Sunday, January 14, 2007

California to Ohio, Part VI

...Continued from California to Ohio, Part V.
Read the whole story in California to Ohio (Unabridged).

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Saturday, December 16, 2006
Having eaten almost nothing the previous day, I woke up at about 8:30 AM to put some continental breakfast in my stomach. To my chagrin, the Super 8's breakfast spread consisted of little more than pre-packaged, thawed-out danish pastry thingies and orange drink. (I think they served coffee and English muffins, as well, but I was not interested in either of those items.)

The pastries were the brand with wrappers that, for some reason, each read: "Lemon, Apple, Blueberry, & Cream Cheese," even though each pastry contains only one of the four flavors. You know what I'm talking about--those wrappers that manage to keep you confused for about five minutes because you've forgotten about the other time you went through this at some other motel in some other state.

It starts like this: You accidentally notice the pastries don't all look alike, even though all the wrappers are identical. One pastry has blue gook in the middle, but another pastry has yellow gook. Wait a minute... That other pastry has creamy white gook in the middle. So you're like, "What the fuck, man?!?"

Then, after a few seconds, your mind finally puts it all together: "Oh, I get it. Either the manufacturer is just too cheap to make appropriate wrappers for each flavor or they're too lazy to spend a few seconds composing a simple sentence that could adequately communicate the message that each pastry contains only one of the fillings listed on the wrapper." Unfortunately, while you've been trying to figure it out, other guests have nearly picked the pastry tray clean. So you look at the tray once again and you're all like: "God dammit, there's nothing but apple left."

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After eating three pastries, I headed back to my room to take a shower, intending to check out of the motel well before the 11:00 deadline. However, some unexpected conversations delayed my check-out, keeping me at the motel until 10:45.

Once I finally checked out of the motel, I picked up all my stuff and started walking toward Otis's pizza trailer, which stands about a mile and a half from the Super 8. At this point in my journey, a mile and a half with 45 lbs. of baggage hanging from my shoulders felt like a long-ass walk, especially because approximately two-thirds of that weight was concentrated in a large bag with only one shoulder strap.

Having only one strap, I constantly had to deal with the 30-pound bag digging into my shoulder, slipping off my shoulder, and keeping me considerably out of balance. It forced me to put a lot more work into every movement than should have been necessary, but it also made me tougher and it helped me understand some of the changes I'll need to make before I can head out on the road in the future.

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Quartzsite is a very unusual town. It has a miniscule permanent population and very few free-standing buildings, but each winter thousands of vendors and transient characters flock to town for the seasonal swap meets. They come from just about everywhere, and almost all of the vendors live in small, simple RVs and campers on the periphery of the swap meets.

During the swap meet season, Quartzsite feels like a gathering of prospectors--a boomtown. In fact, I had the impression many of the townsfolk actually are prospectors, but most of the temporary residents are prospectors only in a metaphoric sense. They stake their claims, set up their equipment, display their goods, and wait for the river of gold to drive into town from Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and who knows where else.

They sell onyx, silver, turquoise, and Jesus. Pizza, burgers, burritos, and leather. To the best of my knowledge, visitors come to Quartzsite mostly for rocks, minerals, and gemstones, most of which is the real deal. But much of the merchandise is snake oil, sold by snake oil salesmen. Whether you realize it or not, you take your chances when you buy goods in a town like Quartzsite.

Every now and then the visitors need a break from their snake oil shopping sprees to put some grub in their bellies. Hungry out-of-towners have a few fast food chains to choose from--maybe even some locally-owned, year-round restaurants--but I think real Quartzsite food comes from trailers.

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It was about 11:30, maybe 12:00, when I finally arrived at Otis's pizza trailer. Having never seen the trailer before, I was impressed with the setup. It's shiny and clean, with customized awnings and a semi-sheltered dining area right next to it. Not a bad place to get a slice.

Otis received a phone call just as I walked up to the trailer, so I put my bags on the ground, took a seat on one of the plastic dining chairs, and called Rudy to find out what time he thought he might pass through Quartzsite on the way to Phoenix. Having slept on it, I'd decided to go ahead and ride to Phoenix with Rudy, as long as he didn't plan to leave Quartzsite too early. After calling Rudy, I was relieved to find out he was still at home in Lake Havasu City. That meant it would be several hours before he'd be ready to give me another ride.

Otis was still on the phone when I finished my phone call, so I dug out the camcorder and walked up to the front of the pizza trailer and talked to Otis's helper, Reva Callaway, for several minutes. Reva had a very friendly personality and no fear of cameras, so it was easy to strike up a conversation with her and get some non-hammed video footage, even before Otis had a chance to introduce the two of us.

Upon completion of his phone call, Otis welcomed me to the Pizza Wheel, showed me the interior of the trailer, and offered me a slice of pizza. I accepted his offer and snatched me a piece of pepperoni pizza. I must say Otis serves a pretty tasty slice.

With the Quartzsite swap meet season just kicking off, there weren't many shoppers around, even on this warm Saturday afternoon. As a result, there wasn't much of a pizza market, either, so I spent much of the day shooting the shit with Otis, Reva, and some of Otis's neighboring vendors.

I called Rudy again at about 3:00, to get an update on his progress. When he didn't answer, I left a voice-mail message saying I'd call back in about an hour unless I heard from him before then. Not hearing from him in that hour, I called him again at 4:00. Answering the phone this time, he told me he was between Quartzsite and Yuma, on his way to Yuma. He then told me to call back in about three hours.

