The Ballad of The Lost Decade
Merle Haggard’s music may possibly be the most depressing force on earth I’ve ever known. My relationship to this man’s crooning began many years ago when I worked at a flea market on the outskirts of a southcentral Kentucky town called Bowling Green. Now normally, a gen X-er such as myself would probably never come to know Mr. Haggard’s music in any mainstream way. The DJ’s at 107.7 have never given his tunes a spin, at least to my knowledge, probably owing to the fact that he hasn’t been on the charts since 1937 or something. Nor have I ever seen him on MTV or VH1—and that’s including reruns of The Surreal Life, which I credit with giving me an intimate portrait of the musical careers of Charo and Flava Flav (both in season 3, arguably the classiest). Even when I flip over to the country radio stations or CMT, never once do I hear his woe-filled twang reaching out to kill happiness through the airwaves. I mean, I couldn’t point out the man in a line-up. Merle Haggard could rob me in broad daylight and the police could put him with five other bearded old men and say to me, “just pick out Merle Haggard,” and I couldn’t do it. But I know just about every Merle Haggard song ever recorded, and could recite just about every lyric. It’s a tragedy I live with daily.
The flea market job in which I came to be acquainted with Mr. Haggard started when I graduated college the first time. Yes, I said the first time. No one could have predicted that a bachelor’s degree in English without a teaching endorsement would somehow fail in putting me on the fast-track to a nice bureaucratic government position or some corporate cushfest. But there I was, all dressed up with no place to go. While waiting for someone with influence to recognize that I was a brilliant gem simply covered in the dust of hicktown, I snagged a temporary gig selling money. Yes, selling money. This sounds confusing, but after years of trying to explain it to people, I have come to the conclusion it’s the only way to put it really. I sold money to people for more money than the face value of the money I sold…to them. I hope this clarifies it. Okay, basically I sold collectible coins. You know, like old money made of silver or gold. Or in the case of really old pennies, I believe the composition materials consisted of cart horse dung, the blood of the oppressed, and the tears of factory children. I deduced this based only on my sense of smell, and let me say here I do not recommend smelling old pennies up close.
At any rate, I worked for a guy who looked like a cigar-smoking version of Santa Claus, complete with white beard. “Why don’t you come to work for me,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and laying his finger aside of his nose. I pondered it, wondering if the intended position was as a holiday elf, as I’m rather smallish and was once confused as a leprechaun at an Irish bar on St. Patty’s Day (the guy was too drunk to pee straight so I didn’t give it much credence, although it did tend to mess one’s self-esteem when on a first date). So anyway, I took the job since my brilliance had not yet been recognized and my strategy was to bide my time by hanging out in places frequented by really really old men who smell kinda funny. This Santa guy I worked for had a store in town, but he also had…yes, a booth at the local flea market. Because flea markets are where you find old crap for sale. And new stuff that you could also get on QVC. And fleas. Anyway, the locals who frequented this market called it “the mall”. I’m not sure if they realized there was an actual mall just a couple miles away, but I honestly believe this was the only “mall” of which they were aware.
An average day at the mall consisted of:
1) My (often futile) attempts not to interact with the locals, whose general appearances might be summed up as a fashion collision between the healthily mulleted 1992 Billy Ray Cyrus and Tammy Faye Messner circa 2004—you know, when she was on The Surreal Life season 2 with Vanilla Ice. Did you know her eyebrows were actually tattooed on? Anyway, add to the above pairing a hardy helping of airbrushed t-shirts with holes, a sprinkling of uni-brows and sagging tits, and a dash of something that just crawled out of a garbage can (fleas included) and I think you’ve got it.
2) Eating at a concession stand where I might choose between any number of mixed processed meats injected with fat and fried to perfection. And as the vegetable, perhaps a pickle the size of a large dildo, individually wrapped and stewing in its own juices. Or nachos. That’s a vegetable, right? Well anyway, the chips are made of corn, so I counted it.
3) A mid-morning break in which I’d go cry in the bathroom stall for up to fifteen minutes at a time while the sock lady or Indian dream-catcher guy watched my booth.
4) Dusting off the Hot-Wheel display—oh yeah, I forgot to explain that the Santa dude who was my boss also sold little toy cars to adult men in their forties trying to recapture their childhoods to subsidize his income from collectible Sacagawea dollars and what-not. It was good business.
