The Working Years
Every Job You’ve Had, What Did It Teach You?
A Friday evening. In a restaurant where soft music and hard drinks make good neighbors, the regular crowd shuffled in as Billy Joel famously wrote. People took their seats at the bar and each person’s week took center stage. A woman lamented that we spend a third of our life working, prompting Mr. Wise Guy to pipe up. “I should have been born rich instead of so good looking.” That tired line didn’t fit. Still, we knew what he meant. We talked work, bosses, and the roads you travel to that stopping place called Careerville.
One fellow said he had never had a job he liked. Another said he had never quit a job and that he never planned to retire. “What would I do?” We talked about how we worked so hard for so little when we were starting out back around 1966 or so. The minimum wage was a buck and a quarter. That led to talk about the proposed minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.
“Son, what do you want to be when you grow up?
“Dad, I want to flip burgers all my life and if that doesn’t work out I like the idea of bagging groceries.”
Minimum wage jobs aren’t meant to be careers. They’re steppingstones. I was talking with a friend who owns a convenience store about those who think paying someone $15 an hour to flip burgers is so wonderful. “Ask them if they are ready to pay $5 a gallon for gas and $4 for a small bag of chips ’cause that money’s coming from somewhere,” he said and he knows of what he speaks.
Want a better job that pays more? Take classes. Become an apprentice. Try any job once. Work is itself a great education. Learn what you don’t like. See what you’re good at. My working years taught me a lot. Here’s every job I held as I worked toward establishing a writing career, what I learned, and one key memory.
First job. Dad paid me 10 cents to cut the grass with a manual mower. I learned that earning money feels better than asking for it. Later, I worked in Dad’s shop. In “The Saw Shop Blues,” I wrote, “I did not like this work. I smelled like gasoline.” I supplemented my income. I sold Christmas cards and stashed the cash in a jar. I learned that earning money doesn’t have to depend on a job. Start a small business. My key memories? The old manual mower didn’t cut the grass. It bent it down and the money in my jar put off a surprisingly sweet fragrance.
When I was old enough to work for someone other than Dad, I worked at a country store where I learned work could be fun. Rotund, bespectacled, balding Bill who clerked there soldered a quarter to a nail and hammered it into the floor. You should have seen the country kids desperate for a Coke trying to pick it up. I enjoyed the tales the old men told and I especially enjoyed working with Bill who gave everyone a nickname. He called Dad “Kingfish.” From this point on I tried, often to my detriment, to make work fun. My key memory? That quarter. Tried to pick it up the first time I saw it.
When the high school years arrived, I worked a summer at a poultry processing plant. My job was to ice down crates holding 28 fryers with shovelfuls of ice and stack them eight high in a big cooler. I worked from 6:30 to 6:00 for 75 cents an hour. At day’s end, I crawled through the ice-water-filled chiller scooping up the giblets in wax paper that had worked loose. I smelled like wet feathers.
One afternoon I slipped on ice and fell while holding a full crate. I tore a shoulder muscle and was done. That injury further pointed me toward work that didn’t involve tools, labor, and risky environments. My memory? Watching the killer decapitate chickens with a large knife. By the end of day blood covered him and all you could see were his eyes.
For a while I worked Saturdays as a bag boy at the supermarket in my tiny town. Carrying bags of groceries for ladies seemed gallant but cleaning the butcher’s saws at the end of the night wasn’t fun. When a bag boy and I got caught grilling hotdogs in the storeroom on nails hooked to a lamp cord, the owner fired us. My bag boy days were over. Getting fired embarrassed me (but I was willing to risk getting the sack in the years to come because work should be fun.) My key memory? Watching a bag boy drink the juice from jars of maraschino cherries.
I got super lucky one summer in high school and worked as a recorder for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation (ASC) agency. My job was to measure fields with a steel tape to be sure farmers complied with ASC mandates, not planting certain crops, etc. I got so much per mile, so much per farm, so much per acre, plus a whopping $25 a day salary. I liked working outdoors and government work paid well. Best of all, I learned I liked working alone. What I remember? How that steel tape got hot in the Georgia sunshine and burned my hands.
After graduating from high school I worked a summer at a plastic rainwear factory. I worked in shipping, packing bright yellow plastic rain suits in boxes. The work bored me. Doing the same thing over and over was not “my thing.” I remember how easily the raincoats ripped apart.
