Five bucks an hour sounds right. 1988, my third job.
I was nineteen. It was early summer. One of my girlfriend's roommates mentioned she saw a 'help wanted' sign in the big window of the Mexican restaurant on Tate Street. She knew I needed a job, which was thoughtful, but also, likely, would have loved to see less of me, as I practically lived in their smoke-laden dive of an apartment, with its five female Dead Head inhabitants. It's an easy guess how many hangers-on there were. I wouldn't blame her for wanting to thin out the herd a little. I was glad for the change too. Sitting around dripping candle wax on a wine bottle listening to Tea for the Tillerman gets old fast. Especially when some wilderness instructor is yammering about how much better equipped bears are than people--and as the girls had many visitors, happened too often. I always would nod in agreement and say that's why bears control the government. But I digress. My friend mentioning the 'help wanted' sign turned out to be a profound gesture.
The job, as explained to me by the owner--an ex-Navy cook, with a decent heart and a poor business sense--mainly consisted of cleaning the giant window which took up practically the entire facade of the one story building, and also cleaning the front of the restaurant on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, which was also a bar, and had rock shows Wednesday night through Saturday. It wasn't a large space. The floors were clay tile, there were often shattered beer bottles, but I swept it and mopped it easily. The urinals were a challenge at first, but I got used to it. That damn window though, it was a goddamn beast. I saved it for last.
Looking in from the street, people pressed against the glass, especially when bands played, to see if it was worth the five-dollar cover charge. There were hand prints and face prints and whatever-the-hell else always on it. I didn't have a squeegee, I used crumpled newsprint. Stacks of the free entertainment weekly from the bin by the door, balled into huge sponges, used with generic blue window cleaner. I'd spray across the top, furiously clean from side to side, the corners first, then up, down, wrapping a dry sheet of newsprint on the increasingly large ball of paper, trying my damndest to get the window spotless before it dried. If it streaked, I'd do it again.
It was a simple job, yes, but the results were immediate, and failure was glaringly obvious, so therefore untenable. At the end, I would be filthy, streaked with black ink from the newsprint. My hands would be black, my face too, mixed with sweat. I'd be drenched, as it was often 100 degrees, with no air on. But the window would be clean. The owner was impressed. When I completed the task, I'd go to my summer school class, feeling spent and strangely pleased and satisfied, ready to attempt to absorb a lecture on Melville's Billy Budd.
The next week or so the doorguy quit--I was offered that job at night. The second show I worked Gwar played, the third, The Vandals. Then, over the course of the summer and into the next fall, I had a thorough introduction to the North Carolina music scene of the late 1980s. I watched Southern Culture on the Skids, The Veldt, Flat Duo Jets, Snatches of Pink, Bicycle Face, early bands with Snuzz and Ben Folds, and a ton of others.
Up until then, I didn't know many people outside the hangers-on at my girlfriend's. I was shy, and my inclination was to keep myself at a remove, then everything changed, quickly. On the street, people I didn't know, easily approached me. My neighbors befriended me. Snuzz became my roommate. I made friends, many were musicians, artists, writers, music lovers, people willing to extend themselves, who generously encouraged others.
I haven't explained all the specifics from there to here, and I don't need to, as it's not so unusual, but my life now, I'm sure of it, 21 years later--my community, where I live, the people who I love and love me, my small children asleep in the next room, my wife beside me, a huge portion of my heart's glad contents, is the result of in 1988 my girlfriend's roommate mentioning a 'help wanted' sign, and me trying like hell to get that window clean.
Not so strange, one thing leads to the next, whether we realize it or not. Threads in life's fabric, and all that, whether it's a batik sheet hung across an overhead light or a black flag, it doesn't matter. For me, I can point to that window on that little cheap Mexican restaurant that went out of business the next fall, as the thing that altered the course of my very lucky life.