March 6, 2013

Nobody Owes You Anything

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TC Flickr
TC Flickr

When I was eleven I found $20 on the sidewalk. My mother made me walk up to every person on the street and ask if they had lost any money. When I got enough “no” responses, I was allowed to keep it, but I had to give $10 to the church. It seemed outrageous considering most churches only charge a 10% tithe and I had no income or any other assets, aside from a baseball card collection that was so valueless I probably still owe money to Major League Baseball.

I was more than miffed. We stopped at the donation box on the ride home and my mother broke the twenty for me. I said, sort of jokingly, when we got back into the car, “Well now the church owes me $10.” My mother slammed on the brakes.

My mother is not a hard woman. She didn’t make us walk off physical injuries, or even do our laundry until we were in high school. She was strict, but extremely warm. We weren’t exactly coddled, but we were definitely given a far beyond average amount of positive reinforcement. Especially for children who were not far beyond average. Those are just some of the reasons why I was more than a little shocked at her response to my hilarious joke.

My mother whirled around in the driver’s seat. She looked me square in the eyes. Her voice was firm, but plain. She wasn’t speaking as an authority figure to a subordinate, or even as a mother to a daughter. She was speaking to me person-to-person, because this wasn’t a lesson; this was a fact.

“Nobody owes you anything.”

She wasn’t talking about unalienable rights. She wasn’t talking about respect. She most definitely was not talking about the church or religion. She was talking about entitlement.

A very smart person once asked me, “Why is the sentence ‘I don’t deserve this,’ simultaneously the most selfish and selfless thing someone can say?” I didn’t have an answer for her. There are two reasons. First, she is much smarter than I am and, second, it was a rhetorical question to make a point.

I don’t deserve this. I DON’T deserve this. I don’t DESERVE this. I don’t deserve THIS.

I was extremely lucky to land a job almost immediately after graduating college. My dad arranged it for me. He knew a guy who knew a guy. The supervisor wasn’t sure I would fit in because I had such little experience in the field and also it was a true boy’s club. My father convinced them to meet with me and I swore to them that I truly had what it took. That is how I became a garbage woman.

I wasn’t a real garbage woman. It was much worse than that because I also had to clean public bathrooms. I was on the maintenance crew of a very popular state park. This all would have been tolerable if I could have neatly packaged it in my mind as a “summer job”. Perhaps I would have enjoyed being one of those spoiled assholes that do work like this for only six weeks in order to have “the experience”. However, I wasn’t spoiled, I was just an asshole.

I was a graduate of Fancy University and believed I was too important to be doing this kind of work fulltime. Besides two garbage runs a day, we also cut the grass (state parks have a lot of goddamn grass), weed whacked, cleared trails, painted fences, pumped floods, and were called on more than once to dispose of dead animals inside the administrative building. One day we had to weed whack for several miles along a state road in relentless summer heat. We came upon another crew who had been doing the next segment of the same road. They were inmates from the federal prison.

I learned how to cut down a tree with a chainsaw. I learned the correct way to operate an industrial garbage hopper at a municipal waste transfer station, so see me if you ever need to dispose of a dead body. I learned that some human beings shoot feces straight out of their belly buttons — because that is the only way to explain some of the crime scene-level grisliness I encountered in the bathrooms. Most importantly, I learned that I wasn’t above any of it, that I was lucky to have a job, and that you should never touch ANYTHING in a public bathroom.

My supervisor was a man named Don who looked like a buff Santa Claus, smoked Marlboro Reds, and called me “girl.” He called all of the guys on the staff “booby,” so I was super okay with “girl.” He drove around in a pickup truck and said things like “kill the day,” when he didn’t have any urgent jobs for us to do. After a while on Don’s crew, I found another job.

I told Don I was leaving. He smiled and wished me well. I can honestly say I was a little sad to go. I would never hear Don tell me over the handheld radio to “take a break.” Then I thought about how, during one of my breaks the previous week, someone driving out of the park exit gates had thrown a half-eaten apple out of their car window and it had landed in my lap.

I headed up to the administrative building to let the big bosses know in person. Don said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll let ‘em know.” He leaned back against the shop chair, took a relaxed inhale, and probably thought about his Harley. “Don’t I owe them an explanation?” I asked him.

Don trained his eyes on me. He wasn’t speaking as an authority figure to a subordinate, or even as an older man to a younger woman. He was speaking to me garbage-person to garbage-person, because this wasn’t a lesson; this was a fact.

“You don’t owe anybody shit.” TC mark

Laura Jayne Martin

Laura Jayne Martin is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been featured in/on McSweeney’s Internet …

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