For as long as I can remember, I've always wanted a job. You know, to work hard at something and be paid for my troubles. When I was a kid, I couldn't wait to grow up and earn my way through life. I thought having a steady paycheck coming in was pretty much the end all of everything, and I wanted to be part of that law-abiding, tax paying citizenry which makes up the backbone of this country.
Unfortunately, I had no connections in my family. Zip. No one who knew anyone looking for a hard worker with no experience. So when I hit 14 years old--the legal age for working (albeit part time) in this country--I had very few options available to me. The only job opportunities for young teenagers with no work experience or family connections are pretty much limited to retail--and cashier positions at that. Unfortunately, everywhere I looked only wanted girls for cashiers. And I was too young to work in the stock room stocking shelves, a job relegated to the older boys who were bigger and could lift more.
Add to this the fact that I lived in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, which means I had to deal with a lot of competition for very few openings in the job market. It was not pretty. Still, through sheer determination and perhaps just a touch of obstinacy, I eventually did find a job and the rest was history.
Or was it?
What I didn't know at the time, but was about to embark on a long journey of self-discovery to find out, is that: sometimes just getting a job is not enough. Because there are jobs, and then there are jobs. And sometimes those jobs become careers. And sometimes you end up hating your career and going through a mid-life crisis. I'm not at the point where I've reached the latter (thankfully), but I have had a hard road of it to reach where I am today.
This post was inspired by my friend GYSC, who wrote a similar blog entry quite some time back about the varied and many jobs he's had since childhood. It's an interesting story he tells, which I encourage you all to click on this link and check out sometime. What became apparent to me reading his story--and I hope it becomes apparent to you reading mine--is that, when you come from meager circumstances, sometimes you really have to put up with some pretty horrific situations just to provide for yourself and your family.
A young man has it particularly tough because no one wants to believe he'll be responsible and mature enough to hold a job. At least, this has been my experience. And yet, somehow I made it work despite the grief and terrible working conditions I've had to put up with sometimes. Not all the time, mind you. Some of the jobs I've held were pleasant and a lot of fun. But most were not.
Below I'll provide a few examples of some of my earlier experiences in the employment sector.
The summer I turned 14, I landed my first job. I had to wait in line for 7 hours straight (no kidding) with around 200 other teenagers in the South Bronx waiting to apply for government-sponsored job opportunities, but at last I made it! I would be part of the "South Bronx Beautification Project," a name that sounded more like wishful thinking than an actual, legitimate program. But who was I to be so cynical? What this job entailed was a bunch of us kids being handed overalls, paint brushes, and buckets of cheap silver paint and pointed in the general direction of this major thoroughfare running through our district. We were ordered to repaint every single light post from one end to the other, with little regard to technique or uniformity, just so long as we somehow got the job done. Yes, we were supervised, but that in itself was a joke. Mind you, this large boulevard runs for 6 miles through some of the roughest neighborhoods in my home borough. And on top of that, this was in July when temps would reach 89 degrees F on a good day.
|That's a lot of light poles!|
It was no picnic, but I never once thought of quitting. Even when it reached 98 degrees on a couple of days. Even when people threw eggs and other garbage at us from 6th-floor tenements sprung up on either side of the concourse and the police had to be called. Even when no-good thugs tried to start trouble with us and the supervisors had to step in and threaten to call the cops again. Even when we were detailed with cleaning out an abandoned lot along our route, discovering soiled diapers, rotting rat carcasses, and even disposed condoms and syringes in the process. Even then I stayed on. At the end of two weeks I would receive a check for $196.00, after both the state and federal governments took out their share in taxes of course. It might not seem like much--and even back in 1991 it wasn't--but this was a small fortune to a 14 year old. I remember that swell feeling of pride when I cashed in my first paycheck. Did I do the wise thing and put it in a banking account to collect interest? No, of course not. I spent every dime of it, and felt no shame about it. Of course, I did save up most of the following three paycheck I would receive before the summer was done.
Still, while the job was not glamorous and, in retrospect, the pay borderline child slavery--I did come away with the satisfaction of knowing that I got paid for my labor. Yes, I was a strange kid, but this meant a lot to me.
