It’s 1992 and the Beastie Boys have just put out a new record, I’ve graduated college and moved to the beach. Four of us in a shack behind a Texaco off Division Street. Beer bottles and sand everywhere. I leave before the lease is up and move in with my mom and her new boyfriend John. It’s odd calling him boyfriend since they’re in their 40s so we just call him John. He’s a musician with long hair and a beard and he’s English so he has Bassets. And makes curry. I’m trying to grow a beard but get ridiculed for it, mom says it’s like it’s there and not there at the same time.
It is the best day of my life when I get a call from the editor asking me to report on a town meeting and submit a thousand words. Even though it’s just a weekly it’s my first time published, my name in print. In just a few months I’ve worked a dozen jobs from pizza delivery to warehouse temp. None of the jobs pay very well so I have to work a few at a time. I flag for a construction crew and meet the guys at a diner, spend the first part of my shift eating eggs and country ham. My supervisor tells me to put 8:30 on my time sheet but that doesn’t seem right since I didn’t start work until 10, and he just laughs. I wave or nod at every driver who passes and get wind burn for the first time.
I wait tables at a bar near my apartment and live above a small jewelry shop in an old building by the jail. The bar is close enough to walk to but it’s dangerous after dark. Downtown Allentown dies from the inside out and I’m right at the heart of it.
The landlords live upstairs and own the shop: the old man is Czech, a jeweler named Jules, and his old lady Mabel does the bookkeeping. Jewelry shops get held up a lot and they’re prime targets being old, so they have to buzz me in every time I come to pay the rent. Mabel writes my receipts in lacy cursive in an old ledger and blushes when we make eye contact. Jules is thin as a dime and doesn’t speak much. He has a wiry mustache and looks like a praying mantis wearing that head-mounted magnifier. Sadly I come to learn he beats Mabel and drinks roughly two cases a week, judging by the glass in their recycling. But they never complain about my late night parties or the time I have a reggae band over. I’ve just discovered Bukowski and the two of them are like characters in one of his books, real and unreal at the same time.
The temp assignments range from entry-level flagging gigs to the more coveted ones that pay better, like the Day-Timer gig with FedEx. It’s seasonal work right up until Christmas, $6.50/hour. I’ve never needed a Day-Timer but they’re produced right here in Allentown, a yearly planner people use to keep business appointments and contacts all in one place. When the year ends they ship out thousands all over the country through FedEx. I’ll help them load boxes into canisters that go onto planes; the canisters (they call them cans) are light-weight aluminum and shaped like Trivial Pursuit pieces, the colored wedges you get when you answer a question right.
It’s just me and two FedEx guys, Lou and Phillip. Lou is a body builder and wears his FedEx shirt with the collar up, has bad acne from hormone treatments. Phillip wears a mustache and uses a comb. Lou bullies Phillip but Phillip’s the brains of the two. They bicker like a married couple: Phillip scans the boxes with a gun as they shoot down the roller and Lou and I stack them inside the cans. Phillip tracks how many boxes we fit into the cans with his scanner and then the two of them argue about how to fit in more. Lou has the demeanor of an ape, hunched in the darkness of the cans like it’s his lair. Phillip is a college graduate in something like art history. We work like that every day for two months and then go to a strip club one night to celebrate.
It’s my first time to a strip club, I’m either too shy or never had enough money for it. You’re supposed to have a lot of small bills, to tip. It’s a real production at the door with the flashlight and a big guy checking ID, but Lou acts like he’s done this before. Phillip is nervous like me and dressed like he’s on a date, but looks like a square. Lou orders a beer and a shot and Phillip asks if they’ve got any wine.
Not long into it it becomes the clear the warm-up dancer is a girl I went to elementary school with, Tammy Kerns. Worse, she was my partner at the square dance in 4th grade. I can still see the look on her face when she took off her glasses, giggled and blinked. Lou and Phillip are making sideways remarks and she’s saddling closer but I’m worried she’s going to recognize me and I’m feeling sick. The dancers take handfuls of ice from below the bar and use the ice for erotic effect. My last visual is Phillip’s head thrown back, Tammy Kerns squeezing droplets of ice on his face. Phillip’s stupid tongue.
The next morning I lie to Lou and Phillip about why I had to leave early. And return to my apartment feeling a new kind of lonely, Jules and Mable arguing upstairs, trying to unsee Tammy Kerns in the nude.
I write for the weekly for almost a year but decide I hate journalism and quit. My editor wants me to squeeze stories out of stories that no one cared about to begin with. It’s a small town and there’s nothing to report on, they’re just trying to fill space.
Still I save every clipping in a box with a stack of typewritten notes as if evidence of me being a writer grows the more the stack grows. And over time the disheveled mess comes to reflect a life I had or imagined I’d have, but its contents are scattered like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle rattling in a box.
Time cuts your life into bits, but unlike a jigsaw puzzle the pieces don’t fit back together the way they should. Time makes irregular cuts. Memoir is for both journalists and movers of furniture who transport their lives from one place to another, to find a new home for their keepsakes and precious things. Memoirists try to outwit time by saving the precious bits, but time always wins. And takes all the pieces in the end.