Wednesday, June 6, 2012

organizing: a mentor.

2008, continued.

After dicking around in the parking lot for at least two more smokes, making plans for a trip that evening to the only bar in the county with some of the other organizers, really milking the clock before we set out, Jeff catches my eye and nods toward his car. I gesture my acknowledgement and climb into passenger seat of his silver Taurus without a word, all at once overcome by the smell of damp and cigarettes and what honestly kind of smells like a dead animal. I breathe through my mouth and I wait. And wait. Once Jeff starts talking to someone, the conversation is rarely brief. When I finally concede that I'm going to have to open to door so I can breathe outside air,  I see him saunter over in his overall union suit, flipping his zippo and sweeping the shaggy hair off of his glistening forehead with his left index finger as he prepares to settle into the car. He's a stout, sturdy, man and he gives off the air of a person who cannot possibly be rushed or ruffled. As he turns the engine, I eagerly press down my window to sweet release, forcing myself not to gasp in the fresh air.

He leaves it to me to put the sheets in order, that is, deciding what our route will be for the day- and I feel a sense of pride at his confidence in me. We are a good team. I'm glad of it.

Jeff talks constantly, in a slow melodic drawl that at first, I found mildly infuriating. Until I realized his slow talking wasn't any bearing on his intellect or ability, Jeff turned out to be one of the most informed people I'd ever met. He just chose, for whatever reason, to draw it out languidly.  He tells me stories of his 53 years on earth for hours, with a constant Winston to the wind, and I'd likely be lulled to sleep by the soothing cadence of his voice were it not for the fact that he speeds through the narrow mountains and hills like a man long driven mad.

At many points in our travels over the year that he acted as my mentor, I actually convinced myself that I was ready to die, because I was sure, with him behind the wheel, we were going to end up in the fiery blaze too far into the wilderness for anyone to notice.

We never died, despite how convinced I was that we inevitably would. But we did make impeccable time.

For all his fire and brimstone, fanatical devotions, and extreme paranoia as to the intentions of those around him, Jeff is one of the most generous and empathetic people I've ever met in my life. I've actually seen him tip the McDonald's drive-thru employee more than the cost of our two coffees combined. He's just a western union wire away from his scattered children's aid, and always spread thin with worry of their well being, his wife having died of cancer a few years back.

But he's not a lonely man, and he regales me with stories of his conquests and numerous girlfriends, young and old, as I attempt to piece back together the remnants of my own shattered heart. My own shattered pride. We talk about Kate, the mute former folk singer who lost her voice in a tragic accident- she keeps him company when we travels south, and his crazy first wife in Ohio who became addicted to meth and sent her wild biker-club family after Jeff to try to squeeze more money out of him than her monthly check allowed.

He talks about running a crooked ice cream truck operation in Cleveland and also about escaping to the Florida Keys when he was 19 and found out he'd knocked up his girlfriend at the time. He speaks of everything he's encountered,  from murders and arrests, to attending communist meetings, and dancing at hippie festivals in the same level tone, and it makes me want to peer inside his mind and catalog everything in there. He's never embarrassed, he is straightforward and up front with what he brings to the table, and for one with such a colorful life, he is proud. It often feels like I'm under a spell, hearing him talk.

The day passes quickly despite the long drives between houses, and we manage some success, a couple of cards, mostly due to Jeff's slow drawl and refusal to acknowledge what I interpret as outright hostility. Eventually, most of these meetings settle into more amiable conversations.  We tally everything up as we debrief in his smokey hotel room, and he has me take more than half of our bounty to boost my numbers. He always looks out for me. The fact that he wants me to succeed means so much more than the initial 'good luck,' I got from the union when they stranded me by myself with no training as far east as possible without crossing state lines. Somehow I survived that two months on my own, and now that Jeff's on my side, I feel like I might just make it through my probation in one piece.


