The Great In Between


by Dwayne Phillips

It was unmistakable. The calendar read mid-June and this young man was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to decide which toothpaste to buy. He fumbled four different kinds in his left had while his right pulled another off those irritating little metal rods that display products to the masses. He peered at the ingredients of the product in his right hand as if he were trying to read a Supreme Court decision on a matter of life and death.

This young man had to be a recent college graduate. That meant he was educated in the finer points of commas and semi-colons, or was it semi-colons and em dashes, but couldn't distinguish fluoride from candy. What is worse, he felt the distinction worthy of his time and mental faculties.

I did the same thirty years earlier. I wandered through that first summer of adulthood and a real adult job—that horrible time in between knowing a college campus and knowing an office building.

It was a Saturday when I moved into my first real, adult apartment. I rented a fully furnished apartment in a high-rise building. The fully furnished part was something that wise people had suggested. Perhaps it was wise thirty years earlier in their day, but in mine it was another of a long list of foolish things I did. An unfurnished apartment would have been adequate for the six months I bumped from figurative wall to wall. The apartment building had a loading dock. It was reasonable that a reservation system was in order for who used to loading dock first. Reasonableness took me to the building office to reserve my spot in line.

"First come, first serve," was the reply of the polite elderly lady who enriched her empty-nest weekends by working the reception desk.

She reminded me of those college department secretaries who delighted in sending students walking about campus in search of the correct form needed to fill out so that a student could then fill out the next correct form. Perhaps, just perhaps, she held such a job in a prior life before becoming an empty-nest weekend warrior.

A trip back to the loading dock showed that I was now far enough back in line to have to wait until noon before it was my turn. No problem, the U-Haul I rented had an AM radio in it. I glued myself to the vinyl U-Haul bench seat while wasting the hours.

With everything in my apartment by mid-afternoon, I noticed that I had not eaten anything all day. I put some potatoes on the stove to boil. My mother insisted I bring a sack of potatoes with me along with half a dozen cooking pans she no longer wanted. Unpacking busied my tired mind so that I boiled away the water and burned the potatoes.

Let's see—one day at my apartment and I had wasted half a day and permanently burned potatoes to a pan. I had two big stupid accomplishments to my credit, but the summer had only begun.

To my dismay, the high-rise "luxury" apartment building had an international clientele. I call it luxury because that is what the large sign out front called it. I suppose luxury was fair as the building was new and all the paint smelled like new paint. Perhaps they sprayed air freshener with that new paint odor.

The international fair was most difficult to stomach. I had gone through engineering school in the last four years of the 1970s. The Shah of Iran had funded every Iranian male who wanted to study engineering in the US. They were nice enough guys if you could hold your breath in class and hide your paper during tests. If one of those things bothered you, and both of them bothered me to no end, exiting college could not come soon enough. I had a US government job and hoped that meant US citizens only in the office. That came true at work, but the Washington D.C. suburbs had plenty of immigrants.

The cool summer evenings—I learned that northerners called the Washington-area summers oppressive—were pleasant. The apartment dwellers from the Middle East shared my assessment of the weather and sat or stood, or whatever describes that squat they do, in front of the building each evening. They shared the Iranian student fondness for avoiding showers and soap. The aroma, while somewhat a reminder of college, rose and floated into my sixth-floor apartment window. Oh, the wonder of a view.

At least I had a job, or something that resembled a job. I worked for the government, and that was a charitable description. My job was to work in an out-of-town location. Schedules dictated that I would spend the summer in the office before visiting the out-of-town location. My job in the office for the Summer was simple: wait until the Fall. I could have waited in bed in my luxury apartment, but that violated some sense of fairness or work regulation. Hence, the days were spent sitting at a metal, battleship gray desk that was aligned with twelve other metal, battleship-gray desks in a long, narrow room. My colleagues and I filled the day reading the newspaper and unofficially solving the world's problems. Our official duties were to sit at the desks and not cause anyone any grief. At least I had "colleagues" and not fellow students.

Boredom affects people—at least it affected me. Life was hours of nothing to do. When something to do arrived, I fell into it without thought. Anything was better than nothing, so my course of action didn't seem to matter.

The first something to do away from the office was washing my clothes. My college life was a bit odd in that I never washed my clothes. I went home every weekend to work a part-time job. Hence, my mother washed my clothes the four years of college.

Now, educated as I was, I was ready to wash my own clothes in that modern invention called the washing machine. First, however, there was an alternative to test. Someone, who had gone through this first summer of adulthood some thirty years earlier, advised me to check on a laundry service. It seems that at some point in the mid-twentieth century America laundry services existed that were convenient and inexpensive. My problem was that it was now the latter half of the century. Still, advised by a wise older person, I tried a laundry service I found in the yellow pages (we used the yellow pages in those days as Google didn't exist). The round trip drive took an hour, the service required three days, and the cost was triple of a coin-operated washing machine.

It was time for Plan B. I was so smart that I had a Plan B. The apartment building had washing machines and dryers on the ground floor. How hard could this be for someone with an engineering degree so new that the sheepskin hadn't yet arrived in the mail? Washing machines had no user manual, and that led to another fall into a pit of stupidity.

My first load of laundry found me pulling soaking wet clothes from the washing machine that was full of water. Well, I thought, the clothes are clean and there is this dryer that will dry them. All worked well enough, and no one saw me to laugh or instruct.

