No Exit

Posted: December 6, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Norris kissed the flame of a blowtorch with the tip of his fat cigar. He puffed it a few times to get it burning, then turned his DeWalt power sander to a fresh wooden surface. Norris worked with style, you couldn’t deny that.

Dean – owner of the El Sueño Grande – had gone to the hardware store leaving us to our own devices. Our own devices included a radio, three power sanders, a blow torch and – in Norris’s case – a 6-inch cigar. Three weeks after my first day I was still working on the sport fishing boat, except now I was full time. I made the trip to Long Beach on my own – two hours one way by bus, tram and car (Dean picked me up and dropped me off at the station).

Work got harder once I showed interested and started coming by myself. Dean had me sanding the interior of an entire cabin, all the bunks and walls. That was after I hammered in about two hundred stray nails from the old carpet they had pinned up.

It was tough, gruelling physical work. I stretched myself each day, worked until I was covered in sawdust and my muscles couldn’t lift a pencil let alone a power sander. But I needed money to pay the rent. Plus it was cheaper than the gym, and I felt good for the exercise.

Norris understood the gig. First day I met him he said, “It’s a shit job, but look at my office.” And what an office it was – pale blue California sky, water lapping against the hull, the great expansive port with all its cranes and container ships stretching out to the west. There was even a sea lion that swam around every afternoon. Sure beats a cardboard cubicle in that room from Sartre’s No Exit.

Norris was a comedian. He got through his working day by teasing us every opportunity he could. “What are you wearing a mask for?” Norris shouted to Bobby when they were painting primer below deck. “You’ll just take away from the high, dog!”

For all his jokes and bravado, Norris could be pretty tender. First time we worked together he told me how he blamed himself for his son – a 20-year old named Jet who also worked on the boat. He didn’t want Jet to end up working boats like him, he wanted him to get an education, make something of himself. But Jet messed around so much in school boat work is his only option now.

“I’m a fuck up, dude,” Norris sighed between bursts of the power sander.

Jet had his Dad’s tall nose, but not his brains. He was, unfortunately, a moron. He had crazy ideas he was quick to talk about, like a bizarre conspiracy theory about a new world order that would come about in December 2012. Everyone on earth would be rounded up into concentration camps by soldiers. Many would be killed. And the leader of this global totalitarian regime? Queen Elizabeth II of Britain… And I thought I didn’t like the Royal Family.

Not long after I met Jet he told me how he recently became a father because he thought he was good at “pulling out”. It turned out he wasn’t. Now his Ex won’t let him visit the kid and that hurt him badly, although he was careful not to show it. Jet was 20-years-old and he’d already messed up his life so bad he was now messing up someone else’s. When kids like Jet realise they can’t climb their way out of boredom and poverty, they try to screw their way out. But if you can’t chase the American dream then there’s something wrong with you. If you can’t climb up, you’re a fuck up. It’s like Josh Ritter sings: “All that love, all those mistakes / What else can a poor man make?”

Jet felt powerless, like he was trapped by the forces of economics and consequence. That’s the only explanation I can find for his reckless behaviour and his belief in conspiracy theories. Theories like Jet’s always emphasise how futile our choices are, how meaningless life is compared to the almighty power of some invisible authority. So Jet sought escape in sex and humour. He loved talking about Mexican women – they were so much better than American women. They weren’t bitchy or materialistic, and they didn’t care if you were poor; they were faithful, old fashioned and they cooked delicious food. Plus, Jet said, they had great panochas.

“What’s a panocha?” I asked.

Jet laughed like a school boy who just dropped a spider down a girl’s shirt.

“Pussy, dude! Me gusta panocha!”

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