Yes, there comes a time when we much all do it. Work at a McDonald's. Or, in my case, a Wendy's. Fortunately, this one was near where I lived. Unfortunately, it was the worst job I ever had. Even to this day. I quit after two weeks. Why? Because while I can deal with hard and demeaning work, I couldn't deal with being taken advantage of. I won't go into too much detail about this. Suffice to say that cleaning out a trash closet the size of a modest two-car garage, where bags and bags of dripping garbage reached the ceiling and you had to just wade right into it and drag it all out by hand, is bad enough when it's just one of your many duties. But when you're the only one being asked to do this out of a roster of some 30 odd other employees, some of whom are younger and less experienced than you, to the point where it becomes your ONLY duty . . . this is when a 15 year old draws the line. And I did.
|It takes 2 grown men to load it into the truck, but 1 teenage boy|
to drag it all to the curb first.
Although I only worked there a short amount of time, I did receive my one and only paycheck from this place a few weeks later. At the time I was only getting paid the minimum legal wage for New York State of $4.25 an hour, so trust me when I say I could have tossed the paycheck in the trash for all the good it did me after taxes had been taken out.
Hmmm, seems I was getting a very early lesson in being taken to the cleaners by "the man." Wouldn't be the last time, unfortunately.
Yes, I worked in daycare. Again, this was part of that same government-sponsored summer employment program I mentioned before. At first, I wasn't even planning to work the summer that I turned 16. I had signed up with my best friend to take a math class over July and August so as to skip ahead when regular school resumed in September. But when another friend told me about some openings in the program, I decided that finishing up mandatory math a semester earlier was not worth giving up the chance to make some hard-earned cash. So that's how my friend and I ended up looking after an unruly bunch of toddlers and kindergarten-aged kiddies one summer. To be fair, we were just two of 20 student workers for the summer (this was a very LARGE daycare center, mind you) and the job was more like a glorified hang-out club than real work. I mean, yes, we did take our responsibilities seriously. At least, I did. I never lost a kid on my watch! And a few of them I even grew fond of over the summer. But for the most part us employees simply sat around chatting while the children ran themselves ragged in the public parks and zoos of our fair city.
|Like this, only 10x more "ghetto."|
And like before, while I was only getting paid minimum wage, the paycheck every two weeks was very welcomed. This was perhaps the easiest job I've ever had, but when I returned to school in September to begin my junior year of high school, I had decided to buckle down and focus only on my grades. So, unfortunately, I would go without a job for the next two years and give up the finer things in life like good clothes, sneakers, and video games in order to make a run at getting into a decent college.
Aiy-yai-yai . . . sacrifice, people! That's what I'm talking about!
So, yes, I made it into a good college. A very fine private institution, in fact, thanks to some kick-ass grades, an excellent essay, and a ton of hustle on my part. But I made it in. Unfortunately, the college was too expensive for my poor retired grandmother to pay for on her pension, and what little money I'd managed to save up by this time (yes, I wasn't completely frivolous and selfish with my paychecks) was only a tiny drop in a very large bucket. While I managed to wiggle my way into some awesome scholarships (part of that hustle I mentioned earlier), I would still owe the school around 6% of the total tuition each semester. Which meant that I had to work my way through school and give back a good portion of my earnings to the bursar's office each semester.
Honestly, folks, this almost broke me. I know I might come across as an ungrateful whiner now, but so be it. The fact is, I could not deal with working 20 hours a week AND my crazy course load of school work at the same time. I just couldn't. But yet, I had to. I had no choice. Unlike the majority of the students there on my campus, I did not come from a family that could afford to give me a stipend each week. No, I had to work just to have spending money for books, laundry, and a few luxury items I could convince myself to have.
And all this might have been tolerable were it not for the type of job they had me doing. Yes, as the title says, I was stuck washing the dishes of all the privileged, stuck-up, fancy-schmancy little trust-fund snots I went to school with. But big deal, right? My life wasn't a bed of roses, and I was no stranger to tucking my chin in and getting the job done. Still, this irked me. The work was laborious, stressful, hot, and stinky. And my shifts seemed to last DAYS. On top of that, I was always volunteering to work doubles for the bigger paychecks. So what ended up happening was that I would return to the dorms sopping wet and stinking of disposed food, so exhausted and feeling demeaned but still having to find the energy to crack open the books and start studying for some exam, or writing the draft for some research paper due the following Tuesday.
|Pay no attention to that silverware and coffee mug |
sculpture coming down the line.
Working in the dishrooms taught me how to put up with a lot of BS--not the least of which were hyper frat-boy types sticking their heads through the conveyor belt doors and literally laughing at us poor SOBs slaving away in the back--and dealing with fast volumes at peak dining times. If ever there was a metaphor for life, it was working there by the sop buckets quickly sorting through the silverware as tray after tray came barreling down the line with no end, dirty dishes piled up high as if these kids had never eaten a civilized meal before in their lives. Wave after wave, for hours on end, the crap just piling up and never letting down.
This is how life is. One never-ending shit brigade marching down the line and stomping all over your dignity. Yet somehow I made it through those first two years of college without going postal. Luckily for me, I would soon earn the seniority to land other less demeaning jobs on campus as an upper classman.
Reader, writer, Chinese tutor.
After sophomore year, I vowed never to go back to washing dishes again. I just couldn't take it anymore. The pay was very high, but the hassle was not worth it anymore. I had reached a turning point. And also, I had learned enough by this time to start applying for jobs where I could use my brain more than my brawn. But since these would be lower paying than working out of the dining halls, I had to juggle several campus jobs at once in order to make ends meet.
The first of such jobs was as a personal reader for a visually challenged student on campus. My task was simple, although time-consuming: to read select passages assigned to the student from various classes. Sometimes this required me to literally read each chapter of a novel or textbook aloud into a tape recorder. And sometimes I had to use a scan-to-speech computer which used a disconcerting robotic voice to narrate each passage. The student was always so tremendously grateful for my service, however, and the administrative office supervising my work spread the word around that I was a good, courteous worker who never shirked his responsibilities. This was a good thing, of course, because I was able to use this goodwill to secure yet another campus-based job. A cushy one peer-tutoring students in writing.
By this point I had begun to take my own writing more seriously, and this came to the notice of several professors in the English department. At first I started out tutoring only a handful of students each week, making what really only amounted to a pittance in wages. But halfway through my junior year, I landed a plumb slot among writing tutors at the campus library, with my own room and regular weekly hours. Students would walk by, see the light on in the office, and come in if the available sign was up. Otherwise, they would make appointments with me. I enjoyed this job a lot, as in addition to helping many of my peers with their papers and other writing projects, I also improved in my own writing. This is when I learned the valuable lesson that a writer only improves through the critique of and collaboration with his peers. A very good lesson, that.
|See, Virgil was just a hack. Your term paper needs to reflect this.|
Also around this time, I was already a fairly advanced student in Chinese. And because of this, I was able to add a third part-time job that year as language coach for students in the lower level Chinese Studies classes. Out of all my jobs, this was actually my favorite. There's nothing more rewarding, in my opinion, than learning a new language. And when it's a language that's particularly challenging like Mandarin, even better! During my Chinese tutoring sessions, I would make a lot of friends and grow as a tutor in general. I began to wonder if perhaps I should teach English as a second language in China someday. I wasn't so sure that was the path for me, but the inkling was there.
I had a few other jobs between these last few, actually, before I graduated from college. I was employed as produce manager for a high-end grocery chain in midtown Manhattan one summer, and as a counsellor for a prestigious day camp in upstate New York another. I also took on a fourth job my senior year of college as a librarian, doing mostly menial stock chores among the stacks.
After college, I couldn't afford to take a year off to "find myself" and backpack through Europe like some other lucky and newly minted alumni I knew. No, the pragmatist in me knew I had to get right down into the muck and start working hard for a living. I wasn't going to get any breaks in life. I had no parents, and my sole guardian was elderly and in need of care herself by this point. While I had other jobs after college before I finally made it into the career I have today, I won't go into the details of those right now. My point's already been made. I've never got by in life by coasting, but learned from an early age that the only way I was going to get anything was via the old cliche: "by the sweat off my back."
While the little boy I was would probably be shocked to see the rather less-than-glamorous path my work experience ended up taking me down, he would delight to know that he would eventually make it mostly on his own, with no hand-outs or family connections to smooth things over. Life is very hard, and living in this cutthroat city of New York even more so. But no one can teach you work ethic and perseverance. You either have it, or you don't.
If the day comes when I have children of my own, I hope they can learn this lesson as well. Although, perhaps not in such a roundabout fashion as I had to learn. While I don't believe that we're shaped by the jobs we do, I do believe that nothing is handed to us. In other words, nothing is guaranteed. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Anything worth having in life needs to be fought and bled for.
Am I being melodramatic? Perhaps. But this is my story, and I'm glad to share it. What about you? How many menial part-time jobs have you held down before entering the real world and living on your own? Feel free to discuss in the comments section below.