By Anthony Elmore
After months of toting cinderblocks, sweeping lots, gutting fish, my boss asked me a life-changing question. “You got a pair of brown pants?”
I put myself through college through a mix of student loans, petty theft, and temp jobs, back when that was actually possible. I worked as a dishwasher, a bricklayer, a fish cleaner, a flavored ice vendor, and a janitor, and that was in just in one week.
“Take the first gig offered no matter how shitty, dirty, or dangerous,” my roomie advised on my first day as a day laborer. When you proved yourself reliable and kept your bad habits off-site, the agency offered the premium gigs. Like the Gold Leads in Glengarry Glen Ross, I longed for the premium gigs, the ones that paid a staggering $5.75/hr.
At 6:00 am, five days a week, I packed my backpack with my textbooks, that day’s lunch, and a water bottle – with a “Yes” on the tip of my tongue. The company, Labor Ready, occupied a cinderblock building near the corner of Nebraska and Fowler in Suitcase City, Tampa. A sign stating “Daily Work. Daily Pay.” in English and Spanish was posted over its barred window. I parked and locked my bike on a fencepost, signed in and took my bench among haggard men, and waited for my name to be called. Many of the laborers, a mix of white, black, and Hispanic, lived nearby in cheap trailers, cramped hotel rooms, the Salvation Army or homeless camps. These men seemed born with a roofer’s tan, a janitor’s stoop, dimeslot eyes, and stained work pants. A handful were drug addicts or alcoholics who worked for that day’s score. I was the only college student in the mix, and I kept that fact low key to avoid explaining why a “rich kid” needed to do dirt labor.
After being placed on academic probation at college a few years earlier, my parents felt they had exceeded their parental generosity and said, if I wanted to try college again, the tuition was on me. I traveled overseas for two years, returned to the States, and moved to Tampa to attend USF. I’d prove to them, and myself, I could work myself through college without any of their help. That meant being carless and sharing a Suitcase City bungalow with no A/C with two roomies.
For months, I said “affirmative” to pushing brooms in damp basements, to toting bricks and sheetrock up three flights of stairs, to stacking lumber, to demolishing old buildings with a sledgehammer. Lunch was a PB&J or a baloney sandwich and fruit, but the work demanded more from my body than my stomach could store, and I’d leave the site ravenous with hunger. After work, I’d turn in my hours, get my check, and cash it at the Shell station next door for a $.75 fee. I biked to school balancing a Taco Bell bean burrito or a McDonald’s burger in one hand and arrived to class reeking of sheetrock dust. Only two years of this, I convinced myself, I’d have my degree and slip into an indoor job in an air-conditioned office. This was me, feeding dues tokens into the Capitalist vending machine and earning that “character” that is only found after belittling labor.
After a savage construction lot gig, my day had come. Like Jacob’s seven yearlong toils, the agency found me worthy of the coveted golf resort gig and my sunburned face brightened. My brown slacks were ready. I would report to the agency at 12 noon that Saturday, and in one day, I’d earn my share in utilities with leftover cash for a cheap 6-pack.
That Saturday, I reported to the agency where the agent paired me with three Hispanic men. Like myself, a majority of the laborers didn’t own cars, and car owning laborers got $2.00 a head for anyone they drove to a job site. I climbed in the backseat of the late model Buick land yacht and said nothing as we drove to the resort.
The golf resort lay in New Tampa, a housing development of beige-hued and Spanish tiled micro-mansions a safe distance from Ancient Tampa’s bad roads and working poor. At the resort’s security gate, our Land Yacht queued behind a Lexus, a Mercedes S-Class, and a Range Rover. The driver showed the guard at our worksheets.
The guard panned his eyes to survey the car and its occupants. “Report to the administration office, and only there.” He radioed ahead, and golf cart with two security guards sidled beside us to escort us to our destination.
