Monday, December 24, 2007

Burritos and Gasoline by Jamie Beckett

Title: Burritos and Gasoline

Author: Jamie Beckett


Call me crazy, but I believe life comes to us preloaded with its own inertia. Think of it as Newton’s First Law of Humanity. The point where science leaves the lab and delves silently, secretly, into the lives of each and every one of us.

Yes, it’s true. I’m sure of it.

There is most definitely a force that propels inattentive, unfortunate souls like myself through doorways we know we’d be better off not walking through. It pushes us to do things that are best left undone. Selfish, destructive things that can only backfire and do us harm. Yet somehow, against our own better judgment, we do them anyway. And we pay a high price for being so habitually reluctant to heed our own inner voices.

Fortunately, there is evidence that even the most self absorbed and blatantly arrogant examples of humanity can redeem themselves, given certain conditions and the proper motivation.

At least that’s been my experience.

The series of events that initiated the end of my own carefully guarded existence remain crystal clear in my mind. Even now, years after the fact, I can still mentally run through the movie of my life in all its cinematic glory. Oh, what a ride it’s been.

My all but unavoidable downhill slide began on an otherwise unremarkable Friday afternoon in an unabashedly blue collar town known as Manchester, Connecticut. The exact time was 5:05 PM.

Even before that much deserved dose of reality bore down on me, I was suffering from a desperate case of the emotional blahs. Which, I freely acknowledge, was pretty much the norm for me in those days. Still, I didn’t have the slightest suspicion about what sort of surprise might await me as I drove dejectedly to work that morning. In only a matter of hours, my less than vibrant outlook on life would be forced to change in a big way. And not for the better, I might add.

Manchester, like so many towns that came into their own during the golden days of the industrial revolution, can be viewed in one of two ways. How you choose to see it depends very much on your point of view. It could easily be taken as a lovely little working class town, full of charmingly narrow streets, majestic leafy trees, a multitude of tidy parks and several thousand residents who represent the salt of the earth. The place exudes a certain southern New England charm that cheerfully embraces and celebrates the town’s hard working, mechanized roots.

Then again, it could be viewed as a prime example of urban decay, where the potholed and cracked asphalt streets are thickly lined by weather beaten, multi family homes inhabited almost entirely by families who are either too poor or too dumb to move somewhere more prosperous. Somewhere like East Hartford, perhaps.

In general, I subscribed to the latter opinion. A fact that I’m not the least bit proud of.

I lived nearby, in East Hartford, which borders Manchester to the west. I suppose you could say that my hometown was distinguished from Manchester primarily by being a more economically hopeful place overall. It wouldn’t necessarily be true, but you could say it. Others certainly have.

I believed that degrading theory with all my heart in those days. Although if I’m being honest, I didn’t have much heart left at that point.

Even further west, only one short river crossing away from my own apartment, was Hartford, the capital of the state. In Hartford there was opportunity. White collar jobs in government office buildings or the crisp, clean, modern glass and steel high rises of the insurance industry paid much better than most of what was available on the east side of the river. A certain measure of status was attached to having a job, or even better, a career, in the city. To be employed in Hartford was to be upwardly mobile. Those who were lucky enough to steer their cars west with the morning commute were seen as being headed in the right direction in life. Those lucky bastards had hope. A big, rosy, flashing neon sign that read, “Prosperity!” was on their horizon.

My drive to work took me the other way, to Manchester, which forced me to squint into the rising sun as I made my way. I lived in East Hartford, hardly more than walking distance from downtown Hartford and a substantially better life. As a matter of fact, I’d lived in East Hartford for the entire 42 years of my existence to that point. But I drove the wrong way to work. Each morning I steered toward that blue collar kingdom with a chip on my shoulder and a scowl on my face.

It was that fact more than any other that caused the color to slowly bleed out of my life. The act of driving eastward, away from the opportunities of the city, eventually caused me to become a shell of the man I was convinced I should have been. I’d achieved so little, my life was barely a thin shadow of what my boyhood dreams had suggested for my future.

To be blunt, I was 100 percent dissatisfied, disgusted and disinterested in any aspect of even my own life, let alone anyone else’s.

Then the hands of the clock ticked over to 5:05 PM. Things were about to take a turn for the worse.

