San Diego 'Has anybody ever given you French doors before?" The afternoon's particle-beam-intense sunlight reflects off the hood of my truck, makes my eyes squint and forehead sweat.
James Perez, a 57-year-old Native American, replies, "Oh, yeah."
I look down at the heap of oak doors lying in the bed of my pickup. Three are 32 inches wide, another is 35 inches across, plus one set of French doors.
"These are good doors, hate to let them go." I offer a heartless, hollow laugh. Actually, I've tried to sell the beasts for two weeks, spent 50 bucks on newspaper ads, finally snared a solitary male shopper who took one look at my treasures and objected to the cracked, sun-blasted wood. Picky, picky.
This unfortunate but universal consumer indifference toward my doors has brought me to James Perez. Mr. Perez works at the Coronado Goodwill Attended Donation Center located in the parking lot between Payless and Vons.
An Attended Donation Center is a fancy term for a large van. Think of a generic tractor-trailer steaming down I-5, pulling a load of widgets. Now, unhook the trailer and park it somewhere, anywhere. Add one employee. Bingo, you have a Goodwill Attended Donation Center. The Goodwill has boxes in Carlsbad, Mira Mesa, Del Mar, University City, Oceanside, Escondido, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Point Loma, Chula Vista, Bonita, El Cajon, and here in Coronado.
James Perez is captain of the Coronado box. I make him for 5'8"; add another inch on account of his thick, black-gray, very long flattop-styled hair. His skin is nut brown and he wears clear-rimmed glasses over a black mustache and pearl-white teeth. Perez has a barrel chest, stout arms and legs. His working outfit is a blue shirt, blue pants, and a black elastic back support, the kind with suspenders and a wide band that wraps around his waist.
Perez's box has a hardwood floor; its walls and roof are painted white; in front and back, a pair of swinging, floor-to-ceiling metal doors. Just inside the entrance is a small secretary -- looks like a bedroom nightstand -- for Perez's papers. Along one wall are blue plastic bins stacked atop each other. Currently 23 bins are holding clothes, coffee pots, shoes, toys, the castaways of middle-class life. At the rear, on the floor, are garden tools, a computer, and a broken lawn chair.
"Is this today's haul?" I ask.
"Yes." Mexican music is playing on the tinny radio next to Perez's desk, a norteño ballad of some kind.
"Are you ever shocked by what people give away?"
"Yup. This happened last week. Somebody, anonymous from what I heard, gave us a Mazda van." Perez's low voice has no inflection.
"No kidding." Perez hands me a clipboard. I begin filling out the Goodwill Industries of San Diego County Tax Receipt form carefully, so I can take this unwanted debris off my taxes. "Was the van brand new?"
"They used it, but still, to me, it's brand new. This just happened last week. I saw the van, it was yellow." Perez stands just inside his box, back a few inches from the threshold to get the shade. "They get quite a few of them over there: cars, pickups, trucks."
"Has anybody donated a boat or a plane?"
"Ahh, a boat. It was a pretty big boat, had two engines in the back."
"How about those?" I point to a computer lying on the floor, looks to be an IBM 386. "Do you get a lot of those?"
"Yeah. They bring the old ones in because they got a new one. This one guy from the Navy came over. He'd just bought the computer. He bought one for him and his roommates, but his roommates were never home. He didn't use it that much, so he brought it to me. He wanted me to take it home. I told him, 'Wait a minute, I can't do that. Now, if you was to meet me over there,'" Perez nods to the sidewalk on D Avenue, "'after work, and then give it to me, I'd take it home. But when you bring it here, it's not my property. I'm just the one taking care of it. It's Goodwill's property now.'" Perez scowls, "It's happening. It's happening right now. You know, some of the other guys, they're selling shit right out of the box."
Of course. "So, I could stop by a box and say to the man, 'I'll give you 20 bucks for the doors.' "
"That's what they were doing in the other boxes. I found out through my boss. They called him." Perez makes a smile. "A customer bought something, took it home, and it didn't work. Naturally he's going to complain. But you never go back to the dude you bought it from and complain to him. He's going to go higher up."
"He called the main office and complained?"
"That dude is gone. I'd like to keep my job at least till I get my Social Security or something. I got more fucking junk in my house. It's junk to me. Why am I going to take any of this stuff not knowing if it works or not?"
