Where did we come from?
Did we just crawl out from under rocks or some primordial writers’ ooze?
Lessons among the ‘ammuns’
Learning to trust my instincts
My first real job was at T.M. Duché Nut Co. in Orland, my hometown. It was summer 1977, and I was a skinny 20-year-old with stiff coils of tangled, long brown hair crookedly jutting down past my shoulders, lightly acned and seemingly possessed of a perpetual naïveté.
The first few weeks of the job, several men—varying in ages from mine to a ripe old 28—labored seven days a week within a set of large wooden stalls where we repaired the 5-foot-square plywood-paneled boxes in which almonds—or “ammuns,” as all good Orlanders designate them—were shipped to Duché's from all over the area.
It was brutal work, particularly if you played electric guitar on the weekends. My hands would be so perforated with slivers and splinters by day’s end, they’d be red and swollen. It was considered uncool or unmanly to wear gloves for protection. But after a couple of weeks, I thought, “To hell with it,” and purchased some heavy-duty work gloves. I got laughed at and razzed for a few days. Then, one by one, the other guys quietly brought gloves, too.
The guy I worked with was named DiPinella. He was a large man with a spotty complexion, a coarse red mustache and a perpetually soiled T-shirt bearing the pseudo-hand-scrawled legend, “Proud I Are Italian.” He was generally good to work with and offered his own takes on the general operations of T.M. Duché, or the “old Douche,” as we manly men referred to it.
But his one bit of advice that simply did not jibe with my naïve view of reality was this: “Don’t bother Uncle Al. Don’t talk to him or even look at him.'”
“Uncle Al” was the foreman who shuffled throughout the plant, noting the efforts of the various work crews and forcefully hollering at those crews as circumstances and the occasional bone-headed move demanded. Even after once witnessing the explosive fury of his wrath—a forklift driver had backed out too quickly, losing one of the big blue boxes from his forks, the crate clattering loudly on the blacktop—I could not believe that the guy was as ornery as DiPinella insisted.
Then a rumor circulated in low voices that we might actually be getting the upcoming Sunday off. A day off!
“I’m gonna ask Al,” I said.
“What are you, crazy?” DiPinella said, his eyes holding the kind of amusement usually reserved for someone about to attempt a stupid stunt in his pickup. “You’ll be sorry.”
Right about 11 a.m., Al wandered past the box repair crew like usual. I put down my claw hammer and walked directly to him. He was a middle-aged man with downward-pointing features, large blue eyes and wiry white hair that sort of peaked into twin points like ears on an owl. He suspiciously turned his eyes in my direction.
“Mr. Sikes?” I said. “There’s a rumor we might get Sunday off. Is it true?”
Suddenly he smiled, as if the weight of another potential complaint being laid upon him was diverted elsewhere.
“No, son,” he said warmly. “But I’ll be sure to tell you if I find out otherwise.”
And he did, too.
Lesson: Always trust your “naïve” instincts.
—John W. Young
I do so work well with people
I was a teenage nerd. Yeah, I know. News flash. No tales of fast times with fast food. I worked at the county library.
I was hired when I was almost 16, at $3.38 an hour—3 cents over the minimum wage, which I thought was pretty cool. Teens nowadays are strictly volunteer status at the library.
I’d get a ride after school from my good-hearted grandma or my friend Tracy. Her car’s emergency brake was broken, so we’d yank it upward, laughing maniacally as Milli Vanilli blasted over the tape deck.
Then, for two hours, I’d shelve books, check that the books already on the shelves were straight and in good order, and perform various office-type tasks (Nothing to do? Alphabetize these cards I just threw on the floor). Toward the end of my tenure, we “shifted the stacks"—library-speak for moving every single book in the building—and individually inserted barcodes and electronic sensors to usher in the electronic age.
To this day I can tell you almost to the third decimal point what books are where in the Dewey Decimal system.
Once in a while, I’d pull out my original library card application they’d had on file since I was 3 or 4, when I’d written my name with several extra lines on the capital E’s. Small-town stuff, I guess.
When we weren’t chasing each other around with carts—"trucks,” they were called—we tried to linger, mid-aisle, catching a read. I perused the White Trash Cookbook as avidly as Tipper Gore’s Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. We also took turns on “Gary patrol,” keeping an eye on a local man who got his kicks from looking at My Changing Body books geared to pre-teen girls. The library director kept Gary’s favorite grownup sex books locked in his office. Also so sequestered was the item most stolen from public libraries: the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
We were all afraid of the library director, even though he was a nice guy. Still, I was nervous when we crossed paths six years later, as I was a newspaper reporter and he was director of a much larger library system on the Central Coast. A county employee had been caught, by a child no less, receiving oral pleasure in a study room. I got to interview my old boss about this deep subject.
