Labor Day Musings 9/7/2020
On Labor Day 2020 a Public Broadcasting post asked readers to send them some thoughts about their first jobs. It provided me with a perfect excuse to do some current writing labor by recounting my memories of the first four jobs I held. If my musings strike a chord perhaps you could put some things down from your life that might be of interest to your children or relatives.
Job Number One was the proverbial starting point for young boys of my generation--i.e. newspaper delivery. Shamefully, it is pretty much gone now. Even a lot of the newspapers that might be delivered now have been chewed up and spit out by one of the nastiest consequences of our internet centered age.
Sometime around the age of twelve in 1950 or thereabouts, I began to help a school chum named Bob Slindi with his paper route. A while later he wanted out and I took it over. You collected your money in cash once each week. It must have a little over two dollars. You then paid your bill at the Milwaukee Journal distribution shed located just behind the beer depot at 20th and Morgan. You had to pay your bill for number of papers given out and if you couldn’t collect the week’s tab from a customer, you had to pay the Journal anyway. No credit was allowed. That reaffirmed early on a sound business rule that in business you always have to have enough cash on hand to pay your suppliers. Saturday was the normal collection day.
It is important to remember that in the 1950’s most people, and of course mostly men, brought their weekly pay packet home in cash on Friday. Even if you were paid with a check, you would have to cash it somewhere before you got home because banks in those days were often not open on weekends. That also unfortunately led to Daddy stopping of at the local dispensary after work for a few slugs with the boys. That was not my dad, but it was the dads of some of my friends. For all of my dad's working years at Lindsay Brothers, he would board the #79 bus in a suit and tie to go to work and he would always go downtown for lunch. I think my dad was paid by check and believe that he would have cashed it at the Marshall & Ilsley Bank over his Friday lunch hour. That evening he would turn cash over to my mother who would insert it in a budget box containing envelopes for each month’s household expenses and savings. He would keep out money for his bus passes, his lunches, and some basic personal recreations like golf and bowling.
Above has been a bit of a digression, but it is germane to how I may have picked up some fairly conservative financial practices. I learned quickly on paper route collection day not to carry too much change other than singles and quarters. Occasionally we would have a customer who would insist on credit for next week if I didn’t have the correct change, but mostly they were feeling flush on Saturdays and would say on a $2.80 bill, “Don’t worry keep the twenty cents. ” A fifteen or twenty cent tip on a bill was the gravy that went into the piggy bank. The only other thing I remember about my paper delivery days is that if the weather was really bad mom would roll the car out and drive me around the two block circuit. Believe me that didn’t happen often, but I was always grateful.
Job Number Two was the summer I was fourteen, which would have been around 1952. I applied for a job as a caddy at Tuckaway Country Club. I would ride my bike north on 20th Street to Grange and turn right—a distance of about 2 miles. At 27th you had to cross busy Hwy 41 and neither mom or dad were too happy about that, but thankfully I survived. Tuckaway has long ago been sold off to create fancy suburban housing and nothing remains there to remind you of the wooded golf course other than one street called Tuckaway Drive.
The caddy drill was simple and unforgiving. You arrived early in the morning and signed in. Then you would lounge about in a roofed shed that was called, yes you guessed it, the “Caddyshack.” You would wait and wait until someone who knew you and had been satisfied with your service would ask for you or you would just sit until your number was called for a loop with a customer who had no preference. I remember no pull carts and certainly no motorized carts. We all hoped to be called by that generous guy who would tip well and generally looked down on the stiffs who did not tip and particularly the creeps who insisted on carrying their own bags. Some days you would get a loop or even two, but you made not a dime if your number didn’t come up or if the weather turned bad. A few extra coins were possible by picking up shag balls from members who used the driving range. You would take their empty bag and go down the range and pick up the balls they hit and put them back in their shag bag to use all over again. This was usually an easy couple of bucks, especially if the guy practicing or warming up was good. Shagging for a beginner or a duffer was another story. They would spray balls all over the place and you could put a lot of miles on your sneakers before it was finished.
The big perk of the job was you actually got one morning a week when you could play the course for free. I think it was Monday as the busy days for the members were generally on the weekends. My dad was an expert golfer and loved the game all his life. I developed my own taste for the game that summer at Tuckaway, but I never got quite as good as Dad. I might have reached that level if I had not had a period of about twenty five years when I didn’t have the time to play much. On the other hand I was always good enough not to be a disgrace and did play regularly later in life until my shoulder gave out when I was 80. Golf is a fin and lifelong sport.
