As long as I can remember, my parents insisted that I get a job. Bricklaying or hay bailing, landscaping with the guys or lifeguarding with the girls, they didn’t care as long as I was working. I worked the longest as a landscaper. I was with the same company for two and a quarter summers because it matched my school schedule. They needed people just when school was letting out and wanted to let people go as it was starting again.
The first company that I ever worked for was a hundred-year-old family business that was slowly becoming industrialized. It was my first real job. No sitting around the dinner table with Charlie swapping stories. You had to clock in the break room by seven to hear the morning meeting. Then it was to the trucks.
They set out in the yard neatly lined up after yesterday’s work. Check the fluids, load up any special tools, and grab your plants. The guys were fast so that they would have time to stop at the gas station down the road for fifteen minutes (on the clock) and get snacks for the day. It amazed me that some guys would spend on junk food as much as they would make in the first two hours of the day.
The groups were divided into 3 person teams because that’s how many a single truck could hold, and the first foreman I worked with was Dan. He was more civilized than any of the other white guys there. You see, many of the adult white guys did landscaping because it was their last option. The latino guys did it because to them it was an opportunity. So usually when it came to white guys you were scrappin’ the bottom of that old barrell.
But for Dan, landscaping was more of a quagmire. He had started working landscape during highschool with one of the bosses kids. And while that kid had gone off to college, paid for by his parents, Dan didn’t have that option. So he kept working landscape and kept on because he didn’t know what else to do. He drove an old Honda Civic because it still worked, and I don’t think he knew what else to do. In short, Dan was stuck. Working with him was pleasant though. Lots of please hand me that tool and thank yous.
In fact, when I was working with Dan, I actually enjoyed landscaping. I was young, and it was nice to be out in the open air. When you think about it, landscaping is just industrial scale gardening. And when you finished a project, it looked beautiful. I got all the benefits of gardening, but I got paid to do it. Plus, I’ve never slept better than after a long day of landscaping. We were putting in gardens left and right, just not vegetable ones.
I expected Dan to be there the second summer in between my own college years that I came back to work for the company. It was with dismay and pleasure that I found Dan had finally moved on, even though it was only to work for the Parks Department of a nearby small town. I was, of course, happy for him because all the guys talked about his move like it was a big improvement. I was dismayed, though, because that left me stuck with Garry.
Garry was, perhaps, one of the most openly racist people I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. Dan and I had talked many times about how awful it was to work with him. See not only was Garry openly racist, he told oddly licentious stories that made your skin move under your uniform. And, if you were working anywhere that would be within visual range of women, you had to listen to his salacious comments. It was, as they say, the worst.
A day with Garry was an eternity roasting in the pit of ignorance and sexual indecentness. I would not be surprised at all if he were one of Dante’s lesser demons escaped from the first, or maybe second, level of hell. I was tormented by him for a full summer and a quarter of another. He was so bad, in fact that I asked my boss to move me to one of the other crews.
I always had fun working with the Latino guys. They were harder workers than any white crew I ever sweated with, and they were always trying to teach me Spanish. I didn’t work with them long enough to learn much though, because at this point there were only three white guys in the landscaping pool: me, Garry, and Garry’s lackey, Sam. None of the Latino guys would work with Garry because of his rampant and obvious racism. They straight up refused.
So, I was stuck in the only three man white guy crew. I worked with them a whole summer, but by my third year with the company I had had enough. Every few days I would ask my boss to let me work with one of the Latino crews, but racist math was against me, and I was stuck. After a while I lined up a job lifeguarding and gave my two weeks notice. I’ll always remember that the slimeball boss sent me home two days later. Without even the guts to say it to my face, he delegated the task to Garry. This left me with almost two weeks off before I started lifeguarding.
Lifeguarding hit me hard and fast. Two sharp whistles. I was in the water before I could take my sunglasses off. I scissor kicked as far away as I could from the foam rescue tube the kid was trying to climb over, pulling him to the side. When I got there, I reeled him in and blanked for a moment. I assume someone took the kid or maybe he was one of the pool rats, kids whose parents dropped them off at the pool and used the lifeguards as babysitters. Adrenaline was still pounding when I came up from my trance. My supervisor was there asking if I was all right, and should she take my rotation.