At one point during my years at the county library, I was dealt a crushing blow to my young self-esteem. When an opening came up at the front desk, I lost out to a girl who had just been hired. My supervisor said, “Devanie, you don’t work well with people.” I am bitter about that to this day and give that comment partial blame for my decision to get a second major in public relations. The girl, Jen, is still one of my best friends, and we still joke that I don’t work well with people.
It ended up being the start of nearly eight years working at libraries, as I used the job as a stepping-stone to the Humboldt State University Library. Only there, I worked the circulation desk—with people.
Dreaming of horses
How I lost the best job I ever had
I’ve had a lot of good jobs in my life, but the only job I remember with a bittersweet feeling of joy and loss is one I held for only two weeks during the summer I was 15.
Picture a pretty little lake in the Sierra and a cabin set back in the woods, with horses stabled in a corral, and a boy whose job was to get up early, feed the horses and saddle them, and then rent them out, mostly to teenagers from the church camp nearby. The air was cool and clear, the colors were brilliant, and I was in the full, blood-racing bloom of youth. It was the ideal summer job, especially for a town boy who loved horses but rarely got to be around them. I loved the way they smelled, how they huffed and blew and shivered as I put on the saddles and how sensitive they were to my touch.
I didn’t even mind cleaning out the stable now and then, and after work I got to go riding myself. I had my own horse, a little palomino mare named Topsy that for insurance reasons couldn’t be rented out. She’d been my boss Eddie’s horse as a kid, before she ran into a dry branch that poked out her eye, so he kept her around. I rode her slowly at first, until she trusted me and would run at full canter under me. Before long I was riding bareback, my legs gripping her torso in a seamless, sensual connection.
I had friends at the lake, too, kids from my school whose folks owned summer cabins there. We’d go riding together, following old logging roads into the woods, galloping the horses as much as they wanted. The days were long and balmy, and the nights were pregnant with that mysterious promise of adventure only young people feel.
Doing her part to foster that feeling was a cute girl who worked at the burger grill and who seemed to like me as much as I liked her. A couple of times I invited her to go riding. On my days off we went swimming together in the lake. I was just getting up nerve to hold her hand and kiss her when it all fell apart.
Eddie was already mad at me for small screw-ups. Once I left the gate open and the horses got out and he had to spend the better part of an afternoon rounding them up. And one night my buddies and I brazenly walked down the road in front of the lodge and store smoking cheroots—this at a camp operated by Mennonites. Someone complained, apparently, because Eddie warned me to behave.
But I was 15 and having way too much fun, especially at night.
The last straw was the time my friends and I got Eddie’s old Model A running. As usual, he was gone for the evening, down to the roadhouse at the bottom of Kings Canyon, where he drank beer and, I guess, hoped to score. The Model A was a cranky old thing that he’d converted to a pickup and used for hauling manure up to where he dumped it over a cliff.
I was pretty good at hotwiring, from having “borrowed” my parents’ cars when they weren’t looking, and I managed to get the old junker going. We had a ball, racing it up and down the twisty half-mile-long dirt road from the lake to the stables. But it had no muffler and raised an unholy ruckus of backfires and exhaust roar, and no doubt just about everybody at the lake could hear it up there, popping away. Around 10 the local ranger drove up and told us to shut it off. “I’m gonna have to tell Eddie about this,” he said to me, shaking his head.
Later that night Eddie shook me awake. “Get up. Get your things,” he muttered.
I did as he said and followed him to his car. He didn’t say another word, and I didn’t try to change his mind. I was too tired, for one thing. I put my pillow up against the window, leaned in and fell asleep. When I woke, it was dawn, and Eddie was pulling over in front of our house in Fresno. He stared straight ahead, not saying a word. I got out, grabbed my goods, and walked slowly down the driveway. It was the last I ever saw of Eddie and the end of the best job I ever had.
I lost my first job for something I didn’t do— stealing
I was summarily fired from my first job after (gasp!) only three weeks as member of the teenage labor force.
But lest you think I was some sort of juvenile delinquent, let me explain the circumstances of my demise. I was framed! Really, I was, and by the person I least expected.
Here’s what happened:
My first job was for Baskin-Robbins, for which, obviously, I was hired to scoop ice cream and make sundaes and the like. I loved it! Angie, a friend from school, had talked me up to the franchise owner, and she offered me the job after a 10-minute interview, for which I’d embarrassingly overdressed. I ratted up my hair in the ‘80s fashion that was all the rage and wore a poofy Esprit skirt that was trendy back then, along with a poofy matching shirt and short bolero jacket.
I was the picture of the wannabe Valley Girl.
My hours were two evenings a week after school and all day Saturday. Pay: $4 an hour, which seemed like a fortune at the time. I was thrilled and planned to save money to put toward buying the car that I’d be old enough to drive in a year.
