Five Jobs in Reading

The game of Monopoly has four railroads: B&O, Short Line, Reading, and Pennsylvania. As a child I assumed that this meant Monopoly took place in my home town of Reading, Pennsylvania. It doesn’t, of course. It takes place in Atlantic City, never mind that the B&O didn’t send trains to Atlantic City, and that the Short Line isn’t real.

But the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was very real. It was at one time the biggest corporation in the world, owning not only the major mid-Atlantic coal shipping railways but the ports that sent it overseas, and eventually the coal mines themselves. It was so big, in fact, that its monopoly on anthracite mining and distribution forced the Supreme Court to break it up in the 1870s, back when this was the sort of thing the Supreme Court did. The Reading also had a modest passenger line; at one time a traveler could ride the rails between Harrisburg, Shamokin, Jersey City, and Philadelphia. But when the coal industry dried up, so did the Railroad. Highways were built, American car culture exploded, and in 1976 the Reading ceased to exist. CONRAIL now runs much of what remains, although there is no passenger train and significantly less coal and iron to ship. Of course the tracks persist, crisscrossing the city as they make their way up and down the east coast, reminding commuters of what an alternative might have looked like.

Reading is not a particularly large city. Its population, which hovers around 80,000, is spread out over approximately ten square miles that stretch from the Schuylkill River uphill to Mt. Penn. It is difficult to describe the particularity of Reading’s urban depression—even more so to account for it. It was a wealthy iron and garment manufacturing town in the 1800s, continued its economic growth into the 1930s, then entered into a slow, painful process of impoverishment beginning in the 1940s. This has since included the loss of the railroad, of heavy manufacturing, and of middle-class white people. But Reading’s decline was not uniform. It also had a number of “rebirths” that began as promises of renewed glory and ended in the realities of recalcitrant poverty and crime. Reading was once, for example, “famous for its outlet shopping,” a phrase I heard frequently from mothers of friends in other towns. Indeed, Reading built a fairly large industry around closeout, mis-sized, as-is “designer brand” apparel and home goods. Buses would bring in shoppers from all over the east coast as restaurants, hair and nail salons, and coffee shops sprouted to feed and pamper them. But now there are outlet malls all over the country. Designer brands have even created outlet labels so that retail customers can shop without fear of accidentally purchasing the same shirt as some deal-hunting cheapskate, and outlet shoppers can still savor the belief that some idiot paid twice as much for their socks, even though no idiot ever has. The outlets are still in Reading, but they don’t host the same crowded, frantic weekend shopping orgies I remember from my youth. Why travel to a city that is consistently ranked among the top twenty-five most dangerous places in America when you can buy your discount jeans at a clean stucco strip mall in New Jersey? They probably even have a Chipotle.

But the outlet collapse pales in comparison to Reading’s more recent and familiar recession story. In 2007, Reading was hoping to capitalize on its proximity to New York and Philadelphia, as well as on miles of underdeveloped riverfront property. The city even began making it onto lists of “up and coming” places for housing speculators. The local professional class, safely tucked away in suburban neighborhoods, started to dream of urban boutiques and crime-free, tree-lined strolls along the river. Then in 2008 the bubble burst, plans were abandoned, and, by the 2010 census, Reading was declared the poorest city in America. The wealthy consumer class lost a pipe dream, and many of Reading’s working class and poor lost everything.

Reading is without question an extreme city, a trait seemingly encouraged by plan rather than circumstance. Concurrent with the slow death of passenger rail, the West Shore Bypass roadway was built to allow traffic to avoid the downtown area entirely. This ensured not only the starvation of many small businesses, but an urban version of the isolation that you might find in a remote rural village. In elementary school I experienced the city as a place one drives over on the way to the mall or a restaurant. Only occasionally would my parents take me downtown, a trip which involved traveling over or under a bridge no matter the approach (Reading is bound by river or mountain on all sides). At Christmas we would go to the Reading Symphony Orchestra to watch their rendition of The Nutcracker. Mid-year my mother might drag me to a specialty vendor that the suburbs couldn’t or wouldn’t host. I remember annual visits to a vacuum cleaner repair shop and a ceiling fan store. And then there were bureaucratic issues that could only be resolved in the Reading City courthouse, probably dropping off taxes or some kind of professional licensing. But I remember thinking the building was big and old and beautifully out of place.

