Monday, February 1, 2010


October, 1985 + Between Augusta and Waterville, Maine

Predicament: A situation from which extrication is difficult, especially an unpleasant or trying one.

I was driving home alone to Waterville in my tricked-out van on a lowering, cloudy, and chilly late afternoon. I had had a hopeless job interview for a statistical position for which I was completely unqualified yet desperately needed. The previous hour had gone something like this:

I had made it in good time to the huge, gray, false granite office building that resembled every one of its type that one sees all over. It was unimaginative, linear, and symmetrical. Every window and door was exactly where expected. This one looked like a morose, monstrous factory where majestic redwood trees are transformed into toothpicks for shipment to Greenland. This intimidating edifice must have been left over from Stalin's day. I could hardly imagine the time and effort wasted here at taxpayer expense. I reminded myself, "This is a State building, after all."

Entering through the side-by-side glass doors was problematic. There was no 'Handicap' button. The doors were too heavy for me to open by myself. No one was going in or out. There I sat, like so many times before and after, alone outside in bad weather staring at a building I couldn't enter. Finally, a defeated looking suit-and-tie man around fifty years old came out and ushered me in. I followed the signs down the long, shadowy corridor to the office to where I was to be grilled and, most likely, humiliated yet again. Yeah, I had confidence written all over me.

I eventually found my way to the front desk. The look of pity on the receptionist's face set my teeth on edge, like eating glass. It was as if she had just said, in smarmy, overly sympathetic tones, "Oh you poor little darling, how horrible your life must be." I told her why I was there, using impeccable grammar, diction, and big words, like I do when faced with interpersonal discomfort. She gave me a look of absolute incredulity, as if she had heard be say I wanted to play point guard for the Boston Celtics.

She had that, 'I'd sure like to help this poor bastard as long as it takes no effort on my part' expression on her otherwise immobile face. She seemed very self-satisfied as if she were the one who had re-taught me how to speak. I waited about ten minutes under her empathetic yet penetrating gaze. I felt like an uninvited guest everyone pretends they're glad to see, while wishing he'll disappear. I prayed she wouldn't engage me in meaningless chatter to relieve the stifling psychosocial humility in her claustrophobic little fiefdom.

I was rescued by my interviewer, a colorless, somber looking miniature man of about sixty in a cheap polyester suit. 'This guy is a perfect fit for the place', I thought. He led me into his office, which wasn't much bigger than an airplane bathroom and had about as much appeal. What it did have, of course, was a well-worn old style adding machine with long, narrow receipt paper containing a great host of tiny numbers. Nothing but numbers. I pictured this conscientious, cloistered civil servant sitting here long into the evening, attempting in vain to find the shovel unaccounted for in Bucksport.

His walls, such as they were, held proof of his education:

This certificate is awarded to MISTER DRUDGE,
in recognition of her/his successful completion of
the State of Maine two week course: "The Significance
of Accurate Computation of the Department of
Transportation's Active and Inactive Archives
Regarding the Calculation of Current Quantities
of Miscellaneous and Accessory Commodities,
Inventory Items, and Unaccounted and/or
Misplaced Implements

and achievements:

The Committee on Accounting of the Agency of
Calculations of the Bureau of Statistics of the
Department of Transportation of the State of Maine
Hereby Officially Recognizes the Contributions of
for his/her Untiring Efforts and Satisfactory Service
for Thirty-Five Years on Behalf of the Permanent
and Temporary Residents Who Utilize Maine Roads and Bridges.

We small talked about weather and so forth. Realizing that time is money is numbers, he abruptly cut off the useless chatter and got down to business. In this case that meant discovering his protege: another dogged and determined go-nowhere data chaser. This position required one inconsequential drudge. I had descended to that level.

After briefly describing job duties, he surprised me with, "Why would a lawyer apply for a statistician position?" I went temporarily speechless, thinking the jig was up. My self-destructive side wanted to say, 'Because he's depressed, out of work, desperate, and counting the Department of Transportation's pencils and paper clips, and dirt piles is better than nothing.' (Although I wasn't so sure that was true).

Instead, I muttered something patently ridiculous about innate beauty and dignity of numbers. Now, this guy may have been a humorless and nondescript bean-counter, suit and tie, and must have been bleeding desperation, so he said something like, "Very interesting, I'll call you about the second interview" or something equally untrue and inane.

'Yeah,' I thought, "I'll wait breathlessly by the phone for THAT call.' Away I slink, deflated, denied my childhood dream job tabulating endless quantities of dispensable semi-worthless objects. My self-esteem, fragile at the best of times, was shattered. I hate rejection. I passed the reception desk, too ashamed to even look up.

