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Dad stood at the edge of the shore, witnessing the ocean for the first time, at 40. His green eyes peered into the horizon, unstirred by the waves that crashed into his bare feet, liberated from the weight of his factory boots.
“Whatever, I’ve seen large bodies of water before,” he scoffed.
Of course, he had, spending most of his life in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio — states enveloped by the Great Lakes. But even as his words dismissed the ocean, his eyes refused to look away.
Maybe he didn’t want to admit it, but he knew the ocean held more significance than a lake. It stretched to lands beyond the paper map that navigated us here, from the icy roads of Ohio to the warm beaches of South Carolina. I plopped down on the shore beside Dad, removing my pink Barbie flip-flops so I could dig my feet into the gritty sand, a welcome distraction as I grappled with an uncomfortable truth.
I was only 12, but I had seen the ocean before Dad, invited on a trip to South Carolina the year before by my best friend and her family. All I could feel was the bite of shame and the stir of confusion with this flipped situation of experience and knowledge. I was used to living a separate routine from Dad, each of us immersing ourselves in our own worlds of school and work and school and work. But now, it seemed as if our lives were edging toward separate realities.
Dad worked as a warehouse distribution manager at a beverage bottling factory near Cincinnati for what seemed like most of my life. But his career didn’t start in a factory; it started on a golf course. From 13 to 17, Dad worked as a caddy at the prestigious Midlothian Country Club near Chicago, the kind of place that Al Capone built his house near. “I lived at that place,” Dad recalled. From sunrise to sundown, he carried the golf bags of powerful white men: doctors and lawyers, CEOs and senators, athletes and celebrities. He never let me forget about the time he met renowned golfer Arnold Palmer. “Could I have one more autograph please, Mr. Palmer?”
“Of course, good going, son.”
I didn’t know a lot about Dad’s father, only that he worked at a factory, too. Dad preferred to tell stories about the “fathers” at the golf course and the wisdom they shared. “They taught me how to dress, how to talk and how to golf. They told me to go to college, get an education, get a job, buy a car, buy a house. They said to keep working hard and not lose sight of my goals.”
And so he did. At 18, he left the golf course and entered college to study operations management. Although he failed his first year, he eventually graduated. He often spoke of this with pride: “At the end of the day, I never lost sight of gaining a college education.”
By 1985, Dad found work at the bottling factory in Flint, Mich., dispensing sugar water into glass bottles.
A few years later, he met Mom, became a father and bought a new Buick from General Motors. The Buick was a big deal, a car that protected Dad and Mom from the relentless bullying of previous car purchases, like an Italian Fiat.
“They had a special deal on the Fiat,” Mom said, “$99 down, $99 a month.”
But to friends and family, the Fiat wasn’t a deal but a betrayal. “What the fuck are you driving a Fiat for?” they barked. “Buy American.”
The Buick wasn’t merely a new car, but a declaration of loyalty. Loyalty seemed important to Dad, a requirement for reaching the destination that the fathers from the golf course had mapped out for him.
But glass bottles were already being replaced by plastic bottles, considered lightweight, safer and cheaper. “This plant is closing down. I can feel it,” he affirmed. And it did. Manufacturing jobs in Flint were becoming harder to find, as nearby GM facilities were also closing, a move to cut costs and regain a competitive edge against domestic and foreign competitors who were building new plants in the United States.
We packed our bags and moved to southwest Ohio, where Dad found a new job at a chemical distribution plant. Mom worked from home as a call center representative for a nonprofit. I was only four, but everything about Ohio seemed fresh, from the new roads to the new technology.
Mom and Dad bought their first home — split-level, mustard yellow, trimmed with cherry red window shutters — the kind of house that stuck out among the brown tree hills and green cornfields that surrounded us. But the most memorable part of the house was the above-ground swimming pool in the backyard. The pool was far from perfect, leaky with holes from rocks that pierced through the bottom lining. But I didn’t care about the holes. I floated through the water on my back, looking up at the airplanes that flew above me.
“Watch out for the waves,” Dad would shout as he jumped into the water, pretending the pool was an ocean. Inside the pool, Dad was a carefree kid with a laugh that echoed across the neighborhood. Outside the pool, Dad was a worried adult, punctuated by his factory boots that stomped into the living room carpet, releasing a swell of frustration that rippled throughout the house, rattling the picture frames on the walls.
Soon after moving to Ohio, Dad’s new job at the chemical distribution plant vanished, as the company sold this part of the business to focus on a more profitable sector — oil and gas. He found another new job at a family-owned glass distribution plant, but a year later, that job vanished, too; the plant struggled to keep pace with the competition and became acquired — alongside similar glass distribution plants across the United States — by a larger Japanese company. Ohio was no longer an escape from the shifting economy in Michigan, but part of it.
