Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How Old Will You Be in 1984?

(Worcester Massachusetts 1984)

I’ve got the earphones of my Walkman cassette player clamped down over my ears and I’m tightening the chuck around  a fresh piece of bar stock I’ve been feeding into the engine lathe I run at night.  In the daytime I get contracts for our little machine shop on Prescott St.  At night I run the engine lathe on evening shift.  Not a lot of free time, like having two jobs even though both jobs are in service of the same thing.  Also I don’t take any pay for either job.  Money comes from a communal pot shared with the seven Japanese guys I live with on Ball Ave here in Worcester.  It is September of 1984 and the future has not happened just yet.

I’ve got Bob Dylan and the Band on a cassette tape singing “Oo wee – ride me high.  Tomorrow’s the day my bride is gonna come.  Oh no – are we gonna fly, down in the easy chair.”  God knows what the words are supposed to mean really, but I know what they mean to me.  Someday my wife of two years and counting will arrive in Worcester and join me.  Someday.  We were married in an unusual ceremony in 1982 and have never had sex up to now or even seen each other naked.  Such is my life.

When I get tired of the Dylan tape I’ll wait till I reach the end of machining this piece I’m working on, shut down and switch to a cassette of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” I’m listening to.  Royal Shakespeare Company.  A whole ‘nother level.  All I needed was stability to end my stint of living on the road and suddenly my mind is beginning to blossom with ideas and curiosity.  There is a hunger in me as though trying to make up for six years in a mental deep freeze as I traveled around the country and elsewhere.

Seeing the land, seeing the people, has built up in me a great fascination for the way humanity and the metaphysics of life works.  I have discovered public libraries again.  I am reading again.  I have been reading a book by Peter Malkin called “Eichmann in My Hands” in which he describes his experience in the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.  He guarded Eichmann in a small house in Buenos Aires until they could smuggle him to Israel. They had many private conversations, this Holocaust survivor and the man who killed half of his family in the death camps. 

As I ease the tool post into the spinning bar stock clamped in the spindle, switch on the pump and the steel chips begin to fly under the waterfall of coolant, I think about these things.  A laboring job where you work with your hands is very good for thinking about things.  What is Good? What is Evil?  Am I good?  I like to think I’m good, but maybe what is good is only circumstantial.  Maybe if I had been born in Nazi Germany there are such weaknesses in myself I would have been a war criminal.  But I have this life instead where I am regarded as a good man.  Who is good?  Who is evil?  Or are we only lucky where we are?  Like winning some lottery of the soul?  Maybe the Bible is right after all, may as well accept Jesus as not.  The actual reality of good and evil is so damn murky, maybe God likes simple instead.  Take the plea.  Sign the fire insurance.  Maybe philosophy and nuance gives the God of the Ten Commandments heartburn.

The spindle hums and the chips fly.  I have a job, however unpaid.  We are investing in the future.  Investing in our business.  None of us know yet that the shop will be bought to manufacture small 9mm hand guns, many of which will turn up in crime scenes.  That hasn’t happened yet.  When that time comes I will have moved on with my new wife to New York where I will live a morally neutral life as a photographer.  None of this has happened yet.  Am I good?  Or am I lucky?

The parts I’m making, according to the blueprints, are called “nipples” which made the Japanese guys giggle.  The nipples, and the little platen bars we carve out on a computer guided milling machine are part of the printing mechanism of a totally whacko new invention we received a contract for.  We were starving, literally starving, before this contract landed in my lap for all of us.  We were out of food, out of money, out of credit, nothing but faith, living on ramen noodles all of us.  I came across this company in Connecticut, a kind of hungry little start up company like us, called “Magnetec”.  

They had this invention, patented and everything.  When the guy explained it to me in his executive office it was so weird I understood why he was offering it to little old us.  None of the establishment shops would take a chance on it.  He needed somebody as desperate as he was.  He assured me Exxon and Shell were interested in his invention and they just needed someone to help them get it off the ground.

As the chips fly, the cut reaches its stop and I draw the tool post back, take the engine out of gear and wait for the spindle to slow and stop.  I could just hit the brake pedal down there but I like watching it and I need to swap out the cassette tape.  This Sony personal stereo is amazing.  It's the hot new invention.  My friend Okimoto is letting me use it although using a tape player with a dangly headphone cord is pretty suicidal since it could snag in the spindle and pull my face in there.  I have to be careful is all.  Not much of a face anyway.

King Lear.  I got tired of top 40 radio so now I’m tuning in to Dr. Ruth who, late at night, talks about sex and even says the word right out loud.  She won’t be on for another hour, so it’s King Lear on the heath and storm. 

