Cory Fosco received his MA, Creative Writing from Northwestern University in June 2008. His thesis, “Arizona Stories,” was a collection of essays that was inspired by the two years he lived in Arizona. He received a BA, Creative Writing from Loyola University Chicago in 1992. His previous work has been published in Is Greater Than, Chiron Review, Cadence Literary Magazine, riverbabble and other small press publications. He recently completed a year-long blog project, "A Year Till 40," where he chronicled his 39th year of life in daily essays.
Every morning at 7:30, I see four men sitting at a small table in the lower level of the building where I work. They appear to be pleasant men who wear casual clothes: jeans and non-designer golf shirts. They drink coffee from mugs they have brought from home. The mugs have slogans on them like #1 Dad or I Heart My Attitude Problem. When they meet with each other, they are on an early morning break. I am on my way to the gym; work, my second priority for the day. The men talk about sports, passionately. They talk about events in the news they heard the night before, sparking mini debates. I don't talk, I listen. I don't hear everything they say. I am not in their inner circle. I am a spectator of sorts, a fly on the wall. They pay little attention to the men and women in trendy suits that drink their coffee from Starbucks cups—the ones who talk about sales pending or the new car they just bought. They pay little attention to me.
The men remind me of my father. In 1982, when I was 12, my sixth grade teacher told our class about "Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day."
"It's a special day," she said, "one where you can learn about what your parents do at their job."
I heard some of the kids talk about going with their dads to large office buildings—to desk jobs—so they could copy their faces on the Xerox machine. My father's "office" was the underbelly of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He didn't work at a desk. He was a fleet service clerk for American Airlines. A fancy name for, as I would later joke, "the guy at the airport who lost your luggage."
Everything about my father's job was mysterious to me. He worked the 5am-1pm shift, so he was never home in the morning when my brother's and I were getting ready for school. I never got to eat breakfast with him during the week. We were also never allowed to call my father at work during the day. In all of the years he worked for American Airlines, I never once had a phone number at which to contact him.
I just wanted to be with my dad. I wanted to see the weekday side of him. For all I knew, he didn't eat breakfast before work.
My father took this job in the late 60's, when he was 29 years old. The job was going to be temporary; a six-month stint while waiting for something bigger or better to come along—which never did. Before he knew it, it was 15 years later and this became the job he would keep until he retired at 65.
Getting my dad to agree to take me to work with him was going to be a challenge. He seemed like he never wanted to be around me. He wasn't the type to play baseball with me. He wasn't the type to teach me how to change the oil in the car. What he did like to do was watch TV. Each night after dinner, my father would fall asleep watching shows like Dynasty, The A Team, Cheers and The Cosby Show. My mother would have to yell at him from the foot of the steps to come to bed.
There were certain things my father was passionate about. He was a hard-core Republican. He believed in the value of free speech and the right to bear arms. My father wanted to be a Marine so badly at 16 years old, that he changed her birth certificate to get in. He was a union man and fought hard against the injustices of The Man. I still have vivid memories of going with him to participate in a labor strike. My father grabbed a sign that read, "Going to Phoenix"? Your bags aren't!" He let me walk behind him in a circle a couple of times before situating me on a curb to watch.
My father wasn't a big fan of sports. He never encouraged any of his three sons to play on organized teams. I tried asking him to play football with me one time. He was tinkering around with his car. He took the ball, threw it back to me and told me to go find my brothers.
My father preferred conducting household tasks alone. If he did ask for help, it was often to be his go-fer. He would send me for another cup of coffee or ask me to get the Phillips head screwdriver that was on the third shelf down from the ratchet set. I could never find the tools he needed. I was lucky if I even knew what the tool looked like. When he had to get up to get it himself, he would stomp his feet shaking the floor and knickknacks on the wall.
"Here it is," he would announce, satisfied. "You have to move things around once in a while. They won't jump out for you."
