Welcome to Mobile (A True Story) by Phil The Tremolo King [Guest Wreckers]

I woke up before the alarm went off. It was hard to believe I had gotten my biological clock used to waking up at 4AM. Outside, Government Street was pitch dark and quiet as a mouse…no cars, no birds, no dogs…Mobile was a pretty sleepy town to begin with. I tried to make out shapes in my room but the only thing I could see were the red digital numbers of my alarm clock.

I turned on the lamp next to my bed. It was only a 40 watt bulb, just enough to see. I looked around the room. The bare bulb hanging from the ceiling,  outlets attached to the socket. The muddy brown wooden waynescoting, the dark green stained wallpaper. The massive rusty fridge in the corner. And my favorite: on the wall, a thriftstore painting of bright red roses on black velvet.

Time to get up and make the donuts…I put some ground coffee in my little cooking pot, poured in water from the sink and put the pot on my hot plate.  This was my way of making morning coffee. The resulting liquid was disgusting and full of grounds, but at least it had caffeine in it. I quickly brushed my teeth in the little porcelain sink, ran some hot water over my face and put on my clothes.

The day labor place , appropriately named ‘Work Load’, was only about ten blocks away. I scurried through the neon-lit empty streets, hoping I would work today. Otherwise I had gotten up at 4AM for nothing and most importantly, I wouldn’t have money for food and the twenty-five dollars a week my room cost me.  The sun was coming up as I approached the little storefront with the fake wood paneling on the walls, the drab neon lighting and the glass window counter at the end where the owner sat and looked out over us. His name was Jack; he was actually a pretty decent fellow considering the line of work he was in. To my surprise this morning he was out on the street, talking to some very haggardly looking people. They were walking towards the building in the early rays of the rising sun.  An old woman with no teeth, long stringy bleach blond hair, in jeans and sneakers, her skin grey and wrinkled like a gator. Two young men, one fat, one skinny, sporting crewcuts and wearing  t-shirts and dirty jeans. The fat one wore a baseball cap. Meaty ears like cauliflowers. Tiny watery eyes so close together he looked cross eyed. His face pasty white with red blotches. Like a pig.

Besides Jack I was the only white person in the day labor place. Nobody seemed to mind; I certainly didn’t. We all sat on the hard plastic chairs, waiting for Jack to hand out the day’s assignments as the phone started ringing. Every time Jack would glance up from his desk towards us, eager hands rose up in the air. Pick me! Pick me! Jack would point at the ones he chose, and off they went. This was just about as close to rock bottom as anyone could get. The jobs were all manual labor. None paid more than minimum wage. You were charged half an hour’s wages for transportation in a van to and from work. There were no benefits of course, and there was no job security at all. Basically, whether you worked or not on any given day was up to Jack. This was a pretty small place; no more than twenty would be workers would show up per day, about all the place could accommodate. Certainly not as big as some other day labor places I’d seen like the one in Atlanta which easily held a few hundred workers. Perhaps that was why Jack seemed not such a bad guy.

Most of the work was at Bellingrath Gardens. This was a large botanical garden complex, open to the public, in a nearby town called Bellingrath. Today was no exception. About eight of us were chosen to work.  We were each given our work slips and out we went, towards the waiting van. To our surprise, our regular driver was not behind the wheel. Instead it was the redneck from that morning with the baseball cap and the pig face.  He did not greet anyone. He just stared straight ahead with a hard, cold stare.

Usually the van was full of laughter and talk. We might have been down on our luck but that did not stop my coworkers from trying to wrestle what little joy they could from their daily existence. Today however it was ghostly quiet in the van. The new driver was like an evil spirit sending out bad vibes.

The van became a little tin box on wheels filled to the brim with tension, the passengers prisoners on a trip to nowhere.  Mike, a gentle giant of a man in his fifties, who never even cursed, sat rigidly, his finger idly brushing something off his seat. His eyes were full of sorrow. Something was going on inside that van; something gnarled and twisted, ancient, dangerous, full of fear and horror, infinitely evil. Something that brought out old animal instincts of survival passed down from generation to generation. Only I had no idea what. All I knew was that we had a new driver.

Our old driver, who was black,  would always play old time soul on the radio. The passengers would sway and tap along, sometimes singing softly. That too had changed.  Now country music was blaring from the radio. It sounded mean and harsh. A few murmured protests were uttered. The driver ignored them.

So the trip continued in tense silence. The driver drove very aggressively, making hairpin turns at high speeds and taking crazy risks. Several times Mike gasped. The driver seemed really mad; for the life of me I could not figure out why. Was he mad at us? For what? He really seemed mad at the whole world. But why take it out on us?

After an eternity we pulled up at Bellingrath Gardens.  Like sheep we piled out of the van and walked towards the supervisor’s desk where we would be told where to go. The men looked like convicts, doomed men. We were the scum of the earth. Everybody knew it and we knew it too. The driver talked and joked with the supervisor, every once in a while throwing us a dirty look. I could sense an old hatred in their souls, a hatred that went back hundreds of years.  Blind, stupid, completely irrational, and therefore all the more dangerous. These little men with their little lives held on to their hatred because it made them feel superior.

