Right now, if college degrees were cashed in everyone would be walking around with heads full of knowledge and handfuls of change. No longer are students being given freshly-minted dreams along with their freshly-minted diplomas. Instead, they find themselves applying critical thinking skills to omelet and hash brown combos, calling centers, and customer service desks. Dutifully, they nip away at the elephant of their student loans, although they know that one bite at a time -- despite the proverb -- barely cuts it. How are these graduates ever to get ahead in a nation falling further and further fiscally behind? Well, I’m not Dave Ransey, so I cannot answer that question. But what I can address is how to enjoy the perks of being a manual laborer, for I’ve had six years of experience.
The summer I was seventeen, I became a waitress at a restaurant where I was one of two employees on the right side of sixty. After closing, over plates of cabbage and cornbread, field peas and glazed carrots (we’d usually sold all the meat and just had the threes left to choose from), I fell in love with these ladies’ hyperbolized endearments, hushed gossip, cake-battered hips, hot-flashes which would zap them one-by-one like lightening, causing them to shuck their frilled aprons and sprint for ice and fans.
The summers after my freshmen and sophomore year in college, I ran the produce stand adjacent to my mother’s Amish country store, and -- believe it or not -- this job was even less glamorous than my first. For one thing I was supposed to look Amish, or as close to it as possible. (Yes, I have a Mennonite heritage, but even my father, who was technically raised Mennonite, at eighteen drove a cherry-red Camaro and wore shorts I would’ve never gotten away with.) So, besides sporting a black kapp, wiggling into a child’s purple Amish dress, and waving at cars for all of five minutes, that’s as Amish as I got. (Let me just tell you, the garb’s not as come-and-get-it-Harrison Ford as Witness makes it seem.)
Looking back, though, I loved that time. Oh, yes, every day I came home coated in sweat and mulch, but I also spent the majority of those hours -- in between rearranging homegrown tomatoes and watering hanging baskets (I wrote that for you, Mother) -- reading stack after stack of books from the Gorham MacBane Public Library, journaling until my fingers were stained with more ink than my toes were with dirt, and eating all the semi-soured strawberries and blueberries my stomach could hold.
I met quite a few characters sitting beneath that carport: Mother’s lecherous landlord who’d kiss my hand when I passed him change, and attempted to sidle behind the counter toward Mother until she unsheathed her umbrella like a sword and threatened to spear him with it; a whip-thin woman with straggled white hair and gnarled teeth who filled my Wednesday afternoons with talk of cats and poetry. Also, after a black Cadillac swooped into our parking lot and a man with black pants, a black dress shirt, and black and silver rhinestone boots got out, I took one gander at his black, porcupine hair and -- like a dunce -- asked, “You’re some kinda country music singer, aren’t you?” It was Marty Stuart, and he wanted to know our swing set prices.
Now, almost three years after receiving my freshly-minted diploma, I am working with my husband in our outlet grocery store. I spend half of my time writing in the store’s office and the other half out among the costomers. I’m not sure if it’s because of our location, or if my eyes have become peeled for it, but every day I come across more novel-worthy characters than the day before.
Our most colorful patron, hands down, is the chubby woman with hair dolloped like meringue who --within a week of opening -- my husband found scrounging through our dumpsters; not because she was poverty-stricken, mind you, but because she wanted the best deal possible. There’s also the seventy-something, former detergent company owner who flits between states, snatching up deals left and right, which he then adds to his hoard of in-case-of-Apocalypse rationings. Then you have the man who flirts like crazy with our cashier, wears fedoras, suit coats, and buffed shoes (to a grocery store!), has a Caribbean accent, and lets it be known that -- on his island -- he is considered royalty.
Ah, and I cannot forget Scruffy. The one who has all the social graces of Boo Radley and cheerful disposition of Oscar the Grouch, and his sister who, for the longest time, we thought was his wife. They do not bathe, and whenever they come in, my husband must light candles and follow them up and down the aisles blasting air freshener so other customers do not pinch their noses and hightail it home.
I'm just going to be honest here; I used to cringe every time I smelled Scruffy and his sister coming. But then, one day out of the wild blue yonder, the sister told our cashier that she used to sing and her brother used to write music. (I’d noticed Scruffy’s ever-present headphones long before, but had never associated them with anything other than a calming device.) Upon receiving this news, our cashier half-jokingly asked the sister to sing. Right there, her only accompaniment clanging carts and screaming children, the sister set her basket of cat food and cereal aside and began singing with all the snap and vibrato of Patsy Cline.
So, all you weary manual laborers, that’s it. No great A+B=C advice. Just get to know those around you. Even better yet, get to know their stories. When they’re not looking, jot these stories down on greasy napkins, bank statements, old receipts....When they’ve left, then you can start thinking of names to replace theirs, and then you’re pretty much set to begin writing a novel. And soon it will not even bother you that all you've got to eat is an elephant of student loans, for your head will be filled with freshly-minted dreams.