My first job was vacuuming pews, cleaning bathrooms, mowing lawns and doing light landscaping at our church. I was 13 or 14 (don’t tell the department of labor), and I’m eternally grateful to my parents for making me get up off my duff and do something that summer. Even though it was only a few weekdays and a Saturday morning and of course I needed a ride, the physical and solitary nature of the work felt good to me.
I could listen to my walkman (Jimmy Page’s solo album was a big one for me that summer), just do the work, sweat a little, and daydream of course. It makes me a little sad for my kids that I think an experience like that might be much harder to find these days. We’ve got our phones and our ten second attention spans, after all. But that’s outside of the scope of this post, I guess.
My boss at the church, I mean I guess my human boss if you’re inclined to see things that way, was a guy named Gerry. He looked a little like Cheech Marin from the Cheech and Chong series. And he was actually pretty funny too, so that really solidified the resemblance in my mind. He would check in with me two or three times over the course my shift and he didn’t really take any shit–if I was moving too slowly or he caught me getting lost in my head, he’d get on my ass. “Back to work, kid! You’re not getting paid to read the Pilot!” (The Pilot, of course, is America’s oldest Catholic newspaper and a natural procrastination device for a 13 year old boy.)
We’d have lunch together on the days that he was around, usually on the side porch of his house across from the church. His house looked a lot like ours was what I thought about most: kind of ramshackle, definitely rough around the edges, and their bulkhead looked even worse than ours did. I know he had a wife and kids because his wife would come out and say hello sometimes and I’d hear kids running around inside the house while we sat and ate. He’d ask me about school, what sports I liked and books I read, and we’d talk about the Red Sox. I really looked forward to those lunches–I liked talking guy stuff with Gerry.
13 can be a tough time for a kid. Your body is changing, your friends are branching out, and it feels like you wake up every day to a different world. I remember being pretty scared and nervous most of the time. But having someone in your corner, even for just a few hours every week, can make a world of difference. It doesn’t have to be much, really, but just one voice is all it takes sometimes to turn your thoughts and way of looking at the world around.
One day I came to work and Gerry was gone. He’d moved to New Hampshire or Vermont with his family. I was pretty busted up about it, to tell the truth. I remember going into the bathroom and crying like a baby, not really understanding why–it’s not like I was related to the guy or even knew very much about him. He’d just been pretty nice to me at a time when I needed it. And I guess sometimes that’s all it takes. Just one voice.
Running a gym where people share their physical and personal stories with us, I try very hard to always remember that. Most of us aren’t as far removed from that 13 year old kid as we think we are, and a lot of us walk through life bombarded by negative reinforcement. We don’t look the right way, we don’t make enough money, we don’t quite measure up.
Sure, we can dig deep down and say fuck it, but that can be really hard for a lot of people without experience in standing up for themselves or hell, even thinking of themselves. So I try to remember that sometimes, just one voice can make a world of difference, and that what comes out when you reach your hand to another person can be the most beautiful thing in the world.