September 11, 2008

 

Shanana-na, shanana-na-na (BAH-OOH)

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Financial times being what they are, I started a new career this week. Albeit part-time, the job seems to fill the last piece of career pie with respect to the types of employers I’ve had.

Let’s see if I can remember every ingredient chronologically. If you count lemonade stand, then that’s the first incarnation of Me, Myself & I, Inc., where a number of different hats have been worn over the years. But my first gainful employment was as a paperboy, starting as a rookie afternoon carrier packing about 30-40 copies of the now defunct Chicago Daily News into a canvas bag attached to the front of my Schwinn Sting-Ray. Over time I matured into a salty morning route veteran who whisked out a couple hundred Tribunes and Sun-Timeses (and a few WSJs on the tonier side of my route) via large wagon-wheeled carts, “chauffeured” van or car and even dogsled. Yes, dogsled – definitely a highlight of my as yet unpublished, much less written, memoirs.

Next I was a peon at a country club, specifically a caddy. This was a pretty dang good paying job for a high school kid, and can best be described by saying you should watch the movie Caddyshack (perhaps again), which was released at the height of my looping career with much fanfare amongst my colleagues. Brian Doyle Murray wrote the script based on his experiences caddying at a club just up the road from where I worked, and Bill Murray played at our club on a few occasions. The film is of course exaggerated for comedic effect but the basic elements are spot on. The job was great fun, and had a social subculture all its own with just the right amount of teenage shenanigans and debauchery to provide some hard-learned lessons and lasting memories.

For two summers in college I worked for the United States Postal Service as a “casual” mail carrier. Casuals would start about 10 a.m., taking over for the regular full-timers (which included my dad) who came in at six and cased up the mail going out on their route for the day. A lot of them liked burning up their vacation time with half days like that. I loved it because you worked on your own, got to be outside at different locations almost every day and meet different people, most of whom enjoyed seeing the mail arrive. I suppose if I had to do it year-round, like my dad who endured 37 northern Illinois winters of it, I would not have been as enthusiastic.

Another interesting summer job I held was as the overnight dinghy boy/watchman at a harbor on Lake Michigan. Most of the time I could sleep but occasionally had to ferry drunken fornicators back from their yachts at some ungodly hour. Couldn’t just wait till morning, eh? Well no, she has to get back before her husband wakes up. Your secret’s safe with me, pal, and even safer with that fin tip, wink wink. Each morning I had to haul a pack of burly dudes who worked from a barge at the mouth of the harbor. At sunrise they’d pile into the little 12-foot dinghy, causing displacement to the gunwales so that I sweated every turn of the outboard rudder. As a solo occupant I would have a blast cruising around the harbor doing donuts and chasing ducks (yes, I am ashamed of that) and a few times I motored out to open lake in the still of the night to have a smoke and watch the city lights in the southern distance.

My next job came after moving to California, where my brother had been living for a few years. We became roommates - I provided a reason for him to move out from a relationship that had run its course and he provided me with a job at the roofing company he worked for. This was real labor, especially working as a tear-off peon on the hot tar crew. Although I toughed it out for about a year and a half, I had no stomach for showing the initiative to move up into comfier and higher-paying ranks like where my bro was as a skilled roofer installing cedar shakes (the official roof of California). Class establishment that it was, the company ended up laying me off just before Christmas bonuses were to go out.

After some time suckling on the state teet I procured a job at a startup courier delivery company that covered the entire Bay Area. They normally didn’t hire anyone who hadn’t lived in the area for at least five years, but I am a map freak and so was able to prove my navigational prowess to get hired on. I started out as a shuttle driver, which doesn’t deliver on a route but runs between drop boxes all up the Peninsula from Santa Clara to the city (despite San Jose having long since passed San Francisco in population, the latter will always be “the city” of the Bay Area). This job was so simple and required no personal contact other than the radio dispatcher, so I frequently got stoned to the bejeezus (one of the dispatchers was my dealer), captaining my own little starship Enterprise up and down the 101. I gave up that on-the-job habit when I became a route driver, though. There was a bit more paper work and customer service involved - didn’t figure being spacey, scary red-eyed dude was so cool going in and out of all those Silicon Valley offices.

