I don’t remember the first time that I met Rick, but had I known how much our lives would intertwine I might have taken note. There wasn’t much reason for me to make such an assumption, though. I was just a twenty-two year old kid packing out cookies to pay for college. I had found the job on a bulletin board at Suffolk County Community College. It was different from other jobs I’d had before in the effortless manner that time elapsed while I was doing it. As a Sales Rep, Rick drove around and spoke to managers at the different grocery stores on his territory and ordered product to restock the shelves. A couple of days later, Rick and I would drive around and pack out those deliveries. It was repetitive work done in the least repetitive way possible. Moving from store to store kept the work from feeling stagnant and the stores were different enough that it always felt like you were in new places, even if they became familiar over time. All of the driving transformed me from a sheltered child of the suburbs to a sheltered child who really knew his way around. The hours were flexible and ideal for someone my age. Rick, on the other hand, had to be in his early sixties at that point, having spent half of his life working for the company and nearing the final stretch before retirement. He was tall and fatherly and had a deep voice and a good nature. Everyone on his territory (from Westhampton Beach to Montauk) spoke about him with reverence.
It was this good nature that made the thought of spending the summer working in the Hamptons tolerable. My rusting Toyota 4Runner labored in the summer heat and lurched in the traffic as I pined for an automatic transmission. It was an assignment I would have normally balked at, but after spending a week on his territory, I found myself unable to turn down working for Rick for the summer. Someone had to do it, and I couldn’t think of a better guy to work for, even if it involved driving into the relentless maw of summer traffic each day. Frequently, Rick would offer to drive me around in his company car to save me the gas money. We would drive out to Montauk and work our way back, packing out the stores methodically in unison, replenishing what had been lost in the never-ending conflict between consumer and supplier. First Montauk, then Amagansett, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton, Southampton, Hampton Bays and finally West Hampton Beach. Rick knew the back roads and if traffic was heavy on Montauk Highway, he would make a quiet calculation, guiding us through a maze of back roads and ultimately to our destination as efficiently as possible, like a silent cartographer.
One day as we drove past Town Pond in East Hampton on our way to Montauk, I saw a swan being followed by her young, the cygnets bobbing in the water alongside the road. Rick told me that he watched the swans raise their young every year, that it had become a gauge for him to measure the summer’s passage by. The days were long, but the time flew by. Though I found myself exhausted by the end of each day, the hours themselves passed quickly, like the pages of a book someone else might have been reading on the beach while we worked. The summer elapsed in a similar fashion. I used the money I had saved as a down payment on my first new car and when classes resumed in the fall, I was once again relegated to part-time work far from the Hamptons.
Envision a time lapse: with my new Honda Civic at first pristine, then filthy, then clean again, dented, full of books, hockey equipment, then empty once more. My hair at first short and cropped close, then blooming down to a shaggy mop, then shoulder length, then beyond the shoulders and suddenly short once again; a lot of hard work blurring into a diploma in a Rubbermaid Tote somewhere. Amidst the blur a company party was held for Rick to celebrate his fortieth year on the job. Many of his past and current coworkers were there and his children came in from out of town to honor his achievement. I attended this party, typically reserved for full-time employees, because over the course of time I had become one. My new job called for me to substitute for Sales Reps that were on vacation or sick across a wide swath of territory, so I was busy and travelled heavily. I wasn’t often called to work in the Hamptons, save for the odd week when Rick wasn’t there, but we crossed paths here and there and it was always nice to see and hear from him. Sometimes I would reflect back to that first summer I had spent working with him and wonder where the time had gone. The world at large hadn’t changed much since I had spent that summer working part-time, but my perception of that world had undergone a seismic shift. Where before I had regarded the future as wide open and rich with possibilities, now I avoided regarding the future at all. This wasn’t my dream job, but it wasn’t bad and then again I wasn’t quite sure what my dreams were anymore. Pragmatism had a way of relegating dreams to the nighttime and the day-to-day grind had a way of passing time that my old summer job couldn’t hold a candle to. Before long I was promoted to Sales Rep: I had found a territory of my own. It was challenging work but I excelled at it, though the commute was long, and driving an extra three hours each day whittled my personal time down to almost nothing. A year went by in what felt like a couple of months. Managers came and went in my stores but I had become the constant. I applied for a transfer to a territory closer to home but nothing was available, so I waited, and worked, the best way to pass the time.
It was the month of my thirty-second birthday that my transfer was granted. It had been a couple of years since I became a Sales Rep and almost five years since I had graduated college and taken my first full-time position. I never would have guessed that I would end up here. Rick has retired, and I have taken his place. Since my transfer occurred in March there was still snow on the ground in some places, garnishing the landmarks so associated with summer. I drive by them now and see them flush with humanity. Some of the locals decry the “city-iots” and I do the same sometimes, but the transition seems almost like something from nature. Spring brings the landscapers and carpenters, the housekeepers and personal shoppers, a teeming caravan of trades people miles long preparing the entire South Fork of the island for it’s true purpose. I’m so used to traffic from my old commute that it feels like part of the work ritual to me. I just take it all in. I miss Rick, but not in a wistful way exactly. I know that he is happily retired, sitting on his kayak in the middle of a lake. More likely it is that I miss who I was when I came to know Rick. I was a young man full of possibilities, whereas I now find myself daunted by such things. One of the managers that I deal with said to me upon our first meeting: “You’ve got some big shoes to fill,” which was an understatement. Rick was so well liked that you might have found him writ large on one of those area maps that the Southampton Chamber of Commerce gives out for free to highlight the local businesses. I have been doing my best and everyone seems happy with my work, but I have no illusions. I am not Rick, who worked forty-three years for the same company, who was issued a big boat of an American car (a Plymouth Fury) as his first company vehicle, who remembers a time when many of our products could be purchased for pocket change. In this new world of corporate mergers and acquisitions, of constant consolidation, it is far more likely that my job will disappear long before I have a chance to retire from it gracefully, as Rick did. In the meantime, I am just enjoying watching the area spring to life, roil with humanity for a few months, and then tuck itself back in for the winter. I drive on the same roads that Rick did, I talk to many of the same people that he talked to, and every time I pass the pond in East Hampton, I look for those swans and their cygnets, but I just keep missing them.