by Patrick D. Hahn
It's six o clock in the morning. Sunrise is still a ways off. Ray barely looks up from the pump engine he's bent over like some kind of medieval hunchback.
"Mornin' Pat," he drawls. Ray is one of the few washers who has been here longer than I have. In fact, he was the one who trained me my first day here. I still remember that day—we washed trucks for fifteen hours with a wind chill factor of zero degrees Fahrenheit. Ray's my age but looks decades older. He doesn't talk much about himself, but I'm vaguely aware that he he's got a couple of kids and an aging mother and a whole house full of hangers-on to support. He's okay in my book.
When I began my career as an adjunct lecturer, I took this job as a temporary stopgap, an easy way to make money on weekends and tide me over until I grasped the Holy Grail known as a full-time job. That was eight years ago. Since that time, except for the two years I spent in Africa, I have spent almost every Saturday and Sunday washing trucks for twelve, thirteen or fourteen hours at a whack. Sometimes more. In the meantime, almost all the guys I met when I began working here have moved on. Kevin, Joey, Terry, P.J., Mark, Maceo, Norm, Erv, Zack, Tyrone, Lamont—all gone. One by one they've all quit, or gotten fired, or gone back to prison, or died. Now it seems like there's a whole new bunch of faces in here every weekend. They'd rather keep burning through new employees than treat the ones they have decently. But, after ten years as an adjunct, I'm used to being treated that way.
I check the oil on both the truck engine and the pump engine. (I'm probably the only washer here who bothers doing this.) I wait in line with a bunch of tired unshaven guys to fill jugs with liquid soap and brightener. I make sure I've got my hydrant cap, wrench, and long and short brushes. I take the truck to the Amoco station around the corner, fill the gas tank, and return to the shop. Only then am I allowed to punch in. It's a nice touch—before I've even punched in, they've already screwed me out of working half an hour or so for free. But, as I said, I'm used to that sort of thing.
I meet my brusher for the day, named Mike, and he climbs into the passenger seat alongside me. As we head for our first account, he tells me about himself. Eighteen years old. Just graduated from high school this year. This is his first grown-up job. I nod politely, but I don't really care. The longer I work here, the more I think Ray had the right idea about brushers. "I don't even bother learnin' their names," he once told me wearily.
When I began working here, the guys and I used to joke about the fact that I taught college during the week (I don't think most of them even finished high school) but nowadays, I think very few of them have any idea who I am. Which is just as well. An important lesson I've learned during ten years as an adjunct—don't do anything to call attention to yourself.
As we cruise down US 1, Mike dozes off. Bad sign. I think most of the guys here must stay up all night partying (or watching TV) and then roll out of bed five minutes before six (or five minutes after), throw on whatever clothes are within reach, and run out the door. In contradistinction to them, I always make sure I get a full night's sleep before coming here. I get up half an hour early, drink my coffee before leaving the house, and eat breakfast in the car while driving to work. When I get here I'm rested, fed, I've got my blood caffeine titer up where it should be, I'm appropriately dressed for the weather, and I've got my lunch and drinking water with me. Ten years as an adjunct, usually teaching more than a full-time load, with no more office than the trunk of my car, has taught me another important lesson: Be prepared. It's part of the reason why I can still run rings around men less then half my age.
We reach our first account, a drug testing laboratory with a fleet of about ninety cars and sport utility vehicles. Obviously business is booming. Sign of the times. We've become a Urine Nation—you're only as good as your latest pee sample.
We go to the rear of the building, and Mike stays in the car while I fill up our water tank at the fire hydrant. I run the risk of getting arrested for doing this, but ten years as an adjunct has taught me that no matter how awful a job is, if you won't take it somebody more desperate than you will.
I climb back into the driver's seat and take the truck for a spin around to the front of the building, to wash the three trucks that are always parked there. Almost immediately Mike and I lock horns. After I finish rinsing off the three trucks, I inadvertently spray a few drops of water on Mike's fancy sneakers. (What the Hell is he doing wearing them to a dirty job like this anyway?) "Hey, you're getting my shoes wet," he warns.
Ten years as an adjunct has taught me you gotta let 'em know early who's in charge. "You're gonna get wet on this job," I snap. "It can't be helped."