From age 14 to 21 I spent my summers and weekends collecting jobs in and around Reading City.  My first was at a Subway sandwich shop on the very edge of downtown. As an official sandwich artist I did a little bit of everything, from rotating the syrup on the soda fountain to using the industrial slicer to prepare toppings (illegal for a 14 year old). But mostly I made sandwiches. BMT, meatball parm, turkey bacon, and veggie delight were the most popular. The “Italian hoagie” would have been, but Subway doesn’t make an Italian hoagie, they make a BMT. This annoyed the citizenry. Every day I would have the same conversation three or four different ways:

“Welcome to Subway. What can I make for you today?”

“Make mine an Italian.”

“We don’t have a traditional Italian sandwich, sir, but our classic BMT is our version of an Italian hoagie.”

“Ok fine, I’ll have that.”

“Great. And what would you like on your sandwich, sir?”

“Just make it the normal way.”

“I’ll put the normal meat on the sandwich, but you get to decide what toppings you want on it. You know, like lettuce, tomato, olives.”

“What? I don’t know what goes on an Italian hoagie. Just make it normal.”

“Right, well do you normally get lettuce when you order an Italian hoagie?”

“Kid, I don’t make sandwiches. You make sandwiches. How do you expect me to pay for a hoagie if I have to make it?”

“Let’s just do lettuce, tomato, onion, oil, and vinegar. How does that sound?”

I worked there two and a half months in exchange for trips to the movies with friends, some late-night dinners at local diners, and a pair of mirrored Ray-Bans. Then one night, two hours after my shift ended, the store was robbed by masked men with shotguns, and my parents let that be the end of my sandwich career. The shop itself didn’t last much longer. I guess Reading wasn’t interested in making its own sandwiches in 1998.

The next summer I took a job at a gas station/repair shop that was also on the edge of the city. My main tasks were to pump gas and work the register. My goal was to learn car repair. Instead, I learned other things. The men who worked there kept a pair of binoculars in the office to stare at women from afar, and other men frequently stopped by with real or fictional stories about wild nights of hooker sex and boner pills. They explained to me how one can tell that a woman works as a stripper based on her shoes, her bag, and the number of single bills she uses to pay. Once a shop regular told us he had to go into downtown Reading city for a blood transfusion. Anxious, he speculated as to how one could avoid getting a black guy’s blood. The shop owner told him to settle down. “Blood is red, not black. You’ll take whatever blood they give you and be grateful.” Later he confided that he too would prefer not to have black blood, but since you can’t prevent these things why let the poor guy worry about it? I left that job shortly after inadvertently allowing some teenagers to steal a bunch of cars off of the lot. One of them asked me to help him fix his bike chain while the others went in the office and stole the keys from the peg board. They returned that night and drove off with three cars, including a corvette. “Damn Mexicans,” the shop owner said after I informed him that some kids had been in the shop while I fixed the chain.

“What makes you think they were Mexicans?” I demanded, 15 and full of liberal indignation.

“Well they weren’t white kids, were they?” he laughed. I wanted to tell him it was impossible to know exactly what country they or one of their parents or grandparents had come from, and that they spoke American English just like I did, and that I assumed they were American because they live in America. But I was already in trouble, and his point had nothing to do with their country of origin. My point, meanwhile, was unclear, even to me. These are not easy stories to write. They’re about a suburban kid negotiating urban conflict on the weekends. I had feelings about my experiences then, and I have somewhat different feelings about them now. But they’re stories about Reading, and there aren’t too many of those around.