I'm getting a nicotine headache, it's been a long day. I'm not used to so much smoke in my lungs or milling around my head, no matter how much time I've spent in shady bars and pool halls since I landed in Kentucky. I take a drink of water and direct my attention back to the man speaking to me, ready to beg off and down a beer. Or four. I will myself patience and sit still, reminding myself that I have a lot of learn from this man.

Jeff is careful talking to me sometimes, but only when he's asking me questions. He can tell I've had a fairly privileged upbringing and I've mentioned my mostly republican family on occasion. He's wary of my college degree because he's wary of the success of young people like me, how can we possibly know what a union means for people if we've never needed one to survive? How can unions possibly survive with only us to speak for them when his generation is gone?  It took a while to gain his trust, but I know he does now, despite he wariness at asking certain things about me.  He surprises me, though, when he asks me about the fella I've been talking to on the phone so much. I rarely take personal calls in front of anyone from the union, but occasionally I'll be at the tail end of one when I pull up to one of our meetings. I assumed he never noticed, but apparently, he had.

"I can tell plain as day you love 'im you know, the way you talk to him. You don't sound the same when you're talking to me on the phone or anyone else. So who is he?"

And I'm flustered because I've been insisting to everyone and myself that Matt is just my friend.  For years. I'm still broken hearted, of course, over some guy that doesn't give a damn if I'm here nor there, but heart ache hasn't helped my rationality much. I'm convinced I can't be with anyone, this shell of a person that I've become when thinking about anything other than work- sometimes even that, so I'm definitely not dating Matt. He's my best friend. I'll not have our friendship ruined on a rebound. Maybe when I'm better, whole again. Maybe.  I tell him we're just friends and he rolls his eyes at me like he thinks I'm lying or maybe just that he thinks I'm totally delusional. He's probably right about both.

Still he prods at me about Matt in his casually cautious way, and I realize it's oddly akin to the way he prods the conversation along with potential union members. Respectful but curious. Immune to discomfort. Ready with another question if the natural progression of the talk splutters out.

How I know him: We went to high school together. Have we dated before: No.  Have we slept together: No. Do I want to: None of your goddamn business, Jeff! He laughs at that. He asks what Matt does and I tell him he works for an independent contractor, building things. He asks where he went to college and I say, "He didn't,' not thinking much of it, and steel myself for the next inquiry. But that's when the questions stop.

I look up and Jeff's looking at me smiling, like I'm his own child and I just took my first steps. He gives me an approving nod and says, "I was maybe wrong about you. I guess I still thought you were one of those spoiled snobs up on Knob Hill, slumming it for a time before floating back on up to your privileged life," he said, waving his hands to demonstrate the hoity-toity folk on Knob Hill. "But I guess you're not, since you're in love with the regular guy and all. I didn't expect that from you. Oh, if only I were 30 years younger!" He shrugged his shoulders to signify that he was done, and by that time I was flushed Christmas red so I just nodded and walked out the door. Debrief was officially over.


I walked down to my room, then, not really knowing whether to be offended or pleased with the encounter. It didn't matter to me that my best friend the person I was maybe secretly in love with hadn't gone to college. In fact, I'd never paid it much mind, but apparently it was a big deal for Jeff, who hadn't attended college either. But why did I basically admit to Jeff how I felt, when I wouldn't even let myself acknowledge the fact?

As I changed from my smokey clothes into my soon-to-be smokey bar attire, almost identical, I called Matt to tell him about my day just like I did every night. It was nothing out of the ordinary.

I decided as we chatted comfortably that I wasn't anything, offended nor pleased about what Jeff had said. I was just me. It hadn't been anything calculated or weighted for gain or loss, and my true self had been enough, I felt comfortable enough to speak candidly with Jeff, probably because he respected me enough to speak honestly and candidly with me, no matter what.  He was my friend. I discovered then how important that was for me, despite what could have been a back-handed compliment.

Maybe I was learning about more than organizing labor unions from slow talking Jeff Abbe.

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