The job was relatively easy—scoop ice cream with given scooper, ring up purchases on cash register, take money and say, “Thank you.”
As it turned out, the money part of the job was my undoing.
After my first two shifts, the owner called me into her office and asked, point blank, if I’d been skimming money from the register. Apparently, money had been missing each night I’d worked with Michelle, the manager who was assigned to train me, and they suspected that because I was new I was stealing. But I was far too timid to steal, and I told her so.
She seemed to believe me and told me to be more careful when ringing up cones.
But the same thing happened again about a week later. More money was missing on nights I was working. This time, the owner called me at home to confront me about it. I knew I wasn’t stealing anything, but I was terrified anyway.
The final call came at home, after work one night. It was quick and for her, I’m sure, painless. I still remember what she said—that they “couldn’t employ someone who was stealing money,” that I was fired, and that I was to bring back my pink Baskin-Robbins shirt the following day.
I was devastated—and bewildered. I knew I hadn’t been stealing, so what had happened?
I found out about a month later, when my friend who was still working there told me that the manager, Michelle, who had been assigned to train me, had been summarily fired after the owner caught her red-handed with her fingers in the register. Apparently, she’d been skimming each night that I’d worked, passively framing me for her theft.
Although the discovery exonerated me, the owner who fired me never called to apologize—a fact that had my father so steamed that he walked into the store, yelled at her about it and left.
And that made me feel a whole lot better.
Welcome to ‘the love shop’
Or, I was a teenage dildo salesman
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away …
I worked in a record store more known for its “18 and over” room than its music selection. During my minimum wage, 8-hour shifts, I often worked in this dark back room, more commonly known as “the love shop.”
Sitting on my stool beneath two video cameras—always watching, always picking me apart with their vacant red glare—I was master of a cluttered little den of iniquities: sexual devices and joke gifts plus a selection of smoking products. The room had an air of secrecy about it, an aura of taboo best summed up by the big warning sign on the door: “All ye who enter here—show your license.”
I spent my downtime there assembling little metal pipes for the window display. Believe me, it wasn’t easy to muster creativity beneath a wall full of one-eyed dongs peering from see-through plastic. On bad days, it was as if a bunch of fat middle fingers were telling me, “Go home. Find a real job.”
Other times, I felt sad for all those poor, silent dildos and where they were headed. Even the humongous, double-ended black dong looked kind of scared of what the future held in store. But he was strong. He would make it.
Most of the customers for smoking accessories were male. Although we would always state the rules—"no reference to illegal activity, no use of drug terminology such as b-o-n-g or w-e-e-d"—I quickly learned that people shopping for screens or glass bong parts on a regular basis had little memory to speak of. Once in a Jamaican moon, there was the complete idiot (you could usually smell him coming in) who couldn’t help pulling his contraband out on the spot.
“Man, can I see how much bud will fit in this one?” Dude, do I ask your mom to pay my rent? Why are you trying to get me fired?
Whether the law is right or not, we followed it to the letter and kicked indiscreet patrons to the curb on a regular basis.
Selling sex toys was far more interesting.
In hindsight, I admit a slightly voyeuristic thrill in watching which vibrators would catch female shoppers’ darting eyes. Would it be crooked Corky in the corner, my man Slim up front, fat Old Yeller in the back maybe? At some point, I had begun naming the hard-time dildos, the ones that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
A fairly typical vibrator transaction went like this:
Her: “I’m shopping for a dildo.”
Me: “Well, you came to the right place.”
Her: “It’s not for me. Heavens no, it’s for a friend’s … bachelorette party.”
Me: “Of course. What size do you think your friend would prefer?”
Her: “Gee, I don’t know. I guess something small. Or medium?”
I’m thinking, so size really doesn’t matter—until she picks up the 12-inch, super-realistic, gelatin-filled Slamsonite.
Her: “Like this one, maybe?”
Then came my primary dildo duty: to insert the correct batteries and make sure the sucker worked. This was my favorite part: I would turn it on the highest speed setting, place it on the glass tabletop and watch like Geppetto in rapture as my creation came alive, vibrating loudly and gyrating in ever-widening circles like a rabid flashlight.
Her: “I’ll take it. Just put it in the bag!”
One time an older, white-haired gentleman resembling St. Nick came in and purchased an expensive, tubular penis pump. An hour or so later, I answered a phone call from an irate Santa.
“I just bought a $60 pump and this thing doesn’t work. I’d like to return it immediately.”
I had to inform him that once he’d jumped down that particular chimney, there was no coming back. No refunds on love items, sorry. Once you have sex with a piece of plastic, it’s yours forever (click).
Local strippers knew better. They were easy to spot from their comfort level in the back room. “Gimme four clit rings and a butt plug to go and make it quick, honey. I left my kid in the car.”
Oh, the stories I could tell.