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                                       politics + culture

Saturday, November 12, 2005

working life

For whatever reason it was growing up...I always worked. In this, I know, I'm far from alone. But it's interesting how that part of life is so easily hidden from the surface. At Columbia, after one year of working at a popular desk in a library there, I couldn't go to a party without someone saying to me..."You look really familiar, where do I know you from?"

Of course, people who work service jobs themselves tend not to ask that question.

Like a lot of kids in the Upper Midwest...I'm from Minnesota...my first "jobs" were shovelling snow and mowing lawns. I worked with a partner. We'd split the take. In fifth grade, when I took over our best client after my buddy missed a couple big snows...I became persona non grata in that household. Everybody got invited to the Halloween party in my sixth grade class, except for me. It was a life lesson.

My first real job, at 16, was at a delicatessen on West 7th in St. Paul. I cooked pizzas and did whatever, I sliced eggplant, hauled soda crates up and downstairs, for $3.75 an hour...22-27 hours a week. I had been the unquestioned class valedictorian up to that point. Of course, with that work schedule my standings slipped...working the late shift cooking pizzas was not good for passing chemistry tests.

At the deli I worked with regular people. Everybody had a nickname: "Poop" "Rock" "Whitey" "Tommy C".....everybody cracked jokes to make the time go by. I'll always remember how the dishwasher and my boss had this ritual of yelling out to each other...."Who loves ya', Baby!" It was a different world. Guys got out of jail, and they'd come for a slice of pizza. The kinds of things that only happened in the movies...happened in real life at the deli. Of course, for the most part, our customers were people with much more sedate existences. We moved a lot of foil-wrapped Italian candy and imported cheeses.

I got fired from the deli five days after giving my two weeks notice. I'd refused to stay overtime to cover after my boss fired Whitey for a reason I can't remember. (The bad blood didn't matter, two years later, coming back from college and looking for some summer work...there was everybody...Donna and Nancy and David. I got hired back. They half didn't believe I was attending Columbia University. I think I brought in my grades to prove it to them.)

I'd given notice at the deli because I'd got a job at the St. Paul Public Library. I'd taken a civil service exam at 17..and placed high enough to get one of the next openings. I worked the stacks. It was the first of many library jobs I had in high school and college. I worked in three different libraries at Columbia, as well as doing one semester's stint as an aide to a social worker in Harlem.

Summers were different, as work study dried up. One summer I cooked at a couple different pizza restaurants. Another summer I worked as a janitor, and mopped floors nights at a dining hall on the side. Another summer, and then for my senior year, I worked as a researcher and editor for Jack Salzman at the Center for American Culture Studies, by far my favorite work study job ever, and my favorite "boss" of all time. Jack Salzman was just, plain and simple, a great man, and everybody who worked for him knew it.

1991, the year I graduated, was a bad year for cush "college grad" jobs. The white collar sector shrank like hell that year. The Utne Reader, and every other publishing or editing venture in the Twin Cities, didn't need interns. So I worked as a line cook at a small restaurant...and to boost my weekly take worked the 5AM shift at a parking garage. Looking for something more sane and stable, I began temping downtown Minneapolis, at first for $5/hr literally emptying envelopes and, then, gradually making up to $8/hr doing more technical data entry for banks and financial firms. I was offered jobs at the companies I tended to get temp work at...but, as I was paying my way through a film and photography program...I always turned them down. (I remember I was offered $24,500 plus benefits at one firm...not quite 80's money, but it sure seemed like a big deal then.)

The last job I held, before I began my current career in photography, was one last stint as a pizza and line cook. I worked at a popular Minneapolis restaurant whose cook staff was half Grateful Dead fans...and half young African-American men from Chicago, Gary and Detroit, seeking to build a new, and safer, life in Minnesota. I liked my colleagues...and learned more from them than they ever learned from me. The tape deck in the kitchen alternated between alternative, rap and Jerry Garcia jams and, in retrospect, that was okay.

I used to give one coworker and friend, Jamie, a ride home late nights...deep on the South Side of Mpls...so he wouldn't have to wait for the bus. He was 19. His grandmother had sent him to Minneapolis to get out of Chicago. He dreamed of playing professional basketball. And though I knew he had no shot at that...it was clear that he did get close looks by community colleges in the area. Getting into a junior college was a possibility for Jamie if he'd got his GED. We'd talk on those late night car rides about stuff you couldn't talk about at work...mostly about how precarious Jamie's life and money situation was. Through him, I came to understand what it's like when the power of one's dreams is about all you've got in the bank.

When I completed my training and started making a living in film and photography...at a certain point, I had to let my last shifts on the line go. I was making $9.50 a hour. It was 1995. (My best pay ever was as a union janitor in NYC in 1989...but that was because we ALL made $10.83/hr regardless of seniority.)

As I got more jobs in my field and established myself as a freelancer...I'd stop by the restaurant to say hello from time to time. It's axiomatic that most restaurants are made up of two types of staffers....those on for the long haul, and those just passing through. The long haul crew was always nice when I'd pop by to visit. They'd ask how I was...and nod appreciatively at my "stories" from life in the glamorous world of photography.

But it was clear, that once you left the restaurant, you'd left the fraternity of workers as well, the protective circle. Folks would smile, but they'd quickly get back to matters at hand. You see, they were too busy working. And every cook knows you don't stand around in street clothes in a kitchen.



  • I like this entry - I'm fascinated by work and why people work where they work and etc. I've even written about it recently. But I also liked this entry for another reason:

    I moved to MN from FL when I was 12 - it was a completely different world, as I'm sure you can imagine. MN in the 80s...those were great years.

    I went to school at Macalester (class of '90) and hung out in MPLS until July 1991, when I moved to CHGO.

    I'm still in IL, in a college town that occasionally reminds me of St. Paul...

    By Anonymous Lisa B-K, at 5:09 PM  

  • Great story. Thanks!

    By Blogger Brenda, at 5:26 PM  

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