With each new job I moved deeper downtown. When I was 16 and able to drive I took a school-year internship at the local office of the federal congressman. Like all things official this was housed in the Reading courthouse. My objective was to learn about national politics—about what it takes to run for office, who the local players are, and what issues and tactics get votes in the Keystone State. Instead, I learned that constituents treat congresspeople like New Yorkers treat 311. And that congresspeople use interns to oblige them. I was honestly impressed by the diversity of problems the office sought to resolve, and deeply frustrated at how little I cared about them. Lots of people complained about their neighbors. One needed clarification about state venomous reptile laws and help finding a mediator to resolve a dispute with a local herpetology enthusiast. Many thought nearby roads were too noisy. A few complained about the lack of trains downtown. A couple of years later, while visiting Georgetown on a college visit, I met my Washington office counterpart. We shared war stories about our internships—his about Washington insiders, long, challenging bills, and late nights. Mine about reptile laws. Of course because I was only 16 the congressman’s staff likely kept me away from things I could screw up (after all, that’s how cars get stolen). Still, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealously. Clearly the important letters made their way to DC. Reading’s problems never left Reading.

At the end of the school year I terminated my career in public service and resolved to finally make some money.  I applied for, and was given, a bus boy job at a dining club on the edge of town, then was quickly promoted to server. As anyone who has worked in a restaurant can tell you, service jobs are often divided along racial lines, and Reading in 2001 was no exception. The kids with Spanish accents bused tables, black people cleaned dishes and stocked the kitchen, white people with neck tattoos cooked, and white people without neck tattoos waited tables and tended bar. The job afforded me no other insight into Reading city; however, my commute took me straight through Reading’s downtown, where I drove past the bustling tattoo shop that would hire me as a body-piercing apprentice after my first year of college.

I arrived on the body modification scene a little late, but Reading in general runs behind schedule. The shop where I worked was right downtown and old school in its sensibilities. They mostly did tattoos. Body piercing was a recent addition, and one treated with a dash of skepticism by the veterans. Otherwise things were as you might expect. The artists were biker types and so were the clients. We also got a fairly robust stream of former addicts. Apparently one of the steps in hard drug recovery is addiction substitution. Tattoos and body piercings, which offer a quick burst of adrenaline followed by weeks of involved aftercare, fill the niche perfectly. Heroin users in particular seemed to gain something from the association with needles and pain.

Although the shop refused to do gang tats, various gang members would come in to get unaffiliated decorative ink. I learned that Reading’s gangs are primarily Mexican and Dominican, and that they have managed to successfully do what countless rehabilitation projects haven’t—turn Reading into a thriving commercial hub. By setting up elaborate cocaine and heroin distribution networks between New York, small Pennsylvania cities, and drug import locations like Florida and the Mexican border, they’ve made Reading one of the largest drug hubs on the east coast. The cargo has changed but the need for trains persists.

The rise of crime within the city limits coupled with dwindling contact with Reading’s environs has led many residents to add baroque racist ideologies to their guns and gods. The shop also refused to do swastika tattoos, white power symbols, and anything generally hate related. But that didn’t stop people who already had such identifiers from coming in for adornments: angry white men upset about the gangs and the wave of Puerto Rican residents who moved to Reading from New York during the Giuliani years. Despite the reality that the largest demographic in Reading City was still white, they were convinced otherwise, and very literally wore their anxiety, anger, and isolation on their sleeves. Unlike the passive racism of the gas station—espoused by lower-middle class men living just outside the city who drove the bypass and went grocery shopping with suburban housewives—city racism was active. It attended meetings at Reading’s KKK-operated church and had a public access show that aired every Tuesday at 3 AM. I stayed up once to catch an episode. In it two men dressed in full Klan regalia reviewed The Bell Curve and admonished “Uncle Adolf” for book burning, despite his many other qualities they found redeeming.