5) Singing along to Merle Haggard despite all attempts to drown out the bastard. The CD/cassette tape guy across the way played nothing else. Did I mention the sound of “Mama Tried” is sadder than orphans crying?
6) Spying on the only other coin dealer in the whole flea market. You had to watch that guy, or he’d steal your customers right out from under you. The market was a battlefield, and we booth keepers were warriors.
7) A mid-afternoon bathroom cry break, in which I got the doll lady or the “you might be a redneck” sign guy to watch my booth.
The flea market gig is just one of many peculiar jobs I held in my twenties, all of which left me with some kind of scar, be it physical or mental. One year I sold guns at Wal-Mart during hunting season, another post-English degree gig. Never did I think I’d know the intricacies of the law concerning what particular sort of living thing could be killed by what particular type of weapon between what particular set of days, but I know it. It’s up there, in the brain, and I can’t get it out now, like seeing Great Uncle Leonard naked when I was fourteen. Not that this is so bad—I mean it does come in handy at cocktail parties when the question arises as to whether a 12 or 20 gauge barrel is best for huntin’ coons, and the question always arises. I feel like Truman Capote surrounded by his socialite friends, the life of the party, gaily going on about field dressing while others laugh and clutch chests and wipe tears, secretly envying me my knowledge of what to do with dead meat.
One Christmas I peddled overstuffed house shoes called Fun Feet at a kiosk in the mall (the real mall); they were shaped like Volkswagen Beetles or lady bugs or huge gorilla heads or any number of other popular shapes the kids love. Part of the job involved me wearing the ridiculous things and trotting around the cart in a circle in the middle of the mall in the middle of the biggest shopping season of the year—get this—so that other people would think I’ve got to have a pair! What they actually thought, I’m sure, was who on earth gave that mentally challenged boy too much spiked punch?
When the last really choice position ended I was able to parlay it into another job at the mall candy store—Mr. Bulky it was called. Sadly, Mr. Bulky closed down just a few months later due to bankruptcy, which was just as well. I was a poor college student eating candy for dinner five nights a week, and I couldn’t afford to buy bigger pants. Speaking of getting fat, who in the hell names their candy store chain Mr. Bulky? It might as well have been called Mr. Huge Ass. I might as well have been a carnival barker at the entrance to the store yelling, “Step right up and gain weight! Ever wanted to add unsightly bulges to your figure? Here’s your chance folks, shop here! Mr. Bulky!” I gathered the reason for the name was because customers could purchase the candy in bulk amounts, but I really felt like adding the “y” on the end of that word was a semantic error of epic proportions.
One time I had another job involving free unhealthy food as a perk. It was at a McDonald’s, and after a couple months of drive-thru I was quickly promoted (or quite possibly demoted) to the birthday party specialist position. That’s right—I was the birthday party specialist. I was a god and the ball pit was my celestial palace, a haven where frolicked the archangels Grimace and Hamburgler, and all was still right with the world. Well, if your age was marked by single digits and anything made by Playskool was paramount to anything made by Sony. It was a great gig until some kid had to ruin it by taking a dump in the ball pit. I couldn’t find the joy after that day.
I once worked in a movie theater so old and out-of-the-way I got paid $4.75 an hour to sell the movie ticket at the front booth, go around to the back and sell the same customer their popcorn and coke, and then go upstairs and thread and start the feature. I was literally the only employee in the place, and if no one came to the show I’d eat the popcorn and watch the movie myself. This was by far my favorite job in my twenties.
I worked at a car wash for a week once, hunched over for ten hours vacuuming out Audi’s and BMW’s with a bunch of Mexican immigrant workers. They curled their biceps and pointed at me and said “fuerte…strong.” I thought I was applying for the desk position.
I worked on a University farm shoveling shit out of horse stalls and watering down an arena full of dirt. Strangely enough, the arena, which hosted rodeos and livestock shows, needed a daily watering and it had to be done just right. I couldn’t water it too much or too little. My boss made it clear that it had to be watered just right, like it was baby bear’s arena. Or like something was going to grow out of it. But nothing ever grew. It was just an arena full of dirt.
