There was a time I thought I was in hell. It was Texas. I had dropped out of school and worked stocking bulk at a grocery store. As part of the job, before dawn once a month, they made us show up to get our morale boosted, which was seen as directly related to sales. Praise for good attitude. Hand-clapping. Prizes. It was noted when we hurt ourselves less on the job. Something like that—it was so long ago, it was always so early. On those days, we likely stole more than we did other days. But who’s to say it was stealing? Let’s just say you’d write off damaged goods. No matter how they got damaged.
Two mornings a week, they had me down for receiving. That meant being ready for the five o’clock truck. I don’t know what you call it, but picture a ladder–not with rungs, but with rollers. That’s what I set up, at the angle between where the truck would pull in and down where I would stand. Then silence. It was, after all, before five in the morning. Like a horse tied to a post, I might have drifted to sleep on my feet. Then, all at once, here was the truck, and now here was the driver, shot out of the cab. The white rabbit? In Alice in Wonderland? Always so worried he’s going to be late? Turn the worry to anger. Give the rabbit cocaine. Get him hounded by fathomless demons. That was this driver. The truck would hardly have jerked into place before there he was in the back, flinging frozen product down the rollers at me.
They say that, these days, when you get in a wreck, an air-bag will save you. But I’ve heard it’s like asking a heavyweight to lace on his gloves and deliver a punch. You don’t die, so there’s that. But you can’t escape bruises. And you’re staggered a bit. So, I can’t say the frozen product flung at me by the furious man in the truck could have, in any way, taken my life. But the body is tender, and what happened to me was not unlike how you get saved in a wreck. Then positioning yourself to let it happen again.
In those years, the physique that I boasted was like a balloon filled with duck-fat, and held up by string. Muscles were what people in magazines had. So, every time, as the truck screeched away, my back was in ruins. There was a faraway throbbing sensation. My forearms were pink, and my whole torso tender. I fantasized what a lottery ticket would do for my life.
On these mornings, Johnny Frozen was always around. He bounced, when he walked, on the balls of his feet. He took life on a lark. One of those people who doesn’t add up. He managed the freezer. Off the clock, martial arts and a Spartan existence. I wanted him to want more. Did he dream of travel? Of wealth? Of anything outside the walls of the walk-in? Couldn’t he see that we were in hell—the driver, me, and him, all ensnared? The misery he was missing! I could have just howled. But it never sunk in. In fact, he had something he thought I should know.
Judo is a word that can mean “gentle way.” (With “Ju” as the gentle and “do” as the way.) See that unconquerable force coming at you? You want to clench up. But don’t. Only see it. Accept it. Employ it, in fact. Channel it to new ends. And that, in a bungled nutshell, is judo. Which Johnny Frozen showed me how to use on the boxes. A person didn’t have to just plant himself there, at the end of the rollers, as the product shot down. Instead, you could eyeball what was oncoming, and step away just in time, allowing your arms to carry through with the force, using one sweeping motion to end the box up on the top of a stack. As if it weighed nothing. Before, I spent the shift cringing, trying to minimize harm. Now, of all things, you would have thought I was dancing.
I was staggered by so very much in those days. Life out ahead seemed the dim prospect of hunkering down. Of learning to take it. Writing off what got damaged. That it could be otherwise was a revelation that haunts me down to this day with a whisper of hope.