By: Esther M. Powell
Posted on: Fri, October 01 2010 - 8:31 pm
My Work History
I liked Studs Terkel's book Working very much, and enjoyed Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson equally well, so I thought I'd relate tales from my own work experience.
This isn't going to be an inspirational story about climbing every mountain, or even climbing one. It is a memoir without celebrity, without romance, and without distinction.
So why bother to write it? Hmmm. It is just that while much work is boring, it is often interesting to hear stories about work. Domestic history that describes the way people actually lived has always been an interest of mine. For someone curious about an average (?) middle-class life in the good old USA in the fifties through the early 2000's, tales of boring jobs might be just the ticket!
Maybe it could be a resource for people who need to know how we did things in different work environments at different times.
I have labored in many different work settings. Once I told my sister my idea of my work experience as a resource for a novel if she wanted to write one and she replied, "Write your own novel!" Someone else, though, might find these workly descriptions helpful.
My first introduction to economic life came at a very early age.
When I was a Brownie (below Girl Scout in age and rank) in the early fifties we sold calendars for a dollar or so.
I don't remember any of the doors I presented myself to except one. The lady of the house answered my knock dressed in a white towel. Her hair was wet. I offered to sell her a Girl Scout calendar, and she told me to come back later.
I was kind of surprised she answered the door like in such deshabille (and of course in later life wondered who she was expecting!) but I did come back, and she did buy a calendar. I sure don't remember how she was dressed the second time round! And I don't remember even one of the images decorating the months of our fine Girl Scout calendar!
During the same two year period I tried selling yellow acacia blossoms from the trees in the playground across the street from where we lived in Stanford, California. I took one of those big silvery metal garbage can lids (quite new and clean, as I recall) put the glorious inflorescences of bright yellow flowers in it, and went door to door trying to sell them for ten cents a bunch.
One attractively permed lady was quite sympathetic. She admired the flowers but told me her husband was allergic to them. Then she gave me a bright shiny dime anyway!
When I got home my mother told me she had received word that I was selling flowers from the park. This, she informed me, was stealing and must not happen again. I was not well pleased. Wasn't it a public park? Wasn't it free? I obeyed, but resentfully.
Sorry, oh perusers of resumes, I don't know which of these selling experiences came first. But they were not my last.
My very first one might have been the time I sold bubble gum and candy that I bought from the local grocery in the Center, an easy walk from home. These I sold for less money than I paid for them, and when I showed my money to my mom, received the unwelcome news that you are supposed to end up with more, not less, money than you start with.
Hmm. This was more complicated than I thought. Very discouraging. For me the transaction was a social thing, fun in itself. You mean there were other requirements?
An experience in kool-aid selling ended disastrously when our well-dressed customer explosively spit out his very first sip. It seems that my friend's mother had neglected to add sugar to that very old-fashioned suger-less Kool-aid powder. It was shocking behavior. As I recall the episode, he refused in disgust our offer to return his nickel!
These experiences might have spoiled me forever for sales, but they didn't.
When I was eight we moved to Valparaiso, Indiana, and I again picked up my selling habits.
In those days we thought nothing of going door-to-door selling Girl Scout cookies. I sold a couple boxes here and there. The only really memorable encounter, though, was with a white-haired man who lived in a little blue house with a maroon door and shutters. When I asked if he would like to buy some Girl Scout cookies, he snorted, "Suffering catfish!" and closed the door in my face, thus providing me with my only memorable encounter of that "work" experience.
Subsequently I sold holiday cards door-to-door for a while (and actually made a bit of money) until I began to perceive that maybe people were buying out of charity and compassion. Then I quit ungraciously by writing on one of the company's promotional postcards, "Take me off your sucker list!" In those days such ploys worked, and my sales career stagnated.
Some of you would say that this wasn't work at all, and you would be right. I was not shy about knocking on doors, and I liked to be outside.
But I've written about it, and I'm not going to delete it now!
My next jobs were babysitting jobs. We commonly got paid 50 or 75 cents an hour, maybe about half to three quarters of the minimum wage for full-time labor. (I first became aware of minimum wage when I got my first real job for a dollar an hour in 1966.)
I had a few babysitting jobs with neighbors, one of which was made memorable by a night when the wife, not the husband, drove me home. I could have walked, since it was only a block-and-a-half from home, but it was after midnight and she was very conscientious.
When I went to grab the handle on the passenger side, it was wet with throw-up. Eeeuw! I said nothing, touched nothing else with that hand, and washed up well when I got home.
The really very sweet couple must have discovered the evidence, though, because I think that was the last time I babysat for them. They were probably too embarrassed to ask me again.
I babysat for a math teacher one summer. He and his wife were nice folks, and the kids were not bad at all. I had a habit, though, of washing dishes after lunch only when the daughter was present. If they were content in their rooms, I sat at the kitchen table and read a book.
This girl, whose name I don't recall, was insulted by my behavior, I guess, because when I had finished dishes one day and was sitting across from her, she bent my brand-new clip-on sunglasses until they broke. Maybe it wasn't deliberate.
I didn't tell the parents. I figured I had earned a little hostility!