“Plate sin with gold,” shouts poor old Lear in my ears, “and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.  Arm it in rags and a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.  None does offend, none I say.”

I remove the nipple from the chuck, take a second to admire it and toss it in a box .  Tomorrow I’ll be driving the platen bars way over to this place in Springfield where they do the lapping operation.  Lapping the platen bars, which is kind of like fine industrial sanding, was my idea and it was brilliant and I’m proud of it.  Maybe I could get good at this business.  I wonder if Eichmann felt pride in his ideas and innovations for killing a lot of people efficiently.  It’s not enough to be smart.  If you want to be a good person you have to be lucky too.  I’m lucky that way.

These platen bars, once they’re ready, will be used in this little tiny printing machine which is a component in this other thing that Magnetec has invented and seems to have so much faith in.  What it is, the guy was explaining to me in his office, is this thing that when it’s installed in a gas pump, you’ll be able to use your credit card right there at the gas pump instead of going to see the clerk in the store.  You just feed your card into the reader and after you’re done pumping, the device will bill your card, and spit out the receipt, all automatically by computer.  All standing there at the gas pump.  Yeah.  That’s what he has us making for him, because nobody else would take it on.  Its sounds insane but you never know what might catch on someday.

I feed some bar stock down the pipe, clamp down the chuck with the Allen wrench nice and tight and put the engine in gear.  The spindle whirrs and off I go.

“ . . .you take that of me, my friend, who has the power to seal the accuser’s lips, get thee glass eyes and like the scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not . . . “

What will it be like to have sex?  What will it be like to sleep with a woman and share your life with a woman, who I barely know at the moment?  Will we make it?  Will we be happy?  Will we have kids?  Will they be good kids?

Coolant on, tool post, getting it in, chips fly.

It’s 1984.  When I was in high school there was a book of radical essays called “How Old Will You Be in 1984?”   I carried it around without much reading it because I hoped it might fool girls into thinking I was deep.    Now it’s really 1984 and I know how old I am, surprised to be still alive after having had two guns and a knife pulled on me and another occasion when men hunted me in the dark near Houma Louisiana hoping to murder me.  It hasn’t been a boring life so far, which is all I ask.  The boring years are in the next century.  What will be strange will be how much I will be ready to appreciate them.


  1. Garce:
    This piece had me recalling a summer job where I sat in front of a drill press for ten hours a day. It's amazing where your mind goes when it is disengaged from your body. Unfortunately all my deep thinking was just a lot of spinning gears. My fears came closer to being than my dreams. Funny how Bob Dylan is never too far from the life of a thoughtful man. Shakespeare has never been my go-to guy. I think that says a lot about you. So did you ever have sex? :)

  2. Hey, Garce,

    I didn't know you'd lived in Worcester. Pretty close to my old stomping grounds.

    This is a great piece, at so many levels. It has a rhythm to it, steady and comforting, perhaps like the process of running your lathe. It has intimacy and philosophy, even a bit of humor. And it gives us readers one more piece of the puzzle that is your life.

    You didn't need to pretend to be deep.

  3. Wow, what a singular, multifaceted life you've been endowed with. Often, no matter how wonderful or awful it can get, we live the essence of what it means to be alive. Our emotions and motivations, balanced with an understanding of cause and effect are what it's all about.

  4. Hi Spencer!

    My Dad was a fan of Eric Hoffer, the philosopher, who worked a day job asa longshoreman in San Francisco and thought about philosophy while he moved stuff around. So it can definately be done. And yes! We finally did have sex. But that would have to be another blog post someday . . . .


  5. Hi Lisabet!

    I felt sentamental writing it, and I think about those times as often as fill up my gas tank with a credit card at a gas pump. I always wonder if that's one of our platen bars printing my receipt.

    I think the wonder of it, back when I was standing by the engine lathe with my borrowed Walkman stereo would have been if I had known that someday there would be an Internet and that I would write about the experience i was going through at that moment in a social media someday that could potentially be read in real time by anybody in the world. We don;t have a sense of the future moving but in this context you see how much things have changed.


  6. Hi Daddy X!

    Yes, but I still haven;t had the experience of having been chased by a mob of angry Indians. You;ve got me beat there.


  7. Garce, you could write your grocery list and I'd gladly put down everything else to read your stuff first. This was thoroughly enjoyable. Actually I'd love to read memoirs of everyone on this site, though since none of your are "famous" per se, you might not sell many copies. But the ones you did sell would be read avidly and repeatedly, with the reader alternating between admiration at your worldliness, and jealousy.

