Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Drawing on my fine command of the language, I said nothing." ~ Robert Benchley


The hardest thing about studying art history AND Engish literature at the same time in college is buying all the textbooks required for each class each semester.  When you buy the required texts on each prof's list, you only seek out the USED textbooks because they are cheaper than new, you assume.  When the class is over, you "sell" them back to the univeristy bookstore for less than the paper they were printed on... and on and on and on...  

You take that meager thimble-full of money they gave you the last semester when you find the "used books" for the new semster.  You head to the register, and lo-and-behold, these "used' books ALWAYS cost more than last semester's "used" books!  You make a huge mistake if you even peek at the prices of the NEW, NEVER-BEEN-USED-BEFORE books, though.  I did it once, and I nearly had a heart-attack.  The brand-new texts were only slightly higher in price than the same texts that had been mutilated by hundreds of starving students before you. Nobody I knew had ever looked at the NEW texts because every one assumed that their price would be out-of-sight. I bet that those university book stores make more money than the richest drug dealers in town... I betcha... and bookstores are never, ever bothered by the police!

In order to buy those textbooks and all the art materials that I needed each semester: reams of exotic papers, wickedly expensive brushes, hundreds of tubes of paints, and a myriad of clay tools, I had to work every summer, as did nearly everyone I knew at school.

Summers in Stamford, Connecticut were hot, sometimes humid, and could even be stickey.  I think anything over 75 degrees is hot, I ought to mention.  That made my summer job at the local dry cleaners even more dicey. The owner didn't believe in air-conditioning his store.  I suppose he felt that if the presser-guy had to suffer, so should the counter-girl... that would be me!  There was no wall between the front counter and the huge machines that dry cleaned the clothes and pressed the clothes and swung the clothes in a huge circle around the entire shop.  

We had a kindly owner, though.  When I pointed out to him that the thermometer on the wall said that it was 116 degrees in the shop, and I was constantly having to run to the unisex bathroom to vomit, he ran right over to the drug store and bought me some "salt tablets."  That was so I didn't sweat on the freshly-pressed clothes that I handed over to the customers every day.  Lovely man...  

Actually, he was mostly the absent owner. He would drive over on Saturdays at closing time, open the old, old cash register drawer, shove all the money into his hip pocket, and then say, "Oh, yeah, you two!"  We'd each receive our pittance out of his wad.  Actually, I never knew what my pay was supposed to be. There was no "pay check." Every Friday it was a mystery what I would take home that week!

The upside of that job was sort of a "downer," but educational.  I'd walk the 14 blocks to work and back every day, and right next to the hardware store on the shady side of the street, there was an old, rumpled graveyard.  All the stones were cattywampus with green weeds creeping over every inch of that ground. When I finally got the courage to set foot in that place, I found that the gravestones were carved with dates from the late 1700's to the early 1800's!  It fascinated me to think that they had been there so long.

The presser guy who worked at the cleaners was the strongest man I'd ever seen.  He never talked to me except twice.  He'd just be there pressing in the morning when I'd get there, and leave as soon as the pressing was done. That's when the hissing of the machine would stop, and the temperature would go down to a balmy 103 degrees.

The first time he talked to me, he said that he was going to be using the phone a lot now, and I wasn't to tell anyone what he said on that phone, "YA HEAR ME?"  He was 6 feet 20 inches tall, and had narrow eyes, and I wanted to live, so I said, "OK."

After a full morning of clothes-pressing in his muscle-man tee shirt, he would come to the front, call somebody, and whisper things like, "Acqueduct, 5th, Dimpled Mary to win."  And "Hollywood Park, 7th, I Gotta Stop This across the board." He'd be reading these mysteries off of a piece of scrap paper that had writing on it every which way.  

When he'd finish, he'd look way, way down at me, and say, "Don't you say nothin' now."  I'd nod, and after about 4 weeks of that, he finally started to trust me.  Which was good, because of that darn fire! 

Our cleaners had a 4-foot wide alley between it and the building next-door to us, and there was a glass-less window on that side of our shop. It had bars criss-crossing it, but no glass. Neighbor kids would hide there to smoke or to tell nasty jokes or whatever 10- or 12-year-old boys do. They thought, as they sat there, that no one could hear what they were saying or see what they were doing. But lots of the time, I had nothing to do BUT listen to them.

This day, I imagine they decided to play with fire, because all at once we heard screaming from that window in little boy's voices, "FIRE!  FIRE!  FIRE!" Then I heard whispering, and then running feet. I looked, and, sure enough, there were flames licking the edges of that window, and then coming into the shop!

Rodney yelled, "TERRY! FIRE! HELP ME GET THE CLOTHES OUT OF HERE!  NOW!!!"  

I did!  I ran back there and ran out to the front sidewalk, right behind him.  He ran back into the building, rife with cleaning fluids and oily smells, and I did, too. We raced out again, and the third time, as I ran behind Rodney, he was carrying the massive cash register!  

On the sidewalk, Rodney turned on me and yelled, "YOU STAY HERE AND GUARD THE CASH REGISTER!"  

"NO, RODNEY! LET ME HELP YOU GET MORE OF THE CLOTHES OUT OF THE BUILDING!"

"TERRY!  YOU DUMMY! YOU HAVEN'T BROUGHT NO CLOTHES OUT YET!  YOU JUS' KEEP RUNNIN' BACK AND FORTH! NOW DO SOMETHIN'!  GUARD THE DAMN CASH REGISTER!"  So I did.

When the firemen came and restored semi-order, Rodney said, "YOU gunna call him!"

"Me? I can't call him and tell him that his store caught fire..."

"YOU GUNNA CALL HIM AND YOU GUNNA DO IT NOW!"

"OK... but I'm scared to tell him......  Do I have to.........?"

When our boss drove up to the shop, he screamed and yelled a litte bit, but I was just happy that Rodney and I hadn't been blown to smithereens.  Only 4 pieces of clothing burned. The rest were saved because of Rodney's quick-wittedness. The upshot was that the store would be closed for a while, and we weren't going to be paid for those days, either, naturally.

"Can I have my salt tablets, please?"

"No! Now go home! I don't have any insurance on this place! I'll call you when we get it running again."

So I did.  So did Rodney. The owner forgot to give us our week's pay as he dove into the cash register, and I was mad..  Neither Rodney or I had taken one dime out of that cash register that was sitting on the sidewalk!  Probably because we didn't have a clue what he owed us...  All I hoped was that Rodney's horses came in, and that he made some money on his illegal booky sideline. As for me... there'd better be a short list of textbooks I had to buy for my lit classes in the fall.  I would be taking advanced painting, and ooooh the cost of a tube of red oil paint.... Yikes!

No comments:

Post a Comment