Last night I attended a book reading by Donald Ray Pollock, the Ohio-born author of Knockemstiff, a book of short stories about life in small town America. It’s pretty great, you should read it.
Pollock was a high school dropout, then spent thirty years working in a paper mill in Southeast Ohio, finally winding up as a published author in his 50’s. As he spoke about that evolution at the book reading (including an admission during the question & answer period that "he started writing when he quit drinking in his 30’s, because he needed something to fill up his newfound free time") it struck me that Pollock and I had almost opposite literary and working lives. Essentially I spent 19 years as an intellectual, then 40 years in the working class.
As a child all I did was read. My brother and sister were ten and seven years older than me, my parents both worked two jobs, I was a really shy kid who was no good at sports, it was a pretty solitary existence, so reading seemed to be my ready remedy. I taught myself to read with comic books when I was four years old. It mystified me when I got to kindergarten and the other kids had to be read to by the teacher. What was wrong with my classmates? Where was their literary independence?
Anyway, as time and school went on I just sank deeper and deeper into books, they became my whole world. Then in 1964 when The Beatles and the British Invasion hit I just added rock & roll to my short list of obsessions. I took all college prep courses in high school and dutifully commuted to Ohio State University from my West Side home for three years. My father had died of a heart attack in April of my senior year of high school, so Social Security was paying for my higher education, an expense my mother couldn’t possibly have afforded. However, the catch was that Social Security would only pay for school if I lived at home. And living at home was becoming increasingly problematic. My mother - who at the best of times displayed what would today be politely referred to as "anger-management issues" - never fully recovered from the death of my father, and there were battles, every day or every night, or both.
I did three years of college before taking off to Boston to be in a rock & roll band with my high school best friend. When that band crashed & burned and starvation set in I returned to Columbus, got my first apartment, and my first real job. That job was in the warehouse of a catalog showroom called Service Merchandise. Since I had three years of college under my belt the store manager hired me in at a higher job description and higher pay rate than my co-workers. (Warehouse workers at Service Merchandise in 1974 did NOT routinely have three years of college on their applications.)
My first days and weeks at that job were a nightmare. All I knew were books and rock & roll, I’d never done manual labor in my life and my co-workers resented me for being promoted over them. I was in so far over my head that it wasn’t even funny. My first day on the job the guy training me (who was a coupla years my senior) told me to move a pallet of merchandise from one place to another in the warehouse. I got the pallet jack under the pallet, but didn’t know how to lock it to get it to raise up. "What’s the matter, college-boy, don’t know how to operate heavy machinery? It’s a pallet jack, for Chrissakes." He shoved me aside, locked the jack, pumped it up, moved the pallet and sneered over his shoulder, "Don’t think you can learn everything you need to know from books." I knew I was in for a long adjustment period. And it wasn’t like we were gonna be discussing Proust in the lunch room.
I worked in warehouses at Service Merchandise and a few other places from 1974 until 1998 when, with a small financial cushion from an inheritance from my mother, I finally switched over to working in record stores. In those 24 years I worked with a fair amount of low-life assholes. I worked FOR a lot of petty middle-management bureaucrats. But I also worked with a variety of brilliant, caring, giving men and women, many of whom hadn’t finished a book since their high school days. What I want to thank Donald Ray Pollock for is giving a voice to those people, for inspiring hope in something greater later in life, and for making it crystal clear that you just never know how truly brilliant that person working next to you at the paper mill really is.
© 2012 Ricki C.