Following closely on the heels of college for most people we find the working world. I maintain that my best job was my first despite the fact that it was unpaid and I was only 13 at the time. How I got the job is long lost to my recollection but for a blissful few months I was librarian’s assistant at Frankfort Junior High School. For the first time in my life I had a ‘vocation’ and something to do beyond the usual trivial schoolwork. As I said, I have no idea how I was picked from among the teeming masses of those who wanted to work in the library. Perhaps it was the fact that in 6th grade when Mrs. Timmons asked for 10 book reports for the year I turned in 197 (after all, what the heck else did I have to do but read books) or more likely I was the only one who applied. Whatever did the trick it was well worth it because those hours spent quietly in the stacks with the indivisible quanta of human knowledge in my hands stick with me even today.
Sadly though, all things must pass and I didn’t make it back into the working world until my senior year of high school. By then, as you may recall, I was living in town with my grandparents who dutifully shuttled me back and forth to Marsh supermarkets 3 days a week. For a year I carted old lady’s groceries out to their cars in the rain, the snow and dark of night. It was then that I realized that I could relate to old people. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the only real people I talked to were my grandparents but whatever the reason this was a demographic I could relate to. There were momentary amusing bits to even this mundane occupation. Did you know, for example, that these places actually have national-level bagging contests? Or at least they did when I was a lad. I also stood in utter amazement at the ability of the average shopper to come to the checkout at the busiest possible time. Ten minutes would go by without a customer and then suddenly there were twenty people waiting. It’s as if people are unable to approach the checkout unless other people are waiting, as if they’re unwilling to disturb the peace and quiet of the checkout area. Mercifully though, this too passed as I went off to Purdue.
My primary mode of employment at Purdue was food service waiter and later waiter captain. This is the closest I ever came to actually becoming a member of the ‘pointy-haired management’ club. I was a fixture in the Terry Courts kitchen even after I was forcibly ejected from Purdue for a while. Times in that old place were good; I recall some amusing practical jokes played on the morning captain when I would stay up all night for no good reason.
The morning captain had to come in at 5:30 and open the kitchen to prepare for breakfast at 6:30. One night I noticed on the schedule that my friend Tim was on breakfast duty for the following day so I took the kitchen keys and plopped them into a 10-gallon bucket of water. Then I wheeled the whole thing into the freezer. At 5:20 in the morning I brought it back into the middle of the kitchen where it could be easily found (but not so easily put to use). Another evening as I was closing up I made up a batch of fake juice for Tim’s breakfast shift tomorrow. A gallon of water and some red food coloring later and I had some genuine “Strawberry Juice”. Right on schedule the next day Tim came in and set up for breakfast and put out my fake juice. Some of the patrons that morning complained that the “strawberry juice was a bit weak,” completely disregarding the fact that there was no such thing. It should be noted that this wouldn’t be funny today since people apparently do drink strawberry juice in some deranged attempt to be healthy.
During my college years I also had other food-related jobs at the standard selection of places. I worked for about three days at Taco Bell and a few months at McDonalds. When I ran off to South Carolina for a summer I worked at Wendy’s for three months. Of all the fast food places I’ve worked at, Wendy’s is the only one for which I have any modicum of respect and whose food handling practices don’t make me want to vomit. I was trained on the operation of the grill while my girlfriend at the time ran the register.
The Hispanic gentleman who ran this Wendy’s was a racist and it was pretty obvious. 75% of his staff was black and for the most part they did everything and had been there for years. Whenever he could get white employees he put them up front where the customers could see them. That allowed him to push the black gentleman who trained me for my job to go work in the back out of sight. Anyway, one day I was taking out the trash at the end of a shift when I noticed a long register tape in the trash. Always ready to be nosy I started reading through the tape and couldn’t help but notice that it contained everyone’s hours and hourly wage for the past week. What came immediately to my attention was that the wages were obnoxiously unfair. The white employees were paid more than the black employees despite the fact that the black employees were more experienced and did most of the real work. So of course, always one to stir up trouble I went straight to the other employees and pointed this out. Sadly, since I was very near the end of my tenure there I never saw the final outcome of this little revelation but I have a distinct recollection of one of my black colleagues tearing into the boss about this ‘little issue.’ I hope they managed to get what they deserved.
In addition to my various food-related duties I also had a job as a computer lab monitor for a couple of years. I have memories of long hours of sitting in completely empty computer labs. If one was wise in one’s selections, one could be paid $5 an hour for sitting in a lab and doing one’s homework (or whatever). In two years of working for PUCC (Purdue University Computing Center) I believe I answered exactly three questions and at least two of those were “How late is this lab open?”
Finally, after what seemed like half a dozen years of college, I entered the real world and got a real job. This, for me, was a horrendous shock. Not because of the work to be done. During my first years of working I found it to be damn entertaining. I worked in technical support for the first three years and I’ve never enjoyed working quite as much since. No, doing the work was the easy; what was shocking was the price attached. When I got my first job straight out of college I started at $32,000/year and I giggled all the way home. I was officially making more than my mother and she had been working at the same place for a dozen years. There’s a special giddiness you get when you realize that you’re making more than your parents. It’s even more giddy when you enjoy doing it.
I puttered around in technical support for three and a half years by the time it was all over and in retrospect, despite the difficulties at times, that was an incredible job. Because you had to poke your head into your neighbor’s cube and ask questions like “What the hell is a thunking error?” you got to know people. By the time the company I was working for finally closed its doors due to an “accounting error” in 2002 I could walk around that building and confidently talk to any one of 20 different people. I actually felt like part of a family and I’ve not felt that way since. Stupid accounting errors.
After that, I followed a colleague of mine to a teeny tiny company that does “electrical load control.” Basically, they build devices that allow the electric company to shut off your air conditioning when the power supply is being overtaxed. From a conceptual standpoint, I think this company has a great idea. As a company of only 10 employees they were looking at pulling in million dollar contracts. Unfortunately, one thing they’d forgotten was to value their employees. The boss would always strut around crooning that he could “get any $50,000/year programmer to do my job” and after rewriting all the major systems in 11 months I gave him the opportunity to prove it. I’m guessing he didn’t quite manage because a few months after I left I got a call so we could “have lunch.” He was still apparently looking for a $50,000/year programmer.
After a short stint at a company that does online job applicant screenings I ended up at my current workplace that does cutting-edge parking software. (Yes, I know this sounds like an oxymoron.) Like all but one of my previous jobs I was brought here by a previous colleague, Chris, my manager from the first job I had out of college. I’ve been in the job market for just over 10 years and I’ve worked with Chris or been his direct report for all but a year of that. Frankly, I’m not sure why he’s not tired of me yet (or perhaps how he hides it so well). My overly frank and almost belligerent approach to working would have worn any lesser man. Despite our fundamental disagreements on most topics, my continued employment is evidence that we must get along on some level.
Currently Reading: “Typhoon and other Tales”, Joseph Conrad [130.5/220]
Periodic Robism: Despite what some people may think, animals were not put on this Earth merely to keep meat fresh until you’re ready to eat it.