The first summer job I worked that didn't involve sitting in a lifeguard chair was a summer of confusion, starting with the first morning I pulled up to Market Street Bumper Company, which was on Clay Street.
I'd never reported to a boss who wasn't 23 years old. Fred, the manager of Market Street Bumper, was like a lot of blue-collar Louisville men in their 50s. He'd chain smoked his skin to the crispy yellow tone of a McDonald's fry. The metal bowl of the bean-bag ashtray on his desk was stacked impossibly high with ciggie logs. It looked like a Jenga game - or a picture Dr. Seuss would draw if Dr. Seuss drew pictures of leaning, smoke-capped mountains of cigarette butts.
Fred was a little man with an oversized head and disproportionately large hands. He wore horn-rimmed glasses beneath a well-oiled Marine buzz cut. His desk was a hurricane of work orders, carbon leafs and racing forms. At any moment I was certain that the smoldering tower of Pall Malls would tump over, torch everything, and take Fred with it. He looked up.
"Are you Randy?" he asked.
"Nope. I'm Andy," I said.
"Well then, Randy. Why don't you go down to Walnut Street and get me a big, piping-hot cup of White Castle coffee?"
And so began our daily ritual. He threw me the keys to the one and only Ford F-10 truck in the Market Street Bumper fleet, and I drove the 10 blocks to White Castle. After a week or so of this routine, you'd think that I'd simply save a step by picking up Fred's coffee before I arrived to work. That would have been insane, I devised, because the shop stop, the picking up of the truck and the fetching of the coffee took a good three-quarters of an hour off the clock.
Bumpers were heavy sumbitches back then. Not like the alloy/plastic composite things today. We delivered all sorts of bumpers, but the majority were truck fenders. Product was stacked on a high row of racks behind the shop, and when the sun hit it just right, it shimmied and shined like the gates of heaven. Loading the morning run into our truck, which was also outfitted with special racks, was a two-man job, especially for the larger bumpers. But as far as I could tell, Fred and I were the only employees at Market Street, and I remember only one instance all summer catching Fred away from his desk.
The fenders were as shiny and smooth as glass. Those first mornings I hated dropping them because the scuffs and scratches marred their perfect skin. I got over that real fast.
Each bumper had a bright yellow delivery receipt clipped to the end of it like a toe tag on a corpse. After all the morning fenders were secured in the F-10, I started my delivery rounds. This was before the advent of Mapquest and GPS, and while Fred knew the location of every body shop between Louisville and Nashville, I barely knew my way to Clay Street.
Most of the other delivery trucks I saw on my drops were equipped with a two-way radio. Ours wasn't, and I was grateful not to have to answer to Fred once I was on the road. Instead, I cranked up the Rolling Stones' "Rip This Joint" on the FM and wrong-turned my way to each stop. I cruised as many miles that summer in reverse as I did forward.
The further you got from the downtown body shops, the shakier the operations became. Downtown shop mechanics, many of whom wore matching company coveralls, greeted you in air-conditioned, carpeted offices with polished, stainless-steel water fountains. As you made your way into the country, the fancy stuff started to shed away.
By the time I got to places like Red's Golden Body in Oldham County, all bets were off. Not even a pretense of professionalism was to be found. Red's shop was a Quonset open on both ends, from which loudspeakers blared Ronnie Van Zant's musical cock-tales. You couldn't see 10 feet into the garage because of the dense, purplish fog laid down by the paint sprayers.
At these places, rather than being greeted in the air-conditioned cool of the freshly vacuumed office, I'd stand on the boiling hot driveway, reach into my rig and lay on the truck horn to announce my presence. A worker would emerge from the paint mist like Sasquatch, if Sasquatch smoked.
These were rough characters. Hard-working country boys who were half-hungover from the night before and half-insane from the morning's paint fumes. It won't surprise you to learn that I didn't share with them the fact that I kept a copy of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain in the glove box to read on break.
That first morning in Oldham County an ol' boy named Curtis crunched across the gravel to meet me.
"You Randy?" he asked.
"I'm Andy," I said. Curtis took the cigarette from his mouth and yelled over his shoulder in the direction of the garage. "Randy from Market Street's here, y'all."
Fred had spread the news far and wide about his new delivery boy.
But who was I, anyway? I was a disorganized young man who took the first job I could find in a last-minute arrival to town. When it came right down to it, I felt like a pretender. And I was ashamed of myself with almost every encounter I had with the auto body guys. That's because as shop workers filled out my paperwork I'd look at them and think, "I can do better than this. I can do better than you."
Then I'd get back in my truck and realize I was no different from them at all, except I had zero plans beyond summer, and they all had good work that seemed to center their lives.
After Curtis helped me unload the bumper, I sat in the truck cab, hot as an oven, and watched him walk back into the garage. His outline grew fainter with every step he took into the paint mist until it lost all definition and vanished.
Sitting there alone among the rolling hills of central Kentucky, I thought it was me.