Like most working class college students, I have held a variety of jobs over my life. But I never had that resume that I craved, filled with oddball jobs, diverse and calling for the double take. I was never a alligator feeder at the zoo or a orderly at the morgue. You know, real cocktail party stoppers.
Now changing jobs was definitely not in my background. No, in my time, people held jobs most all their lives and retired with 30, 35, 40 years of “service” and with the “gold” watch. This was true of simply all my relatives. My father worked at GM for 30 years, my uncle for AC Spark Plug, same as my mother. All the neighbors for the most part worked in the auto industry and retired after many years of service, required if one were to receive that all important retirement package.
So, one did not frivolously change jobs just because you didn’t “care” for the work, or didn’t like a boss. You endured, because as they say, “who said it was supposed to be fun?” It was however permissible to have jobs as a kid that lasted for short periods of time, usually over summer vacations. While I had no requirement to work during high school, I was certainly expected to work after starting college to help defray costs. I figured that this devotion to the work ethic had a lot to do with a couple of things.
First, although perhaps not actually aware of it, most people, especially working and lower middle class, bought into the theory that those who worked hard got ahead. This survival of the fittest mentality was developed by sociologists from Darwin’s theory of evolution and taken up by the titans of industry as a good way to ensure laizze faire economic policies, and also to keep the little guy in line. Just keep him thinking he can be Carnegie if he only applies himself. It worked beautifully and today we still are trapped in that phony idea.
The second reason was undoubtedly because my parents and relatives grew up during the depression. They knew the “value of a nickle,” and they remembered a time when any work was welcome, no matter how menial or tedious. So it was anathema to quit a job just because it was “boring,” or the boss was a “dickhead” or the hours “sucked,” etc. It was, as I said, perfectly okay to quit to return to school. After all, next to work, education was the way up, or so we were taught.
I recall receiving an allowance as a kid, but I doubt it ever exceeded much more than a buck a week. Maybe it went to $5 by the time I was a senior, but it never seemed nearly enough. When I turned 16, I determined to get a job. Not just a summer job, but a job after school an on weekends. There were not many alternatives to choose from for a 16 year old. I ended up at the pharmacy about a couple of blocks from home. So I could walk to work. I was paid a whopping 75 cents an hour. That was in 1966.
It was a horrid job in most ways. I worked at the front counter alone. All the rest of the workers worked back in the liquor and prescriptions area. I could not sit down. There were not very many customers. I played games to pass the time, such as not looking at the clock until I had waited on 10 customers. That might peel off 45 minutes if I was lucky. Excitement was when the candy came in, and for an hour or so, I got to open and refill the candy counter in front. It took up time. There are only so many times one can remove and realign 329 little boxes of nail polish. Until you go mad.
I think I worked there about 9 months and then just could not take it a minute longer. I quit. I recall my father being somewhat judgmental at this. I was in some sense violating the “any job” rule. Quitting because I could not stand the boredom was not okay. I was returning to a free ride of an allowance as he saw it. The fact that some weeks I made less than $10 take home was a major factor.
That was my first foray into the working world, designed in some part to develop a resume. I had now been an employed person. The second job was errr even less successful. I don’t know what motivated it, but Patty, Barb and i all went to this family steak house a mile or so away and got employed as waitresses.
I don’t recall how long I lasted, but it was not long. I was headed off to college, and I was told the “head” waitress did not like college students. She resented that we were only temporary waitresses and not making it our career choice like her. She had it in for me. So I claimed. Fact is, I was fairly lousy at it. I resented being bothered, didn’t like customers who were difficult to please, and even received a tip of 2 cents one time. I was fired as you might suspect after a couple of months.
My next job was at the “Fair” a small department store, kinda on the level of KMart today. Kmart then, was more like a poor people’s store. We went there for staples, but wouldn’t dream of buying clothes or nice household goods there. Anyway, the Fair had two floors, and I was hired into accounts receivable and payable. I worked in a large room with other gals, all doing mostly the same thing. We compared invoices with bills and when they were in agreement, the bill was passed along as ready to be paid. I learned to use some large hulking business machine of a bookkeeping genre as I recall.
I also got to ring out registers at the end of the evening, when the store closed. That was a matter of collecting the “tape” of all transactions, removing excess money from the till beyond the standard amount to start, and hustling it upstairs to the drop for the accountants or bookkeepers to count and bank the following day. I also got to relieve the switchboard operator during the day. All in all, it was a great little summer job, filled with enough diversion and interest to keep me happy.
The next one I recall was working at a tool company. This was a tool supply company to be exact. I recall there were things like bits and washers, and nuts, and well stuff like that. I did mostly accounts receivable and payables again, worked on another big bookkeeping machine, and also acted as the official receptionist. There was only one other female employee and she was my supervisor. It was boring in terms of topic, but a nice environment. We did these inventories of the back room filled with 6 billion boxes of widgets of one sort or another, each to be hand counted and entered onto miles long sheets of inventory.
Now you may think that this job would have to be the most boring on the planet. No, not so. There was in fact a lively business, and plenty of people were coming and going into our little shop. You have to understand about the automobile industry to understand why. You see, a car manufacturer does not make everything on a car from scratch. Much of it is made at small tool shops or tool and die shops. They win contracts with the auto industry, and then supply the filters, carburetors, spark plugs, etc.
A whole set of sub industries exist to supports the big industry as it were. And these people relied on us to supply all the little gizmos that they used to create the bigger pieces that they then sent on to the actual assembly lines for incorporation into a finished vehicle.