I did not want to go with my mother to work that day. She worked at a local currency exchange. I had been there way too times. This was where my brothers and I always went if there was a pre-planned school reprieve or if one of us was sick and my mother couldn't find a replacement. The currency exchange was where I went on summer mornings while my brothers lifted weights at the local Nautilus health club. The currency exchange was where I figured out I could steal a roll of quarters without getting caught. It was where the old, heavy-set ladies came and cashed their monthly Social Security checks; the place where my mother introduced me to John Belushi's sister, Miriam, who cashed checks there and bought postage stamps.
My mother was not offended when I told her my desire to go with my father. She was always trying to encourage us kids to be closer to Dad.
"I don't think he will take me." I said. "He doesn't want me there." Given my doubt, I had already filled out the permission slip with all of my mother's work information. All it needed was her signature.
My mother lit a cigarette and took a deep breath. "Miiiike!" she shouted. My father was in the other room, watching the news. "Can you take Cory to work with you next Monday? It's for a school project."
My father did not respond. I took it as a sign of rejection.
"Miiiike!" my mother repeated.
"Yes, goddamn it! I'm watching the goddamn news! I'll double check with my supervisor. It shouldn't be a problem. Okay!"
With that, it was decided that I would go to work with my dad. I grabbed the permission slip from my mother's hands and began erasing.
When my father woke me up, it was three o'clock in the morning. It was dark and quiet outside. It seemed like we were the only people awake. My dad stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way. He does eat breakfast, I thought. I ordered a glazed donut and chocolate milk. My father ordered a black coffee. Normally, we were never allowed to eat in the car, but we had to get moving. I had to eat very slowly in the back seat surrounded by napkins. My father opened the white paper bag and put it on my lap like a towel. I kept the carton of milk on the floor between my legs. It was very uncomfortable. I knew I was breaking his strict routine, but my father didn't let on that my presence was an intrusion. He put the radio on, as I imagined he typically did every morning. It was tuned to a news call-in show, the last thing he listened to the day before.
"You want me to change this to another station?" he asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror.
I nodded. He switched the dial and whistled haphazardly with the tune.
When we got to the airport, we had to park in a remote lot that was just for employees. We boarded a bus filled with people. The pilots had on blue suits with crisp shirts, blue ties and fancy hats. The flight attendants—all women—wore panty hose and blazers. The mechanics looked comfortable in long overalls and baseball caps. My father wore blue work slacks and a blue short sleeve button shirt. He had an American Airlines logo patch on one pocket and his name—Mike—in red stitching on a patch on the other. My father was short and stocky—everyone told him he looked exactly like Robert Blake from Baretta (minus the white cockatoo)—his uniform, I thought, made him look important.
There were people from American, United, Delta, and TWA. They wore different company logos, but their work lives were basically the same. I was the youngest person on the bus. People looked at me with confusion. My father sensed my uneasiness and pulled me closer to him. Physical contact from my father usually came in the form of heavy-handed punishments. His subtle gesture made me feel safe.
When we actually got to the airport, we entered what appeared to be a holding cell for prisoners—The Ready Room—with long benches, tables and chairs, and a hanging television set tuned to a local early morning news program. The volume on the TV was so loud that people had to shout to talk with one another. Many fleet service clerks and mechanics, I would later learn, had trouble with their hearing from years of working with the planes. The volume on the television was a nuisance to the new guys, but a necessity for those with more than five years on the job.
I quickly realized that most people spent their time talking and waiting. They talked about shows on TV, waited for a shift to end or begin, talked about dates they went on or were going to go on, waited for a flight to come in, talked about who would make the next pot of coffee, and waited for that pot to finish brewing. Everyone was doing something, but nobody seemed to be working. These times, I imagined, were a welcome respite to a demanding job: manual labor.
I was very curious about the people my father worked with, and was anxious to meet them. My dad would come home and talk about them every day after work. He got home before my mom and, while I had no idea it was called this at the time, he would vent. I would listen to stories about how weather delays backed up the flights. Or my father would tell me about "pick time," which was when the employees had to choose their days off for the following eight weeks. My dad had a lot of seniority so he almost always got his picks—Saturdays and Sundays—approved.
