Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I got my first real job in high school, working on the assembly line for the Sears catalog: sixty-five cents an hour, nearly twice what I’d been getting for baby-sitting. Despite my excitement, I also felt apprehensive. Among the hundreds of workers, I was the only foreign face. It was 1944. A Japanese American, I was only seven months out of an Arizona internment camp. My family was one of thousands interned in early 1942 for “national-security reasons.” (Not one of us was ever found guilty of sabotage or espionage.) Now the war was still going on, but the news from Europe and the Pacific was optimistic. People felt the end was in sight, and victory was assured for our side.
At work, the clickety-clack of printing presses and the oily smell of ink permeated the air. My job was to assemble catalogs, slipping pages into sequence. My co-workers and I wore rubber finger protectors and were cautious of paper cuts.
I worked at a table with nine other girls, all Irish, Italian, or Polish Catholics. They didn’t seem to care that I looked different. Because our work was mindless, we gossiped and joked the entire time. Every Friday morning, at least one of them would talk about the hot date she had that night.
When summer ended, I returned to high school, where I was a misfit. The other students spoke articulately and wore expensive clothes. I missed the joie de vivre of my catalog co-workers, their street smarts and earthiness.
When I was in college in 1970, I got a summer job with a major international firm in London. I had no idea what the company did, but I was excited to be living abroad, and my co-workers immediately made me feel welcome.
On my first day I discovered that my job involved shipping thousands of weapons around the world. I checked, copied, and filed shipping lists for more kinds of guns and ammunition than I’d ever known existed. The documents listed manufacturers such as Remington and Colt, along with quantity and destination. I noticed an especially large number of African countries on the shipping lists. Who was receiving these weapons? Who would be shot by them? I tried not to think of the human cost, but I knew that wherever weapons were shipped, misery and pain would follow.
At the end of the summer, I was sad to say goodbye to my co-workers, who’d been generous and kind to me. If the work had been different, I never would have wanted to leave. I still wonder how such friendly people settled on a career of shipping arms.
I’d had it with teaching. I worked with “difficult” kids and was never sure how much I’d accomplished. I wanted a physical job where I could see the fruits of my labor and wouldn’t bring the work home with me.
So I took a job delivering packages. I wore a brown uniform and carried a clipboard. At first I enjoyed the work, especially returning at the end of the day with an empty truck. But then my supervisor began to time me, insisting I drive faster and deliver more packages. I also realized that most of the packages contained junk that people would be better off without. I began to miss teaching, in particular the look on a kid’s face when he or she finally figured out how to divide fractions or walk away from a fight.
One day I delivered several boxes of textbooks to a junior high school. I was standing at the principal’s desk with my clipboard, waiting for him to get off the phone. “Where in God’s name,” he said into the receiver, “am I going to find a certified special-education teacher two months into the school year?”
I gave him his answer.
In the carnival-like world of Hollywood, I was a set painter. Traditionally this was considered a man’s job, but affirmative action had forced studios to hire more minorities and women.
The work was physically demanding, toxic, and dirty. I ran along scaffolding lugging gallons of paint, covered thousands of square feet in varnish, sanded acres of wood, and marbleized dance floors for Michael Jackson. I hung plaid wallpaper as fast as I could, standing on a ladder surrounded by sweaty men wielding chop saws and drills. When my hair became stiff with lacquer after endless days of spraying, I cut it off.
But the biggest challenge in those early years was sexual politics. One of my bosses joked with me, in front of about twenty leering co-workers, “Which hotel are we going to for lunch, girlie?” The other men would make innuendoes and crass remarks, burping and cussing loudly whenever I was around.
Our first sexual-harassment-awareness meeting was attended by forty angry, confused men afraid for their livelihoods, and one woman: me. I wanted to become invisible. But after that, attitudes began to shift. Pornography disappeared from toolboxes. I was no longer afraid to tell my co-workers when something they did made me feel uncomfortable. Through hard work, humor, and understanding, I earned their respect.
I’ve since learned that new hires are always the brunt of jokes and cruel remarks: a sort of tough guy’s welcome wagon. When I realized this, I felt as if I’d found the key to understanding this strange male universe. It’s unfortunate that most of the jokes they made with me were based on sex and gender, but I think it was the best they could come up with at the time.
Santa Monica, California
With a newly minted doctorate in social science, a young daughter to support, and no job prospects, I had to take the first job I was offered: a swing shift at a Brussels-sprouts cannery. I worked 4 P.M. to midnight.