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Closing time in Quartzsite is dictated by the sun. When the sun goes down, they roll up the sidewalks and close the shops. In mid-December, this occurs at about 6:00. But before Otis closed the Pizza Wheel on this particular Saturday, a local woman and her teenage daughter pulled up to buy a couple pizzas.

From a folding stool by the door inside the trailer I conversed with the mom while Otis prepared their pizzas. It was a pleasant conversation for a while, but things began to turn when we started revealing our respective business philosophies. It all began when she told a story about a trip to Wal-Mart. She said while she was checking out, the baggers at the check-out counter kept talking to each other and having a good old time (instead of treating her like a queen, I guess). She disapproved of their behavior and just couldn't believe the nerve of those kids. She said the baggers should take pride in their jobs and feel fortunate that they've been given an opportunity to earn some money.

Without getting into too much detail, I said I couldn't blame the Wal-Mart baggers for giving less than 100 percent effort because, realistically, they're not getting paid enough to give one-tenth of a shit. Essentially my stance is that even if the baggers in question do a completely half-ass job, they're still giving more than they're getting. If it wasn't true, they wouldn't have a job. (Let's just say the 7 dollars Wal-Mart pays them each hour doesn't make the slightest impact on Wal-Mart's income statements.)

You get what you pay for. If the baggers were earning $20 an hour, they wouldn't be fucking around, for lots of reasons. First of all, there's competition for jobs that pay $20 an hour. Second, no one wants to lose a job that pays $20 an hour. Third, Wal-Mart ain't gonna let that kind of shit happen in a position that pays $20 an hour.

Show me a bagger that earns $20 an hour and I'll show you a bagger that doesn't annoy the lady at the Pizza Wheel.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm just some dumb brat who's bitter because he's never had a good job. Well, you're right: I've never had a good job. But you're completely wrong if you think I'm just pissed off because I believe I've been wronged by my employers. No, this is just simple economics, and I think about all of this stuff more from a prospective employer's point of view than from an employee's point of view.

I'm not saying everyone should get paid $20 an hour. I'm saying that if I was the owner of a small business, I would begin by using my people skills to find and hire good workers. I would treat them with respect from Day 1. I would start them out at a reasonable wage and train them properly, making my expectations very clear, as well as the consequences of not meeting my expectations. I'd let them know that they should expect me to lead by example, and they should let me know when I fail to lead by example. When they show me they're worth more than I'm paying them, I'd raise their pay because I don't want to lose the people who help me keep my business profitable.

On the rare occasion that I find out I probably shouldn't have hired someone, I'd let them know what's up. I'd let them know how things need to change. And I'd let them know that if things don't change, they'll need to look for other employment.

Labor is not an expense. Labor is an investment. When you make bad investments, you have to deal with the consequences.

The lady at the pizza trailer, who owned a struggling RV lot, wasn't with me. She said I don't know what I'm talking about because I have never owned a business. (It's amazing how many failing small business owners have told me I don't know anything about running a business simply because I haven't done it.) It was clear to me by now that there was no point in continuing this conversation. I told her I felt like this discussion was on the verge of becoming an argument, and I didn't want to piss off Otis's customers, so I just wasn't going to talk about it anymore.

Soon enough her pizzas were ready. Before she left I said, "Have a good night," to try to show that I didn't feel any hostility toward her. Later on I apologized to Otis for the heated discussion.

After a couple hours of hanging out with Otis and the guys and chowing on a couple slices of pizza, I had to figure out what I was going to do for the night. Even though it was at least an hour after the time Rudy told me to call him back, I still hadn't called him because I was starting to realize he's not very good at sticking to a schedule and because I was beginning to feel like a bit of a pest by calling him so much. And I guess I just didn't want to call him again only to find out he was still in Yuma or something.

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At about 8:30 PM, with Otis heading off to his sleeping quarters, I started walking west, toward the truck stops and the I-10 interchange. Noticing the "Vacancy" sign at the Yacht Club, I went to the office to see what kind of deals they had, but the office was closed. So I kept walking west.

Knowing I had nowhere to sleep that night for free, I really wanted to get out of Quartzsite. Having walked pretty far down the road already, I decided to head the rest of the way to Love's truck stop and try to get a ride from there. I was still hoping to hear from Rudy, but by now I didn't expect a call from him.

After crossing the bridge over Interstate 10, I was only a few hundred feet from Love's, where a lot of eastbound vehicles were stopping to refuel. I was relieved to be off the bridge because the bridge doesn't have much room for pedestrians. But the street doesn't offer much pedestrian space, either, so I stayed as close to the edge of the pavement as possible. That's when it happened.

Trying to stay out of the path of traffic, I took a step, placing my left foot near the edge of the pavement, just like I'd done a million times before. Only this step wasn't like those other millions of steps. Oh I did it all wrong this time, and I wasn't real happy about it.

Instead of placing my foot near the edge of the asphalt, this time I placed my foot on the edge of the asphalt. With the inside of my foot remaining atop the asphalt and the outside of my foot over the edge of the asphalt, there was no support for the rest of my body's weight. As my foot buckled and snapped fully into a right angle (in relation to the rest of my leg), something popped loudly and I was on the ground. I didn't think I was going to get up from this. I thought my foot would be dangling from my leg whenever someone came to help me up.

To continue, read California to Ohio, Part VII (when I finish writing it).

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Or read the whole story in California to Ohio (Unabridged).