Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
[NOTE: I’ll be doing a final script reading of my new multimedia comedy show, “Every Job I’ve Ever Had,” this Saturday, May 29, at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. Here’s a story about one such job …]
I’m finding it hard to talk about things that happened to me when I was in my 20s without saying, “Remember, this was before (commonplace technology), so things were different.” Maybe this is just what happens when you hit mid-40. If you turned 44 in 1780, I guess all of your stories start with, “Remember, this was before the spinning jenny …”
[And yes, for the sake of that joke I had to Google the year that the spinning jenny was invented – and, for that matter, exactly what a spinning jenny is. Couldn’t have done such a thing in my 20s – remember, that was before the Internet.]
So, this job …
I show up for my first night of work at a small, signless “office” in the industrial part of Rancho Cucamonga – not relevant, just fun to type – the decor is unfinished drywall, in the center of the room are three wobbly card tables pushed together. Atop the tables are six telephones, with a person on each phone making sales calls. I’m here because of a help-wanted ad for “evening delivery person.” The boss hands me a Thomas Guide and an address to look up. A Thomas Guide is a multipage map, thick as a novel, and with it you can find any address. Remember, this is before GPS.
I’m pretty handy with a Thomas Guide, and I see that the address he’s given me doesn’t exist – there is no 3417 Pine St. – Pine Street addresses only go up to 3200.
“Great!” he says, taking the map back from me. “You’re just the kind of person we’re looking for!”
The bad address was a test, and I passed, and I’m ashamed to say that this shady character’s approval of me actually elevated my mood. Remember, this was before Prozac.
He hands me a box of about a dozen American flags and explains the job. I’m to go to various addresses and deliver a flag. The deliveree will in turn give me a “donation” check. They’ll be expecting me, having just spoken to one of the “salesmen” in the “office.” Yes, a lot of quotes are needed to describe this “business.” After each delivery I’ll call in for the next address. Oh, and this call has to be made from a pay phone. Remember, this is before cell phones, or e-mail, or DVDs, or iPods, or laser eye surgery, or …
I drive to my first address, knock on the door and nobody answers, even though I can see people inside. I knock again, but it’s clear that I’m being ignored. I drive to a pay phone and report this. No problem, the boss says, it happens. He gives me my next address, and away I go. When I get there an older gentleman is standing in the front lawn. I grab an American flag, hop out and walk toward him.
“I changed my mind,” he says. “I don’t want it!”
“But …” I say, pointing to the flag in my hand, noticing for the first time how cheap it is, like something you’d give a kid to wave during a parade.
“I don’t want it,” he says again, then walks inside, obviously without giving me a check.
I don’t know what kind of scam these people back at Drywall Central are running, but apparently it’s common for people to have second thoughts about handing over a “donation” check in exchange for a toy flag.
I take a moment to do some math – remember, this is before the abacus – I’m paying for my own gas, plus 20 cents per phone call, and I’m only getting paid 2 bucks per successful delivery – even if I hustle the best I can hope for is 8 bucks an hour, and if people are gonna keep denying me, well … I’m basically just driving around burning gas all night for nothing.
I call in, and before the boss can give me an address I tell him that I quit. He doesn’t sound shocked. I tell him I’ll be by to drop off the flags. He tells me not to bother.
I take them home and throw them in the garbage.
Remember, this was before flag recycling, so things were different.