The sharp, jagged sound jerked him from a deep slumber. Still more asleep than awake, Lane pawed at the low table, feeling for the alarm clock Sally had loaned him. It read five-thirty on that still-dark Wednesday morning. Then he remembered. It was time to be out of bed.
He paused for a moment to consider his new circumstances. It had been one thing....waking at that hour in his drafty Medford equipment shed, where his own shivering was enough to make sleep impossible. It was something very different to push himself away from the cozy comfort of Sally’s second-bedroom couch, preparing to walk through the early-morning drizzle for his first visit to the downtown Job Market.
Pulling on his pants, he recalled his sister’s dour explanation of how the ‘Market’ was an especially-viable option for strong-backed young men, the ones best able to do the demanding work the area's farms and nurseries offered. But for someone his age....perhaps not.
Though Sally had encouraged him to reconsider, Lane was insistent. He needed to be earning a paycheck. He was planning to visit the State Employment Office at a later date, with an eye on more suitable, more permanent employment. His immediate goals, however, were to cover the cost of his meals with Sally and the purchase of a decent job-hunting outfit from the local thrift shop. That meant finding at least a few days of manual labor.
With that in mind, after a fifteen-minute walk from the trailer park, Lane crossed the empty parking lot toward the long concrete wall....which was actually the backside of a commercial warehouse.
To his left, on the sidewalk next to the wall, exactly where Sally said they would be, a group of energetic, mainly Hispanic youngsters crowded around a dented and dated school bus. The bus's school district name had been painted out, and “Mountain High Nursery” was spelled out in block letters.
Edging his way past that activity, Lane moved toward the far end of the wall. There, where the strip mall began, next to the Healthwise Fitness Center, a single fellow leaned against the wall. Nursing a paper cup of coffee, he was obviously older than the other job seekers.
“Have I found the senior section?” Lane asked as he stepped up against the building, where an overhanging awning deflected most of the light rain. Encouraged by the man’s grinning nod, Lane wondered out loud, “It’s hard to tell if this is the head of the line, or the tail end.”
“Well," the fellow answered. "If you’re one of those young go-getters who can go full speed all day long, you’ll probably want to be down there with that other bunch.”
Rubbing his stubbled chin the older man nodded toward the departing bus. Then, tugging at the grubby baseball cap that covered his untrimmed gray hair, he turned back to Lane.
“On the other hand, if you’re one of us slow and steady types, the sort that offers an abundance of experience and mature wisdom, you just might be at the right end of the line. And for sure, if you’re looking for intelligent conversation while you wait, this is the place.” Extending his hand, he added, “I’m Robert. Robert Lynn. I’m thinking you must be new in town. Right?”
“I’m Lane Tipton. Glad to meet you, Robert. And you’re partially right.”
Pausing to look up and down the busy south-bound street....where river bridges, a city park, and the local Job Market converged, Lane was in a remembering mode.
“I’m not exactly new. I grew up here. But I’ve been gone a long time. The Tanner I remember had just one bridge. The streets ran both ways. And I sure as hell never dreamed I’d be standing out here on a morning like this, looking for any kind of work I can find.”
Robert was half laughing at that. “I know what you mean. When I was a kid, growing up in Seattle, my old man was a plumber. He told me I ought to learn a trade of some kind. I must have been listening.
"When I came out of the service I apprenticed with the same outfit he worked for. By the time I was thirty I was a journeyman plumber, which back then meant I had a job for life. That’s the way it was in those days. We naturally assumed folks would always need plumbers.
“What they didn’t tell us was that half the plumbers in the country were working in new construction. Then came what they're calling the 'Great Recession.'
"Who would have believed that kind of work would go away like it has? And when it did, the ones they laid off first were us old timers, the ones they were paying the most, with the most expensive benefits.
By then Robert was obviously caught up in the emotions of his dire recital. “Our union yelled like hell," he continued. "But by then there was talk of ‘busting the unions.’ Lots of our out-of-work members were willing to work for peanuts. The union big-wigs couldn’t raise too much of a fuss without putting their own jobs on the line. So instead they basically wiped out the rest of our pension plan and left us old-timers hanging out to dry.
“Anyway, by the time my ex-wife finished cleaning out our savings account I’d gone from having a good job to living on a riverbank in beautiful downtown Tanner.”
Though Lane was reluctant to encourage another of Robert’s lengthy laments, he did want to know more about the business at hand.
“So tell me,” he asked. “What are the odds of making a connection here? Are there any job to be had?
"Does the Job Market work for old guys like us? I’m standing here in the rain, hoping to make a few bucks before the day is over. I need to do that. It’s been way too long between paychecks.”
“You can see how it works,” Robert replied, again nodding toward the other end of the warehouse building. “Most of the outfits that come in here want the young guys, like the ones who just took off in the bus. They have trees to prune, or plants to tend. They need help now, and they’re not worried about age discrimination issues and stuff like that. Those young kids, especially the Mexicans, are hard workers. They’re the ones they want. Hell, I’d hire them in a minute if I had work like that to get done.”