    I agree that manual labor allows the brain to wander. I spend one summer in college working for first a perfume company, on the assembly line for 2 weeks. I quit not because few spoke English, or the supervisors roamed the line groping women from behind, but because there were never enough mechanics and the woman next to me got hit in the face with glass and hot perfume when the machine's calibration was off and it came down too hard on a bottle. As she coughed up blood and glass, I went to HR and quit. Do they still sell Jovan musk perfume? The only reason I lasted 2 weeks was because my Dad used to make fun of me when I'd complain, berating me for being a "spoiled college student" who didn't like to work a 40-hour week at a job not of my choosing.

    Then I worked the rest of the summer at a neighboring cosmetics company where I packed orders for customers all day, again on a line. The women at lunch wanted to know when I would marry my boyfriend. I'd known him in junior high, then met him at the shoe store he was working in during college. We had lots of frenzied sex in weird places, because we both still lived with our parents. But neither of us expected it to be anything other than a summer fling...cue Bob Seger's "Night Moves."

    While I was doing those jobs, I wrote elaborate romance plots in my head. I had been doing that all through my childhood, with all of my fantasies starring me. This was the first time I had hours to dedicate to composing during the day, when I wasn't falling asleep. Now that I look back on it, it's how I learned to write. I still do that...I love to be driving long distances on a highway. I get a lot "written" that way, then it just flows when I sit at my laptop.

    You know, I feel guilty sometimes when I always write such long comments to everyone's stuff. (Husband says I must have been Baptist or Protestant in a past life, to feel so guilty about things so often.) But I figure if you didn't want me here, you'd figure out a way to block me. And sometimes you comment back, so I guess it's alright.

    1. Fiona - I for one love your comments. Don't feel guilty! You're as much a part of the Grip as we contributors, and we appreciate it.

    2. I am a writer of long comments myself, and I am always happy to see yours!!

  8. Worcester! The go-to city of my youth, for department-store shopping and the occasional medical specialist (the dentist turned out to be a fraud.) But even by 1984 the Worcester of my youth had disappeared. I was just there yesterday, though, on the outskirts, taking my 95-year-old father to an eye doctor (routine appointment.) Better than my usual visits to the city, which involve visiting family one or another of the UMass Memorial hospitals. Not, fortunately, at the moment. One hospital visit, though, was wonderful, nine years ago, when my granddaughter was born at St. Vincent's Hospital.

    All of which wandering of the mind in no way interferes with my admiration of how beautifully you evoke a specific time as well as timeless thoughts, Garce.

    1. When I was anorexic, I spent three months in Worcester State Hospital... as well as a couple of weeks in St. Vincent's....

      I do have happier memories of Worcester though, from growing up and later. Learning sailing on Lake Quinsigamond. Going to dinner at The Sole Proprietor. And yes, Spagg's! Is it still there?

      My paranormal M/M novel Necessary Madness is set in Worcester and the Quabbin Valley.

  9. Hi Fiona!

    Actually I think the things you've just mentioned would make great autobiographical posts and maybe a longer narrative as well. The thing is to focus on one specific event and bring it to the senses and describe it. What is it like to work in a perfume factory where the boss sexually harasses the workers? That would be interesting. Describe it moment by moment. Describe sitting in the lunch room with the line workers -what do these people talk about? What do they eat? I'd love to hear that. I'm currently snacking on an autobiographical book by Diablo Cody (academy award best screenplay "Juno") about her days as a stripper. Its funny and very specific on details. It sings.

    And I love your long responses. There have been many times yours was the only comment and I was so grateful to know that you had read something of mine and had honored it with an opinion on it. You're very precious. We need more people like you commenting here, not less.

    Hugs; Garce

  10. Hi Sacchi!
    You lived in Worcester during the time I was there?? That's amazing. I may have passed you in the aisles of Spaggs looking for bargains or at the public library downtown or the used bookstore across the street from it. I suppose if I went there I wouldn't even recognise it. I wonder what it looks like now.

    And your grand daughter at St Vincents. Time passes us all . . .


  11. Hi Garce! Not in Worcester itself, but I grew up Bolton, a small town about fifteen or twenty miles north of the city. My 95-year-old father still lives there, but by 1984 I'd been living near Amherst for many years. We might, however, have passed each other in the narrow aisles of the dear departed Spags in Shrewsbury. My older son and his family have just bought a house in Shrewsbury, in fact, so I'll be hanging around out there more in the future.

  12. Garce, I love this autobiographical piece. It's a master class in showing without telling. I can feel your age and the time period and your circumstances so clearly, just from the subtle cues you give throughout. And it's amazing what you were working on in the shop! Thanks for this--totally fascinating.