Jeff Phillips: Gross Harris

 

I heard a rattling outside my apartment’s west facing window and saw a shirtless black man pushing a shopping cart filled with collected cans. His gait reminded me of a man I met several years back named Harris. His pace was brisk. Before I could think about going downstairs and saying hello, seeing if it was indeed Harris, he was pretty far down the street.

For a month in my mid-twenties I worked a door-to-door sales job selling Quill office supplies. I had resigned my photo op management job, naively attempted to make a run at writing fiction full-time, learned it was tough to sustain, and was back to working a regular job. My savings had depleted, new bills were coming, and it was the first somewhat legitimate job I found on any job sites that wasn’t an obvious scam. I went in for the interview, the post was well written, something about “one man wolf pack” intrigued me and I thought it would be for some fancy marketing job with a cubicle to call my own. In the interview I spent a lot of time rationalizing why I’d leave a management job during the recession. But they called me back for a second interview which brought me out into the streets, going door-to-door. The guy that took me out for the “in-field” segment of the interview process was nice, level-headed, and made a few sales and that made me somewhat confident in the business model. They brought me in for a re-cap interview and told me I was likable and offered me the job. I learned that I have a propensity toward taking compliments to the heart and head when desperate.

Desperation can make one gullible and hungry to gobble up capitalistic fairy tales.

I started in on training the next day and went through morning “atmosphere.” An hour and half each and every morning of self-help-esque inspiration in oratory form from the “leaders.” They promised young college grads, eager to make it in business, that if they meet their sales goals, they will find themselves running their own office in a city of their choosing, and the energy was actually infectious, as I imagine cults to be. I pictured my own office, my own team making sales for me! Even though that kind of responsibility was exactly what faded my spark for the photo job, priorities do change, however, when you start to think of money as though each bill denomination is a different vitamin for the spirit. And no one would admit that we were door-to-door salesmen. We were consultants! I’d go out into the field, jacked, ready to get rich quick by dealing in office supplies.

I was trained in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago. There would be stretches of storefronts with signage in Polish, and with a late winter’s afternoon light, I’d feel as though I was returning from Europe each evening. It had a jet-lag-esque quality. I was always tired and losing weight. I was too fatigued at night to realize I didn’t like it and should be searching for other jobs.

After I burned through that territory, making some modest sales and making a lawyer furious with me after miscalculating a sales discount on the calculator of my flip phone, I was on to my next territory: West Garfield Park. A westbound ride on the Chicago bus showcased a decline in structural condition. Tall, seemingly confident and gleaming high-rises watched over me as I stepped up for my commute, but buildings, that could not quite disguise their inevitable slide into disrepair, surrounded me as I stepped down to begin the day’s work.

I didn’t do much selling there, as I didn’t come across that many businesses. The territory was a post industrial wasteland, a sprawl of boarded up factories. The few businesses I came across were fast food restaurants, barber shops, Pay Day Loans, small churches, hotels that offered rooms by the hour. These business types were on the no-no list for Quill accounts. But I was fascinated. I took the opportunity to wander a part of town I otherwise would never have reason to wander. While walking past dilapidated housing units, I saw people peeing in the street multiple times throughout the day. I saw three high speed car chases. I stopped in the Public Library to use the bathroom. It looked more like a homeless shelter with men sleeping on the tables. The water fountain tasted like urine had diffused itself in the pipes. When I would come across an industrial plant that was still in service, and after being buzzed in through several barriers of security, I’d be lectured by a white guy about how I, as another white guy, shouldn’t be walking around this part of town by myself. After leaving the sanctuary of such fortresses and resuming my sojourn of the streets, I never once felt like I was in danger. The dire warnings fell flat when I encountered either cordiality or a complete lack of interest in my presence.

A big hole had formed on the bottom of my dress shoe. This was a concern because there was much broken glass sprinkled on the sidewalks. The liquor stores had bulletproof glass separating the counter from the patrons. Lawn chairs were set up out front. Men were drinking and teasing one another. They paid me no mind. They gave me no trouble. Their camaraderie was even desirable. There was an underground mall with hundreds of little booths where clothes, shoes, and electronics were sold by individual merchants and it seemed like an endless expanse, like a subterranean lake of small commerce on a bed of graffiti-ed tiles.

It was getting hot outside on one of those workdays, spring had rounded out the end of winter. Out front of a one story house that leaned to one side, with a noticeable sag in the roof that was also missing some tiles, there was a shirtless man leaning up against his fence. He had pockmarked and concave chest. He was toothless. We made eye contact. I said “hello, how are you?” He said he’d be better if he had some damn food. I felt bad. I had been packing my lunches but had already ate it that day. I wanted to give him something. I only had maxed out credit cards in my wallet. But I decided to shoot the breeze with him. We talked for a few minutes. He was hard to understand, but smiled and laughed a lot. Despite his initial grumbling about food, he was jolly. His name was Harris. When I decided I should get back on my sales route he shook my hand. His hand was sweaty, sticky and greasy. After I went around the block, out of his view, I wiped off the post-handshake residue on the back of my pants. But I felt bad about it. Really, really bad. It was sort of heart breaking, in the way of realizing maybe I don’t have the best intentions as a person, that I’m already infected with selfishness and germs should be the least of my worries. Here was Harris, a genuinely nice guy, far down on his luck in life. And my first thought, when out of sight, was that he was a little gross.

