Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Things We Do For Money

Why do people do what they do for a living? I don’t mean the callings glamorized in books or on television and in film. Policeman, fireman, soldier, doctor, nurse, mother, father or religious leader or teacher… these career paths are idealized and presented to us as worthy callings from the time we can comprehend the concepts of honor, glory, faith and trust. … I mean the billion odd or unusual or tedious jobs that people do every day. What makes someone wake up one day and say “I want to cook fried chicken for eight hours a day, five days a week, for the rest of my life” or “I feel the need to pluck chickens, and to be the best damn chicken plucker ever!”  or “I have a knack for chicken sexing… I think my future lies there”. No offense to chicken workers of any kind. I love chicken, have had a job where I cooked fried chicken, have watched my grandmother pluck a chicken and I still can’t understand why anyone would devote their lives to any of these fowl pursuits.

I am a computer programmer. I have no deep love or fascination with computers. I found myself a widow at the ripe old age of 34. I had four children who were lost and alone and so deeply sad I could barely stand to look at them. I had bills to pay and a not-great job to try to pay them with. Being the logical, measured, rational person that I am, after going totally freaking crazy for a solid year, I called my local trade school and had the following conversation:

Me: What can I learn that will pay me the most money in the least amount of time?
Admin: What are you interested in?
Me: Making money, a lot, and soon.
Admin: I understand that but we try to help people find something that they can feel good ab…
Me: Excuse me, ma’am? I just want to make the most amount of money in the least amount of time.
Admin: May I ask why?
Me: Because I am 35 and a widow who can’t see shit with four kids to feed, clothe and care for. I have been a chicken cook, a stock clerk, a copywriter and a freight broker. I have baked cakes and done phone surveys, babysat and cut grass and NONE of these things are going to take care of their needs. So, I ask again, wha…
Admin: Ma’am, take computer programming.

When I had this conversation I was a freight broker. A freight broker spends their day on the phone calling and receiving calls from manufacturers and trucking companies, trying to arrange transport for goods across the Continental United States. Manufacturers want to pay the least while truckers want to get paid the most possible. The job is essentially being a diplomat for crappy money and no respect, no retirement, no awards and no poker games in the back room a la Sergeant Bilko.

I loved this job because it involved no nights, weekends or chicken fryers. I got to wear dresses to work, no hairnets were involved and no heavy lifting was needed. We were three women and the owner in a little office over a car stereo shop behind a Home Depot. I liked the environment, liked my boss and the ladies I worked with. .I would step out onto the teeny back porch to smoke and watch flat beds pull into the parking lot behind us and wonder if they were carrying in the roses from South Texas or the chemicals from South Georgia I had brokered two days before. 

I learned that all of the DOT yellow paint used for striping roads and painting curbs came from the same manufacturer (Texas again) and that makeup had to be irradiated and so was considered hazardous material and that people who carried produce from Florida did not want it on their trucks. I learned that trucks that carry coffins have special racks inside of them which do not allow them to carry a standard load home so often the truckers have to travel home empty (dead heading) and I learned that no one in their right mind wanted to carry chickens, ever.

I did not enjoy hearing my coworkers (all wives of truckers past or present) and my boss (a former trucker himself)  tell what they considered humorous and I considered terrifying stories of coked up truckers carrying over-loaded vans full of frozen chicken parts across country in half the time it should legally take. One of the ladies laughed uproariously as she talked about dragging a Volkswagen under the front bumper through rush hour traffic in Las Angeles and being totally unaware until a cop pulled them over. Trucks scare the bejeezes out of me now.

Before the brokerage I worked at a local newspaper as a copywriter in their ad department. I had great hope for that job. Newspaper was synonymous with career to me and the pay was $1.65 more an hour than I had been making. I begged for that job, I plead with the manager who interviewed me. When I got the call that I was hired I hung up the phone and did a jig. The ad department at a newspaper sounded so legitimate compared to stock person and sales associate (the two jobs I was holding at the time) that it made my head swim. Ah, reality, it truly does bite.

The work itself was interesting. I got to paste together ads with teeny pictures and lines of text. I learned how to use the giant machine that melted the wax and spread it on the backs of the mock ups as they were rolled through. The ads were then stuck to large pieces of newsprint sized board and photographed for the computerized presses. I also learned that typing out lunch menus every week for each school in a large county was mind numbing, that any rounded letter in type smaller than 10 point was a mystery to me, that newsprint does not come off your finger tips when you handle it for hours every day and that a lot of people who work for newspapers are hardly the icons of truth and integrity that they would have us believe.

