Friday, December 31, 2010

Hired Hand - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

During the 1990’s employment in our little town was at an all time high. Almost everyone that wanted a job could get one without much effort. That was great, unless you were an employer needing to hire subcontractors that were constantly in demand. The pay rates were reasonably higher that other part of the state during this time, and good workers, that showed up sober, and with regularity, were at a premium.

Our business did not require skilled help, we needed someone to take care of the equipment on a job site and cut brush for the survey crew to see through to do our work. Because of the market, we went through a revolving door of “bottom of the barrel” employees, who had various and sundry personal problems and demons that prevented them from fulfilling their life’s goals. Frustrated with the lack of responsible help, I placed an ad in the Decatur Daily and got a response right away.

Our office was located in the basement of my Mom and Dad’s house in Hartselle. We were just starting out as a cottage industry, a surveying and engineering business that my Dad had started on the side for weekend work. After graduating from Auburn, I came home and with the help of two partners, took the enterprise full-time and incorporated in 1992. We rarely had clients ever come to us, but when they did, they came through the front door, then down to the basement where we discussed their projects.

One afternoon, in response to our ad, Earl showed up at our door. Earl, who was about 32, was from a part of Lawrence County, Alabama called Chalybeate, but pronounced “clebet” by it denizens. On this afternoon, I was out of the office on a project site, and Mom was at home to greet Earl. She invited him in and visited with him for a while awaiting my return. During this time she learned that Earl was really in need of a job, and had scoped out a convenience store to “knock off” on the way home if he could not find employment that day. Earl lived in a mobile home that he was in the process of restoring, behind his parents’ house. He was very proud that he had just completed the plumbing the night before, that consisted of a garden hose from the parents’ spigot to his dwelling so he could have water anytime he needed it. Earl had a son from a previous encounter, and a girlfriend/fiancee named Nancy that sometime hung around, and sometimes not. Nancy was addicted to crack cocaine, so he didn’t want her around his son when she was high.

I got home and met my petrified mother at the door who told me of Earl’s appearance and his announcement of the Plan “B” if he didn’t get a job. I took Earl downstairs and talked with him to see if he was exaggerating, or telling the truth about his situation. As it turns out, he was being brutally honest and was in need of a job. As I was really desperate for good help, I hired him. Earl was at least honest enough to tell me his situation and that was a lot better than what I was getting in my other help. He showed up the next day on time and ready for work of any kind, and so began our symbiotic relationship.

The first thing I noticed about Earl was his attire. He wore work clothes, as we did not know from day to day where our needs would take us. One day we would be cutting miles of brush and killing snakes, the next day, he would wash the company truck while I calculated survey data. Earl always wore dirty jeans, a clean t-shirt, and an ever-present 36” long blade machete strapped to his waist. The machete was a tool of his trade, but wasn’t needed every day, but was worn nonetheless. Everywhere he went, the machete went. No one ever made mention of it, (probably out of fear) but he wore it to lunch, to pick up the mail, and other errands that we had for him. Earl had some front teeth missing from a fight in the Lawrence County jail, so he had a gap in his smile. He was saving up for some teeth, but the replacement dentures were very expensive and seemed unrealistic, but he saved anyway. This appearance was certainly frightening, if you did not know him. At first, I was concerned, too. Later, however, Earl would prove useful in a big way.
We had a certain real estate office in a nearby town that decided that they were not going to pay their bills to us for work we did. They ordered a survey on a lot, but the closing did not happen, or the buyer backed out, so they said “too bad” to my requests for payment. I got the hint, and after getting to know that Earl was a lot of things, he was not violent. Except for the time he beat up Nancy’s crack dealer in NW Decatur, but that another story, I sent him to their office with a bill and told him to sit in their waiting area until it was settled. He regaled the prospective buyers in the office with his stories of how he lost his teeth in a Moulton jail fight and that he liked the food in the Hartselle jail better than anywhere else he had been. He came back very shortly with every penny that group owed us, and they never were late with a bill again.