My second load of laundry came a week later. I had been distracted by something and took much longer to look in the washing machine. This time the spin cycle had completed and the clothes were glued to the sides of the washing machine and, to my surprise, they were much drier. Oh, I thought—at least I was thinking a little—this is how it is supposed to work.

Having mastered or mustered laundry, I moved on to another daily task: eating.

I ate out. My early experience with burning potatoes improved a bit, but only a bit. I knew how to cook several things, but didn’t know how to cook for one person. One cooking episode per week was the norm leaving me eating leftovers six days in seven. People had microwave ovens at the time, but they were not standard equipment even in a luxury apartment. Heating on the stove was normal. The rate at which I burned leftovers would have put me in the baseball hall of fame if I were attempting to hit major league pitching. I was not attempting baseball and I was not liking home cooking.

Roy Rogers still existed in those days. They had hamburgers like everyone else. Roy, however, had a “fixins bar” where I could put all the onions, pickles, bar-be-que sauce, and mustard I wanted on my burger. Roy also had fried chicken, pretty good fried chicken, much better than I would ever attempt in my apartment.

Breakfast was simpler. I bought a pint of chocolate milk at the vending machine where I worked. I don’t know what I did for lunch. I suppose the vending machine was my most frequented place, but that might have been half the days.

A diet of chocolate milk, hamburgers, and fried chicken is deadly when consumed over long periods of time. A summer of fried, grilled, and imbibed fat, however, especially with a man too young to be affected by such, is survivable. It is stupid, but survivable.

Lost in my oblivion of that Summer was that people noticed. People saw me drink chocolate milk each morning for breakfast. Children—small, young, really young children—drink chocolate milk in the morning. The vending machine operator was about to remove chocolate milk from the machine’s rotation until I arrived. The teenagers who usually stared at the ceiling while working behind the counter at Roy Rogers knew me. They knew I was about to order fried chicken because they had served me a hamburger and french fries the day before. They were jealous of the combination of immaturity and the air of maturity that I had. I had the power of a little money in my pocket, no parents to chide my selection, and enough stupidity to order the things they wished they could eat.

As if I didn’t have enough fat at “dinner,” and that is a charitable description of my evening food, I then ate movie theater popcorn. Cable TV didn’t exist yet. Home video machines were new, and they cost a week’s pay. I had a nine-inch black and white Sanyo TV. It worked great for what it was with its shiny rabbit ears antenna. If I placed it next to the window of my apartment I could receive four channels. We used to call television networks “channels” in those days.

The movie theater became my second home. I saw two to four movies a week. I drove a half hour to a theater for several weeks. This was fine. Having grown up in a rural area, a half-hour drive to town to see a movie was normal, and besides, what was I supposed to do with my evenings? Then one day I learned that a bigger and better theater was ten minutes from my apartment. In addition, that theater was a short walk from a Roy Rogers.  I had fried chicken, fried potatoes, and that frying oil they put on popcorn.

The most important news of the week was the Friday morning paper that listed all the movies in the theaters. That gave me an excuse to buy the Washington Post one morning a week and carry it into the office. Several people were impressed by my maturity at buying the newspaper. People back then bought the newspaper daily. Single, young guys like me, however, never bought the newspaper. I was, at least one day a week, more mature than the average, below-average young person.

This was life for the three-and-a-half months of that summer. There was no single event that defined it. There was no girl to borrow my heart and crush it while crushing the fallen leaves of Autumn on a gentle "it's not you, it's me" walk. There was no enlightenment at my do-nothing-just-stay-out-of-trouble job. The Summer was one silly decision after another. I bought the wrong clothes at the wrong store; I ran out into quickly passing rainstorms instead of waiting, and I didn't repair my car when necessary (another long story that I skip from embarrassment). I found some solace in going to the wrong laundry service and the wrong movie theater. At least those stupid choices led me to learn how to drive about the suburban sprawl.

No, the Summer was a time for awkwardly trying my adult legs through a shifting obstacle course. I bruised the shin of my psyche daily, but didn't break anything. I was alone, and the consolation of a lone existence is that I didn't hurt anyone else.

The great uncertain in between ended on September 30th. I boarded an airplane for that out-of-office work place and didn’t return for seventy-five days. The remote job location provided a place to live—no decision. The remote job location provided three meals a day in a cafeteria—no decision. The job also meant I lived and worked in the same building—no decision on cars and driving. The no decisions came one after another and brought with them no stupid decisions. The bumbling ended.

My out-of-office job was a real job with something real to do everyday. This forced me to know everything about the place where I lived and worked. I stopped wearing a question mark on my face and joined the world of people who knew what they are doing.

The young man selected one kind of toothpaste. Instead of setting the half-dozen rejected brands on the shelf for a professional to place them back on the little metal irritating rods, he struggled in vain to return the aisle to its previous perfection.

"Excuse me," I said.

He turned toward me in a hands-caught-in-the-cookie-jar twitch. His mouth opened, but repeated huffs uttered no words.

"Just place them here on the shelf," I continued. "They pay people to re-stock everything."

"Oh," is all he managed to say, but with a look in his eyes that indicated a real-life lesson taking hold in a fresh mind.

He then quickly ran away from me. At least to me it looked like he was running away. He, no doubt, thought he was ambling towards the checkout counter with the sophistication of James Bond or some post-modern day cosmopolitan equivalent.

I never saw the young man again. Admittedly, I scanned the obituaries more intently until the orange leaves of Autumn made their annual appearance. Absent all Summer was a young man who had just moved into the metropolitan suburbs from somewhere in real America. Yet another person had navigated the great in between.