The Last Gardening Job I Had
By Stephen Jay Morris
The grass is greener in Oregon, but the opportunities are bleak. I was chasing a dream of solitude and tranquility, but all I ultimately got was disappointment and a very rude awakening. Here’s another cliché: I leapt before I looked! I prematurely retired to a life of solitude. I now know that you can’t do that unless you are independently wealthy; only the rich can afford solitude. Maybe in the 19th century, one could get away with it, but not in the 21st century. After Pamela lost her job of 20 years in Gardena, we decided to pursue our long-planned goal of relocating to a state where we could enjoy a rural setting and a lower cost of living.
While we were still living in San Pedro, California, we’d started to look for employment in the northwest region of Oregon. I even flew up to Hillsboro, a city west of Portland, to interview for a gardening job. At the time, I thought I had it in the bag. They’d been so accommodating. But, as it turned out, I never got the job; even after I interviewed for it four times! It was the same old story: they seemed enthusiastic about me at first, and then two months later, I’d receive a form letter rejection notice. I got the feeling that I was on some type of ‘No Hire’ list. I think it would occur after the city completed a background check on me.
One method of marginalizing someone is to accuse him or her of mental illness. Officials used to do this all the time in the former Soviet Union. Their mental institutions were full of dissidents. I begin to feel that I was listed among such poor souls. However, that would put me in the category of paranoid, and as I had no concrete evidence of being on any such list, I dismissed the theory.
What was evidential was that many people of my generation were struggling over many months to find work. These have since been labeled “the long-term unemployed.” Pamela was facing the same frustration. We spent the majority of our days in Oregon applying for jobs, occasionally landing interviews, and ultimately getting rejected. Prior to embarking upon a gardening career, I used to be included in the category of “unskilled labor.” I soon learned that gardening was considered “skilled labor.” In the private sector, small gardening businesses hired illegal aliens to save money by paying them under the table and avoiding taxes. Civil Service was the only avenue where a gardener could get a decent wage. That was my target employer.
Well, to make a long story short, we ended up losing our new forest home and moved into a cheap little duplex in Milwaukie, Oregon. We thought that being in an urban location would surely provide more job opportunities for both of us. It was there I realized I was a city guy and not a country dude.
I was desperate. I applied for any job that I could do. I applied for temporary jobs with temporary agencies. Anything. One agency was Labor Ready. The deal there was that you’d show up at the agency early in the morning in the hope that you’d get an assignment. I’d get there at 5:00 a.m., and wait and wait. When 10:00 am came around, I’d go home. I hated it! The Oregon winters were a pain. In the early, freezing morning, I had to scrape off an inch of ice from our Honda’s windshield. In the waiting room were desperate looking characters, mostly transients, who’d travel state-to-state, looking for work. Also there were older men in their 60’s, looking for any salary available. I remember thinking that men like these should be retired and asleep in their beds. It was not a friendly environment at all. Men would stare into the abyss with the expressions you’d see at a funeral. If someone did talk to you, it was because they wanted something, like a ride somewhere.
One fine day, I got a call from another agency. They’d gotten my name from a state roster provided online, of those seeking employment. The agency’s name was Summit Staffing. I’d never heard of them. They knew of the unemployeds’ desperation, so they figured a client would show up at a moment’s notice. The female voice on the phone sounded affable, like she was ready to breast-feed me. Yeah, but it was all in the name of customer service. One thing I learned over the years was never to show you are too anxious. She told me she had a temporary position for the municipality of Oswego as a summer gardener. Bingo! She asked me if I could come in the office that day to fill out forms. My lying reflex action went into overdrive. “I’m sorry! What is your name again? Taffy? Yeah, I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon. But I can come in tomorrow. Would that be all right? What time should I come? Ten would be fine.” She gave me the agency’s address, which was located in some drive by town called Wilsonville. I hung up the phone and told Pamela. She was happy that I got a job. All of a sudden, things would be the way they were supposed to be, and I would be the provider! Little did Pamela and I know, however, that this revelation would be short lived.
