Hot Pepper | David Barish

I kept my mouth shut and threw bananas. When I did this I made money. More money than I had made in my life. I was 22 years old, just out of college, working a summer job as a Teamster in 1980 making $10.33 an hour and didn’t want to do anything to lose this golden goose of a job or get my ass kicked.

I was a laborer on Chicago’s South Watermarket working from 1 am to 11 am. As soon as I got to work we unloaded a semi-trailer full of bananas and made pallets to take down to our warehouse. The bananas came in 40 lb. boxes. One worker was the pitcher. He picked the boxes out of the truck and launched them on rollers down to the catcher on the loading dock. The catcher took the boxes and arranged them to build a pallet. One of the owners would pick up the full pallet with a fork lift and take it to the warehouse in the basement. They soon realized the kid was a lousy catcher. I built crappy, unstable pallets that fell apart like a house of cards. This pissed of my bosses and made my co-workers smirk. So, I would spend the first three hours of every shift beginning at 1am lifting and tossing the boxes onto the rollers. After the game of catch I took orders to various customers who were parked somewhere on the dock. I pulled my hand jack past our neighbors who sold potatoes, peppers, and a variety of other produce that had just been shipped into the city waiting retail stores to buy their wares. At first I carefully tread the dock uncertain of my place in this tough and unfamiliar world that bustled while most people were sleeping.

Working the graveyard shift and having newfound thickness to my wallet gave me more options than I really knew how to handle. There were too many items on life’s menu. Do I catch up on my sleep? Do I go out and play in the sunshine? Do I start drinking? Ah, choices. I learned to sleep at will getting an hour or two here and there and hoping to bank 5 or 6 hours before I had to get back to work. I fell asleep in the strangest places– the park, my bike, the bar, the grocery store. Everybody who knew me figured I had narcolepsy but they knew I was usually willing to pick up a round … if I was awake.

After a month on the job I didn’t feel as much like the outsider, the kid, the college boy who read books on his breaks but more like one of the salts who grunted, hustled and paid union dues. I came back to our stall just before the end of my shift to see a bunch of people gathered around our neighbor the pepper seller in a heated discussion. They were engaged in an argument over whether a newly arrived pepper was the hottest pepper on earth. I was a cocky kid who could sleep at will. I was a guy who had once won a bet with a girlfriend that he could eat a dozen sport peppers at a hot dog joint without having anything to drink. Hey, it was worth winning that bet. And, also, I was a guy eager to blend in and gain some respect from the old timers on the dock. I walked up and said, “Hey, let’s find out. I’ll try it.” I popped the pepper into my mouth. I stood around for a minute or two and said that the pepper tasted “sweet”. I smirked at the tough guys on the dock including the Teamster official who was built like a block of granite, and headed for my car. I lived in Evanston and normally drove up Lake Shore Drive.

In those days Lake Shore Drive had an S curve with a draw bridge just south of Navy Pier. I was on the drive near McCormick Place, about a mile and a half south of the curve. Traffic ground to a halt as the drawbridge was up. I never knew whether a ship was passing or why the bridge was up. Either way, traffic was backed up for at least a mile and looked to be going nowhere. It was at this time that I realized that the pepper was sort of like a creeper … you know, the pot that doesn’t get you high at first but creeps up on you. For a while, I sensed nothing from the allegedly hot pepper. Now, as traffic ground to a halt the pepper demanded that I pay attention and it had a lot to tell me. My mouth became inflamed.

I travelled maybe a mile in forty minutes. During those forty minutes I first tried to extricate as much saliva as possible into my mouth and onto my tongue. I made sounds like trying to get the last part of a Slurpee up a straw. I then tried to suck what saliva I could imagine onto my tongue as I pressed the roof and bottom of my mouth together. I would then suck whatever moisture I could get from wherever it was coming from. I began to stick my fingers and hand into my mouth and bite on them in order to distract myself from the forest fire raging in my oral cavity. When that failed to work I began to start sticking parts of the T shirt that I had sweated into for the previous nine hours of manual labor into my mouth. I began to crave that dirty cotton. I let the swaddling of fabric protect me … from myself.

As I tried these remedies I kept my eyes on the road, listened to countless news and traffic updates, screamed, sang, and then silently did those same things as my mouth was ceasing to be a functional. I fought with myself as my motor vehicle sped along at the speed of a bureaucrat on barbiturates. I saw a sea of vehicles around me in all directions. Looking out my window and seeing Lake Michigan, with zillions of gallons of fresh water less than a hundred yards to my right just tantalized me and made my mouth feel drier … and hotter. I thought about half empty cans of soda and bottles of water that I had cleaned out of my car.

I nearly entered a dream state, with me swimming in an ocean of undrinkable saltwater. I imagined myself on Das Boat. Fortunately, traffic was barely moving so I did not get into an accident even though I really doubt I was completely conscious all the time.

I had no option short of abandoning my car … and that option was strongly, yes, very strongly, considered. Still, I stayed with my vehicle going nowhere and now that I had used all the available moisture in my body that would normally go to tear ducts, was unable to even cry about it.

I finally reached my apartment a couple hours after getting stuck in traffic. My now blistering mouth could no longer tolerate water. I tried it and the water was (how does that David Bowie song go … like putting out a fire with gasoline?) I found a slice of bread in my refrigerator and balled it up. I stuck the bread in my mouth and tried to fit bread in each crevice in my mouth. I just sat vacantly staring at the wall, exhausted from my ordeal after a day’s labor, I fell asleep. I woke up a few hours later when I almost choked on the bread.

The next day I continued my charade of toughness and asked my boss what the big deal was with that pepper next door. “It didn’t seem like much to me.” I guess sounding like I was talking with a mouth full of oatmeal didn’t make me terribly convincing. He rolled his eyes, smiled, and asked me, “Ya wanna cuppa coffee?” Wanting nothing hot anywhere near my face, I pushed out my hand as if to stiff arm a potential tackler. I kept my mouth shut and threw bananas.

David BarishDavid Barish has been telling stories ever since a teacher once told his parents, “David is learning but none of the children sitting around him are learning.”  As an adult he satisfied his creative urges with anthropomorphizing all of his children’s stuffed animals, singing his ride reports when he was the Rides Chair of the Evanston Bike Club and telling stories that applied to oral arguments in his profession as a workers’ compensation lawyer. He once compared an opponent who asked for too much to taking his then young daughter to a toy store where she wanted all that she could see and then asked for ice cream. Over the years he watched his beloved teach, write, tell and edit personal narratives. He decided to try his hand at writing a story. That story was recorded as a Podcast by Story Sessions and he has not looked back since. David has been a featured story teller at Serving the Sentence, Story Sessions, Write Club, Story Club and  Oy Chicago’s “These are not your Zayde’s Stories”. He has stepped up to the open mic at Story Club and at The Moth.

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