Coop

Let’s call this one “Painting Among the Decaying Birds, July 1991” or “Coop.”

Nearly thirty years have gone by, but I can not forget that first job after high school, working for Coyne Oil & Propane. Didn’t have any description to pair with it, and I was 17, so didn’t pause to care for long about how the job was defined, what amounted to a do-anything unskilled generalist, some days refilling the windshield washer tubs mounted near the fuel terminal or sweeping the engine-leaks-absorbing clay pellets scattered on the concrete where fleet vehicles parked while fueling. Other days painting lines on parking spaces, emptying garbage, or loading grime-covered empty barrels by hand into the back of a semi trailer, one by one by one. When the weather cooperated, most days involved painting propane tanks. I wrote about it once before, several years ago (“Propane“), keying on some of the flashbacks to that job and how it was set up, the Ford half-ton flatbed I drove when the tanks were in the field and the rickety front loader whose hydraulics were so breezy, to hoist a tank initiated game show-like countdown, racing to paint the tank’s underside before it lowered to the ground.

It was an iffy first job. Minimum wage was, what?, maybe $4.25 an hour in 1991. The beige paint came in five gallon buckets with exclamatory warning labels about its toxicity and how you should avoid contact with your skin, but day in and day out for months my hands were covered with the stuff.

Iffy, too, were some of the situations that presented with the off-site, in-the-field painting. Some of the tanks were a mess–surfaces pocked and rusted and impossible to refinish with the limited tools I had available; many of the sites were heinous, too–tanks converged upon by tall weeds or branches, swallowed up by their surrounds, much of which the homeowners preferred to have left undisturbed. But there weren’t many rules, otherwise, and the only lines of communication were when one of the Coyne brothers who owned the company would receive a phone call of request or complaint.

The drawing up top returns again to the unforgettable excursion to a remote, wooded lot north of Farwell, Mich. A trailer in the trees with an ad hoc perimeter of chicken wire around, lazy-tacked stakes leaning, and inside that perimeter, the 330-gallon propane tank sat stably on blocks. I knocked on the door to alert them to my being there; but the adults inside were gravely ambivalent, vaguely gesturing “go on” without getting up from where they sat watching television. And in the side-yard, in that coop, all around the tank, dead, decaying chickens were strewn about right where the universe had left them–unfed to the point of starving, maybe, or subjected to a weasel’s spree. Who knows. Not the finest hour of my work life, tending to the job, stepping across the piles of putrid feathers abuzz with flies, getting out my painting supplies, pouring a roller pan full of beige paint, and rolling until the tank glistened, there in the shade. Naked or half-dressed, little kids ate cherry popsicles and watched from the window, onlookers almost like at one of those live sidewalk art performances in Chicago or New York, only humbler.

The memory comes up. This time, I drew about it, then wrote a few lines. Grand lessons, I don’t know, probably not. I do wonder if anyone has had to paint that tank since. How those kids are doing. Whether the residents got right with raising chickens and had a better go of it. Coop is of those memories that raises up any time I have a bad day at work. I suppose that’s why this was such a good first job after high school to have, painting propane tanks this way. At least it’s not that July 1991 excursion again. At least there aren’t dead and decaying chickens scattered about the place.

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