Get a group of gardeners together, and sooner or later they’ll relate how they got their start. Many may tell of lazy summers with their grandparents, tending a sweet corn patch or picking green beans. City-bound ones may talk about mayonnaise-jar terrariums in grade school or that one poinsettia plant at Christmas. A few might have particularly intriguing stories involving an old love or a relative, but then there’s always the one who throws you off. I’m usually the one who throws everyone off, because I got my start because of one of the roughest jobs I’ve ever had.
When people ask me how I got into carnivorous plants, I can tell you the exact date: September 22, 2002, when I first walked into the Tallahasee Museum and saw my first purple pitcher plants in the wild. The job that brought me out there cratered three months after I arrived (three days before Christmas and six days before the Czarina and I were to be married), but I don’t complain about that, and some of the people I met in Tally back then are still near and dear friends to this day. No, this goes back even further: back to 1986.
1986 started out as a rough year, and got even more interesting. I’d moved from North Texas to Appleton, Wisconsin with my family the year before, and rapidly realized that things weren’t working out. I’d thought I was homesick for white birch and the distinctive Michigan/Wisconsin accents, but I rapidly discovered that I wasn’t homesick for eight months of winter, mosquitoes big enough to down F-16s in aerial combat, and nothing to do but get drunk, get drunk, get drunk, get stoned, and get drunk every single night. Since I can’t drink, and my interest in getting stoned is comparable to my interest in nailing my big toe to my forehead or watching Seinfeld reruns (whichever’s more painful and humiliating), it just wasn’t working out. With the help of friends both in Appleton and Dallas, I sold just about everything I had, bought a bus ticket back to Dallas, and made the whole 30-hour trip with a relative minimum of horror. Getting off at the Dallas Greyhound station was a different story, though.
It turned out that I’d planned my arrival perfectly: it coincided with the oil bust, when the price of oil dropped from approximately $40 US a barrel to less than $10. The collapse of the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate made things very interesting, because so much of the economy in Dallas was based on speculation that the price of oil would keep going up forever. We’d survived the recession of 1982-83 with a relative minimum of aggravation compared to the rest of the country, and here was where we got a good boot to the head. Naturally, the available positions to clueless 19-year-olds weren’t all that good even in the much better times of 1985, but now it was point-blank grim.
Of course, nobody really knew how tight things were: everyone was under the assumption that oil prices would jump right back up, much like the financial industry in 2008, and everything would be back to football games and big lines of coke at the Starck Club before we knew it. The reality was that things didn’t start getting better for three years, and Dallas didn’t really start recovering until the dotcom boom started and the city became a banking powerhouse for something other than the oil business. But in the summer of ’86, the bumper stickers reading “Please, God, Let There Be Another Oil Boom (I Promise Not To Piss It All Away This Time)” weren’t out yet, and there was a bit of hope. Naturally, I walked right into it, and that may have saved my life in a lot of ways.
Not that it felt like it at the time. The first job was with a long-defunct corporate Mexican restaurant, which thought nothing of scheduling dishwashers to close one night and then arrive at 6 the next morning. The second job was at a classic Eighties horror tale: a shopping mall pet shop. (That, in itself, was a learning experience, between the little old lady who came in every day to see if we sold condors, and the good ole boy who strolled in with a big burlap bag that he dropped on the counter before asking “Y’all buy rattlesnakes?”) And then there was the groundskeeper job at Texas Instruments’s old Trinity Mills manufacturing facility.
This was back in the day when Texas Instruments still had its Defensive and Strategic Electronics Group (DSEG) division, before incoming CEO Jerry Junkins did to DSEG what most people do with a big eight-course breakfast 24 hours after ordering it. TI was having a rough time of the oil bust, too, but they still needed someone to mow the lawns, trim the hedges, and clean up garbage on the parking lot. I stepped in, figured “Hey, at least it’s better than retail,” and took over.
The job, to be fair, was horrible. $5 an hour, which was barely enough to afford an apartment if you didn’t mind skipping on eating or dating. My first day, I was regaled to the spectacle of the garbage left by my fellow proletariats all over the lot, including a half-full bottle of battery acid and a used tampon. Since I was considered a temp, safety gear and information for temps was considered an option, and I still have problems with my right ear from using a gas-powered leaf blower for two straight days without ear protection. We had an endless procession of scions of the Joad family coming into the parking lot to attempt to scavenge scrap aluminum from the bins in back, and when the facility’s security would shoo them off, they’d retaliate by dumping out everything they had in their pickup trucks on the way out. We had the demonstration of exactly how much my co-workers smoked when I pulled a mockingbird nest out of a hedge by the front door, and the nest was made almost exclusively from cigarette butts. Our air conditioner maintenance tech “lost” the key to the grounds shed, so when I came in on weekends, I’d have to climb over the Herman Miller walls to the Facilities area in order to get the spare key from my supervisor’s desk. There was the leaking diesel fuel tank for the emergency generator, which required a day of shoveling out contaminated soil and replacing it with fresh sand, one wheelbarrow at a time. There was the leaking coolant containment vessel that overflowed during a torrential downpour and flooded the drainage ditch adjoining the property with what looked like blue milk. There was…there was…
Yeah, forget about the horrors. Every job has its horrors. This was the job where, while clipping suckers from the bases of the crape myrtle trees out front, I first stopped to look at exactly how crape myrtle blooms opened up. I encountered all sorts of interesting wildlife, from the crawfish infesting the front drainage ditch to the monstrous female alligator snapping turtle that strolled onto the parking lot in her search for a nesting site. I learned more than I thought I’d care to know about installing sprinkler pipe and replacing quartz parking lamps. I got up every morning in the summer at 4 to get to work by 5:30 and left at 4:30, and learned exactly what my limits were in full Texas heat. It wasn’t much, but that two acres was my little kingdom, and I came to know and care about just about everyone working there. I may have been broke, but that meant I got very familiar with the local library, and I got very good at navigating through Dallas by bicycle. (So far as I know, I’m the only person on the planet insane enough to ride on Dallas’s Central Expressway by bike before its renovation in the Nineties. The first time was an accident, when I suddenly discovered that the service road ended south of Northwest Highway and dumped everyone onto Central. The second time was on a bet that covered my rent for a month. There won’t be a third.)
Ultimately, things didn’t last. The pay didn’t increase, and the opportunities for advancement promised by my temp company didn’t happen, and I ultimately accepted a job offer within TI proper at the end of 1987. TI was already phasing out its individual grounds crews in favor of one contract company that showed up once per week, anyway. Trinity Mills shut down completely in 1991, and the building has a “For Sale or Lease” sign that’s been up for nearly three years. I’m insane for thinking it, but I have to admit that I get nostalgic for those insane summer days in 1987, every time I have to prune back a crape myrtle or I rescue a snapping turtle attempting to cross the road.