[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"You're like a lizard in the sun on a rock," I said to Mike, who was sitting on the beach, staring at the ocean with a blank face. Not much behind the eyes today. It's always funny to people watch on the beach. There was a group of teens laughing loudly and wearing very bright, very tiny bikinis. One boy was wearing Ray Bans. One girl was wearing white sneakers in the sand, popping her bubble gum with her arms crossed loosely. There were young families wrangling one, two, three young children with tired eyes and too many beach props. There was a huge family gathering around some picnic tables, everyone shouting and grilling burgers and shoving greasy potato chips in their mouths. There was a group of tanned, weathered men taking a game of beach volleyball more seriously than life. And then there was me, reading a book (The Dog Stars), and Mike, staring blandly at the water.
It's really something to watch someone sit so still. In some ways, it made me uneasy, probably because I'm so bad at sitting still myself. He was like one of those Buddha statues that restaurants culturally appropriate to sell more noodle dishes. It was eerie, and I was jealous. I think he said something like, "Thanks," in response to my lizard comment, and I turned back to my book, digging my feet into the sand and slowly creating a crater behind me. There's something very relaxing about being near water. Studies have been conducted that show that living near water, or close to green spaces, decreases ones risk of mortality. It's ironic that we need to label spaces as "green," as if the whole entire fucking planet were not once green to begin with. But anyway, I was talking about sitting still and how difficult and/or admirable it is.
When I was younger and working part time jobs for extra cash or college living expenses, I always worked in food service. I worked for about eight seconds at a Dick's Sporting Goods, folding and re-folding shirts until I wanted to scratch my eyes out just to feel something. I've never been good at sitting still and I discovered that I needed a job that required motion. Working in retail also helped me realize that life is not always particularly interesting or fun.
I worked in an ice cream shop, a smoothie shop, a breakfast diner, and a deli. The deli was by far the most advanced, as I not only had to wait on customers and roast rotisserie chickens, but I also had to slice meat, scrub ovens, replenish the very-popular potato salad, and bleach the sticky floors. I had to close down the olive bar each night and wrap up the various sides and salads. I had to wear a long white coat and non-stick shoes. I was constantly in motion, and it was an exhausting job that paid $10.50 an hour. In 2015 in a central Illinois city, I thought I might as well be rich.
One day, a women ordered a pound of prosciutto. I had no idea what prosciutto was until she pointed it out, "That one honey," she said, as she pointed her long fingernail at one of the many blobs of meat in the cooler. I lugged it over to the slicing machine and carefully cut a pound of the stuff. It was the priciest cut, at $27/pound. Because I had no idea what prosciutto was, I didn't know that it should be sliced very thin. I sliced it thickly, like turkey lunchmeat. I grew up in a place where we ate venison and bought sides of beef to keep in the freezer. We grew our own vegetables and didn't have the time or interest for atrocities such as sushi, escargot, or prosciutto. "Oh honey, that's far too thick," she tutted, "slice me another pound, but made it thin enough I can see right through it."
I did slice her another pound, but I didn't know what to do with the pound I'd already cut. I put it back in the cooler, hoping someone else would take it. Later that day, I was cleaning the meat slicer when my manager walked by. He sort of walked sideways due to bad hips or a bad back or a poor constitution. My manager was one of those people who looks grumpy for a moment, until you realize he's really just sad. "What's this?" he asked, pointing to the prosciutto. "I sliced that by mistake, earlier today," I told him. He harumphed. "Well it's an expensive cut!" if it's not gone by tomorrow that's coming out of your paycheck." I knew it wouldn't. He was also one of those men constantly throwing around empty threats.
I continued scrubbing the meat slicer, and he glanced at my hands, bare and inches from an industrial sized meat slicer. "For the love of Jesus, put the gloves on!" he cried. I blinked at him twice, and he pointed to a thick pair of gloves resting on a shelf below the slicer. Apparently, they were to be worn when cleaning the slicer as a way to ensure I'd keep my fingers. Probably, the grocery store didn't want to pay for me to have reconstructive hand surgery. My manager genuinely looked aghast though, as if only the folly of youth could be so careless so near a giant metal slicer.
One of my coworkers later told me about her uncle, who cut his whole hand off with a table saw. There was a rumor floating around the store that the last manager of the meat department cleaved off his left thumb and could no longer do things like tie his shoes or play catch with his son. The longer I worked there, the more I realized how many ways there are to die and how easy it is to maim oneself. It's probably best to not maim oneself at work of all places, especially at a job that pays next to nothing and doesn't offer insurance and requires grotesque tasks like emptying the chicken fat into a giant vat of chicken fat that eventually gets dumped somewhere, hopefully nowhere green.
One of the best ways to avoid maiming oneself is probably to sit like a lizard on a rock in the sun, blissfully still and mercifully blank. It's good to not always be in such a rush anyway.