The courier job ended with my exodus from the Golden State. A brief sojourn in New Mexico had me working as a carpenter’s helper before moving on to Georgia, a place I vaguely recalled from traveling through to Florida on a couple of family trips as being hot, green and hilly. Georgia was a place that my formerly long-haired self had never considered to be a viable place to reside, but here I have now been for nearly half of my life.

My first job here was also my first foray into the retail world - a brief stint as a K-Mart cashier. It was also my first major foray into the world of southern accents, to which my attunement was directly proportional to the amount of teeth in the mouth speaking to me. At this time in my life I had, to make a long story short, renounced Christmas (still not gaga over it), and so I had the opportunity to work at the closed store on Christmas Day with a couple of other fellows straightening up and getting rid of all the X-mas displays and décor. The manager let us in and said he’d be back in a few hours, and while we performed our assigned duties we also enjoyed a boom box loudness contest and some BMX racing. Who knew rubber skid marks were such a bitch to get off linoleum?

As even Rain Man knows, K-Mart sucks, so when I heard that the Red Lobster in town was hiring wait staff trainees I made that my next pursuit of a living wage. Here another Hollywood product, Waiting, serves as a fairly accurate, if only humorously mediocre, portrayal of the waiting scene, right down to the busboys sucking all the nitrous oxide out of the whipped cream canisters. The money was decent, but in that podunk micropolis there were too many cases of the “redneck tip,” whereby leaving a dollar per person at the table was deemed generous, never mind that you politely ran all-you-can-eat shrimp and light beer to these cretins for an hour and the checks for the two couples well exceeded $100. The camaraderie at RL was great – we cut up like crazy and made up silly, Weird Al-type songs about the restaurant business. My faves: one to the tune of Sade’s Smooth Operator titled “Ooh I’m Your Waiter,” and “Fry Guy,” fashioned after Mary Wells’ 1964 Motown hit. Once a month we were required to come in at 9 a.m. on Saturday for a wait staff meeting, only getting paid our paltry sub-minimum wage for the time. We often showed up in bathrobes and pajamas in protest, and then would commandeer the kitchen after the meeting for gourmet breakfast preparation by one of our colleagues who was a Le Cordon Bleu dropout. I worked this job for a few years before deciding to head into my next incarnation of self-employment.

My house painting concern was mostly just two guys and some ladders, brushes, drop cloths and other “accoutrements decoratif” packed into a 1978 Dodge pickup, a vehicle so wide that cell phone service varied between the driver’s and passenger’s sides. Things started out pretty well for two reasons. First, my partner and I had a good connection with a local contractor who fed us a lot of jobs. Second, we started up in spring just as the outdoor painting season gets into gear. Add to it our bachelor status and the modest income was plenty on which to enjoy life. So things hummed along for a while - we even survived the first winter slow season - but the following year our contractor wasn’t in need of near as much decorating work. We were also pretty clueless about self-employed income taxes and ended up going in the hole to the IRS for a few grand. The final straw was seeing that outside our original friendly contractor, two yankees weren’t particularly welcome in the old boy network of the construction trades. My partner bugged out first, and I followed a few months later to the same place he went.

That place was a very small art foundry, and the steady paycheck was welcome mainly for my new status as husband and provider while Jen was in school. The product was handcrafted bronze sculpture, mostly working editions of several hundred to a couple thousand but occasionally doing some custom work. It was neat stuff except that the metalworking aspect of it turned your hands green from the copper. I don’t imagine it was great for the lungs, either. It is still the only practical application of my “college education” as an art major. I started as an entry level metal finisher and worked my way up to management, which at a firm this small meant I had to do my job and keep an eye on everyone else. That job was primarily TIG welding, a very marketable skill, and after seven years of basically stagnant pay with bronze I left to take on work in steel fabrication for heavy equipment.

