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ralph robert moore
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and there's no wall
may 1, 2013
Last night I dreamed I was back at work.
What job it was of the many I've held in my life, I don't know.
White walls floating around me, two men I apparently knew. The three of us wearing suits. Smell is so strong in dreams. I could smell coffee, burnt microwave popcorn.
In the dream, I was anxious because I needed a manual in order to do my job, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I even had a vague idea of what the manual looked like, its cover and thickness, but that wasn't helping me.
I never enjoyed working.
I mean, I enjoyed some aspects of it, especially the getting paid so I could continue living aspect, and the social aspect, but other than that jobs never meant anything to me. It always seemed to me such a waste of a life to spend a third of your day at a job, dog on a chain, especially when another third was used up sleeping.
Like a lot of kids, I started off mowing grass. Man, that was hard work. Hot sun, sloped lawns. When I got older, I realized you could get even more money, with less effort, delivering newspapers. So I started asking a lot of questions about that, who do I have to speak to, and eventually I got set up with my own route. That wasn't too bad. Coin in pocket. Delivering papers in rain and snow was hard, but I was determined, and I liked the romance of being out after dark, fighting the elements. The snow from childhood never melts. I'd have my coat buttoned up around me, chin tucked down, and when I turned onto a street, I could project ahead of me exactly what route I'd need to take to hit all the front doors with the least number of steps. One time the snow was falling so heavily, the guy in charge of paper carriers in my town, a college kid, and his friend, took me in his car to deliver the papers. They'd be having a college kid conversation in the front seat, some of which I understood, occasionally including me in the conversation, which I appreciated. Once they'd reach the bottom of the latest driveway, joking around, rear tires sliding left, I'd pop out of the back seat and trudge up the slippery concrete drive to the front door, turn my face from the white wind, and fling the paper at the front door. I have no idea what happened to those two happy go lucky guys from so long ago. I hope they're in a really nice nursing home, with attendants who care.
Once I turned sixteen, I could get an official job. I was hired at a local McDonalds. I hated it. Had to wear a paper hat on my head. I was in the kitchen, flipping burgers. A blonde-haired kid a few years older than me was at the front counter, taking orders. The owner materialized out of nowhere at one point, big arms in a plaid shirt, accusing him of giving free burgers to his high school friends. Beat him down with the anger of an adult ripping apart a kid. In your face. It doesn't let up until there are red cheekbones, and hot tears. Saw a lot of that back then. "Out the door! Leave! Out the door!" Which the kid deserved, but still. Not a very friendly atmosphere. Whenever we got an order for burgers, we had to exaggerate it. Add twenty to the order. For example, if the front counter asked for two burgers, I had to shout, "Twenty-two burgers! Let's go!" I don't know who that was meant to impress. I only lasted that one night. At the end of my shift, I took off my white paper hat, resigned.
I dropped out of high school the first day of my senior year. Just decided I wasn't going to sit in classrooms anymore. It was a hard time for me, because I didn't know what to do next. I knew I had to eventually get a job, but I just could not project myself into any kind of future where I was wearing a suit, working in an office. I was a tall kid who buried his face in books all day. It just seemed totally alien to who I was, to work in an office. And that worried me. I knew I had to do it. But I didn't know how. How was I going to grow up and survive? Eventually, my Uncle Jimmy, God rest his soul, helped out. I insisted I would only work in New York City, fifty miles away, because I wanted to be thrown into the madness and toxic car fumes of a large city, even though I was only seventeen, and since he owned his own business in Manhattan, he was able to use his connections to get me a job at Brooks Brothers, a fashionable men's clothing store located at Madison and 44th. I became a commuter, catching the train at the Greenwich train depot each morning, riding into Manhattan to Grand Central Station, walking along the tall buildings to my work. It was terrifying. I loved it. Extraordinarily lonely at first, eating my lunch by myself in restaurants, very self-conscious, going down the wide, busy sidewalks, knowing no one, but eventually I made a lot of friends, none of whom were anything like me, or the other people from staid Greenwich, and saw and experienced things I never would have otherwise.
