By L’Tanya Durante
I drove between the bright orange cones, parked, and raced to the door, punching in the three-digit code that began my day at the metal recycling facility. The office buzzed with the familiar. A gurgling coffee maker performed a duet with the stomping of steel-toed boots. As the boots burst through the door and around the corner, I heard Daddy’s footsteps from over twenty years ago, heavy after having been on his feet all day.
Like clockwork, I see the lights of his red pick-up truck that he’d backed into the driveway. I wait until I hear the garage door open. The boots clomp up to the stoop where he pauses, unhooks the laces from the first two or three hooks, and then loosens them just enough to slide his feet out. The garage door goes down and the side door opens. Daddy is home, donned in his daily outfit of khaki pants, work socks, and a striped shirt—and carrying the smell of a man who does the only kind of work he considers to be real.
Daddy embodied the sound and scent of the elements: men who made a living grabbing the handle of a trowel; dipping it in thick, gray mortar; plopping a clump on the long edge of a brick and using the trowel’s tip to even the thickness. All before placing that brick next to another, tapping it with the handle of the trowel, measuring it so that the bubble falls squarely in the middle of the level—the signal to start the process over with the next brick. Growing up as his daughter, I understood masonry terms like “pick and dip” and “plumb rule” and “raggle.” I could even read some of the blueprints Daddy would bring home. I loved to demonstrate my knowledge by pointing out the doors and windows on the schematics, making Daddy proud.
These are the images that have been with me since childhood, memories much more pleasant than my memory of the last time I saw Daddy, his lifeless body curled up on the bathroom floor. The scene in the recycling facility—coffee maker, battered desks, fluorescent lights—was suddenly unfamiliar. I didn’t see Daddy sitting in his chair, legs crossed at the ankle and television remote in hand. Instead, the boots I heard stomping through the office belonged to men who rushed to clock in before eight in the morning.
“You’re late!” Gary screamed from our shared office. I knew I wasn’t late. In fact, I was right on time, but I didn’t argue. We all knew that, according to Gary, five minutes early was still late. I opened a file of Excel spreadsheets and scrolled through the templates until I found something I could experiment with. I felt Gary standing behind me, slightly to the left.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
As office manager and bookkeeper, it was part of my job to document employee leave.
“I’m just playing around with this employee attendance template, but I can’t seem to figure out how to add the color…”
“Here, let me…” he interrupted and took control of the mouse. “You don’t know how to add color? You just click on this fill option and…” Click. Click. Click.
“That’s not what I was trying to do…” I watched spreadsheet cells turn from yellow to red. I didn’t argue but waited until the clicking stopped.
“Hmmm…I don’t know why this part won’t change. Oh well.” He gave up.
I regained control of the mouse and moved the cursor to the top left corner, hovering on what looked like an arrow making a left turn. Undo. Undo. Undo. I’ll work on it later.
Gary abruptly walked away and entered another room and another conversation.
“Barnes, what’s all that yappin’ about?”
Ms. Sheila didn’t answer but chose instead to focus on the customers. Some had been selling their scrap metal for the eight years she had worked there. She’d perfected small talk in both English and the halting Spanish she learned over forty years ago.
“Cold enough for you?”
“Are you going to the fair?”
“Es un buen dia, no? No caliente. No frio.”
“How’s your grandmother?”
But those seemingly trivial conversations often hid more painful life events—a customer’s grief over losing a grandchild to crib death or their excitement about being released from jail. They were willing to tell all if Ms. Sheila was willing to listen. She was always willing.
A young man with locs—flowing dreadlocks—and a proud smile came to the bulletproof window to be paid for the metal he was dropping off.
“You stayin’ outta trouble?” Ms. Sheila asked.
“Yes ma’am,” he answered quickly.
She tilted her head to the side. “I don’t think so. Let me come out there and as my mama would say, look in your eyes.” She walked outside and greeted the young man with a hug.
Another customer came to the window—a regular. He sulked and said to Ms. Sheila, “Look at you out here flirtin.’”
“You jealous, Mr. George?”
“Yeah,” he replied. She immediately walked over to him and lay her head on his shoulder. They smiled.