My favorite was when my dad told me about seeing celebrities walking through the airport. He saw Muhammad Ali, Kenny Rogers, and Wilt Chamberlain. I always imagined that my dad hung out with these people and was really disappointed to hear that his brushes with fame were merely distant sightings.
Vent sessions are where I also learned the word "fuck." My father successfully used the word in every way possible. His use of the word became so repetitive that it made me giggle.
"Fucking Tommy's at it again," he would say. "The fucking government is after him to pay his fucking taxes. But he won't, the stupid fuck. He refuses to fucking pay them." I had no idea what my dad was talking about. I don't think he cared either way. He just wanted to tell someone. I don't think he even knew he was swearing as much as he was. It was simply the way they spoke to each other at work. It became a habit of some sort. A tic. Filler.
Tommy Thompson was a major focus of my father's attention. My dad, I believe, envied Tommy because he stood up for himself. Tommy was a dissenter. He didn't agree with paying taxes, so he didn't. This fact excited my father. Although he agreed with the cause, my father saw it as a risk. It was a risk he would never take. Tommy didn't have children to support. He had the luxury of rebellion.
When my mother came home from work, my dad would continue venting. My parents developed a habit of going into the bathroom after dinner. They did it practically every night. My dad would sit on the toilet (lid up, pants and underwear at his ankles) and my mother would sit on the bathroom counter. They smoked cigarettes and kept the fan on to dilute the stench. Cigarettes and crap was a stinky combination.
Although their custom was strange, this was their time; time away from the responsibilities of parenthood, if just for a few minutes. Time for a husband to share his day with his wife, and time for her to do the same. I would often sit at the dinner table and listen. It didn't matter to me what they discussed, I simply enjoyed listening.
As nighttime faded, and life outside the airport began, my father introduced me to the people with whom he shared his day. I felt like I knew some of them already. I met Mike Chin, whose third wife owned a Chinese restaurant, which years later we would visit during a summer break from college. I met Gail Gunderson, who worked harder than the rest of the crew because she never wanted the others to think she was any "less of a man." Gail had deep blue eyes and reminded me of the mother of my friend, Bobby Werner; she was our class lunch lady and worked harder than all of the other lunch mothers. She was always busy opening milk cartons or throwing away trash.
I also met Tommy. I was a bit disappointed. I expected Tommy to be young. I expected Tommy to be tall, and athletic. But he wasn't. I expected Tommy to wear his hair long, and have a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirtsleeve. But he didn't. He wasn't the rebel I envisioned. Tommy looked like Cookie the Clown, minus the make-up and outlandish outfit. Tommy shook my hand, squeezing a bit too hard.
"Your dad's told us all about you, kid," he said, smiling. "He's real proud of you, this guy." He pointed at my father twice to make sure I knew who he was talking about.
I was surprised to hear what Tommy had said. My father was not quick to hand out compliments to me or anyone in our house. I wanted to ask Tommy what my dad said about me. I wanted to hear the specific words he used. I wanted to know what I did that made my dad so proud of me. Proud enough to talk about me to his co-workers. It would have been nice to hear the accolades.
Early morning is one of the busiest times at the airport. My father grabbed his bright orange earmuffs, and searched a packed luggage bin for an extra pair for me. I couldn't understand why we needed them. When we walked outside and I heard the screams emitted by the planes, the loudness scared me. My father laughed as he shouted (or mouthed because I couldn't hear a word he said), "That's what these are for!"
Shouting was a way of life for fleet service clerks. They shouted in the ready room, they shouted on the runways, they even shouted, to my horror, when they went to the bathroom. I discovered this in the most direct way—watching my father continue to talk with his friend as he walked out of the ready room and into the bathroom stalls.
The job my father did was very demanding. We drove in a small wagon-type truck that I had never seen before. It had an empty cart attached to the back. The car only had one seat for the driver. I had to wedge myself on the floorboard next to the open door. My mother would have had a nervous breakdown if she saw me. I didn't care. It was dangerous and fun. My dad winked at me as we drove from one docking station to the next, retrieving the precious cargo which belonged to the hundreds of passengers on each flight.
