Delivery Boy Blues
The engine began to sputter and cough and cut out, then surge again. I looked at the gas gauge and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. It wasn’t just on empty; the needle was below the “E,” resting on that little metal peg on the far end of the arc. After a few more coughs and spurts, there was dead silence as I steered the tiny BMW Isetta off to the side of the road, flat out of gas.
“Oh no! You idiot!” I yelled. “How could you not check the gas gauge?”
This was it, the final straw, a clear-cut firing offense. But wait a minute. What was that down the road about a quarter mile? It was a gas station with the lights burning brightly. Maybe, just maybe, I could still salvage this situation. I popped open the door and jumped out, slammed it hard and locked it carefully, and took off on an all-out sprint toward the lights of the station.
I was beginning my senior year at Vallejo High School, and my after school and Saturday job was to be the official delivery boy for Wessel’s Pharmacy. My ball-playing friends, Frank Bodie and Joey Butler, had worked for the Wessels, but they had graduated and were heading off to college. When I heard about the opening, I applied for the job right away. This was considered a plum position, especially when you considered that you got to zip all around town in the Isetta, affectionately known as the “Drug Bug.” The Wessels used it prominently in their advertising: order your prescriptions from Wessel’s and the Drug Bug will bring them right to your door.
Wessel’s Pharmacy was located about a block east of the El Rey Theater at the corner of Tennessee and Monterey streets. It was a pleasant storefront on the south side of Tennessee. There were rows of shelves filled with cosmetics and health aids and sundries as you came into the store, and the pharmacy counter was in the rear. Bud and Thelma Wessel were the owner-operators and, except for the delivery boy, were the only employees. If memory serves, the Wessels were only in their fifties, but the hard pace was beginning to take its toll. I heard that they were in financial trouble but determined to overcome the situation by sheer hard work. They were there to open the store in the morning, and they were there an hour or so after the 9:00 p.m. closing time, six days a week. And they were exhausted.
There is a story about Mrs. Wessel convincing her husband to take an evening off and go home to get some rest. When he left, he forgot something important that he intended to take home, so Mrs. W sent the delivery boy (probably Frank or Joey) to take it to him. When he arrived, there was Mr. Wessel parked in the driveway, sound asleep behind the wheel. He couldn’t even make it into the house.
Thelma Wessel was a short, heavy-set woman with a very sweet disposition. She smiled and laughed easily and it was easy to like her. Bud Wessel was another story. He was tall and slim with gray hair that was rapidly going white. He wore reading glasses that tended to slide down his nose and when he looked at you, he would drop his chin so that he could gaze over those glasses. That gaze could be withering when he was angry, but occasionally, you could get a smile and a laugh and his eyes would twinkle. He truly looked the part of the wise and trusted pharmacist.
I think it was Joey who warned me that Mr. Wessel was not easy to get along with. I was so happy to have the job that I paid little attention to that warning. My mom saw to it that I received an allowance every week and when I started working, we kept that arrangement. I just endorsed my paycheck from Wessel’s and gave it to her. It really wasn’t much, but it made me feel good to think that I was helping out.
Mr. W and I never really hit it off, mainly because I couldn’t seem to do anything right. When I got to the store after school, there were generally a half dozen prescriptions to be delivered, and my primary duty was to get organized and plan the route carefully, minimizing travel time and the distance between stops. There were maps available to assist in this task and, after all, I’d grown up in Vallejo. I thought I knew my way around. Somehow I just couldn’t get it right. I managed to get lost frequently and always took too long to complete my deliveries, at least in the eyes of Mr. Wessel.
Mrs. Wessel would occasionally give me a short list of items to pick up at the market when I was out. If she gave me five items, I usually managed to get at least two of them wrong. Three-for-five is good in baseball, but not so hot on a trip to the market.
On slow nights, they would give me busy work to do, jobs like dusting the bottles of medicine on the shelves in the pharmacy. I couldn’t even seem to do that correctly, prompting Mr. Wessel to patiently explain once again what he expected. I’d march in every day determined to do better, but the harder I tried, the worse it seemed to get.
Simply put, I had become a perpetual screw-up.
