My Early Jobs: A Labor Day Reflection

You know what book I’d buy? A collection of interviews about people’s first or early jobs. There are such riches to be gleaned from our employment histories, all those tales of burger flipping and cashiering, sheep-shearing and babysitting.

My first sort-of-real job was as understudy for my brother’s paper route. He was three years older than me and once he landed the job, he appointed himself CEO. Then he hired me, his 9-year-old younger brother, to get up with him twice a week at 5 a.m. to deliver the Eagle Rock Sentinel up one side of the street while he did the other. We did this over a whole bunch of streets.

For this, he paid me the princely sum of one dollar each day, $8 a month. He made some $30 or so as CEO, so this was my early introduction to capitalism, which is sometimes used as a synonym for “hire someone else to do a gob of work while you keep most of the money.”

Many other wonderful jobs followed.

Pet store employee, where the owner’s strange obsession with exotic animals that no one would ever buy taught me how to mop up monkey diarrhea, and how to clean python cages without the dude mistaking my arm for a rabbit.

I learned burger flipping at Jack in the Box! ($1.20 an hour, minus 10 cents an hour for the food we ate whether we wanted it or not, and 35 cents every workday to launder the shirt they made us wear.)

How to mix an Orange Julius with that secret powder! (A raise to $1.60 an hour, wow! And all the food we wanted, free!)

How to usher grieving family members into the mortuary to view their loved ones after the mortician had dressed them in their Sunday finest. This was only after he’d embalmed them, of course, within a few feet of where I sat studying for my college classes when no family members were visiting.

We’d often carry on conversations while he tended to a naked dead body on the slab. Just another day at the office for him, but a whole world of contemplation and food for thought for 19-year-old me.

 

 

One summer I was taking some college courses and couldn’t schedule a full-time job, so I signed with a temp agency that sent me out to a small industrial plastics company in Santa Monica.

My job was to jam huge solid swaths of colored plastic into one end of a grinding machine, then go to the other end where it had been turned to powder. There, I dug deep into the collecting bin to scoop the powder out and into containers ready for shipment.

When I got home at night, I’d be blowing my nose and all this blue powder would be coming out, and I would say to myself, “Well, maybe I really should start wearing a mask like I see all the permanent employees doing.” But I never did. Because I was young and therefore immortal.

The plant schedule was run by bells and whistles, which struck me even as a 20-year-old as rather regimented and military-like, if not dehumanizing. Ten o’clock, ring ring, we’d all drop what we were doing and make a beeline toward the locker room, where we’d sit either making idle small talk or staring vacantly ahead. Occasionally, some guys pulled half-pint bottles of colored liquid furtively from their lockers and took a few swigs before the bells summoned us back out.

 

At the end of my week-long assignment, the floor boss came to me and said, “You know, you’re really a good worker, so if you’d like to sign on for…” I could not blurt out fast enough, “I’m going back to school next week, sorry!”

In another one of those college summers, I worked full-time in a print shop, where I learned how to be a platemaker. (Don’t ask—I don’t think I could explain it to you anymore.)

I also hung out occasionally on the press, where Tony Ramirez, the pressman, went about his business with all the ardor of an artist busy and content with his canvas.

“When I get to work in the morning, the smell of the ink, I get it all over my hands, I love it, I never get over it!” he’d exclaim.

Somewhat in contrast to my temp colleagues at the plastics plant, Tony had an infectious exuberance and passion for his trade. But both he and the plastics guys, in their own way, taught me much about a kind of baseline dignity of work.

Ever since, I don’t believe I have ever impugned a high school-educated laborer or failed to respect their role in this world. It’s hard out there in that plant, that shop, that store and office where we spend so much of our waking lives.

Every job we ever have teaches us something, if only what we’re not suited for, and what we are glad to leave to others in this world.

