Saturday, May 08, 2010
Working: The Early Years
I was never in the carpet-rolling business (way too complex), but I sure know what it felt like to be the “new guy.” All my new, friendly co-workers always stared at me like I was a creature who just crawled out of the sewer, or like my barn door was unzipped and the horse was about to bolt. The females were much better. They contented themselves with giving my ass a quick gander, looked sorry for me, and went straight back to work.
But no one wants to read about my boring office jobs, especially the ones with the Federal Gov’ment, so I’ll tell you about the early years instead.
My working career began in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. The year was 1962, and I was fifteen. I was a caddy, as in golf, at a very exclusive **sniff sniff** country club. The place boasted two 18-hole courses, one of which has hosted the U.S. Open several times.
I have to give me an A+ for that job, based on chutzpah. Skinny as a rail, I schlepped two bags at a time, and on a good day, I could get out of the caddy shack twice. That was a total schlep of 36 holes with leather bags that felt like they were full of bricks instead of golf clubs. So why did I do it? Each golfer paid me $8 in cash, so a four-bag day meant $32. Add tips, and I rode the bus home with $32 and change in my skinny pocket.
Not bad money for a kid in 1962, so I did it again the next summer.
Le crème de la crème of jobs, however, came during the summer between my junior and senior years. My father, who was a less-than-ethical accountant, kept the books for a less-than-ethical clientele. He took me into a bar one night, not to drink, but to introduce me to the Head Guy of the Waiters and Bartenders Union. Long before The Godfather movies the Head Guy oozed Godfather; he scared the crap out of me. Think Tony Soprano giving you the once-over with that little enigmatic smile on his face and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
“Chuck is looking for a job,” my father said respectfully. The Head Guy thought a while and then said, “Okay, I got two openings for a busboy. One’s at the French restaurant across the street and the other is a hotel downtown.” Since I didn’t speak a lick of French I chose the hotel, hoping I could master hotel-talk. The Head Guy nodded and told me to tell the maitre d that he’d sent me. That was it. I was in the Union with no muss or fuss. Unless, that is, I was replacing some poor slob who’d recently met with an “untimely accident.”
Bussing wasn’t a difficult job, but neither was it lucrative because business stank. When I asked the maître d, who was a mean drunk, if there were any other openings in the hotel, he threw a drunken fit. “Alright, then, I’ll speak with the boss,” I said calmly, dropping the Head Guy’s name. I had no intention of doing so because the Head Guy scared the crap out of me, but the next day I received a promotion to room service.
Hello le crème de la crème of money. So much money that I didn't need my one-dollar per hour minimum wage paycheck. I loved that job so much that I kept it when my senior year began. It was then that I learned how to multi-task: I could work at night and not-learn during the day, which worked like a charm.
It was just me and another fellow servicing a fifteen-story building, but we had no thirteenth floor so it was only fourteen-stories. But the small fifteenth floor was where the hotel manager and his family lived, which means we really had only thirteen stories to take care of. Since there was no thirteenth floor, however, the total ended up being twelve.
So how did I make so much money? Ice. The kind that ice machines make. None of the twelve floors had an ice machine, so they had to call room service. The cashier and I had a deal. Give my partner all the orders for floor thirteen and give me the rest. There was a monetary gratuity involved, but I could take a dozen buckets at a time on our private elevator. The cost was 50¢ a bucket and invariably the guest gave me a dollar. There were other lucrative services I provided that involved lucre, but I don’t need to go into those here.
When I graduated from high school in June 1965, I had a nice fat savings book. I’d worked hard for that money, and I was reticent to spend any of it. But then I had “The Idea.”
My mom had cancer, but it was in remission. I took her to the World’s Fair in NYC. It was the first time either of us had flown in an airplane, and it was the last time she saw her older sister, who was also dying of cancer. Mom crammed a lot of living into those few days in August: we saw several Broadway musicals and we ate at fancy restaurants, but mostly we just strolled and talked. We got to know each other for the first time as adults.
Mom died of brain cancer a little over three months later, shortly after her forty-second birthday. Our trip together? It wasn’t worth every penny it cost because it was priceless, something I will never, can never, forget.