The success of the drug distributors in Reading only underscores the intense desire for networks. Gangs, the KKK, and biker clubs all fill a similar role. They connect people with other, similar people in a city that seems bent on disrupting or short-circuiting networks. Railroads, bus service, and local roadways have all vanished. Until the late 1990s we had a major highway that was known to locals as “The Road to Nowhere.” So people in Reading find their own means of exchange and escape, and when the drugs stop working they turn to piercings and tattoos. This is only a temporary measure, of course, because there is only so much skin on the human body, and only so many things that can be pierced. And when all the skin is filled and all the holes have been made they move on to other plans. This is exactly what happened to a shop regular—I’ll call him Marco—a recovering junkie and new piercing addict who started coming into the shop around the time I began my apprenticeship. Marco was my first and last experience with genital piercing. But in order for the story to make sense some basic background is essential.

Body piercers maintain a fairly fixed apprentice system. New piercers spend a week or two watching the master piercer at work. They get comfortable with the tools, watch some videos, and buy their own gear. They also learn about hygiene and sterilization, about gloves and sharps containers, and they usually get things pierced that they wouldn’t have otherwise, just to find out how much it hurts. Like the tongue, in my case. It hurts a lot. After this they assist for a while before moving on to ears and other easy stuff. Once comfortable with the basics they begin to tackle more challenging holes. Eyebrows bleed a lot; cartilage can too if you don’t check for veins with a flashlight first. Belly buttons are kind of tricky, and don’t always heal well. Tongues are easy enough as long as the person doesn’t move. If the mentor is satisfied at that point they will start letting the student pierce solo. This is the official end of the apprenticeship.  Although courtesy dictates that he stick around the shop for a year or so, he could technically go off and work elsewhere, so long as they didn’t expect him to do genitals. Learning to pierce genitals takes longer. This is because genital piercings are much less common, which means you get much less practice. It can take years before someone has done enough supervised genital piercings to do one solo. And as my mentor was quick to remind me, “you can really fuck someone up down there.” There’s no sense rushing it.

Since my apprenticeship shaded more toward occupational tourism than career path, I had no intention of rushing it—in fact, I had no intention of ever learning that side of the business. My mentor, on the other hand, was insistent. So one afternoon I was presented with an old biker who looked to be about 70, though was probably much younger. He was around six feet tall and very thin. His black leather vest had some inscrutable bike club logos (he wore no shirt underneath), he had a white handlebar mustache, and his face was punctuated with craggy scars. Both of his forearms were covered in tattoos.

I was lucky, I suppose, that my first (and only) nipple piercing was performed on a man. Unlike women’s nipples, which are pierced through the nipple itself to avoid the milk ducts as much as possible, male nipples are pierced where the nipple meets the areola. There is a bit more leeway. In order to find the juncture the area is iced and then marked with a fine-tipped sharpie. Then the nipple is clamped in a set of piercing tongs the end of which forms a small, hollow paddle. This allows the skin to be clamped and flatted before it is pierced. Next, a cork is held against one side of the tongs and a well lubricated 14 gauge needle is held on the other. The piercer pushes the needle through the sharpie marking, removes the tongs, and then follows the needle with a 14 gauge ring. None of this was explained to my patient, of course. Instead he just sat down, took off his vest, and said, “I want to do the nipples.”

After thoroughly icing and marking the man’s chest, I clamped his right nipple and told him to take a deep breath. “Now breathe out,” I said as I pushed the needle through. The biker screamed, jumped off of the seat, and threatened to punch me in the head, nearly fainting as he tried to stand. The store kept a freezer full of popsicles for such cases. Apparently raising blood sugar keeps people from fainting, or the guys just liked to give popsicles to people who cried out from pain. In either case the biker decided (popsicle in hand) that he only wanted one nipple pierced. I followed the well-lubricated 14 gauge hollow needle with the ring and closed the piercing. I mention this story only to illustrate exactly how little genital piercing experience I had when Marco walked through the door a week later.