As annoying as this job became it was still better than the two I had held before it. I worked at a venerable department store as a sales associate. I was there at 6:45 every morning, stocking the floor, re-arranging the merchandise as directed by the corporate office and preparing for the onslaught of bored housewives, retired men, home-bound mothers desperate for an hour out with their screaming tots, teenagers skipping school, shoplifters and psychopaths, all of this while my brain rotted away due to the incessant and  insidious muzak boring into it and the annual three-month-long replay of the same twelve Christmas carols. In case you wondered how someone who can’t see anything handled a job like this, the answer is not very well. I yearned to make a t-shirt with the saying ‘Blind But Not Stupid’ on it but I didn’t think they would let me wear it. Okay, so I couldn’t see someone carrying ten pairs of Levi’s out under their skimpy T and I couldn’t see someone gesturing to me for help as the ancient racks loaded with winter coats toppled over onto darling junior (who shouldn’t have been playing under them anyway, am I right?) and I couldn’t tell if something was blue, black or green, matched or clashed, but my area was always neat and if I could help you at all I did.

I would leave at 3, always dirty and depressed, go to the drug store next door and order a grill cheese and a cup of joe. I would sit at the counter listening to the regulars flirt with the rayon clad waitress for 45 minutes and then go three doors down to my next job.

My title was Stock Clerk (what clerking had to do with it is a mystery). I would walk into the back room and be confronted by a wall of boxes and a giant cart of hangers and ‘theft prevention devices’. The best thing about this job was that I was alone. After spending the day dealing with the public I could turn on the radio, take off my shoes and get to hanging. At that time I could not have afforded the clothes I was preparing. I would take them out and ooh and ahh as I clipped on the plastic devices used to deter shoplifters. I lived in terror of breaking one of the glass ampoules with ink inside, knowing that if I did so I would have to pay for the merchandise it might stain.

The formaldehyde in the clothes (used as a stabilizing agent for dyes) would start to make me loopy after a while and I would step out into the alley and breathe in cool crisp air while the blues followed me out the door and blended with the stars decorating the night. I usually finished up by 9, later on Thursdays as the store geared up for the weekend and would call my husband to please come get me.

Before the stores, and after the phone surveys and babysitting gigs, I was, you guessed it, a chicken cook. While the restaurant’s mascots might urge you to ‘eat more chiken’ after my first week there I can assure I did not!

For two years I worked alongside fresh faced missionary students and pastors of small churches chopping cabbage, slicing tomatoes, peeling eggs, making lemon meringue pies and breading tons and tons and tons of chicken one breast at a time. I have always felt at home in a kitchen so my eyesight did not make so big a difference there. I lusted after the giant mixers, the fabulous fryers and the glorious stainless cookware and surfaces. I couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to bathe two or even three kids at once in the huge, deep welled kitchen sinks.

While the constant preaching made me slightly nuts (I became their cause célèbre, being Catholic and all) and walking on the grease slicked tile floor was akin to skating on oil coated ice all in all the job suited me. Having cooked for what seemed an army of kids for years, frying three grand worth of chicken over the lunch shift was no big deal. The two big drawbacks as I saw it were the smell and the knives. The smell of chicken never left me. I would shower for what seemed an hour and still smell the chicken, raw and breaded on my hands and in my hair.  When I walked into the grocery store, the smell of the chicken in the meat case made me gag before I had gotten five feet in. Add to that the multitude of slices, cuts, nicks and gashes I had gotten while prepping food and the job started to lose it’s allure. One morning, cleaning cabbage (for coleslaw) which had been in an ice bath I watched as the butcher knife I was wielding took off the very end of my thumb. I couldn’t feel a thing since my hands were frozen solid, but I just knew when I could it was going to hurt like a summabitch. My manager took one look at my white and terrified face, yelled ‘Oh shit, now she’s gone and done it’ (evidently Christian goodness gets put in the back seat when spurting blood is immanent), grabbed me, snatching up her keys while wrapping my hand in a towel and shouting out position changes to everyone and hustled me out the door and to the ER.

As I watched the doctor sew my thumb tip back on I thought of all the other injuries and decided my flesh was pretty darn necessary to my future plans so I should probably find a new career.

This is just a little aside, A bit of information for those of you who I may have offended while working any of the above jobs which required name tags. When an almost blind  person leans down and put their nose in your cleavage they are not sniffing you up or trying to look down your shirt, they are merely trying to see who the hell you are.

I have had a lot of jobs. I try to do them all as well as I can and to find and try to concentrate on the good in each and every one of them. I am still waiting for that moment though, the one where you think ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life.’  To all of the chicken sexers and fry cooks out there who have had that moment, I salute you. You are a luckier person than I.