I Feel Like Dorothy Entering the Emerald City
What I Have Learned in Just Four Days Working at O'Toole's Garden Center:
1) I haven't worked like this in forty years.
I've been a ditch digger, a golf course mower (they call it greens-keeping, but I was just a mower), a hospital janitor specializing in cleaning surgical suites and delivery rooms (you should never consider what you're chasing around the floor with your mop), an interior painter, a school janitor scrubbing the accumulated mung off the floor of an elementary school by both hand and machine, a cleaner of commercial chicken coops, a farm hand, a stock room boy in New York City, a messenger for American Express Travel Services and a surgical orderly in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who told people jokes as I wheeled them down the hallway toward surgery.
(Actually, that last one is how I got into journalism. A heart surgeon asked the poor, dumb orderly (me) to sit underneath the operating table and pull on the patient's arms while he shot off a 36-roll of X-rays. I balked, told him to stick it where the scalpel don't shine, and it became a footrace to see who could get to the nurse's station first: Me to quit; him, to get me fired. I won. I frantically called a buddy who had mentioned a job and the next day I started in radio writing ad copy.)
Still, despite those adventures in the physical labor force, I haven't worked like this (or that) in forty years.
You become a "journalist" and you find that while you sweat and stress to scrape together enough money to live in a one bedroom hovel that looks into a very nice Catholic lady's living room (Good Morning, Rose!), you are, in reality, spending your time sitting, at a typewriter or computer, thinking great thoughts and telling stories. (Yes, Mr. Trump. I made them up. I made them ALL up.)
Journalism is not easy, but then again, it's not all that difficult either.
You slow down, you sit down, your fingers do the walking and working, while you gain weight, you go to the gym (on occasion) for the physical exercise you need to exist and you discover that none of your jeans have little bits of chicken poop in the pockets anymore.
You are, in the vernacular, a "professional."
Oh, that still makes me laugh.
Directly Ahead - The Doors to the Store
Just to the Left - My Favorite Tomato Movin' Cart
2) You forget what true physical labor entails.
True physical labor entails, well, yes, true physical labor. You work. You sweat. You keep going even though your back is screaming and you are leaning on a broom handle while talking to someone because you're convinced that if you don't, you will fall over as your feet simply cannot support you anymore.
In the first four days of working at O'Toole's, as the time clock of my life returned to the pace it knew in third grade, I moved 25 trees (You know, there really is a thing called a "tree dolly?" It is a marvelous invention.), hauled about 1 1/2 tons of mulch (put in barrel, move barrel outside, spread mulch evenly on walkway, do not pile up mulch and collapse on it moaning), and shifted 50 million tomatoes, herbs, decorative garden doo-dads and small shrubs from shelves A, B and C to shelves D, E and F, then to shelves G, H, J and M over the course of two days, some of the plants winding up right back where they began.
(Late one afternoon, as I became seriously dehydrated, I developed such a warm and personal relationship with one Celebrity tomato plant that I named it "Buddy" and bought it and brought it home so it would be safe.)
Where I Hide ... Rest! Well, Not Anymore as I Just Gave It Away
3) You discover the importance of breaks and lunch and hiding places.
There is a point where you think to yourself, I never needed to drink much water before, and I likely won't now, as all it will do is make me want to go to the bathroom right in the middle of a sales pitch I'm giving for Peonies. (Peonies? Oops, gotta fly!)
But you do need water because it is hot and what you are doing is deucedly physical and difficult and since all your internal systems have spent the last two years getting used to long naps and watching "Castle" reruns all afternoon -- NOTHING internally is keeping up with what you need it to do.
So, you must drink water.
In fact, you must drink a lot of water. And you keep drinking water all day, suddenly noting that your system is no longer crying out for potty breaks every twenty minutes. In fact, that first day, you drink just about everything in sight (including two Coronas immediately upon arriving home) and don't have to stop for relief until six the next morning.
That can't be good.
Also, since I am only working six hours a day, four days a week, I figured I didn't need to stop for lunch, which made the drive home an hallucinatory thrill ride comparable to Kubrick's journey through the lights in "2001."
(It ended the same way, too, with an old man sitting in his bedroom, blindly staring at his feet, wondering where he left his pants.)
So breaks, as my supervisor Olympia tells me, are necessary. She told me to go to the gazebo out in the statuary garden and catch my breath, have some lunch, drink some water. I did that, but also discovered a WONDERFUL wooden chair out there in the sunshine behind the gazebo that fits my back perfectly, takes the back screaming to a minimum and is hidden away from all but the most prying eyes.
I want to buy said chair, two, in fact, but my wife has already told me that I must start bringing home a paycheck rather than spending it all on seeds and plants and chairs and spinners and pottery representations of Thurber dogs.
Row Upon Row of The Forever Moving Plants
4) The Pride of Working People
I've come to believe (thanks to reaction to minimum wage protests and the often erroneous belief in some non-stop, comprehensive upward mobility of the masses) that most politicians and many members of the white collar public look down upon those people who truly work for a living, those people who work physical jobs, for extra hours, at minimum wage, doing anything they can do, no matter how dirty or difficult, just to make ends meet and create a life for their family somewhere inside the American dream.
Good Lord, I do this as a hobby. It's a way for me to get out of the house so that I'm talking to someone other than a brace of manic Boston Terriers and one surly Proboscis Monkey for eight hours a day.
I do this to pay for my gardening addictions.
They do this to survive and grow in this country.
And it is impressive.
The work ethic, the energy, the drive, the determination are seemingly endless.
I had that once. Maybe I can get a bit of it back.
And I have come to realize that I got to sit on my ass for forty years behind a typewriter because people like Peter Moody in New Hampshire (1777) and Caleb Moody in Kansas (1870) and John Draa in Indiana (1888 -- squashed by box car on the Grand Trunk Railroad) did exactly what these people are doing everyday -- tilling the fields and breaking their backs for peanuts every day from dawn until dusk-- just so their kids, their next generation, might have a better chance at an easier life.
I bow to them with honor and respect.
My coworkers are amazing people.
Olympia - My Boss
"No, I'm Not Your Boss -- We Work Together"
Then She Tells Me to Go Move Cherry Tomatoes --
While She Moves Cement Blocks
(All I Can Figure Is She Recognizes an Easily Breakable Old Man When She Sees One)
5) Two Notes in Closing This Episode
A) Physical Labor is good for the soul and the waistline. I've lost eight pounds this week. (Five, really, after I drank a 50-gallon barrel of water.)
B) Mr. Bitterman continues to spend his day watching "Castle" reruns as he has a thing for Susan Sullivan. He was supposed to re-pot the beans, which are outgrowing their "Little Corporate Famer Genetic Modification Seed Starter Kit" but he swears he ran out of time.
We'll save that for our next adventure.