Monday, December 19, 2011

Hard Work

I don't know why this article amuses me so, but it does.  It's a young journalist's account of working 3 weeks at Starbucks in NY.  She makes it sound like the gulag.  I don't want to be one of those old people who one-ups every story of hardship (that's my dad's job).  But when I turned 16 and was eligible to get a job, there was never a time from then on that I didn't work.  And until I finished grad school and began teaching and coaching (which is terrific, but is certainly not a 9-to-5), I worked some of the "worst" jobs imaginable.  I started off washing dishes and peeling hundreds of pounds of shrimp in a local restaurant at $3.35 an hour (minimum wage back then).  Then I got a job driving a school bus for $5 per hour.  For a short time I doubled up and did both, then traded the shrimp-peeling for bagging groceries and stocking shelves at Winn-Dixie (back to minimum wage, but more hours).  I eventually got up to almost 4 bucks there.  Then I worked at a lumber yard building wood trusses.  (That's where I lost the end of my thumb in a multi-bladed component saw.)  In college I interned in the USC legal department, which was a great job, but helped convince me that I really didn't want to go to law school, after all.  The summer before I got married, I went to a temp agency and asked for whatever they could give me that paid the most so I could actually afford a honeymoon.  There were some pretty ugly day-labor gigs (the one that stands out was working on a loading dock unloading 55-gallon drums that had previously contained something really nasty... in a driving rain).  But the big payday came when a local plastics factory realized that they had been low-bidder on a government contract to build fiberglass buoys for the navy, and that the job was so terrible they didn't want their own people to do it.  Almost $8 per hour, but I lost about 8 pounds per day in water weight, and every t-shirt I owned was eventually discarded due to the fiberglass particles they picked up.  That's in addition to the chemical fumes and burns (we wore goggles and masks while working).  After the wedding, in grad school I never worked less than 2 jobs (the legal gig and a graduate assistantship in the admissions office), and sometimes as many as 4 (those two, a night job in the student health center, and a brief research assistantship).  Sometimes I still have nightmares that I have showed up at the wrong workplace, and it's usually one of those (and sometimes the lumber yard for some odd reason).  Of course, all of that was in addition to a full courseload in grad school, and the first semester also involved resolving an incomplete on my undergrad honors thesis.

But here's the thing--at the time I never thought it was bad.  Perhaps I didn't know any better.  Maybe it was because gas in my '78 Mustang was worth it.  I never thought, "this builds character" or anything like that.  Looking back at my old Day-Timers I am amazed at the schedule I kept, but only because middle-aged me couldn't keep up with it.  I do know that now it provides some perspective.  Even after 18 years of teaching, I still feel blessed to get paid to do something I really enjoy.  And even in those weeks when a couple of away trips on the bus stretch the work-week out to 70 hours, I'm glad that my idea of "overtime" is coaching high school sports and not delivering pizzas.

The world has changed.  My oldest son is 17 and has never held a "real job."  He earns some money working at school for the athletic department (running the scoreboard for JV games and such), but it's hard to walk into a grocery store and ask for a job when you have to say, "but I have basketball practice and play practice and every other kind of commitment under the sun 24-7."  As soon as the spring musical is over, he'll be working (working for pay, I mean--he has worked very hard at lots of unpaid stuff).  I'm afraid this young lady who wrote the article just grew up in a time when busting your butt at Starbucks represents an unusual level of hardship.  Maybe it's not her fault.  But it's another example of the ongoing wussification of America.  If you read the article, check out some of the comments, too.  They are alternately amusing and maddening.


Kim said...

I met Greg the first day of class at college, and the ice breaker in one of our classes was to describe our worst job. His summer job that year had been working to trim the fat off pig ears for doggy treats in a doggy treat factory. The disgust level of his every day tasks, combined with the tales of cleaning maggot-infested, rotting fat out of vats, definitely made him the winner of the classroom contest.

As for me, most of my jobs have been fairly easy, consisting of either child care or academic work. None of those exactly require heavy lifting. Cleaning the church building is as close as I've gotten to manual labor, but really, that job was easy, too, and a blessing.

mnpolutta said...

Great article. Not counting the babysitting I did as a young teen, I had a job from the time I was 15 until I left the corporate world to be a stay-at-home mom. I taught aerobics, worked in retail, leased apartments, worked in a child-car facility, worked in an investment firm, helped out at a chiropractor's office, filed at a trucking company, and worked as a CSR in a bank. Even now, while homeschooling, I have a very part time job teaching history. Some of these jobs were very hectic,and some of them were very boring. But they all have done a lot to shape who I am today. Working hard is definitely character building and I am sad that our kids are "too busy". We face that, too, with the summer schedule. Between PBC, Impact, and family vacation, that leaves only a short 5 weeks to work. Not only that, but many of the jobs they would normally qualify for are currently filled with adults who truly need the income.