My first night I got motion sickness watching the Brussels sprouts bounce down the conveyor belts, and I barely made it to the bathroom in time. The factory nurse dosed me with Dramamine, and I went back to the line.
Except for a French woman named Dominique and me, the line workers were all Latinas. They spoke only Spanish on the line, while the supervisors, or majordomas, who were white women, spoke only English. My Spanish was very limited, but because my mother had taught choir in a Hispanic elementary school in Texas, I could sing a lot of old, sentimental Mexican songs.
Gringas like Dominique and me had to fill at least nineteen boxes per minute on the line, or we’d be fired. Our Latina friends had to fill twenty-three. Why the double standard? A co-worker explained: “You don’t have as much practice doing things with your hands as we do.”
“Except for putting on nail polish, or talking on your princess phones,” another chimed in. They laughed while I puffed up inside with righteous, proletarian anger.
One night during a thunderstorm the power went out, leaving us standing in the dark on the iron gratings by the silent lines. Managers and majordomas herded us upstairs to sit and wait until the power was restored. I don’t know why, but as we waited I started to sing one of my mom’s favorite songs: “Sin ti, no podre vivir jamas, y pensar que nunca mas. . . .” The hall fell silent. I sang all three tragic verses. After I’d finished, the lights came back on, and my compañeras began clapping; several had tears in their eyes. One told me she hadn’t heard that song since she was a little girl.
Later, on our “lunch” break, Dominique and I took our usual place at the end of the majordomas’ picnic bench, but then a small delegation of line workers came over and firmly escorted me to their table. “Now,” one of them said, “you’re gonna sit with us!”
Mischa B. Adams
Santa Cruz, California
I spent thirty-five years as a family physician, working long hours and attending to generations of families. My patients trusted me and talked openly about their lives. I attended births and deaths and checked on acutely ill patients in the hospital twice a day. On Saturday mornings my office was closed, but patients who had concerns or were depressed would come by anyway to talk. House calls and nursing-home visits were part of my daily schedule.
Gradually medicine changed. I joined an HMO and worked nine to five on weekdays and only one Saturday morning a month, with no hospital duties and no house calls. No longer did all members of a family come to see me: obstetricians saw expectant mothers; pediatricians newborns. I did not attend to patients’ needs during crises. They talked to therapists if they had personal problems. Hospitalists looked after the acutely ill. Palliative-care physicians attended to those who were close to death.
Though my schedule became more predictable and I could sleep more soundly, I would gladly have traded my nine-to-five for my former sixty-hour-a-week schedule and the joy and satisfaction that went with it.
Renate G. Justin
Fort Collins, Colorado
After a decade living in the Rockies, my first wife and I took a six-month backpacking trip around the world. We wandered through exotic cities, along beaches, and over mountain ranges.
Back in the States, we settled in San Francisco. My most marketable skill was typing, and I got a secretarial job in a downtown high-rise. I missed the freedom of the road and felt like a prisoner in the nine-to-five world. During breaks I’d ride the elevator down to the street and gulp fresh air.
One morning I left an important paper at home and had to catch a midmorning bus back to retrieve it. Out the bus window, I saw a parallel universe to the nine-to-five world: hundreds of casually dressed people strolling, chatting, walking dogs, lounging in coffee shops, reading newspapers, scribbling in notebooks. A long line formed outside a movie theater that began showing films at 9 A.M.
A few months later I quit my job and started working nights as a cabdriver. I’ve spent my evenings behind the wheel and my mornings in a cafe for more than twenty years now.
San Francisco, California
My junior year at college I had a work-study job at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. The institute was doing little clinical research then and had become primarily a resource center. As one of the indexers, I had to read through vast amounts of printed materials, creating an index card for each item. I cataloged everything from scientific and medical journals to nudie magazines and pulp fiction. I could pick whatever I wanted, as long as I met a weekly quota.
During my second semester, my mother’s life began to unravel. My father had died the previous year, and, home alone every day, she’d begun to drink. As she was also epileptic, this created serious problems. I began driving home on weekends in an effort to keep her stable.
As an English-lit major, I had extensive reading assignments, which now weren’t getting done on the weekends. I read late into the night instead and began sleeping on benches between classes. To make matters worse, I’d taken a second part-time job as my financial aid dwindled. My work as an indexer suffered, and I fell behind on my quotas.