Pamela knew I hated filling out forms so she agreed to come with me. It was a partly cloudy day, about 67 degrees. Douglas fir trees were everywhere you looked! We arrived at the agency 10 minutes early. It was located in an industrial park. They were very pleasant and immediately loaded me up with forms. In addition, I had to take a “morals test.” It was made up of multiple choices. Every agency I applied to would require taking these psychoanalysis tests, which supposedly determine the type of worker you are. A typical question is: “If your boss gives you a task that is dangerous and unsafe, do you: A. refuse to do it? B. Punch your boss in the mouth? C. Go hide in the bathroom? or, D. call the agency to complain?” Some questions have obvious answers while others are trick questions. I seem to pass them every time.
Next came the drug test. They don’t ask you to pee in a cup anymore. Now, agencies are provided with drug/alcohol detection kits from which they take a Q-tip swab & swipe it in your mouth, and then insert it in some test tube. I passed as usual. After this, the girl handling my assignment gave me some literature about the city and my supervisor’s contact information. I was off.
One thing notable about northwest Oregon is that its cities and towns have these weird, Native American names. Lake Oswego reminds me, in an odd way, of Big Bear Lake. Oh the altitude may be different, but the layout is the same. It consists of a neighborhood developed around a lake. Its demographic is predominately white with the exception that some members of Portland’s NBA basketball team, the Portland Trailblazers, live in expensive homes by Lake Oswego. There’s a street named Trailblazers Avenue. It’s an old neighborhood; their downtown area looks like a small town in 19th Century New England. This was to be my first out-of-state job.
Ironically, the City of Lake Oswego was just across the Willamette River, which is just next to Milwaukie where I lived. However, as there were no bridges near us crossing the river, I had to take a circuitous route. Talk about a waste of gas.
June 18th 2013: I had everything planned down to the smallest detail: What time to arise from bed; what time to get dressed; when to eat my breakfast. Even, when to have a bowel movement. I’m punctual; not because I am conscientious, but because I am a neurotic.
I got onto the freeway. Everything was fine. The morning traffic flow was okay. There was this stupid morning show on the radio. It seems like they are all the same: usually two guys and a chick making puns and trying so hard to be entertaining. All you hear is ceaseless laughter. The kind you’d heard at pot parties in the early ‘70s. Radio is very limited in Oregon, so you have to take what you can get. The weather was tolerable this time of year. Any day without rain was a good day in Oregon.
I thought I would arrive 15 minutes early in order to get my assignment or fill out forms. Instead, tragedy struck. No, I didn’t get into a fatal traffic accident. I got lost. I couldn’t find the street, Jean Way. I stopped some pedestrians to ask for directions. Some saw my Californian license plates and were unresponsive. I was ignored until I came across one nice lady. She told me in no uncertain terms: “Hey, pal, you are in wrong town!” She pointed me in the right direction. I thanked her and took off. I was so pissed at myself! I banged on the dashboard and yelled, “Fuck me! Fuck me!!”
For the first time in my gardening career, I was going to be late! And, now, on my first day on the job! I guess it had to happen some time; why not in Oregon?
With the grace of objective reality, I arrived at my destination, ten minutes late. I turned into the employees’ parking lot and found a space. The maintenance yard looked like every yard I’d ever worked at. These small towns always try to save money by providing their workers with the bare minimum facilities. There were trailers with ramps for the work force. The storage garages looked like tool sheds you could buy at a Wal-Mart. I didn’t know anything about the city council, but my bet was that they were Republicans. There was no employees’ union, at least not to my knowledge. Any city that uses a private agency to hire temporary workers couldn’t be all that liberal. However, the city did provide man-made nests on the utility poles to accommodate hawks. I’ve always found that right-wingers dislike humanity and spoil nature. “Nature” was money well spent.
I entered the main trailer and came upon two male supervisors and a young woman having a conversation. I introduced myself and the headman said, “Oh, we thought you were a no-show.” I explained to him why I was late, but he didn’t really care about my alibi. They were about to change their plans for my assignment. Now, they didn’t have to.
