Live Bait (Life on the Pinellas Trail)

“…work, that’s the real way that people die.” – John Updike, 1966

Some of my coworkers don’t think I’m quite right. Although they don’t say I’m challenged or anything when I overhear them talking about me, it’s clear a few suspect I’m mental. Others, though, have heard rumors. Gant told me so one night when we were just shooting the shit over coffee after closing.

I can tell by the way Seth works around me that he’s not sure which story to believe. I don’t care either way. I just wish he’d finish packaging the damn hash browns so I can pack this customer’s order and get her on her way. While I no longer view myself as live bait, another harried-victim battling rush hour to make it to a job no one will ever remember me for a hundred years from now, I respect that employment still rules most others just like it used to me.

Watching Seth it’s clear he’s never worked for an efficient manager. He wastes motion. He multitasks poorly. His processes are all wrong. Back when I was managing 46 heads on the help desk, I’d have had my work cut out for me bringing him up to acceptable standards. I wouldn’t have slept well until I’d improved his productivity. Now I couldn’t care less, as it’s not my problem. I made sure of that when I bailed on my middle management career to ensure I spent what few years we’re given in a manner more agreeable to my psyche.

I’d been out of college and working studiously for years to build a responsible resume when my old man felt the cancer climb right up his prostrate into his spine. As he sat in a hospital bed at fifty-seven waiting to die, most of those who came to visit were his coworkers. They were good folks, but that didn’t change the message I heard him sending me when others weren’t in the room. He never did get to walk into a strip mall bookstore and see my dummy’s guide on the shelf.

Seth finally passes me the hash browns I’ve been waiting some forty-five seconds for. He didn’t pass me the first set he boxed up, no. He waited until he’d boxed all twelve to pass me one to complete this chick’s order. Someone was going to have work cut out with him, no doubt. But, it’s no longer my concern.

I pass the woman her order and give her my standing greeting, “Thanks, take care.”

I’m supposed to say one of three standard statements, each developed by a group of suits in Illinois likely following several laborious focus group sessions, but it’s not going to happen. Management doesn’t press it too hard because they’ve learned I always show up on time and always complete whatever tasks I’m given before I go.

The guy who hired me wasn’t so certain I’d work out, especially as I listed Sycip Diesel as my reliable form of transportation.

“I haven’t heard of that car make,” he’d said, shaking his head softly and wincing slightly as smoke trickled up from his cigarette.

“It’s not a car,” I responded. I looked him in the eye, as anything less is rude. He continued looking at me with blankness, apparently forgetting how humans once possessed the power to move themselves across the continent, indeed the world, without internal combustion engines. “It’s a bicycle.”

His head had begun to shake more distinctly, and as he lowered his cigarette I knew what he was going to say.

“I dunno—“

I interrupted, “Look chief, how many sick days you used in the last twelve years?” He continued looking at me blankly. “Five? Ten? Twenty?” I asked.

“Well,” the cigarette popped back in his mouth for a second. Speaking as he exhaled a thin blue stream of smoke, he began counting, “Three or four days a year, no, let’s see—“

“Look, dude, you can’t even remember. I can. None. The bike keeps me healthy. It also gets me where I’m going. Give me the job. I’ll be here.”

“If you miss a day—“

“Won’t happen.”

That was a while ago. Tony’s not even here now. He was transferred to Orlando. Thought he’d hit the jackpot.

Gant replaced him. He’s learned I work my thirty-five hours honestly. That must mean a lot when most of the target labor pool is just beginning to shave and has aspirations far beyond food service. He’d give me more hours, but then the chain’d have to provide benefits and that just doesn’t fit into the head office’s operational cost model.

As I feared, after showing up on time and working responsibly for about eight weeks Gant offered me an assistant manager position. It was then that I took Gant aside and told him the truth. He’s cool. He leaves me alone now. In a few months, maybe even a year, he’ll be gone and I’ll have to start over.

The guys and gals back in Illinois will move him, either to an important new site or a location where a competitor’s unit is pulling down sales-versus-same-day-last-year and he’ll be asked to turn the situation around. I’m sure he’ll do well. I just hope that, unlike my father, my grandfathers and others I’ve known, he actually gets to spend his 401(k). Lord knows I’ve spent mine.

Today’s lunch rush comes and goes. It’s not too bad. Late April still sees hordes of tourists, of course. It’ll pick up again this weekend, I’m sure. With traffic lagging, I begin preparing for the shift change.

In the time it takes the high schoolers to wipe up the prep areas, I restock the napkin dispensers, clean the rolling child seats, refill the coffee stirrers, straws, and ketchup bins, empty four trash containers, and even mop the non-smoking section. I check the schedule before I leave, confirm I work the morning shift again tomorrow, then punch the clock.

At 3:00 I’m finished. Holding the door with my right hand, I wheel the Sycip through with my left.

A few of the crew hang out together. They let Seth lead, so it came as no surprise when he asked me one day what was up with the bike.

“Why you bring that in with you, man?” was his inquiry.

I explained I liked riding. Twenty miles a day, and I never felt more fit. But he remained skeptical.

“Can’t you afford a car, man? You tellin’ me my brother can’t even get his ass in an old Ford?”

