Sunday, July 22, 2007

Working Poor in Waltham: Part Two

As the summer in Waltham wore on, my car developed an alarming shake. The steering wheel vibrated so violently that its edges would blur. Apparently, Audi chassis of that era had a tendency to rot from within and the New England winter rock salt roads hadn't helped.

Worse, the thing was overheating, and a thermostat replacement had no effect. The temperature gauge would slowly climb into the red on the way to work, and just as the steam became threatening, I'd arrive. The car would cool, and eight hours later I'd drive home.

My Audi was literally falling apart. I had no money. I needed the car to last one more month.

After half a summer of working full-time and barely earning enough to survive, I asked my boss for a raise. He was a skinny guy with a new MBA who spoke enough Mandarin to broker parts deals with suppliers in China. The extra fifty cents an hour wasn't much, but it helped.

Meanwhile, the manager of the downstairs re-chroming operation — a lanky 6'5 African American whose deeply lined face, perpetually reddened eyes, and oil stained features gave him a vulcan aspect — took to harassing me for being gay.

Maybe it was the way I walked. Maybe it was how I talked. Maybe it was my long legs and the short shorts I often wore in the tropical heat of the warehouse. Whatever it was, this was a first, and my denials had little effect. Things became tense.

Eventually, I decided to respond in kind. My opportunity came when we were both in the air conditioned admin office and he started in. I pushed back hard. "I think you're gay," I shouted at him. "It's all you ever talk about. Just shut the fuck up and keep your faggoty bullshit to yourself. I don't want to hear it anymore."

The office went dead silent. His eyes narrowed murderously. Not another word was said. The harassment stopped.

Meanwhile, a new cold caller upstairs named Jeff had another sales gig on the side, and I was a prime prospect. Jeff was a Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist, and his belief system, which resembled an Amway pyramid, led him to pursue me relentlessly.

"Want to come to the Temple with me after work and chant for awhile," he'd say. Being basically polite, I never told him to fuck off directly, and being basically a sales guy, he never stopped asking. Eventually, I said yes.

My first exposure was at a private home in a walk-up near Fenway Park. Everyone was white, and appeared to be middle class and twenty-something. They knelt on a carpet before an alter with bowls of fruit, incense, and a beautiful scroll with Chinese calligraphy that they called a gohonzon. Chanting seemed to make them high.

This was prosperity Buddhism, and chanting, they said, brought them "benefit." A new car. A better job. That sort of thing.

I was lonely and my life kind of sucked. I bought a cheap gohonzon and a cardboard case with doors that could close when it was not in use. I chanted nam myoho renge kyo for an hour a day and more when I went to temple. I basically had no one to stop me.

My life continued to suck. I came close to finding a girlfriend, but it didn't work out.

Her name was Amy, and I met her at my gay Greek playboy friend's parents house, a beautiful beach front home in Northern Maine. We spent a weekend there. I remember little other than that we had the whole beach to ourselves.

I was long and tan and in great shape from a summer of running and work. She noticed. My beach reading was Camus' Stranger, which offered the illusion of being of her class. Amy was my age and worked at Shearson Lehman. I told her I was an aspiring journalist, which was a lie. We dated. Once.

She lived in a condo directly across from the Bunker Hill Monument, which provided the view from her living room window. The locals regularly vandalized her car. We got high and walked around Boston's North End and across the Charlestown Bridge back to her place, where we watched the sunset against the monument from her couch. The pot made me paranoid and quiet. I spent the night on her sofa. In the morning, she led me to her room.

I would only see her one more time. A week later, I came by after work. Since my car was only good for one way trips, I didn't go home to change. I arrived in my dusty work jeans and t-shirt. She wasn't impressed. I was no longer the sexy proto-journalist on the exclusive beach in Maine. I was now the working poor loser with the shit-box car.

After that, she stopped returning my calls.

Near the end of the summer, plans for college nearly went sour.

Before getting thrown out of the Air Force, I'd applied to UMass Amherst with two of my office buddies from Travel Pay. To my astonishment, we were all accepted. I was able to pull together a package of grants and loans to make it possible.

My parents agreed to help by co-signing a student loan. As fall approached, their signed paperwork failed to materialize. The deadline came and went and I called to see what had happened. They'd changed their minds. Were I to default, my mother explained, they might lose their house. They just couldn't risk it.

When I'd left home six years before, my parents made a big production of canceling my life insurance and "disowning" me. For me to ask for their help was a big reach. For them to renege was all the proof I needed that I'd made a mistake. It would be three years before I spoke to them again.

John Gallagher, the guy whose travel vouchers I'd pretended to audit as we worked nights in Travel Pay, rescued me from Action Crash Parts by loaning me the money I needed.

Near the end of August, as I was preparing to move on, I told the Buddhists I was leaving and that the whole chanting thing wasn't working for me. The last morning I was there, as I finished packing, two of them showed up at my door. They were a high pressure tag team and looked like they might be FBI. I finally relented so they'd leave.

"Let's chant on this," one said. We pulled my gohonzon out of a moving box and hung it on a nail. After an awkward moment, we all went to our knees for a quick ten minutes of nam myoho renge kyo.

They left, and John pulled up in his U-Haul. It took less than five minutes to load my stuff.

I drove my car to a supermarket parking lot, took off the plates, and walked away. We drove the U-Haul to Sunderland, where the three of us had found a cheap student apartment. Things were finally looking up.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

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