#1: What Can Happen In a Second?

This prompt is a classic push for one of those “appreciate life, because it’s short and precious” essays. What can happen in a second? A car accident, an explosion, a fall, etc: something that changes (or ends) life as you know it. We burn up time and lose sight of what’s important, and how impermanent it all is.
Duh.
I’m not going to talk about that. I’ve been thinking about that stuff since I gravitated towards samurai death poems in my Japanese history classes in college. Samurai had some of the best thoughts on “life is short”: when you are an educated poet and a highly trained combat professional with a life expectancy of less than 26 years, you probably wind up with some pretty deeply felt thoughts on impermanence, especially at the moment of death. I won’t presume to compete with them. I’d rather think about those moments when, in a desperate or thoughtless second, we make a small decision that has a ripple effect we would never have suspected.
When I returned from college to my mother’s apartment in 2002, I needed a job. I knew I wanted to attend grad school, but I had not yet been accepted anywhere. At the time, I liked to think big a lot, but wasn’t so great at small details, or even medium sized details. I wasn’t thinking about my resume, or how certain things were going to look. I was just thinking about getting the bills paid. At the time, my mom was dating a pretty questionable dude named Ron.
“You should apply down at Butch’s, bro! I hear the tips are pretty good.”
Butch’s Lube N Wash was the 50 year old car wash down the street. I knew absolutely nothing about it except that I’d be outside instead of inside, which sounded appealing. I was a certified personal trainer and I figured I’d get some hours there on the side while I made some “real” money training. I took Ron’s advice and headed down there.
It all happened pretty quickly: I had done absolutely nothing to secure myself a job during my last weeks in college, and when I came home, I had student loan bills coming due in short order. I needed “a job” within a week and I got one. I had no idea it would be the beginning of a long and important relationship.
It was January and freezing cold. The cars at Butch’s come down a tunnel on automated rollers while machines spray and scrub them. At the end of the tunnel, two lines of guys on either side wipe down the car with cotton towels until the dude at the head of the “line” is compelled to take the car out of the tunnel and onto the lot, where he’ll finish it by wiping don all of the interior windows and surfaces, then finishing the job on the outside of the car, cleaning the door jambs, and using elbow grease to get the remaining brake dust off the wheels. Maybe there’d be an ending flourish with tire shine if the customer paid for the extra. The whole process took about 10 minutes; maybe less if it was busy. It was often busy.
During rushes, you’d be running back to the tunnel to get the next car. There would be no line; a manager would just pull the car out, park it, and angrily honk the horn for somebody to come get it. Ten hours would blow right by like it was nothing, and you’d be bone tired. I used to go home, sit on the floor, and drink a beer, my dehydrated body bursting into sweat the moment I had a few sips. The temperature ranges were crazy: we had mornings with -8 wind chill in which we opened. People think summer time is big car washing season, but that’s incorrect. Rich people want the salt and mud off their cars in winter and the pollen off their cars in spring. We’d pull close to 800 cars a day on those days, or more. For a crew of 16 or so full-timers, it was insane. On hot, busy Saturdays, the blacktop lot was an inferno. Summers were slow in general, but still busy on Saturday—and if it were 90 degrees ambient temperature, it was a lot more than that on the lot. We had an old fashioned thermometer on the side of the lot garage about six feet above the pavement, and it was nothing for the mercury to top out at its highest reading of 125 degrees.
What does any of this have to do with “what can happen in a second?” In a flash of a moment I had signed on for something that would test me a whole lot more than I could have imagined. The turnover at Butch’s was crazy. The longer I stayed, the more I got to know the guys who stuck around for awhile; especially the managers. It was all so different from the comfy academic life I’d gotten used to at college. These dudes didn’t give a shit about my degree or anything else I knew. They respected hard work and forthrightness. I liked that, and felt compelled to earn their respect. I became used to long hours in unforgiving conditions, gruff coworkers, unpredictable paydays, and standing around bullshitting with the guys when it got slow.
It made an impression on me, so much so that long after I went away to get married and go to grad school in 2003, when my (then) wife and I returned to New Jersey in 2006, and I needed a job while I was looking to get into teaching, I went right back.
When I got divorced in 2008, still waiting for a teaching job that wasn’t coming, I got even closer to that small group. When how much money you make is so closely tied to how many cars you personally take out, and you have a huge pile of debt you borrowed to go to college, time off and grieving was not an option– so I spent even more time at work. Those dudes saw I wasn’t doing well and they looked out for me.
One of them had a dad that set me up with a little cottage to rent by the ocean. My one manager became a kind of older brother, taking me fishing, getting in long talks despite the fact that he wasn’t really a talking type. My other manager wrote me a hell of a recommendation for Teach For America, talking about all of those things I had come to see were so important: hard work, respect, endurance. When I had my first stupid, sloppy makeout session, six months after my wife left, I came into work, and all of those sons of bitches knew from the glow! When at long last, I left in June 2009 for good, moving to Tulsa to (finally) teach, those guys threw a party for me the likes of which I haven’t seen again. It was incredible.
I still keep in touch. Social media and awesome cellphones are good for many things, after all. When I remarried last year, I invited several of them to the wedding, including my old boss. It gave me a chill to look at the comment thread on the picture I posted of my new wife and myself, and see so many words from guys I used to stand next to in line, our only connection (at the time) a pair of wet towels and a need for cash. I’ll never forget them, or the lessons I learned from those days. What if, way back in 2002, I had taken more time and thought about my resume? What if I had secured some comfy desk job? What if I had simply dismissed any advice from the guy who dated my mom (who was unquestionably a douchebag and out of her life by the summer of 2002)?
What if, in the flash of a moment, I had not just gone down and gotten myself a job at Butch’s? Who knows?
That’s what can happen in a second.

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