Of all the jobs I've held, "construction worker" is most likely to cause unexpected (and unwarranted) respect, "beret-wearing busboy" is likeliest to cause demands for photos, and "managing editor of a health and fitness magazine" is most likely to cause choking and gasping. The job people seem most intrigued by? "Stock boy in a candy warehouse."
Someone has to deliver candy and cigarettes to all the mom and pop stores, and that was us. My job was to move boxes around. Off the truck, on the truck. Only rarely did I see candy, and if I did, it was disfigured beyond all palatability. Sorry to disappoint.
I was the college kid, and as such, I was the target of much abuse from those who'd never caught so much as a whiff of dorm mold. There was no subtlety about it. "Hey dumbass," the owner's son would yell across the warehouse. "Drop your dick for a second and college me up some Goetz caramels."
Everyone would laugh and high five. It was a great fit for me.
My first day, I was introduced to Teddy Cope, the longtime warehouse foreman who had recently been demoted to make room for the owner's son. Which is to say that Teddy had lost his title and pay, not any of his responsibilities. He would still train me. Teddy was a marvel. In a country where the average lifespan of a black man is 64, Teddy had somehow lived to be 127. His teeth hadn't made it past 42, however, and when he smiled you wished for nothing more than for him to scowl again. He walked slowly, efficiently, expending not one step more than necessary to perform a given task. And my personal lexicon was forever changed by the invective that poured past the cigarette flapping omnipresently on his lower lip.
"Teddy, this is John. He's replacing your boy Mike. He's all yours."
Teddy, slumped over the back of a dolly, glared at me. "Jesus Christ pushin' a hand-cart," his cigarette flapped. "Who are you related to?"
You'd think his disdain for me would be tempered by my not, in fact, being related to the "saltine-assed motherfuckers" who'd recently bought the place, but I was doomed. Nothing I did was good enough. Sometimes he couldn't wait for the truck drivers to get back at the end of the day so he could regale them with stories of my bumbling.
Teddy was a curiosity. He listened to country music. He loved Willie Nelson. This drove me insane. He smoked constantly. He cursed unremittingly yet yelled at me if I even began a profanity.
"Yooouuuu be careful." He'd wag a finger at me.
"But you swear all the time."
"Fuckin' a. But I don't want to hear it out of you."
Teddy was full of colorful expressions. It was from him that I learned such mainstays as "Tear you a new one," "Get your head out of your ass," "I need you like I need a second asshole," and his daily mantra: "John, I'm so happy I could just shit all over myself." Those all made immediate sense to me, and I adopted them as my own. Other expressions didn't quite make the cut. "And if roosters had titties, they wouldn't crow until 10:30." comes to mind.
Teddy and I lived near one another, and to curry favor I'd taken to swinging by his bus stop and picking him up every morning. It was during these trips, free from the previously undetectable constraints of a professional environment, that I learned what an abomination the entire cracker race is. He'd rail. I'd listen. Then I'd remind him that a cracker was giving him a ride. He'd point his flapping cigarette out the window. "Yeah. Well. You're just trying to curry favor."
His apartment was next to a high school, and on Friday nights he went to games alone. I thought this was unfathomably cool. I still do. I hope that when I'm 141, I can do the same. I joined him a few times, and my education as a self-loathing white guy continued under the lights. Every time a Big White Stiff screwed up, Teddy guffawed, nudged me, and pointed, lest I miss it.
One day, we were unloading a truck, in our usual positions. Teddy was behind the dolly, smoking a butt, and I was unloading heavy cases of Snickers bars. I dropped the first one on the dolly instead of setting it down, and the dolly recoiled. I heard the sickening sound of celery snapping. Those were Teddy's ribs. He glared at me, eyes bugging. He made not a sound—the most terrifying sound in the world. I thought he was just building up speed, but the eruption never came.
After a few hours, after the severity of his injury had become apparent, he asked me to topple a tall stack of cases. I did. He then went into the owner's office and said the stack had fallen on him, and that he needed to go to the hospital.
As I drove him to the hospital, I thanked Teddy for his white lie. This was the difference between my getting fired and not. He nodded, knowing well that he'd saved my job. I wasn't exactly sure what constituted being a cracker (this seemed to morph on me), but I knew Teddy's gesture was crackerdom's exact opposite. He smiled his best evil, gummy smile. "If you thought I was rough on you before, kid, just you wait. I own your ass now."
My pride kicked in. "Yeah, and if cows had boobs they'd, um, be, um.."
"Ca-righst. Just stop. I'm beggin' you. You were making such strides."