Thursday, August 02, 2007

The worst Summer job? A reminiscence and an Unscientific Survey

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, 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.


Shelby said...

That's a great story.

Um, I have many worst part time jobs. Effect on my life over and above paycheck . . yep. I'd say so.

ok - well here's one..
Right after my daughter was born (she's 11 now), I started my very first job as a legal secretary in downtown big city.

First of all, I didn't know how to park in a parking garage. I didn't know how to pay for monthly parking. I didn't know how to drive on one way city block streets. I didn't know much about nuthin' 'cept being a wife and mother.

I grew up in the country and that's kinda how that went. Shy, albeit hardworking simple girl goes to the big city.

I worked for a fancy big firm in the tallest tower in town (in the state). I worked for two lady lawyers. Two of 'em.

First mistake.

Let's just pretend they were mean.

After three weeks, I was 'asked' to find a different career. I was told I'd never cut it as a legal secretary. I was told I'd never cut it in this type profession as anything.

I left. I never went back to that firm.

A couple weeks later I landed a job as a legal secretary in a bigger firm in the same tower making more money working for men. Nice men.

Lawyers should be men. Did I just say that?! Unless they're me. Or unless they are nice women.

I learned alot about me from that experience.

Mainly, that I don't like women lawyers.

And I want to be one.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

hi curmy, first two things, i noticed your adsense is now for those caller id foils i blogged about one day, and two, your how much is my blog worth needs to be updated, it's worth more! want to sell it? ha ha

now, my worst job: counting money for drivers in a soda delivery company where my boss was constantly sitting oh her bosses lap. and every time i caught them i got in trouble. sigh... it sucked.

smiles, bee

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

oh, sorry, one other thing, your thingy shows your pr as 0 and it is really a 4.

smiles, bee

Jean-Luc Picard said...

That is a well told story; hired as the face of the building site.

The Curmudgeon said...

Shelby -- I confess I thought about you when I posted this.

Bee -- You were right! The market must be up today. And as for that PR stuff -- I told you I didn't get it. Sometimes at home it shows up as a 0 but always as a 4 here at the Undisclosed Location. And as for your job experience... did you knock first?

Barb said...

Wonderful story! I enjoyed every word!

I don't know about worse, but I can tell you the quickest one.

I was doing office cleaning and was assigned to a building during the day when the people were still there. (EEK!) I worked the morning, left for lunch, and never went back.

Dave said...

All of the worst job story is too long. Short version.

I worked summers between school years at a fruit canning plant in northern Lower Michigan.

I was a laborer. I only knew one speed of work. We, me and a couple of full time workers, were assigned to clean and organize the warehouse.

Mid-day, second day: "Kid, slow down, you're going to make us look bad" as he headed back to the top of a pallet with cardboard stacked on it to take his next two hour nap.

landgirl said...

I have had some doozies for jobs, including telemarketing so my heart goes out to your son. My first summer job after college was waitressing. It wasn't that the job was so bad as that I was so bad at it. I could never remember when the dessert was included and when it wasn't, so after the first time of being told, my little salary was docked for it. Also, I seemed to have this knack for spilling hot fudge sundaes all over myself. By the time I counted up the cost of ruined uniforms (oh yeah: wearing a uniform was another one of the un-cool aspects), improper billing, sensible shoes that I would never wear again, and wear and tear on my body and soul, I was glad to go back to school again. Yup, nuthin like a summer job in the real world to put the luster back on acedmia.

cmhl said...

my absolute WORST summer job was detasseling corn--- about 100 miles south of where you are.. It was horrible, horrible horrible, but about all you could do when you were only 13 or so in central IL. My brother and I caught a bus at about 3:30 in the morning and worked until about noon. It was hellacious, but definitely made me appreciate the value of a good eduction, and made me realize that manual labor wasn't really my thing...

Hilda said...

I never worked a part-time or summer job. But I do have a worst job story. Telemarketing. I empathize with your son - it *is* soul-sucking.

Actually, it was really more that I sucked at it.

It was selling The Wall Street Journal (if you want to read my feelings on Murdoch's acquisition check out my Blog).

I would get these humongous old school green-bar printouts of poor unsuspecting souls about to be harrassed by me. So I'd cold-call them and offer them a wonderful opportunity to subscribe to the highly-respected (until yesterday anyway!) WSJ for the low, low price of whatever.

The problem was, when they told me they didn't want it, I'd believe them and proceed to either chat about wherever they lived and have a lovely conversation with them on the company's dime, or say thank you and hang up. I wouldn't try to convince them that they really wanted the WSJ. This is pretty much a no-brainer - you either want the WSJ or you don't - there's not a whole lot of gray area here.

So, TPTB and I came to an amicable parting of the ways and they were gracious enough to call it a lay-off so I could collect unemployment. I'm guessing that the new management wouldn't be so generous.

Linda said...

Excellent story and a good question!

My worst part-time job was working at Burger King when I was in the Air Force. I would go in for the evening shift after working all day and then when I would go home and try to fall asleep at night I couldn't because I was making hamburgers in my head all night long! It drove me nuts plus I'm not real good in the face-to-face customer service end of things! I think I only lasted there a week or two and then said forget it! Took me a long time to ever go back to a fast-food joint, too!

Where fibers meet mud said...

Great story - loved the foil aspect!

My worst summer job and most motivational job to continue college was flipping and serving hambugers at a local restuarant.

Do you want fries with that was a phrase from the 60's that has caused more harm than good - unless it is the motivation to crack the books and get good grades...