By John Rolfe
Unless you’ve been working from home during the lockdown, job-related rust and cobwebs have probably accumulated in your cranium. This inconvenient truth hit me like a ton of apples when I returned for my first day of toil after a long hiatus.
Now, I should mention that fruits (and vegetables) are not my stock in trade. I’m a professional writer, editor and website producer, but industry-wide downsizing has moved me to lay down the fat beets at a farmer’s market and work as a child trafficker. (I drive a school bus.)
School may not resume in my district until January, but the farmer’s market recently opened. Because words come to my mind more naturally than produce, the challenge of getting back on the farm stand ball was compounded by the fact that I’m woeful at identifying apples and greens. I have terrible trouble telling a Mutzu from a Macoun from a Winesap, and I feel like a Winesap when I keep confusing Tuscan kale with broccoli rabe.
If you have a gig outside of your main interest area, you’ve probably discovered that staying sharp is mostly a matter of mental muscle memory built by sheer repetition. But mental muscles atrophy from disuse, so I arrived for work intent on leaning on my two college-age assistants, who had already handled a market or two.
Old details and procedures were waiting to trip me. I took a cash bag designated for another market and forgot to double-check the inventory against the invoice. To my relief, the entire operation was still creaking back to life. For one thing, the truck hadn’t been fully loaded. After locating a large pallet’s-worth of stuff in a storage refrigerator, we got the hand-truck’s wheels wedged between the loading dock and the back of the truck, forcing us to pull 30 crates off and re-stack them. An auspicious start.
Setting up at the market, my colleagues (I’ll call them Beulah and Titus) deferred to my years and alleged wisdom — to their regret. Arranging the tables based on my vaguely-remembered display principles, we ended up with no space for the apples and washed greens, so the second cash station I insisted on setting up had to be taken down. I added decorative insult to injury by using old, ratty tablecloths from last year. Beulah discreetly removed them before the public’s senses were affronted.
I was on a roll and so were my colleagues’ eyes when they discovered I put bok choy among the spinach and bok choy and spinach among the lettuce. Having consigned the rhubarb to a far-off corner with the pompously confident pronouncement that it rarely sells, I was quickly proved wrong as it became one of our most popular items.
It was soon politely suggested that I make myself scarce and fetch things from the truck when requested. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hide from customers when my colleagues were busy.
“Excuse me,” a lady asked, holding up an apple I could not identify. “Are these good for baking?”
“Maybe,” I helpfully replied. “I know they’re good for throwing, but perhaps Titus here can speak to their efficacy in pies …”
“What’s the difference between wild arugula and mild?” another woman asked while staring directly at me.
“Um, the mild has been sprayed with sedatives,” I replied to her bemusement. “But Beulah here can probably clear that up for you …”
“What are these?” a gentleman asked.
“Parsnips, I believe,” I replied, feeling reasonably certain.
“Oh, really? What do you do with them?”
“Well, they make great stocking stuffers,” I blurted in another pathetic attempt to mask my ignorance. “They’ll keep until Christmas and all the little children love parsnips!”
Suffice it to say I have valid concerns about resuming my bus driving several months from now. While doing my end-of-the-school-year bus cleaning two days after my triumphant return to the market, I vowed to run through my pre-trip inspection routine in my mind several times a week so I’ll at least be able to tell one end of the vehicle from the other when I finally go back.
Hopefully my cautionary example will help you better prepare for your own return to the workplace. Good luck and Godspeed.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.