After a year, I decided to take a "General Equivalency" exam to get my high school diploma in one day rather than one year, then enrolled in a Connecticut college. While I went to college, I worked in a stationary store. I was in charge of the cash register, which was cool. People would come up to me to buy stuff, I'd take their money, calculate the total cost in my head, then press the buttons on the cash register to get it to open. (One of many fascinating facts I learned in my life, which I somehow worked into one fiction or another: At the end of the night, we were supposed to leave the cash register's tray (with the money in it) open. I asked the owner why. It didn't make sense to me. "If somebody robs us, bad enough if they get our money. But worse if they also destroy an expensive cash register in the process.") This was my first job where I dealt directly with the public. Some people hate that type of job, because some customers can be assholes, but I always loved it. Just interacting with so many different types of people. Better than being isolated in an office, and I enjoyed being part of a community. The same people would come in every day. I got to know them. It was like I had a hundred uncles, aunts and cousins.
After I dropped out of college (are we beginning to see a pattern here?) I got a job as a bank teller. And again, really loved working with the public. I was head teller, so once or twice a week I'd have to walk a few blocks down Greenwich Avenue to a larger bank, with a cashier's check, to get more cash for our bank's vault. Usually sixty to seventy thousand dollars at a time. It was all very casual. They knew me at the other bank, and after I endorsed the check they'd put the sixty or seventy grand up on the counter in rubber-banded bundles, which I'd stuff into my pants pockets and suit jacket pockets. Then I'd walk back up the avenue to my bank, pull all the bundles out of my clothes, and lock it up in our safe. I never once got robbed, but when one of the head office's auditors found out how I transported money, he went into a fit. "You can't do that! It's crazy!"
Eventually, I was promoted to the main office of the bank, in Bridgeport, where I became head teller of the whole system, statewide. Now I was dealing with anywhere from half a million to sometimes a million dollars in cash, but I no longer transported the money from bank to bank myself. They had armed guards for that. That's a weird thing, to physically handle so much money, but it never bothered me. If anything, the sheer bulk of all that money was a nuisance. Trying to cram it all on metal shelves, having to count it to verify it was all there.
After a few years, I was bored with Connecticut, and wanted to put myself in an entirely different environment. So I sold the house I had bought, and with that profit drove to California, where I knew absolutely no one. (Incidentally, this is probably the point where I should thank my parents, now long dead, alas, for being so understanding in supporting my different zigs and zags. I'm sure I gave them a lot of gray hairs over the years.)
Once I arrived in California, I drove up and down the state, deciding where to live next. Settled on Santa Barbara, because it is absolutely beautiful. The Pacific Ocean on one side, the Santa Ynez mountains on the other side. Palm trees!
When it came time to look for a job, I decided to try a job agency. Made sense, right? Looked in the local yellow pages (this was long before the Internet.) And had another in the long, long line of slightly surreal experiences I've gone through in life (maybe you have too.) I called the agency, spoke to someone on staff for a while, then decided to go out to their office for a face-to-face interview. I forget now where they were located, but let's say it was 512 Golden Avenue. So following their directions, I drive my car down the different streets, and there up ahead, a building at the corner of the shopping mall with 512 on its fašade. So I park, get out, walk through the front door. Right on time. (I hate being late, because it's impolite, even though too often I am impolite.) Inside, a few desks, but no people. Low lighting. Incense in the air. Wow. So this is what a job agency looks like in California. It made sense. The beaded curtain at the back of the office parted, and a woman walked out. "Can I help you?" "I'm looking for a job." "Really! What kind of job would you like?" Well, as the conversation progressed, I realized we were talking about two completely different things. Although the job agency was indeed located at 512 Golden Avenue, that was the address for all the establishments in that mall. The numbers 512 were on the building fašade I entered just because it was the building closest to the entrance. The actual business I wanted was a few storefronts down within the mall. The establishment I was in, talking about jobs, was actually a massage parlor.
Eventually, I got a job in nearby Goleta, at Infomag, a company that made credit card readers (the little devices in stores you swipe your credit card through.) This was back when the technology was still brand new. I got work on their assembly line, soldering different tiny wires to different tiny connections on the back of a green plastic control board. It was awful, but it paid the rent. And best of all, it was where I met and fell in love with Mary, who worked in the Quality Assurance department. We were both married to other people at the time, but that didn't stop us from finding little hidey-holes in the factory where we could talk and talk and talk, and when we walked anywhere, we walked so close together our hands would brush, my big knuckles against Mary's little knuckles. Eventually, we started checking into different motels around town, and that was like living in Heaven, stepping back out into the sunshine after hours inside, leaving behind cigarette butts, melting ice, white bed sheets that had spilled to the carpet.
