My first real job the summer after I turned sixteen, way back in nineteen and eighty-five, was at Caffco. Caffco, or CCC Associates which is its corporate name, is a huge company that deals with all things home and garden. Plants, flowers, trees, yard ornaments, Christmas trees, even fake flowers. If you want to make your yard pretty, this is the place to go! My friend Michael and I decided it would be a good idea to get a job for the summer. The thought of having more than five bucks at any given time was too much to think about, so we went and filled out an application and got hired on the same day. Here’s what I think same-day hiring says, at least in this instance: Nobody else will do the crappy job that you’re applying for so if you have a pulse and are ignorant enough to take it, it’s yours. Michael and I were the perfect morons to do just that!
I’m pretty sure we started on a Monday. We were hired to be a part of the landscape and maintenance crew. That is code for any dirty, hot, stinky thing they could think of to make us do. We went and got our time cards and clocked in. Just like you see on TV. A big room full of unhappy people standing in line with an old beige with green lines time card. KA-CHUNK! We were now on the clock! Part of the workforce. It was a milestone. My parents were so proud. I took the initiative and got a job all on my own! I’d have money to spend on the weekends now! $3.35 an hour? Unbelievable! I could fill up my ’72 LTD every day! It was a wonderful moment. For a moment. Then we went to work. There used to be a fountain in front of the Southern Homes and Gardens building. I’m not sure if it’s still there or not. My first task, the first of many that I would have the dubious honor of performing alone while Michael, Wendell, and Stephen all worked together as a group, was to paint the inside of that fountain a color that I would say was swimming-pool blue. In June. In Alabama. It was hot. I thought I might die.
That was day one on the job. As I stood in that fountain I looked up and saw a familiar face. It was Wendell. He was coming to put in his application on that day, because he had not come at the same time we did. Guess what! He got hired that same day also and was on the job less than 24 hours later enjoying the all the trappings that go with landscape and maintenance. Wendell was the oldest and so he usually got the honor of driving the old flat-bed truck we affectionately called “The Doorless Wonder.” Old Doorless got us all over the complex from cutting the grass in front of Southern Homes right by the highway all the way back to the dump and everywhere in between. In hindsight I should have taken my Kodak Disc Camera with me so as to have a record of this job, this truck especially, for the sake of posterity, but alas, it was not to be.
There are many nuggets of wonder and amazement to be mined from my experiences that summer. Far too many to share in a single story. For now, I’ll share this one that happened within the first three days or so of my sentence there.
Southern Homes and Gardens at that time had a beautiful Japanese Garden behind the building. I’m not sure if it’s still there or not. It had beautiful sculptures, bridges, ponds, paths, and, of course, flowers. It was pristine and perfect and was the crown jewel of the facility. In a word, it was magnificent. The walking paths were covered with a finely crushed, gray gravel that crunched beneath your feet as if the garden itself were saying, “Enjoy my breathtaking, unspoiled beauty and serenity.” And people did. Lots of people. Even I did for a short time. Who would think that such a peaceful place could visit so much horror on a young life? Ah, ignorance truly is bliss.
It has been well documented that manual labor has never been something I excelled at. I never had to do much of it and thusly, wasn’t very adept at such things. Things that included, among others, the finer points of operating heavy, dangerous machinery like…well, a wheelbarrow. Or, perhaps, identifying and removing weeds from a flower bed. I had been sitting, pay attention here, SITTING in a flower bed in the Jap Garden(I know that may not be politically correct but that is what everyone called it)pulling weeds. My immediate supervisor’s boss, Raymond, happened upon me as I performed my assigned task and upon seeing me sitting there, asked if I was comfortable. His exact words, I believe, were, “You comfortable, boy?” with a bit of extra emphasis on the word “boy.” Wanting to make a favorable impression in my first few days on the job I grinned happily and replied, “Yes sir!” and continued my weed pulling, pleasantly surprised that the boss’s boss cared enough to make sure I was enjoying my job. How nice of him. To quote the great comedian, Brian Regan, and respond to what most of you just said to me in your head, “I know NOW!” Apparently, it is a faux pas of the highest order to sit on one’s hindparts while pulling weeds from a flower bed as a member of the elite landscape and maintenance crew. Who knew?
Seems as though I remember there being a pretty animated, passionate discussion between Raymond and my boss, Thomas, over in the corner of the Jap Garden in the moments following that incident. We continued working until the whistle blew, again, just like on TV, The Flintstones actually, except it wasn’t a bird. With that, we went to lunch. It was at lunch that Thomas informed me that he had saved my job earlier and that Raymond had wanted to fire me on the spot. Had I known what the next 2 1/2 months held in store for me, I might have kicked Thomas square in the groin right then and there just to make sure I’d never be welcome at CCC Associates again. I didn’t know, however, so I thanked Thomas and sat down at a grimy wooden picnic table in a room full of sweaty, smelly, dirty people just like me and ate my cheese sandwich. Life was good! Until after lunch…