The Tar Pit (3 of 9)
By Thomas Frye
“That was weird how that happened like that,” I said, under my breath, still in the summer heat, still pacing the room and thinking out loud to keep my mind off my sickness. “I needed three-hundred dollars and it came to me in a way I hadn’t even considered.”
I walked back over to the shoebox and flipped the lid off, so it landed on the desktop. Quietly, I stood with a vacant look and stared at the five rubber-bands lying naked and hungry on the otherwise empty bottom of the box. Each one of them held a hundred-dollars in ones, fives, and tens at the beginning of the summer.
I turned away in disgust and dragged my bones by the marrow to pick them up marionette-style, so that I could stand by the window and watch for a friend’s car to come piling on into the driveway, eager for me to do them a favor. The air was thick. I decided to finally slide the window open, but it was just as hot and muggy outside, and it didn’t make the air any easier to breathe.
On a turquoise dresser to my right was a box full of cleaners and brushes, and mitts and waxes I’d used to detail cars with. Detailing cars was one of the four jobs I’d picked up after kicking cold-turkey the first week I’d moved into this room. Back when the snow had taken over the city. Back when my car was running, and I could get to where I was going with ease and discretion. Back when I had resolve and a more determined focus.
I had seen that filling the shoebox can work. I had seen that it was possible. I’ve proven to myself the old saying, ‘anything is possible that you put your mind to,’ repeatedly over a decade of habits where somehow, I was able to come up with the money I needed for my many cures, every day, without exception, without skipping a day here and there. Many times, without a job, without a car, a phone, a place to live or shower or sleep at night. Without even bus fare in my pocket, let alone a guarantee that tomorrow I would be able to find food, a roof, or the medicine I would need to keep me sick… and somehow, I did.
What if I put my mind to something other than trying to find more heroin?
I looked back over at the box of car detailing products. It was a box that I once needed to keep well-stocked, and it ran out frequently back then. Back when tire tracks in the snow up and down my driveway meant I’d been driving to and from several different jobs over the course of the week, not that a handful of the weak had laid tracks in the snowy horseshoe of my driveway because they wanted me to cop them an armful of dope. With two weeks clean, after my appetite came back, I left my one-bed, one-desk room, and laid tracks in the snow to a café downtown, less than a three-minute drive from my rented room. The café was connected to a popular venue for local bands and art merchants that I’d frequented for years. I put in an application and got hired right away.
It was around that time that I got a job referral from a friend of a friend who owned a car lot. Next door to that lot was a mechanic’s shop. The two business owners knew each other but weren’t affiliated. The car dealer needed a guy to go with him to auctions and drive the cars he bought back to the garage so they could be cleaned and flipped for a profit. I was paid by-the-car to vacuum every crumb and polish every surface until the thing looked and smelled the way it did when it came into this world. Turns out I’ve got an eye for detail, which I credit to combing through whole living rooms of carpet fibers, looking for a rock that I’m positive I dropped… I mean, I saw it fall… it’s got to be there, repeating in my head for hours as I’d search, most of the time unsuccessfully.
I also got paid hourly to maintain the lot which, at that time, meant brushing the snow from the cars so they could be seen from the busy traffic of the road it was located on. I arranged and rearranged cars, shuffled them around the lot to keep the good ones in rotation. I became an expert in maneuverability and getting in and out of tight spaces using only the rear and sideview mirrors. Once I ran out of things to do, I swept up the garage, I cleaned the sales offices, just to get a few more hours a week which, in my head, was adding up to more money in the shoebox.
It wasn’t long before the owner of the car lot mentioned the job I’d done for him, and that I was eager to work as many hours as it would take to save up the money to move out of state. I was offered a third job helping to turn wrenches in the auto-shop next door. The guy who ran the place was a round old Joe in a greasy pair of overalls and a bald head with greying hair on the sides. He had all the knowhow. He just needed muscle, a strong back, good eyes, and fingers that weren’t as fat as his, so they could reach in and turn the bolts. I learned how to change breaks and pads and oil and fuel filters, spark plugs, starters, radiator hoses and alternators… all things I usually paid other people to do. I even helped drop a Chevy Big-Block engine in some guy’s work-truck, using my hands and his knowledge and a strong hydraulic engine-hoist. I also worked a midnight shift, three nights a week, as a security guard at a place about a ten-minute drive north up 5th Avenue from where I rented my room on the edge of downtown.
After a few weeks, the money started piling up in the shoebox. Loose bills were just thrown in, many of them tips; ones, fives and a few Dusty Hamiltons here and there. Soon I needed to organize them into hundred-dollar piles, strapped together with a rubber-band, to make space in the box. Every new rubber-band I started to fill got me one leap closer to my final jump, where I’d jump on a plane the fuck out of here.
For three months I ran the same week of days that started around seven in the morning. I’d wake up to a toothbrush, a shower, and a cup of coffee, instead of another familiar pinprick that would eventually bruise and collapse my veins. Now my morning ritual was to toast an English muffin and microwave a couple of sausage patties, then stick a slice of American or Pepper Jack cheese between the patties and douse the cheese in hot sauce before sandwiching it all together so the cheese melted from the heat of the meat. I would eat my breakfast while I tied my shoes, and carry a hot cup of coffee out to the car, which I’d have to scrape the snow and ice from before driving downtown to the café by eight a.m.
My first task of every morning would be to clean any dishes, pots or pans, that may have been left over from the night before. After the dish-pit was cleared, I would fill a mop bucket up and drag a sudsy wet one across the same worn wooden, hundred-year old barroom floor I’d been hanging out on, drinking rum and watching bands on, and playing pinball by the cigarette machines by the restrooms on for years. To mop from the back of the bar, bathrooms first, then down the old wood planks past the tables and booths along the wall that skirted the bar, then to the main door that led out onto Hazel Street. Then around the front of the bar to the dancefloor and along the stage, to the back of the bar that wraps around to serve all of those tables along the far edge of the place, and straight back to the other door that opens near the alley off Hazel, took me about an hour and a half, if I was feeling squirrely that morning… to two-hours, if I couldn’t get my shit together that day.
Then I’d either wait tables, wash dishes, or help in the kitchen, either making or serving breakfast, or getting ready for the downtown lunch rush. I was never the most competent server and absolutely hated dealing with the crass, demanding, and downright rude ‘public’ that people refer to when they say, “I hate dealing with the public,” which is something I was saying a lot in those days.
I must have said it enough because they put me on lunch delivery, which I liked a shit ton better. Now my job was to bag up and deliver sandwiches and lunch salads, soups and specials, to offices all over downtown and on campus.
I took to a computer in my favorite study lounge at the University, the one with the leather chairs and couches and comfortable lights and wood-walls lined with computer-stations all linked to a central laser-printer. It didn’t take long for me to put together a professional looking flyer with the restaurant’s name and number on it, as well as my own private cellphone number, so they could order through me personally, by text or voicemail if they wanted, and I’d ring it in for them, and deliver it as soon as it came up.
I tried every sandwich we offered at lunch so I could sell the menu, then included a flyer or two with each order. The university being so close was a gift to the shoebox. Between it, and the bankers in the business district, and the girls at the wig shop a few-block’s-walk up Commerce Street, through my own sweat and effort, I began to amass a loyal customer base. The café gave me a commission on my improved clientele, and I began to rebuild my self-worth.