Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Life at Work: First Jobs

I started working long before I knew what it meant to have a job.

I have the feeling that the desire to work is innate--something one is born with, to varying degrees.  I have this feeling because as I look back and think about my life at work, and try to decide what that means for me, I come to the conclusion that the desire to work did not come to me from external forces but from within.  Now this is not to say that I think that I am a particularly helpful individual nor that I have some sort of inbred superior work ethic.  But I cannot find an external source for my desire because the further I look back, the more it seems to me that I have wanted to work pretty much since I was born.

That is a supposition, of course, but my some of my earliest memories are about working.  For example, I can recall helping my parents at the bookstore.  During inventory, it was my job to crawl around on the floor and count the books on the bottom shelf.  I distinctly recall the dirty brown carpet and the dusty books that were hidden out of sight on the lowest level.  These were often big books--at least to me--and rarely were there more than ten.

Counting was, it seems, my special skill, since another job I recall at that early age was helping my father Bill count the change in the drawer every night after to store closed.  I remember how he used to cradle the coins in his hand, pushing them into a column and counting them off into the drawer, one by one, or two by two.  We would count out loud and make a mark on a piece of paper by the register.  Bill would put the same number of coins and bills in each slot and reserve the rest for the bank deposit.  That went in the bag, which went on top of the drawer, which in turn went on the top shelf of the downstairs hall closet.  This, by the way, is how I knew where (and when) to embezzle funds for my soda/candy binges at the Abilene Drug Store, but that is another story.

Another job I had was to help carry the books out to the Used Book table we used to set up in the front yard.  I can recall helping my Dad and even my brother Stephen carry out the books--stacked inside the bookstore--out to the table in the morning and back inside at night.  When I asked for payment for this particular service (and I have no idea why it occurred to me to even ask) Bill told me that I could get a percentage of each book sold if I were to stay out there and 'man' the Used Book table.  I did this for a while, but my lack of success and the Texas heat often induced me to go off and spend my time playing in the back yard instead.

We didn't have assigned chores in our household.  I mean I can remember taking out the trash, and even doing some sweeping, dusting and helping with the dishes.  But for many years, Lynda made our beds every day when we were at school.  She also shopped, cooked and cleaned.  She did the laundry in the sink or at a laundromat, and I often helped with that.  One of my very earliest memories is of Lynda hanging out diapers on the clothesline in the back yard, mumbling and cursing under her breath as she yanked out each diaper and pinned it to the wiggling strand of wire above my head.  I think this is where I first heard the word 'shit' and it is certainly a time I recall because I felt Lynda's anger and began the long process of trying to understand her passive-aggressive personality.  But that too is another story.  This does, however, date to a time when my brother David would have been just a year old or so, so I could have been as young as five in this memory.

My parents owned the Abilene Bookstore from 1957 to about 1963 or 1964.  They bought the bookstore from a man named A.C. Greene, Jr., who went to to some fame as a Texas writer and a scholar.  In hindsight, it would seem that Greene sold the bookstore because he felt trapped in Abilene, since that is exactly what happened to Bill and Lynda, and of course, by extension to Stephen and Anne.  I'd include myself and my brother David in that category, but we were too young to understand the frustrations that other felt in living in that place.  Ours was a life of almost mythical childhood.  I walked to and from school almost every day.  We had dinner at the table as a family almost every night and we often had guests from the local colleges over.  I can recall sitting in 'Uncle' Clarence's lap on such occasions, but that too is another story.

As I got older, I started thinking more and more about going to work.  I suppose part of it had to do with a desire to make money.  Another early memory associated with work was my desire to get a little red wagon, which is another story, but one I have already told this time.  I certainly recall looking for 'jobs' that would 'pay' me a few cents to put in that piggy bank, and part of the aching desire I felt for the little red wagon was at least as much a desire for the financial independence I could see was absent in my life.  I mean that in a kind way--it's not as if we were so poor that I felt like I had to work to support my family.  In this sense, my desire to work may be seen as a luxury, since I really didn't have to work.

But I wanted to work, as much for the money as for the feeling it gave me to be at work, in charge of something.  But being in charge of dusting isn't so glamorous, nor does it pay well.  Mowing the lawn payed considerably better, and once I mastered the terrible beast in our drought-beaten sticker-filled dry brown yard, I moved on with a youthful entrepreneurial spirit, to the neighbor's yards.  I wish I could say that I turned this into a source of income, but the truth is our neighbors didn't really have lawns, and didn't need them mowed if they did.  Our next-door-neighbor was actually an apartment/rooming house with no yard at all, and the neighbors across the street cultivated cacti in their yard.  They were an old German couple, with a very dark and old-smelling house with bowls of candy and sweets everywhere.  If I could stand the smell, it was worth a visit, but honestly my tongue's desire for sweets was tempered by my nose.  I think this is where my desire to get to know and work with old people had it's origins, but that is something I will explore in another story.

After (not) mowing lawns, I started to think about making money from door-to-door sales.  At the time, I was a rather voracious reader of comic books.  Not that I could afford them, but I did spend many days reading them down at the Abilene Drugstore while spending my ill-gotten gains on candy and soda.  Twenty pieces of candy for a dime and as many comic books as I could read until the counter lady told me to leave.