We hadn’t seen Marco for about a month at this point, which was odd because for all of July he came in for a new piercing every week. By the end of August we just assumed he was back on heroin. He wasn’t.

“I joined the army.” He informed me. “Had to get out of Reading.”

“Congratulations.” I said. “Are you getting pierced to celebrate?”

“Actually no. No piercings in the army. That’s why I’m here. I need you to take out my dick ring.”

I couldn’t take out his dick ring. My mentor was off for the day and I was still expressly forbidden from working on genitals alone. And besides, I really, really didn’t want to take out his piercing. Marco had what is called a Prince Albert. The piercing is a ring that penetrates the underside of the head of the penis and exits through the urethra. In Marco’s case, the ring was a stout 8 gauge—3.25 millimeters or roughly the size of a quarter-inch audio jack—making the removal a little more challenging.

As I began to explain my inability to remove the ring a uniformed army officer entered the shop. He listened until I was finished.

“Son, your friend here enlisted two weeks ago. We informed him that he was required to remove all piercings. We discovered yesterday at Inspection that he had failed to remove a ring from his penis. Basic begins next week, and if you do not remove the ring today, in my presence, Marco will be dishonorably discharged for not complying.”

Clearly the ring had to be removed. I escorted Marco to the piercing chair and got my tools ready.

“Do I take my pants off or just pull it out through my fly?” he asked.

I had no idea. “Whatever you’re comfortable with” I told him. He decided to go through the fly.

I first put a ring spreader into the ring and removed the captive bead. My hope was that I could open the hole in the ring wide enough to just slip off the piercing. But it didn’t work. The amount of penis captive in the ring was larger than I could comfortably fit through the hole. Unlike normal earrings, body piercing rings have no moving parts. If the hole is too small, the only way to remove the ring is to physically bend it so that it can corkscrew out of the person’s skin. However, Marco’s ring was thick, and my hands were shaking.

-Using two pliers I clamped down on the wire ring and pushed in opposite directions. Just as the jewelry started to bend one of the clamps slipped off with a loud metallic snap. Everyone jumped. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” the officer asked no one in particular.

I apologized to Marco and told him to sit still. No one was injured; just a little startled. I continued to bend the ring, this time without incident. Once bent the ring easily slid out of Marco’s urethra. I put it down on the table and took a few deep breaths. “Do you want me to do your nipples next?” I asked the officer. “I’m much better at those.”

On the way out I asked Marco what motivated him to join the army. He said it was because he needed to feel like he was part of something. Drugs had stopped working for him, Narcotics Anonymous hadn’t been enough lately, and he was running out of things to pierce. More networks. More isolation. More extremity.

“Any idea where you’ll be stationed?” I asked.

“Basic training is down south. Then there’s a reserve base here in Reading where I’ll probably be stationed for a while. Hopefully they get me the fuck out of here soon though.”

I didn’t think to charge Marco for the extraction, and he didn’t think to pay. Everyone involved was uncomfortable and they started toward the door as soon as pants were buttoned and care instructions were given. Marco did ask if it was possible to keep the hole open with fishing line, then abandoned his inquiry after some stern words from the officer. And I remember thinking that Marco left the shop without a single metal ring in his body, and that this was a rather serious transformation given the many holes we had put in him over the course of my apprenticeship. It turns out that they were as temporary as my piercing career.

I have no idea what happened to Marco. I’d like to think he was trained as some kind of specialist, was deployed and returned home with an in-demand skill, and now makes lots of money consulting to private industry (covered in piercings, of course). But that doesn’t sound like Reading. Instead my guess is that his military career was short-lived. Due to drugs or insubordination or some medical condition he didn’t know about, Marco was probably discharged and rejoined the 40 percent of Reading’s population living below the poverty line. Do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200. And if that’s the case, then perhaps Marco has resumed his search for exits and distractions. Maybe through a biker club this time, maybe tattoos; more false starts drafted in needlepoint on flesh, crisscrossing his body like the train tracks to nowhere embedded in the streets downtown.

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