What’s it Like


A warm Thursday afternoon, late spring, 1980. I am 21 years old. Roy and I are in the process of unloading the big semi-truck that departed from the Chicago headquarters  of Open Kitchens and wound its way through a network of distribution sites until it stopped in our lonely little piece of terrain on the west side of Racine, Wisconsin, the last stop on the way back to Chicago.  We’d empty out the remaining stacks of plastic trays that carried pre-cooked frozen hamburgers and pizzas and cold cut sandwiches we’d sell to the taverns and gas stations and other small business that were our clientele. All told, it’d take us a couple of hours to unload, Roy working from inside the trailer and bringing the trays to me, setting them on the back edge.  I’d take the trays and stack them in one of the three walk-in freezers where stock was rotated, stock that I’d use to fill the orders that customers phoned in to Lori, the cute blonde girl who worked in the office. She’d take them down and bring a paper copy to me, where I’d place its dozen or so items in a box and stage them for departure the next morning via one of our fleet of four refrigerated delivery trucks.

Roy was finishing up, making the last several treks to the remaining trays at the back of the trailer.  Roy was a big man, about six foot five and weighing what he described as “a biscuit short of 300 pounds.” He was nearly finished telling me one of the weekly stories he’d tell like only Roy could tell.  The one about how he’d been caught with another woman, and how his girlfriend decided that this was one more “other woman” than she could stand for, and how she was determined to chop his ”thing” off, and how she chased him around their apartment with a big carving knife, and how he escaped via the backstairs fire escape, only to make it to the bottom to find her in the street, waiting there for him, wielding the knife menacingly.

The dramatic finish to Roy’s epic tale was interrupted by the sudden presence of Pete, the smarmy little bald- headed dick from Chicago who’d corporate assigned to get the Racine office and its site manager, a thick headed and thicker hipped guy named Skip, in line. Pete was short and pale and always looked sickly. Skip was tall and wide, with a red and blotchy complexion that advertised his alcoholism to the rest of he world. They were both assholes with a penchant for meanness. Pete would loudly berate the route drivers when they got together for their monthly meeting, his primary tool for motivating and inspiring the phrase “fucking moons,” which he’d holler so loud that I could hear him through the walls all the way out to the loading dock. Skip’s meanness was more subtle and focused, as it was centered on Lorie and the rare occasions when Ruth, the officer manager-who’d been with the company longer than anyone, and Pete were both out, leaving Skip and Lorie alone in the office, when he’d clumsily and tactlessly try to seduce her. I know this because Lorie had told me, and asked me to step out of the freezers and the loading dock every now and then to check on her.

Pete popped out onto the loading dock without a sound, seemingly materializing out of the ether  He had his jacket on and a couple of manila folders in his left hand. He’d already taken off his tie.  He reached into his right pocket and took out his car keys.  “Go fill her up,” he said, handing me the keys. I took them and walked over to the side of the gravel parking lot where his early 70s Cadillac with the Illinois plates was parked.

“So you’re movin’ on up,” I heard Pete say. I paused for a moment, straining to hear Roy’s response.

“Yessir, that’s right,” Roy responded. “Got me an over the road job. I startin’ Monday, so I guess this be the last time I see ya.”

“Well, good for you, good for you,” Pete said.  Then he was gone. I started up his Caddy and pulled it up to the pump. I finished filling the tank just as Pete stepped out the office front door. “Thanks,” he said as he got in and started the car. He pulled out, the weight of the car loudly crunching the gravel below, never even looking at me.

I walked back across the lot to the loading dock to finish unloading the trailer.  Roy didn’t say anything, and, aside from the story about his girlfriend and her knife, he hadn’t said anything all afternoon, certainly nothing about a new job and this being the last time I’d see him.  Part of me was hurt, but another part  said not to take it personally, that so what if I didn’t mean as much to him as he did to me.  I decided to make some small talk.

“A week from today,” I volunteered, “will be the longest day of the year.  The summer solstice.”

‘Hey,” Roy replied, “that’s right.”

“It’s also the official beginning of summer,” I added.

“That’s right, too. I tell ya, you’re a smart man, Dave. And you a good man, too.”

I pulled the last stack of trays off the truck.  Roy was still working in the trailer, stacking wooden pallets.

“Roy,” I started.

“Yeah?”

“What’s it like?’

“What’s what like?”

“You know.  Living in the inner city…”

“You mean, what’s it like to be black?”

“Yeah,” I said, instantly regretting my enthusiasm.

He chuckled that low chuckle that has nothing to do with funny.

“Well,” he said,” I’ll tell ya, we ain’t got time to get into that today.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No, no, you didn’t offend me. It’s just, it’s just hard …” He paused trying to find the right words.  “Let me put it to you this way.  You know all them stories I been telling you?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, it is true that I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma.  And it’s true that I live in West Chicago.  But other than that, there ain’t been a word of truth in any of em.”

“There hasn’t?” I said.  I was crushed..  I knew he’d embellish and exaggerate the facts of his stories, but I never doubted that they were based on real events.

“Not a word.”

“But why …?”

“You a smart man. You can figure it out.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.  Then I thought of a brilliant way to get him to own up to the fact that he was quitting and hadn’t fold me. I figured I’d give him one last chance to level with me, to say goodbye.

“I guess we’ll have to finish this conversation next week,” I said.

He sighed. “I guess so,” he said.

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