First Day on a new job – June 4, 1974
(from a journal written in 1979)
I was scared that day.
I didn’t want to drive. I hadn’t driven in over two years, and even that time was little more than a trip from Paterson to Fairfield.
My uncle had lent me his ratty old station wagon for a week or so in order for me to drive my mother and grandmother to his wedding and reception, and I had it until he got back from his honeymoon a week later.
This was different. This was a job that required me to drive in and out of New York nearly daily, and I wasn’t up to it.
I had agonized about taking the job over the long weekend. I had just bought a new tape deck and stayed up late recording albums on cassettes, only I also had to deal with the fact that someone who had crashed in my room Friday into Saturday was dead when I woke up.
My landlord stood up for me and the cops didn’t arrest me. But I was not in the best of moods when I came to the Fairfield warehouse on Monday (June 3, 1974) to start my new job at Cosmetics Plus.
Stanley instructed me to get used to the new routines that morning, showing me how this shipping department differed from the Drawing Board next door where I had worked for two years before the main office in Dallas decided to close this warehouse down.
But I dreaded the words I knew I would hear at some point during the day since part of the job Donald had hired me to do involved driving around.
Just after lunch, the words I feared most came, “I want you to make a pick up in New York,” Donald said, slapping down a clipboard on the work bench,
Donald was a small man with dirty blonde hair, a large nose and a blonde caterpillar for a moustache. He blinked at me through round designer glasses that he seemed in pain to wear.
“Did you hear me?” he asked when I made no initial response.
I heard him and didn’t want to respond.
Danny’s death still tingled in my head – one of those moments in time I’d never forget yet still too fresh and bizarre for me to fully believe.
Change for me always came with a bang and took time for me go recover from. I was still bleeding a little from Louise’s leaving me just over two years before this. I thought at the time that was the biggest bang of my life, but this week, this job change and the death of a friend, rivaled it in ways I was still too stunned to accept.
“Get him the keys to the van,” Donald told Stanley. “Then give him directions.”
Although still early in June, we suffered summer heat, and this stirred up the scents of perfume and powder in a warehouse stuffed with every conceivable brand of perfume, oils, aftershave and such. Each breath was a struggle against gaging.
And still, I preferred it to the scent of fear rising in me as I followed Stanley, my hands shaking so much the keys rattled when he gave them to me, falling to the floor where Stanley retrieved them and again put them firmly in my palm, frowning slightly when he did so.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” the apparently always-calm Stanley told me.
He had large black eyes better suited for a St. Bernard. So, it was difficult to refuse him.
I preferred he be a monster I could hate and fume over, or at least someone who seemed remote and uncaring the way Donald seemed.
Even as I made my way behind Stanley towards the van near the rear loading dock, I continued to think of Danny, my hands shaking as I tried to remember with which hand, I had tried to shake him awake, Donald shouting from the front about getting back here before six.
The keys felt cold in my fingers. I glanced up at the clock on the rear wall which said it was two.
I climbed down to where the red van waited, and then up into it, behind the wheel, feeling the way I did as a kid in Nash Park when they still had the World War II Mustang fighter there. I was an ace pilot heading off to combat in the air above England or France, an imaginary enemy clinging to my heals.
I turned the key, the engine rumbled to life, rough enough so that the whole van shook rather than just my hands.
The gears shifted with difficulty but engaged and I rolled away over the potholes of the parking lot, the metal hand truck rattling in the van’s vast emptiness behind me, an annoyance that forced me to stop so I could security, before starting again, gravel from the road peppering either fender with the sound of heavy rain.
Danny was one of the regulars who hung out but did not live in the rooming house in Montclair where I lived. I saw him earlier on Friday when I took a hike up the hill to the White Castle on the border of Montclair and Verona, near the Claremont Diner, where Route 23 met Bloomfield Avenue.
White Castle was a haven for every derelict on the planet, a junkie haven where people could get cheap food quick and often a quick fix, too.
Danny was there, not quite sober, buying sliders just as I was, and seemed pleased to see me because he seemed so otherwise alone.
I told him I would be up late recording, and so, I was not too surprised when he came knocking on my door later, saying he was too drunk to make it home and wanted to know if he could crash in the corner of my room.
I heard him hacking in the middle of the night even after I bedded down in another corner. I didn’t think he was dying. And that’s what I told the police when the investigated the next day before hauling Danny’s body out.
There was vomit under where his head had been on the bed.
I spent the whole next day shaking and was still shaking as I drove following the directions Stanley had given me to get to New York.
Dying scared me, somebody else’s like Danny’s, especially my own.
The police called Danny’s death an overdose, but didn’t say of what, and I was in no position to ask, since I was on probation and wasn’t supposed to associated with anyone involved with any kind of drugs, least of all dead people.
All the police would say is that Danny got ahold of something bad.
Stanley’s instructions were anything but straight forward – and certainly not the route I used to take on the bus from Paterson to Manhattan when I was a kid. He took me through twists and turns of West Caldwell until I found the entrance to Route 280 East.