At the end of the semester I was fired from my job at the Kinsey Institute. My eyes filled with shame and regret, but there was nothing to say. I’d been falling asleep in the carrels, in the middle of articles on suicide rates among gay teens or clitoral versus vaginal orgasms. Even graphic novels of taut nipples, leather whips, and throbbing cocks couldn’t keep me awake.
Twenty-five years later, I saw the movie Kinsey and was reminded of my time at the institute. While I remember well the many warm, intelligent, and funny people who worked there, the only title I can recall from the hundreds I indexed is Tom of Finland’s Ride a Hot Marine.
In the war years of the 1940s, my parents ran a small wholesale candy-and-tobacco business. They worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with no time off. Their place of business was so crowded with merchandise there was no place to sit down. My mother was always tying up bundles of cigarettes, candy, and cigars with coarse hemp twine. Her hands were raw from handling the rough string, and no matter how much aloe vera she used, they remained red.
My parents worked hard and fought constantly, but they took a break from both twice a day. At ten each morning, and again in midafternoon, my mother went into the kitchen in the back of the store to make tea. She poured boiling water over tea leaves in an old brass samovar her mother had brought over from Russia in 1913. Then she carefully put a glass under the spigot and turned a small handle to fill it with tea. She added two teaspoons of sugar and a lemon wedge and brought the tea out front to my father, who noisily drank it. Sometimes she returned to the kitchen several times to refill his glass.
During this tea ceremony my parents stopped warring. I didn’t have to escape to my bedroom on the second floor, close my door, and turn up the radio to drown out their bickering. I treasured these quiet moments when my family was at peace.
San Anselmo, California
I work for a Fortune 500 company. Before I came here, I spent fifteen years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. The skills I learned in the monastery are readily transferable to my nine-to-five job administering employee-survey programs.
Three disturbing trends have surfaced in these surveys: nobody trusts anyone; employees don’t believe in senior management; and workers are too stressed-out to care. When I was a monk, we referred to problems with trust, belief, and caring as crises of faith, hope, and charity. I’ve come to believe that corporate America’s problem is not just managerial but also spiritual.
Totowa, New Jersey
As organic farmers, my husband and I work twelve-hour days, six days a week. I am often jealous of our employees, who go home at four to rest and relax. Meanwhile my husband and I negotiate to see who will prepare dinner and care for our children, while the other does the night-shift farm work.
When you love what you do, the line between work and play gets muddled. I also have yet to make peace with my role as a woman on the farm: I swing wildly between feeling satisfied about nurturing the earth and wondering why no one else can operate the washing machine or the dishwasher.
In the early years of running our farm, I wouldn’t have thought to pay someone else to do the work. I felt righteous in my toil. Now our idealistic dream has become a viable business that supports our family and a few employees, and I aspire to work nine to five.
My twenties were the hardest years of my life. I had thrived in college, but then I moved back into my parents’ house, in a subdivision of identical townhouses with no trees. My job, as an editorial assistant for a textbook publisher, paid well, but I was given little to do. My bright yellow cubicle had a bulletin board I was expected to decorate with cartoons or pictures of family and friends. I never put anything up.
Every Saturday I saw a psychiatrist who would sit and gaze at me until I spoke. He prescribed small blue pills, which I took at the water fountain around the corner from my cubicle, after making sure no one was looking.
My mother loved the publishing-company job and talked about it incessantly. If I tried to tell her how I felt about it, she wouldn’t listen, but would just go on and on about how lucky I was to work for such a wonderful company, with a beautiful cafeteria where I could choose between hot and cold lunches. She drove me to work every day, filling the car with her words while I smoked in the passenger seat. I tried to tell her how uncomfortable I was in my job, in my skin, but she couldn’t get past that cafeteria.
I worked with a group of overachieving, high-energy young career women. During breaks they would assemble in the cubicle across from mine to drink coffee and chat. I bought new dresses with matching shoes to try to fit in. Every day I made a mental note to join their conversation, but I never did. Instead I went out to lunch with a co-worker who drank. I’d down two Manhattans with her, enough to get me through the afternoon.
Finally, to get away from home, I moved to Boston with one of my sisters. We lived at the YWCA and ate dinner at Howard Johnson’s. I’d order soup and two Manhattans. My sister only pretended to be job-hunting and spent her days at the Boston Common. We both disapproved of each other.
When I had a job interview at another publishing company, I asked the interviewer only one question: Would I have to be in a cubicle?