As I pushed my way through the door to the Personnel Department, which was my habit on Friday afternoons, I took three deliberate steps toward Mildred Hanrahan’s desk and extended my right hand without comment or eye contact. This wasn’t an expression of affection or gratitude or even basic civility. In retrospect, I have to admit a sense of shame that I never showed poor Mildred the least bit of courtesy. Back then I saw her as something of a human cash machine. For Mildred was the secretary to Ted Winters, the personnel manager at what I perceived as the dumpy little company where Mildred and I both worked. A company that shall remain nameless for fear of possible litigation. I'm sure you’ll understand, considering the circumstances.

It was Mildred's sad task to hand out paychecks every Friday afternoon to a long line of hurried, haggard employees who wanted nothing more than to get their checks and hit the bars hard and fast. It was a duty she performed without the slightest hint of enthusiasm or charm.

Who could blame her, really?

My hand remained extended momentarily, but no envelope passed between Mildred and me as was usual. Instead she spoke, a fact that in and of itself should have tipped me off that something was wrong. Mildred never spoke to me. I never spoke to her either. All in all, we were even.

“Ted wants to see you,” she chirped, chewing a wad of gum, big enough to choke a lesser woman to death.

“About what?” I asked. The suspicious nature of the moment began to dawn on me. Mildred looked up at me wearily, chewing to beat the band. She never got the chance to answer.

“Frank, come on in,” Ted’s voice called out from behind his half-open door. The entrance to his office was located only two short steps behind Mildred’s desk.

With butterflies suddenly flapping madly in my stomach, I made my way into the personnel manager’s office for only the second time in my life. My first visit had been eight years before, when I'd been interviewed, then hired to work for the company as a CNC router operator. Suffice it to say the firm was a leading manufacturer of circuit boards. I'd prefer not to be any more specific than that.

Over the course of the eight years I'd been a part of that organization, I'd seen Ted a number of times. Our paths had crossed in the hallways, occasionally in the men’s room, and once or twice at the company Christmas party. We nodded in a familiar manner, of course. But neither of us had ever said anything of importance to the other since the day he’d clapped me on the back, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard as an employee of the company.

That was about to change.

“Have a seat, Frank.” He waved a hand at the lone empty chair in front of his desk.

Ted was my age, but looked ten years younger. Skillfully placed dark curls hung gracefully across his forehead. His suit jacket hung on a rack in the corner, crisp and clean. Nobody who encountered him on the street would take Ted Winters for a factory worker. More likely they’d peg him as a stockbroker or a lawyer rushing to catch a quick lunch with a client.

His office was another story, however. The wallpaper was beige and unremarkable, the bookshelves dusty and unkempt. Aside from the empty seat he’d indicated, there was only one other chair in the room, his. I hadn’t noticed it eight years before, but Ted’s desk was one of those build-it-yourself deals you can pick up at discount stores for cheap. The room struck me as being every bit as depressing as the reason I’d been invited into it was curious.

Sitting down as instructed, the sudden movement caused a wispy cloud of fiberglass dust to shake loose from my rumpled work clothes. The tiny glass threads begin dancing in the air spontaneously, gently circulated by the air-conditioning duct blowing across the ceiling above my seat. Within seconds, gravity began to drag the delicate cloud of minuscule fibers earthward. While watching them fall I said the only thing that came to mind,


“Frank, we’ve got a problem.” Ted was matter-of-fact. He didn’t hem or haw or beat around the bush in the least. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go.” The words rolled smoothly, effortlessly off his tongue. There was no emotion of any kind in his voice.

I returned his gaze with the blank expression of a man who’s only recently received a sudden, debilitating head injury. “Huh?” I said.

"It’s your attitude, Frank.” Ted wasn’t apologizing and he wasn’t about to backtrack or try to rephrase the salient point of my visit to his office. He merely proceeded to form the news into neat little bite-sized portions that he no doubt assumed I would find more easily digestible.

When it came to personnel matters, Ted Winters was the consummate professional. He didn’t show his feelings one way or the other. For all I knew, he was mentally working out the potential benefits of changing auto insurance providers while we were having our little chat. The man was that emotionally detached from his work. He was a wonder.

Ted continued, “Your productivity scores have been sliding for months . . . you’ve received three consecutive unsatisfactory reviews from your supervisor and from what I’ve been able to gather, you haven’t made any effort to correct these inadequacies at all.”

