Sunshine on My Shoulders
I grew up in Woodstock, New York in the 60’s and 70’s. In high school, I knew I was going to have to get creative in order to get out of upstate New York. My art teacher coached me through submitting applications for art school, I got a scholarship into Pratt institute in Brooklyn.
Dad drove myself and everything I cared to take, which was my art supplies and my little pot pipe, and my favorite Kurt Vonnegut and Isabele Allende novels to Brooklyn in his rusty Dodge van.
As we drove over the Brooklyn Bridge, I shook one of Dad’s Marlboro reds out of the box and lit it.
“What the hell are you doing?” Dad asked.
“Smoking a cigarette,” I answered. I’m on my own now, Dad.
“Huh,” he said.
I had prepared for my move to New York City by getting a job interview. Actually, there was no interview. I was to report for work the following morning as a food vendor in Times Square. I was to bring a polaroid photo, and prepare a false name. I had picked Zinka. Zinka was the name of my dog, but was also the name of a midget in one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut stories.
Dad had suggested I try for a job at the Playboy club in the city as a bunny instead. He said I could make good money as cocktail waitress. He said the clientele was respectable towards the girls, the men weren’t allowed to touch the merchandise. Years later when I reminded him of the suggestion, he denied it. He wouldn’t have suggested that to me, he said, because I wasn’t built like a Playboy Bunny.
Career counseling wasn’t big in my family. A few years before, he strongly suggested, almost insisted that I put every effort I had into writing a song like John Denver’s “Sunshine on my Shoulders.” This went on for a long time and was highly irritating to both of us. He was mad that I didn’t at least try, and I was mad that he wouldn’t shut up about it. Dad felt the song was so simple, so basic, and so successful. What made the suggestion even more frustrating was I had not ever shown even the faintest whif of musical talent. Although I had taken guitar lessons for years, I never could play a damned thing.
I reported for work as Zinka Forster. Early. I am always early. I was at a storefront on the west side of Times Square. It was locked up tight. I waited, pacing, smoking cigarettes I had pilfered out of Dad’s pack before he left Brooklyn. I could feel the heat of the day even in the early morning. The smell of urine was strong, as it always is in the city.
A fellow showed up, not much older than me, cigarette dangling from his lip. He motioned me inside with a grunt. I was reluctant, but I was also an over eager people pleaser who would do just about anything anyone wanted as long as they liked me better for it. I entered the dark warehouse. My eyes adjusted, and I saw the warehouse had several of the large food vendor carts. Rats squealed and scattered when he turned on the lights.
My new boss and I didn’t appear to speak the same language. He gestured for my photo, and assembled my false license with scissors, and a safety pin. I followed him to a large cart on wheels, where he screamed in another language at a rat who was reluctant to leave his post. He made the rat airborne with the back of his hand.
He showed me a bag of oranges, and pantomimed the squeezing of orange juice, He showed me several jars of candy, and pantomimed weighing the candy on a scale. He blew rat droppings off the cart, and held up six fingers to show me how much a pound of candy was, and held up five fingers to tell me how much a fresh squeezed juice was. He took my falsified license and safety pinned in to my shirt, with what seems like extra touching and patting around my breast area. Then he pushed me out the door, gestured and yelling in his language. I understood he meant; out, out, out! Daylights burning! In English he screamed after me CASH ONLY!!
I’ve got this, I though confidently. I pushed the insanely heavy and unwieldy cart from the west side cross town to Times square. It had gotten much warmer quickly, I brushed sweat out of my eyes with the back of my hand. As I entered the center of Times square, I waved at the other vendors; my new co-workers. I smiled, heading towards a street corner that was already occupied. They could show me the ropes so I could be a successful vendor!
One of them threw ice cubes at me, with deadly aim. They both waved me away, yelling. The two other corners in the square were occupied by a hot dog vendor, and another candy and juice person like myself. I noticed the fourth corner was open, so I headed there.
Sweat dripped down my back. I panted. These were not nice people. I felt like I had heatstroke. I landed on my corner and tried to make my cart presentable. This wasn’t the Times square of 2017, this was 1971. It was dirty, crowded, horns blared, sirens screamed, hustlers hustled, prostitutes were prostituting.
The full on late August sun beat down on my head and shoulders. As I wondered about the appeal of candy and orange juice as a food combination, a father and two kids appeared. Two juices, please! All right, my first customers! The juicer was a tall metal thing that looked like the space ship in War of the Worlds. I opened the bag of oranges, cut one in half, and tried to make sense of the juicer. Dribbles of juice ran down my dirty hands, my arms and into my armpits. I managed to produce one juice before police pulled up and whistled me over. My heart leapt into my throat and the precious juice tipped off the cart and onto my feet.
“Aw, nuts!” the father yelled and slapped his head, when he saw the fallen juice.
“Daddy!” the two girls wailed and clung to him. He peeled his children off his legs and they headed off in search of a snack elsewhere.
The cop nodded when he saw my license. They pulled back into the sea of traffic.
Another cart arrived, pushed wildly by a lady with a full mustache. She rammed my cart with hers, trying to push both cart and myself into the street.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Are you crazy? I have a license!” I pulled the license on my shirt away from my body so she could see, but she bared her teeth under her mustache, growled and rammed me again. Clearly, there were territories here that I was not aware of.
Afraid for my life, and covered in juice, I pushed the cart with all my might, ending up in the street. Cabs honked, cabbies, swore. Orange juice filled my shoes. I managed to get away and pulled my cart into a quieter area on a side street. I wasn’t a quitter, but this vendor thing wasn’t working out.
I heaved and pushed the cart back to the storehouse. My boss was smoking cigarettes and tossing coins with a few buddies. First he laughed at me, then he was furious.
“Where is money, where is money?”
“No money!” I yelled, and burst into tears.
He continued to yell and push at me until I was safely out of the warehouse. I took my sticky self home to Brooklyn.
The next week, I started a nice safe job in my new school’s library, restocking books.