I’m sitting in a south-bound truck between a rail-thin, born-again Christian with bright blue tattoos and a four-foot-nothing lesbian hermaphrodite.
We are going to Corvallis to pack up the apartment of some post-grad lovers, put all their stuff in boxes, put those boxes in the back of the truck, drive that truck to Clackamas, unpack all their stuff in a new duplex and then drive the truck back to the warehouse in Wilsonville. This will take all day. The born-again Christian, all 133 pounds of him, is driving the truck down Interstate 5 and telling me the best way to organize a box and how to best to tear packing tape. The miniature lesbian to my right is telling me about the physical dimensions of her girlfriend in astonishing detail. The morning fog is beginning to lift off the hills and I am trying to lift cows with my mind. I am waiting for the smell of the paper mill outside Albany to carry my thoughts somewhere outside this cramped truck cab.
When we finally get to the Corvallis apartment, I stand around in blue khakis and a grey t-shirt and do everything incorrectly. I am told how I am not to pack jewelry with silverware, how shirts go best in a Number Four box and not a Number Six; I am told to get a hand-truck for that; I am reminded the best way to tear packing tape; I am reprimanded for filling a Number Nine box so full, because, man, the way your putting on that tape, the bottom is going to fall right out, man. The couple watches us move their stuff as they drink coffee from thick, glossy, bright yellow mugs. I want to stop and explain to them that I am not a part of this crew in The Real World.
“I am a college kid with a summer job,” I think of saying, as I carry short boxes full of plates and crinkled newspaper. “My friend Tyler, he’s a college kid too and he got me the job. I am going to be a writer and this is just a short-time gig before I go back to school. No matter how many times I forget which box is used for delicates and no matter how I can’t put a lamp in the truck before the dresser, I’m super smart and have no tattoos or anything like that. I’m like you. See? We should go out for coffee and talk about being above manual labor.”
If my one year of college gave me any advantage in the world, this advantage was not recognized among those I worked with that Graebel VanLines, a national trucking and storage company whose Oregon base was located in a warehouse and business park behind a Toyota dealership and some technology firms. I was a college boy. To my co-workers, my friends and I might as well as have been special need kids trying to open milk crates from the wrong end.
“Nice try, college boy,” was the normal response to any tiny mistake.
“Box too smart for ya, college boy,” was another.
“I’m going on a smoke break, college boy. Watch how many cans of Mountain Dew I can drink in eight hours, college boy,” was something else I recall hearing.
Then, my friends and I would be shown how to tear tape, how to unfold boxes, how to pack a truck, how to move other people’s stuff so it wouldn’t break and nothing would get lost. My friends Tyler and Mitchell and Brian and I would be left to finish our tasks while the others took one of their many cigarette breaks. From the houses we drove to, or the warehouse where we put lay-over items in large wooden crates (a dreaded task known as vaulting), I could hear the professional movers talk about their hangovers, their nagging girlfriends, their plans to take off early and drink beer and play video poker down the road. I almost took up smoking that summer, just to have an excuse to not work 20 minutes out of ever hour.
On the days I had to stay at the warehouse and vault, I usually worked with my friend Tyler. Our manager, a round-bellied man with a clean-cut beard, knew we drove together from Keizer, so allowed us the chance to work side-by-side and take off together when we were done. We split the day between playing the local country station or the local classic rock station on the small black boom-box which rested on an upturned garbage can. The warehouse foreman was named Frank and he must have had been a wrestler in a past-life. He had calves the size of my head, but now they merely worked to hold up his growing gut. He wore a trimmed mustache, demin shorts, and tight, white crew socks. He never called me college boy. He was excited for my book to come out. He wondered if it would a suspenseful thriller. I told him, no, probably not.
Frank drove the forklift across the concrete floor of the warehouse with a surgeon’s precision. He spun it quickly in circles and negotiated corners, his fork carrying hundreds of pounds of other people’s stuff. In the morning, when Tyler and I walked through the office and to the warehouse, the floor would be corralled with furniture, appliances, lamps, shoeboxes full of letters, boxes of clothes, lawnmowers, mattresses, and TV sets.
Tyler turned on the radio and I swept the floor. Then, until lunch, we packed wooden boxes with as much care as we could, trying to fill up every inch from floor to plywood ceiling. Then, Frank swooped in on his forklift and carried our work away to be filed alongside and on top of other vaults.
Time moved slow in the warehouse. Tyler and I ignored the ticking clock on the wall by telling stories from high school and our first year of college. We talked about what we planned to do with our lives after we finished school. We debated the summer movies about to come out and we wondered why girlfriends seemed so hard to come by. Tyler told me he was jealous that I got to be in Seattle all year. I told him I was jealous of him for living with people he knew. At five o’clock, we got the go-ahead from Frank to take off and we got our time-cards signed by the old lady whose job it was to sign our time-cards.
After that summer, I went back to school in Seattle and stayed there. I moved all my stuff in a borrowed car into a basement apartment not far from my campus. I stole several Number Nine boxes on my last day at Graebel and did not feel bad about it. I kept those boxes for years and they held letters, albums by Seattle bands, pictures from high school, the grey t-shirt and the blue khakis which I eventually cut into shorts on the first hot day of the summer after my second year of college. I stayed in Seattle and met new friends and friends-who-were-girls I tried to make into girlfriends.
I hated the warehouse for its stale dust and the fumes of exhaust from Frank’s forklift. I hated being called a college boy as though a higher education was a big mistake. But, I have boxed the memories of the radio, the hours Tyler and I talk at length about MTV dating shows and the way our high school basketball coach would sometimes say, “do do” on accident, even the violent tattoos on the arm of the born-again Christian and the regretfully specific details of a four-foot lesbian making out with someone with, like, totally huge boobs. And the slow hours stuck in a warehouse with someone I grew up knowing very well. Those things are in a vault somewhere. With a little effort, I should be able to find them carefully packed and wrapped in crumpled newspaper.