Throughout the entire exchange, brief as it was, Ted was polite, dispassionate and unshakable as he delivered the bad news. I, on the other hand, was having great difficulty getting myself mentally up to speed. I watched his mouth move for several more seconds, although not a word was sinking into my addled brain. By the time the gist of his message finally began to register, I realized that Ted was holding an envelope in his right hand, offering it to me. Slowly, unsteadily I took it. The envelope contained my paycheck. The one I’d expected to receive without comment from Mildred moments earlier. Now here it was, weighing on my mind far more than it did my hand.

As it turns out, the thin slip of paper inside that envelope represented the last paycheck I’d ever receive from an employer. No more would I take money in exchange for hours of mind-numbingly dull work each week. Not that I didn’t want to. But in a tight job market, a man in my position was left with limited options.

I'd given so little thought to each of those previous 400 odd paychecks. The first one got me excited, I imagine, although I have no clear recollection of picking it up or feeling anything one way or another about it. The last one certainly caught my attention, though. My head was swimming. The rest of me was locked in place, not moving an inch. I was dumbfounded.

“Good luck, Frank.”

Ted stood deliberately as he reached out to shake my hand. I rose unsteadily and shook the offered appendage, as much out of reflex as anything else. Then I turned to the open door and slunk out. Mixing among the throngs that were lined up to receive pay envelopes of their own from Mildred, I felt oddly out of place. For her part, Mildred sat as quietly as ever, diligently working her way through the pile of envelopes on her desk and the associated line of workers that stretched out through her doorway and into the hall beyond.

Shouldering my way through the crowd, I began making my way toward the main exit as best I could. The walls seemed to heave and swell as if they were attempting to expel me from the building. The floor beneath my feet felt as if it had softened to the consistency of marshmallows. Time lost all relevance, except for the fact that I wanted to get out of that hallway, out of the building and out of the company parking lot, as fast as I possibly could. Unfortunately, try as I might, I felt as if I was unable to move any faster than a hobbled octogenarian using a slightly irregular walker.

Finally, after pushing myself with great effort down the hallway toward the cold, bitter world that was no doubt waiting patiently to add to my humiliation, I reached the steel exit door. Pressing against the panic bar with my hip, I oozed out onto the damp sidewalk, confused, embarrassed and just beginning to realize exactly how deep a hole I’d stumbled into.

The sun was still hours away from disappearing behind the curvature of the earth. But it was shaded mightily by a steel gray Manchester sky that caused the look and feel of the whole day to run together.

The calendar suggested it was the middle of summer. But the sky above my head looked more like late fall. The thermometer struggled throughout that dreary afternoon to reach 70 degrees. Yet, even considering that relatively warm temperature, overtones of the chilly, depressing nature of autumn were pervasive. The atmosphere surrounding me looked and felt more or less the same as it had when I’d arrived for work at eight in the morning. At lunchtime the world had looked just as bleak. By five minutes after five in the afternoon, nothing had changed much. At least not in the meteorological sense.

A light drizzle teased my nose and beaded up on my eyebrows and hair as I trudged to my car. The damp air caused my blue jeans and cotton work shirt to feel tighter, restricting movement, making it hard to breathe. I tugged at my collar, to no avail. Air flowed to my lungs only with great effort. My scuffed, dirty boots weighed a ton. One shoelace had somehow come undone. Rather than stop to tie it again, I let it drag behind me. The boot loosened slightly with each step.

My only thought was to get away. If my boot had fallen completely off, I’m sure I’d have continued on with only a sock to cover my foot. My embarrassment was unimaginable in its enormity.

With considerable effort, I quickened my pace.

Around me were straggling bands of my former co-workers laughing, joking and enjoying the freedom represented by a Friday afternoon. I on the other hand was just at that moment coming to realize exactly how isolated I was from the 200 or so men and women I’d shared a working environment with up until only a few minutes before. Not one of them made my list as someone I would count as a real friend. Then again, I didn’t really count anyone else in the world as having a solid spot on that list, either. I talked to no one as I made my way through the parking lot and no one talked to me. Much like my relationship with Ted’s secretary, Mildred, we were even. All of us. I knew I wouldn’t be missed on Monday.

The world and I were at odds. Yet even with that critical tidbit of information gnawing away at the back of my brain, it still hadn’t occurred to me that I was rapidly making the transition from being a deeply troubled man to being a man in deep, deep trouble.

There is a profound difference between the two conditions. I didn’t know that then. I also didn’t know that I hadn’t hit bottom yet. I’d find out, though. Oh, how I’d find out.

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