This was alien landscape for a boy who grew up in and near Paterson, though not for anyone who lived along the corridor coming west out of Newark the way Stanley and Donald had.
Route 280 was this part of the state’s equivalent to Route 80, and east/west corridor of four lanes each way that helped open up the center of the state to suburban development, less a trail of tears than white flight from the core of urban New Jersey where many people – particular Polish, Jewish and Italians had lived, with a smattering of Irish in Kearny and Jersey City, and Germans elsewhere along that long route.
But because I was too ignorant of that landscape to know the difference, I turned off at an exit marked “Harrison Avenue,” when Stanley meant for me to steer in the direction of Harrison when the high way split.
By the time I realized that this was not what Stanley meant I was lost in a maze of West Orange suburban streets, desperate to find my way back. I found a phone book instead and called Stanley for an update.
“Where are you?” Stanley asked.
“I wish I knew,” I said.
“You mean you’re lost?”
I heard the laughter in his voice but did not particularly see any humor in my situation.
I told him where I had turned off, and he scolded me – still laughing – and suggested I consult the map that he had given me.
Once he figured out where I was, he gave me directions back to Route 280.
“You mean you still want me to go?” I asked, shocked, thinking this was the grounds upon which they would terminate my employment.
“Of course, we want you to go.”
“But it’s so late and Donald said he wanted me back by six,” I said.
“Just go, and get back when you can,” Stanley said, then was gone with the click as the coins rattled down into the change box inside the telephone.
I hopped back up into the big red van, and after puffing a moment on a cigarette, I started off again.
All this helped me forget Danny for a time, though after I calmed down a little, the memory of his body in my room flooded back, and stared at my hands on the steering wheel, again wondering which one of them I used when trying to shake him awake.
The palms of my hands started to sweat. I wiped them on my jeans but could not get them dry. The heat was getting to me. I rolled down the van windows letting in the air as well as the sound of traffic – the grunt and groan of other vehicles just line mine all going in the same direction I was going, making me feel less alone, making me feel just a little better about the trip and even Danny, or my sweaty palms.
But then everything got too claustrophobic as traffic narrowed into lines of bumper to bumper cars with my big red van stuck in the middle of it, the tall towers of Newark looming ahead of me, and suddenly I was on Harrison Avenue in the town of Harrison being carried along on a stream of overheated metal, horns ahead of me and behind me beeping in a desperate attempt to get someone somewhere to make room where there was no way anyone could.
Then I again thought of Danny’s hacking, and how I knew he was sick, and how maybe if I had thought of it at the time, I might have called someone to help save him.
I didn’t notice the Mercedes stopping until the van slammed into it, leaving a deep dent in its rear trunk.
The shock of it stunned me; I stared out at the scene and did not connect it with me at all, or realize I was the cause until the man jumped out of the car and started to yell at me.
I eased out of the van, traffic snarled behind us, more car horns blaring not at some invisible force far ahead, but at me.
The man kept yelling about what I had done to his car, his wide tie flapping as he waved his arms. He was fat with a flat nose and roared at me to produce a driver’s license and insurance card. I knew I had the license; I wasn’t sure about the card and rooted through the glover compartment until I came up with one and pushed it into the fat man’s greedy, sweaty hands.
I felt the way I felt when I first realized Danny was dead and not asleep, and how I would have to tell someone about it, and how the police would suspect me, an already convicted criminal, and how I would not get to start a new job on Monday, a job which I knew I would now lose because there was no way I could explain this to Stanley over the telephone.
Somehow, I bumbled through the process of exchanging needed information and saw the dented Mercedes roar off in puff of smoke, parking the big red van in a prohibited parking zone marked by a yellow painted curb. Then with a flutter in my stomach, I found a phone and made the necessary call back to the warehouse to give Stanley the bad news.
I found a phone booth in the back of a soda shop, and closed myself in, the air stinking of cigar smoke and chewing gum. I took dialed the number from the top of one memo head.
“What?” he said, no laughter in his voice this time. “You’re not in New York yet?”
I admitted that I wasn’t in something of a despairing mumble.
Stanley picked up on this and asked what was wrong.
I told him.
“AN ACCIDENT? How bad? Are you al right? How is the truck?”
“The truck’s not touched, but the Mercedes has a dented trunk latch,” I said.
“Oh, a bumper crunch,” Stanley said, the humor returning to his voice as I heard him relay the information back to Donald in the background.
I heard Donald yell, telling Stanley to tell me in no uncertain terms that I should get my butt to New York.
I hung up with his words still buzzing in my head, along with Stanley’s mysterious laughter.
I wasn’t any less scared when I climbed back into the van, but I was surprised at their not being angry.
And somehow in all this, I thought of Danny again, and started laughing as I dipped back into the traffic flow towards New York and wondered if maybe somewhere in some more distant world, Danny was laughing, too.