I installed furnace filters in a section 8 old folks home for a couple weeks as an odd job. It was the middle of the summer and about a hundred degrees. My task was to go into each one of the units, deconstruct the drop ceiling around the vent that housed the filter and switch out old for new. This seemed like an easy task, but wasn’t. The vents were located in all sorts of weird and icky places, like bathrooms that smelled so strongly of geezer urine I would have sworn glade made a piss-scented candle and someone was holding a seance with them. Not to mention the vents were blocked by obstacles like minefields of neglected pet poo and 85-year-old women with lipstick smeared so far beyond the boundaries of their actual lips that I questioned whether reflective surfaces were provided these poor people.
And that wasn’t the half of it. At the end of the first day I was covered in what I was certain was asbestos. At any rate, it was some kind of horrible scratchy fiber from the insulation that infiltrated my protective outer layer of skin and made me feel like the devil was in me. I think it was little bits of glass. Is glass an ingredient in insulation? Well, anyway, it was in this insulation. Tiny bits of razor sharp glass and asbestos. The second day I showed up to work dressed for a Russian tundra in the winter, complete with waterproof boots, coveralls, headwrap, goggles, and gloves designed to cocoon myself from the thousand tiny knives of asbestos that were poised to attack my cheeks and the bits of skin between my fingers. I looked ready for the Iditarod. Or maybe like I was going to be an extra in a movie about the Iditarod that was actually filmed on a Hollywood soundstage and I did not have to actually be dressed for polar weather because I was just going to kind of stand in the back and be covered from head to toe. Anyway, this was in a Southern July. Ten minutes later I realized the level of water it would be necessary to take in (to equal that which was going out in the form of sweat) was not attainable and that I would be dead within the hour. I debated, deciding eventually to strip out of the coveralls, but the gloves, goggles, headwrap and boots I kept on.
The old people didn’t question me as I knocked on their doors and quickly barged right into their little apartments, even though at this point I was down to boxers and goggles. I tried having conversations with some of them, but they always turned out a bit like:
Me: Hi how are you today?
Them: I got the head lice from Howard down the hall!
Me: Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear that.
Them: And the Lord God said I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children into the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
Them: What the hell did you do with my dentures?
And so on. It was never successful. Like a trooper, though, I marched on to the bitter end, through halls filled with mixed scents of decay and disinfectant until I finally reached the last room. A room the employees told me to avoid. A room filled with flies and gnats and unseen bugs of all kinds. A room which I believe to this day may have housed the last known strains of bubonic plague, buried deeply underneath layer upon layer of filth and food and rot and stink. A room where fresh oxygen was in very short supply—had I brought a canary into this room with me it would have died and I would have known to turn back. But alas, I had no canary and therefore no way of knowing. Rounding the corner from what I think might have been the living room (can it be considered the living room if it’s too full of debris to be livable?) to the bedroom, I saw him. Or it. Sprawled on top of stained bed sheets. Howard. All three-hundred-fifty sweating pounds of him. Completely naked. Spread eagle—legs wide open mind you—on his back with his manhood laying there amongst the many folds of skin. He moaned bestially and began thrashing about. I grew dizzy and lightheaded. The smell of ass surrounded me as I groped for the exit. I still don’t know how I got out of there without fainting and falling head first into a pile of something that had been there since 1983. The next day when I went back to the building to get paid I saw people in hazmat suits heading into Howard’s room. I am fairly certain that I will end up dying someday as a direct result of the work I did in the old folks’ home—whether I contracted it directly or develop a chronic condition later in life. Speaking of contracting, I got that gig from a guy whose company was contracted to do maintenance on the building. He in turn subcontracted the shitty part out to me. I’m pretty sure he made several thousand on the deal. I got ten bucks an hour. And probably cancer. The truly sad thing is that my mother now lives in that building.
I actually held a couple of respectable jobs in my twenties as well. For a time I was a Mammoth Cave National Park Ranger, badge and all. The government must have been desperate. My job consisted of leading groups of 120 people through a two-mile section of the longest cave in the world. Yes there was a set trail, but it was still a dangerous tour with me at the helm. I never lost anyone though—I mean we didn’t do formal counts, but I’m pretty sure.
It went something like this: “Step right up ladies and gentlemen for your 3:30 Historic tour of the Mammoth Cave. Rumor has it this cave was discovered in 1799 by a local hunter who shot and chased an injured bear into what is now the Historic entrance. Okay now, raise your hand if you don’t believe it happened that way. Uh huh, how many of you are like me? How many of you think the bear chased him into the cave? Hahaha.” Cue laughter.
