Back to the Desert
Sometimes the right words can hit like a force of nature.
I’d forgotten what a good movie Lawrence of Arabia is. When my pal Doug invited to watch it again for the first time in 30 years, I was a little apprehensive about the running time (4 hours, 2 minutes). But Doug is a dedicated movie collector with a TV screen the size of a garage door and a sound system that cost more than my last three automobiles. He had a new, 4K restoration on blu-ray, blah-blah-blah—and as he piled on the litany of virtues, I just said “sure.”
Settling in to watch the incredibly blue-eyed and transfixing presence of Peter O’Toole in 1962, my apprehension evaporated. He’s just entered a scene of magnificent desolation, sand as far as the eye can see, bouncing along on his camel. Suddenly, his Bedouin guide slapped his mount and cried out:
That’s when I got knocked off of my saddle and flat on my ass.
It’s 1981, on Folsom street, south of Market in San Francisco. At this time, the neighborhood is a mix of body shops, warehouses and leather bars. I’m working the graveyard shift at Compana, a data processing service that picks up computer tapes the size of dinner plates and turns them into tiny sheets of plastic with 200 microscopic pages of text.
How did I get here?
I had recently graduated from film school with a wife and twin sons. An actors’ strike put the industry on hold and newbies like me were the first to lose their jobs. A “friend” got me the job in SOMA for what I hoped would be a short time. Turned out I’d be stuck there for five years.
The job was simple, which was one of the reasons I stayed as long as I did. There was a lot of waiting around for tapes to run, film to process, duplicates to be made. I quickly found a rhythm that would give me 20-30 minutes at a stretch to read, draw, study — before I had to change tapes, cut microfiche, and start again.
And I needed that time. I was utterly depressed. Nothing was going the way that I had planned and I had no idea what my next move would be. Over those five years I was stuck in that over-air-conditioned warehouse with the whoosh of the tape vacuum, the clack-clack-clack of the processor, the occasional whiff of heated ammonia from the Diazo duplicator. It wasn’t exactly zen, but it was consistent.
I wasn’t the only lost soul there, either. Upstairs, a crew of white-collar salesmen, admins and managers oversaw the operation. I didn’t spend much time with them but no one seemed especially thrilled with their jobs. They smiled and put on a good face, because that was expected. Downstairs at ground level, the ops crew definitely didn’t want to be here and no one needed to pretend.
When you work off-hours, like swing shift (4pm to 12 midnight) graveyard (11pm to 7am) or weekends (Fri-Sat-Sun 8am-8pm) you meet people who have their reasons for not working regular jobs. And like someone once said, the really interesting thing is… Everyone has their reasons.
Delain was a wiry black man from Texas who would size you up without a saying a word, squinting through the curls of his Kool smoke and letting the other guy do all the talking. At which point he’d mutter “fuck dat shit” and disappear with the delivery car keys for most of the shift.
Andre was a jumpy kid with no patience for anything that didn’t interest him. Especially this job, which he did on autopilot while talking up girls on the phone. He’d balance the receiver between his ear and shoulder while stretching the cord beyond its maximum 25 foot length. We learned to duck when the receiver would slip out from under his Jeri-curled ‘fro and watch it ricochet off of the steel cabinets.
There were others, like Rich, the perpetually stoned Southerner who would endlessly pontificate, more slowly and more meaningfully, on every. minute. facet. of. human. nature. with each successive toke. Or Billy, a sweet guy who’d spent a little too much time in Catholic school to fully enjoy living as a gay man in San Francisco—but he was willing to try. And Ian, the Korean college student who was an incessant people pleaser but would sneak out to watch reruns after midnight in the manager’s office.
Then there was Dave.
Dave was a classic working-class hero, an autodidact who grew up in a small town with awful parents and taught himself to know better. But instead of doing anything about his situation, he drifted from job to job, reading Russian lit while downing six-packs of Rolling Rock and declaring how much smarter he was than everyone else. He was an angry guy, and needless to say, we clicked.
That first year on the job, I was absolutely despairing at my situation and Dave was happy to rub it in. Because he felt wronged by his situation, and had the whole world figured out, if anyone was willing to listen. I was, for awhile. We’d binge on burgers and beers at Red’s Java House on the waterfront during longer-than-allowed lunch breaks. We’d cover for each other, clocking the other guy in if he was gonna be late — with a smile that we were sticking it to the man.
This went on for a year or so, until I got a promotion to a better shift, and started taking commercial art classes at City College. Dave grudgingly took note that I was trying to change my circumstances. We didn’t see each other as much, although I made an effort to stay in touch. But he lost interest.
One of the last times we were together, I gave him a ride home. He was in a hurry to catch a football game on TV, so we jumped into my weatherbeaten '74 Toyota. Before I could fish out my seatbelt and adjust the visor, he was slapping the roof of the car, ordering me to get going.
I’d never heard that phrase before. I hadn’t seen the movie he was quoting. But Dave’s haughty delivery captured the imperious tone of a sultan commanding his servant. I got the message and never forgot it.
I haven’t thought about Dave, or data processing, or much of anything from those first years after college because, frankly, they hurt too much. But I want to remember more. It wasn’t all bad. I just needed another way in. And damned if those three little words didn’t do the trick.
Hut. Hut. Hut. It means “giddyup” in Lawrence of Arabia. But now it’s also a swift kick to my memory.
That movie was even better than I remembered.
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