It’s a world that works only because of the incredible range of interests, talents and obsessions that the gods bequeath us, and that keep us going from one job to the next, one day to the next. Then we all get up and do it again, glad for the paycheck and sense of purpose and identity that comes with being a working person in a world that welcomes and needs every bit of good work we can do on its behalf.

***

This infectious tune is as close as I ever got to a coal mine. Some experiences really are best just to read about…

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Vintage 1950s Jack in the Box photo by George, Phoenix, Arizona, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/georgie56/

Newspaper delivery pool photo by Ikhlasul Amal, Bandung, Indonesia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ikhlasulamal/

Woman working on a “Vengeance” dive bomber in Tennessee, February 1943. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, public domain. See more at: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/

5 comments to My Early Jobs: A Labor Day Reflection

  • Rev. Robert Gutleben  says:

    I got my very first job when I was either eight or nine years old. It was working at the neighborhood five and dime store. My job was cleaning the bathroom and mopping the floors. If I remember correctly, I worked two or three days a week. Unfortunately, it only lasted for a couple of months. I just wasn’t self-disciplined enough at eight to be consistent. Nevertheless, I did get an introduction to work, which raised my consciousness about the meaning of toil and labor. I still remember those days, and, I believe, I benefited from the experience.

    As I got older I had a series of jobs, which taught me the meaning of the saying “no matter what,” . . . . no matter what I had to get up and go to work . . . . no matter what, I had to do my job without complaining or refusing to do my job. I have worked as a dishwasher, a civil servant, and then a truck driver.

    Before going to seminary my favorite job was driving a truck for an industrial plumbing and hardware company. Mostly I drove bobtails (single axle trucks with a 20′ long bed), but later got my class A drivers license. It was exciting to drive 40′ long tractor trailer rigs. Most of my semi deliveries were to the big oil refineries around the Bay Area. My cargo often included 36″ diameter, 40′ long pipe and valves that weighed upwards of 5,000 lbs. each.

    Those were some of the memorable and exciting days of my youth. Blue color work was hard, but often times, enjoyable. Since I drove a truck for nine years, it was one of the most life changing jobs for me. As I worked and grew in knowledge and wisdom, I also learned to respect and appreciate the men and women in the field of labor. They were wonderful days.

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    I so agree Andrew. When we travel — and often stop for a hearty breakfast — in working class towns, my head is full of these thoughts.

    • Al  says:

      My first job was also as a paperboy and I remember the boss referring to me as an independent contractor and how instructive the experience would be. That meant I would pay for the newspapers and my payment would come from whatever I could collect from my customers. A few of them excelled at “not being home” when I came to collect. And a few of them gave generous Christmas tips. All folks were not created equal.

      My last job before medical school was assisting with autopsies at the local hospital. It was immediately clear to me how much more I preferred patients who were alive to those who were dead. Huge difference!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Robert, you may be the only semi-truck driver in the world who went onto a career in the ministry, or at least the only one I’m aware of! I’m glad you look back on it fondly, which says a lot about you, it seems to me.

    So Joan: what WAS that first job of yours, anyway?

    Al, somehow I think the world is a lot better off by virtue of you having tended to live people through your career. As much as I learned from the dead in my mortuary days, I’m of like mind with you in this matter…

  • Moon  says:

    Usually these discussions devolve into a contest of who had had the “harder” life…”I had to trudge 5 miles through the snow”, and the usual answer “only five miles…I had to travel ten miles through nuclear waste”, etc. I had some real doozies of jobs: paperboy in Cypress Park, CA (not being a card carrying hispanic gang member made that a bit dangerous), firewood delivery man using a condemned truck with questionable brakes, night security guard at Universal Studios (not a bad gig, except if you believe in ghosts). The very best early job I ever had was “Gym Rat” at Eagle Rock High School, in the summer of ’68, where I would open the Gym for public use, hang out in the office, and then close the Gym…it was hourly at great, unionized rates from the LA City School District. I was living large.

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