In the summer of 1972, I went to work for Flack Jones Lumber because it was one of three establishments in Summerville that hired longhairs. To say I was an unskilled laborer would be an understatement. Driving a nail, much less running a power saw, transcended my meager talents, so I ended up bouncing around the lumberyard on a truck driven by a Black man who went by the name of Hambone. We performed odd jobs like moving stacks of boards and shoveling sawdust. Hambone, who had crinkly cottony hair beneath his green hardhat, was a man of few words, but I do remember his making this pronouncement one blistering June afternoon: “When I was young, I couldn’t wait to knock off work so I could go fishin’. Now I can’t wait to knock off so I can get me a drink of liquor.”
Surprisingly, my White coworkers were cordial, given that the early Seventies were fraught with clashes between blue collar laborers and longhairs, especially in the Deep South. Once a fellow who looked Scots-Irish asked if I thought a man’s hair could grow as long as a woman’s.
My hair was red, so I stood out like
a sore thumb WC Fields’ nose.
“I reckon so,” I said.
I recall one particularly irksome task. Armed with a shovel blade, I crawled beneath a power saw and filled a plastic bucket with sawdust and then crawled out to dump the sawdust in a designated pile, and then crawled back under to repeat this labor until all the sawdust had been removed. Shortly thereafter, I decided Flack Jones wasn’t for me, though the hours were all right, Monday through Friday from 7 to 4.
I heard that Red and White, which also hired longhairs, had an opening, so I applied and was hired, joining my friends Joey Brown, David Kaczor, and Jim Collins bagging groceries, though actually Joey and David had worked their way up to stocking shelves.
On my very first day, I got yelled at by the owner’s son for overloading a bag with canned goods, and twelve hours later, when tasked with mopping the floor, the owner’s son chided me for my poor technique and demonstrated how to move the mop head in circles. So, of course, I followed his lead, only to be confronted by the produce man John Henry who told me I was doing it all wrong and modeled for me an alternate technique. moving the mop in S-like patterns. As I’d move up and down the aisles mopping, I’d keep a look out for my two instructors and switch back and forth depending on who was passing my way, though I preferred John Henry’s method.
“Now, that’s more like it,” one or the other would say.
Working at Red and White was less grueling than working at Flack Jones, but the hours sucked – two twelve hour shifts on Fridays and Saturdays and every other Sunday with afternoon shifts on the other weekdays with Mondays and Wednesdays off.
So, I quit to take a pay cut to work at Carolina Home Furnishers, the third place that hired longhairs, where I mostly sat in a recliner and watched daytime TV with my boss Weeza, a benevolent overseer who called me “darling” and sent me to the liquor store around the corner in the afternoons.
It seems that she and Hambone were on the same page.
Yes, I was lazy that summer, not to mention vain, and unaccustomed to working, but my leisure days were over. At USC, I worked at Capstone cafeteria after classes on weekdays and on Saturday mornings and bused tables at the revolving restaurant Top of Carolina during Sunday Brunch. The pay was $1.15 an hour, but I got one free meal. After I graduated and entered grad school, I stopped working at the cafeteria to tend bar at the Golden Spur but continued to bus tables on Sundays until I dropped out to seek my fortune in the Lowcountry.
The rest, as they say, is history.