Teen-age years are wondrous years. Your life can swing from triumph to catastrophe and back again all in the same day. In retrospect, what amazes me is how I survived all I did NOT know, coupled with a singular lack of maturity and judgement. If we are honest, we have all been there.
Nothing provides fertile playing ground for disaster more than your first part-time job.
One of my earliest was at Van Oak’s Pet Shop on West North Avenue near Oak Park Avenue. I was a birdseed packer, sweeper, stock boy, feeder, cage cleaner, errand boy…and executioner…well almost.
One memorable day, I was tasked with taking six baby skunks to another south-side pet shop. I had been feeding them and cleaning their cage for several days and found them to be friendly and playful, much like young kittens would be. I was heading south on Austin Boulevard when it occurred to me that a buddy who had been involved in a serious motorcycle accident, was hospitalized at West Suburban Hospital for a prolonged recovery. Roy loved animals, at least I thought he did.
I took a quick turn into West Suburban parking lot, tucked two of the skunks under my jacket and went up the back way to his room. I dumped the skunks onto his bed without a word. Roy was in traction and couldn’t move much, but luckily he loved the skunks and we played with them on his bed for some time. A tiny spark of wisdom and judgment was starting to kick in and I announced that I had better be leaving before a nurse walked in. I had finished tucking the second skunk under my jacket just as nurse Ratchett walked in. She looked me up and down and then spoke.
“Where’s your visitor’s pass?”
“I’m sorry, I was just leaving,” I replied.
She harrumphed with a tone of superior self-satisfaction as I headed quickly to the back stairwell with the two skunks nestling inside my jacket.
* * * *
I had a partner at the pet shop, another seventeen-year-old whom I had never met. I went to Austin High School in Chicago and he went to River Forest High School. We shared the tasks of the day and when the situation demanded it, we worked together. I found Dennis to be a rather strange dude and we didn’t talk much but otherwise we got along well.
One of our shared responsibilities was to pack bird seed. We would mix the seed according to the recipe de jour; fifty pounds of millet, 20 pounds of Niger, 20 pounds of black-striped sunflower and so many ounces of anise. We would place the ingredients in a small cement mixer contraption and mix it well and then transfer it to the packing machine. Then came the boring part; we would sit for hours, pop open flattened boxes, glue the bottom flaps, place the open top flaps under the packing machine, hit the pedal to fill the box, glue the top flaps and put the finished box into a large carton. Dennis was not much of a conversationalist but on occasion he would make a statement of sorts.
“There’ a mouse in the house.”
And then several minutes later with a Russian accent…
“Igor the boat is leaking.”
Strange dude indeed.
It never occurred to either of us that packing bird seed was meant to be a rapid procedure. One afternoon Dor-Lee, the proprietor came into the back room.
“Six hundred boxes? Is that all?”
Well it’s hard to go much faster when your boat is leaking.
* * * *
There was a semi-permanent resident of the pet shop, a multi-colored parrot, that occupied a large cage near the front of the store. We never heard the bird say anything intelligible, probably because no one ever paid any attention to it. It was a mean bird, quick to attack with its sharp beak, probably because no one ever paid any attention to it. But Polly developed a tumor on her beak and was unable to eat. She was promptly dispatched to a vet for surgery, but alas, several weeks later the tumor returned. That is when Dor-Lee, in her infinite wisdom assigned Dennis and I to euthanize the bird.
She handed us a pint bottle of chloroform and walked away without any further instruction. OSHA hadn’t been invented yet. We looked at each other for a moment—hey, we’re seventeen, what can go wrong?
We found a large carton and managed to transfer Polly without getting gashed. Once in the back of the store, we put the box on a workbench and looked quizzically at one another. We would guess that the preferred method would be to hold a chloroform soaked rag over Polly’s head until she expired, but Polly was hungry and mean…she wouldn’t stand for that without inflicting great bodily harm on one or both of us. How about we crack open the box and just pour some chloroform into the box…no fuss, no muss.
Dennis and I cracked open the box and began to gently pour some chloroform into the box. Subsequent post incident analysis determined that apparently chloroform is icy cold when poured on skin. Polly didn’t like it and she gave a blood curdling squawk and a massive flap of her wings that violently jarred the flap of the carton open and spilled a good portion to the chloroform on herself, the box, and Dennis and me. We clamped the lid of the box down tightly, but Polly wasn’t giving up without a fight. We stood there holding the box together and inhaling the chloroform fumes as she continued flap madly.
“Does this bother you?” I asked
“Nah,” was Dennis’s reply.
But Polly wasn’t giving in—we had to hold the box closed.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, are you okay?”
The first guy who admits he’s dying, loses.
Dor-Lee suddenly appeared in the backroom.
“What are you fools doing? she shouted. “Get out in the alley!”
Dennis and I staggered out into the fresh air of the alley and clung to a telephone post.
Then silence for several minutes, followed by laughter.
Meanwhile back in the pet store, Polly had disappeared. Dor-Lee sent us home for the day and the next day when we reported for work we were presented with our final checks. We were fired.
It was sad because after that near-death experience I felt that Dennis and I had actually started to bond while hanging onto that telephone pole in the alley. But we never saw each other again.