The biggest source of tension between Mr. Wessel and me was the Drug Bug. He loved that little Isetta beyond all understanding. It was his baby. It was a temperamental little beast and I never quite got the hang of it. When it had been sitting for an extended period of time, there was a strict sequence of steps you had to follow before you turned the key to engage the starter. If you didn’t execute the sequence precisely, the bug would backfire. That tiny vehicle could produce a cannon blast that was truly amazing. I seldom ever got it right. The Isetta would backfire and as I chugged off down the street, Mr. Wessel would pop his head out the side door of the building and glare at me over his glasses.
And now there I was, running as hard as I could for the bright lights of the service station, desperately trying to recover from yet another mistake. I raced onto the lot and headed for the small office next to the service bay. Suddenly a huge grin broke across my face. Sitting in the office was my friend Frankie Arellano. I was so glad to see him, I could have kissed him right there.
“Frank! I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Hi, Charlie. What’s up?”
“I ran out of gas down the road. I’m out delivering prescriptions for Wessel’s. Can I get a can of gas—fast?”
“Sure, I’ve got a can right here.”
In a matter of minutes, I was sprinting back toward the Drug Bug, the gas can banging against my leg. I dumped the gas into the tank, jumped in and turned the key. The little Isetta backfired happily as the engine sprang to life. I made a quick stop at the station to return the can.
“How much do I owe you, Frankie?”
“Forget it. It’s on the house.”
“Thanks, buddy. You’re saving my life.”
With that, I was back on the road. The whole episode cost me no more than twenty minutes. On the way back to the pharmacy after my deliveries, I decided that if Frank and I were the only people in the world who ever knew about this little adventure that would be just fine.
A few days later, I showed up for work to find Mr. Wessel sitting at the counter in the back of the store with a ledger book open in front of him. He was in a great mood and actually smiled at me as I came in. It seems he kept a detailed record of the Isetta’s performance and there had been a miraculous spike in the miles per gallon. He showed me the numbers and said, “Isn’t that amazing? How could that happen?” He was ecstatic. I felt my stomach drop as I realized that it was my “free” gallon of gas that had skewed the numbers. Frankie didn’t charge me for it, so I didn’t enter it in the delivery log. I didn’t know Mr. W tracked every detail with such precision. I just shrugged and went about planning my afternoon deliveries.
Years later when I would tell this story, I would say that Mr. Wessel was so happy, I didn’t have the heart to tell him what really happened. The truth is I didn’t have the guts to admit to another compound screw-up.
It wasn’t too long after that when things came to a head. I came into work on Saturday morning, received my paycheck from Mrs. Wessel, and set about doing odd jobs until some prescriptions were ready for delivery. Once again, I wasn’t performing the tasks to Bud Wessel’s satisfaction. He launched into a very calm, quiet, patient lecture about how he wanted things done. He might as well have been screaming in my face. I snapped. I couldn’t take anymore.
“That’s it,” I said. “Nothing I do is good enough for you. I quit!” With that I stormed toward the door.
“You know,” he said very calmly, “you got paid for today. It’s included in your check.”
I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. I had no clue what to do at that point. I was utterly destroyed, no longer the abused worker standing up for my dignity and self-respect, just a humiliated kid without a leg to stand on. I took a tentative step back into the store, deciding lamely that I’d have to finish out that day on the job.
“No,” Mr. Wessel said, “that’s okay. It’s probably better if you go.”
I headed for home, wiping my eyes on my sleeve, trying to decide how to tell my mom that I’d quit my job and why. My “career” with Wessel’s Pharmacy had lasted just a couple of months.
Mr. Wessel did an interesting thing after I quit. He wrote a letter to my mom. It arrived in the mail a few days later. He wrote that he was sure I was a fine, intelligent young man with a bright future. He was sorry that things had not worked out, but he wished only the best for me and our entire family. It was a kind and generous thing to do and I felt my anger toward him begin to melt away.
It couldn’t have been more than a couple of years later that I heard Bud Wessel had died. I knew exactly what had happened: he’d finally worked himself to death. I felt a heavy sadness for him and for Mrs. Wessel too.
Hopefully we learn something as we live through these experiences. So, what are the lessons learned from all of this? Don’t put extra pressure on yourself, because it won’t make you a diamond. Work hard and do the best you can, but don’t take it home with you. Don’t think you need to have all the answers, and if you are struggling, reach out for help.
That’s a pretty good list for starters. It’s great if you are smart and lucky and you only have to learn these lessons once. If smart and lucky aren’t your things, well then, you get to learn them over and over again.