I've mentioned Middle Son's soul-crushing summer job as a telemarketer here recently.
I can't imagine cold-calling strangers on the phone to sell them something; I have enough trouble calling people I'm supposed to call. I don't even like telephoning friends or family.
I am certain that Middle Son will long remember this Summer job and how much he disliked it. (Even though his bosses took him to Florida
recently to pitch in a baseball tournament. And they paid.)
My worst Summer job did not involve a Florida trip....
*flashback alert* *flashback alert* *flashback alert*
After my first year of law school I hired on as a decoy, shield and foil for a builder of new homes.
Technically, I guess I was a laborer, but I was really a decoy, shield and foil.
I was a skinny kid in those days, weak as the U.N., and far happier reading books than working outdoors.
But my father knew the general contractor, a dark, hirsute, Italian-American man about 5'6" and built like a barrel. "Kid, we're going to turn you into coiled steel this Summer," he told me. "Coiled steel." He had trouble saying that with a straight face.
My father thought he'd conned the contractor into taking me on.
The job was close enough to our home that I probably rode my bike to and from.
I may have seen the actual contractor twice more in the Summer. The guy I reported to every day was the foreman. I'll call him Burt.
Burt wasn't tall either, but he was thin and sandy-haired and he spoke with a twang that betrayed a Southern origin. I'm not saying he was from Georgia -- in Illinois, anyone born South of I-80 might have a Southern twang. Burt was the public face of the project; when home buyers came to see how their new homes were coming along, Burt was the man they came to see.
This was a small subdivision. No homes were built on spec; each lot was under contract before ground was broken there.
I was one of three laborers on the site; the others were Mexicans. I learned all sorts of words that Summer that my wife (a Cuban-American) claims not to know.
Whatever time I got there in the morning -- and it was early -- the Mexicans were there before me. They kept working after I was free to go. I eventually learned that they were sleeping on the site. Looking back, I assume they were illegals. At the time all I knew was that they worked longer and harder on their worst day than I could on my best.
But they couldn't be effective decoys, shields and foils... as I'll explain... eventually.
I did a lot of sweeping here or toting supplies there. One recurring job I had involved pumping basements. Before the houses were enclosed, if it rained, the basements would fill with water. Depending on where the water table was, the basements might have filled with water anyway. This is why sump pumps were invented.
And it was a sump pump I was using, hooked up to a gasoline powered generator. Unfortunately I couldn't just drop the hose in and walk away. I had to jump into the basements and direct the hose, because otherwise it would promptly be clogged with debris.
The tradesmen used the basements for dumping whatever they needed to dump. Sometimes it was scraps of wood or shingles. Sometimes it was other things. I had to stand in the muck and mire and keep the business end of the hose from becoming clogged.
This would be bad enough, but occasionally, in the afternoons, after drinking several beers at lunch, the bricklayers would be overcome by a predictable need. This was something else that would be put into the basement... whether I was there or not. Sometimes I think they were aiming
for me. Maybe it was a contest. I was not about to inquire.
The bricklayers weren't the only tradesmen to drink at lunch. I accepted the plumber's invitation to lunch one day. He drove us to a joint off the site. I let him buy me a beer... but I wasn't going to let him buy me two. Something in his manner or tone... well, I was glad to get back to work. Even with the bricklayers working above me.
Another time I was bringing insulation to the carpenters. The youngest of them asked me if I was from the area. Yes, I said. He asked if I had gone to the local high school. Yes, I said. "How many years?" he asked.
"Um. All four," I replied.
"Oh," he said. "College boy." His voice carried something of a sneer. I certainly did not volunteer that I had by then already graduated college.
But -- you ask -- when do you get to the part about being a decoy, shield and foil?
Well, these houses were all under contract, as I said, and the contracts promised that the houses would be complete by such and such a date.
Whatever the date was, it seemed always to be in the distant past.
And the new home buyers -- young couples, really, maybe with a kid or two, maybe not -- generally moving up from an apartment or condo -- didn't realize that the scheduled completion date was not as firm as it had seemed to be on paper.
We had people living with their parents. Or in their cars. With their furniture in increasingly expensive storage. And they were angry
young couples that came to confront ol' Burt every couple of days. I don't recall seeing any of them carrying ropes or torches or pitchforks... but they had the attitude of persons who might carry such things as they stalked around the site looking for Burt.
And that's where I came in.
Ol' Burt would weather their initial blasts as best he could. Sooner or later, he reasoned, they'd have to stop just in order to breathe.
And that's when Burt would motion me over.
"Bill, Sally," he'd twang, just as if they'd been discussing baseball and not threatening to tear his limbs out of their sockets, "have you met our young Curmudgeon? C'mon over here, Curmudgeon, and meet Bill and Sally."
Now Burt would turn back to Bill and Sally and tell them, in a conversational, even conspiratorial, tone, "Curmudgeon here is a college boy. He's going to law school." Then he'd turn toward me -- and I'd better be there -- "Aren't you, Curmudgeon?"
My job at this point was to have my hand extended. Yes, Burt would direct me, shake hands with Bill and Sally (or Ted and Jane or Ed and Edna). These same people, who moments ago had murder in their hearts and blood in their eye, would now shake hands with me and engage in pointless small talk about school. After all, they had no quarrel with me. Maybe one of them had gone to the same school as I had. So much the better if he or she had.
The moment of danger would pass: Bill and Sally weren't hardened killers, they were just frustrated, but fundamentally nice, people who were sick of living in their car. So having exchanged conversational niceties with yours truly, they weren't able to immediately recapture their violent rage. Burt could then placate them with promises of one more week or 10 more days.
Some of them must have driven away wondering what had just happened.
Thirty years out I am more convinced than ever that this was my real value to the project.
I'm sure I did get physically stronger working that job, although I never did rise to the level of "coiled steel." But what I really learned was that law school wasn't so bad after all. I'd had my doubts, after my first year, about whether I really wanted to go back. This job helped me to resolve to finish my degree.
Which leads, inexorably, to today's Unscientific Survey: What was your worst part-time job... and did it have any effect on your life over and above the paycheck?
--------------------------------------------------------Image from Flicr by donajo.