Sunday, June 24, 2012

1966: Workin’ for the Man

To support myself through the summer of 1966 as I stayed in Austin for summer school, I worked three jobs.  The thing I knew best was cars.  I had been working on them and fixing them up since I was 14-years old and so I answered an ad and applied for a job with M.E. “Gene” Johnson’s Gulf Service Station and Garage on Airport Highway, about 30 blocks north of campus.  Gene Johnson was a towering man in his early fifties who boasted that he could wrestle any of his younger employees to the cement island in front of his station with one hand tied behind his back.  I believed it, so I never tried. 

Gene had dropped out of school in the fifth grade but had managed, through hard work, thrift and an uncanny knowledge of cars to build an independent automotive “empire” which included a four pump Gulf gas station with a thriving mechanics garage attached and a profitable auto parts store in an adjacent building.  He advertised in the newspaper and on the radio, which was unheard of for a local gas station in those days, promoting “Come on in for the best price on gas, outstanding maintenance for your automobile and the friendliest service from every one of my tall, sun-tanned sons of Texas”.   At six foot I guess I filled the tall requisite, but I got the job even though I was from California and my legs just off-white.

My hours were 6:00 AM to 1:00 PM, which allowed me to attend my one 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM summer school class in Statistics, which I had failed in the spring thanks to too many evenings up on Mount Bunnell and/or in the beer garden.  At $ 1.60 per hour (a nickel under the federal minimum wage at the time…”I don’t believe in paying a man too much…keeps ‘em hungry”, Gene would say, ignoring the law), I couldn’t make ends meet.  I applied for another job which began at 4:30 PM as a proof-reader for the Texas State House Reporter, a daily newsletter that reported on the activities of the Texas Railroad Commission, whose job it was, among other things, to regulate the oil and gas industry in Texas. 

Mr. Childress (I never knew his first name) was a huge man of about 300 pounds who was 5’ 9” with a chubby face that was bright red most of the time.  He always wore a grey suit with a thin, non-descript tie.  He never took his coat off or loosened his tie even though the office he rented in the Texas State Capital building was not air-conditioned. The temperature was routinely above 100 degrees with the humidity at stifling levels on those hot central Texas summer afternoons. 

There were three of us proof-readers and we got there just as the editor/owner of this newsletter was about to finish his seven to fifteen pages of narrative on the Commission’s rulings for the day.  He started working at about 9:00 AM in the morning, attending the Commission hearings and recording all of the data until they adjourned at 3:00 PM.  He started drinking at about noon, which pretty much made him hammered by the time we showed up at 4:30 to start proofing his newsletter. 

On the fifteen page days, he would “take a break” about every 15 minutes and go down to his car in the parking lot, open the trunk and imbibe some “brown water” from a fifth of whiskey stored therein.  Actually, I really didn’t blame him.  On a fifteen page day, after reading “Palo Pinto County regular site No. 156, pump No. 2875 on Lot IV in Section No. 7 approved allowable for 182 barrels of light sweet crude for Tuesday, July 14, 1966”, or similar drivel for three hours, I longed for a stiff drink myself or, at least, a nap.  I remember nearly falling asleep while reading aloud on several occasions.

When we finished proofing his typed mimeograph sheets (God forbid we found an error) we would take them to a separate office in a different building and run off some 600 copies on a mimeograph machine.  We would then set the pages in a large set of shelves and collate, staple, fold, address, weigh and put postage on them.  We would prepare them for first class mailing and we would draw straws for which one of us would drop them off at the post office on our way home.  This often took until nine or ten o’clock at night.

At $ 1.65 per hour, I was just barely making my part of the rent payment, utilities, food and gas.  I had no money left over for entertainment and I wanted to get a “new” car before the end of the summer.  I was forced to develop a Spartan lifestyle.  Since I had discovered beer in my second semester as a freshman, I had gained 15 pounds by the end of my sophomore year.  I was determined to shed them and not having much money helped a lot.  My diet for the summer included eggs over easy mixed in with hamburger meat, cooked medium rare.  It was Atkins before he was a pup with the only difference being, I drank a quart of Tang a day.  It was probably the only reason I didn’t get scurvy over that summer but I did lose the 15 pounds in about 45 days. 