I knew the time of day, not because of the hands on the clock, but because of the man who walked up the hill carrying four large plastic garbage bags over his shoulders. The guys who worked in the yard nicknamed him “The Can Man,” but I called him by the only name I knew, Mr. Thomas. Every day about five minutes before closing, Mr. Thomas sold aluminum cans, cans I was told he found in dumpsters. His neon orange and yellow vest—the required “uniform” of those who beg for money—was draped over too many clothes.
I wanted to know more about Mr. Thomas, as if understanding his path would enlighten me about others who walked the streets and lived in the shadows. But he deserved more respect than being hit with a bunch of personal questions that would satisfy my curiosity, yet do nothing for him. I chose not to pry.
“How are you doin’ today, Mr. Thomas?”
“Are you stayin’ warm?”
“Yeah, I’m tryin’ to, but it was cold this morning.”
He scribbled his name between the cracks on the signature pad, collected anywhere from twelve to fifteen dollars, and disappeared until the next recycling day.
From the office window, I caught a glimpse of the baler, a loud machine that packaged the cut or crushed metal into large, thousand-pound squares and prepared them for shipment. Gary followed my gaze from the desk just inside the office window. “What are you looking at?”
“Where’s the end?”
“The end of what?”
“I watch the metal get packaged up. Then we ship it out. Where’s the end? Who makes the metal into something else, the end product?” I ask.
I only half-heard Gary’s lengthy explanation of which company melted the metal and which company was responsible for recycling it into another form.
“What happens to all of these bales?”
“You sure do ask a lot of questions…for a girl,” Gary said, smiling.
I heard “for a girl.” Just like I heard another comment on a different occasion, when I complained that I couldn’t get up off my knees after I picked something up from the floor. “Well that wouldn’t be a bad thing,” came the response. Both times, I made the split-second decision to ignore Gary’s inappropriate comment. I masked the hurt and surprise the way I was ‘taught’ as a child.
Although South First Road in Arlington, Virginia was a dead-end street, it was alive with families and kids—all boys except for me. When I looked at my boy friends, I saw racing partners rather than potential life partners. We played hard and whatever they could do, I could…almost do, especially when it snowed. When the snow fell, we’d ride our sleds down the nearby hill, our butts balanced squarely in the middle of the wooden planks.
The winter I was about ten years old, once the street had been worn to the perfect mixture of ice and snow, the boys upped the ante. I watched Alvin survey the road. He took off running, holding the sled away from his body. Then it was my turn. I grabbed the sled and dove onto the wood and metal runner sled, my body prone, my head and legs tilted upward as I slid. I must have positioned myself too far forward; my mouth hit the red steel runner, hard, and I ran bleeding for home. I doubt I let the boys know what had happened. Oblivious, they just waited their turn for another run.
The blood scared me more than the impact. My lip ached. I was scared, but I didn’t cry. What I needed was a hug. Instead, Daddy took a quick, unimpressed look at me.
“Oh, you’re alright. You’re tough,” he said.
Yeah, I’m tough, just like the boys, I thought, trying to convince myself. Trying to take it and hold my difficult, confusing feelings hostage. I was tough just like the boy Daddy and Mommy almost had, the one whose cry was stilled at birth, the one nobody ever spoke about. Tough like Daddy, who came home early from work one day pressing a bloody white handkerchief to his head. A two-by-four from a scaffold had fallen and bashed his head, but he sure didn’t cry. He quietly tended to his wound in the bathroom, then drove himself to the hospital for stitches and came home without making a fuss. Why would I make a fuss about a little bump on my lip?
Maybe I really was the tough one. I would spend what felt like a lifetime in male-centric work environments trying to prove it.
My heart began to beat faster than normal. My eyes flitted from the red brake lights in front of me to the sign indicating the next exit off the freeway, to the radio clock and back to the brake lights. Although I left home ten minutes earlier than usual, I realized I was still going to be late for work. Panic set in.
I made the call. “Hi, Ms. Sheila. There’s an accident on the freeway. I’m getting off and going down Main Street, but I’m going to be late.”
“Okay. Josh and Tom just called too.”
About ten minutes after the hour, I crossed the office threshold and was greeted by Gary’s condescending stare. “You’re late.”
“Gary, there was an accident on the freeway—”
“Well, you should have left early. I always tell people just to leave the house earlier.”
