by Jim Farrar (1986)

In palmistry, they say that if your life-line merges with your career-line, then things are supposedly in balance and you are probably working at a job that makes you happy.

Well, I'm not so sure about this. If such is the case, then there must not be too many merging career and lifelines in this world. While spending the day in a grocery store recently, I came to the conclusion that most people – or at least the people I talked to – tolerate their job mainly because it covers the mortgage and puts food on the table. The people that I spoke to revealed no particular passion, one way or the other, toward their job. Just indifference, for the most part, and a little bit of fatigue.

Which is interesting, I think, because what we do for a living, whether we acknowledge it or not, does reflect to a certain degree who we are and what we value, not to mention what our talents are or where our ambitions lie.

It seems to me that a good many people just try to make a living and survive. No lofty goals, no wanting to save the world, just plain old survival. This is not an indictment against society so much as it is a simple observation, an observation that suggests that, for as much as we've progressed as a species the last ten thousand years or so, there are still some things that haven't changed at all: we still need a cave and a fire, and a spit with something to eat on it. We're just decorating our caves a little better than we were a few years back.

Scott is the manager of a grocery store that is part of a large chain. He's been with the company for ten years now, just got his gold service-pin, as a matter of fact. He works long hours, but the money is good, between forty and fifty thousand dollars a year, depending on store sales. He also makes a bonus that is based on the financial performance of his store. If it does well and clears a healthy profit, then Scott gets a sizable bonus check. Sometimes the checks are drawn for several thousand dollars, sometimes they're under a hundred dollars.

It was Monday morning when I spoke with Scott. Monday is the day that weekly sales have to be reported to the main office. We took a working break while he calculated the week's total. I sipped coffee, he punched figures into an adding machine. He looked harried and more than a little put out. I told him so, and asked him if this was a bad time to talk. He said it had nothing to do with my presence.

"You remember what Mondays are like," he said as he lit a cigarette.

"Yeah, I remember," I said. Which is true enough. I used to do exactly the same thing. I did it for seven years, in fact, before I decided that it just wasn't worth the money, that I didn't want to work eleven hours a day, six days a week.

"I'm just angry with the company," he said. "I've been asking for a transfer for over a year now, to a place where the competition isn't as intense as it is here."

"In the grocery business, competition is intense everywhere. You can't get away from it," I pointed out.

"Oh, I realize that, I guess," he said. "It's just that the company's been using this region as a pissing hole for the last couple of years. All these price wars have screwed things up so much that nobody's making any money. Hell, we're giving the shit away. There's no bonus checks anymore, just salary. It's hardly worth the effort. No matter what I do, the store won't make any money."

I mentioned the fact that his salary, at over eight hundred dollars a week, put him considerably above the poverty line. I also pointed out that the company seemed like a better place to work, that it looked like some positive changes had been made since I last worked for it.

"True," he said. "But still, it's tempting sometimes to just say 'screw it' and move to the coast and get a job on a fishing boat or something. If I didn't have to pay child support, I probably would. But I want to do well by the boys, at least until they turn eighteen, so I guess I'm stuck."

Bob delivers potato chips to the grocery store that Scott manages. He has a short, stout body and a round, rubbery face that reminds me of Art Buchwald's. He refers to himself, as do other salesmen in the same field, as a "chippie."

I like Bob. When I was in the business, I used to buy from him and we always did have a pleasantly jovial, less formal working relationship than I had with the other salesmen that I had to deal with.

About two years ago, Bob's company told their salesmen that they would be given the opportunity to purchase outright their routes and delivery trucks from the company. This would make them, in effect, franchise owners and pretty much their own boss. Those that didn't want to buy either had to quit or try to find work with one of the salesmen who had bought his route. It was, from a salesman's perspective at least, a like-it-or-lump-it type of ultimatum.

Bob buys his inventory from the parent company. Profits from sales to his accounts are his to keep. The idea is that by eliminating any salary and making the route a commission-only agreement, the manufacturer creates a greater incentive for their salesmen to sell more potato chips.

I asked Bob how he liked being in business for himself, if it made a difference.

