It was the atrocious state of her lower attire that cast me back in time…
When I was but a lad of fifteen, my very existence depended on a pair of nylon pants containing zippers with both horizontal and vertical options. And the color choices were amazing! Both black and red! The fact that the material had a life span just beyond that of a housefly mattered little.
My quest began in the spring of 1985. It was a sweltering year, a year in which my father’s friend Paul needed help. Paul owned a framing outfit, houses not pictures, and had contracted four homes that needed to be completed by the end of July. He offered me a position, which included weekly pay and the promise of a killer tan. Oh, how the door thundered in its frame with opportunity, barely managing to stay within its golden hinges.
That being said, I am not a morning person. Even now, I struggle with rising at 7:30 am. A time most would hardly consider life-altering. But that boiling summer, I found myself treacherously balancing between inverted 2x4s twenty feet above the ground just as the sun was clearing the eastern horizon. The crew kept my safety in mind by not allowing me to partake in their mid-morning beer break. They were true professionals. I can still see them beating nails through lumber, their skin mirroring both the texture and color of an old football. Their voices rang out in tobacco strained screeches:
“Newbie!” That’s what they called me. “Bring me a sheet and another roll!” Which meant a 4×8 piece of plywood and a coil of nails.
“Get up there and level the peak!” Which meant climbing to the ridge of the roof and placing a nailer.
I learned a lot that summer: First, I am terrified of heights. I’m talking about knee rattling fear that not even a Buddhist monk could control. This was a fact that the fellas often talked about during the mid-morning cocktail. Another thing I discovered while tight roping the tinder was just how destitute these guys seemed to be.
These rugged men were like throwbacks to the pirate age, donning sweat-stained headbands and weathered boots. But what startled me the most were their jeans. Ripped out knees and frayed seams, reminding me of something handed down from a great grandfather. Was this the plight for the common man? To work from sun up until sundown gaining nothing more than a six-pack and a carton of smokes, pretending that all was well and it could always be worse? I found it horrifying.
Remember, I was on a quest for shapely buttocks and stylish zippers, where the colors black and red guaranteed a step up on the elusive social ladder. This goal, I kept to myself. The crew of Queen Anne’s Revenge had enough firepower as it was.
The summer ended well, with me only falling twice and having to be stitched once. But my dream of owning the pants became a reality. Three pairs. Two red and one black. The power I felt as I thrust my scab-riddled legs through the scratchy material ensured that I was moving up in the world. Let the foolish pirates in their archaic jeans see me now.
The waitress that stood before me was unaware of the journey that she had caused. We were not strangers; I had frequented this diner on many occasions and had often attempted conversation only to find that the span between our generations left a gap far too wide to bridge. And yet, her appearance released within me a level of compassion that I had not felt in years. The pirates were back, and maybe this time I could help.
“Do you know what you want?”
“The usual,” I said, my eyes dropping to her exposed knee.
“I’ll get it ordered,” she said with a smile. She then turned and made her way towards the kitchen. A moment of shock seized me as I noticed the paper-thin rip just under the left cheek of her butt. This feeling was replaced by a sudden onslaught of guilt. Was I partly to blame for this poverty of fashion? I found myself reliving the past transactions, calculating the twenty percent gratuity based on my average bill.
At thirteen dollars, I was honor-bound to leave a two dollar and sixty cent tip. That seemed a little on the cheap side, considering I never left anything less than four bucks.
But she was a student. A Sophomore at OCU, surely her parents helped her financially. Thoughts of obligation versus value bounced around in my skull. Our professional moments together never went beyond sixty minutes. Of course, even minimum wage stagnated at seven twenty-five an hour. I was in the red. That extra three bucks would probably go a long way towards covering up the unmentionables.
The pirates were indeed back, and their Marlboro-stricken cries for justice echoed in my ears. I managed to pull my mind back to the now just as the waitress was placing my plate on the table.
I wanted to talk to her. Needed to tell her that I was willing to help if she was willing to accept it. But how to begin? It was just as I was opening my mouth for an attempt that a girl no older than sixteen stopped and said, “Nice jeans.”
“Thanks,” said the waitress. “I got them last week.”
“Are they Judy Blues?” the girl said, her eyes wide with desire.
“How much did they cost?” said the girl. Now, maybe this goes back to that generational divide, but I would never have dreamed of being so bold, especially considering the condition of my young server’s jeans. What a pompous child!
“One hundred and thirty dollars,” said the waitress proudly.
I confess now that whatever followed between the two was lost. My mind had locked onto one hundred and thirty dollars. After a moment more, the girl moved on. The waitress made one final query about my well-being before beginning to turn to leave.
“Hold on,” I said. “Are you saying that you actually paid over a hundred dollars for those?”
The waitress looked at me as if I were an invalid just on the outskirts of needing Depends and said, “They were on sale.”
“So you bought jeans that were torn on purpose?”
“You bet,” she said, barely able to contain her enthusiasm. “I’m getting another pair next week.” She then gave me a grin and made her way across the floor, leaving me silently numb.
Thirty-five years ago, I worked with a crew of cursing, beer-drinking visionaries. Their future, much like their use of the English language, had seemed limited. And yet, unbeknownst to them, they were beginning a trend. Less is more, leaving you less. I finished my breakfast, feeling very much like a newbie, placed a twenty down, and left without saying another word.