I was assigned to help a young female worker with a shoulder injury. I would be doing the heavy physical work. Her job was to prepare the baseball fields for games. They must have seen my resume, which described my experience in that kind of work. At 24, this girl was young enough to be my granddaughter! I’ll call her “Kate.” She was about 5 foot 4 in height. Her eyes had a frame of a Native American. She’d wrapped her chestnut brown hair up in a bun, and she wore work boots and blue jeans. She had buckteeth. The city was too cheap to buy their workers uniforms, however she wore a tee shirt that sported the city’s logo. She told me she’d bought it at a local store. Her demeanor was stoic and business like. She was the city’s official ball field attendant. Oh, she was friendly, but in a superficial way. I knew intuitively that she was a lesbian; no female in their right mind would do physical work like this. So, I acted nonchalant like a modern man should and pretended I was down with the program. I had to watch my tongue. I knew that if I were to say anything that sounded remotely sexist, they’d throw my ass out in a heartbeat. Matter of fact, anything could be considered offensive. There is no free speech in civil service or in the private sector. Humor? Well…that can be interpreted a million ways. Anything can be considered offensive. I have worked with white working class guys and their humor was slapstick. My type of humor is more Lenny Bruce oriented. Some poor schmuck falling flat on his face is funny to them, but a joke about a politician or a rich oil baron, will elicit a blank face reaction. Jokes about violence are just fine, but sex?? Watch out! As a matter of fact, I did tell Kate a joke about religion. Later, I wish I hadn’t. She didn’t get it anyway. The joke went like this: There was a Christian and an Atheist arguing. The Christian said, “There is a diamond in the safe.” The Atheist said, “No, there is no diamond in the safe!” Along comes an Agnostic and he says: “Let’s open the safe to find out!” This is very offensive to people of faith or negation. But, we are talking about the essence of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights! Even though this was tepid shit, I wish I’d remained silent.
Now here are a few words about technology. Back in the 90s, if a gardener wanted to communicate with home base, there was a CB Radio or a walkie-talkie in the truck. If worse came to worse, there would always be a pay phone in the area. The problem with CB Radios was the stupid lingo you’d have to learn. “Do you copy?” “Over and out!” Then came cell phones. Now, in 2014, we have these so-called “Smart Phones.” Kate had one. The city issued those contraptions to some of its gardeners. Now for my commentary about text messaging: All that really is…is emailing from your phone. It is useful when you want to send someone an address or phone number. Otherwise…just use the fucking phone! If you want to be secretive or you are just passive/aggressive, or maybe you are just shy, text messaging is for you. Kate was always text messaging. Her thumbs would be twiddling away on that thing every break or stop! I had a feeling she was giving hourly reports about my performance to the supervisor.
The first stop we made was at a public school. The city was responsible for the school district’s landscape maintenance. We were using a pick-up to pull a trailer with a skip loader on it—a skip-loader! In baseball field preparation, you’d use an off road vehicle like a Cushman, or even a golf cart. But a skip loader!? That was like using a steamroller on a sand trap. The mere weight of a skip loader could put cracks in the field beneath it. But, hey—it was their show.
My job was to open the trailer’s gate, which weighed a ton, after which, Kate would drive the skip loader off of the trailer and onto the field. Once she parked the skip loader, I had to attach the aluminum screen behind the skip loader. The purpose of this was to drag the infield, level it, and clear it of pebbles or even broken glass. You should have seen this 5 foot 4 inch girl driving this skip loader! It looked so incongruous, like a kitten riding a motorcycle. She couldn’t have done this 40 or 50 years ago, but thanks to the women’s movement, there she was. A lot of the Millennials benefited from the Baby Boomer revolt in the 1960’s.
While she was dragging the field, I would get a leaf blower and clean out the dugouts. Standard procedure when preparing a field was to get a hose and water it down. This was done so dust didn’t cloud up the game. But, Kate didn’t choose to do this. I just followed her lead. The last thing we did was to lie down chalk from home plate to 3rd base, and back home. Sometimes, we’d have to replace a plate because someone had stolen it.
We finished all of our assignments early and Kate did what most city gardeners do, cruise around in the streets to kill time. We spent the last hour doing this. My muscles were aching and I was exhausted. We got to the base, unloaded the truck, and I went home.
June 19th 2013 It was a decent morning out. I loaded my paraphernalia into the Honda, put on my safety belt, and turned on the ignition to let the engine warm up. I turned on the windshield wipers to clear off the morning frost off and I was off to my second day of work. All of my muscles were aching from the physical work out I’d had the day before. The next conservative near me who says that Civil Service workers are lazy bums, I promise I will punch in the nose! My pain reminded me of junior high school when I’d had a good work out in the gym on the first day of school. Yeah, it was a good pain…no it wasn’t! No pain is good! This was supposed to promote manhood! Rat shit, it does! I’d rather be out of shape and a lazy fat pig, like an oil baron. No I wouldn’t! I just want to be me.
