The Sponge Factory diaries (Philadelphia, ’95)

They call it scrap paper for a reason

Perhaps Philadelphia got its edge from the fact that the mayor ordered the bombing of a house in a residential area in 1985, a house with children and potential convicts inside — or perhaps it was like a jealous younger brother to nearby New York, who defined itself any way it could to be different, even if that meant through bad behavior. Either way we were white, and felt guilty about that pulling in with our moving truck, guilty at how appalled we felt looking outside, guilty about how good we had it. But in that way you might in your mid 20s, we thought moving to a hard city would toughen us (like a new pair of sneakers, trying to scuff up the sides so they wouldn’t look so white).

My girlfriend then was a social worker and used to hard neighborhoods. She didn’t look appalled like me, she had this kind of exterior that came out in tense situations, that brought out her Swede features, that seemed to harden her cheek bones and jaw. I was trying to look older then, I was managing people and about half the staff was older, and some tried to leverage that against me, or maybe that was in my head.

We’d gone there for a new job and picked this part of town to live in because there was an artist loft there a customer of mine had recommended in Pittsburgh. Back then, half the battle of becoming an artist was finding the right place to live. No artist could be an artist somewhere safe and normal, there just wasn’t enough pressure.

I was supposed to open a new coffee shop for a Starbucks knock-off but the construction got delayed and I had the whole summer off. I didn’t know that, because each week they said it would be ready the following week, and my boss tried to drum up things for me to do, like taking headcounts of commuters at peak times, which I did manually, by standing on a corner downtown counting people.

When it really was time to open the store, I hired a manager named Han, a Vietnamese guy about five feet tall who smoked Lucky Strikes, drank his bourbon neat and liked Tom Waits. He’d also worked for a coffee chain out of DC and listed one of the three original owners of Starbucks as a reference, who called me back to talk about Han, but really wanted to size up our operations, who said yeah Han was great, a real artist actually…but what plans did we have, and what was our assortment like, and so on.

When I introduced my boss to Han, my boss called him Han SOLO and did so each time he saw Han, which was often, and each time he said Han SOLO it was like the first time, how it cracked him up, and Han only half-smirked and looked away, and again I felt guilty being white.

Han and I often worked the opening together which meant we there at like 5 in the morning putting out pastries in the dark, brewing coffee, trying to wake up. Han described his morning ritual as getting up at 3:40, having a smoke, beating off, walking the dogs, showering, and then coming to work. Which accounted for his good nature I thought, and how well behaved he was around the female staff.

And he’d taken to calling me by last name only, and said it like we were actors in an art film, with an implied weight, like there was some background between us that wasn’t. Outside on the sidewalk he’d just shake his head after lighting a Lucky and taking his first drag, blowing out smoke, and say …Pearse…

Not long after getting that store open there was the next one, in center city, but I left the Starbucks knock-off to work for Starbucks instead, and found the memos were in the same format as the ones from my previous job, because someone from Starbucks had left Starbucks when they went to the knock-off and taken the Starbucks Word template with them (and just changed the name of the company in the header), and then I went to work writing the Starbucks Word templates myself after I moved to corporate a year later. Everything happened fast in quick succession, without much thought or planning.

Han and I met at a bar to catch up and tried to stay in touch but it was half-hearted. He had a baby-blue mid ’60s Saab that looked like a Bond car. We came out of the bar and forgot where he’d parked and then realized it was stolen, and had my briefcase in it and a case of beer a guy in Seattle (who worked at Starbucks) had taken pains to ship to me, in Philadelphia. In some ways Han probably blamed his bad luck on me, and we never saw each other again.

The morning we left Philadelphia for Seattle the weather was unsettled, the spring thunderstorms in full gear, and pulling out of Kelly Drive a bird flew into our windshield and died slowly there, and we saw a bicyclist get struck by a car, the angle of his face at the time of impact, and both my girlfriend and I tried to shake it off, pretending it wasn’t a bad omen but both of us knowing it was.




Categories: Memoir

Tags: , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. Han’s morning routine. “Which accounted for his good nature.” You made me laugh, man!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A sign of the the times: a briefcase. I’m not sure if mine has made it to the garbage yet or if it is hiding somewhere knowing it is doomed.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. i love how everything is connected and that you just went with it –

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pearse sounds like a spy name. Very cinematic. This is a really fun read, pal. What else you got in that Pandora’s Box of yours?


  5. I can’t believe he called him Han Solo – every time! That felt so real, the strain to laugh at someone elses bad joke.
    Love your descriptions of the neighbourhood and Han , and that way relationships drift when you don’t work together anymore.


    • Lynn, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a run of comments on my blog all from one reader! Thank you! Your comments came in while I was hiking with my dog Friday morning (we had beautiful weather and I was able to take the day off). I was trying to resist looking at my phone but was so happy then when I did, afterwards at our local bar, and saw all your comments. Thanks for spending time on my blog Friday. I hope your weekend is good and you’re enjoying the remains of it. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

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