"No, not much difference at all," he told me. "It's still more or less the same old shit, only now I've got people telling me that I'm more apt to steal from them, now that I own my own business. Like the other day, for example. I was at a Circle-K and I missed a can of dip. This lady, she gets all over me like I was some kind of criminal. I told her that I'd need to steal more than a can of dip to make a living, that I'm not a thief. I was so mad I walked out of the store and I sold the account to another guy."

"I didn't know you could do that. How does the company feel about that?" I asked.

"Long as Circle-K keeps buying potato chips, they don't really care. Thing is, I went back to the office, and they told me that Circle-K buys more chips from us than anybody. Also, if you lose one, you lose 'em all. Now none of 'em want anything to do with me. It'll cost me money in the long run, but I don't care. Nobody calls me a thief, even if it costs me my route."

I asked him how he felt about his job in general, aside from having to deal with rude and pushy clerks.

"Oh, it's all right," he said. "Things could be worse, much worse. At least I've got a job, and I'll always have it. Hell, I worked as a dispatcher at a trucking company for over twenty years and then one day. . ." His voice trailed off as his face revealed a long forgotten grudge.

"And then what?" I felt like being nosy.

"Sons a bitches laid me off. After twenty years, the sons a bitches laid me off. Can you believe that? No warning, no nothing. Just a kick in the ass and a shove out the door. After being unemployed for over a year, I don't mind selling potato chips. I've got a good route, so I'm set until I retire. I got a grandchild now, you know"

He reached in his wallet and extracted a photograph from the cellophane slipcase. As he did so, I wondered how much longer it would be for him until it'd be time for retirement. I looked at the picture. The kid had a round and friendly face, the spitting image of his grandfather. I couldn't help but wonder what he'd grow up to be.

Bill is a long-haul truck driver. He drives a semi-truck full of groceries from the company's warehouse in Utah to its stores in Boise.

Bill looks formidable. He stands about six foot five and weighs, at a guess, close to three hundred pounds. He has thick flowing brown hair that curls down into a series of long and lazy curves far below his shoulders. He has a full beard and a silver tooth and piercing blue eyes that reflect a streetwise intelligence that is surprisingly articulate. He wears a single gold earring. Whenever I've seen him he's always had on olive drab pants and a red-on-white pinstriped shirt that has "Bill" monogrammed above his left breast pocket. Bill looks like an illegitimate cross between a Russian novelist and a Barbary Coast pirate, a jolly-roger in a semi-truck.

Bill's friends call him Tiny. I call him Tiny.

Tiny prefers the long haul to shorter runs, so he wasn't happy to be in Boise.

"I just got back from Texas when my dispatcher tells me I gotta go to Boise. Boise! Christ, I hadn't even showered." Tiny's voice is loud and it carries. He spices his vocabulary quite liberally with four-letter words, though there was nobody around on the loading dock willing to tell him to tone it down.

I asked him why he likes the long haul so much.

"More money, man. Can't make shit on these five, six hundred mile runs," he answered.

"Don't you get tired of so much driving?" I countered.

"I like to drive. Especially the run from Salt Lake down to Florida. I like driving through the South because the land's fun to look at."

I asked him if it were true that most truck drivers did a lot of speed, took uppers to help keep them going.

"Not me, but I know a few who do" he said. "I drive clean. I've never done any beans, and I don't never plan to. Too hard on the body, man. I like to eat, that's my vice."

I wanted to make a pun about coffee beans, but thought better of it. Instead, I asked him about his family and if he ever misses his wife and children while he's on the road.

"Naw," he answered. "On the really long runs I just take the old lady with me."

"What about the kids?" I asked.

"We leave the kids with their grammy. Actually, the old lady likes to tag along to keep an eye on me. She don't trust me."

He was probably serious about the "old lady" not trusting him, though I couldn't tell for sure. I asked him if he liked driving truck, or if there was something else he would rather be doing.

"I like it enough, I guess. I've never done anything else, so I really don't have nothing to compare it to. I don't really know how to do anything else. But I'll tell you one thing, I couldn't ever work no nine to five job. I couldn't sit behind a desk all day."

I told him that his size, if nothing else, would prevent him from doing that. He couldn't fit behind a desk. He laughed, squeezed my hand and then climbed into the cab of his truck.

"You take care, Jim. And learn lots in school."

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