I’m at my latest job. It’s in a warehouse in Western North Carolina located next to an auto supply store along a stretch of Spartanburg Highway. In the surrounding expanse are the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian Chain. At times the fog swirls around the mountains, covering the greenery with wispy, gauze-like strokes while at other times concealing parts of the landscape in a mystic mist, conjuring up the words of poet Carl Sandburg who described the fog as coming on little cat feet, sitting along a harbor before moving on. This fog is not unlike the fog of the city of my birth—San Francisco. However, unlike San Francisco, there are no foghorns to announce the fog’s presence; the only horns being those attached to cars and trucks along this stretch of road as well as the brass variety used by marching and jazz bands at the various local high schools. It is August and the weather is warming up. The AC in my car broke down and I bought several canisters of freon gas to revive the cool circulation I’d become accustomed to. I stopped at the auto parts store next to my warehouse place of employment for the freon and injected several blasts into the appropriate valve to no avail. Freon—is it basically fog in a can? Maybe not.
In the warehouse are an array of tools and cleaning/disinfection stations, not to mention stock merchandise. This warehouse is part of a business that sells electric wheelchairs and scooters, manual wheelchairs, walkers, commodes, grab bars, CPAP machines and other such items that offer accessibility and comfort. I look upon my employment at this warehouse—where I help assemble wheelchairs and scooters (as well as taking out the trash and changing toilet paper rolls) as both ironic and somewhat comical. I was never technically inclined. I never assembled a model airplane or car when I was a kid, instead, preferring the simplicity of Play Dough which I could form and shape into my own image—which was, in the words of my grandfather—a bump on a log. There were attempts to get me more acquainted with my abs and the potential they might possess. In grade school I had a teacher named Mrs. Gerkin who would wet her fingertip with her tongue when peeling off ditto sheets for her students. I found it repulsive. She somehow reminded me of Elmer’s Glue which I never divulged to her. I was left-handed and left-handed people tend to hold a pen or pencil at a certain angle, slanting or leaning towards the right, hand curling downward at the wrist. Mrs. Gerkin attempted to have me hold my #2 pencil as if I were right-handed. I couldn’t do it. She erased my scribbles with a thick eraser that resembled the tongue she used to wet her finger. The only word I could think of was yuck—which I wrote down. Still not satisfied, she vigorously erased the word yuck, tearing a hole into the paper. She left me alone afterwards.
As I got older, I was encouraged by my grandfather to “learn a trade.” My father had started a small janitorial service and I worked with him, schlepping mops, buckets, brooms, and toilet brushes. I was barely able to operate a vacuum cleaner. He once tried to show me how to operate a floor buffing machine which was disastrous, with me losing control and the machine jerking about as if doing the jitterbug in one of those black and white film showing ballroom dances of yesteryear. My father was a boxing fan and he showed me some boxing fundamentals. I could throw a decent jab and I had a pretty good left hook, but I didn’t have it in me to hurt anyone. But I liked watching Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee. Where I was afraid and intimidated, they were strong, able and filled with confidence. I would imitate them, jabbing away at all imaginary comers. I amassed an imaginary fight record of 50 wins and no losses.
When I got out of high school, I enrolled at City College. There was a campus radio station and broadcast department. I took an interest in radio and entertained the idea of a radio career as a disc jockey. Another uncle urged me to join a union—the Display Workers Union—where workers set up booths at conventions. I signed up and attended an orientation. I was surrounded by men, many donning overalls while I sat with my stubble-free face and relatively soft hands. How many of you guys have staple guns? A union member asked. Several men drew staple guns from their pockets as if they were guns out of a western movie—a slew of .45 automatics. I left orientation, never to return.
So now I am in a warehouse decades later working as a warehouse tech after working a variety of jobs—office worker at an insurance company, radio DJ, security guard, housing advocate etc. I use my hands in a real way, my fingers and thumbs and palms conforming to the shapes, the arcs, and angles of the tools. I assemble wheelchairs and scooters. To my surprise, I am piecing things together—something I never thought possible. It has been a learning process, learning the difference between a drill and an impact driver, an Allen Wrench from a pair of pliers, a screwdriver from a toaster. There have been moments of frustration and, I assume, that is the reason an Everlast boxing punching bag has been strategically placed among the worktables and shelves of merchandise. I was frustrated as not being able to piece together a certain wheelchair that I felt was being difficult in attempt to ridicule or spite me. I looked at the heavy bag and threw a left jab, ready to follow up with a straight right when a voice said: Why are you blaming me? I looked at the heavy bag then looked around. Yeah, I’m talking to you, the voice said. I looked at the heavy bag, top to bottom then back to the top.
“Where’d you learn to talk?” I asked. The bag began to move, swaying side to side as if pushed by an invisible hand. Where’d you learn how to work a wrench? It asked in return. That wasn’t a wrench, it was a screwdriver, the bag laughed. “So, are you trying to tell me to go back to the wrench from whence I came?” I asked. “You got a smart mouth,” I said, assuming a boxing stance. The bag hung passively. Maybe I was taking the anger out on it, unjustifiably. I lowered my hands to my sides. Hey, you’re doing good, the bag said. This warehouse is your training camp, it continued, a place where you can fight back all those doubts you carry around like towels and spit buckets.
I hear another voice from across the warehouse—it’s the warehouse lead, Dave. He tells me there’s another wheelchair to assemble. He points to a box, and I grab my boxcutters. Go get ‘em, kid the heavy bag said in a voice that sounded a bit like my father’s. I sit and get to work on the wheelchair. As I work, I receive a text message from a cousin in Seattle saying that today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee. In one scene, Bruce Lee is to do battle with a villain during a martial arts tournament held on an island owned by an even bigger villain named Mr. Han. Bruce Lee bows toward his opponent who responds with disrespect by producing a wooden board which he proceeds to split into pieces with a blow, to which Bruce replies, Boards…don’t hit back. Bruce proceeds to inflict an immortal beating upon his nemesis that has proven timeless in the annals of cinematic fight scenes. And, no less true, the warehouse heavy bags don’t hit back. But the words from this warehouse heavy bag hit me in the right place as I pieced together an electric wheelchair with the feeling that I actually got it done. Go get ‘em kid, the bag whispers, like a trainer, a coach, as I tackle another electric wheelchair.
© 2023 Tony Robles