One guy was a plumber and the other a package delivery person, and damned if they weren’t both sitting there, each in his van, each only about one street away from the other. Okay, separated by one hour. There is that. But if one is looking for conspiracies, the sense of being watched, surveilled actually, trust me, there is abundant evidence. Yes, yes, it was lunch hour, and it was cold, and it is not summer time and the livin’ is not easy. Such are conditions in this, our Bay Area. Or more exactly, one neuromuscularly compromised version of the Bay Area. Never mind, I tell you, they were out in force, The Watchers. Good thing I was watching too. And in the middle of this, I was watching the stars. Rather tricky at midday, but there they were, briefly flashing before my eyes on the southbound platform of the San Carlos Caltrain station. And let me explain that I do not frequent this particular locale during my lunch hours, but a man does have to renew his disabled transit ID. So there I was, presenting myself for one of those bureaucratic exercises that are arbitrary beyond imagining. Had I completed the application? No, I was not applying, but renewing. Oh. Sign here.
Fortunate for the Peet’s just down the road, newly opened in San Carlos, and if one may say, singularly attractive, what with its elevations of plateglass and solar heating almost to excess. So in other words, I was significantly caffeinated by the time I returned to the Caltrain platform. And pervasive anxiety coupled with a bit of Peet’s may have accounted for the ocular starburst. The Web revealing this moment to be routine among those who have the occasional ocular migraine, which seems to include me. Which is not unpleasant, considering that we have to belong to some group or other, and I can count myself among the optical migraine enthusiasts.
As for the members of the mobile workforce enjoying their lunch hours you will realize that the significance of my observation, why these people jump out of their own truck cabs like pop-up greeting cards, has more to do with me than them. Actually, they spark a Proustian recall. Of year #2 of university life, me employed as only students can be, at something completely inappropriate but moderately remunerative. A shovel-ready project, we would say today. One could even have said this yesterday, shovels figuring as prominently as they did in this job. Ditch digging being the only proper title. Sewer pipe ditch digging, to be exact.
Could the University of California really been using World War II vintage huts for married student housing in 1965? You bet. I have no doubt what they were there for. Originally, that is. Something from the war, some sort of temporary housing for…who knows? Anyway, each of these little stucco houses now had a student family inside. A toilet inside, naturally. And a sewer pipe leading to the outside, which invariably clogged. How this could be a full-time job, going around the married student housing site and digging up sewage lines, one after the next, is beyond me. But sophomores don’t ask such questions. The Sisyphean nature of this enterprise sailed right over my head. There was an hourly rate, the times were flexible, and the times they were a changin’, but not in married student housing. Architecturally, the times were late 1930s or early 1940s. Nothing had changed at all, including, doubtless, this sewer blockages. That and Ray.
He was a twangy guy, my foreman. Oklahoma? Arkansas? It is a terrible coastal bias to say ‘someplace like that,’ but so it is. He was from the twangy provinces. Ray putted around in what, as I recall, was a three-wheeled scooter. The thing sounded much like a lawnmower, and even then one would have thought that a electric-powered golf cart could do the job. Perhaps not. Maybe he towed things with his gasoline putt putt. He had the look of officialdom about him, Ray did, making his way about the complex. Always with a sense of purpose. And full of information. We had to complete a form for each ditch. Not ours to reason why, of course, only to put one’s name on the top, describe the project as ‘dig up sewer line.’ And indicate the type of dirt encountered. Ray had simple instructions for this: DG. Decomposed granite. DG, Paul, put your DG. For this advice, I was most appreciative. Forms and their completion have never been my forte.
It does rain in California, of course. And on such days there was obviously no work, but I turned up anyway, just to let the Buildings & Grounds office know I was still a serious person. Follow me, said Ray. I either walked with him or rode in his putting scooter, I can’t recall. We came to one of the married student bungalows and stopped. Ray loosened a wire mesh leading to the crawlspace under the house. We crawled into that space, Ray and I. And that was that. This is what one did when it rained. You hid under one of the bungalows and waited things out. We actually had to lie in the dirt, Ray and I. That was all. Ray played a transistor radio very softly. Country and Western. Time passed. But not nearly fast enough. After a couple of such work shifts, I was ready to throw in the towel. I was feeling too much like Anne Frank and Albert Camus combined. Filling in forms would have been more fun.
So there they are, the guys in their vans, waiting for…whatever the next thing is. Unlike Ray’s experience, today theirs is closely monitored. They probably have to account for every second. Their whereabouts is GPS-monitored. And they aren’t doing this to supplement their student incomes and pay the modest quarterly fees of a state university being no particular challenge. It has all changed. The times and the man.