The admin office stood among a cluster of newly planted palm trees buttressed by 2×4’s. Inside, we met David, our crew boss who was in his late 20’s and always had a Styrofoam coffee cup in his hand, who gabbled and fast-walked us to a swimming pool.
“We got simple rules. Do as I say. If you don’t have something to do, find me. Don’t stare at the guests.” He halted at the pool gate. “Especially at the pool. We had guest punch out a server for staring at his wife’s rack too long.”
David tasked us with breaking down a kid’s birthday party and setting up poolside tables and chairs.
With the pool job completed, David sent us to a banquet room to set up tables and chairs for a sports shoe trade show after-party. The fresh vinyl cologne of new sneakers insulted my Payless sneakers with duct tape patching the hole in the sole.
At lunch break, I couldn’t afford the employee menu at the snack bar, so I ate my warm process cheese sandwich and Lance peanuts. The meal barely replaced the spent calories, so I held a dim hope that I’d get kitchen work, where I could sneak some bites of food. And for the second time that week, fortune smirked at me.
David passed us to the banquet boss, Frank, who assigned us to the dishwashing room, a steaming chamber of white tile and dull stainless steel. The permanent dishwasher, a tall, elderly Black man introduced himself. “I’m Robert Johnson, not the one who made a deal with the Devil. Now y’all don’t grab any food from the kitchen, because they’ll probably be leftovers later. Y’all might get lucky. I hear the rich folks are partying it up tonight.”
Robert assigned another temp and me to unload the bus tub carts and scrape the dishes. The next man rinsed the dishes, loaded the dish racks and fed them to the into the dish machine’s steaming maw. A train of three-tiered metal carts arrived overflowing with dishes and silverware and times; it took two of us to haul them. Two hours under the near-deafening clatter of dishes, my hunger resisted the stomach-turning stench of decaying meat and vegetables.
To our relief, the bus carts arrived overflowing with chafing dishes and banquet platters, signaling the end of the party. Frank sent us to the party tent to break down tables, chairs, and banquet ware. A long party tent abutted the kitchen’s service entrance and stretched the length of the golf green, the sand traps shined like porcelain disks under lithium lights. The muggy weather was a touch better than the noise and fug of the dish room. The band onstage packed up their instruments, ice sculptures dribbled, people lingered at the bar.
I pieced together intel about the party from nuggets of server banter. The fete was a charity event, and the guest of honor was retired General Norman “Stormin’” Schwarzkopf of Desert Storm repute. Settled into retirement, he held court at the bar with a covey of admirers men, talking and intermittently sipping his drink and toking a cigar. His new uniform was a short-sleeved cabana shirt, dock shoes, and a relaxed mien of accomplishment and earned rest. Transfixed by the general’s presence, a gamey smell caught my attention.
I wondered how I missed it, its blackened tusks and heat seared eyelids. The stripped carcass of a boar lay on its belly on a bed of wilting lettuce on a table not far from me. It was a medium as boars went, about 200 pounds, and mostly stripped bare of its flesh. The sight made my gut seize, first out of disgust, then out of hunger when I noticed healthy bits of flesh clinging to its bones.
I nudged a banquet server for more intel, and he said the general went boar hunting in the Florida scrub the day before and took the beast down with a single rifle shot. His hunting party cooked the beast in a Hawaiian style fire pit that morning and brought it to the resort in the bed of a pickup truck. When the banquet began, the general and his companions carried it like on a board like pallbearers into the banquet tent to thunderous applause.
Servers moved the boar’s table to a curtained section of the tent where the bus carts were stored. Frank gave us a 15-minute break, so everyone gathered around the carcass, waiting. A banquet worker arrived and said, “Boss says it’s okay. They don’t want it.”