I got back into my van for yet another long, lonely, and miserable trip home. After all, I had failed to impress a perfect Charles Dickens-like Mister Drudge. I had arrived at what I figured was the last stop on the last train at the end of the track. I had come seeking a job that would have been the slow and agonizing death of me. I would die by the numbers, so to speak. I couldn't have felt much worse.

No, as the verse goes, waiting for me on the trip home was: "...a low below the low that you know".

I pulled away from the station, released from the wretched House of Numbers.

I was soon in my van and headed back home after what had seemed like a tooth extraction without Novocain. On the freeway, I motored along, preparing myself for a night of self-torture: 'Damn, you can't even get a job you don't want. It's not something you said, it's something you are.' Catholic guilt has nothing on me.

Nobody's fool, I always kept an empty piss jug in the van in case I needed it. The need arose, so I pulled off the freeway onto the shoulder. Although my gas gauge hovered near zero, I kept the engine running. I unlocked the chair restraint and pushed myself back to the empty gallon milk jug perched atop a cement block standing upright.

I locked my brakes, set the jug on the floor, sidled up to the cement block, lifted my right foot onto the block, and emptied my chocked full leg bag. The jug probably had a quart of you know what. I put the jug back on the cement block. To this day I don't know why.

I got back behind the steering wheel and slowly (as I thought) took off. Within ten seconds I heard loud THUMP and WHOOSH sounds from the vicinity of the jug. The one-of-a-kind odor of newly minted urine wafted throughout the van. "AH SHIT", I moaned, "Not this again."

I stopped, put it in Park, and backed up for a look. I left the van idling. The jug was on its side on the hard, linoleum-like floor, which was covered in urine. There were pools a quarter inch deep here and there. All in all, it could have been worse. This had happened before. I would ask my Aide to mop it dry and disinfect the floor with Lysol, which would help with the smell. It was no bargain. Given the miseries of my injury, this was about in the 65th percentile. The mess could be managed.

Resigned to the situation, I leaned over to pick up the jug. I had forgotten that the freeway shoulder fell away in the same direction I was leaning. What occurred next was reasonably foreseeable. In the time it takes to say it, my chair and I were all tipped over onto the floor and into the piss. "OH NO! NO! NO!" There may have been six or seven No's. I wasn't counting. I lay there, engine idling, gas near empty, alone, and half on my side, half on my back. I felt painfully scrunched up, twisted, and tightly wedged against the side door/electric lift.

I fought off my first thought, which was to say, 'Fuck it, I've had all I can take' and just lay there in self-pity. With what must have been super-human effort, I somehow managed to reach almost completely around. I struggled in fits and starts and in pain and agony, to open the electric side door. To my surprise, I was then able to get the lift down to a 45 degree angle. By this time, I lay more or less on my back. My lower half was in and my upper half out of the van, as I looked up at the dark and foreboding sky. I was barely able to wave part of left arm at the cars whizzing by.

I calculated the odds of (1) someone speeding by who (2) could see me, (3) understand what was happening, (4) care enough to do something, and (5) actually stop to help at about a thousand to one. Other than saint Guy, I took and still take a dim view of humanity.

I lay there ruminating. 'Well, I figure I've taken this exercise in futility to its extreme. What's next?' RAIN! That's what's next. Big, cold drops, each like a teaspoon of ice water, came pelting down, directly into my upturned face. I was on the freeway on the shoulder in the van on the floor in the piss in the rain. I thought I would be there all night, soaking wet and frozen to the bone. The van would eventually run out of gas. After I got out of Intensive Care, I bet it would have all been for nothing.

An hour passed that seemed like five. About this time, as the song goes, I wished I were on some Australian Mountain Range. I was cold and wet. Dusk and darkness were closing in. I had plenty of time to take stock. Regrets? I had no regrets. Well, maybe one. My only regret was that I wasn't someone else.

When I had given up on humanity forever, a couple vying for the Saint Guy the Great Award stopped and flagged down a trucker. Hardly able to hide their disbelief, they collectively lifted me out of the piss and into my chair. One of these sweet people drove me home. I had a hasty and confused explanation ready, which would have run something like this:
"See, there was this job I didn't really want but
applied for anyway and I was going home from Augusta
then I tipped over in the urine and I couldn't get up
by myself and it rained and I waved and you came and
it's really nobody's fault except maybe this bean-
counter guy who wouldn't hire me no matter what.'

My rescuers had a close relative in a chair, so they understood and mercifully didn't inquire. The trucker split the scene like he was running from a bullet.

True to form, it was all for nothing. I never did get the call I didn't expect. I couldn't blame Drudge, I guess, but I could write him a limerick:

There once was a bean-counting man,
For whose job I said, "Oh, Yes I can"
It was much worse than naught
'cause soon I got caught,
on my back in the piss in the van.

No comments:

Post a Comment