When I see a guy who's over fifty and working retail in this town, I tend to assume that the man is an expert in his chosen field. When I go into the local Red Wing shoe store with Jack to buy work boots, and the salesman can sincerely talk us into a six-pack of twenty dollar socks because nothing else will do, I think he must be working on commission, because you, sir, are a Company Man. That or he owns the store outright. Why else would a man his age even be touching a cash register? You can't support a family on a retail salary around here.

The local Home Improvement Center -- which, bless its heart, hasn't gone under despite the no longer newish Home Depot ten miles up the road -- they must have a loyal customer base, because the store is full of old linoleum and the lumber yard is the size of a Sunset Do Your Own Grouting book, but it's always busy, being smack in the middle the building trades part of town. Another weird thing about Santa Barbara is that the industrial section of town is, like, three bocks from the beach. You have all this incredible oceanfront property filled with cute little hotels, and then directly behind Fess Parker's Fancy Hotel is this huge gravel pit, and twelve different auto body repair shops, and Smarden Hatcher plumbing supply, and etc. It must drive developers nuts to see busted-out pickup trucks being cannibalized for parts in a lot the size of New Jersey five blocks from the sparkly, sparkly water.

Anyway. The fifty- and sixty-something guys who work in the Home Improvement Center wear red vests and they don't have to ring anybody up, there are girls in cages for that. (Does that make it sound like they're doing pole dances, too? They're not.) These guys know everything about the entire store, but their jobs are specific to their departments. The guy who runs the paint can shaker thing would never dream of copying a key. Maybe because the guy who copies keys is a scary fuck who's worked there for 1,000,000 years and seethes with hatred behind his key grinding machine. Die, puny humans, die.

I don't know why, but I was thinking of these guys this morning as I made my decaf Peets that we get in a cheery little Peets store staffed with cute college kids who know all about coffee but are poised to move into jobs where they will never again be called upon to rinse out a garbage can with a hose. I was thinking of the old guy with the gold wedding band in the Red Wing store who sold Jack two pair of what at the time seemed wildly expensive boots. And then Jack went back in a couple of years later for another pair and found out the guy had died, and there was a new fity-something guy there who was just all-knowing as the last guy. I don't know. I guess it was the wedding band, and the retail job, and knowing the previous guy died of a heart attack on his day off from Red Wing shoes. We get defined by our choices. What was the path that brought him to the same strip mall where I was working, too? Would that be me in twenty years? Was he disappointed? Or was he grateful for the job, because he'd known much, much worse.