There has been much debate about why so many bizarre stories come out of Florida. Some say it’s because the state is full of transient people, and the lack of roots has something to do with it; some say it’s the heat, insufferable humidity and eternal sunshine; others say it’s the combination of a huge, diverse population and easy access to public records. I say it’s all the above, and a million other less obvious reasons. I have been living here on and off since 1985, when my family packed up a station wagon and moved down from Aurora, Illinois. But it wasn’t until 10 years later, when I opened a tool rental business in Boynton Beach, that I got a firm, ground-level view of the insanity here. My shop, when I first opened, was in an 800 square foot space at the end of an ancient strip mall that had two dive bars in it, a shoe shop, a barber shop, a headshop, a hairdresser, a vet, and several other stores. My customers were mostly blue-collar workers – painters, pressure washers, grout cleaners, handymen – though I’d also get a fair share of weekend warriors, and vagabonds blown in off the street. They’d come into the shop in all their motley appearances, this one with a supercilious expression, that one with a Hollywood smile, another with no ass and hair growing out of his ears, a fourth with sunken eyes and a straggling dyed mustache – they would come in, sometimes only once or twice, but the impression they would leave on me would be forever. I’m what they call a super recognizer. I’m one of those people who almost never forgets a face. I see them, and they go into my soul. I can’t get them out of there. They go into the sediment. It’s more of a curse than it is a talent. I wish I could remember text like I can the stupid human face, but there are some benefits to it. For one, it makes drawing faces easy; secondly, I never forget my customers, even if they were only in the shop for a few minutes, years ago. When they come in for the second time, I usually pretend I don’t remember them. It would be too strange otherwise. But sometimes I’ll intentionally freak someone out, just to see their reaction. I once had a customer who came into the shop five years after the first time, when he rented a knee-kicker for doing carpeting. His name was Gregory Saks; he was completely, almost profoundly nondescript in appearance, and when he walked in I greeted him by his name, and remembered what he rented, which practically knocked him over. “That’s the strangest thing that’s happened to me all week,” he said. “Maybe all year.” But he was flattered too.
So like I say, people, even the most random, seemingly inconsequential ones, enter my soul and stay there forever. I now have 24 years of customers inside me; their faces, their words, their stories, somehow becoming a part of me. And sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night, or half-dreaming through my day, I will be revisited by them as if by ghosts.
Some of my customers have been long dead, some have moved away or simply disappeared, and others still, years later, come into the shop, old now, hands crabbed, faces disfigured by a lifetime hard work under the Florida sun, sealing driveways, painting roofs, digging trenches, cutting grass, laying tile, butting carpet against walls, plumbing, pulling wire through sweltering crawlspaces in midsummer.
Such is the life of the American blue-collar worker.
A life of thankless drudgework and little time off, of no benefits, no health insurance, no escape and no reason to complain because no one wants to hear it.
Which is why I’m never really surprised when a story comes back to me about how this customer was shot dead after getting high on bath salts, stripping naked and attacking a police officer; or that one hanging himself from a magnolia tree outside his girlfriend’s house so he would be discovered in the morning; or another pulling a plastic bag over his head and suffocating – all true stories. Or any of the other early deaths – cirrhosis of the liver, lung cancer, throat cancer, heart disease, freak, on-the-job accident, overdose; so many of my customers succumbing in their forties or fifties, leaving nothing behind but the debt that dogged them all their days and a fading little sediment of memory for a handful to share.