The Book of Life
Of all the odd things I was asked to do in my year working as a Wells Fargo security guard, the strangest was the evening I spent with an elderly woman on her front porch in Mercer County, New Jersey, listening to her talk for hours about her family farm. The house to which the porch was attached was sitting on the last parcel of land left of a much larger farmstead that been sold off piece by piece over the span of her lifetime---that year being 1986. She must have been in her 80s at the time, so I am guessing that she was born around the turn of the century. She had lived her entire life in Mercerville, watching it change in innumerable ways, and this was part of her monologue as well. I listened mostly, interjecting now and then to ask questions. I had brought along a copy of the latest edition of Esquire magazine---August 1986, the issue that featured Tim O’Brien’s iconic short story “The Things They Carried,” published for the first time—hoping to find some time to read it. The instructions from my supervising officer had been quite vague: I was to go to the house, introduce myself to the owner, and she would tell me what to do. I had been on other one-off assignments like this one before and my previous experiences led me to believe that I would sit for hours alone in my car watching a building from the outside. Instead, she invited me onto her porch where we talked into the night.
My employers asked me to do many usual things that year, which more or less corresponded with my senior year at a state college in Trenton, New Jersey. For example, I did a two-month stint as the lone security guard on the weekend graveyard shift at the Goodall Rubber, a manufacturer of rubber hosing. I would arrive at midnight and sit in a small office with a fan blowing on me, sweating in my dark blue polyester guard uniform. I would often bring books and magazines with me, but for the first month, I never read a thing because outside on the street, a group of local kids were often trying to break into the warehouse. They would pull on the steel mesh that was bolted over the windows, trying to rip it off. They knew I was there watching them. They could see me. Sometimes they would wave or give me the finger. I would watch them nervously, all the while trying to decide at what point it would be necessary for me to actually call the police, which I did twice in the two the months I was posted there. I was a kid from a small town in Northwestern, New Jersey—farm country basically. From my perspective, Trenton was another planet, and a scary one.
After a few weeks, I stopped watching the kids outside and began exploring the warehouse, which was filled with big coils of rubber hosing that were stacked in towers on wooden pallets that were arranged into rows with just enough space between them for a forklift to drive through. The warehouse was cavernous, dark, and spooky. I carried a nicked steel flashlight with me, half expecting to have to use it as a weapon at some point. My heart would race during these excursions through the warehouse, and I would sweat profusely. The air was stifling and thick with the smell of new rubber. I would sometimes walk the inside perimeter of the warehouse (though no one had asked me to do this) checking the truck bay doors to make certain that they were fully closed and locked. From my sheltered and unseasoned perspective, the City of Trenton was out there, sweaty and malevolent, and I was determined to keep it out.
Around the same time, my supervisor asked me if I wanted to take a shift guarding a parking lot in Trenton. It was presented to me this way: The parking lot is a place where prostitutes like to take their tricks. The owner wants to keep them out. We want you to sit in a car parked at the entrance, in your uniform, so they can see you, “as a deterrent,” he said.
This was the only assignment I actually refused to take.
After the Goodall Rubber gig ended, I was sent to the Law School Admissions site for what was promised to be a “premium post," which meant indoors, air-conditioned, and clean. No sketchy urban parking lots or steamy warehouses. There was a one-week training course, five days in a row on the graveyard shift with my supervisor and the building manager checking up on me. If I passed this test, the post would be mine.
Law School Admissions was located across the river in Newton, Pennsylvania—the suburbs. This was where the bar exam was created and stored. It was a high security facility with multiple alarms and a sophisticated halon fire suppression system. The security guard sat at a desk at the main entrance in front of an enormous map of the building interior that was lit up with an impressive array of colored lights. For five nights straight, I was trained in the intricacies of this map, and in the various contingencies for break-ins or a fire in the sterile, air-cooled computer core at the heart of the building. On the third night, after he said good night and left me alone to finish my shift, the training officer quietly returned to the site and tripped an alarm at the back entrance to see how I would react. My heart pounded as I followed the procedures I had just learned, which culminated in a call to the police.