After we separated from our spouses and rented our own place, we decided what we really wanted to do is start over in a new city, so we moved to San Francisco. We both got jobs in banks, as tellers. Once again, dealing with the public, feeling a part of a community. People recognized us in supermarkets. It was during that time that San Francisco became a beacon for gays, more arriving every day from Kansas, Montana, Idaho. After a while, we'd handle more and more currency over the bank counter that had "Gay Money" stamped in blue or red ink across the front of the bills, an effort by the gay community to keep their spending dollars within their community. Some bank patrons, usually older, uptight types, would refuse the bills. It was also the time when AIDS first reared its head. Back then, no one knew what was happening. But Mary and I, at our respective banks, would see more and more gay guys showing up with dark lesions on their face. At the time, it was referred to as "Gay cancer," because no one knew what it was. All Mary and I knew was that over time we'd see fewer and fewer gays at our teller windows, their friends telling us they had died.
At both banks, we were approached about taking on more responsibilities, moving up in the companies, but we had decided by then we wanted to travel. So we did. Took our saved-up money, packed everything we owned in the trunk of our Ford Mustang, and took off across America. Wound up in Maine. We tried living in Bangor, and it's a beautiful area, but there weren't any jobs. Relocated to Portland. Drifted into insurance jobs. Me, paying health insurance claims, working for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Mary working for a large reinsurance company. Ate a lot of lobster. We'd go down to the docks on the weekends, where you could buy whole fish straight off the boats, blood still on their scales. It was wonderful.
After about five years, we decided it was time to move on. Once again, everything we owned in the trunk, this time a white Honda Accord. We had more money by then, so took our time. Meandered around the country. You have no idea how free that makes you feel. We'd check into a motel at night, go out to a local restaurant, then have a drink at the little round table every motel room has, maps and AAA travel guides spread out, and decide which direction we wanted to go on the highway the next morning. We spent 80 days doing that. Put about 20,000 miles on our car. Visited most of the 50 states, and half the Canadian provinces. I'm not even going to begin to describe the adventures we had on the road, because there were too many. From Miami to Anchorage.
Eventually, we wound up in San Antonio. Beautiful city, with a fascinating Latino culture we really enjoyed, but again, not so good for jobs. So we packed up again, moved to Dallas.
Since we most recently worked in insurance, we sought jobs there. And for the first time, deciding Dallas would be our home, we'd be staying there, we wouldn't be moving on in a few years, we made an effort to move up in our companies, to make more money. Both of us wound up as direct reports to the president of our respective companies, Mary eventually becoming an officer of her company. Mary was head of Human Resources at her company; I was head of Legal at my company.
Mary suffered a severe stroke in 2002, and had to leave her job, going on disability. I survived years of company layoffs, seeing our subsidiary reduced from 600 workers down to a little over a dozen, then eventually one of the bombs landed on me (I was working full-time from home at that point to care for Mary; the latest company that acquired ours decided it wanted someone who would work out of their corporate office in Ohio. I was offered the opportunity for us to relocate to Ohio, but we didn't want to.)
After that, because I needed to stay at home, I became a private consultant, with my own company, hired by different third party administrators. As time went on, I accepted fewer and fewer new clients, to be able to semi-retire, and about a year ago we decided, You know what? If I don't have to work, why should I? I retired.
So we no longer have jobs, but we no longer need the nasty things. We invested wisely over the years, to where we're now financially comfortable without a salary coming in. And it's great. We wake up when we want, do whatever we feel like during the day, go to sleep when we want.
We both look back now, in retirement, with some fondness at all our decades of working. There were some aspects of it that were enjoyable. Having to make decisions that would affect a lot of people. For me, having to negotiate with a table of attorneys over the terms of a contract, either in Dallas, or after flying to a nearby city. Giving speeches. The professional friendships. But we both know we're only remembering the good parts. We're forgetting the far greater number of hours and days and weeks and months and years of sitting at a desk, trying to deal with people with their own territorial stupidities, with unreasonable requests, with that soul-trying isolation of sitting in an office, dozens of projects in the air, trying to make things work.
When Mary and I first got together, and moved to San Francisco, we rented an apartment over a garage. It was a really nice, cozy space. We spent all our time together, 24 hours a day. We knew we would eventually have to get jobs, and that that would mean we would no longer know what our buddy was doing every moment. At one point, both of us in bed, Mary said, "Maybe we can find jobs where we work in adjacent offices, only a wall separating us, and we can put our hand on that wall, you and me, at the same time."
Now we have that intimate life. And there's no wall. It's just me and Mary.