We meekly looked at each other to confirm what we’ve heard, then we seized on the carcass. Hands thrust into the greasy cave of the boar’s chest cavity and tore off strips of meat and hind parts. Fingernails scraped on bone. We jammed fistfuls of flesh into our mouths and juices dribbled onto their clothes. I thought it indecent, but my bones and stomach lusted for lean protein. I reached over their heads and yanked a tendril of flesh from the boar’s thigh. It tasted like dark meat chicken with a grassy aftertaste, but it silenced my gnawing belly. We fought and fed on the carrion left behind by the rich. An eye popped out and hung from a singed nerve.
One of my Hispanic car mates cut off the boar’s cheek off with a pocket knife. “The head. It’s the best,” he confided and offered me a piece.
He was right, the fat melted like pudding in my mouth and left a grassy aftertaste and satisfaction.
The chefs arrived with their cutlery sharp and ready and ordered everyone aside. They severed limb bones, tore them from the joints, exclaiming how they made excellent soup stock. One of them decapitated it and hauled the head away on his shoulders perhaps to make boar’s head cheese or to display the skull in his living room.
The slick sounds of chewing brought stories. A Robert Johnson recounted how as a child he’d go boar hunting with his uncle, once taking down a legendary 500-pound hog. People once lived or died by the rifle, and bullet’s width away from life or starvation. Now we scraped at the bones of rich men’s kills.
Frank returned and ordered us back to work. Food drunk and my energy renewed I worked until midnight until all the dishes and banquet ware was washed and stowed, and tables and chair sets locked into storage. After David signed our time-slips, we slung the stained grease t-shirts into the hamper, dressed in our street clothes, and climbed into the Land Yacht to return to the agency to get paid. My exhausted co-workers barely had the energy to light their cigarettes. As we approached the guardhouse, two security guards blocked our path, stern, judgmental faces bathed by the headlights.
The guard from before approached the driver side. “Everyone step out of the car, please.”
Puzzled, we climbed out of the car. The other guard ordered the driver to open the trunk. They argued some, but the driver popped open the trunk. “We had reports someone stole shoes from the trade show,” he said to us.
He centered on the smaller man and asked him. “Those look new. Are those the shoes you came here with?” His sneaks looked new and resembled the ones from the trade show display, but bore a couple of scuff marks. He didn’t speak English or pretended not to, so the driver translated what for him. A chrome badge and a dollar an hour more enabled the guard with god-like authority over our fates.
“He came with those shoes,” I said, defending him, probably lying. “I drove here and have been staring at them since Tampa.”
The guard pulled me aside. “Between us. Are you telling the truth?”
“Yes,” I defended. “Those are his shoes.”
White people expect other whites to share their prejudices, regardless of rank and station. Whether he stole the shoes or not, I wasn’t going to lose my ride by flipping on him.
“Well I guess I’ll have to call the sheriff,” he bluffed.
“Okay then,” I bluffed back.
The guards commiserated at the guardhouse for a minute and returned. “Alright, we have your driver’s license numbers. We’ll report the theft to the police so you’ll all be getting a visit from the police.”
Sure, whatever, we all thought.
A mile down the road, certain the police weren’t following; a chuckle emerged from the driver, which set off a round of laughter.
“So white boy, we Mexicans are trouble. No?” the accused man asked.
“Don’t matter either way. Even if he did steal the shoes, I wasn’t going to say shit. Sometimes you need a pair of shoes that bad. I was thinking about taking a pair for myself.”
One of the guys lit up a thin joint and as it made the rounds, and we marveled about the boar. We laughed and bitched about the resort, the rich folk who paid fortunes to eat and get tanned away from us poor folk.
“In Honduras, man, we have javelina. Big sonofbitch. Good meat,” the driver said.
We returned to the agency, got paid about $45 for the whole day, my share of the power bill. They put my bike in the trunk and drove me home. I took a lukewarm shower; clean soapy scents conquered the odors of the Florida Wilds. I never got the Honduran men’s names, and I’m ashamed of that fact.
I slept for five hours, and reported to the agency that morning for a new work adventure, to scrape at the bones and scraps and rags they wealthy allowed us, like dogs rolling in carrion.