This medium-sized company was Japanese owned, which provided some interesting perspective into the differences between East and West in both industrial and corporate endeavors. Part of the production system required specific adherence to puzzling rules, such as only transporting certain parts on a cart of a certain color. This may have had more poignant management usefulness on the day shift, but I worked the much more lackadaisical night shift, where “dishonor” was much more frequent.

Jen graduated and began teaching at a school fifty miles away, so we decided to move to a rural area about 20 miles on the other side of her work, not far from her old stomping grounds near Chattanooga. In fact we rented a house from an old family friend, a place we loved and would have bought if he’d been inclined to sell. It is set in the middle of a few acres, and you couldn’t see a neighbor’s house when the leaves were full in summer. I looked for work other than welding because I was getting kind of burnt out with my fish-out-of-water status of being an erudite blue-collar worker.

Alas I was destined once again to eat my yogurt and read my Vanity Fair in the corner while all the cool kids smoked their menthols and talked about NASCAR. The new job, boiler tube fabrication, had me starting just above entry level until I earned my ASME certification, at which point my pay greatly increased. This kept me going for a few years, even in the face of some pretty shitty corporate actions, like having to work on New Year’s Day (but then not the following weekend, which would have been preferred), and the enforcement of petty rules that made the Japanese look mellow. I stayed in good graces with the owner, a fellow yankee, and actually took on my department’s foreman position. But once again the good old boys did me in by choosing to stand by and watch me fail rather than lend a hand of expertise to benefit me and the company. I gladly went back to minding my own business under a welding hood after fourteen months of being chief. Still, after five years my attitude had slipped enough to get me on the short list for the next round of layoffs, and when the time came for the ax to fall I put my head on the block without much regret.

After a period of unemployment I came across an ad in the local county rag that said they were looking for reporters, experience not necessary. I sent off a “what the hell” letter with some writing samples and forgot about it. About a month later the publisher calls me in for an interview, gives me a hokey AP writing and grammar test and shoots the shit about politics with me for about half an hour. After he hired me he showed me some of the other applications and we had a good laugh with a few. Seems several others also had a “what the hell” inclination but also the education to go with it. My pay would be about forty percent less than a certified welder, but my happiness would increase five fold.

It didn’t take any fancy book learnin’ to do the job, just some good social skills, an inquiring mind and a flair for writing stuff that could keep the average eighth-grader interested. I took on feature (aka fluff) stories, covered the business community (aka free advertising) and government (aka BS). In the 3-plus years I worked for this company that owned a dozen or so small papers, I interviewed people from a sixth grade history essay winner to the governor, earning three state press association awards along the way. It currently qualifies as the best job I’ve ever had (paid job, that is – nothing beats stay-at-home daddy).

So, at last we come to the new one, which, while I am quite appreciative for it in these times of increased unemployment, I don’t think it stands a chance of winning the title I just gave my last job. But now, after forays into small, medium and sort of large companies of every stripe, I enter the world of the humongous multinational corporation. Evenings and weekends I will be the cookie man, aka merchandising rep for Nabisco, owned by Kraft, which employs more than 98,000 people in 70 countries. I’ll count ‘em, order ‘em and stack ‘em at various grocers in the area, humming a tune that only a tiny cog in the corporate wheel can:


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Comments:
"Corporate Anthem" sorta makes me want to do morning calisthenics in a big empty lot.
 
:) You're a nutball and that's why we love you.
 
Merchandiser's got it goin' ON! It's so great that you got to be home with your son, Tim. Good luck with the new
gig.
 
I like this post, liked these stories. I have no earth shattering comment to make, just wanted to say I enjoyed reading it.
 
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