I kept my eye out for him the next day when I passed by his ramshackle home. He wasn’t out front. I thought about knocking on his front door to see if he wanted to hang out. But I was scared, because I assumed the inside of his home was probably a little gross, too.

He became a character in my daydreams. Gross Harris, and in these fantasies he was a good friend of mine. In these daydreams, my slight OCD tendencies would be muted, and when we’d embrace I would be unphased by any lack of hygiene. I imagined myself trying to smoke crack with him in the cushion against consequence that exists in the imagination. He would laugh at my inexperience. He would also put me on the spot for assuming he was a crack smoker, was it because he was a poor black man? I’d blush and stumble my way around an attempt at justification, until his laugh would cue me in that he was just playing. These are hilarious, carefree times Harris and I share in the ether of the what-if and I’m glad because it seems maybe he needs it.

There was a fenced in patch of vegetation by the highway near his home. It looked like a little forest of dead bushes. I felt the urge one day on that sales route to hop the fence, build a fort, and declare myself King. Or better yet, tell Harris about it. Let him take it up and farm the hell out of it. And Harris could be King. He’d be a hell of a King.

I still think about that job years later after I quit. I think about the big dream that was drummed up of high commissions and being in charge of your own territory, and I wonder if there is much of a difference from the allure of joining a gang, the money and the power, security in a sense of survival. After my week in West Garfield Park, I looked it up on a website that mapped gang territories in Chicago. That area had a spread of them: Conservative Vice Lords, Insane Vice Lords, Mafia Insane Vice Lords, Unknown Traveling Vice Lords, and Black Souls. I sometimes wonder if Harris was in a gang. He seemed maybe too nice to be in a gang, but nice people can be in gangs. He wouldn’t need to be in a gang if he could get a hell of a garden going in that fenced in patch. I sometimes picture it as lush and easy to get lost in.

As snow falls this time of year, I picture ice encasing the dead brush in that fenced in patch I’ve mentally staked for Harris. It looks so dazzling as it reflects the city lights, the passing traffic below.I think about surprising him by stringing up some Christmas lights along the sterile steel of the fencing, to better illuminate the frost. Daydreams don’t require power outlets. And because this is my imagination, I can dial down the harshness of the elements. I can make it so the crunchy snow coating the ground feels like beach sand warmed by the summer sun. It’s common knowledge that fantasies can be nicer to a man than a world of flesh and bone, a world often bogged down with constraints, debts, shortcomings, and scarcity.

Recently I was jerked out of my daydream of Harris’ seasonally decorated garden kingdom as a large woman got on my L train. She lifted two battered and frayed suitcases onto the seat across from me. A few seconds later the smell set in. I was reading a book, but noticed through my periphery that the people around me were moving to the other side of the train. I looked up and noticed her long, flowing yellow dress, and the shit stain that seeped from within, that had dripped on down to the bottom hem. The woman was still standing, facing away from me, her butt was level with my face. The largeness of it put it only a few inches from my nose. The train car bounced a little as it rumbled along the tracks. If she were to lose her grip, she could very well fall onto my lap, pressing that shit stain against me. I decided I had to get up too. I was able to sneak to the side of her without grazing her dress. She was now the only one on that side of the car. At the next stop she said, in a hushed voice that still carried, “don’t worry everybody, I’m getting off here.” My heart sank. I felt like a dick. Her feelings were hurt and that could not be undone. I was party to the obvious ostracizing of someone who was having a rough go of it.

The world can be a filthy place and it’s costly to continually scrub the grime. When you have nothing to shell out for this upkeep, the grime can accumulate into a heavy, noticeable cloak, a persistent phantom, an unfortunate wedge. I wish I wasn’t so weak, so quick to hold my breath when the smell of poverty is wafting. Because that is tantamount to pretending it doesn’t exist, and perhaps it’s necessary to get that whiff, to acknowledge that what’s foul isn’t the person, but the stickiness of a life where opportunities continue to cringe and cower beyond grasp.

My daydreams, I realize, don’t make a lick of difference in someone else’s life. A rank odor, screaming for notice, might be what it takes to wake my slumbering conscience. As lucidity starts to percolate, and as thoughtfulness thaws, oozing into a ready musculature, I hope to step forward as a kinder citizen, remembering that kindness and citizen are words that more often than not should reflect action over unrealized intention.

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