• Originally written in October, 1979
  • Copyright © 1979 by Carl J. Mistlebauer.

He comes in, “Hi Carl, business been steady?” He gives his skull-face a spin around to observe all in the store. Nothing in the store changes, yet he always has to look around to familiarize himself with the store.

As he bullies around in the back storage room getting ready to prepare the floors, I cannot help but think, he gets up at midnight to work till five or six then he’s off to another job for eight hours. Then what…? Oh, oh, here he comes I better act busy.

“Did I tell you how my boy did at state?” I look up, trying to act startled.

“He ran his second best time ever!” Pouring himself a 43 cent cup of coffee (45 cents with tax) he looks up at me, much like a scolded dog would, “You’re a good Joe, aren’t you?” I look at this cup. “I mean you’re not going to charge me are you….”

“No, go ahead….” I replied while thinking about how old that pot of coffee was.

“His team placed third overall; behind Menomonee Falls and Monona.” I wag my head, in a disinterested way, in acknowledgement.

“A couple of guys on his team didn’t do as good as they should’ve, but my boy pulled his weight!” After peering into his coffee cup he decides to get to work. I feel some relief and then try to get some of my Urban-Econ read but I keep peering over the pages at this man waltzing with his broom up and down the aisles of Stop-N-Go. I can’t take it anymore, I throw down my book and I rush to the back to sort returned soda bottles. I feel inadequate in his presence; I have to keep a distance between him and me. I continue sorting bottles without thinking. Maybe I don’t want to think.

A bell goes off to tell me someone entered the store. I rush up front ready with my, “Hello, how are you.” I look around, all I see is him; standing at the counter with a soda (40 cents plus tax).

“My son got a letter from the Coach at Parkside.” My nervousness returns: I need a cigarette, but I don’t smoke…

Why do I work? I doubt if it is for the money. I could be working somewhere else for I could be working somewhere else for more money and probably working better hours. I could write home for money. But then I would feel tied to my parents and their wishes. I would feel that I had to account for every penny they would give me as they would not like me to waste this allowance and I love to waste money. Why do I work? I enjoy being by myself, especially on the graveyard shift. I like the regulars who come in and talk. During the day I sit in classes or in the library, my nose pushed deep in a book, my fingers wrapped around a pencil, and my head occupied with great thoughts. Why? For what purpose? When I sit in my room on campus I feel detached from society; I feel I don’t belong. Working at Stop-N-Go gives me my membership card to society.

“Yeah, the Coach wanted his times and wants my boy to come down for a visit.” The smiling skullface looks to me for reassurance to continue, he finds it and goes on. “The boy isn’t too excited about college right now and wants to take a year off.” I, out of symapathy, interject, “That’s great, but sometimes people sit for a year then they never go back.” He continues, “I sat out a year and then I joined the Army for four. I got out and went to school..” He finishes this line leaving me hanging in suspence as to whether he did or did not graduate. He walks away and I am relieved as he gets down on his hands and knees, takes up his razor blade and attacks the wax build-up along the baseboard…

Why does society put so much emphasis on work? Watching him, on his hands and knees, scrape the wax buildup, I sense that work is our society’s true religion. I worship work; especially, I worship those who are successful at working. I notice the man (or woman) who drives the Lincoln, or who trots around in an animal fur jacket: I am envious of them and I actually look up to them. The Bible says that the meek shall inherit the Earth, but I feel they will, but only if the rich find something better, or can make a buck in the deal. I worship the wealthy and I am not the only one. I look up to the individual who has money, never quesitoning how he or she made their money. I never question their work ethic, I never ask if they are happy. How can someone not be happy if they have money?

I look up and see him; he’s attached to the buffer as it drags him back and forth, back and forth, erasing any sign of past life at Stop-N-Go. He seems content. He seems happy. The buffer then turns its self off, giving the man a break. “Carl, its Valentines Day.” Looking at the clock, I reply, “Sure is; Happy Valentines” (Its now 3:30 a.m.).

“I better buy my wife something.” Thumbing through our cheap cards, he finds one and brings it over, along with two decks of playing cards ($1.25 plus 5 cents tax for the Valentines card and the playing cards are on sale, two for a $1.00, oh, and cannot forget 4 cents tax). I give him his change as my heart aches and my eyes meet his while I am bagging his gift. His eyes are happy, his eyes glisten, much as my eyes do when I remember the happiness of a childhood Christmas. “Why isn’t he buying his wife roses, or candies? Why isn’t he taking her out? How can he be so cheap?” I wonder, as he is beckoned back to work by the buffer.”

How can someone be content working so hard for so little? Aren’t we all trying to be rich; isn’t that the meaning of work? He seems of the old-school as he walys does a good job no matter how much he gets paid. My work quality depends on how much I am getting paid. Maybe I emphasize the work aspect of work, there must be more to work than the physical activity that we can see. I guess I want to be the one in the Lincoln, while still being able to enjoy the self confidence and pride one feels in a job well done: Just like that the man behind the buffer feels.

“Carl, have you seen the prices of the new track shoes?” I notice the sweat under his arms as he walks toward me. I also notice my nervousness and anxiety toward him is gone: I now sympathize with the man for his hard work. I respect him for his his ideals and now I want to talk.

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