This might not be a bad gig. The job does offer the essential, no-direct-supervision environment. One has his own little ranch, but I don't see a chair, no bathroom, no break area; you'd always be on public display. Could make for a long day. Following that line of thought, I inquire, "Where do you have lunch? Do you pack your own?"
"Yeah. I eat kind of light, you know."
I hand the form back to Perez, who signs it and gives me a copy. "Well, I'll go get some more stuff. See you in a while."
I climb into my truck, drive one block, turn right into an alley, pull up beside my rented garage and four years' worth of accumulated rubbish. What's next? How about the Baja pillows, real artifacts with 300 nights' worth of ground-in dirt? Or perhaps the rusted bicycles with no tires? Certainly need to offload the Baja pots and pans, so scorched by campfire they cannot be cleaned. And we have the leaking ice chests, the shredded tent, the ripped blankets, the sofa with three legs, ditto two Queen Ann chairs...
I make up another load and drive back to the box. Perez is still standing in the doorway, hands on hips. I dismount, retrieve the clipboard, begin listing my chattel. The tinny radio intrudes. "Is that a Tijuana station?"
"Yes." Perez tells me his wife is Mexican and that he lived in Tijuana for a while.
"Do you like the music?"
"Well, some. My wife, her whole family plays an instrument. Seven of them all together. Mother, father, all of them play. When I met her, about '73, I guess, she was on tour in Vegas. Her brother wanted her to continue with them."
"Was she the singer?"
"Yeah, and she played the guitar. But I told her, 'This is not a life for me.' And it wasn't except for when I was drunk, or when I was drinking, then I'd do anything. I told her, 'Either your music or me. You make your choice.' So, she quit. We got married, been together ever since. Twenty-six years now, a long time."
I'm always amazed how people get to where they are. And then the next thing I want to know is what it would be like, in this instance, to be James Perez working at the Coronado Goodwill donation box. "What do you think about all day? You seem to have a lot of time to relax."
"Yeah, but they make you stay busy."
"So, it's a matter of doing a little bit here and a little bit there?"
"Yeah. I only get to empty the box once a day. You should have seen it this morning."
Earlier, I had seen a large Goodwill truck pull into the parking lot. "I saw the guy drive up in the truck."
"The big truck?"
"Yeah, it was a big truck."
"You should have seen this before they got here. I had this..." Perez waves to a wall of empty plastic bins, "filled all the way to the back." He turns and takes a step forward, "and there was another line to about here. All I had was a little path in between."
"I see..." This is said with the same gravity one uses when told about the split buckles used in small-bore oil drilling. "You got to organize the stuff for them?"
"No, I just throw everything in the bin."
"Don't you put clothes in one bucket, shoes in another, appliances in another?"
"Yeah. That's my job. Like yesterday, I had three truckloads. I mean, they were loaded. I had to stack all that stuff in here. This morning I had to pull it out little by little so I could get in."
Work -- first thing in the morning. Not good. "What's a better job, driving the truck or running the box?"
"I don't know. Like, for me, right here, I'm fine. They don't bother me. I got nobody on my back. I'm in charge here. I'm the boss. So, the truck drivers can't come in here and say, 'Hey, man, no, no, I've got to...' 'Fuck you,' I say. 'You don't no-no me. This is my box. What I say goes here.' My bosses know that. There's only two or three of us that have a regular box. We're steady. Every day, five days a week."
"I see, in the other Goodwill boxes, people come and go?"
"Whereas you're here all the time?"
"I'm here every day. They give me a replacement for two days, my two days off. I got a little time in with Goodwill, and if I don't like the guys who are here, especially that goddamn Filipino..." Perez scowls. "I don't know how anybody else feels about it. I don't even want to look at him."
"So, you can keep the Filipino out of here if you want?"
"Yup. I told my boss. I said, 'Man, hey, that's it. I got nothing against the guy. If you want I'll go higher up, I'll go to the board of directors, but I'm not going to be cleaning nobody's shit, nobody's piss. Go back there and take a look.' "
"He shit here?"
"Right there." Perez points to a space beyond the back doors. The van's backside is set next to the Cora Mart building, just far enough from the building so that its doors can open and shut. "I understand when you have to go, you have to go, but shit, hey, I got time to go to Vons or the gas station. Everybody else does too. I told my boss, 'Hey, look, go over there and you clean that shit up.'" Perez slowly shakes his head, "Piss and shit. I'm not here to clean up nobody's shit."