I turned on the local morning show—because it was there, that’s why! They were yapping about some celebrity I didn’t give a loving shit about. These broadcasters think that by listening to them gossip about the rich and famous, we will feel better about ourselves! That’s what the media does to you—it taunts and teases you about how broke you are. They’ll show you a movie star’s mansion on TV just to make you feel small. But, hey, that’s entertainment!
Meanwhile, I found my onramp to the 205 Freeway and headed south. One thing I learned since moving to Oregon was that all drivers suck! White, black, male, female, gay or straight—it doesn’t matter! Nobody drives defensively; it’s the ego that drives the car! It doesn’t matter where you are in the USA. Either an expressway in New Jersey or the San Diego Freeway in California, American drivers all suck! USA! USA! Some old geezer in frameless glasses with a big bald spot on top of his head and a Santa Claus beard was waving at me frantically to move to the other lane. I guess I was driving the legal speed limit! His ego told him he was the most important person in the world and the whole universe must stand back to clear a path for him. I just moved to the other lane and let grandpa big cheese pass, then I returned to my original lane.
The scenery on the 205 is post card perfect. Rolling hills carpeted with Douglas Firs, and conclaves of small buildings. Fast food franchises conspicuously open for your business. It was urban reality blended with natural beauty.
Soon I hit the transition to the 5 freeway. This meant that I would have to lane change in front of hostile drivers. I drove westward on the 5. It was a short jaunt to the 290 highway off-ramp. I headed north and got to the industrial part of Lake Oswego. I turned onto a small street, than another, and I was there.
I arrived at the employee yard 35 minutes early. I’d wanted to impress the supervisors, to show them that I was punctual and in hopes that they would forgive me for my tardiness the day before. Nobody gave a rat’s ass!
There was a bench area for the workers. I sat down to and tried to strike up a conversation with a few if them. Most were veterans around my age. The street maintenance crew was friendlier than the gardeners. They looked like mountain men with their long beards and long gray hair tied back in ponytails. As I sat there exchanging small talk, I saw a supervisor at his computer, through the trailer window. Once in a while he would glance out the window at us, askance
Ten minutes before the workday was to commence, I walked into the trailer. There was a long, fold-out table with chairs. I sat down. Some guy sat across from me, so I asked him, “Do we have daily meetings?” The guy answered in almost a whisper, “Sometimes.” I had a follow up question, “How about safety meetings?” He answered in a way that indicated I was annoying him, “Sometimes…maybe twice a month…I don’t remember.” I said, “Thanks.” He answered begrudgingly, “Right.” Dick!
One by one, they all entered the trailer. There was a strange looking character that looked like a woman wearing a beard; also, he had dainty hands. I suspected this was some transgender person. She/he sat down and started to read his sci-fi paperback. Another guy came into the trailer and walked over to pour himself a cup of coffee. He was a hippie type, complete with John Lennon-type glasses, full beard, and long gray hair tucked beneath a green safari hat. I’ll call him Harry Larry. He looked cool, but later I learned he was a Grade A shit hole!
The headman stood at the head of the table. He was a middle aged, bald guy with a mustache. He was perusing a stack of papers when someone asked him, “What happened to Bobby?” He replied, “He got hit in the right eye by a branch. He’s all right. He got six stitches. He’ll be back in two days.” Because of this guy’s injury, the whole crew had to be re-assigned to different jobs! The headman then said, “Okay…you got all of your assignments. Have a good day.” Everybody darted out of their seats and exited the trailer in different directions. Everybody knew where to go—except me.
I approached this Hispanic guy who was identified as a “Lead Man.” He was tall with olive skin and a shaved head. He had a tattoo in some Old English font on his right arm. I understood what it said. He sort of looked like a Lead Man I worked with in San Pedro, except this guy was lot bigger. I mean, he looked like a typical homeboy from East L.A. When he spoke, I expected a Chicano accent. But the son-of-a-bitch sounded like the actor, Sylvester Stallone! Like most of that department’s brass, there was something disingenuous about him. Like most management, he had that superficial friendliness. I’ll call him Dobee. “Oh,” he said, “you are the new guy. You are going to be with Kate until we put you in another assignment.”