Next came a favorite job, being a “garbage boy” at Elijah Clark State Park on the Georgia-South Carolina border. Hauling away trash, cleaning comfort stations and cabins, lifeguarding, and clearing campsites made each day different. And then there were the girls we met from South Carolina. Working outside was not bad at all, even in sizzling summer heat. A key memory? Finding a six-pack of Budweisers stashed in a toilet tank in one of the women’s comfort stations.
When I entered the University of Georgia, I worked several part-time jobs. I delivered flowers for a florist. I learned the tricks florists use to keep flowers fresh and realized that there’s a lot more to the florist business than arranging flowers. Hiring the right people was a big part of it, as with most businesses. I remember how we used Coca Cola crates to hold bud vases steady in transit.
For a good stretch I came home weekends and clerked at local clothing store whose owner taught me the proper way to make change: bills in order, face-side up, with the larger denominations on the bottom. Today, clerks thrust all your money in no order at you with the receipt and change in a bothersome clump. My old boss, Mr. Hirsch, would have had none of that. Here I learned that I didn’t like sales. A memory. The boss liked peanuts in a Coca Cola.
For two years I worked as a waiter at a restaurant. I learned that waiting on the public racks the nerves. The money was good, though, and you got it right away. I got fired when the manager spotted me driving to a movie. (I had called in sick.) What did I learn? That being a server is hard, stressful work where you live in fear of spilling food all over a customer. To this day, I am kind to people who wait on tables but I wish that older “servers” had been fired long ago. Just maybe they would have found a more rewarding career. And I learned that you don’t lie to the boss. A key memory? Watching the manager retrieve a steak that fell into backed-up dishwater and throw it on the grill. Someone ate it.
My last odd job just after graduating from the University of Georgia was working as a jewelry clerk. I liked nothing about the job. Nothing. What did I learn? That some jewelry stores hide their diamonds and super-expensive jewelry in cardboard boxes filled with old rags. One night, thieves struck and spent hours trying to open the safe. Just a few feet away were boxes filled with the treasures they sought. The safe? It was empty. I learned that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. A key memory? You just read it.
I taught a year of public high school, which was more than enough for me. I spent more time disciplining kids than teaching them. I went back to UGA to work on a graduate degree. For two years I worked as a ticket agent at the bus station in Athens. It ranks among the most enjoyable jobs I ever had. Working at that station was my last job as a blue-collar guy, and I miss the camaraderie I shared with its colorful characters. We worked without supervision and it was fabulous. A key memory? How we would sneak across the street and drink beers and shoot pool while on the clock.
The World of Words
After earning my Masters, I moved to Columbia where I taught college courses full time. Then I got my first writing position as a scriptwriter and cinematographer. From there I served as managing editor of a magazine and then six years of freelancing arrived, which a position as editor of a global magazine interrupted. Some writing “jobs” I later held were jokes, painfully boring, and it was a tremendous relief, though difficult, to escape to the world of books, columns, and speaking events where I found my true home.
The working years … what a journey, what experiences, what people! I met people who never had to work. I met people who worked all their lives. I met millionaires and paupers. The working years were irrelevant to some, good to others, and disastrous to those who made bad decisions or no decisions at all. Staying in a thankless job because you’re afraid of change is an act of cowardice. I quit four jobs. Just walked out.
The working years … Looking back, so much of what we worried about and worked so hard to accomplish in many jobs seems futile now. It amounted to little. Wreckage litters the roads that run through the working years. Burned out, bummed out, betrayed and broken people fell by the wayside. There were moments that gleamed, however. Praise, parties, and private moments with prepossessing co-workers, that and more, made the drudgery bearable.
I feel good about my work today. Let’s be corporate and call it “Word Management.” Working in solitude, exploring the outdoors, steering clear of unpleasant people and environments, having fun—these things and more come together in the world of words. At book signings and speaking engagements I meet interesting people. Some become friends.
How about you? List every job you’ve had. Take inventory of all those years, and if you have an itch to do something different, something that feels real to you and right, go for it. “No guts, no glory,” they say, and one more thing. Never forget. Father Time keeps that clock a’ticking.