Painfully Employed (Part 1)

Posted on April 23, 2011

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When I was twenty-one, three friends persuaded me to attend a meeting. “It will change your life,” they promised. At the time, my life was dull and without focus, and I decided to go, even though I didn’t like meetings. I especially didn’t like the meetings where they went around the room and you had to introduce yourself and explain why you were there. I never heard a word anyone else said, because I was always trying to think of what I would say when it was my turn. That’s probably what everyone was doing, so what was the point? My friends assured me it wasn’t that kind of meeting. This was business, a chance to learn at a young age how to be successful. The phrase change your life echoed in my head. And so I went, failing to recognize the simple fact that falling down an elevator shaft would also change my life, but that didn’t mean it was a good idea.

* * * * *

I had been working since I was sixteen. Or twelve, if you count the paper route. I quit that within a year after realizing that I couldn’t possibly hate complete strangers any more than I now did. Delivering the newspapers was easy. Collecting the money each week was maddening. Customers pretended to not be there, even though I could hear them breathing on the other side of the door. Sometimes a man would answer and tell me his wife had all of the cash, and she wasn’t home. I felt sorry for those men, but still wanted to find a brick and beat them senseless. It was trudging through waist-deep snow drifts for that last ten-cent Christmas tip that pushed me over the edge.

* * * * *

My first real job was at a local supermarket, when the minimum wage was $1.65 an hour. After taxes and union dues were deducted, there was almost enough left over in my paycheck to buy myself a new shirt and tie, which I had to wear while pushing long lines of shopping carts across slushy parking lots, and while unloading filthy and disgusting delivery trucks. One week I filled in for someone in the meat department and spent every day with my hand inside the abdominal cavities of frozen turkeys. That was when I decided I would go to college, after all.

There was a guy named Whitey who was in charge of the beverage aisle. Whitey was a few years older, and tried hard to convince me that within a month I would either be drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, or both. But he seemed most interested in testing his theory that if all of the toilets in both bathrooms were flushed at exactly the same moment, the plumbing system in the entire store would explode. None of the women would cooperate, however, so we were never able find out if it was true. I eventually came to doubt the validity of Whitey’s theory, yet almost forty years later I still find myself waiting a few seconds if I hear someone flush the toilet in the upstairs bathroom at home. Some things just aren’t worth the risk.

* * * * *

In my senior year of high school I was a baby food salesman, visiting about a dozen grocery stores, stocking shelves, and placing orders. Except for occasionally slicing open a case and finding eleven broken jars of moldy spinach — and having to extract and clean the thirteen survivors — it wasn’t an unpleasant job. There were deep mysteries, of course. Like strained applesauce: wasn’t applesauce already about as strained as something could get? And squash. What could a six-month-old have done to deserve that for lunch?

Part of my task was to make sure the jars were arranged on the shelves so the labels in front all faced straight out. Each label featured the company’s symbol, an illustration of an impossibly adorable baby. This wall of product, orderly and solid, was meant to attract the eye of the customer. But to me, hundreds of cute baby heads lined up in perfect rows was surprisingly disturbing, like some genetics experiment gone horribly wrong. On the other hand, the company was paying my salary, so I did what they wanted. When I reached the lofty level of two dollars an hour, I could feel the weight of financial pressure leave my shoulders forever.

* * * * *

That summer I was hired as a baker at a doughnut shop. I knew nothing about baking, so I had to be trained by Pierre, a man from Haiti who had worked there for ten years. Standing next to Pierre as he transformed a slab of dough into hundreds of perfect doughnuts was like watching a street magician up-close. I was looking right at him, yet I couldn’t tell what he was doing. The dough seemed to be under his spell, forming itself into uniform rings against its own will.

The hardest part of the job was frying the doughnuts, which involved arranging them on a metal rack and lowering them into a cooker filled with boiling hot oil. As the bottoms browned, we had to flip the doughnuts with wooden sticks in order to fry the other side. Pierre turned them with a rhythmic ease. It appeared that they wanted to be turned, and every couple of minutes he produced another four dozen golden beauties, ready to cool and decorate. I had the sense that this man was impervious to the tremendous heat coming off the top of that oven. I imagined that he could have plunged his hands and his entire head into the oil and emerged smiling and singing Haitian love songs.

I had a different experience. Unaccustomed to the feeling that my fingers were about to burst into flames, I had to keep pulling my hands away from the heat, and it took me much longer to flip the doughnuts. Most would turn completely over, so the side that had been facing down kept rolling right back to that position. As I grew more frantic, they would spin faster and faster, always stopping with the cooked side down. Soon all of the doughnuts were bobbing around like small boats in a hurricane. I’d occasionally stab a few of them with the sticks, and they would flood with oil and sink to the bottom of the cooker. The ones I did manage to turn were, by then, saturated. Filled and frosted, many weighed as much as forty pounds apiece.

My baking skills never improved much, but for some reason I was asked to handle the overnight shift, which was when the store prepared for its early morning rush. There were few customers between midnight and five, and the ones who showed up tended to be drunk, or looking for a place to hide. One night, at around three, the waitress came into the back room to tell me there was a customer sitting at the counter with a snake around his neck. It was a large snake, a boa constrictor she thought, and she wanted me to go out there and tell him to leave. We argued about it for a good thirty-five minutes, with me explaining to her that I had a huge batch of jelly sticks to powder, and her explaining to me that I was the most useless coward she’d ever met. That of course insulted my pride, and after another fifteen or twenty minutes of arguing, I decided to go out front and offer the man a dozen free doughnuts if he agreed to take his snake and go away. Lucky for him, he was already gone.

Visit Ron Leishman’s website to see his original cartoon art.

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