I saw Kate talking to this butch-looking dyke from the street maintenance crew. She was gassing up the pick-up truck. Then, the dyke said goodbye and I was alone with Miss Personality. I’ll tell you one thing: as a heterosexual male, I was not sexually attracted to her, so I saw no problem in that department. She had an average body type. Personality plays a prominent role in my attraction to a female. She seemed far away, in some constant reverie. She was alert when it came to my inquiries and suggestions, but it was so…superficial. Then there was that blasted Smart Phone! She seemed preoccupied with it. Here is some irony for you: she got an injury on her arm from an auto accident, wherein the culprit of the accident was a teenager who’d been text messaging while driving. Yet, she routinely text messaged while driving the city truck!
Our first stop was this junior high school. What was the name of the softball team? “The Lakers.” The Lead Man, Doobee, would phone her at every stop she made. Sometimes he would show up in person and tease her. “It’s 10:30 and you’re not done yet??” At the last stop we made, Dobee asked me, “How is she treating you? Is she a real slave driver?” I paused for a second and answered, “Just fine. She’s nice.” Then, they both laughed. All that frivolity was masquerading real gravity.
Dobee drove me to my next assignment in his brand new Ford pick-up. He kept using the phrase, “Yes, sir.” This prompted me to ask him if he ever served in the Marine Corp. He said, “No.” Then he started to ask me questions like some impromptu interview. “How long have you been doing this type of work?” I told him, “Since 1990.” I’d really dated myself with that answer!
This was one technique the employers used on temporary workers. They’d pass you around to every supervisor and, by the day’s end, exchange notes about you and decide if they were going to keep you or not.
My next stop was at some park next to Lake Oswego. Harry Larry was now my new boss. This guy spent more time on his Smart Phone than Kate did. I got nervous when he would look at me and then resume his text messaging.
The park overlooked the lake, and Old Growth trees overshadowed it. The city pool was next to the shore and there were cobblestone steps leading to it. There were three tiers of park area. The whole place was in desperate need of gardening maintenance. Ivy was overgrowing on the walls and edges of the tiers. The trees needed trimming. The lawn areas needed mowing and weeds were growing everywhere. The first thing I did was to remove the Ivy from the tree trunks, which were covered with it.
I noticed there were two new workers laboring there—young white guys in their teens. Their youthful energy and strength made me look like a turtle. They’d just started that day. I figured they were extra bodies that were needed for the city festival over the coming weekend. I was wrong. They were my replacements. They had the energy and, most likely, were paid less than me.
Harry Larry gave me another assignment. I was to clear away the Ivy with a gas power trimmer fitted with plastic circular blades. Harry Larry was real conscientious about abiding by safety standards. He meticulously explained the procedures to me and provided me with all the safety equipment I wanted. I got earplugs, a safety mask, and gloves. I went from tier to tier, whacking those hanging Ivy stems and leaves. I used the trimmer so much, I had to replace the blade twice.
Clearing the Ivy wasn’t as easy as the job sounded. Some grew into the fence line, which meant that I had to manually cut them out. Some places, I couldn’t get the trimmer into because of the ivy’s density. So, I used loppers to cut away the straggler vines. Meanwhile, there was Harry Larry, sitting on his ass on some bench, text messaging.
At break time, I sat on a bench and marveled at the lake and surrounding pine trees. There were private boats docked on small piers. It looked like a landscape oil painting in a museum. There was a placid ambiance to this location. Finally, I’d gotten a job in Oregon; or, so I thought.
I was needed in the fair grounds to do some heavy lifting. Remember the transgender guy I saw earlier in the day? Well, he or she drove me to the site. He/she was a sarcastic cunt with a high pitched voice; she got on my nerves! One thing I learned over the years is that sarcasm is not humorous, nor does it make you look intelligent. It’s condescending and patronizing! While we drove to the site, I just stared out the window to avoid talking to this thing. He/she would say shit like, “Oh, look at the Porsche in front of us, aren’t you jealous?” I’d answered, “No.” I wanted to say, “Fuck, yeah—I’m jealous! I wish I was in that car right now, so I don’t have to listen to you!”
