for Mrs. Webster, after praising my essay and reading it to the class, ceremoniously pinned her CORE button onto my shirt. Well! I thought. This is all right. Later on, Dr. Stella Smith who taught Shakespeare told me I should be an English major, and I, who thought professors were cool, totally agreed.

1 comment:

Journey Authentically said...

I love reading his journey. Thanks for continuing to share! :)