First Job in the Jungle
None of it was my idea.
The yard was about 200 feet long and 50 feet wide, as well as you could see from the rusty chain link fence barely peeking out at spots above the overgrowth. It was about the size of the entire first floor of the old lady’s row house behind me, and every living cell of it was my problem. There must have been a million weeds, living and dead, in that yard and every one of them had my name on it.
The place is inner-city Baltimore. The time is somewhere in my twelfth year. The idea was my stepfather’s, his not-so-subtle nudging to make something of myself. So I decided I would loan out whatever services I might offer: cleaning, dusting, fetching groceries, whatever came up. I’d chosen the less-scary elderly apartment complex up the street from the row house we’d just moved into from a more suburban existence near Denver.
There wasn’t much of me back then to go around, but I would see what I could do. If no one wanted me, then I could simply go back to having a childhood again. That’s what I really wanted.
Instead, I got a stack of index cards. I was instructed to write an ad detailing my services on every one of them . . . the same message over and over again. It was my first public writing, my first paid writing, too. If you don’t count the slimy bits.
Oh, right. We haven’t gotten to the slimy bits yet.
But I’m not thinking about slimy bits . . . I’m still back earning a good case of childhood carpal tunnel copying one card to the next, by hand. The job was already becoming more than I wanted to do and I hadn’t even started working yet. Finally it was done. I’d have to distribute them now. I suddenly wished I had a few thousand more cards to copy.
I came home from school the next day and the cards were waiting, along with instructions that they all would be distributed today or else. So I set out slinking my way through all four floors of the building jamming the cards in the handles of the doors, not sure if I wanted anyone to notice them or not. A little money would be good, but a little freedom to be a kid for a while longer seemed more important at the time.
Not one tenant responded.
I was quietly relieved, though I made a show of being disappointed at home. If only I had thought to throw away the half-dozen or so cards I had leftover.
“What are these?”
“You didn’t pass them out? Don’t you want a job?”
“I got all of the apartments…”
“Then pass the rest out to the houses next door. They might have work, too.”
Any other kid my age would have gone out and found a trashcan or dumpster to throw them into, then wandered about for a couple of hours before coming home with a hopeful look on her face. I’m not wired that way. Once I said I’d do something, I felt compelled to do it, whether I wanted to or not. I’m the same way today—only now I make certain I want to do something before I open my mouth.
Only one call came in. It would be my only handy-kid job of the summer, so of course it was the worst kind of hell imaginable. It seemed doable enough over the phone: Clear a weed-infested garden. But what was described as a garden became an entire back yard, and as soon as I saw it I knew whatever I was being paid, it wasn’t enough. No one had touched this yard in years and now a scant twelve-year-old was expected to clear it completely of vegetation, with her hands. The little old lady who owned this travesty took one look at me and shook her head before disappearing back inside her cool dark house.
It was hot and muggy that summer, as it usually was on the east coast. The little old lady never once came out to offer me a drink of water or suggest I take a break. I wondered if she’d forgotten I was even out there. Then again, I wasn’t smart enough to bring something with me when I showed up in the morning.
The job took weeks. Grab a stalk of unknown vintage and pull. Sometimes they pulled out of the gritty, coal cinder rich soil; sometimes they snapped off just above it. Sometimes I couldn’t get them to budge. I ruined a good pair of old sneakers kicking at the soil until I got the roots up. I was not to be paid if one stalk shown above the dirt. I feared instead she would charge me for how much of the itchy dirt I was walking away with—on my arms, under my drenched T-shirt, in my hair. Pulling weeds of this caliber made for a lot of flying earth, despite how weakly I perpetrated the maneuver.
The live weeds were thick, flexible and sticky; the dead ones raspy and dry, poking or burning my skin. Both reeked of a bitter sweet smell of yearning life and imminent death, some more pungent than others. The dirt smelled of long dead coal and even deader life, a wet earthiness mixed with the smell of long ignored excrement from creatures I would never identify.
I would be hard-pressed to tell you what the best part of the job was. I simply don’t remember one. Payment was definitely a letdown after all that work. Calling it a day at dinnertime was suspect, as well, since I felt so sore limping the half-block back home. I knew then that hell was a place where there were no good things to mention about your day.
The worst part was easy to identify: this is the slimy part.
For years a biosphere had evolved within that jungle of weeds. A deep dark forest of live and long dead weeds three to four feet high, shading the ground far beneath from the summer sun and heat. Every slimy creature on the block must have slowly migrated to this one place where survival was assured—until I came along. To these mucous-laden creatures I was the equivalent of an earthmover in a tropical rain forest, laying waste to the habitat of generations of their kind.
But they got their revenge. It seemed that for each weed I pulled there was a corresponding slug, snail or beetle waiting to be pulled up with it—and more often than not they were attached about where I had to grasp the offending plant to pull it free.
You would have to know just how squeamish I am about such things. Even now. And through the entire job I never got used to the feeling of a small life squishing and oozing between my fingers, my already dirty jeans slick with their bodies as I tried to rid myself of that feeling.
But if I decided to quit without finishing what I’d promised to do, there would be hell to pay when my parents found out. Most residents in that part of town avoided contact with their possibly dangerous neighbors or—especially—their children. My stepfather sought them out, seeming to know things you thought he could never find out. The job went on.
Summer days literally melted into each other. Day after day I set about my work. Then one day a small treat, the sky rumbling and darkening with the portent of cool rain. Fate finally merciful, granting a reprieve from the blistering heat and stench of sweat. But it would make little difference: I was practically an automaton now. I had built up a tiny bit of muscle by this time, so things went a little bit faster, but it didn’t matter: there was no end to this hell on weeds.
This is why I stared blankly when my fingers struck something new. Thick metal wires, vertically entwined with the weeds stretching to either side. It was the yard’s long forgotten back fence. I was at the end.
You might think that this would have cheered me, but somehow it only made me feel the pain in my shoulders more as my mind tried to gauge how many more weeds I would have to pull before the job was finally done. And when I finally pulled the last weed and tossed it onto the huge pile to be carted away by the city, I could only look at the back fence and the continuation of weeds on the other side and wonder: Why had I bothered? New weeds would soon grow up in this place and the cycle would start all over again. Such was my mindset when I trudged home, with a meager stipend in my pocket.
I made a small name for myself that summer as a “good worker”, someone who “finished the job” and “kept their word,” and perhaps I have brought these values forward in my life. But I have also never liked working out in the garden, I have somehow become allergic to too much sun exposure and if anyone mentions “weeding” I’m already packing my bags.
It’s no wonder I ended up a computer programmer for my first career, safely ensconced in an air conditioned tower at a comfortable desk, a window looking out on a courtyard made of concrete, far from any weeds…