Then I saw an ad for a proofreader at a printing plant, and I went for an interview. The place was dirty and noisy, with clanking machines and a tiny proofreaders’ office with drafting tables and green lamps — and no cubicles. Perfect.
When my daughter was nine months old, I quit my office job to stay home with her. Full-time motherhood agreed with me. I cherished the luxury of morning walks, afternoon naps, and lazy evenings on the porch.
One night around nine I heard an unusual cry from the nursery. I bolted down the hall and picked up my daughter from her crib. Her little forehead was hot. Then she threw up in my lap. I grabbed a towel to clean it up.
For the next few hours, we repeated this drill until all the towels lay in a dirty pile on the floor. I moved her to a makeshift bed of blankets in the bathroom, where I leaned against the side of the tub and curled her feverish little body against mine, wiping her skin with a cool cloth.
When my daughter grew fussy and my back grew numb, I began to pace with her through the dark apartment, mentally retracing our steps over the past days, desperate to pinpoint when the virus had entered her system, as if that knowledge might help. I sang every song I knew, danced in my stocking feet with her, and whispered stories in her ear to coax her fever away. Tears rolled down my cheeks into her soft hair.
After an early-morning phone call to a reassuring doctor, I administered another dropper full of ibuprofen and eased onto the couch, still hugging her to my chest. As the faint blue light of morning came through the windows, the fever went down. I looked at the clock: 5 A.M. Exhausted, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. It had been the hardest nine-to-five shift I could remember.
Julie Brown Casey
© Robert Meyer
When I was younger, I read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters riding around the country on a school bus painted with psychedelic swirls and turning people on to hallucinogens. In their world, you were either “on the bus” or “off the bus,” with no in-between allowed.
Twenty-five years later I drive a school bus myself. My Merry Pranksters are children who have autism and other disorders. The first one I drop off each afternoon is a sweet-smelling little girl whom I have learned to separate from her backpack; otherwise she empties it all over the bus, as if searching for something. She doesn’t seem to care that she can’t find what she’s looking for; the search is what matters.
The next student off the bus is the little girl who removes her shoes and spends the entire ride licking the bus window and blowing on her wet fingers. The skin around her mouth is red and chapped, and the window by her seat is smeared with spit. Before I stop the bus, I turn off the radio so that her parents won’t hear that I have the Rolling Stones turned up loud. They are always happy to see their shoeless little girl.
One beautiful boy who’s as tall as I am plays his fingers across his cheeks as if they were a piano, smiling and never making eye contact. His mother is always waiting for him. I hold up my hand as he exits the bus, and he sometimes taps my palm gently. I feel honored when he does this.
The last child off the bus is my favorite. I know that it’s wrong to have a favorite, but I do. He is the only one who looks at me and talks to me. I have to help him up from his seat: he hooks his thin, dark arms over my forearm, and I curl my other arm around his little torso. He always says, “Thank you.” I don’t think he is a full-fledged Prankster. I hope that he one day gets “off the bus” for good.
My dad was proud of his white-collar life: his cubicle, his business cards, his pressed khakis. He’d grown up poor, joined the military, then gone to work in the booming computer industry in the early eighties. For him a corporate job was the ticket to a better life.
He wanted the same for his daughter, but the job he got me, working for a famous Silicon Valley company, proved to be bad for my health. I had never known such stress. I developed debilitating migraines and turned to pot after maximum-strength Excedrin failed to alleviate the pain.
At the end of my contract, I was offered a higher-paying position, but I turned it down. I backpacked through Europe, went to college, and learned to listen to my own heart.
I’m thirty-four now and am still paying off my student loans and wearing secondhand clothes, but I don’t get migraines. I work for a cause that’s important to me and am writing my first book. I just wish Dad understood.
My check was late again, which meant another trip to the welfare office. First I had to get Jeremy and Justin fed and dressed. At the age of two, Jeremy could eat his own oatmeal, but Justin was only a baby and had to be spoon-fed.
After breakfast I put Justin in the playpen and gave Jeremy some paper and crayons to keep him busy while I brought in the laundry and put some beans in the pot to soak for dinner. Then I packed a diaper bag, stowed the boys in the double stroller, and set off for the welfare office downtown.
It took a couple of hours to get there, which meant the waiting room was already full. Nothing could be done over the phone, and the office was understaffed. You couldn’t even make an appointment in advance; you had to just wait in a corner, with no play area for the children. It was a constant struggle to keep the boys occupied. I ended up getting out all the toys I’d packed, which they shared with other children.