Job Number Three was my first true salaried position. It began at the ripe old age of fifteen when I was a scrawny little high school student who was able to compete on the Pulaski HS wrestling team in the 103 pound weight class. I won far more matches on forfeit than I did on the mat. Mr. Pauly, the coach, was just happy to have found someone light enough to make that weight.
I applied and got a job as a weekend busboy at the new Howard Johnson restaurant at 27th and Morgan. Nobody called it Ho Jo’s then. The restaurant was right near the equally new Southgate Shopping Center with its flagship Gimbels store. It was maybe ¾ of a mile away if you walked and a breeze if you rode your bike to get there. Busing tables was good for balance and arm strength. We were paid fifty-five cents an hour plus any tips the waitresses might share with us. Some did regularly and some were as cheap as those guys at Tuckaway who insisted on carrying their own bags. Howard Johnsons became my go to job for the next six years right through college. During my last two high school years, I spent most weekends and a fair amount of summers employed by the restaurant. I graduated to dishwasher and then to a real fountain boy, which paid an extra ten cents an hour and enabled me to interact with the customers more. It also gave me an opportunity to try all of the famous HJ 27 flavors, Mint Chip and Butter Pecan are still my favorite ice creams of choice today. I became an expert at making malts, floats, and fancy sundaes. The soda fountain was also right next to the cash register and if the hostess was away from her station, I was given permission to take checks and give out change. As I entered my college years, I worked more and more out front occasionally filling in to seat customers, act as relief cashier, and even getting a shot at being a waiter in the dining room or at the soda fountain seats during the late evenings. Hooray, you got tips there and I knew how to bus tables so didn’t have to share them with a bus boy. Another step up with a boost in wages was being tagged to help the manager take the regular Saturday inventory and to help unload and stow food deliveries. I even had a key to the basement store rooms.
Finally I was asked if I would be interested in handling some kitchen duties and in the summer before starting my senior year at Beloit College, I juggled Howard Johnson’s with Job Number Four. This was downtown at the Eagle Knitting Mills where I packed boxes of socks and did light warehouse and shipping work from 7:00 to 4:00 each week day. Monday thru Friday I would punch out and jump on a bus that would take me to 27th street where I transferred to another bus that would take me right to Southgate and the restaurant. I would grab a fast bite before starting the rush hour as chief grill cook. I’d get a break around 7:30 or so and then finish out the night in front as host and/or cashier or both. Weekends I would often work the grill in the morning and help out where needed for lunch since I could literally do every job in the place. The summer after I graduated from Beloit, I worked full time at the restaurant mainly in the kitchen or out front. I think it is fair to note that had I not been off to grad school in the fall of 1959, I might well have joined the managerial ranks in the restaurant trade and my life would have taken a much different turn.
There was a lot of informal learning going on in those first four jobs. I learned that the food industry involved hard physical work, risky returns, and long hours on weekends and holidays when everyone else was not working. Most of the employees were just eking out a living from week to week while drawing a minimum or below minimum wage. Tips for the servers remain an inconsistent hedge. The unfortunate truth is that the restaurant business has changed little in the last fifty years.
I did pick up a whole new vocabulary of slang and a lot of words that can’t be used in polite company at the restaurant. There was also knowledge about life in a world that countless millions inhabit, but that I had never really been aware of before, and frankly thankfully never would really inhabit again. I heard at the big trestle table in the basement break room and in the sweat smelling windowless locker room a raft of stories of life among the marginal and the struggling. I do remember that a lot of our waitresses were divorced and or single mothers. There were footsore from the work, had kids, and were divorced or considering it because they were fighting to keep their sanity while trying to learn enough to buy groceries each week. I listened to people who talked about visiting friends or family members in jail and even heard some tales from a few who had been in a jail. All these people, whose names I no longer remember, were pretty much plain hard working folks who were earning just enough to get by and yet would take up a collection to help a fellow worker pay the rent, a hospital bill, or meet the next payment on a needed appliance or car. They were the salt that gave all life a flavor even if the cut of meat on the table was a bit tough.
When I think back on it now, those four first jobs were also good training for spending a life teaching and working in and for the arts. The lessons learned have been ingrained. Showing up is half the battle; showing up on time adds another 30%; learning to do a job, no matter what it is, ties a bow on the box. There is even a sweet desert inside for those who have had the benefit of spending a life working at a labor they loved. Just think, I got paid for creating theatre, teaching young people about the theatre, and for attending as many plays as I could.