I was not destined to work the Law School Admissions site, however. On the last night of my training, after a grueling week of midnight to 8 a.m. work nights, I dozed off at my post for just a few seconds a half hour before the end of my shift. My head bobbed down just once and I woke immediately to see the building inspector outside in the parking lot, staring directly at me. That was the end of my premium gig at Law School Admissions.
My final assignment for Wells Fargo, and the longest, was Trap Rock Quarry, which overlooked the Delaware River on the New Jersey side. I am not entirely certain of this, but I think this post may have been a punishment for screwing up at the Law School Admissions site. For the next ten months, I worked here on the weekends, a 5 p.m. to midnight shift on Saturdays and the noon to midnight shift---12 hours straight---every Sunday. Trap Rock was an “insurance post,” which meant that my uniformed presence was only ceremonial---less than ceremonial actually, a line in an insurance contract. There was nothing to guard but giant three-story high haulers and rock crushing machines, things that could not reasonably be stolen or damaged. I was mostly alone for the long hours of my shift, sitting in a small office at the end of a long driveway, with the mountain and the quarry soaring up behind me. Trap Rock was the hinterlands for this particular Wells Fargo district, as far away from headquarters as a guard could be posted. In my other posts, inspectors would regularly show up to check on me when I was working. In ten months of working at Trap Rock, I never once saw an inspector.
I did occasionally see people. Steve, the thirtyish black man who I normally relieved on Sundays, would sometimes stay on for two or three hours after his 12-hour shift ended at noon. He was gregarious and easygoing and could carry a conversation for hours on end without pause, talking about his family and girlfriends and football. I brought a small color TV set with me for my Sunday shift, and sometimes we would sit and watch football games together. I wondered, what kind of life did Steve have that kept him staying three hours past the end of a twelve-hour shift in such a desolate place?
The office was small and dirty and smelled like rock dust, despite the air freshioners scattered about. There was a water cooler and a punch clock and a saggy, brokeback office chair. In addition to my TV set, I would also bring my guitar and a backpack filled with notebooks and school work, though I seldom touched any of it. After a few weeks, I stopped wearing my blue uniform coat. Within two months, I was wearing jeans instead of the hot polyester trousers. The clunky gold-colored metal badge that was supposed to be pinned at all times to the light blue uniform shirt disappeared as well, along with the black shoes, which were replaced by sneakers. Eventually, all that was left of my uniform was that shirt.
There were no other visitors in ten months except for one, a very scary man in his fifties who showed up in a yellow muscle car one Sunday afternoon wearing alligator skin boots and sporting a gray-flecked greaser haircut that he’d probably worn since 1955. He looked like he had just stepped out of a David Lynch film. He introduced himself as a friend of the owner. We stood around in the parking lot while he told me stories about his life of crime, most memorably, about how he had once gone to prison for shooting a person in a courtroom during a trial.
“It’s in a book,” he said rattling off the title, which I have long forgotten. “You should look it up.”
He also said that he kept a gun in his car, even though he was on parole and not allowed to own or carry firearms.
I don’t know what he wanted exactly, but he left at some point, driving off down that lonely driveway in the yellow car. That was the last I saw of him.
When I was in my early twenties, it seemed that I was fated to be a collector of other people’s crazy stories. I was a good listener, spongelike in my ability to sit and take it all in. Liars and exaggerators were drawn to me. For example, a woman sitting beside me on an airplane told me, after she was half in the bag from three cocktails, that she had once had sex with Janice Joplin. “I’m not a lesbian or anything,” she said. “But it was Janice.” Around the same time, I met a young woman at a U2 concert who insisted that she had been born at Woodstock. “Cross my heart,” she said. I could recite other stories like this—stories of similarly questionable voracity that other strangers shared with me when I was in my twenties. This was before my own persona had solidified and toughened, before I had developed the defensive skills necessary to ward off these assaults on my personal space. I eventually cultivated a rather unfriendly stare that said ‘don’t even fucking think about it.’ I began wearing headphones on airplanes. I learned the art of ducking the gaze of others, because the open gaze is how they find a way in. My windows and doors had been wide open before; I closed them.
