Black Tuesday

I moved out of my parents' house for the first time when I was 19. I had a roommate, a guy named Kerry, who was also 19. Our house was just an old run down thing near downtown. But it had not only a basement, but an upstairs bedroom that we used for storage, and a carport that held both our cars. I think the rent was a measly $180 a month. Overall, it was quite a find. We had known the guy who rented it before us, and when we found out he was moving out, we jumped on it.

Now, in order to afford this life of luxury, we had jobs. Kerry worked at a paper-products plant in a nearby town. I worked in the same town, at a shop known as Oregon Handling Equipment, in the industrial district. OHE sold all kinds of odd stuff to the local industries, mostly hand trucks and casters, the little wheels that went on every type of cart you could imagine. They sold everything you might need to run your warehouse: Little plastic boxes to hold small parts that fit on rails (our brand was known as "Plastibox"), the little conveyer-belt-type things that were used to move heavy products down a shipping table (I forget what the hell those were called), even something known as a "keg pad", which was simply a thick, circular rubber shock absorber for beer distributors to use when loading or unloading beer kegs.

Oddly, the business also housed "Lectro-Lift", which I suppose was the world's smallest forklift assembly plant. These two old guys named Dick and Lloyd built these small battery-powered forklifts. You stood on the back of the forklift to operate it. It had a little accelerator pedal you operated with your right foot, and a steering wheel which operated the two little wheels on the back of it. These two guys actually built these things from raw materials, doing all the welding, assembly and painting themselves. They usually had two forklifts under construction at any given time.

Lloyd was an extremely grumpy old fart, but nobody really feared him, because his grumpiness was so extreme it was sort of comical. Dick was a genuinely nice guy, who had worked off and on for the company for many years. He would quit his job at OHE to sell cars, then his conscience would get the best of him, and he'd come back. To this day, he is the only car salesman I ever knew who actually hated, and felt bad about, ripping people off.

My job at OHE was shipping and receiving. In came casters and hand trucks, out went Plastiboxes and so forth. I would box the items up and call the appropriate trucking company for pick-up.

Now, I found the job through an employment agency, but I didn't have to pay the fee. OHE had paid to find someone willing to work there. It didn't take long to figure out how they had become so desperate for someone to work my job: Beyond the fact that the job didn't pay much, the building was dilapidated beyond belief. Junk was piled up everywhere in a haphazard fashion. It was dirty. And there was nothing to do much of the time.

The building had an upstairs. It housed the lunchroom, and most of the rest of the upper level was filled with cardboard boxes filled with the above mentioned Plastiboxes and their steel rails.

When I first started working there, I noticed a lot of old Plastiboxes scattered around on the floor upstairs. I dutifully went about picking them up and storing them in a more proper place. I remember feeling proud of myself for cleaning up this unsightly mess.

Then, it rained. It quickly became very clear why all the Plastiboxes had been laying about all over the upstairs floor: The roof leaked in a hundred places! Water came cascading through large holes in the building's flat roof as I raced around replacing all the Plastiboxes I had picked up days earlier. Water was gushing through the floor and into the lower level, sometimes flooding down onto fluorescent lighting that was everywhere! I quickly learned to leave the Plastiboxes in place. Sometimes I was called upon to empty them, probably in order to prevent mosquitoes from taking over the place.

The condition of the ownership was similar to that of the building. The owner, Old Man Vandercook, was as wasted as the building. He walked with this giant, horrible limp as if he were missing an entire hip joint. And he constantly made this huge and very gross noise with his sinuses, as if trying to hock up the world's biggest loogie. I still remember him climbing the stairs each day, struggling with that huge limp and snorking loudly a dozen times on his way up.

Old Man Vandercook's wife helped run this shithole, and two of his kids, both of them around 30 years old, were salesmen. In all, no more than a dozen people worked there. Once a month or so, we would all go out to lunch together at Yankee Pot Roast next door, shutting down the business completely for an hour.

Now, it would have been easy to feel sorry for the old man if he wasn't such an asshole. But an asshole he was. He was always pissed off about something or another, usually something one of his salesman sons had done. Once he even growled at me, "Get your hands out of your pockets! It makes you look unintelligent!" "Unintelligent" was the longest word I ever remember him using.

Anyway, I worked at this dump for about five months. I had been working there about three months when Black Tuesday came.

Black Tuesday started out like any other day. I had to ship a Plastibox order out, which meant wrapping a couple of long, heavy steel rails in cardboard for shipping. So I wrapped the eight-foot rails and leaned them against a nearby garbage can. As I was busily preparing something else for shipping at my little table, the rails slipped off the garbage can and went right through the window of a nearby door that led to the outside of the building. Smash! Shit, I thought. I knew it would be my job to replace the window.

So I told my boss, an old guy named Howard who seemed well beyond retirement age, what had happened. He frowned a little, and gave me a check to go buy a new pane of glass for the door. Howard was generally the kind, easy-going grandfatherly type who never got agitated about much of anything, which may have explained his longevity at a company run by an asshole like Old Man Vandercook. He handed me the keys to one of their trucks.

The truck I climbed into was one of two the company owned, one-ton flatbeds, each with a cab like a Chevy pickup truck. The particular one I climbed into had an arc welder laying on the back. This arc welder was not your typical electric arc welder. It had its own diesel-powered straight six engine, which fired the generator for the arc welder. It was huge, the size of a farm tractor, and had been loaded lengthwise on the back of the truck.

So off to the glass shop I went. On the way there, I stopped at a stop sign at an intersection, then took a sharp left. There was a huge noise from the back of the truck. I looked in my rearview mirror. Where did the arc welder go? Once I realized that it had gone tumbling off the back of the truck and into an intersection of a busy industrial area at rush hour, there was a moment of indecision. Do I stop and go back? Or do I punch it, and just keep going, maybe to California?

Once over the initial panic, it was time to pull over and go back and survey the damage. I parked the truck and walked toward the intersection. The welder had fallen off and slid against the back of someone's Plymouth Duster, parked in front of a tavern on the corner of the intersection. The car's bumper had been pushed against the body some, not real heavy damage. The arc welder, however, appeared to be totaled. By now, the tavern's patrons had come streaming out onto the sidewalk to view the carnage. "You kids'll learn!" shouted one idiot, already drunk at four in the afternoon.

I knew there wasn't much I could do on my own, so I got back in the truck and headed back toward the shop. I started to wonder how I would go about telling Howard what had happened.



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