Or if you please: “Step right up ladies and gentlemen for your 3:30 Frozen Niagara tour of the Mammoth Cave. Now on this trip we will see lots of lovely formations—draperies, stalactites, stalagmites, and columns when the latter two join together. Now some people call column formations pillars, but we’re in Kentucky. And in Kentucky a pillar is something you sleep on at night. Hahaha.” Cue laughter.
Eventually what I really wanted to say was: “Okay all you rubes, lemme have a look at you. Alright, you in the back, you’re way too fat to get through. You with the seven children under five, you’re outta here. Anyone who has not gone to the bathroom within the last half hour, I bid you adieu. The United States government has provided me with shit bags and I do NOT, repeat do NOT intend to ever use them. Now this whole affair will be over much sooner if you don’t ask any stupid questions—in fact, don‘t ask any questions at all—my presentation is flawlessly prepared. Simply sit back and watch me with the appropriate level of awe. Now load the buses.”
I had a cubicle job once too, only for about 4 or 5 months. It wasn’t snazzy like that Ranger job where I got to wear a cool hat and a badge, but you can’t be Cinderella in every story. This job was just outside of Nashville, a city where, when you interview for jobs, one of the first questions they ask you is whether or not you are in fact secretly trying to make it big as a country music star. I guess because they don’t want to spend all this time training you just for you to become the next Merle Haggard or something. Because that happens every day. I worked for a company called Ingram Entertainment and I think the company’s purpose for existing was to deliver DVD’s and VHS’s (yes, VHS’s) to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. I think this was back in 2004, and of course even then the company president smelled the death of the industry. I vaguely remember a company meeting in which he told us we weren’t tied to movie distribution, that we were set up to distribute anything…like beer, he said. Beer would never change its formatting and spread to the internet, thereby completely undercutting the demand for beer in a physically present sense.
I call it the cubicle job because I don’t remember what my actual title was, nor do I remember what I did there. I think the title was “accounts reconciler”, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember what I did there because I never knew what I did there, not even when I was sitting in my cubicle nine hours a day. It had something to do with math. I know I stared confusedly at numbers a lot, large spreadsheets full of numbers. I was in the collections department, which wasn’t called the collections department, it was something else, something nicer, but I forget what. I have no idea how on earth I got this job, but I’m more baffled that I sat there for 4 or 5 months with no training, without knowing what I was doing, without producing a single result, and I wasn’t canned. I wasn’t questioned about productivity. No one checked into how I spent my time. I guess it was enough for them that I didn’t want to become the next Merle Haggard. They had bigger problems anyway—I mean VHS’s for god’s sake. Honestly, I think the cubicle job was the straw that broke the camel’s back before I returned to school the second time. Actually the third time, but who’s counting.
When I look back on those terrible jobs in my twenties, I’d like to say I’m glad for the hardships and lack of security for giving me character and making me appreciate what I have now. I’d like to say it doesn’t feel like a lost decade. I’d like to say that, but it would be bullshit. I guess at least it wasn’t as bad as a Merle Haggard song. Now that man had a rough life.
Actual lyrics from Merle Haggard songs…
If there was something I could find to drive these tears from me
Then I’d go right out and get me one
I’ve already cried enough to fill the deep blue sea
And I know the worst is yet to come
–from the album Strangers, 1965
I’m gonna find me a river about ten miles wide with a bridge right all way cross
I’m gonna drag myself about half way over and then I’m gonna throw me off
I can’t stand me since I lost you…
Yeah I gotta get away from myself
–from the album Swinging Doors, 1966
So I do life in prison for the wrongs I’ve done
And I pray every night for death to come
My life will be a burden every day
If I could die my pain might go away
–from the album I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, 1967
The Ballad of the Lost Decade…
Think I’ll have this whiskey to drown my sorrow
If’n I gotta take one more day of this pain
I got another shift at a dead-end job tomorrow
But I’d rather throw myself in front of a train
Hafta fry these nuggets or shovel this shit
Got me a fancy degree I gotta pay for
Wanna throw myself into a pit
But I owe my soul to the company store
–Christa Osborne, circa 2002