Twenty years ago, I punched my first time-card. The clock was a boxy metal affair and aligning the card just so was a mathematic I proved bad at. My time-in/time-out punches were often overlaid in the same cell, and in mimeograph purple; the cards themselves were of the same card-stock you’d find in library card catalogues: manila. Mimeographs and manila are card catalogues are all fast-dying things.
Before my SeaWorld job, I worked under the table and got paid in twenties. I wrote essays for my high school English teacher and did research for her in university libraries. There was also that one summer I helped my friend’s dad build a two-hundred foot retaining wall in his backyard and it was the first time I found myself trim after a prolonged and adolescent pudginess.
SeaWorld was my first real job in that FICA was involved and I was cut paychecks on the regular. I made exactly $4.25 an hour. My job involved sweeping popcorn hulls in the varied stadiums, directing people traffic, selling fish in the feeder booths. I loved it, especially retiring to the car at near-midnight on summer nights and when there was a parking lot culture beneath the fireworks. The nights were always salt-air sticky and how many late night/ early mornings I spent talking far past my scheduled shifts with accidental friends when leaning against car hoods. There was a Denny’s down the street which is designed to be the after-hours hangout. The waitresses knew us by our ill-fitted windbreakers and obvious name tags.
I met my future-wife at company orientation. She chose a seat next to me because I looked like someone she’d like to know. (On a serendipitous note, and a story I like to tell, I had a picture of her dad hanging on my wall for most my childhood: he was the athletic trainer for the Chargers when they were at their winningest, and I had a thumbtacked poster of the ’84 Chargers on my bedroom wall).
The lack of responsibility while first understanding responsibility was a great and questionable suspension, like a bridge to nowhere exactly soon. So much fun and abandon, those days.
I worked Park Ops and the Education Department. I worked Employment (I actually ‘hired’ the people who would later be my tutors in Aviculture). When finishing college, I had late-night gigs at Shamu stadium overseeing the killer whales. There were absurd moments I had my typewriter at orca poolside, finishing essays before clocking out at eight o’ clock in the morning and driving up the freeway for a full day of university.I knew all the orcas by their particular respirations. Kasatka was my favorite. I’d lean against the glass with my typewriter and she’d hover above my shoulder, my essays on Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ being THAT interesting. She’d read my writing and, occasionally, she’d spit a squid over the plexi-wall which was either complaint or particular playfulness. She had a habit of sticking her tongue out, curled, and this was her laugh. She talked in an echolocative whisper, which, most people don’t know can in fact be a whisper.
I got the penguin job. Things happen when you’re busy making other plans. This was certainly temporary, I would say.
That was sixteen years ago.
At lunch a number of months ago, we were talking beards, facial hair having only been allowed at SeaWorld a few years back. I grew the first beard of my life because all the guys are supposed to grow one at the Penguin Encounter. It’s just the thing: the Polar Beard. And my beard was red for exactly a year before it’s fast disappearance. My friend, a younger keeper, called me out on my self-chastising, me eschewing my wrinkling eyes, and the fact that my beard is growing in it’s whiteness.
“Dude: it’s iconic,” he said, meaning my beard.
The red has certainly retreated, and the white has claimed all my chin. The left side of my moustache is currently (ant)arctic-frosted and I’m losing color fast.
On and along a PR trip, another friend said: ‘We’re kinduv elder statesmen, now, in our jobs’ which is an interesting bent. I used to sweep up popcorn, but know I have an enviable keep and it’s easy for me to talk keeper talk, there being no stadium chains to pull or people to necessarily be polite to. Globulins, hematocrit, albumin, WBC, You gain sophistication and you lose pigment and penguins are your friends.
You find yourself twenty years later and ask: ‘how did I get here?’ I open the PE door with its solid ch-chunk. Never gets old. Walking into the exhibit, I mean.
Little Man, my favorite penguin, explodes into an ecstatic display once I step onto the ice. You don’t give this up for anything.
I have my favorite animals; I also have all the people I’ve met along the way, and they remain. SeaWorld: thanks for the twenty years, and my wife and the half my life. I’d probably still clock in wrong on the old machines. 1995 and 2015 would probably be transposed on the same line.