We drove up to one cart housed inside of the hangar, left the engine running, and quickly tossed suitcase after suitcase onto the empty cart that was attached to the truck. My dad let me grab and throw a couple of the smaller bags. He tossed the bags around, even the big ones, like they weighed less than nothing. I was amazed by his strength. Once the cart was full, we drove the truck to the belly of the airplane, and my father threw the bags onto a conveyor belt. Another clerk pulled the bags off the belt and onto the plane.
I expected my dad to put very little thought into our day. I just assumed that he would stick to his scheduled duties and not veer from what his boss expected him to do. I was wrong. My father took the time to make it an extraordinary day for me. Aside from meeting his co-workers and hauling passenger's luggage from one area to the next, I got to walk up and down the aisle of an empty 747. I not only saw the cockpit, but got to sit in the pilot's seat.
My father had to walk away to get something off his truck, so he told me not to touch anything. As soon as he was out of sight of course, I grabbed hold of the steering wheel. I flew that plane high into the sky. I pretended to fly off to Italy—the place my father I dreamed about going. He and I were the only passengers on this flight. We landed in Rome, ate pizza in the Leaning Tower (because that's where I heard they had the best food), and I flew us right back to O'Hare in time for bed.
I heard my father coming down the jet bridge, so I took my hands off the steering wheel and smiled. My father had gone out to his truck to get his camera. He snapped my picture in black and white. I was a 12 year-old pilot, forever frozen in time.
After exploring on the plane, my father took me to a special hangar: a warehouse for the promotional items flight attendants handed out to deserving passengers. I got to take decks of cards, coloring books, plastic wings, color-form sticker books, balloons and travel magazines—swag for my classmates.
My father also gave me a navy blue American Airlines t-shirt. "Just for you," he said, winking at me. Getting a free t-shirt was the coolest thing. I planned on wearing it to school the next day.
Our day came to an abrupt end soon after we looted the warehouse. We were summoned back to the Ready Room. My father instructed me to sit on a bench, drink a can of vending machine lemonade, and watch TV. He went to the corner of the room to talk with his supervisor. Someone had complained that I was there.
My father was a man of principle. He was a man who followed the rules. He was a man who would show up to a job he utterly despised, thirty minutes early each day so he wouldn't be late. He was told that when he asked his supervisor for permission to take his kid to work, he should have gotten it in writing. The supervisor was a busy man, he was told, how could he be expected to remember every request from all of his employees if they didn't take the time to write them down?
My father told me our day was over. "You're gonna have to stay in here," he told me. "Some pain in the ass supervisor from another area saw you out here and complained. He was pissed off that I had you on that plane."
"I know how important it is for you to get a good grade in class for this," he said, looking at his watch to make sure he didn't miss his next pick-up. "I hope you got enough here to talk about with the class. I wanted you to meet one of the pilots and see some of the other areas where I work."
"It's okay, dad, really," I said, pointing to the bags of goodies I had. "Look at all of this I get to bring back to everyone in class. I'll bet no one else will have stuff like this."
My father looked over at the other workers, his friends, who could hear what he was saying. Tommy Thompson smiled and winked at me. For a moment, I felt like one of them. I was a real worker—a fleet service clerk, just like my father. I felt like I had the nerve to stand up for myself, like Tommy Thompson did against the government. I felt like my presence there made everyone happy, especially me, and I wanted to form a mock strike against management.
But I didn't. I sat in the ready room the rest of the day and watched cartoons on TV. In between flights, my dad came back and joined me on a bench. He didn't say much to me, asking if I needed anything and if I was felling okay. A couple of times he fell asleep sitting up, snoring loudly like he did at home, which made me laugh.
On our drive home from the airport, my father changed the radio station back to his afternoon news program. We didn't stop anywhere special, and he didn't vent when we got home. We went back to our regular life, as expected.
My father doesn't realize that the day I spent with him at the airport is my most cherished memory of my childhood. It was a time when an imaginary baseball was tossed between father and son; an invisible car got an oil change; a time when a father let down his guard. Time no one can take away from us and time we will never get back.