Living Out Loud: : The Mother of Lost Summers

Cicadas, uniforms and 1987

Jun 30, 2004 at 2:06 pm

The last live cicada I saw suffered the agony of my shoe. Rack up another bad memory.

It was an accident. I had to slide into my car, so as I crushed it, unaware that it was flitting around my car door, I shrugged it off.

When my shoe devoured the bug, it symbolically crushed another bad memory; both memories, for now, vanquished back into the porous ground.

In 1987, the year the previous brood of cicadas appeared, I had one of my worse jobs ever. Since then I've dangled on the ladder of academia, published books, received grants, and aided other writers with their pursuits.

My laundry list of jobs from 1973 to 2004, in addition to teaching, is not as impressive as many certainly have, but it impresses me enough. Caddie (kid), garbage truck driver (youth), janitor (youth), construction (youth), dishwasher, sandwich deliverer (grad school), proofreader (grad school), bookstore clerk (grad school), beat reporter, magazine writer, and editor (always).

But we all have one job that rides our minds like a spur, always resurfacing and biting.

At times the memory might bring on painful bouts of diarrhea or a quieter, less demonstrative pain in pissing. For me, I cringe when I add to my laundry list, uniform truck driver, the 1987 summer job from hell.

The uniform shop was located in Lockland and it was a god-awful in-between job that momentarily peeled away my bedrock book-learning from the right side of my brain.

The pay, good. The experience (shedding pounds), useful. The hours, lost: I usually saw the sun rise and set from my truck window.

It was one of the most humid summers I can remember. The truck I drove stalled at red lights 90 percent of the time. I had legs, but I don't remember where they were in the pit called the driver's side.

I delivered uniforms and rugs for this company competing with Cintas. I'm a small guy, ripped to a degree in '87 with at least the muscles to fling 10 floor mats on my shoulder. And in the other hand, 15-plus unies on hangers.

Of course when I began that job, I needed a few days training. This guy named Rudy started out with a two-hour delivery stop at a local bar. But it took only 10 minutes to deliver the bar owner three uniforms. Over an hour-and-a-half on his barstool was preferable to Rudy.

"Where are we going now?" I asked Rudy, who was bleary-eyed at 10:30 a.m.

"A drop in Kentucky," he mumbled.

Rudy was nearly three inches shorter than I was and stronger. He never passed on an opportunity to talk to a woman. He knew women. He'd had two wives and he was around 24.

When Rudy pulled off a rural road in Kentucky, I knew we were headed to an ex-wife's pad.

"No, it's just a girlfriend."

"Thanks for clearing that up," I said. "How long?"


"How long will it take to deliver these unies to her?"

"Huh?" Rudy said again. "No, no, here's the thing. She takes just about an hour. You can just sleep. We've got an easy day."

My other trainee, Mitch, was the most efficient and intense dude to train under. He rarely talked. He didn't smoke. He stopped only once in my three days of training with him to eat. Tall, with a tanned face marred by black horn-rim glasses, he was a Harley freak.

Mitch made the most money. You got commissions with uniform drops and he had three kids. He needed every buck he could get. Still, nearly every breath Mitch took was a nod toward the annual Harley convention. His would be one of 6,000-plus bikes at the party.

During my career as a uniform truck driver, I went up and down stairs at the old Monsanto plant, a GM plant in Indiana, the nuclear power plant in Moscow, Ohio, to name a few. I had a box truck stuffed with uniforms and rugs. Breathing was hard. I had no radio. I sucked down water and Cheetos to ward off lunch. The miles I locked in numbered in the hundreds each day: out to Indiana and back, down Owensville, Ky., out to Moscow and into the hobunk fields of Clermont County.

I remember standing at a urinal in 1987, having lugged uniforms and rugs all over creation, and not being able to tell my own piss from the sweat trickling from my neck and face into the urinal.

Often times, I had a mask on my face. In Monsanto it was required. At a plastics plant, the plastics fumes were in the air. I sucked hot air through that mask while rugs beat against my face. The uni hangers pierced my fingers.

Once when I returned to the truck, a wasp flew around the dashboard. The wasp meant business.

I wanted to swat that wasp, kill it. But I deemed myself a humanitarian even when the wasp flew near my eye, fixated on my good sweat.

When the truck stalled, I guided the wasp out with a receipt booklet. It resisted. Here goes my eye, I thought.

The truck always stalled. I sat there once saying, screw it, I'll just sit here. I was hardened. The uniforms were neat and pressed, and I hated them. I do not wear a uniform now, and I never will again. Not even 17 years from now.

LIVING OUT LOUD is a rotating blend of essays and editorials by CityBeat staff and friends about life or something like it.