23. JOB HUNTING IN NEW ORLEANS
I felt fairly confident that I could land a job as a sign painter if I worked at it hard enough and began preparing a portfolio of my samples to show to potential employers. The unemployment office gave me a couple leads when I went to register for benefits and one small independent firm gave me a tryout. Instead of designing and fabricating signs like I had hoped, I was put to work changing spent light bulbs and blown transformers. Beder and Company had barely six employees and after four days of slack work I was let go.
Marino had applied to work for the Parks Department of the city and was immediately hired and placed with a crew to mow parking strips, pick up trash and maintain the grounds of municipal buildings around town. It wasn’t work I was interested in doing but after two unsuccessful weeks of pounding the pavement and submitting job applications with the bigger sign shops in the city I thought I’d better take a position while there was one to be had.
The staff person told me I’d need to purchase a hardhat, gloves and some steel-toed boots before I could begin. As hot as it already was I dreaded having to wear anything that would make me more uncomfortable but went ahead and purchased my gear. There were strange looks from the crew when I showed up for work and signed in with the administrator. I was the only white person and felt more than a little out of place. Five of us piled into the passenger cab of a utility truck loaded with shovels and rakes, mowers, edgers and various other implements and drove off towards the Mississippi River levee.
“Where y’at?” said one young black man sitting beside me. “Huh?” I said turning from looking out the window. “What’re y’doin’ ‘ere?” he said. I looked at his muscular arms with obvious jailhouse tattoos of daggers, dice and skulls scattered here and there. “Just tryin’ to raise some bread ‘til a better gig comes along”, I said with more bravado than I would ordinarily. “Yeah? Well, once I’m off probation, I’m gonna really live and chuck this scene”, he said while looking across at one of the other crewmembers. “You got that right,” said the other fellow who was wearing his hard hat on backwards. “Scoopin’ up somebody else’s dog shit and haulin’ around bags of cut grass ain’t my idea of a good time either”, piped in the smaller of the other crewmembers.
After unloading and getting directions from the crew chief we all had our assignments. Since it was my first day, I wasn’t assigned to any of the machinery and was given a pole with a nail at one end to pick up trash and a busted rake to scoop dog crap out of the way so the mowers could come through. I worked my way along and soon was two blocks in front of the rest of the crew. I sat down on the curb and rolled a cigarette to smoke while they slowly worked my way.
A good-looking lady was waiting for a bus across the street and appeared to be checking me out so I got up and casually walked over to her. “Heading to work?” I said softly. She was dressed lightly in a floral printed dress and since it was still morning and a bit windy I stood a little closer upwind of her to shield her some from the breeze. “Mm hmm” she murmured and surprised me by stepping closer so that I might block more of the wind. I inhaled the scent of jasmine from her hair and nuzzled against her slightly. When she didn’t object I leaned down a bit and kissed her behind the ear. “Mm Hmm” she repeated.
“Hey, Wikstrom!” The crew chief’s obnoxious voice rose above the rustling leaves of the trees. “Let’s move it!” “Right with you!” I shouted back. Turning to the lovely lady, “I gotta go. You made my day”. She smiled and didn’t say a word as I leaned over again and kissed her on the cheek. I ignored the thumbs-up and “All right” from the other crewmembers as I rejoined them and threw the half-filled garbage bag in the bed of the truck. “Let’s get this show on the road” said the crew chief. I switched jobs with the mower and amid clouds of grass cuttings and flying dirt with the ringing two-stroke engine pounding in my ears and the day rapidly warming up I thought of a beautiful young lady who smelled of jasmine flowers.