Earl had several personal problems, to say the least. But to his credit, he was struggling against them to provide for his son, clean up Nancy, and create some sort of normal life for his little family. It would be easy to look at him and condemn, but things are often more complicated than they seem. One of Earl’s demons was a fact that his own mother put succinctly “he’s too dumb to drink”. Many of Earl’s problems were a result of some drinking. He had acquired so many DUI’s that he could not get a valid Alabama driver’s license until sometime around 2020. Because of this high number, he was incarcerated on weekends in the Hartselle City Jail. He would go in on Friday night and serve until Sunday evening, on numerous charges of driving without a license. What puzzled me was the fact that he drove his car to the jail and drove home every weekend. I guess the police never looked outside to see how Earl got there. If they had looked outside, Earl’s car was a spectacle. The 1970’s model Ford LTD had been in a frontal crash that left the headlights inoperable. In their place, were two Sears battery operated flashlights that he would pull over at dusk and turn on. He had a large supply of D cell batteries on the dash for this purpose.

One Friday, I needed to get a big survey done for a closing on Monday. We were behind schedule and needed to work on Saturday to get this job finished. Earl had other engagements on Saturdays, so I called the city judge who happened to be the closing attorney for the transaction (Only in a small town). I explained the situation and as he needed the transaction to occur, as I did, he agreed to release Earl for the Saturday to work. The next morning, I went to the jail to pick him up. My thinking was that working outside would be better than spending the day in jail. The office at the jail told me I had to feed him lunch, which again, I thought Earl would like better than jail food. Wrong. Earl was very upset that I had released him for the day. To my bewilderment, Earl was a trusty, which means that he had been around so long, that they let him do special chores and tasks during his confinement. On Friday nights, the police bring in all the “potential defendants” on their various charges and book them into jail. While the perps are in the back seat handcuffed, they can apparently remove pills and other “evidence” into the seat of the police car. Earl, the trusty, washes the police cars on Saturday. During the thorough cleaning, he collects this evidence and apparently sells it back to the detainees when they are released on Sunday. He made more money doing this than he did working for me all week. During this Saturday, we discussed how that was wrong and that he could be sent away if he was caught. He eventually stopped this practice and revealed the scam to the jailer, who prevented other trustys from doing the same.

A few months later, I had some meetings at the basement-office and did not have anything for Earl to do for those few hours, so I asked him to wash the mud off of the company truck. After my meetings were over, I noticed that he was washing the truck with new sponges, car wash soap, tire brushes, and car wax.
Knowing we did not have these items in our office or upstairs in the house, I asked him where he got them.
My thinking was that he spent his own money and that I needed to reimburse him. Wrong. He stole them from the police station, where he usually washed police cars. I had him finish, put all the City’s property back, and I explained to the police chief what had happened.

A few more months later, Earl found another job, closer to his home in Lawrence County. Later, I heard that he got arrested for beating a man in Georgia, who had assaulted Nancy. He was sentenced to the sate penitentiary in Atmore for a few years. Seems that this was not all bad for Earl. The state paid to have his teeth fixed, cut his hair, and cleaned him up. Apparently, in the joint, they try to teach you job skills so you can enter the workforce on your return. Earl had a choice of several skills such as auto mechanics, welding, construction, etc. The State of Alabama paid to train Earl in a skill that I did not know was in demand. Male exotic dancing. Yes, you read that right. We all pay someone to teach this skill to prevent recidivism in our prison system.

Earl opened my eyes to a different world than the one most folks I know enjoy. A world based on poor decisions, and the struggles that come from them. He had a big heart, but few tools to advance in life. All in all, prison helped him more than any job he ever had. I saw him a few years ago, and he was working as a cook in one of the restaurants in Hartselle. He had cleaned up and left Nancy. He and his son lived in Lawrence County and were doing OK. I learned to pay more for the positions that I needed, and eventually got some really good folks to work for me.