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Terrible Jobs, Part 1: Washing Oxygen Tents

In 1962, I needed an after-school job. I had turned 17 and wanted my own car, something my family could not afford to buy for me.

Alas, I had few marketable skills and no experience except for delivering newspapers and selling greeting cards. I was unimpressive physically, and the warehouse supervisors doubted I had the capacity to carry even moderately heavy loads onto trucks. In many places, I did not even get an interview.

When I saw an advertisement for washing oxygen tents at Shor’s Drug Store and Medical Supplies, I decided to apply. I had two factors in my favor: Shor’s was owned by Hy Zatkowski, the father of schoolmate Howie Zatkowski. And one of Shor’s pharmacists was the son-in-law of my Dad’s close friend, Dave Gold.

The pharmacist introduced me to Hy, a trim, distinguished looking, soft-spoken man in his fifties who warmly greeted me, asked me if I were available after school on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, as well as Saturday mornings, and when I answered that I was, sent me to meet Abe, the man in charge of surgical supplies. Abe was an ugly, balding, beak nosed, middle-aged man who wore a neck brace. His breath was toxic, he never smiled, and when he spoke, it sounded like he was lecturing or scolding. He verified my availability for the required times, explained that my sole duty would be washing oxygen tents, and then took me downstairs to the basement for a demonstration.

The plastic oxygen tents were suspended by clothespins on what looked like an oversized draftsman table. Before going near the first tent to be cleaned, Abe and I donned plastic gloves, aprons, and facemasks. The table was in the corner of the basement near a large sink with hoses connected to the faucets.

Each tent had to be washed thoroughly with strong disinfectant, and then rinsed twice, once with a water and vinegar solution, then again with warm water. It then had to be patted dry with a clean towel, and folded carefully and methodically to fit in a box.

After washing the first oxygen tent while explaining the steps and techniques to me, Abe supervised as I washed the second tent. Abe had taken fewer than ten minutes to wash the first tent; I took much longer and this was obviously irritating to Abe who told me I would have to learn to work faster.

The work was disgusting, starting pay was $1.00 per hour, but I had found a job.

Shor’s was housed in one building with two storefronts. On the right was the drugstore, which sold health and beauty supplies, boxed candies, gum, newspapers, magazines, tobacco products, ice cream, as well as clocks, watches, cigarette lighters, pens, pencils, and stationery. The left door led to the surgical supply store, which sold and rented wheelchairs, crutches, canes, oxygen tanks, oxygen tents, girdles and other elastic supporters, and a gruesome assortment of prosthetic devices.

The basement where I worked was a warehouse for everything sold upstairs. Prescription medicines were locked up in a gated section. There was a huge refrigerator and icebox for ice cream and other perishable goods.

A crew of three manned the basement: Eddie, Mike, and Stew. And the basement culture they incarnated consisted of debasing women who were referred to by two or three synecdoches and metonyms, devising creative nicknames for management -- mainly Abe, and cursing the clients with whom they came in contact.

Stew drove the milk truck-like delivery van that carried wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and other large equipment to hospitals, clinics, old age homes, and private residences. He was a large, affable Falstaffian figure: a pot bellied, pot smoking sex pervert. I remember him as having goat’s legs and feet, but this is probably due to the perfidy of memory and hearing Stew repeat daily, “You wouldn’t believe the ass on this girl!” or “You should have seen the tits on her!” The people Stew referred to might be an eleven-year old school girl, a matronly crossing guard, or any female in between these extremes.

Eddy, Mike, and I (rarely) had to ride shotgun with Stew from time to time to help with heavy loads. This was terrifying, as Stew would take his eyes off the road to leer at any woman that happened to be on the sidewalk. Death by traffic accident seemed imminent when you drove with Stew in that damned truck.

Mike was loquacious, witty, and creative at inventing demeaning names for Abe. His favorite word was “cocksucker”. Eddie was dim-witted, had a minor speech impediment, and preferred “sums a bitches”. Stew’s speech was strewn with the coarsest words available to describe the female anatomy and derivatives of “fuck”.

Abe came downstairs frequently to reprimand me for not cleaning the oxygen tents quickly enough, and his visits inspired great performances from the crew who would mimic “the goose-necked cocksucker” as they affectionately called him, and offer me advice on what my responses to him should have been.

They liked me and treated me well. I was taught how to leave a coke in the freezer for just the right amount of time to obtain a delightful combination of soda and ice. If someone went out for coffee, I was always asked what I wanted and they always paid for it.

They also enjoyed tormenting me. The oxygen tents arrived in disgusting condition, often spattered with phlegm, vomit, and blood. The crew provided faux background information such as, “the guy in this one died of plague about an hour ago.” “I hope you’ve had a tuberculosis vaccine: The woman in this tent coughed her lungs out.” “Those gray specks are pieces of the old man’s brain when his head exploded.”

When I had to go upstairs to use the bathroom, I returned to find the oxygen tent embellished with what appeared to be a bloody sanitary napkin, a dead mouse from one of the traps, or a viscous green substance that Mike or Stew would describe as the emission from some arcane body function.

Although I wore gloves, a facemask, and an apron, I went home reeking of disinfectant and vinegar, traces of which lingered even after a hot shower. My appetite suffered on the days I worked. But I endured for eight months without missing a day. Hy liked me and began to give me chores in the drug store like stocking the shelves, working the front counter as a cashier, and eventually making deliveries. He decided he needed me in the drugstore full time during the summer and asked Abe to find someone else to wash the oxygen tents. So I introduced my best friend in high school, Chick, who needed a summer job, to Hy, Abe, and the basement crew. Chick took over my old job. He was well liked by everyone, and lasted many months before he too moved on.

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