In my thirties, probably because of my new defensiveness, the stories dried up. I was moving too quickly through my life to sit for hours allowing strangers to monopolize my time. There was too much to do.
Only a handful of stories I gathered during this wide open period of my life ever penetrated my psyche in any meaningful way. The old woman on the porch was one of them.
When I try to recall this event in my mind, I can hardly believe that it happened this way. I worry that I am missing some big piece of the story, some long forgotten detail that would better explain why I was there in the first place, but I cannot remember anything more. If this was a work of fiction, like Tim O’Brien’s piece in Esquire, I would feel at liberty to creatively reconstruct the dialogue, a back-and-forth between this woman (whose name I have also forgotten) and myself, but in the land of the narrative essay, the porous memory is king.
Why was I there? What was my purpose? At each of the other posts, I could justify the need for a security guard, even at Trap Rock, but what exactly did she need from me? Someone to keep her company? That evening on the porch, I felt a sense of duty to sit with her on her back porch watching the sun set over that last patch of her ancestral land, her with a blanket draped in her lap, me with my unread copy of Esquire in mine.
Hers was a story of sadness and loss, of children and grandchildren who had moved away or convinced her to sell off pieces of the farm. As the sky darkened into night, I could feel her fading next to me, not from the light of life, but from the churn of history itself. It was as if she had resigned herself to die in this place, her feet firmly planted in the land, as a final act of resistance against forces of change she could not stop. She complained that small family farms were being destroyed by the new economy. The forces were against farmers these days, she said. Developers were everywhere, always calling and leaving messages on her answering machine or stopping by, always offering to buy more of her land. Always leaving their business cards. The country used to understand the importance of family farms, she said. There was a place for them in New Jersey. They mattered. Now the land was all that mattered, not the land as she had known it—fertile and green and teaming with life—but the land that was demarcated by lines on a map at the local zoning board meetings, the land that could be bought and sold and "developed." Land for housing developments. Land for shopping centers. Land for another condo complex or golf course.
I cannot recall a single line of dialogue from this conversation, but I can still feel the weight of it in my mind. The shape and outline of it is still as clear to me as if I had heard it yesterday. There have been a handful of people in my life who stood astride history, able to look backwards over their shoulders and describe for me what they alone can still see. This woman without a name is one of them. In her presence that evening, I could feel the totality of the twentieth century hanging in the air between us, and all of the things we have collectively lost or deliberately traded away to achieve this current state of over-civilized existence. The knowledge of plants and trees and birds and insects that was once commonplace rather than secreted away in libraries and textbooks. The feel of the land underfoot without a strip of pavement or concrete in sight, the rise and fall of it, the way the grass would bend in the wind. She was animated by the pathos of loss, as if she suddenly felt a responsibility to share these thoughts with someone who would actually listen.
It is possible that she sensed my receptiveness. I too had felt a similar loss when, at age five, I watched the vast meadow behind my house disappear under the bulldozer’s blade, churned up and turned into neat lines of houses in less than a year. An entire universe was destroyed so quickly I could barely register its loss—a universe of chipmunks and squirrels and salamanders and toads and turtles and killdeer and monarch butterflies flitting around milkweed fronds and the smell of honeysuckle in the air. A universe of endless play, boys running and whooping effortlessly through the tall grass, our bare feet connecting with the earth in primal solidarity. Maybe she sensed in me a comrade, a confidante. I don’t know, but that evening, I felt the sensation of joining souls with another person for the first time in my life. I could feel myself opening up to her while her story poured itself into me.
I have never recovered from the loss of my meadow, and whenever I think of it now, she is there also, both of us having been cast from The Garden and then made to watch paradise burn.
Some readers will no doubt think me immature or frivolous to speak in this way. Their cynicism and resignation is everywhere now, poisoning our entire society, but it has been this way for a long time in America. In the early 1860s, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If a man walks the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.” The shearers of woods have ruled the roost for some time, and they have more or less written the Book of Common Sense in America. But the Book of Life was written by loafers and lovers of chipmunks, toads, and monarch butterflies—the people for whom the land is sacred. I choose to make common cause with them.