“Patience and submission are very carefully to be distinguished from cowardice and indolence. We are not to repine, but we may lawfully struggle; for the calamities of life, like the necessities of nature, are calls to labour, and excercises of diligence. When we feel any pressure of distress, we are not to conclude that we can only obey the will of heaven by languishing under it, any more than when we perceive the pain of thirst we are to imagine that water is prohibited.” — Samuel Johnson
The gloved-men drove trucks. They drove them to the dumpster, or they filled them. A big blue tow truck whizzed by, stopped, cranked its wheels, and backed up. A black man got out—he looked around, then getting back in, pulled a few levers. The back of the truck reached upwards. I looked away. Then, I noticed the big blue tow truck, fitted with a big, blue dumpster on its back, drive away. The other gloved-men stared and watched. And I watched. I watched one gloved-man struggled to lift a heavy—or perhaps only awkward—object. It was a large, frame-like object, much like a huge metal bed-frame, too large for a king-size mattress. But it was flimsy, as was the man lifting it, walking, or stumbling like a drunk, as the object wiggled and moved about. He pulled it from one end, over his hatted-head. With this gloved-hands, he dragged it to a yellow dumpster, set one end resting. Then stopped. Puffing, with hands on hips, he rested. And I watched on as two other gloved-men stood opposite the dumpster, talking and enjoying the nice weather, paying him no heed.
Kipling would be disappointed, I thought, in these blue-collar men, not working with hardly any efficiency, discipline, or teamwork. But I’ve worked such jobs. I’m all too familiar with the art of wasting time, or standing with several others, seven doing the work of one, six serving as cheerleaders or commentators. Eventually, that man hoisted the frame into the dumpster. Eventually, the conversation ceased; one man began sweeping, the other came to help with the frames—three in all. And I merely watched. I merely observed the two men work in tandem with the frames, wielding the wobbly objects until all three rested atop each other, carefully placed in the yellow dumpster, the men’s work for now complete.
“Hi, did you check in online?” the girl asked as she cut the hair off a man’s head. The multi-tasking of women, and barbers, is proof for the existence of God. I would’ve said something to this effect, but I was bidden to answer the question. “Online?” I thought. “Can a man check in online? The internet is not a place to check in; it is where man goes to check out.” I contemplated these thoughts but then only let out a shameful, “No, no I did not.” I knew my folly. This wasn’t the first time. I was being judged. Here I was, physically present, dong my duty as a human, yet I was chastised for not acting more like a robot.
“There’s someone before you,” she said, looking at her screen. “She checked in online, so if she shows up you’ll be after her.” I listened with dread to the words. She. Her. Pronouns get a lot of attention these days. I’m now convinced they are no more important than in a salon, for it takes three times as long to cut the hair of a woman, and I was forced to my seat to pray that she wouldn’t show.
Another man was before me. His hair was already pretty short, I thought. He was called forth, and I waited. Eventually a woman did enter. My pulse increased. “Check in online?” I listened with great care to the answer. “No.” A sigh. An old man entered. Of course he had the good sense to not check in online. He sat down next to me and started reading a People magazine, featuring the Reagans. And I waited. I cursed myself for never bringing a book for such situations. I did not, however, curse myself for refusing to check in online. I reached for my phone. No browser. Gone forever. I smiled at my weakness and hypocrisy and put the phone back. Seeing as how there were no sport’s magazines, I could only sit and wait; I could only look out the window and watch several gloved-men sweep and clean up around a large yellow dumpster.
In nearly every facet of life, the art of waiting has been completely neglected. Patience is a virtue, they say, but both are nearly absent. Of course, a man does wait for things. But the physical, momentary art of waiting without entertainment almost doesn’t exist anymore. Even before I deleted the browser from my phone, I had tried to make a conscious effort not to look at it while waiting; as a good friend of mine has said in paraphrase, “The man who looks at his phone gives up a whole number of things.” Like listening, for instance. Or thinking. Or merely watching. Or, in the case of waiting for over two hours during an oil change, the random moments where people walk up to you in the waiting room and say this:
“You look like a good person to talk to.”
Then sit down and began asking you a whole host of questions. “What are you reading? Have you heard of [insert obscure poet whose name escapes me]? Are you a student? What are you studying? Where do you work? How old are you?” (Followed by a “No way! Impossible!”) “Do you like cars? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?”
I’m sure I looked very odd in that salon that morning with arms crossed, simply staring out the window. But I do know a couple of things. I was aware of my surroundings, and I looked more human than the rest.
Eventually, a battered Chevy drove up to the yellow dumpster and backed up. Men got out and the usual hand gestures accompanied conversation. Conversation, that is, about the contents of the yellow dumpster, the frames. I thought I could hear the man curse, but just then I observed something much more interesting. A bus pulled up to the salon and a woman was let out. A woman who walked right up to that salon door and opened it. A woman—self-identifying cis-woman, proudly using her pronoun from birth. A woman who waltzed into and through that salon like Christ in his Triumphal Entry. She knew what she was about. She feared nothing, especially what man could do to the body. For this woman had the confidence of one who could not be stopped. For this woman had checked in online.
So I waited. And when I looked back out the window, I noticed the men lifting the third frame from the dumpster—the one so artfully placed there by a single individual—and placing it on top of the other two, stacked in the Chevy. The key, I remember, to surviving an hourly, manual labor job is to create more work for yourself than is necessary, so to always have something to do. There were now roughly seven or eight men dong the work of three or four.* Then, a large white tow truck pulled up with two men in it. Again levers were pulled and the yellow dumpster was placed on the back of the truck and taken away. The frames were likewise tied down and hauled off by the Chevy. Suddenly, as if some of the men were taken straight to heaven for their work, only two remained, sweeping the clutter of their toil.
The old man had left to run some errands. He returned to find himself taken off the list. Just. Like. That. I felt pity for the man, cast aside so quickly. It occurred to me that a double standard existed. The man’s physical presence was required to keep his place in line, but—had he only check in online before he came! All his troubles would be swept away. As I looked at him, I at once perceived my future self, seen as if through a dim mirror. I saw that my sad existence would be a constant battle between myself and the new robots; but I believed that the real battle that should be fought would never be fought by my fellow men. It is not that a man ought to wait in line to learn patience so much as that he should wait in line to learn a more primal art: fighting lines. The tension one feels while waiting in line is natural and good for him. Indeed, if a man does not take off his gloves when he enters these lists, he may just forget altogether how to fight. He may forget that those who fight may lose or may win. He may even, for instance, leave the salon, some hour or so later, a much lighter individual. He may also leave with a coupon for a free haircut.
The last to be written
at the Desert Schooner,
Pecos & Bonanza,
Las Vegas, Nevada
Friday, March 24, 2016
Painting: “The Young Barber”
By R. Failing,
Oil on canvas, n.d.
*This doesn’t mean that white collar jobs—such as that of a lowly graduate teaching assistant or literary critic—are any more valuable. Where seven or eight do the work of two or three in a manual labor position, one does the work that perhaps no one should be doing in my own field.