Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Phoenix Interlude

Having finished with the Army in 1968, it was my wish to remain in Arizona, specifically Phoenix. Alas, the timing was very bad indeed. It was May and the colleges and universities were graduating students left and right, many of whom were searching for work in Phoenix. I had just left the Army, was from the northeast (and therefore a "snowbird"), and was low on the totem pole.

I began to run out of money. I found a family-owned diner where I could get a burger and fries for twenty-five cents. "Just water, thank you." The only serious job offer I got was a good one, from a chain called "Fed Mart" (I think). They would start me at $700 a month and put me into a training course to learn to manage one of their outlets. But . . . they wanted my word that I would remain with them for a full year after the course, and I couldn't give it to them.

One day while searching the employment ads I noticed one for a job that paid $6.25 (before taxes) each day for delivering circulars. That was a lot of burgers and gas, and I thought "Why not?"

Now there are some things which I just should not get into, one category being fairly described as "Anything that requires common sense." This job demonstrated that to me once again.

I showed up at the given address the next morning. The only shoes I owned were my Army dress shoes and a pair of loafers. I wore the latter. Four or five old men, unkempt, smelling of cheap wine, were also waiting there. They and I were taken on and the deal was explained. We would all ride in the back of a pickup truck containing bundles of circulars. The driver would take us on his regular route, we would each grab a bundle of circulars and deliver them door to door on blocks the driver assigned to us. Then we would get back on the truck and be off for the next segment of blocks.

June in Phoenix. The temperature climbed to over a hundred degrees. At noon I was still doing fine. We took a "lunch" break, which for me consisted of waiting for the break to end.

When we resumed, I rang the bell at the first house. A maid answered and was kind enough to give me the glass of water I requested. I began feeling the results of all the walking but wasn't in any real trouble except . . . blisters began forming on my stoopid feet which were dressed in stoopid black cotton socks and stoopid leather loafers.

By two o'clock it was actually painful for me to walk. The winos who were my companions were fresh as daisies - or at least as close to daisies as they were likely to get, but I was wilting. I assume they did this several times a week to earn their wine money. At two thirty, back on the truck, I noticed a couple of them giving me anxious looks. One actually asked, "Are you OK?"

I thanked him and assured him I was. When the truck stopped I grabbed a bundle of circulars and got down off the truck. Things were much worse than they had been only ten minutes earlier. The blisters on my feet were very painful indeed. For those of you old enough to remember The Carol Burnett Show, think back to Tim Conway's walk when he was playing an old man. That's what I looked like.

I finished this segment more slowly than any previous segment, and when I returned to the truck everyone was waiting. I climbed in and sat down, and one of my companions said "One more route." I nodded and tried to smile.

The truck stopped, I stood up, and sat right back down. My feet were on fire. All but one of the rest got off the truck. The remaining one looked at me and said, "If you don't deliver this bundle they won't pay you anything."

I said, "I'll do it," stood up, and sat right back down again. "I just need a minute."

He looked at me, then grabbed his bundle and mine, jumped off the truck, and took off running. He was last to return to the truck, having done both of our routes, but not last by much. To this day I am some impressed, both by his stamina and his kindness.

The pay came to about six dollars after taxes (mostly Social Security). I drove back, took a bath and got into bed. The next day I couldn't walk for the blisters. Barefoot, I managed a three or four minute hobble to the bathroom a couple of times, but it was the evening of the second day before I could put shoes on and go get my twenty-five cent burger and fries.

Afterword: A year later, when I was settled in civilian life and no longer in such dire straits, I found myself in Phoenix for a day or two, and for my own amusement I went back to that family diner for lunch. As I entered the diner, the teenage girl who was (and had been) the cashier looked up and said "You've put on some weight."

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