The summer I turned 17 I scored a job that required my father’s steel-toed boots. How I coveted their worn, greasy look. His boots said, “These feet belong to a man of muscle and know-how, a man who likely owns a drill press”. I wanted those feet.
But his boots didn’t fit me. They were painfully small. Too bad. I wore them anyway.
Sunrise, my first day on the job, I stood in the middle of a concrete yard with my new boss. A dump truck backed towards us. The specifics of my duties weren’t clear yet. We repaired the chains that hold log booms together in the water. That’s all I knew.
The dump truck tipped its load. Thousands of chains heaped themselves in front of us. Imagine a knotted lump of steel wool the size of a boxcar. Each chain weighed about a hundred pounds. The links were as thick as my arm. The hooks on either end were the size of my hands.
“Sort these,” my boss said. “They’re either good, bad or so-so condition.”
I stared at the pile, hoping it would go away.
“Uh, sort like how?” I said.
He tossed a few chains as if he was throwing spaghetti. A new pile began behind us.
“Good and good and good, see? Get it? It ain’t hard.”
My look seemed to say something different.
“What are you waiting for?” he said. “You want an invitation in the mail?”
I pulled at my first chain. It was like trying to pry a brick from a wall. My boss watched me as if studying an alien. I must have tried a dozen or two before I finally found a chain that had some give. To unhook and lift it took all my strength. Then I slowly humped it over to the good pile and dropped it on my feet when my arms gave out. There would be no tossing today.
“Lucky I’ve got these boots,” I said.
“What’re you doing? That chain’s no good. Move it for chrissake.”
I got it halfway to a new spot before I needed a break.
“And after this what do I do?” I panted.
”What do you mean? This is what you do. Lunch is at noon.”
He wandered back inside the warehouse, shaking his head.
I could barely hold my steering wheel when I drove home that afternoon. What strength I had left I devoted to composing arguments. I needed one that would convince my parents that I should, for some greater purpose or ethical reasoning, quit this job. “My arms are sore” didn’t have that edge.
Fortunately my boss phoned that night and fired me. After one day, no less. I was so happy. I thanked him profusely. Sweet relief. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents. I’d just swap “fired” for “laid off”. Presto, instant absolution.
Only later would it occur to me what this really meant. I’d been hired to make three piles. I’d been fired for an inability to make three piles. Or…nope, that was it. My future didn’t look good.
Long story short, this was the summer job that taught me how to read Charles Dickens.
Pip, the hero of Dickens’ Great Expectations, was proud of his boots. They were practical for the kind of work he did with his beloved Uncle Joe at the forge. Then, one day, a young woman commented to Pip about how rough his boots looked. She mocked them. Pip grew self-conscious, even embarrassed by them. He’d never considered what boots “meant” before. That’s when they ceased to be boots. They just became code.
For my money, this is what Great Expectations is about. A lifetime of ambition and scheming, of desire and failure, when Pip really just wanted his boots back.
Think I know what he means.