The rain had picked up again, sending Robert down the wall, under the wider awning in front of the fitness center. “During the summer,” he continued. “There’s plenty of work for everyone, even us old farts.
"But by now, in the fall, it gets harder. The work has slowed down. The only thing working in our favor is a lot of the Hispanics have headed south to California, where there’s more work. Another month or so there won’t be much call for extra help around here. Except for the Christmas-tree farms, everyone will be down to a skeleton crew.”
“Does that mean you’ll be going south?”
“I don’t know,” Robert answered. “I’ve done that the last couple years. Mostly because it’s warmer. But the truth is, my body can’t take that kind of beating year round. I turned sixty-one this summer. Been fighting bad knees for years.”
“You got a place to stay up here?” Lane asked. “If you decide to stay?”
“Yeah, sort of. Another fellow and I have what we call our Penthouse. We’ve made ourselves a tent out of visqueen, and set it up against one of the warehouses on the bluff. It’s not pretty....sure as hell doesn’t meet code. But we stay dry and half-warm most of the time. That, along with a few nights at the Mission House, keeps us going when there’s no work.”
Looking up, Lane noted a pair of women, professional-appearing types, walking toward the fitness center from the parking lot, each with an equipment bag slung over her shoulder. There was no denying how out of place they appeared as they passed the Job Market’s senior section.
“I’m just hoping we can find some kind of work today,” he said, returning to the business at hand. “I’d hate to think I got up so darn early and had nothing to show for it.”
“In that case, I think you might be in luck.”
“See this rig pulling in?” Robert was tugging on Lane’s sleeve, leading him across the sidewalk to intercept the approaching van. “I’m pretty sure they’ll have something for us. They’re a pair of sisters. Probably even older than us. They run a shrubbery outfit over on the west side. They’ve always been partial to us older guys.”
“Why is that?”
“I suppose it’s because we’re not quite so intimidating. There’s no reason to be scared of old guys like us. Anyway, I worked there yesterday, and I know they have a couple more days of pruning to do. It’s not easy work. It involves a lot of up and down stuff, more bending than I prefer. But I’m pretty sure they’ll take us.”
And they did. The late-arriving Harris sisters seemed not at all concerned to find only Robert and Lane walking in their direction as they pulled to a stop. Though Anna Harris was gray haired and a bit stooped, the practiced once-over she gave Lane prompted an immediate string of questions.
“You’ve never been to our place, have you?” she asked. “You sure you’re up to the work? We trim our plants from the ground up. You’d be up and down all day. Lots of bending.”
Taking in Robert’s raised-eyebrow grin, Lane offered his nodding assurance. “I’m in pretty good shape. I’ll be up to that.”
“You did good.” Anna Harris counted out four tens and a five into Lane’s hand. “That’s seven hours at seven dollars an hour, less four dollars for lunch. We have at least one more day to go. I'm hoping you two will be here in the morning. And don’t forget to bring some rain gear.”
“I’ll be here," Lane answered. "You can count on that.”
Slipping the bills in his pocket Lane was hoping that his distress was not as obvious as it felt. Every stitch of his clothing was soaked and every muscle in his back was registering its knife-sharp objection. Resting was not an option. He must keep moving while he could.
“You heading my way, Robert?” he asked as the two of them started across the parking lot toward River Street. “I was planning to check out the Mission House. But that will have to wait for another day. If you’re heading back to the Bluff I’ll join you, as long as you don’t walk too fast. I’ll admit it feels like I’m operating in low gear at the moment.”
“That’s a work-out for sure,” Robert agreed. “I can remember my first day with the Harris girls. But at least they don’t expect you to do it on the run, the way those young kids do it. This is my second year working for them. They’re good folks.”
“It does take some getting used to,” Lane nodded. “Especially when you’re soaked. I need to come up with some rain gear for tomorrow.”
Reaching in his pocket, he wrapped his hand around the small, but comforting wad of bills. “Still, there’s nothing beats a bit of spending money. I’ll be able to help out with the groceries for a change.”
A few blocks later they reached the low bridge, where the captive creek broke out of its culvert from under the street to tumble down the hillside. There, Robert stepped over the curb and started down toward the underbrush.
“Our penthouse is right over there,” he said, pointing to the end of a crumbling warehouse. “You can see it there in the middle of the end wall. It’s not much, just a lean-to kind of thing with black plastic draped over some poles that we leaned against the wall.
“But the roof overhang there is maybe four feet wide. That keeps a lot of the weather off us. It you have to live in a tent, it’s about as good as you can get. That’s why we call it the Penthouse.”
“I’ll have to come see it sometime.” Lane was rubbing his lower back, anxious to keep moving. “Right now I’m just too damn sore. I’m not sure I’d make it back up the hill. So I’ll see you in the morning.”