He seemed to gain a little more respect for the black Diesel when I told him I’d paid more for it in cash than his father shelled out for Seth’s ‘09 Civic. Funny thing, but that’s how you earn the younger crowd’s respect today. Not by how often you get laid, as back in the day, but by how much shit you can buy. And, brand names mean everything. When Seth and company learned two brothers in northern California built this bike just for me, I apparently earned some new position in their hierarchy, for I no longer caught any shit. They thought the Oakleys were cool too.

“Hilfiger’s got some new duds put them shorts o’ yours to shame, though, dog,” Seth offered up one day, criticizing my Zoics. “Make you look with-it, man. Get yourself some over on 19. Look like you got a real job.”

Not that I care. I’ve encountered worse. While sitting in the rain once waiting for a light to change, a good Samaritan tried passing me a few bucks to get myself something to eat. I was trying to grow a goatee to celebrate pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, but still, I didn’t think I looked that much like a vagrant. No worse than a utility second baseman earning one-point-two while batting .245. I responded simply, telling her that line 33 of my last 1040 read $114,700, so I was fine. Thanks.

I don’t know where it began, but the bicycle bug likely bit me as a child. Only during my five-and-a-half years in college did I not ride. The rest of my life has found a bicycle somewhere in my apartment, house, and now, in my manufactured home. The single-speed Diesel’s already outlasted Christine, who only made it twelve days before fleeing back to the comforts and amenities she’d become accustomed to after some thirty years of pampering.

The ride home is smooth. On the Gulf Coast, the 32×16 is a breeze to push. A salt-laced wind blows in from the bay. It’s refreshing after standing around all the smoke, heat, and grease at the store.

Pinellas County did a good job with its Rails-To-Trails effort. I can take the Pinellas Trail almost everywhere I go. A spur heads off to Honeymoon Island. The rest of the trail takes me by the local Publix, a Walgreen’s, Casa Tina’s and Skip’s. I can ride some thirty-five more miles all the way down to Haslam’s in St. Pete, even. Today I take it the other direction, almost all the way to Tarpon Springs. I turn off into Palm Harbor, stopping off at the mailboxes, but there’s nothing from Christine. Just this month’s attorney bill for services rendered trying to win more agreeable visitation terms.

I’d sent a card, three books and a pink Gary Fisher for Judy’s birthday, but I don’t even know if she gave them to the kid. I haven’t received so much as a voice mail.

I cruise down the park’s main street, still in awe of the wonderful palms. I’m sure Judy will love them, if I can ever get her down here. They’re taken for granted in the south, and that’s a shame. We didn’t have them up north. Just a bunch of pines and a shitload of snow.

I unlock the door and wheel the Sycip in. Rex greets me with a few licks then trots over to the loveseat, waiting for the Milkbone he knows he gets every time I come home. I toss him one and see the new mail icon’s lit on my aging Mac in the breakfast nook, but I skip it.

The house is cool, but the air handler is rattling again. Metal on metal. I had it serviced in the fall, but the guy tried selling me an entire new HVAC system. Fifty-five hundred, six grand with the electronic air cleaner, humidifier and five-year service contract.

I grab the WD-40 out of the second bedroom, where I keep the Sycip, a workstand, and my tools and squirt some on the handler’s bearings right where the repair guy showed me. He said I could buy another year if I kept lubing it. Then it’s off to walk Rex and back to the house for a shower.

Rex falls asleep at the foot of the loveseat, where I nurse a Corona through three innings of a Reds game. They’re in Atlanta for four games, so I can catch the entire series on TBS. I get up only to grab more salsa out of the fridge and another bag of white corn tortilla chips from the small pantry.

Later, Rex wakes me. I go out with him while he does his thing. I’m standing in the middle of a sea of air conditioners, all of them buzzing, battling against the Florida humidity and heat, their countless bearings generating friction and heat of their own.

Rex saunters back up and we go inside. The door seals tight, shutting out the sound of my trailer’s external AC unit humming a tune that’s just off-key from the chorus.

I crash back in the master bedroom, chucking my clothes on top of the hamper in the corner. The bed shakes once as Rex jumps up and then again as he settles into place on the pillow next to me. The red luminous numbers on the clock are all that illuminate my room. 2:33.

At 4:10 I jolt awake. All’s quiet. Rex snores next to me. The air conditioner is running, but the rattling’s gone. One thought arrests my attention. Someday. I won’t be here. I’ll be gone. I don’t know where I’ll be, but it won’t be here. I know this with absolute certainty. I roll over, tuck my shoulder under the pillow and resettle my head.

Tomorrow’s Wednesday. I reserved a new short story collection I’ve wanted to read, and the library e-mailed me that it’s in.

After work today I’ll probably tool down to the Douglas Avenue library on the Diesel. Thursday’s an off day, so I’ll likely grab a foot long veggie at the Causeway Plaza Subway, hit Caladesi, and spend the morning reading new fiction from a 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner. I’ll hit Russo’s stride about lunchtime, when I used to hastily chow down at my desk trying to keep a never-ending task list in check.

I think of my morning commute and all that traffic I’ll miss when I guide the single speed onto the overpass above 19 on my way to work. I think of all those commuters, queuing up like a school of fish, all those minds already worrying about quarterly reports, sales forecasts, cost benefit analyses, performance reviews and an endless number of other countless details. The biggest decision I’ll have is whether to watch the Reds game tonight or catch the group ride that leaves the Neptune Lounge around seven. It’s a tough call, but one I know I’ll get right.

Copyright 2002 by Erik Eckel. All rights reserved.

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