EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Part 3 of Working Stiffs. Denton and surrounding towns are filled with people who work hard for little pay. Students at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism teamed up with the Denton Record-Chronicle to tell their stories. UNT professor Mark Donald served as their editor. The stories will be appearing in the newspaper and on DentonRC.com over the next few weeks.
It's 8:45 in the morning and Gerald Earling begins his preparations. He spreads out a clear plastic sheet, covering the vent hood over a huge grill in the commercial kitchen of Two Charlies Bar & Grill in Denton. Slowly, carefully, he detaches the greasy, dirty hood filters.
Earling moves quickly from the kitchen to his white 1982 Chevrolet truck, loading a chemical sprayer on his back, arming himself with an industrial-strength degreaser. He returns to the kitchen and sprays the vent hood, which oozes gooey brown clumps of grease. The kitchen rapidly fills with a strong chemical odor. It's hard to breathe.
"So delicious," jokes Earling. "I bring the car wash to the job rather than bring the equipment to the car wash."
It's a race against the clock, because Two Charlies opens in just two hours. Earling does a second round of degreasing; he also power-washes the grill's ventilator and filters.
"Hey, chief, when are you going to be done?" asks Charlie Gloor, co-owner of the bar and grill.
"Two minutes, sir," says Earling.
This is just the first job in a day that can take Earling and his business, Chem-Spray, into the kitchens of hotels, restaurants, bars and strip clubs in North Texas. Earling is the Mr. Clean of the commercial kitchen, and a welcome sight to his customers.
"First and foremost, sanitation is a very important aspect of the restaurant business," Gloor says. "So, his work is important to the operation of my business."
Earling can count himself among the ranks of one of the most prized generators of America's economy: the small business owner. Small businesses create more than 60 percent of new private-sector jobs in the U.S., according to the Small Business Administration.
At 55, Earling says his income ranges between $28,000 to $32,000 a year, but he measures his success in decades: Chem-Spray has been in business for 30 years. Being self-employed also suits his need to be self-reliant and independent, traits he has valued since he was a teenager when he practically raised himself. But the path to his success has not been an easy one.
"We're a series of moments that we live through that make us who we are," says Earling.
Earling recalls his childhood as a series of moves between Michigan, Illinois and Indiana - his family following his father, an engineer, as he was transferred between jobs. He had three older sisters and always felt a bit unwelcome.
"I am the only boy, I was the late-in-life accident; there's like nine years between me and youngest of the girls."
Being the new kid on the block took its toll.
"I became fast in making friends," Earling said. "But I didn't develop attachments because I never knew where we were going to go next or when."
Earling was 5 the first time he ran away from home.
"I always have a problem with authority," he said. "I have no anger, resentment or blame or anything like that, but my father had a heavy hand ... so, I left when I was 15." For good.
He spent that first summer hiking around Canada and the Midwest - Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.
"I slept in abandoned houses. I slept in barns. I slept in cornfields," he recalled.
When summer was over, he reappeared in Michigan to attend school.
"I did the couch drifter thing. I stayed with friends and different family members, at times," Earling said.
At 16, he got his driver's license and then purchased a car. At 17, he dropped out of high school, still couch drifting and also living out of his car. Only months away from graduation, he chose work over school, he said, because he needed to survive.
A girlfriend would spark a move to Louisiana, where he received his GED certificate at age 20.
"There was about a three-year period that my parents had no idea where I was," he said. "I did call them at Christmas every year so they knew I was alive and well."
He returned to Michigan to attend Siena Heights University, where he studied biology. Although he never finished his degree, he did meet a fashion marketing major named Mutsuko.
"The first time I saw her, it just pulled me over like a ton of bricks," he said.
They married in 1985. Two daughters, Mika and Mei, followed - as well as his vow to be a different kind of dad from the one he knew.
"I learned from my parents' mistakes," Earling said. "It is probably why I've been [living in Shady Shores] for 30 years. It's the only home my kids have ever known."
"He is a good father to both kids," Mutsuko added. "Our family grew up in a small house, but I do like the location; it gives us privacy and freedom."
Earling made peace with his father before he died 12 years ago.
"Dad and I both lived long enough to become friends," he said.
And his mother, though alive, has dementia and remains under the care of one of his sisters.
"My mother, as I knew her, is no longer there," he said. "I am OK with that."
With only minutes before Two Charlies opens for the day, Earling moves quickly to finish up. He mops the floor, takes the bag of grease to the dumpster and cleans the area where he worked. He rushes to make the kitchen look the way it did before: spotless. Earling is done and out the door, with 20 minutes to spare.
"Gerald is very thorough and always makes sure we are completely satisfied before he leaves," Gloor said.
Positive reviews have enabled Earling to build a word-of-mouth business over the last three decades in an industry where time is money.
"There is a lot of tension associated with the food and beverage service industry," Earling said. "A lot of pressure."
Earling first worked as an employee for the original owners of Chem-Spray, who grew "disenchanted with the business," he said. "Over time, I assumed more and more responsibility, and eventually bought out the owners."
A single job for Chem-Spray can vary from one to 10 hours, depending on how well kept the commercial kitchen is. Rather than hire employees, Earling said he works best alone - just him and his Chevy truck.
"I have always been sort of a lone wolf," he said.
Being a small business owner has given him flexibility over his schedule, and the independence to be there for his children, the way he felt his parents never were for him.
"I would never miss being a part of something that was important to [my daughters]," Earling said.
Earling can envision himself retiring within the next five years, though he doubts he will ever move out of his house.
"I've accepted life as it is and it could be worse," he said. "I like my life - I like who I am."