Which takes me to my next job. That of all-around do whatever is needed person at the unemployment office. I admit that I got help getting the job for the summer. I had a uncle who was the manager of one and he hired me. Since I was a good worker, I’m sure he was happy about the situation.
Now you really must understand the auto industry to understand why people were hired on in the summer at the unemployment office. This is because during the summer, tens of thousands of people would be signing up for benefits. You ask why, and i answer, because of the auto industry. Still confused?
Flint was a company town. A huge proportion of all citizens worked for or in support of the auto industry. It was Buick Town. It also had Chevy plants galore as well. Now, once a year, the car companies have to make plans to start making the next year’s models. This requires the concept of “change over” when the line is changed over from one model to the next. This required the line to shut down, and it took about two weeks to accomplish the transition.
Workers from the line and most supporting categories were “laid” off, albeit for two weeks. The car companies had no interest in paying people for two weeks, they were already paying them for vacation for goodness sake. So, employees who were laid off, played this legal fiction with the government. They applied for unemployment benefits because they were out of work “through no fault of their own.”
These dates were staggered among the plants. But when a plant closed down, all its workers flooded the unemployment office. They signed up for benefits, declaring they were out of work. They had to state where they had applied for work during the last week. This was the lie that everyone ignored. People “applied” to other car companies. Of course, they did no such thing, and no one checked. It was part of the game.
I was part of the game, playing my part of filling out new applications, filing, and authorizing checks. On Friday, we would pack up and drive off to a far off union hall and set up a satellite office for the day to accommodate the huge numbers. It was not required of course that you sign up or report to a particular office. My parents often signed up in West Branch up north and collected a couple of checks there while we vacationed at the lake.
It was perhaps the most fun I had in my summer work career. I often subbed on the switchboard, since I had acquired that talent originally in high school “working” in the school office, and brushed up on newer systems from my stint at the department store. The variety of people who hired in for the summer was eclectic. There were all ranges of age, sex, race and creed no doubt, and we had a great time all in all.
My last summer job was really a prelude to my career. After my first year of law school I went to work for the Prosecuting attorney of Genesee County, Flint, Michigan. (He later went to prison for accepting bribes I believe from unions.) I was assigned to the consumer fraud section and we spent most of our time investigating claims of fraud by consumers against companies. The guy who headed the unit was a neat, just out of law school dude, and he was both fun and not at all hard to work for.
We seldom saw the “big man.” I recall an older guy who worked in the unit. He must have been a general failure I assume to have ended up there. I did not know that at the time. He went off for vacation and gave me the sole key to his office, suggesting that I was the only one he trusted not to screw up his “filing” system. I don’t to this day know if that was a compliment or just his intuitive understanding that I was not a neatnik. I had a very enjoyable time working that summer. I was feeling my “superiority” as a law student most definitely by then.
Those were the summer jobs I held. Not very impressive to be sure. I enjoyed some of them, and hated a couple. Not bad I guess. In looking back, I struggle to define what if any thing I learned during those experiences. None were major stretches of my intellect or coping skills for the most part. Being the summer employee doesn’t really put you in the mix of office politics. You don’t really learn a lot about adapting and circumventing that which annoys or interfere with your work. I never remember anybody who truly drove me batty other than at the restaurant.
All in all, most of my summer jobs delivered what was required, a paycheck. Most of the money was dutifully entered into a bank account for use as spending money over the next school year. I did skip a lot of fun things over those summers. Mostly because there was always the stern look of a father who made me feel guilty should I want to buy some frivolous but really “in” thing of one sort or another.
I remember no one at most of those places. At some I remember a personality, but I can attach no face to anyone of them any more. I am sure the same would be said by them if you asked them. We were just passing one another and stopping to collect a paycheck after all. Still, I wish I had a tall tale or two of shrimping in Louisiana or working a carny in Hoboken.
julie king said:
i really enjoyed reading this. it brought back a flood of memories of my summer job (working in my grandparents very small diner/restaurant). i did that from thettime i was like 13 until my junior year of college when they sold and moved to florida. i always felt like being a waitress humbled me and taught me a lot about people. i envy the variety of jobs you had in your youth. take care!
I really enjoyed this post! Yes, it certainly brings back lots of memories!!
I worked lots of part time jobs and much of the time I was just thinking of the paycheck. I worked in a dorm caferteria scraping plates and as a mail clerk for an insurance company and as a hired farm hand and on and on. Like you, nothing was especially exotic but it was solid work.
I often talk (preach!) to my community college students about trying to learn as much as possible from their part time jobs and building up contacts and so on – but I know they really don’t care. That is not a bad thing – it is just part of being immature. When I think about my own part time jobs and my attitude at the time I understand how and why they feel as they do.
I always enjoy your posts! Take care.
Julie, wellt that must have been interesting. I bet you actually learned something from all those years of seeing a business run up close. I’m sure I learned lots of things from my varied but largely boring jobs. LOL. I’ve jsut been rather unable to put my finger on anything much specific.
Russell, Boy I agree. I think that when we were getting into the job market things were so basically wide open that we really didn’t need “contacts” as such. Now of course, things have changed and your students would do well to heed you remarks. But as you say, we probably ignored a whole lot of advice ourselves at that age.
Enjoyable chapter, as always!
Glad you enjoyed it Jeannelle. It’s getting a bit harder now. I’m not sure about all this “honesty” stuff as I get closer to my adult life.