Labor day has me thinking back to all the many jobs I've had over the years since I first started working at the age of 14. My first job was at a cookie bakery, owned by one of our neighbors. They had asked me if I would be interested in babysitting for them, but since I accidentally let the kid wander away during the interview, they very wisely decided to go with somebody else. But they did offer me a job passing out samples at the bakery instead.
The cookie bakery was the perfect first job. It was in a little white cottage with blue shutters attached to the Flemington Cut Glass showroom. Flemington Cut Glass was a well known attraction back then, so it was an ideal location. Inside, it was a tiny little space, always hot from the constantly running ovens. The warm air perfumed with vanilla would waft down the couple of steps that separated us from the Cut Glass Showroom, and entice the tourists in for coffee and cookies before they got back on the bus. My job was to stand outside, with a tray of samples, to catch people on their way to the other outlets.
After the cookie bakery I worked in fast food, eventually becoming the Assistant Manager of a fast food restaurant. I had only been in mangement for a few months when the General Manager went on a bender, got in his car, and ended up somewhere in Virginia in Police custody. Suddenly, I found myself on my own and in charge of a million dollar business at 21 years old, with only a few weeks of training.
Somehow or other, I managed to survive and keep the business afloat, despite the fact that during that time we also had a fire, a theft and a flood. Once I accidentally ordered 50,000 ten pound paper bags instead of 5,000 (we had them stacked everywhere for months). And another time I slipped on some ice and broke my nose during the lunch rush. I had to finish out my shift holding a plastic bag of ice on my face while running a cash register, since there was nobody else who could replace me.
Despite all the disasters, I actually found running the daily operations of the business to not be that hard (at least on the days when nothing was on fire or under water). The thing that really kicked my can was the paperwork. We didn't have the benefit of computers then, so all the sales figures were recorded in ledgers with tiny little lines, using a pencil and a calculator. If things didn't jive by the time you got to the bottom, you knew you had made a mistake and had to go back over it all again. It took me hours and hours every night. After a year of that, I decided to re-think restaurant management as a career choice. Yet thanks to that job, every other job I had after it seemed easy by comparison.
Next I spent a few years in the copy room of the home office of a big insurance company. They hired me to do data entry, but after I brought the company mainframe down on my very first day ("Don't be shy, you can't break it!") they quickly changed their minds and found a place for me in the copy room instead, far, far away from any computer terminals. After that I was a legal secretary/paralegal. For the first couple yeas I was there we still typed all our pleadings on the manual typewriter, with carbon paper. Later I did multi-media editing for a med-ed company, and I was once the graphic designer in a busy print shop. Nowadays, I coordinate trade shows and do other administrative work for a roofing materials manufacturer.
No matter what I worked at by day, I almost always had a night job, too, usually in some kind of restaurant or another (although once it was a paper route). Sometimes I waited tables, other times I was behind the counter in a fast food joint, or did catering on weekends. One time I even ran a cash register at another little specialty bakery. Although nothing I did was consistent enough to be called a career, at least I always had a job, or two, or even three.
Today being Labor Day, I think not only about my own working life, with all its ups and downs, but also the working lives of my immigrant co-workers. What strikes me is no matter what I've found myself doing over the years, I always knew that at the end of the day I would go home to my family. I knew that if I lost one job, I'd probably find another and if I couldn't, unemployment was an option if I really needed it (thankfully I never did). Yet all too often, the people I worked side-by-side with couldn't say the same.
I remember in one job I worked with a young mother whose eyes welled up with tears every time she saw babies in the restaurant, thinking about her own babies back in Costa Rica. She kept telling herself as soon as the house was paid for, she could go home. After that, it became as soon as all the children are in school she could go home. Later, it was once all her mother's medical bills were paid, maybe then she could go home. She was the only one supporting all those people, the truth was she would probably never go home, not until one of her own kids was old enough to come to take her place.
I worked with a 19 year old who worked 18 hours a day six days a week at three different jobs. When I asked him why in creation a kid his age would want to do that, he told me he was working to support his widowed sister and her children after her husband tried to come north to find work and didn't survive the crossing. He and his sister had known hunger as children, and he was bound and determined his nephews never would.
I worked with another man whose brother was hit by a drunk driver while riding his bike to work. He ended up mentally aware, but paralyzed on life support, unable to communicate. His brothers spent $80 each way twice a week to take a taxi to visit him in the hospital. They eventually had to get a restraining order to keep the hospital from turning off the life support because as an undocumented immigrant they didn't feel he was entitled to it, despite the insurance claim that would pay for it. They won, but he died shortly thereafter.
Looking back, I know I could have had a career if I had made different choices. Even now, if I decided to go back to school, I'm sure I could pull it off somehow if I really put my mind to it. My point is, whatever economic distress I've suffered in life was caused by nothing more than my own decisions, and even now, over forty, I still have plenty of choices left to make. Today I remember those who labor beside me who don't have choices, those who are the victims of circumstances bigger than themselves, who must live their lives separated from those they love, trapped between two countries, with no way out.
What was your first job, and what does Labor Day make you think about? Have you ever thought about what level of need in your life would be compelling enough to make you leave your family and go work in a foreign place where you might be exploited? Feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments.