Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Toenail Of The Living Dead

I was fired from the first job I ever had. As a janitor. Not exactly an auspicious debut in the workforce.

I was hired by the school department to clean up Hazard Elementary School over the summer with the custodial staff. They got there at 7, started work at roughly 9:30 after reading the paper and smoking assorted cigarettes, and worked sporadically throughout the day until cutting out early.

I immediately adopted their routine. When the district supervisor came down on them for their lack of progress they sold me down the river and I was fired.

Less than a week later I started working at Belmont Fruit, a small market that stocked fresh fruit and vegetables in their retail store and also sold wholesale produce to local restaurants. This job would define my summers for the next half decade as I continued to work there through my college years.

I began as The Corn Boy. The Corn Boy is a fixture in South County. Each morning somewhere between eighty and one hundred bags of fresh corn were loaded off of a truck and onto three long low tables that sat in front of the market. As Corn Boy I was the keeper of the cob.

I donned a thick heavy white apron. Customers would tell me they needed a dozen, two dozen, three ears, five small two large, nine magically perfect cobs, whatever. I would take a brown paper bag and quickly pack the desired amount.

This job was murder on your hands because you had to quickly peel back the silk to make sure there weren't worms or earwigs or small mammals hiding in the ear. By the end of each day my hands would be destroyed.

Then there were the personalities. People get crazy about corn. They were born with some instinctual genius and special knowledge about what makes a good ear. Even though you handle roughly 75,000 ears a DAY they assume you know nothing about it. They'll try to convince you that you can find a dozen ears of white kernel corn when the entire shipment is yellow. They give you tips on shucking. A rhyming ghost of "shuck you" was constantly haunting my tongue.

After a few months of this job I could tell a tourist from a local in point five seconds.

I transitioned to my next job at Belmont, The Trimmer. Instead of being parked out front of the store I was now buried in the back where the Wholesale operation was housed. The Trimmer prepared every head of lettuce that wound up on the Retail floor. This was a considerable amount. They stocked red leaf, green leaf, iceberg, romaine, Boston (both hydroponic and ground grown), red cabbage, green cabbage, chicory, and any number of seasonal varieties and exotic additions.

The heads arrived in cardboard boxes direct from farms or distribution centers. Often the farm dirt still clung to the stems. The Trimmer took a sharp knife and sliced the rough end of the stem off, washed the head in water if it called for it, and placed it on a counter to dry for a short period. Then when you had an adequate amount you loaded it all into a shopping cart and went out and restocked the shelves.

The iceberg had its own process. It was not washed. We had a machine with a hot metal rod, a roll of plastic and a hot plate. You enveloped the head in a sheet of plastic, dragged it over the heated metal rod to cut the plastic and then melted it closed on the hot plate.

I have one visible scar on my hand from cutting myself with the trimming knife. My hands were so cold from washing the lettuce that I didn't know I'd cut myself. I looked in the shopping cart at the heads of iceberg that I'd wrapped and noticed that there were three dark red heads. It took me a second to realize what I'd done.

After a summer of being The Trimmer I moved to another position, one that I would continue to hold for the rest of my time at Belmont Fruit. I became a Wholesale Delivery guy. I packed vans with orders placed by local restaurants and then took "runs" in which I drove all over Southern Rhode Island dropping off boxes and boxes of produce to every variety of establishment.

This is where I condemned my toenail to eternal damnation.

I used a hand truck to move the vegetables around. You stored it in the truck with you and pulled it out as needed. Very quickly I became like a samurai with the thing, whipping it around without even thinking about it.

One day I was trying to get a case of cabbage around the back of the van. Chen's was a local Chinese restaurant that I vowed never to eat in again once I saw the kitchen. Their parking lot was very awkward for deliveries. They also used infinite heads of cabbage. Which is HEAVY. Especially when there are four or five cases of it stacked on top of one another.

Well, I tried to hop a curb with the weighted hand truck. The metal sheet which the cases rested on came to an edge below a ladder like backing. I often put my foot in the lowest rung and used my leg to lift the burden. This time the wheel caught the curb and the metal edge came down on my toe.

Even through a heavy work boot it hurt like a mother. I jumped around yelling as various inscrutable Chinese stared at me from through the screen door that separated the kitchen from the parking lot. I cursed them for their damn two hundred pounds of cabbage and the suspicious meat boiling in some barely cleaned bathtub. I shook off the pain and went about my business.

When I got home later that day I took off my shoe. That poor toe looked like a crime scene photo. I iced it but it stayed purple for almost the rest of the summer.

Now, I've known people who have crushed a toenail, or a fingernail. What usually happens is the nail dies and then is pushed out by a new nail, a better nail. But my toe must have made some pact with the Foot Devil because that didn't happen.

No, MY toenail turned black, back to purple, then it dulled down to a dusty gray. It has been that way for over two decades. The nail doesn't grow. I don't have to cut it. But it doesn't fall out either.

It hovers between ours and the underworld, waiting to seek eternal revenge on some deep orthopedic level known only to digits, cursed to forever exist in limbo, the toenail of the living dead.

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