We got to the fair grounds. The gray, cloudy sky was getting darker. We reported to a female supervisor and she instructed us to empty a flatbed truck of old warped and rotted wood. This was to enable the construction crew to put together picnic tables that would be facing the stage. A lot of the wood was cracked. They’d been behind this garage for the entire year, rotting away! There were three supervisors there. Ever so often, they would look me over and then turn their heads.
It started to sprinkle, and then, it slowly rained. Finally it started to downpour! The transgender guy remarked, “Oh, it’s raining in Oregon! How unusual is that?” I knew what I had to do; act nonchalant and keep piling the wood on the ground. My clothes got wet and I felt very uncomfortable. After our task, they ordered us back to the park. Some kids had filled up a barrel of dirt and green waste, and it had to be emptied into the back of the truck. This kid and I hauled it up a flight of stairs and then lifted it onto the truck. It weighed a ton! I had to stop and catch my breath. Harry Larry saw this and sat down to send another text message.
Last on the agenda was the tool shed. The big problem for roofing in Oregon was moss. Most roofs in the Pacific Northwest have perpetual moss growing on them. Now, this tin tool shed roof hadn’t been cleared of moss for years. Not only was there moss, but branches, leaves and other debris. I was dog tired and slowing down, and it showed. Thank Buddha, it had stopped raining.
Harry Larry asked me, “Are you afraid of heights?” Like a macho fool, I answered, “No I’m not, but I am tired.” That was a dumb thing to say. It was like saying, “I quit!” I asked Harry Larry, “Is the roof stable enough to hold me?” He said, “It is only three years old.” That was an equivocation; it did not answer my question. The roof was slanted to the north and its shingles were wet. The moss was wedged between the cracks of the shingles, which would make it slippery. The roof measured about 9 to 10 feet from the ground. Harry Larry placed a ladder next to the shed. I put a leaf blower on my back and climbed the ladder to the roof. I pulled the rope on the blower to start it up and almost fell off in the process! I blew all the debris off the roof, but the moss was going nowhere. Harry Larry said in a commanding voice, “Get off! Now!!” He saw that I was losing my footing. He then sent one of the teens up with a paint scraper to scrape off the moss.
At the end of the day, we put all the tools back onto the truck. I drove back with Harry Larry. Was he a cold son of a bitch? Fuck, yeah—he was! Like a dummy I said to him, “I’m sorry I slowed down today. It’s been a while since I’ve worked, but I’ll get back in the groove.” He just sat there, in the driver’s seat, looking straight ahead. He didn’t say anything.
We got to the yard and unloaded the truck. After I was finished, I saw the headman and asked him about my time card. He said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll have one on Monday.” At 3:30 p.m., I was on the freeway heading for home.
As soon as I got home, I got a phone call from my agency representative. She said that my assignment with Lake Oswego was over and not to show up Monday. I asked her why and she replied, “The supervisor said you weren’t keeping with the pace and you were too slow. You will receive your check in the mail. But, don’t worry, I will find you another job.” I never heard from her again. Poor Pamela, she was disappointed.
Final comment. The Lake Oswego experience would be my last gardening job. I got paid 160 bucks before taxes. So what did I learn? That civil service hadn’t changed at all. I had been through the same experience over again and over again.
There isn’t any “Esprit de Corps” in civil service. What you have is an environment of suspicion, paranoia, envy, and blind ambition. Who created this environment? The reactionary element in the USA wants to privatize the whole world. They perpetuate the myth of a “Nanny State.” You never hear anyone say, “Thank you for your civil service.” Civil service has been vilified as a tax burden. Civil service must reform or vanish for good.
When I moved back to California, my health took a turn for the worse. I developed Gout and then my right knee went out; I was diagnosed with arthritis. Soon after that, two cervical discs in my lower neck became herniated. Both of my hands are almost useless because of that, plus carpal tunnel syndrome. I tried to get Social Security Disability benefits but was denied them. So where is this so-called “Nanny State?”
It had all begun at Lancaster City Park in the Summer of 1990, and it ended in Lake Oswego in 2013. I do admit: I had a good run.