"Hey man, I'm not gonna let you disrespect me," he warns, in a tone of voice that lets me know I'm supposed to be impressed. I'm not. Where the Hell did he get the idea that you're supposed to walk into a for-profit institution and start talking trash like that your first hour there? Then I remember that he's a recent graduate of our estimable public schools. Time for a little Real World 101 here. It's early Sunday morning, not another soul in sight, and we'll both be a lot better off if I thoroughly disabuse him of the notion of doing anything stupid. I get in his face and scream at him in the same thundering voice I use addressing 300 students without a microphone. I tell him that he's finished, that I don't need him, that I'll finish the Goddamn run myself. I get on the radio and call the Big Boss and tell him, "Come and get this guy. He's no good. I don't need him."
"What's wrong?" the Big Guy asks.
"Just a whim on my part," I snap. I'm not going into details. I've been working for this outfit almost six years. If my word isn't good enough for them, they can fire me. I put the radio down, and Mike gets on to tell the Big Guy his side of the story. I can hear the Big Guy trying to soothe him while I'm rolling up the hose. I jump into the truck, completely ignoring Mike, and slam the door. He gets in beside me and I drive around the back. Still ignoring Mike, I jump out and begin washing at a furious pace. Mike seems so surprised that we can take him or leave him that he grabs his brush and starts brushing.
The Big Guy never comes. Three hours later, the vehicles are all clean. By this time, Mike and I have reached an unspoken truce. I walk around and write down the numbers of all the vehicles while the tank is filling up.
The next stop is a day care center for mentally disabled adults, with about a dozen vans. Sounds like a piece of cake, but the vans have to be cleaned inside and out. We sweep the floors, pick up the used Kleenex tissues, and clean the clients' slobber off the windows with Windex and paper towels. There really isn't any efficient way of doing this, and we're both flopping around on the seats of the vans like a couple of fish out of water. Afterwards, we soap and brush the outsides, get the bill signed, and we're on our way.
The next place is an office supply company. They've got only two trucks, but they're filthy. First I spray the trucks with "brightener" (actually aqueous sulfuric acid, colored a festive pink). Sometimes I wonder what all these years of inhaling aerosolized sulfuric acid is doing to my lungs, but there's no time to worry about that now. I yell for Mike to turn on the soap, and he does, and I soap the trucks thoroughly. Mike brushes the trucks, and I rinse them off. The fronts of the boxes are still festooned with hundreds of dead insects, baked on by the heat of the sun. I pop the hood on one of the trucks and climb up on top of the engine block. An unexpected note of concern creeping into his voice, Mike warns, "Hey man, you're gonna kill yourself."
"That's an issue only for people with something to live for," I quip, but actually there's very little danger of my hurting myself here. I know what I'm doing. I blast the front of the boxes with brightener, then soap. Mike hands me the short brush, and I brush the Hell out of the front of the box, then rinse it off. I repeat the same procedure with the other truck. They're far from immaculate, but they look a Hell of a lot better than they did when we arrived. I make out the bill and leave a copy (there's nobody around to sign for it) and we're on our way.
And so the day rolls by. We finish all our accounts and get back to the shop at 6:00 PM. Mike jumps out of the truck and guides me into a parking space. I hand the wrench and hydrant cap back to Ray, and Mike and I punch out. By now we've both been on our feet for twelve hours. I know that when I get home, I'm going to gorge myself and sleep for fourteen hours.
I offer Mike a ride home, and he accepts. We both climb into my little Kia Sephia, which is small, but it's clean and well-maintained. I start the engine. We're both in a subdued mood.
"They tell me you're some kinda professor," Mike says at last. My actual job title is lecturer, but I don't think he's interested in these fine distinctions. For the first time that day, the briefest hint of a smile flickers across my face. "Yes," I say at last. "That's correct."
"So why are you here?" he asks. So I explain to him that a few years ago, about the same time I finished slogging through graduate school, colleges and universities figured out that they could get away with paying their teachers poverty-level wages by calling us "part-time" faculty, even though we do exactly the same work as the "full-time" faculty, with many of us even teaching more than the so-called "full-time" faculty. Mike's brow wrinkles with concern. Even a teenager can tell that's not right. "Do you think you'll ever get a full-time job?" he asks.
"Who knows?" I reply. "Life takes many unexpected twists and turns." As the rays of the setting sun stream in through the windshield, suffusing my world with an amber glow, we turn out of the parking lot and head for home.
Patrick D Hahn has taught Biology for thirteen years at a number of colleges and universities in the United States and Africa. He no longer washes trucks.
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