Twenty years ago on this very date I started a new job in a printing company as a laborer. It was a smallish firm, 100 or so employees, that specialized in high-end printing. My job was simple enough: load printed paper in a machine that folded it to whatever specifications the customer wanted. Who could screw that up?
On my first day I met the foreman of the bindery, a short-statured and short-tempered Italian man in his mid-forties who smoked continually and looked like he killed young guys like me for relaxation. He directed me to the vending area, told me to get a cup of coffee and wait until he had time to train me. Simple enough.
No one told me the machine dispensed molten lava.
I watched as the machine dropped a plastic cup in the holder while a jet of searing brown liquid squirted from the nozzle. I grabbed the cup only to realize it was far too hot to handle; I carefully lifted it by the very rim with my middle finger and thumb. Even there I felt as though the skin on my finger-tips would begin to blister and sizzle like a Jimmy Dean sausage link in a cast iron skillet. The funny thing was I really didn’t like coffee, but that Italian looked like he might’ve popped me if I said so, so I carried it back to the bindery like an engineer grasping a fuel rod in a nuclear reactor.
I found a seat near some drill presses, an old desk chair long since discarded by someone in administration and left to the small-fries in the plant. One of the laborers, an older woman who looked like she’d been ‘round the block a few dozen times, looked on with curiosity and anticipation…for what, I wondered? I chose to look aloof and did my best to appear somewhere between disinterested and irritated. I thought it fit in the atmosphere.
As soon as my young derriere hit the seat I knew what she was waiting for. The chair was as loose as an Oliver Street barmaid (North Tonawandans know whereof I speak) and immediately tipped back at a forty-five degree angle. My ginger grasp of the cup of magma gave way in the violent jerk of the chair and every ounce spilled in a burst of steam on my lap, soaking my jeans from waist to mid-thigh. I jumped up and attempted to stop the scalding by pulling the front of my pants away from the skin, but the damage was done. I blistered in unspeakable places and it felt as though my most prized possessions were deep fried. I realized throughout the entire ordeal only the old woman noted my coffee dance…and she found the whole event rather humorous. I most assuredly did not.
The liquid cooled quickly once it did its heinous damage, and I was left with a seared crotch and a yellowish-brown stain on my Levi’s, as well as a dilemma: do I leave the job to change? My home was more than 30 minutes away…would the foreman allow an hour away from the job?
I chose instead to pretend that nothing happened. I nonchalantly got up, walked to the foreman, received my training and worked, stained, burned lap and all. It was truly one of the worst days I ever spent on a job. I was too new to explain the stain and wetness, but too scared to do something about it, and too much in pain to really give a rat’s behind, frankly.
Four years later I left that job for my current employer. I was newly enrolled in nursing school, and gave my notice to the foreman (who I had come to know as one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever known, may he rest in peace). I was feted at a little get-together at a local bar, and had a great time with people who had come to be friends. It was a great night of laughs, but a particular question caught me by surprise:
“Dave, I have something I have been meaning to ask for years”, Sally broached. “You seem like a great guy, smart, going to college and all that, but one thing bothers me…I just don’t understand, knowing you now, how you peed your pants on your first day at the plant.”
I looked puzzled for a moment, then roared with laughter – my coffee stain, known to me and the old lady in the bindery alone, was interpreted by everyone else as a moment of incontinence. I was so worried about what people would have thought about the spilled coffee that I failed to see that they might’ve thought I wet myself. Talk about miscalculations. I recounted the events of that day to everyone’s amusement, and probable relief.
When I think back on the first impressions others have made on me I wonder how many were absolute misinterpretations; how many were based on false assumptions and predjudices? Twenty years ago I kept a secret, probably rather unwisely, and my reputation was colored by that decision for four years. I wonder how many observations of others I have made that are completely and utterly based on false assumptions? Probably too many to mention.
“Assumptions are the termites of relationships”.
- Henry Winkler
As I consider that fateful (and painful) day twenty years ago, I resolve to consider more deeply the assumptions I have made of others, whether based on appearance, demeanor, education or behavior. How many relationships were altered or prevented? Perhaps one day we will have the opportunity to ask, “You seem so normal, but what about…”; perhaps not. I venture to think that not all is as it seems.
It wasn’t for me. It was just a seared and blistered crotch in a wet pair of Levi’s. If only I had worn khakis.