Technically, I’ve been out of work since 1975—the year I was fired from my job as a television news producer due to “creative differences” with a co-worker who just happened to have allies in the all-powerful sports department. At the time, I was convinced my ideas had merit, but I was soon set straight. Television is not a marketplace of ideas, I learned. It’s just a marketplace.
Ever since, I’ve labored as a freelance journalist, selling stories and pictures to various magazines. Alas, the magazine market has become a lot like television. Ad space has grown at the expense of editorial content, and in many cases editorial content and advertising are the same.
Nowadays it would be safe to say that I am absolutely out of work, a situation that would cause tears of disappointment to well up in the eyes of my dear departed mother, who maintained that foremost of the seven deadly sins was sloth. And I was far and away her most sloth-like child. Whenever she caught me sitting around, reading a book or daydreaming or plotting my next road trip, she would fly into a rage.
“Get up off your butt and get a job! We had to work when we were your age. Nobody ever gave us anything!”
Mom was right about that. My parents had definitely had a rough time of it back in the Thirties—as had their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before them. Ever since the invention of the time clock, my ancestors had been vigorously punching it, hoping against hope that eventually aching muscles and sweaty brows would result in a higher standard of living.
So in order to honor my ancestors—and to placate Mom—I set out to find myself a summer job. I walked from one end of Main Street to the other—what my father would call “pounding the pavement.” I looked in every shop window for a HELP WANTED sign. No luck. I scoured the want ads. No luck. Then, just as I was beginning to get my hopes up, I got a phone call from Ollie Johnson. Ollie owned a tire recapping business at the edge of town and was looking for a helper to replace his stepson, a friend of mine who had just enlisted in the military in order to escape a life of indentured servitude. Before I could say no, my mother snatched away the phone and said yes.
Work is traditionally divided into two categories: white collar and blue collar. I’m here to tell you there is a third category: horse collar. Horse collar work is harder and more dangerous than blue collar work. It involves a lot of pulling and heavy lifting. Someone is constantly barking orders at you, if not whipping you, and should you get sick or injured on the job—which is highly likely—nobody will pay your medical bills. You might even get shot–who knows? Who cares?
Danger was everywhere. There were hot recapping molds into which one could tumble and be turned into a vulcanized waffleboy. Motorized siping and grinding and shredding wheels that could remove off vast expanses of epidermis in a flash. Most treacherous of all was the machine we used for mounting tires on heavy-duty truck wheels—wheels with split rims that had an unfortunate tendency to explode if not properly seated. Directly above the machine was a man-sized hole in the ceiling, which I assumed was the portal through which one of my predecessors had slipped the surly bonds of earth.
Following each shift, I would count my fingers and thumbs and offer thanks to heaven if I still had a total of ten. What I wasn’t counting was money. After two months on the job it suddenly dawned on me that the subject of salary had never come up. It was something my mother had neglected to discuss with Ollie. Nor had I. But finally I mustered the courage to ask.
Ollie stared at me blankly. Payday…hmmm…payday. He rubbed his chin and pinched a tuft of hair from an extravagantly foliated earlobe. Ouch! Ka-ching! Ollie popped open the cash drawer and gazed thoughtfully at its pitiful contents.
“How about five bucks?”
I took the money and ran, never to return. My mother was unhappy when she learned I’d quit my summer job, but brightened up somewhat after I informed her that the Great Depression had come to an end twenty years earlier. Who knew?
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” wrote Albert Camus, and by that yardstick I suppose my two month stint at Ollie Johnson’s tire shop wasn’t a total waste of time. It did indeed make me stronger, and was also excellent preparation for my future career as a freelance journalist.