The social worker we finally saw tracked down the problem and said I’d get my check in a week. I pointed out that it was already one week late and I was almost out of food stamps and cash. She said I should have budgeted better. It was midafternoon by the time I wrestled the stroller back onto the sidewalk.
Next we went to Goodwill, where I found some corduroy overalls with snaps that worked and knees that weren’t worn out. But they cost a dollar. I wheeled the boys over to the counter and explained about my check being late.
“What do you have?” the young woman asked.
I emptied my purse of change: eighty-three cents. After some negotiating, we settled on thirty-five cents.
Then I went to a grocery to buy an onion and two carrots to go with the beans. Catching sight of the bananas, Jeremy wanted one. I had only five dollars in food stamps left and another week to get through, but the boys had been good, and we still had a long walk home. “OK,” I said, “as a special treat.”
At the checkout, I set down the bananas, the onion, and the carrots. The woman behind me had a cart piled high with food. When I got out my food stamps, I heard her snort. “Lazy welfare mothers,” she said to no one in particular. “They should get a job.”
Unhappy with my job producing maps and guidebooks for tourists, I started looking for a new one. Months went by with no offers. I revised my résumé ten times, had my hair styled, and continued to search without luck.
Then I saw a help-wanted ad for an “energetic female singer.” I played guitar and was a wannabe folk singer, so I answered the ad.
When I rang the bell for my interview, a man wearing a big rubber nose opened the door. “Singing telegrams,” he sang, ushering me into a room where several teenage girls sat giggling and filling out applications. “Do you have any singing experience?”
“Church choir, scout camp, folk singer at open mikes.”
“Well, we’re not a hootenanny. We’re a singing-telegram service. Right now we’re looking for a French maid.”
I was a plump thirty-five, not a slim seventeen like the other applicants. But I put on “zee Franch accent” and sang “Dominique.”
“We’ll call if we decide to use you,” Mr. Big Nose said.
I figured I’d struck out again, but a week later he called and asked me to come in right away. It was the day before Valentine’s Day, their busy season, and the new French maid had abruptly quit. They were desperate.
At the office I squeezed into the white-ruffled tutu, lace apron, and scooped-neck blouse. My pale bosom looked like cake batter rising beyond its pan.
“Great cleavage — that’s a plus,” my new boss commented.
For my first run, he handed me a fresh red rose, a red telegram envelope, and the address of a large corporation. When I got there, I boarded the elevator, holding my coat tight around me. My plan was to dash into the ladies’ room, take off the coat, and get my bearings before I found “Mr. Halloran.” But the elevator opened right onto the main office floor. Men in ties stared first at the lace maid’s cap on my head, then at my legs in fishnet stockings. I dashed back on the elevator, pressed the DOWN button, and ran to my car, where I burst out crying. I was beginning to rethink my career choice.
The red telegram envelope was damp with my tears. I opened it and read: “Happy 60th Birthday! We’re so glad that you’re our dad. We love you! Pam and Joyce.” This made me cry more. These daughters were counting on me. I wiped my eyes, reapplied my makeup, and went back in.
Imagining I was Lily Tomlin or Whoopi Goldberg, I danced out of the elevator and cooed, “I am Fifi, zee Franch maid. I am looking for Monsieur Hall-o-reen.”
That day I discovered that I am a ham. It was the best job I’d ever had.
Coos Bay, Oregon
When I was a kid, my friends started planning their résumés in middle school. I didn’t care how I looked on paper. I wanted to be a writer.
In my freshman year of college I got my first real job, at a deli making sandwiches and shoveling salads into plastic containers. It was a step on the road to respectability.
I’d been having trouble adjusting to college and was feeling depressed. A week after I started work, I succumbed to a bleak mood, swallowed a bottle of Vicodin, and ended up in the psych ward of the local hospital. When I got back to my dorm days later, I had a message from my boss at the deli: He had to let me go. I could come in anytime to pick up my check.
I swallowed my pride and went in. He handed me the envelope without looking at me. Later, when I opened the envelope, my heart sank. Most of my earnings had been deducted for a uniform I’d never received. My first real paycheck was for eighty-nine cents.
I found other jobs, as a nude model for art classes and as a bouncer at a local lesbian bar. They might not have looked respectable on a résumé, but they allowed me the flexibility to pursue my dream and finish my novel.