“We got to start livin’ on savings,” Mom said. She wore an exquisite armor of resourcefulness, no matter what battle came our way. First, she canceled the cable, then the newspaper. I grieved the loss of the Disney Channel. Knowledge and connection to the outside world were privileges we could no longer afford.
As the savings drained, losing the house and the swimming pool was imminent. Mom found a second job at the local McDonald’s and Dad found work as a food delivery driver. I peered out the window and watched Dad pull the Buick away from the driveway, stopping at the edge of the street to place the taxi sign at the top of the car. “I don’t want the neighbors to know where I work,” he said.
By the end of 1994, Dad found employment again at the beverage bottling factory, this time in Cincinnati — dispensing sugar water into plastic bottles. It served as a stable source of income as I graduated from elementary to middle school. But Dad struggled to shake off the anxiety that rippled through him. “No matter what, I can never lose sight of this house,” he repeated, a daily affirmation that cemented his loyalty to the sugar water.
Although Dad and I lived in the same house, we were never there at the same time. At the start of the new millennium, I turned 12, hustling through a crammed schedule of basketball, dance, piano or after-school practice for the next standardized test.
When my best friend asked me if I wanted to go on a vacation to South Carolina, a chance to escape school and see the ocean for the first time, I immediately accepted her offer, asking Mom and Dad for forgiveness rather than permission. At the beach, I learned how the rising tide could wash my beach towel away, how the undertow could toss my body back into the waves like a washing machine, how the saltwater could parch my mouth.
“What time does the ocean close?” I asked my friend, revealing the depths of my naivete.
“What?” She giggled. “You can’t close the ocean.”
There was a lot I didn’t know, but it wasn’t until I returned from the trip that I realized I was beginning to gain experiences Dad hadn’t.
Dad spent his days at the bottling factory — 14 hours a day, six days a week. His grueling schedule was getting worse, as he started to slip away into the midnight shifts at the factory and the daylight hustle of going back to school to become a teacher. I couldn’t understand why Dad wanted to become a teacher, as it seemed like a daunting career path that left so many of my own teachers exhausted and overwhelmed. But Dad held onto the hope that switching careers “might let me see my kids from time to time.”
Days, weeks, sometimes months went by before I saw Dad again. He was like Big Foot, leaving traces throughout the house but never found in plain sight. I saw him in the jacket he draped over the dining room chair, reserving his place at the table. I saw him in the potato chip crumbs that he left at the kitchen counter after scarfing down a meal before driving 95 miles between the factory and the university. I saw him in the pencil markings he drew on my algebra homework that he left outside my bedroom door. Although I couldn’t see him, I could feel his longing for home.
But the more that Dad drifted away from the house, the more the sugar water moved into the house. Its logo swirled across Dad’s shirts, pants, jackets, hats, socks, sunglasses, handkerchiefs and turtlenecks. It swirled across the shelves in the refrigerator, the clocks that fastened onto the wall and the ornaments that hung on the Christmas tree. It swirled across my lunch boxes, mugs, notebooks, frisbees and water bottles. It swirled across my school as Mom and I carried cases of its sticky sludge into the classroom to keep my classmates energized for the next standardized test. The logo had even appropriated itself onto my basketball, converting the orange rubber sphere into the swirl. This wasn’t merely sugar water, or a brand obsession, or a place where Dad worked. It was a place where he lived, where we all lived, an omnipotent presence that governed our daily lives.
Our road trip to the beach began at a dark, empty parking lot. Dad marched away from the factory doors and climbed into the Buick; he slid his arms through his sleeves and freed himself from the sugar water jacket. It was a ritual that officially kicked off our vacation, a chance for us to be at the same place at the same time. Mom cashed out a portion of our savings, leaving just enough to keep the house afloat when we returned. Dad drained his precious one-week-a-year paid time off. I forfeited my school days so we could cram this road trip into his grueling schedule.
Even my teachers wanted to escape with us. “You’re going to the beach? Can I hide in your luggage?” they asked.
Dad started the Buick’s tired engine while I held onto the paper map, a blurry, black-and-white MapQuest printout. The Buick puttered along the open highway, the bottling factory behind us and Kentucky ahead. Mom and Sis sat in the backseat, while I remained in the passenger seat, gazing out the window. I admired the beauty of the untouched fields of dewy grass that glimmered in the morning light. I imagined holding each blade of grass in my hand, a keepsake I couldn’t quite catch while traveling in a speeding car.
The beauty didn’t last long, disrupted by large, white buildings that cut their way through the fields, flashing with brands like Circuit City, Bed Bath & Beyond, Walmart, Super Target and Golden Corral. The highway exits were all-you-can-eat American capitalism, advertised as respites from the stretches of nothingness. But I felt agitated by them. I longed for the nothingness.