In the back of all these comic books were ads.  There were ads for toy soldiers--whole regiments of WWII and even Civil War figures--and of course the classic X-Ray specs, Atlas Body Building kits ads for Grit.  Grit was a 'newspaper' that claimed to be "America's Family Newspaper" and they encouraged young boys to start selling it in their neighborhoods.  The only trouble was, it required an investment.  You had to 'buy' your first round of papers.  Of course I didn't have any funds, and this prospect was soundly rejected by my parents, on both financial and ideological grounds.  I had no idea that the content of the 'newspaper' made any difference, but my parents said that it was not a 'real' newspaper and it carried 'stories' about Jews that were untrue.  This may have been one of the first times that I came into conflict with religion, since it didn't seem relevant to me what the content of the paper was, just that I could make some money selling it.  But it certainly did to Lynda and Bill, so I didn't start my Grit franchise.

I did, however, see another ad, for TV Guide.  Now, at the time, I was about eight--this would have been 1964--and I don't think we even had a TV set.  I don't recall when exactly we got our first set, but it had to be before 1966, because that's when Star Trek began, and I know I saw the first episode.  Even my brother David recalls at least one of those early episodes because the main villain was a 'Salt Monster' who sucked the salt out of people with devastating results--my imitation of the monster was sufficient to frighten him for many years.  So, maybe we had a TV, maybe not.  In any case, even when we had a TV we couldn't afford the luxury of TV Guide.  My parsimonious parents reasoned that we didn't need to know what was coming up because we could get the information for free in the daily newspaper and besides we aren't going to watch the television during prime-time anyway.  Off to bed!

Somehow, some way, I managed to convince my parents that I could and would sell TV Guide door-to-door.  Like Grit, it required an investment, but, my parents reasoned that the product was at least a legitimate one and they figured I might even get some sales.  I know they were expecting me to fail, not in a negative way, but because they doubted my ability to follow through with the grueling task of trekking around door-to-door week after week. At the very least, they knew, I was in for a lot of rejection.

The way it worked, you had to 'buy' a minimum number of copies, but if you didn't sell them you could return them for a partial refund. The task of selling all those copies, as my parents correctly understood, was more daunting than I realized.  I suppose I lasted no more than a few weeks, though it felt like it was months.  During this time, I did have the experience of seeing into others homes and smelling their cooking.  Neither of these were pleasant experiences.  I can recall many dirty and smelly homes in which the television set was the only bright spot in what must have been very poor lives.  I saw my first color TV in one of these homes--my only other recollection of that house resembles something you would see on a television show about hoarding today--piles of refuse and filthy walls were illuminated by the bright colors and gleaming cabinet.  They bought a TV Guide, as I recall.

Sales were not as great as I expected, not least because we lived in a very poor neighborhood with what marketers today would call 'limited market saturation'--in other words, very few TVs.  And once I sold to those who did have a set and were likely to buy, that was it.  The market--if you can call it that--simply dried up. No amount of door-to-door sales was likely to increase the yield, so eventually came the day when I could not sell a single issue of TV Guide and we had to eat the investment and send them all back.  It was a tough lesson, not made any easier by Lynda's 'I told you so' attitude nor by Bill's assertion that I hadn't really tried all that hard.

The irony of this would not occur to me for many years, but at the time, it seemed reasonable, actually.  I mean I tried hard at first, but when the task became overwhelming, I was honestly happy to be rid of it. The pain to reward ratio was simply too high. This set up an internal conflict however.  I knew that I still wanted to work, but I had to find a 'real' job.  Sales, it seemed, was not my strength.  But, I reasoned, if I could just find a paying job, I wouldn't have to worry about making sales.  I could just work and get paid.

Next: Job Hunting

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fast is Better Than Slow

Patrick is lingering.  Even though I knew that it would take a long time for him to die when I met him, it's taking longer than I thought it would anyway.

I guess the truth of it is that every day he's been in that bed has been a painful one to witness, let alone live through, so he's caught in that awful eddy of time, with nothing to do, nowhere to go.  You know the time is limited, but what do you wish for?  A speedy end?  Another day?  I'd certainly choose the former, but it's obviously not up to me.  readers of this journal know that I've seen fast and I've seen slow, and fast is definitely better than slow when it comes to death.

All that philosophy aside, there is the matter of Patrick lingering.  I cannot do anything but watch and wait at this point, having tried everything I know of to comfort him.  Food, of course, comes to my mind easily.  It seemed to me that the food they are giving him is awful.  One day he sent me to the store for some lemon juice--no easy task considering the nearest store is miles away--which he routinely puts all over his food and in his Diet Coke.  He keeps cans of soda in a little red fridge next to his bed, along with some chocolate-flavored nutritional drinks.

I have brought him some special food a couple of times.  I thought perhaps a taste of food from the outside world might help, so on successive weeks, I brought him a bbq chopped beef sandwich from Iron Works, then a spicy beef taco from Torchy's.  He ate a bit of both with some gusto, but in recent weeks, he's had no appetite.

Sadly, it's not even up to Patrick anymore.  That's just the fact here: he is no longer able to control any part of his life, including his bowels, but he is required to remain alive.  In a merciful society, there would be a way for Patrick to choose to leave, quietly, softly and painlessly.  It's not that our society is without mercy, but it seems our principles are misplaced in a society where we can treat our beloved pets with mercy but a not human being.  I understand that there is a difference between a dog and Patrick, but fundamentally the quality of mercy is--ought to be--not dependent on the species.  Might we not be more merciful to microbes if we could?

Honestly, I hope he'll find his way home soon.