I still have that first paycheck sitting in a drawer. One day I may frame it.
As a counselor and legal advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, I spend a lot of nights in the emergency room. Tonight I’m here to help a woman and her teenage daughter who’ve been beaten up by the girl’s father. Police are still looking for him. After I explain to the women what their options are, they choose to stay in our shelter, where they will get a good night’s sleep. The mother tells me it will be the first they’ve had in years.
I’ve been in this situation many times before, with women from ages fourteen to eighty. Few have been assaulted by strangers. Most have been violently assaulted by a loved one.
The next day I check in with the police and the jail, keeping track of the search for the assailant. I begin the application for a restraining order. I take crisis calls: from a woman who has been belittled and humiliated for years; from a man whose alcoholic wife has been hitting him and their toddler; from a fifteen-year-old whose best friend has been molested by an uncle. In the afternoon I go to court to help terrified witnesses and victims testify in abuse cases.
Why am I in this line of work? Twenty years ago today I was sitting in a restaurant with Bob, my partner and the father of my baby. He was getting drunk and talking louder and louder. “I’m going to grab you by your hair and throw you off this balcony,” he said. Then he laughed and sauntered to the men’s room.
He’d made good on such promises before. I’d been shot at, raped at knife-point, kicked while I huddled in a corner, and socked in the jaw, which had broken my teeth. He’d hit me in the face while I was nursing our baby, then watched as I’d bled on her. There was no form of abuse with which I was not intimately familiar.
I took my daughter and ran out of the restaurant to a nearby battered-women’s shelter. It was the only time in my eight years with Bob that I ever reached out for help. When I made it to the door, it was locked. I rang the buzzer frantically. Finally a voice came over the speaker, and I explained my situation and that Bob was probably close behind me. I was told the shelter was full. I begged them to let me inside, just for a couple of minutes, but they refused and gave me the address of a shelter in another part of town. Terrified, I ran to a small market, where I crouched under a table with my baby. Bob came in, glanced around, and left.
I escaped and learned to live like a normal human being. I worked and attended night classes when I could. Then I took a class about domestic violence and sexual assault and realized that this was the work I needed to be doing. I eventually got certified as a counselor.
Now I help people through the kind of hell I once knew. Some of them go back to their abusers, but I make sure they know where to come next time, and that I will be glad to see them.
My first job started at 8 A.M. This seemed oppressively early to me, and I was casual about being on time. After all, I was productive and often finished my work ahead of schedule. Did it really matter what time I started?
After I was caught coming in ten or fifteen minutes late numerous times, my hours were adjusted to 8:30 to 5:30. This worked well for a while, but then I began arriving late once more. To my boss, “on time” meant five or ten minutes early, so I could get coffee and be at my desk ready to work at 8:30. If I could come in at 7:15 and type up my notes from the previous day’s meeting by the time the others arrived, even better.
He took a personal interest in my lateness and would stand by my cubicle and wait to see what time I got to work. He criticized, scolded, and threatened me. Even though half the time I arrived at 8:26 or 8:28, the mornings I arrived at 8:32 or 8:34 I would be castigated. I became anxious and began to have trouble sleeping. The insomnia left me in a fog at work, unable to focus. I was afraid I would crash my car on the way in or fall asleep at my desk.
One night, after lying awake until 7 A.M., I slept through my alarm. I called my supervisor to say I was running late. When I arrived at 9:25, my boss asked me to report to his office. I must have seemed agitated, because he said only that they were worried something had happened to me. I found out later that he’d had his secretary compose an official warning letter about my tardiness, to be placed in my permanent file. The boss must have felt sorry for me, because he never mentioned the letter.
Three years after leaving that job, I work for a company that encourages creativity, and I sleep peacefully at night. My hours are ten to six, and if I stroll in at 10:15, no one seems to notice.
New York, New York
My mom said that working as a hotel maid would build my character. I felt invisible as I wheeled the cart of towels, shampoos, and sheets up and down the hall. My ex-boyfriend’s dad frequented the hotel, but he didn’t notice me picking up his dirty towels from the bathroom floor or stooping to grab his garbage. I wished I had the courage to look him in the eye and make him admit he knew me.
I worked on the first floor, where the wealthiest guests stayed. The first-floor workers were all white. The Latinas and African American women worked on the second floor. The third floor belonged to the Somalis, who had the demeanor of a burdened yet happy people.
