Tough day today, huh, Charlie?
“Yeah, it sure is. It seems a lot more days are getting tougher and tougher, for me at least”.
We’re in the break room, cooling off after driving our machines in the sun for an hour and a half on a day when the thermometer reads 103 degrees in the shade. Add another 10-15 degrees inside the cabs and today, like the past 10 or so, is indeed a Tough One.
He slips a “cooling bandana” from around his forehead. It is drenched in sweat as are his shorts and shirt. A mini cooler is pulled from the fridge and Charlie slumps into a chair while retrieving a half-eaten sandwich and a juice carton from the thermal bag. At 67, 140 pounds overweight, diabetic and with open sores visible on his lower legs, Charlie looks like he is losing the battle – with the heat, with the job and with himself.
“I wasn’t always like this”, he says. Was I staring or was he reading my mind? He had been a small-town policeman up north somewhere, I knew. Other than that, all I knew about him was that he was always polite, always soft-spoken and always the butt of jokes from the straw bosses up front that sat all day in an air-conditioned room criticizing Charlie for usually being a few minutes behind schedule on his tours. Miss your times and you, too, became a “Charlie”.
“My wife and I came down here after we retired. We had a small house. We’d go fishin’ and cook on the grill and drive around seeing the sights. We were happy. Then she got sick. Cancer. I took a job as a security guard to help with the bills. One day I was beat up and fell to the ground and hit my head. Never been the same. My wife died soon after”.
I’m sorry to hear this, Charlie.
“It’s o.k., it’s been a while. I live up the street, you know. At the motel. The one with the sign that says, ‘American Owned’ out front. Not many of those left. They treat me nice. No kitchen, though. I usually eat at Hungry Howie’s”.
Charlie is telling me this in a very matter of fact way. But, I’m not sure why. Is it because he knows that I, too, was “on the job” up north? Kind of like comrades? I don’t know. All I know is that my eyes are stinging from sweat – or maybe it is something else.
I’ve got to go, Charlie. See you later. Drink lots of water before you go out again.
He looks up and says, “Oh, yeah”. And then, “You know, I used to be a somebody, once”.
Before I open the doors to go back into the blast furnace of St. Augustine in August I look around the office. It has changed. I will never again see it as I did just one hour before. Maybe I’ll be a few minutes late beyond the allotted 90 minutes of my next scheduled tour. Just so Charlie isn’t alone today.