But I had learned very quickly not to make waves. My survival depended on it just as much as my coworkers. My little weekly room kept me off the street and out of a shelter. My measly paycheck kept me in groceries and cigarettes and the occasional beer. So I quickly became a sheep among sheep and did what I was told.

The only other white man on the crew was Donnie, an old alcoholic with skin like leather and a twinkle in his eyes. We were working at a small table piled high with fresh dirt, filling new flower pots with it. This early in the morning the dirt was filled with nits, tiny white dot-like insects that jumped out and bit your hands.  Nasty little bites that stung first and then itched. Everybody told me I’d get used to it, but I never did.

“Why was everybody so quiet in the van?” I asked Donnie. Donnie had taken me under his wing from day one, showing me the ropes, warning me of snakes and generally giving me advice. He was also a great story teller. He always called me ‘li’l buddy’. But this morning he too was strangely quiet.           “ Shoot, li’l buddy, I don’t know” he answered vaguely    “ you know how them guys get sometimes. Maybe they was tired, or sumtin’.”  Mike was working alongside us. But he too kept quiet.

Mike went to get a new cart with empty flower pots, and when he was out of earshot, Donnie leaned in and quietly told me “look,li’l buddy, don’tell no one I told you this, but that family’s been known for being in the Klan for years.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “the… Klan?’-“Yeah! You know…” and with his index finger he drew in the fresh dirt…three K’s. Then he quickly erased them. He threw me a meaningful look. “Now don’t you go and tell no one I told you that!”

I was stunned. I’d heard of the KKK or ‘the Klan’ of course,  with their stupid white hoods and burning crosses, terrorizing blacks in the old South, lynching and killing with impunity, and making sure white supremacy was alive and well. But that seemed a long time ago….this was the modern age, post MLK and the civil rights movement…surely that kind of blatant racism was a thing of the past, even in Alabama? All day long I thought about it, the haggard people in the morning talking to Jack, the hostile driver, Donnie drawing three K’s in the dirt with his finger.

Quitting time came, and we all piled back into the van, tired and sweaty and with dirt under our fingernails. No matter how desperate their situation, none of my coworkers ever complained about their lot. They just accepted it, and worked hard, thankless jobs for a pittance and without any job security or benefits at all. This hard life that I shared briefly was really not that far removed from slavery.

The ride back to the day labor place was every bit as tense as the ride to the Gardens. Once again the driver’s silent angry hostility, the reckless driving, the deathly silence, and the country music blaring out of the van’s  little radio. Mike, trying to make the best of things, tapped along tentatively to the unfamiliar beat. Finally Jake, sitting in the back, crouched up against the back door since there weren’t enough seats, broke the silence. ‘Hey man…can’t you play something else on that radio?’

Without a word the driver abruptly stopped the van. He opened the door, got out and walked around the van to the back. Then he opened the back door.

‘Get out!’

Jake looked at him wide-eyed but didn’t move.

‘Get out before I throw you out!’ yelled the driver. ‘Go on, get out!! ‘

Quietly Jake got out the van and stood on the road.

‘I’ll make sure you’ll never work for Work Load again!’ spat the driver.

The driver got back in. ‘Anybody else got something to say?’ You could hear a pin drop. It was if everybody was holding their breath, waiting for the nightmare to be over, get home, out of the fucking van and away from this racist pig.

The driver started the van and roared off. I looked back over my shoulder through the window at Jake, who had begun walking. He was completely stone faced. He’d be walking at least an hour to get home.  What’s more, he was now blacklisted from even the ‘last hope’ employment of day labor.  Eviction and homelessness were surely staring him in the face.

I looked at Donnie sitting next to me looking into the distance. It seemed as if all the world’s sadness was on his shoulders.  As the van continued its ride, the heavy silence only punctured by country music, we passed a sign by the side of the road. I looked at it. It said…

‘WELCOME TO MOBILE’.

Phil The Tremolo King is a Belgian musician/artist who currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He has been playing music solo for years, and has also also been involved in a project known as Tremoflex 9000 featuring former Slacker’s member Vic Ruggiero and Brooklyn based artist Flex Underground.  His latest album, available on Norman Records, entitled 11, is a masterpiece of modern folk and all things estranged.  He has taken the DIY ethos to incredible lengths.  Phil recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign which allowed him to travel the lower Southwest United States via the Sunset Limited.  He has completed the tour, and will be releasing a documentary about his time on the tracks soon (which you can see rough footage of HERE.  Visit philthetremoloking.com for more details.  Phil also contributed an article and track to the Children of Mercy project and appeared live with the editor Ron Trembath on New Orlean’s WTUL 91.5 and also appeared simultaneously in Sergeant Sparrow Magazine as well.  In addition to these contributions, he is also the project’s Bandcamp and Myspace manager.  Even more unique, the white shadow figure who appears on the book’s artwork (created by fellow contributor Jess Gulbransson) is actually Phil himself.  

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

4 Responses to Welcome to Mobile (A True Story) by Phil The Tremolo King [Guest Wreckers]

  1. …his name’s Flex Unger 🙂 like the Odd Couple but different

  2. Pingback: Two Years of Trainwreck’d [Exclusive!] | Train Wreck'd Society

  3. Pingback: Welcome to Mobile | Phil Vanderyken

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