When I went to my boss and asked to be switched to the third floor, she didn’t believe me at first, but she consented. The next day I walked up the stairs with Deko, who took my hand, patted it, and smiled. I discovered that this was what mattered: for one woman who feels invisible to hold the hand of another who feels the same.
St. Cloud, Minnesota
The other day I watched a fellow inmate perform his daily chore of raking stones into orderly patterns in the prison yard. Often when an inmate is handed a rake and told to do something, he resents being given such an unimportant, menial task. Not this man. He did the work with dignity and precision, as if he knew that every task, no matter how mundane, serves a larger whole.
Most of us want to eliminate undesirable chores altogether. But watching that inmate rake, I realized the intrinsic divinity of work.
Charles “Tom” Brown
When I graduated from Middlebury College in 1945, the war was just ending. It was tough finding work, because veterans were returning to their jobs. Then I saw an ad for a copywriter at Gimbels Department Store: “Only Phi Beta Kappas need apply.” Armed with my golden key, I was hired.
The head of the advertising department was Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, who had come up with the store’s slogan: “Nobody, but nobody, undersells Gimbels.” She managed through fear and chaos. When a mistake was made, the art director would run past, proof sheets flapping like boat sails, and everyone would be called into Fitz’s office. We’d all line up, wondering who’d made the error. Once, she instructed an underfed copywriter to “eat a bigger breakfast.” Another time I was told, “If you have to chew gum, at least chew it surreptitiously.”
At 4:45 the copy chief always commanded us to change our copy. That left us fifteen minutes to rewrite the day’s work if we wanted to leave by five. Since I wasn’t a morning person, I worked out a deal with Fitz to come in at ten and leave at six. So the job of rewriting often fell to me.
Summers were tough. There was no air conditioning, and we were actually issued salt pills. Soot seeped in the ninth-floor windows, so we all wore black dresses or dark blazers.
My finest moment came when we were instructed to write a headline for the store’s lower-priced knockoffs of Paris fashions. Reading the New Yorker, I came across the phrase “Vive la différence.” Fitz loved it. I got a raise, from forty to sixty dollars a week, and my headline ran across a double-page spread in the New York Times.
When I left Gimbels to get married, Fitz came to my wedding and sat next to my new father-in-law, who was advertising manager for the Buffalo Courier-Express. They drank champagne and swapped war stories. At last, I could sleep late.
Dottie Laux O’Brien
Manchester Village, Vermont
Growing up, I was taught three principles: earn everything you receive; be satisfied with what you have; and become a manager at Procter and Gamble. By the time I was eighteen, I was working nine to five packaging toilet paper for the company.
From a distance, the packaging line is an elaborate, wonderful mechanism, but it quickly loses its luster when you become a cog in that machine. I had always been a creative person, drawing and writing in my spare time, but after working on the line all day, I didn’t have the energy to do anything other than watch television.
A machine at the end of the line wrapped plastic around the finished product for shipping. A worker guided the plastic into place. One day a man got his hand caught in the plastic and was pinned to the pallet as the machine continued to turn. We heard him scream for help, first in English and then in Spanish. His screams stopped when his face became trapped behind the plastic. The machine wrapped him entirely, crushing him against the toilet paper, his whole body unnaturally flattened and contorted.
Someone cut holes to allow him to breathe, but we didn’t free him from the plastic wrap in case his back was broken; it may have been all that was holding his spine in place. As we waited for the ambulance, we were told to keep working. Later we were given the rest of the day off. I spent the afternoon thinking about that guy pinned under the plastic. They never told us what happened to him. No one seemed to care.
Soon after that I quit and went to college to study literature.
Linwood, New Jersey
When my husband was laid off, we celebrated. For most of our nine-year marriage, he’s been the reliable wage-earner, while I’ve been a freelancer. Now he wants to establish his own freelance career.
Until he does, we face the monthly challenge of making ends meet on my unpredictable income. But the bills get paid. We don’t have health insurance, except the catastrophic kind, but our life is healthier. My husband’s breathlessness, which doctors diagnosed as adult-onset asthma, has disappeared without a trace since he left his job. There’s a sparkle in his eye now. My mother mentioned the other day that he’s never looked better.
My husband is getting a reputation in the neighborhood for being the best wood-splitter around. And nearly every day one of us mentions how much we love our quirky, unfinished house. Most people, even friends who are rooting for us, find our career decision unwise. Maybe fate will prove them right. But it’s been a good year.