One of the great obsessions of my life is work. How we do it every day, how we choose it, how we define ourselves by it. Depending on who you ask, our most recent election was decided by people desperate to work. I recently read Factotum by Charles Bukowski. Like all Bukowski books, it was a compulsively readable account of an asshole being an asshole, only this time through the lens of his – well, Henry Chinaski’s – work history. Dipsomania and misogyny aside, I actually enjoyed reading about a guy who just wanted to write and didn’t have much interest in anything else. It made me feel less alone.
In his special Kill the Messenger, Chris Rock talked about the difference between a career and a job. “People with careers need to learn to shut the fuck up when you’re around people with jobs.” Unfortunately, I don’t really have a career. I’ve just had a series of jobs. As I get older this is bothering me more and more. I’ve been a web developer for all of my adult working life. I know how to make web pages but it offers no real insight into anything else I’d like to do. So, I want to look back at all of the other jobs I’ve had and see what I can find.
Let’s start at the beginning.
My very first job was having a paper route. I had a scooter and I would deliver the afternoon Democrat and Chronicle after school. I always wanted to bundle them up with a rubber band and throw them onto driveways but we couldn’t do that, crushing any Rockwellian fantasies I had about the work. They had to be put in between the screen door and front door. I remember being hassled by an adult man who lived with his parents over a payment that they said they already made. There was a woman with dementia on my route who would scream at me every time I came to her door. It was a dark job, literally and figuratively. The streets of Rochester, NY are quite dark in the afternoon and so cold during the winter. I used to stop in a 7-Eleven at the midway point to warm up. The lady who used to drop off my papers got fired for embezzling money. Given the scale of the crime, I’m sure it could probably be describes it as just plain “stealing” but embezzling sounds cooler. I quit as soon as my parents decided that I had followed through enough on something that I had started.
Despite not being a pot smoker, I still managed to secure a position at Pontillos Pizza in Rochester, NY in the town of Brighton, where I grew up. Next to working for a bagel shop, working for Pontillos is as suburban as jobs can get. Teenage guys with a bottom lip full of Skoal wearing baseball hats with perfectly curved brims shrink wrapped to their heads pulled pies out of the oven while aggressively flirting with the girls who took all the orders. That wasn’t me, though. I never got up to making pizzas. I was on wing duty. Take a dozen raw chicken wings from a clear plastic big in the fridge, put them in a wire basket that gets dropped into a deep fryer, wait ten minutes, take them out, shake them in Frank’s Red Hot (or Frank’s Red Hot cut with liquid margarine to make them mild) and put them in a styrofoam container with a plastic cup of blue cheese dressing. (All products mentioned in the previous sentence are either damaging to humans or to the environment.)
That was the job. I liked it. But people didn’t order wings all the time. So, if there weren’t any wing orders, I would wait for some to come in prompting my boss to say, “Rob, do something.” The manager of the store spiked his thinning hair with gel and, since he was the only employee past high school and college age who displayed no evidence of possessing either degree, I judged him. It’s poetic justice that he fired me. “I’m taking you off the schedule,” he said, adding, “I don’t need you standing around.”
This is early evidence of a lifelong pattern. If you don’t ask me to do something, I probably won’t do it. I’m still trying to figure out of if this is the prideful protest of a worker challenging management to step up their game and be more proactive or, you know, just laziness.
My next job was at Chase Pitkin, the hardware store next to Wegmans (the greatest grocery store in America, if not the world, as Brooklyn shall soon see). At the age of eighteen, I had picked up a hammer approximately four times in my life and knew what “phillips head” meant but, beyond that, I had no hardware experience. I couldn’t even navigate the store. One time a customer asked me where the doorknobs were. I said, “um, I think they might be a few rows down? Like towards the back?” He said thanks and went that way. Then I turned around, went down one aisle and saw an entire row of replacement doorknobs. With the customer long gone, I stared at the wall of doorknobs, sighed, and thought, “So, this is what incompetence feels like.”
I learned to make keys, though. I liked making keys. Someone comes in and needs a new set. You match their existing key with a standard blank key, then you strap both keys into the machine and a spinning blade cuts the replacement key. I was good.
My boss had a mustache and looked like a redhead Mike Myers who was also pregnant. In a move that showed an astounding lack of self awareness, he always carried a Jenny Craig ballpoint pen with him. I remember giving him notice, saying I was going to college and he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were leaving for college.” I wondered why he would think I would be the one employee in our group that wasn’t leaving for college. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah, he watched me work.”
I worked at dining halls during college. I worked at Oakenshields – or maybe it was the Ivy Room – making sandwiches. I was good at making sandwiches, especially the triple deckers. Evenly spread the deli mustard on all the slices of bread. Add a healthy portion of deli meat positioned evenly on the bread. Same goes for the cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. I actually took pride in the fact that people liked them and that I had repeat customers.
I got fired sophomore year because I worked a Thursday night shift and that’s when all of my exams happened to be spring semester.
Having been banished for choosing exams over sandwiches, I went to the west campus dining hall where all the punk kids worked. They were a specific breed of punk. They all listened to Operation Ivy and had multiple eyebrow rings. They safety pinned band logos to their army jackets and shoulder bags. They dyed their hair yellow. Not blonde. Not bleach. Yellow. You either know these kids or you don’t. The rest of the preppy DMB listeners and I laughed at them freshman year but that was before I worked there. They were actually all really nice people.
I enjoyed working at that dining hall but then I got mono and I didn’t go back after I got well. To be fair, they didn’t ask me how I was or even where I was. My conscience is clean on that one.
The summer after freshman my friends and I all got jobs painting houses at a company called Mac Stringer. I learned a skill that summer and I liked it. Take two ladders, put a plank across them, walk across and scrape away bubbled or peeling paint. If you expose the wood, paint it with primer. Let that dry, paint under the edges with a brush, then roll the paint over the rest. We painted entire houses in the two or three days. We were outside and we listened to the radio. We were paid under the table. There are worse things.
I worked in the engineering school’s bursar’s office. I barely remember this one. I just know that it was administrative and boring. If I happened to be looking through records, I was able to see my classmates’ grade point averages.
During my fall semester junior year, I worked an actual job. It was called the co-op program. I worked for a company in Rochester called Lightnin. They made mixers. Don’t over think it, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Lightnin made things that mixed other things, usually large tanks with propeller-like instruments with a motor.
This experience was the first time that I really knew that my work life was going to be problematic. I simply didn’t enjoy working. I liked the paycheck. I liked the fact that I didn’t have a test to take but other than that, not a fan. I would come home to talk to my father, who was also an engineer, and say, “I can’t believe this is all there is.” He didn’t get it. I knew at that point that my chemical engineering degree was a mistake. I had absolutely no interest in solving industrial engineering problems and, frankly, no interest in furthering my education to solve more sophisticated engineering problems. But I had come far enough with the degree that I rode it out.
After I graduated, I got a job at a consulting firm that lasted two months until I was fired (if you’re curious, you can listen to that fiasco here) and then I found a job at a dot com coding HTML and the rest, as they say is my adult work history.
Some people want to save the world through technology, politics, or medicine. Other people want power or to amass great fortunes. Still others want to be of service, whether it be to their fellow man or, perhaps, even to God. I, on the other hand, like making sandwiches, chicken wings, and keys. Or I like simple repeatable skilled tasks, like painting houses or coding web pages.
I’ve heard it said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Cool, man. So how the fuck do I do that first part?