James M. Flammang, author of more than two dozen
books (including six for children), is at work on
several more, including the title described below.
A veteran automotive journalist, Flammang concentrates
on the "big picture," whether he's writing about cars,
consumer issues, simpler living, or any other topic.
During 2013, Flammang will be expanding his efforts into
the areas of work/labor, consumer concerns, and travel.
Ten minutes after starting my first full-time job, I was ready to retire. Or if not actually retire, to quit–and run off as fast as I could, in search of some more appetizing way of life.
Not that I could envision any other lifestyle (a hoity-toity word that had not yet come into common usage). This was working-class Chicago in the mid-1950s. All we knew, growing up, was that we'd soon be seeking and, hopefully, getting some sort of regular job. That's what we did. That's what our fathers had done, and their fathers before them.
Not mothers, though. Except for women raising children singlehandedly after death or divorce, not many mothers worked outside the home in those days.
What else could there be? I knew nothing of any other type of existence. In that time and place, unless you or your parents could scrape up money for community colleage or maybe a state university, there was only one option. You left high school, and you got a job. Case closed. With money coming in, you could buy a car, get married, start a family and trudge off to work every day for the next 40 years or more. That was life for our parents and grandparents, and it would be for us. Most of us, at any rate.
Glancing around that proofreading department, tucked within a mammoth printing company that produced telephone books, only a single thought filled my mind on that first day: Is this what all the fuss was about? Is this all? Studying the intense faces of the proofreaders and the timekeepers who patrolled their days' work, I could only wonder in amazement. As a 16-year-old high school graduate, I had to ask myself incredulously: Is this what we're supposed to do every day, year after year, for the rest of our lives?
Rather than run off, like nearly every young American in the mid-1950s I plopped down into my timekeeper's chair. What choice was there except to give in and stay on the job. For a while. Nearly a year for that one: first as timekeeper tracking the proofreader's activities, then after six months a promotion to clerk in the cost accounting department. A year later, defying the conventional wisdom of the day with respect to life's meaning, I resigned from the company.
But not from the process. Soon came another job, as a proofreader myself this time, at the printing company for which my father toiled as a cutting-machine operator. After a couple of months, I ready to move on again. And did. Then, after a period of slogging from one employment office to the next, filling out tedious applications, taking the 50-question Wonderlic test so the personnel people could appraise my "intelligence," I was hired. Before long, that job ended, followed (after the usual employment-office shuffle) by another, and then another. Three months here, two weeks there. My short-term record was four hours. The longest connection lasted a bit over a year.
Nothing exotic or intoxicating fills my resume from that period. I was never a merchant seaman, a taxi driver, a bartender, or even a factory worker (though friends did find employment in each of those categories). When I did work inside a factory, I had one of the dingy white-collar jobs–far short of professional or managerial, but not running a machine or hauling heavy materials around, either.
No, most of my employment in my late teens and early 20s fell into the category of minor clerical worker. I was an accounting clerk at Stewart-Warner, a clerk with duties I've forgotten at Victor Adding Machine Company, a ticket counter for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway.
Now and then, though, I did manage to get a position that's worth recalling years later. For several weeks, I was a pipe organ repairman. My father just happened to know a fellow who was in that little-known business, and who had need for a trainee to learn to repair those massive pipe organs in churches. That one lasted two weeks, before the owner and I agreed that I wasn't cut out for that work. Actually, the work itself was rather interesting, but my mechanical skills had always been meager, and I dreaded the thought of having to spend every day and evening with another employee, traveling from one pipe-organ location to the next, then moving to another hotel in another town. Or, driving the long distance back home if that was more convenient.
For a few days, I toiled as a helper on a beer truck, delivering 150-pound half-barrels and 450-pound full barrels, mainly to Skid Row bars on Chicago's near west side. A friend who'd been driving a beer truck for more than a year got me that job. His efforts were appreciated, but the job was not. Though slight in stature in those days, and not well-developed physically, I had to unload those 150-pounders by myself, dropping them onto a rubber pad, then upending the barrel to roll it into the bar. Often, that meant dragging the thing down to the basement, intensely wary of the appearance of rats, insects, or whatever else might be residing down there. Hauling one half-barrel down a narrow stairway, I was sweating so much that my glasses fell off. Only a full-barrel warranted assistance from the driver, who typically spent the unloading time chatting with the bartender.