In another home, I ended up spanking all the kids one night because they wouldn't go to bed. (Thank god the Statute of Limitations is out of date for that one, plus I was only a juvenile myself! But oops, I had been spanked several times myself, so I didn't know any better.)
It was a strange house to babysit in. Four boys and no toys! I asked for their help finding them, but they couldn't help me. No wonder they were bouncing off the walls!
Next time I came prepared with a box of dominoes and we all had a good time playing dominoes. The only trouble is, I had trouble getting them into bed and spanked them again. The youngest said he wanted to kill me. (I was surprised by the anger. Spankings didn't make me angry - having a brush broken over my behind only made me feel abused.
The time in third grade my mom used a stinging forsythia switch on my unprotected arms - that's the only time I remember getting angry. As I recall, that was also the last time she used corporal punishment on me.)
The parents of the four boys rightly decided I was not competent to care for them and never called me back. I never have solved the mystery of why these people had no toys for their kids.
Now that I call child abuse!
But enough about my negative babysitting experiences. There were lots of positive ones, too. Successful stories of getting kids to eat (flying the plane into the airport and saving broccoli trees from the fire are good ploys), getting kids to bed (well, who am I to talk about that one? - when I had my own kids I used books, lullabyes and stories for the segue from wakefulness to sleep (as I have said elsewhere, often my own slumber!)
One darling little blond-haired blue-eyed boy of three I especially liked. Because of his blond hair and blue eyes? Hell, no! Because he looked up at me adoringly with a big shining smile. The feeling was entirely mutual. Too bad he was soooo young!
Only one more true confession: in college (after, with graduation from high school, I swore off babysitting for good) my boyfriend and I stayed in the same house as a friend's baby while our friends went out for the evening.
Some hours later we heard a pounding at the door. We were sleeping so soundly we didn't hear the parents come home!
Many years later, when my husband and I left our children with a thirteen-year-old girl and couldn't get back into the house when we returned, we learned how disconcerting that can be.
The summer between my junior and senior years in high school I participated in a church-run work camp. For three weeks a group of us painted walls and cleaned venetian blinds at a home for "retarded" (now they would be called "developmentally disabled") "kids" (some of adult age) in Wisconsin. This of course, was unpaid labor, but unlike the weeding, painting, housecleaning, and dishwashing chores we did at home, was supervised by someone other than mommy, so I count it here as work experience.
It was that experience washing every individual slat of blinds covering huge windows that made me very clear that if I had my way, I would use a different kind of window covering in my own home. Washing venetian blinds was one of the most boring activities I had ever endured in my young life.
Even if you are not getting paid, going out and working in the world teaches you new things about the workplace: not everybody is your mama.
This can be a good thing. My father once said his father acted as if he were the most irresponsible person in the world. Then when he got out into it, he discovered he was one of the most responsible!
Years later he was again labeled irresponsible - by my sister - for putting too much Weed and Feed on the lawn. I guess it's all relative.
Oh well, enough irresponsible irrelevance.
At the work camp I got deservedly reprimanded in an incident I have described elsewhere in my website, so I won't go into it here. I've done enough I have had to confess about!
The next year, after graduating from high school, I went with a Lutheran church group to New York City. (Now that I think about it, though, I went alone by bus. I must have met up with the others in New York. Must have been met in Grand Central Station. Don't remember.)
We lived and worked in Bedford Styvesant (second worst precinct for crime in NYC, I was told.) For the first three weeks we taught Bible School (which in my little nine-by-nine cubicle with eleven children, meant "art class") for three hours a day. Wow, we were a rowdy bunch!
I especially remember a little black, French, and Cherokee boy with one of my family names (Santee) who was distressed because he couldn't wash his hands white. His was my favorite of the artistic endeavors I saw at the Bible School.
I guess I kind of taught ethics along with the art projects, but I honestly can't remember. I think the projects themselves were launched after Bible stories.
The other thing I can't remember was whether another grown-up of the organization darkened the door of my "classroom" even once to see how this hick from the Midwest was doing with her inner city assignment.
As I said, we were a rowdy bunch. I was overwhelmed.
Our day camp sessions were much more fun. We went all over New York: to the Indian Museum, the Cloisters, and a famous field trip to Bear Mountain outside the city.
The idea of the day camp was not only to give inner city kids the chance to see something outside their own neighborhoods, but to give teen-agers from the same environment some job training, in this case caring for the younger ones. I don't know who got more job training, those teen-agers or the slightly older teen-ager - me! I had absolutely no training for the job besides general babysitting experience - and it showed.
I learned on that job not to reprimand an employee in front of his or her peers. It embarrasses them and arouses hostility. (Useful training for someone who has always hated to manage! Said ironically, but I actually did use that lesson a couple of times in my life.)
The kids enjoyed the outings, but not their inedible lunches. I am still ashamed of the fact that we did not eat the same fare as the camp kids.
One child, named Tyrone, said he wanted to die at one point. Here I was, an eighteen-year-old who had never contemplated suicide or really even wanted to die, confronted with a six-year-old who said he wanted to die! I had no clue as to what to do about it except try to comfort him. I probably asked him why and got no answer. We were both clueless.
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