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Take the Plunge

April 20, 2014

While gutting an extremely rotten bungalow on a friend’s property in Rogue River this past week I happened upon an old toilet plunger. My first instinct was to toss it out with the rest of the trash, but the laborer we’d hired for the day looked at me like I was crazy. I rethought the issue out loud. What was wrong with using a pre-owned plunger?

“I don’t give a fuck,” Chris said, lapsing into comfortable terminology. He was working in black jeans and a cotton undershirt; slick hair and a skinny, shifty body completed the image of a small-town redneck. He’d taken great care to inform us of his epilepsy before taking the job; that, and his strict observation of the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

“Doesn’t that mean he’s Jewish?” asked my friend. I nodded, thinking of the Star of David that hung around Chris’s neck. “Bam. Hired.”

I hadn’t been as enthusiastic. After all, I had to work with the guy. There’s nothing worse than relying on someone you don’t like, and my first impression had been less than complimentary. But we needed the help so I held my tongue.

It turned out he followed the path of Masonic Christianity, as I learned after offering him a sandwich on leavened bread – during Lent. He politely ate the onions and peppers and cheese and returned the outer slabs, then offered to share his can of chili con carne.

“To each his own,” I said, explaining that I was a vegetarian.

Chris liked to use big words. He would explain the philosophy behind his actions in excruciating detail – how, for instance, he would work until a job was finished instead of breaking off the moment five o’clock rolled around. He claimed to be able to fix anything and proved it on several occasions. We set him up clearing decades’ worth of dirt from around the bungalow’s foundation and returned to our projects. He was close by to lend a hand as required.

Midway through his second day I stepped out to ask for a tool he’d borrowed. Chris was up to his knees in a trench. His dirt pile loomed nearly overhead. Sweat poured down his undershirt and mud streaked his jeans. He stopped and wiped his brow.

“I wanted to ask,” he said, “I don’t know if it’s kosher. But if it were possible do you think we might be able to take a trip to the market for a couple of energy drinks?”

Being epileptic, he didn’t drive. I got him the energy drinks. He worked until the sun began to sink behind the western foothills. I almost told him to stop, but his ride showed up. In the middle of loading his tools he paused and approached the small knot of people gathering for a Friday night campfire.

In the most humble manner, Chris proceeded to market himself. He reiterated his work ethic and repair skills. He acknowledged that word of mouth was the best form of advertising because it came with a testimonial. Then he shook our hands and departed.

I was wrong about him. We may never sit down and drink a beer together, but I would recommend Chris as a laborer without a moment’s hesitation. He worked hard. He deserved more money than Rogue River’s struggling economy could afford him. In a town with few resources, he was among them.

Here’s the thing: living the plush lives we live in our rich urban centers it’s easy to forget that scarcity still exists in the world. I’d forgotten it. I was ready to throw out an entirely usable toilet plunger – forcing somebody to buy a new one – just because I found it in a filthy apartment. I was ready to turn my nose at a fellow human just because he was different.

That’s the danger of always having choices: you tend to stay in your comfort zone. You don’t learn about the passions and needs that drive other peoples’ lives, and you never see the world through their eyes.

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