Sept. 20, 1962
On Monday, September 10th, I received a letter with my unemployment check. No foreplay, it got right down to business: “Mr. Squires, you are in receipt of your final unemployment check. I hope you continue with your efforts and are successful in securing employment.”
What it didn’t say, but implied, was, “You are now another state’s liability.”
Still, I had no complaints on that day. I had a check to cash, half of which would go toward my portion of the rent.
California had been quite good to me for the thirty-two weeks they cuddled me in their loving embrace. I think I had told Barry—who might have been just a tad jealous of having to trudge off to work while I stayed home and wrote—that the State of California was my patron while I wrote the Great American Novel. I mean, Michelangelo had the Medici family as his patron while he completed the Sistine Chapel, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch.
I had half a notion to send The California Department of Employment a thank you letter for being my patron for all those weeks, along with a no-hard-feelings postscript for dumping me when I was so close to finishing my Great American Novel, or receiving an acceptance letter from Atlantic Monthly.
I don’t remember, but I’m sure I must have mentioned the letter to Barry, who always asked me every Monday evening if my unemployment check had arrived that day. But whether I had or not, the following Monday evening—that would have been on the 17th—he plopped on the couch beside me.
“So, Jay,” he said, glancing up, which got me following his eyes at what might have been a crack in the ceiling, or something. “So what did the letter say? Something like, ‘What ceiling have you painted for me lately, Leonardo? Huh? …. Buh-bye, Leo?’”
Of course I couldn’t resist correcting it to Michelangelo, but afterwards I waited it out to see what else he had on his mind.
“Any luck finding a job yet?”
It would have been futile to explain to someone without my recent experience, the difficulties when you go from pursuing the course of looking not to get a job to seriously and energetically asking someone to hire you. A certain mental corner had to be turned, another wrinkle in one’s psyche reeducated, if you will. And the biggest part of my problem was I’d eliminated half the town already, just to satisfy California de Medici.
I took the easier route. “Not yet. I plan on going out tomorrow.”
“What about that clerical place?”
“Time’s Rite Clerical? You know as well as I do it’s an all girl job.”
“But you went back a few days later.”
“Yeah … and you know that, too. I wanted to talk to Carrie.”
“I didn’t tell you about that. She moved or something. Anyway, she quit.”
“Then there’s an opening.”
I slugged him on the meaty part of his arm.
“Jesus, Jay—that—Ow! Jesus. That’s gonna leave a bruise.”
“It should, man!” I pouted a little, but you can’t stay mad at Barry. I smiled, but not much. “You need to show a little sensitivity.”
“Yeah, well … I’ll show you sensitivity.” With that, he slipped thumb and forefinger into his shirt pocket. “No reason for you to go looking for a job tomorrow.” He plucked out a slip of paper and handed it to me.
I read it: Midtown Motor Hotel, and the name, Jacob Tarsdale.
“Tomorrow. Ten a.m. Ask for Mr. Tarsdale.” He delivered these words machine-gun style, and then he stood and made his way to the kitchen. Barry had a flair for dramatic entrances and exits.
I called him back and he turned around. “What can—Thanks, Barry, but tell me a little about this job you got me.”
“Sure.” He grinned. “You’re gonna be a lifeguard.
“A what—what—what guard?”
Oh, I could swim. Barry knew that, but I always judged an experienced swimmer by the way he did the crawl, with his face looking straight down under water, and every couple of strokes rhythmically turning his head to the side for air, then back under. I couldn’t do that. My head always perched as high on my neck as I could strain it, kind of like a turtle or a dog—though I was more advanced than the dog paddle. I needed to see where I was going, though, and that didn’t include looking under water. I cocked my head and grinned. “Barry. You’re putting me on.”
“What?” He tried to adopt a taken-aback pose, like, why would you even question it?
“Barry, he’s not gonna hire me. He’ll ask me to swim for him.”
“Why? He knows you can swim.”
“How? How’s he know that?”
“I told him.”
“But damn it all, Barry, you have to be qualified. Don’t you have to pass tests and stuff?”
“Yeah, well, that …” He got a silly smile on his face. “Well, I told him you have your Life Saving Certificate. That it was at your folks’ home in California and you’d send for it. He needs someone now, Jay. He tried to hire me, but I’ve built up some pretty good time and grade where I work, so I had to say no. That’s why I mentioned you. Listen, Jay …” He quieted me with two palms held between us. “It’s just a formality. I’ll teach you CPR and anyway, they have those long rescue poles you hold out and the person grabs onto. It’s a snap! This time next week he’ll have forgotten all about the certificate.”
“Naw … Come on, Barry! A life guard? Come on.”
He wagged his head, slowly, a faraway grin on his face. “Girls dig ‘em.”