To get money for an occasional movie and to save for that “new” car, I got a third job.  Down the hall from our mimeograph room was a patent attorney.  Mr. Aristotle Whitby used to drop in on us while we were working for a “chat”.  He was about 65, widowed, white haired, usually unshaven and lonely.  I never saw him in anything other than a very rumpled seersucker suit, which I suspected he wore during the day and slept in at night, as well.  He lived on a couch in his office.  He was a kindly old coot and I felt sorry for him. 

His office looked like an explosion in a paper factory.  There were patents and patent drawings, going back to the 1920’s, strewn all over the place.  Stacks and stacks of paper and outdated law books filled every bookshelf and corner.  He had one file cabinet and all the drawers were open with documents overflowing in every direction.  There were empty cans of Wolf Brand chili adorning just about any level, unoccupied space and a crusty saucepan, which I never saw clean, sat on a two burner hot plate, which he frequently forgot to turn off.  “Call me Ari”, he would say brightly when we attempted to address him as Mr. Whitby. 

Despite his usual disheveled appearance, Mr. Whitby did attract an occasional client and he needed a person who could do patent drawings because, as he would say, “my hand is not quite as steady as it used to be”.  When he heard that I had taken drafting in junior high school he offered me $ 25.00 per drawing to assist him.  While I hardly thought my training would have been up to snuff for such an important job, the “princely” sum encouraged me to try.  I worked for him perhaps three nights per week as a draftsman, often working past midnight. 

Occasionally, Mr. Whitby would come into my work area in his outside office and look over my shoulder, offering advice on my perspective drawings.  He would talk of his dearly deceased wife and how life was hardly worth living without her. He talked about how he once had a prosperous eight-person firm but how it hardly seemed worth the effort anymore.  He also talked about honesty, honor, the benefits of hard work and other things I guess he thought I should know.  As a consequence of his tutelage, several of my drawings are actually on file with the US Patent Office.  Based on the amount of time it took me to do each drawing, I probably averaged about a buck an hour, but I enjoyed the work and my conversations with Mr. Whitby.

It was getting towards the end of the summer and it was another light, eight-page day at the Texas State House Reporter.  Unfortunately, that evening I absentmindedly mis-collated page 7 with page 8.  The next day Mr. Childress confronted me with my most grievous error.  He actually read his own newsletter everyday.  No wonder he drank.

I only had one more week of work so I took my tongue lashing and pressed on.  Soon I would turn in my resignation at the Texas State House Reporter, tell Mr. Whitby I was going back to school and might not be able to help him as much as I had this summer and, then, register for school.  When I gave notice to Mr. Childress he actually shook my hand and told me I was one of the best proofreaders he had ever had, despite my “penchant for errors”.  What penchant for errors?!?  ONE MISTAKE.  No wonder he drank.

Each night that week I went down the hall to Mr. Whitby’s office but it was always locked.  On Friday, my last day, I knocked again and still no answer.  The door to the office next to him was, uncharacteristically, opened.  I walked in and found a man working late.  “Excuse me”, I said, “have you seen Mr. Whitby lately”. 

The man looked up at me and said, “Are you a relative?”. 

“No”, I answered “I work for him as a draftsman”. 

“So you haven’t heard?”, he said, matter-of-factly, “Mr. Whitby was found dead on his couch a week ago.  He apparently died in his sleep.  Had incurable cancer, you know.”

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t even say I didn’t know or I was sorry.  “Are you alright?”, the man asked.  I didn’t answer.  I just turned and walked out so he would not see the tears that were now welling up in my eyes.  The heals of my shoes as they hit the vinyl tile echoed sharply; a hollow, empty sound as I slowly made my way down the long, deserted hallway.  I missed him already.

No comments:

Post a Comment