“Gary, I did leave early. But life happens. There are accidents and traffic jams. Nobody can help that.”
“Oh, don’t give me that crap. I understand that, but people can’t use that excuse all the time when they’re just laying around the house. If Josh keeps this up, he’ll be out of a job.”
I was treading on the unthinkable by disagreeing with Gary.
As one of the newer employees, I didn’t know a lot about my co-workers. Brief conversations gave me glimpses of their lives, scraps of memories pieced together to understand the whole. When one of the guys was picking up a pair of work gloves from the closet, I learned that he didn’t like people because he was teased as a child. Another employee’s son had been bullied at school.
Through snippets of monologues about Gary’s extraordinary ability to get things done, I also learned a bit about his morning routine. He got up around three-o’clock in the morning, drank two cups of coffee, walked his two dogs, ate a bowl of cereal, and headed to work around five-o’clock, where he filled up his coffee mug at least two more times before the work day began. Having a simple routine like Gary’s seemed ideal, but my life was dynamic and so were the lives of the other employees who were parents (which happened to be every one of them).
Gary didn’t have children and therefore had no concept of what it meant to wake bleary-eyed kids for school and contend with their irritability and the just give me five more minutes requests. He couldn’t share any of our experiences with less-than-routine mornings, of stuffing sandwiches into plastic bags and then removing them and starting over because of I don’t like that complaints we got from our children. He couldn’t understand how traffic and family life could cause anyone to be late for work.
Without giving it a second thought, I stepped into what would surely be combat and struck, quickly and precisely.
“You don’t have to deal with traffic at five o’clock in the morning.”
“Don’t you tell me. I do have traffic—” he screamed.
“Don’t you scream at me,” I reflexively screamed back at him.
I read his expression—something between disgust and surprise. Nobody was supposed to lean into confrontation with him. Nobody was supposed to be tough, especially not a girl.
The victory of having the last word was Gary’s. “When Josh and Tom come in, write them both up as an unexcused tardy.”
He turned and walked away. I walked away.
I opened the employee time tracker spreadsheet and clicked the mouse. The cell color changed from white to yellow. I mark an “X” beside the word “Tardy.” One for Tom. One for Josh. One for me.
“Lee, do you copy?” Gary blurted out over the radio. There was no answer.
“Go ’head,” Lee answered.
“Bring the forklift to the front and start cleaning up.” He spewed out the close-of-day instructions. “Put the cones out and don’t let anybody else in.”
Mr. Thomas walked between the cones, dragging five large plastic bags of aluminum cans. I was happy to see that Lee stopped to help him bring them to the scale. We made an exception for Mr. Thomas. No one knew much about his life, but we all knew that he deserved treatment that was somehow special.
“How are you doin,’” Mr. Thomas?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m fine.” He shifted his headphones.
I felt a little braver. “What are you listenin’ to?”
“The D. L. Hughley show.”
“Oh, you like that show?” I was surprised for some reason that Mr. Thomas would like this nationally syndicated radio show. It was also my go-to afternoon drive radio program.
“Yeah,” he answered quickly. I shied away, embarrassed that I could think a man without a fixed address would have different taste in music and conversation than I did.
I hurriedly paid him his twelve dollars and watched him disappear between the cones.
Hour after hour, customers brought in their scraps—stories and steel, what remained of precious memories and precious metal. Some left with hundreds of dollars and rode off in Corvettes and Super Duty trucks, while others were happy to make enough money to move the fuel needle a quarter-inch in their rumbling pickup trucks. Some needed the money for food.
I needed my job. I needed money, too. But what I needed most was to feel close to a father who was vibrant when I went to bed so many years ago and who lay still on the floor the next morning, and to the smell and sound of his boots, even if they were on the feet of other men.
L’Tanya Durante is a creative nonfiction writer, community engagement worker, and mother living in Durham, North Carolina. She served as a prose reader on the editorial team at the former Linden Avenue Literary Journal, which featured exclusively the writing of women of color, and has also served as an editorial intern for the nonfiction magazine Hippocampus. She earned her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University with her memoir manuscript, a collection of essays challenging the myth of what it means to be a strong Black woman. Several of her “Tiny Truths” have been published in Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @writerordiegirl.
Photo by Annie Spratt