I was guarding the diving boards when the young kid walked to the end of the low board. He had looked at me and wrung his hands. Then, with a few quick steps, he was in the water. He didn’t even try to swim, He just turned to me and held his hands up. A mute plea for help. The whistles were to let the other guards know I was performing a save. Then I was in the water. Everyone freaks out when you do a save at the deep end. That’s where most spinal cord injuries occur. That double whistle had emptied the break room, 3 other guards rushed to the deep end with a backboard and a defibrillator. Fortunately, neither were necessary this time.
Having been a life guard, it is no surprise to me that a disproportionately high number of injuries occur in men, above eighty percent. Men are far more likely, in my experience, to show off or “try this cool thing I saw.” In retrospect it makes sense that this kid was probably showing off for his friends. And there I was shivering with adrenaline, my fanny pack dribbling water down my side, my whistle still around my neck, and my sunglasses on, with my supervisor asking if I was ok.
The true answer was HELL NO THAT KID ALMOST DROWNED WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK. “I’m fine,” I replied, adjusting my sunglasses. So, I climbed back up in the chair, “you’re sure?,” she asked. Still shaking. “I can finish your rotation” she said. The truth is, I had so much adrenaline and was so scared that the only thing I could do was follow my training on autopilot and return to that tall, white chair. At once a sanctuary from the frenetic energy of countless children over the summer and a prison. A kind of dual panopticon in which you watch the inmates but the inmates all watch you.
Relaxation, a Necessity
We would try to blow off steam in the guard room. A small room with half sized lockers along one wall and a counter overhung with empty cabinets that ran into a refrigerator. In the middle was a round plastic table with some chairs. At least here there was no division between white guys and Latino guys, and one of the perks of the job was flirting with the female lifeguards. While in the guard room we were technically on break, but if anything happened, like a save, we had very specific jobs to fulfill. One person gets the defibrillator, one the backboard, and one comes ready to take the spot of the lifeguard who just made the save.
So the room was sparse and tense. . .until I used medical tape and Popsicle sticks to make hockey sticks and an assortment of other junk to make goals and a puck. Our boss, Carrie, never expressed any disapproval. She didn’t have the courage for that. I would only learn through hearsay over the course of the summer that my shenanigans were unappreciated. But that was ok because we were young and lifeguarding wasn’t that important. But the parties, and the girls, were.
My brother and I would make huge bonfires out in the yard. The other guards would hang out around them. Inevitably, Someone’s brother or sister would get us alcohol. Then we would dump out half a can of soda and then pour in whatever alcohol we had so that everything looked innocent to my parents. I still remember the taste of Dr. Pepper and Malibu Coconut Rum; I highly recommend it. And, if you had a little too much of the punch, we had tents set up for guys and girls to stay over.
We were generally slick enough to get away with things. The closest we ever were to getting caught was when a girl went in the house to use the bathroom, bumped into the kitchen table, and said “oh, that’s a table” in front of my parents. I think we were able to pass it off as a joke since she was a bit spacey anyway. Either way she was thoroughly chastised for almost blowing the whole thing. Looking back, you never know how good you had it.
One party in particular stands out. In fact, I’m not even sure you would call it a party. It was only my brother, me, his girlfriend, and two female lifeguards. Our parents were gone then so we could get into as much trouble as possible. So, while I was still sober, we decided to go car paint-balling that night. It’s stupid, illegal, extremely fun, and simple. You hang out of the car and try to shoot street signs. Simple.
Slowly, the parties got old. Meanwhile, the tensions unspoken mounted between us and the managers. Before one of our training days, I was swimming laps when my brother came over to me. Apparently Carrie had finally said something because Gabe told me he thought they were going to fire him. I thought about it for a second and decided that no one fires my brother. So I said fuck it, let’s quit. And we did. We made sure to do it in front of the other lifeguards so that they knew it was us quitting and not getting fired. I still remember Carrie saying “see you around the pool” as we walked out the door, snorting and calling back “not likely.” We threw gasoline on that bridge and walked away, just as I had walked away from landscaping.