Other highway signs displayed the words, “the industrial heartland of America.” I had seen these signs before, on state border markers when we traveled north through Ohio to visit family in the other Great Lakes states. But as we drove further south, the radio seemed to call my home by a different name. A name I had never heard before. The Rust Belt. What did this phrase mean? Who decided who lived inside or outside the belt? And what was rusted?
“It means I got into the wrong industry at the wrong time,” Dad said. In the rare moments when I saw him, he rattled off great tales of broken machinery and unreasonable metrics to meet. “The whole structure is flawed,” he said. But Dad knew how to cope, with a biting sense of humor. “And they all think their shit doesn’t stink,” he cackled.
Dad never sheltered me from the details of his job, perhaps to prepare me for the real world. He would often play a game with Sis and me to test our knowledge of that world.
“What makes the world go round?” he would ask with a smile of sarcasm.
“Money and power!” we replied in unison.
“That’s right. In this world, people want everything in excess, built on status. They believe greed is good.”
The formula for the real world seemed simple, yet there were mysteries I couldn’t grasp. Why did money and power make the world go round? What were money and power? And why were the adults around me — from my parents to my teachers — consumed with exhaustion?
But Dad refused to let the exhaustion stop him. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” he said with a fierce head nod, reciting words from the Ford commercial. That very commercial played relentlessly on the radio as the Buick crossed into Tennessee. The commercials were our sermon, calling on us to buy and produce, no matter the cost.
“Alright, where are we going next?” Dad asked, scanning his eyes around for the map. I pulled it out from my seat. The map had absorbed the grease from our fingers after eating Burger King Whopper sandwiches and drinking sugar water, and it was now tattered in chewy bits. But despite our careless treatment, the map still felt magical to me, possessing the power to pull Dad away from the grip of the machines and guide him toward the unfamiliar shore.
I squinted at its crinkled lines. “I think it says to take Exit 3? Merge onto I‑640 East toward Asheville, North Carolina?”
“That sounds about right,” Dad replied, steering the Buick east. I released a sigh that I had read the directions correctly, making for a smoother escape. Dad glanced back at me, this time with a more serious look.
“Lauren, at the end of the day, get an education and find a career that won’t consume you. Never lose sight of a world beyond your own. And no matter what, help others to never lose sight of this, too,” he said, giving a stern, unshakable look as if he knew, without a doubt, that this was the advice he wanted to give to me.
I nodded my head, but I couldn’t help but notice this wasn’t the same advice the fathers from the golf course had imparted to him. Maybe this new advice was a form of vengeance for the promises unfulfilled, a promise he’d thought he could taste, imagining himself as one of those powerful white men. Or maybe this advice was a form of redemption for the time lost between us. I could feel a change emerging within Dad — a mistrust for the old direction and a search for something new.
Our road trip concluded at Myrtle Beach, a town cluttered with all-you-can-eat crab shacks, pirate-themed mini-golf courses and plastic shark mouths that bulged out from the storefronts. The Buick stopped at the beachside Super 8 Hotel, where we checked into a tiny room drenched with the scents of cigarettes and seaweed.
Dad, Mom and Sis put on their swimsuits and began walking toward the beach, their hands jumbled with towels, toys, boogie boards and umbrellas.
I followed them as they walked a few steps ahead, crossing over the wooden dock and onto the sand. The beach was wide and long, feathered with light gray sand and stacked with rainbow-colored umbrellas, chairs, coolers and towels. But something in the sand was strange, the way it reflected tiny, translucent bits of light. I looked down at my feet, and that’s when I spotted it — the sugar water logo swirling across a gritty, plastic bottle.
I couldn’t make sense of it. Why did the bottling factory demand so much of Dad’s time, energy and identity, only to become trash on the shore? What exactly was Dad’s hard work going toward? Who tossed this bottle? I wanted to find them and tell them this bottle wasn’t trash. I wanted to tell them how this bottle governed our sense of identity and place, how we lived (and how we didn’t live) together. But it was too late. I resented whoever tossed the bottle of sugar water.
Above all, I resented the sugar water.
Finally, Dad shouted, “Come on, Lauren, let’s get in!” He darted for the waves. I dipped my feet into the water, brushing off the sand that stuck between my toes. Sis ran in behind me with a boogie board strapped to her ankle. I laughed at how the boogie board was taller than her tiny body, yet it didn’t stop her from hauling it into the water. We each took turns riding the waves, giggling as the water splashed into our faces. I looked at Dad, watching his carefree imagination return, except this time, he didn’t have to imagine. The waves splashed us with the kind of power that only the ocean could create, a force that obliterated the grind that swirled us away from each other. All that mattered was the water.
All that mattered was that Dad and I were at the same place at the same time.
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Lauren Celenza is a writer, designer and educator. She is a former Google designer and an early member of the Alphabet Workers Union. She is working on a memoir that examines the role of the internet in society and whether it can shift toward a more inclusive direction. See more at laurencelenza.com.