Habit and habitat

June 21, 2016

On Monday morning I met the repairman who left a note in my apartment last Friday, and saw my mistake in berating the asshole who had taken a bad situation and made it worse, on top of inconveniencing me with a request to reschedule the rest of his work. I had already unplugged a slow-draining bath tub with liquid drain cleaner before he arrived, but after he finished “fixing” the drain, it was even more severely plugged than before. A second helping of drain cleaner just sat on top of the drain, bubbling ineffectually all day long.

They sent a courteous teenager who probably hasn’t even finished high school to caulk my tub and fix a leaking faucet. And I’m supposed to make sure the tub is clean and dry for him when he arrives to caulk it.

I work with high school kids and high school drop outs every day, so I have very modest expectations of them. He managed to pull down half my shower curtain while exacerbating the drain problem, probably by sitting on it.

But it’s impossible to stay angry with a kid who hasn’t learned to spell. The trouble is, I want to keep him from noticing the damage he’s done, so that he doesn’t do it again. I renegotiated the caulking date for Wednesday.

My apartment complex is going through renovations right now – my door has been repainted bright red and some new turf has been laid along the sidewalk leading to it. Mostly though, I only notice the noise of the work crews. I don’t spend much time outside my apartment looking in. A highway embankment blocks the view of Mount Rainier from my living room window, though if I step out onto the enclosed courtyard I can see the landmark clearly on a sunny day.


Mostly I only peer out the blinds to decide what to wear. On sunny days, a short sleeved manager shirt that shows off a colorful handmade belt from Peru that I found in the same catalogue as the horse prints. If it’s going to be cold, I have a Dairy Queen sweatshirt and don’t need the belt. Since night shift usually means walking to work in the afternoon heat and coming home again after midnight, I usually also take a lined oilskin jacket that keeps me comfortable even in the rain.

The belt has become almost a security blanket for me at work, because of how frequently customers who would otherwise only want to talk to me about their complaints stop to compliment me about it. It’s a nice belt, and so many people remark on it that I’m no longer surprised and gratified each time – sometimes I even get irritated with them for distracting me while I’m trying to count change and take the next person’s order at the same time (we only have one window).

I’ve gotten very used to being at the drive thru window, and to the clipped conversation style it demands. In Tacoma, the thing to say is “have a good one,” and I say it every time, unless the customer beats me to it (often we say it in unison). The routinization of what would otherwise be an intense level of interpersonal interaction for me makes the time fly, and gradually I’ve gotten to know a handful of regulars with whom I don’t mind chatting a little further.

Even with my coworkers there are a lot of formulas at work in our conversation – usually the last thing I say to someone is “you’re good to go.” After the last one leaves, I finish cleaning and entering drive times and sales into an accounting spreadsheet, and then head home thinking about anything but work. Often at night I see the same baby rabbit dash into the blackberry thicket alongside the power station I pass on my way home from work, always from almost the same spot in the grass.

The one thing that has impressed me most about Tacoma culture since I moved here is the ubiquity of smoking. Often someone rolls down their window and lets a cloud of marijuana fumes into the store that hangs in the air, permeating the lobby, for hours. But most striking of all is how entirely unselfconscious our clientele is about blowing cigarette smoke into our faces while we do business with them.

Ironically, my education was paid for by a casino industry settlement with workers in Southern Nevada for the second-hand smoke they were exposed to before smoking became illegal in gaming establishments. Not that you can’t still find ash trays among the slot machines there.

I’m beginning to think second-hand smoke is addictive. I’ve never been a smoker, but since moving to drive thru I’ve started having mild but distinctive cigarette cravings.

I suppose we’ll probably never know. Hill’s Causal Criteria were developed during the exhaustive and contentious scientific process of establishing for a fact that cigarettes are harmful to your health, as though it were not an empirical but an epistemological question. And in spite of the expert testimony of Jeffrey Wigand (depicted memorably in the movie The Insider) about the cigarette industry’s characterization of their product as a “nicotine delivery device”, the CDC has not – to this day – officially recognized that cigarettes are addictive.

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