In 1997 I worked for a call center that specialized in providing customer support for Apple Computer. Not a lot of people realize that when they call in for customer service, they aren’t getting some computer programmer who helped to build the operating system that they have just broken. Instead they are probably getting some kid, who might have dropped out of high school, making a little more than minimum wage who desperately needs to get you off the phone so they can make their talk time. I used to take around 35 calls per day. The average was supposed to be 50, but my customer satisfaction rate was high, so I was never really written up. Employee turnover was high. At $7 an hour, it was hard to get people to stick around. Plus I never yelled at customers. At least without hitting MUTE first.
The job was mind-numbingly monotonous. And the work environment wasn’t much better. We each had a cubical assigned to us which many of us would pin pictures of family, loved ones, and that kind of thing. A labyrinth of battleship grey walls surrounded us. A small porch on the back side of the building allowed for cigarette breaks. I was told if I wasn’t a smoker now, I would be in a year. Smokers could take four five minute breaks before and after lunch. Non-smokers got a fifteen minute reprieve every two hours. If our talk times were low, we were “encouraged” to work through our breaks to catch up.
They moved us around quite a bit, for whatever reason. Those who had posted their pictures of their kids or spouses or family could be seen loading up their photos about once every few weeks, like the Snopes family pulling up stakes and heading out to California during the Dust Bowl. They were always careful to put the thumb tacks right back in the same holes once they got to their new cubes.
I didn’t have anyone to pin up on my wall. I had made the decision to change the direction of my life. A few months before I had ended a relationship I had since high school; just over three and a half years. I had moved out from a house I shared with three guys I had known since I was at least ten years old. We never really spoke again. I was living alone in a studio apartment, the old parlor of a victorian house which had been build in 1894 for a doctor. Three other families shared the house. I didn’t know any of their names unless I happened to accidentally get their mail.
I used to spend the evenings sweating in that old house. There was no central air conditioning. I had only a box fan in the window of the kitchen, which did almost nothing to cool my bedroom. I lived on the busiest street corner in town and so many nights were decorated with the glow of blue and red lights on my walls. Another t-bone collision at the intersection. Some green lacewings had taken up residence and they used to hum and sing in the dark. My television had only one channel and that came in fuzzy if it came in at all. In the fall I would sometimes watch a Broncos game because that’s what was on. Otherwise, I watched old VHS tapes. The Road Warrior. Swingers. Red Dwarf seasons 3 and 4. A few others.
What I did eventually put on my cubical wall was a large color newspaper clipping of the USS Constitution. There has always been something about a fully-rigged tall ship that has captured my imagination. While taking my calls throughout the day, I often looked at that clipping and thought of where a ship like that could take me. Anywhere but here. It was a goal to work towards.
My evenings were spent writing. I would peck away at a manuscript for two different novels. Both of which were terrible. But it was practice. I spent many late nights reading in that heat. One of my favorite books which I would read well into the early hours was Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.” If you haven’t read it, the book is amazing and probably demonstrates the excesses someone would go to after being falsely imprisoned for 15 years. Edmon Dantes leaves no stone unturned in his wrath. I used to read a lot back then. In my room with the fan blasting or in my wicker rocking chair perched on the old wrap-around porch when the summer breezes would come in and the leaves on the cottonwoods would breathe with every gust.
A Quiznos beefeater from the gas station across the street. The burst of vinegar and seeds as you bit into a pepproncini. Sometimes I would ride my bike around the block on my days off, hoping to run into someone I knew. Or even a new friend. I would go to Margies Java Joint sometimes, but I wasn’t at the point in my life yet where I could sit quietly and enjoy my own company. I was just reliving old memories which now had a vacancy. It would take half a lifetime to just sit and be still, comfortable in my own skin. Maybe I’ve gotten there. Maybe I haven’t. Back in those days we didn’t have everyone we knew riding around in our pants pocket all day, just a text away.
When I left that job, I took the clipping with me. I said goodbye to the work friends I had made there. The kids just out of high school, the mother and daughter team who brought me cookies sometimes and listened to Jewel on repeat until I thought I would scream if I heard the song “Adrian” one more time. The quiet girl I went on a date with who walked into a glass door during training one day, leaving the impression of her face on the glass for most of the afternoon. She was too edgy for me because she smoked and went to the places in town where they played live music. I have to laugh about that now–how little I knew about myself. My friends Andra and Hannah who I watched demolition derby with at the Greeley Stampede. I think about them sometimes in that strange summer where sometimes the solitude was palpable.
Late afternoons of Rocko’s Modern Life, Eek! the Cat, and Round the Twist on Fox Kids because it was on. The Peace Corps sticker on the side of my TV set. The beep of my answering machine that greeted me when I came home, reminding me that someone loved me. The whir of the tape as the machine prepared to play back the message and the flutter I would feel in my stomach at the anticipation of hearing what the message was. Then there were the times I brought someone over and the wounds from the end of my last relationship were still raw–a self-inflicted wound I would learn, that I would later find peace with. The witch with emerald eyes, the deaf interpreter, the psychologist, the friend of my ex-girlfriend. I couldn’t even fall asleep in the same bed. I usually took the couch and worried for the next week about how to avoid them. It was better to be alone than be with the wrong person. Those nights in someone else’s arms didn’t compare. Just an empty thing without vigor or meaning. I was a ghost.
Now I find myself in an empty house, enjoying the quite of the afternoon. My fingers are once again pecking away at the keyboard. My dog fumes at me from the corner of the room on her dog bed, bored as hell and disappointed at my lack of enthusiasm for playing Ball or Squirrel. I have had my coffee. I let the story be told and I get the words down, because I’m the only one to tell it. As melancholy, sentimental, or bittersweet as it demands from me.
I still have my tall ships to keep me on track. To keep me hopeful. Though they aren’t the USS Constitution, they are different reminders of what I want, though sometimes they seem just as impossible to reach as the horizon when crossing the sea with only the wind at your back and a star to guide you. Here there be monsters, the maps should all read. Swells as tall as mountains, and unfathomable depths below. But still we sail onward, because there is land somewhere. And once we reach those shining shores, we know that something will compel us once again to set out on another course.
Maybe I’ll share what they were in another twenty five years.
I am at the age where I have to smile whenever I hear someone say they have it all figured out in what they want to do in life. There is no straight line to follow. Life is an Odeyssey with distractions and adventures and heartbreak and all sorts of strange chapters along the way. We never really get to where we thought we were headed. Sometimes we make it to someplace we never could have imagined.