Like so many jobs, truth be known, that one had a ritual. At every stop, the driver got a free shot of whiskey. The helper got a glass of beer. Back at the brewery, when the day's work was done, every employee was entitled to drink all the beer he wanted, right out of a tap set aside for that purpose.
I drove a UPS truck for a month, delivered telephone books, took the census in a California city, and spent one Christmas season as a box boy at a department store. Worst of all was that UPS gig, because drivers endured an unbelievably tight schedule. We literally had to run, not walk, when dragging a package out of the truck and carrying it to someone's door. Driving faster than prudent was necessary, too. Stopping the truck and putting on the handbrake to keep it in place was a bit of a problem, because most of the handbrakes didn't work. At least one gas gauge didn't work either, risking the prospect of running out of fuel. Nearly all UPS trucks had manual transmissions, and they were the old-fashioned non-synchronized "crash box" type, which turned gear-shifting into an exercise in grinding frustration.
What else? I was employed as a clerk in U.S. bankruptcy court, where each morning I called out those immortal words: "Hear ye, Hear ye, the United State District Court of Northern Illinois, sitting in bankruptcy, is now in session. Please be seated and come to order."
Sure, I remember them. I also remember the two years spent as a mail carrier (on two separate occasions), and several months as a contract parts-list writer for a Boeing supplier. Perhaps most memorable of all were the months spent as a night clerk in a residential hotel in Chicago's Bohemian neighborood. Add them all up, and it's something beyond 30 separate jobs in an eight-year period. Runner-up: my 14 months as a public aid caseworker in the slums of Chicago.
Even if the work itself had little meaning, and the job contributed nothing toward my future other than providing a bit of income, I can't deny that lessons were learned. If we're paying attention, we all learn something at our jobs, no matter how short-lived, physically taxing, or mentally torturous they are. As we'll see in later chapters, those lessons weren't necessarily the ones that the company managers would like their workers to note and recall, whether fondly or reluctantly.
Not quite all of those jobs were the kind where you were presumed to want to stay at the company for life. Most, but not all. While attending the University of Illinois in the central part of the state, I worked as a gas station attendant (three days) and a library clerk (nearly three semesters).
Most important of all, though, were the years spent as a copywriter, writing catalogs and, later, mail-order copy. That was the job that led to a lifetime as an independent writer, journalist, and author.
Prior to the mid-1960s and the birth of the counterculture, such a voluminous–if relatively dull–resume was nothing to boast about. Having a disparaging impression of work was not a popular view, either. Classmates who weren't immediately going on to college could hardly wait to be interviewed for their first jobs, whether in a factory or office, or behind the wheel of a truck. They wanted to hit the "real world" running, with paychecks rolling in as quickly as possible.
Paychecks meant money to buy flashy cars, impress girls, carouse through drunken weekends. Never had I heard anyone, peer or parent, utter a discouraging word about what would inevitably turn out to be lifelong servitude. People might joke about how awful their jobs were, complete with vivid descriptions of bloodcurdling bosses, nasty coworkers, or complaining customers, but nearly all of them showed up again every Monday morning.
No matter how much you detested your job, most workers stuck it out. Quitting (or getting fired) carried a worrisome stigma, after all. Young Freddie doesn't want to work? "Must be a bum," local critics would charge. "Maybe a lazy commie. I'll show him what it means to ...."
Now, half a century later, all I can say is that I was right and they were wrong. If only it had been possible to run off or retire before sliding headlong into the world of work, life might have been a lot more tolerable. Rather than an alarmed response from an immature teenager, that initial reaction was the logical one, the sensible one. Beyond the obvious benefit of providing money to live on through all these years, for many of us, work has provided few rewards and plenty of grief.
Looking back, what produces the greatest regret may be the amount of time and effort spent looking for work; or in later years, for freelance assignments. Those were all wasted hours and days, and weeks and months, which contributed nothing whatsoever to life's learning.
Sure, it's different for doctors, firefighters, therapists, caregivers–those who make a real and valued contribution to the welfare of humanity. But only a tiny percentage of us fall into that category. How many of us, after decades of work, can honestly say that our jobs have made a difference to the world? Any difference.
Painful as it is to admit, for many of us a life of business, bosses, and bureaucracy leaves a string of memories that are more painful than merry. One way or another, all we've done is made a dimwitted dent in the routine of shuffling money around.