Let’s Break Out the Booze!
[The first version of this was a response to a facebook post about the large number of young people who will never have a job, by a person recalling all the jobs he had over the years and partly what he had learned from them — LR]
The first job I remember was selling Good Humor ice cream in high school — my senior year at Hillhouse High — New Haven, CT. Since I was the new kid on the scene, the
company gave me a route out to a deserted highway corner, where I pedaled my tricycle style vehicle. Then I sat on the vehicle seat, ringing the handlebar bells, hoping to get cars whizzing past on the way to the beach to stop. They mostly didn’t. I ate more ice-cream than I sold, and gave up after two days.
Off to college, I worked in the University’s employment office 20 hours per week, in exchange for receiving a tuition scholarship, which transmuted to a 40 hour a week summer job. This was Los Angeles, where the pay was $1 an hour at minimum wage (but better than my friend at the University of Arizona, who earned 85 cents an hour). I learned a lot about the demographics of the job market in the LA basin — the significance of the weapons and aircraft industries for example; not so much about the movie industry. And that nobody would hire a typist who could only type 20 words per minute; a typist could get by at 40, was good at 60, and fabulous at 120 words per minute (I hadn’t yet seen an electric typewriter). Mary, the one non-managerial full time permanent employee had a degree in counseling. She survived childhood polio and walked with the assistance of metal crutches. She’d wrap up a day’s work, straightening her desk and heaving herself into walking position, saying, “Another day, another dollar, and that’s about the size of it.” It seemed the music school placed a lot of its students at the employment office for part time jobs like mine — including Bob, a student maybe twice my age, whose bass-baritone voiced often boomed through the office his favorite work-time lyric: “una furtiva lagrima.” I later saw him perform at the Carmel Bach Festival.
While in medical school, I help start an organization called Student Health Organization. One of its goals/projects was to provide health care students with summer “jobs” learning about the delivery of health care to poor people and, in our minds, expecting to change some of those demographics in the long term. We didn’t change demographics, but we set up some significant opportunities in the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco area, Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. I had jobs all over California in those four summers, learned more than I can say. Five of us, students from LA, Vallejo and Chicago, lived outside Merced for one summer, in Planada, a small town at the foot of Yosemite. Three of us wanted the experience of working in the tomato fields, and were hired on for one day. The field workers were incredibly kind to us: Rather than just making fun of our incompetence, their courtesy and kindness got us through the day, while they tried desperately to figure out why we wanted to subject ourselves to farm labor. We observed at the once a week clinic at the Planada Community Center, where a doctor and nurse
from the public health department would see farmworker families until there were no more to be seen — sometimes as late as one or two in the morning. There I met Jimmy, in his late 30s or early 40s, a migrant worker from Texas, and his wife Rosa. Jimmy with terrible high blood pressure; the two of them with 13 children; Rosa wanting something to prevent further pregnancy, but some way to do it without letting her husband find out.
After dropping out of med school, after Los Angeles public schools told me I was unfit to be a high school teacher in Watts (because I had long hair and a beard), I became a social worker for two years. I was among a group of rogue workers — we called ourselves the Social Welfare Workers Movement, a caucus in the welfare workers union allied with welfare rights organizations. In my office, we gave out too much money (as far as the County was concerned). With a target on my back, assigned from one office to another to separate me from other activists, and then placed under the thumb of a particularly punitive office manager, I finally quit that job having learned a bunch about the way the welfare system works to undermine welfare. One of my coworkers was Dorothy Durem, the widow of the poet Ray Durem, with whom I enjoyed many a lunch hour conversation and who taught me about jicama, chili powder and lime juice. I remember the day she shared this poem with me, perhaps warning me and knowing how well I would relate to it:
Award by Ray Durem (1915-1963)
A Gold Watch to the FBI Man who has followed me for 25 years.
Well, old spy
looks like I
led you down some pretty blind alleys,
took you on several trips to Mexico,
fishing in the high Sierras,
jazz at the Philharmonic.
You’ve watched me all your life,
I’ve clothed your wife,
put your two sons through college.
what good has it done?
the sun keeps rising every morning.
ever see me buy an Assistant President?
or close a school?
or lend money to Trujillo?
ever catch me rigging airplane prices?
I bought some after-hours whiskey in L.A.
but the Chief got his pay.
I ain’t killed no Koreans
or fourteen-year-old boys in Mississippi.
neither did I bomb Guatemala,
or lend guns to shoot Algerians.
I admit I took a Negro child
to a white rest room in Texas,
but she was my daughter, only three,
who had to pee.
From there I went to work on a Packard Bell stereo and TV equipment factory assembly line, working on the cabinets, until I sprained my ankle playing basketball and wound up in a cast for over a month. From there to a garment factory as a cutter, making sample books for salesmen. I cut sheer curtain fabric, material for men’s suits, and heavy upholstery fabric into squares; where I started at $1.65 an hour but was soon boosted to $1.85, while the women sewing the sample squares into books, who’d been working for more than a dozen years, were still making $1.80. And then, cutting heavy, “Herculon” upholstery fabric, I sliced the tip off my finger off one morning. The longshore union was organizing warehouse workers, and at their suggestion I found work in a small garment warehouse. There weren’t enough workers to organize in this place; just me, picking uniform shirts and pants to fill orders and bringing the garments to the shipping area, where Roscoe the shipper was probably singing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” at the top of his voice. He styled himself meaner than a junkyard dog too. A friend got me hired from there into a small print shop, so that I could learn some of that craft, ultimately to help out with some printing operations we had going. My official title was “stripper,” which meant in the printing trade making negatives of art work for offset printing. The negs would then be “stripped” into specified places on a paper or plastic mask, and checked to make sure the opaque blacks were totally opaque. Where dust specks and other white spots marred the negatives, I would apply opaquing fluid. And then, using a carbon arc, expose the plate. At the New Years Eve party for the staff, where alcohol was flowing freely, the boss laid me off. I drank a few more to get thoroughly soused on his dime and then drove home. Safely.
From then on its been bookstores (Midnight Special in Venice and then Santa Monica; Guild in Chicago; and Barnes & Noble in Evanston and Skokie) and two years teaching
high school history. A checkered career. After all that, after years of believing that life would finally begin when I could retire, and now eking by on social security, I understand fully when young people wonder about work: “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, well, let’s keep dancing, break out the booze.” In the voice of Peggy Lee.
Why in an era of abundance, when robotics more and more is creating what we need, should people need to have a j.o.b. When I first quit being a social worker, I could find a job the next day. But that’s not an option for today’s teens or college grads. So its more than an attitude of I don’t want to work; it’s also I can’t find work of any kind, never mind something with a promise of a future. The kind of learning that my jobs have given me is part of socialization — they haven’t been job skills as much as building relationships. Kids are still getting those, although differently than I did. And if they are learning that jobs are not necessary, then they’ve learned a lesson I wish I’d learned much earlier on in life. Maybe they are taking the first step toward finding out that the tyranny of corporate private property, that system that used to dangle the carrot of jobs before our anxious eyes, is not all there is. I’m ready to break out the booze and drink to that!