Thursday, September 15, 2005

On the Dignity of Honest Labor

An Anonymous Friend writes:
My very first paying job was cleaning [procto]scopes after use (along with all other manner of medical-surgical equipment...the skin graft scraper-thing-ey was by far the worst). Now, whenever I find myself in a round of "who here among us has had the worst job" I nearly always win. It's the job that keeps on paying.
Since your Pappy is laid up with the rheumatizz, and since Old Doc Johnson done shot him fulla that crazy-talk nerve-medicine, our usual fiddle-faddlin' around with solvin' the troubles of the world and spittin' baccy-juice in the direction of Town Hall is forthwith suspended until further notice, and Pappy's gonna indulge in a mite o' reminiscing.

No, Nonny (nonny, nonny nonny hey no), although your World's Worst Job bar-bet winner is impressive, and is certain to place you dizzyingly high on the list of history's Suspected Typhoid Marys, for sheer dehumanizing humiliation you'd be hard pressed to top the $2.35/hour number that Your Pal Ned scored himself in the halcyon summer of 1979.

[Breaking News: Wonder Woman just whooped with laughter in the next room. She explained that some airhead on the local evening forecast had had a slip of the tongue: "Katrina victims are starting to return to their homes, and President Bush is back on the golf course -- GULF COAST..."]

Back to the raconte: The son of a US diplomat in Madrid, home on summer holiday from a fairly prestigious US institute of higher learning, it may have been in the cards that your boy needed taking down a peg or two. While I do come from plain Midwestern bourgeois stock, I also have to admit that my Foreign-Service-Brat childhood didn't exactly lack for creature comforts. Yes, it was painful tearing up roots every three or four years, but when the roots are in European and South American capitals, it would be churlish to carp.

But though the Gummint paid for my holiday travel home and my parents' housing and other expenses, it didn't mean that I had an unlimited fund to draw from for beer and cigarettes at school. That sort of thing, it was decided, should be earned through the honest sweat of one's brow rather than just bestowed. So, grumbling, I applied to the Embassy for a summer job. They had a program just for dip-kid punks like me -- keeping us out of trouble on the Mean Streets of Alcalá and Plaza Cibeles, I suppose. So it was that they gave me to the Embassy grounds crew. Here, they said. Find him something to do.

Now, these were very decent guys. Salt-of-the-earth Spaniards they were, chorizo sandwiches, olives and watered wine for lunch. Bicycled to work from the west side of town. Blue coveralls, vivid, filthy vocabularies. It helped with them that I spoke pretty fluent Spanish, and I think they were amused by my Chileno accent and my refusal to use the ceceo (which to my New World ears even now sounds pretty mariconao). My effect on them must have been about like that of a Belgian kid in Manhattan who speaks with a proud Australian accent.

I had two gardener overseers: Don Rodrigo, who possessed ample seniority, and Juan Felipe. Don Rodrigo was nominally JuanFe's boss, and he reserved the more intellectually challenging tasks of gardening to himself -- the bed-planning, the topiary, the budgeting. The younger man had Ambitions and Aspirations, and he plainly chafed at his subordinate position and the more physical jobs he had to do. It was JuanFe's task to find something useful for me to do each day.

This was to prove a problem.

In order to give me tasks, JuanFe had to carve off some of his own duties, his own daily round. And since he resented his lack of seniority, he certainly wasn't inclined to allow me to be seen doing labor that qualified as "skilled" in any way.

So during the first week, he worked out how to foist the most time-consuming and menial jobs onto his charge. Any leaf-sweeping, pool-skimming, or trimmings-raking that JuanFe considered beneath his dignity, became mine. These I did with aplomb, because I knew this, too, would end. Hell, two-thirty-five an hour! That ain't chicken-feed!

In the second week, JuanFe finally worked out how to save his prestige. He told me one morning (we both knew as soon as he said it that it was a baldfaced lie) that the Embassy's one mechanical water sprinkler had broken, and it was time for everybody to step up and pitch in. This, of course, meant that it was time for me to step up, etc. He impressed on me how vitally important it was to achieve even moisture distribution, to carefully gauge the sunlight so the sun wouldn't focus itself through new droplets and burn the grass, to estimate the number of hours it had been since the last watering (hint: you use your watch).

Which is how it came to pass that I became the Official Deputy Assistant Emergency Back-up to the Mechanical Lawn Sprinkler of the United States Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Spanish Crown in the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Nine. JuanFe shook my hand. Enhorabuena, hijo. You've scored one against the machines!

For the next nine weeks, that became the sum total of what I did for a living. Arrive, 9 ante meridiem. Water, by hand, carefully and painstakingly, leaving no spot unmoistened, the three-acre front lawn of the US Embassy until lunch. After lunch, sprinkle the back lawn and the grounds surrounding the US Ambassador's Residence. By hand. Until the whistle blew.

Best lesson in economics I ever had.


Neil Shakespeare said...

LOL! Hugely funny post there, By Neddie Jingo! Good to hear that your "condition" has in no way affected your absurdity cells.

Worst job in the world?

I knew a guy once who was a towel boy in a jerk-off joint. Nice guy, but I was afraid to shake hands with him.

Neddie said...

HAH! You've stirred another memory, Neil. Studio 54, 1985 or so -- long, long after its heyday. There to see Lou Reed. Go to take a leak. Guy positions himself right behind me at the urinal. White kid. Twenties. I get done. He hands me a paper towel.

That's his job. Towel boy to the Distinctly Unrich and Happily Unfamous at Studio 54 a full six years after the last Fabulous Person left.

Wonder what kind of scratch he made for that gig. Me, I'd have rather sold loose joints in Washington Square. Washed windshields at St. Mark's Place.

Nobody said...

You've never lived until your spent six weeks of your life rescuing and cataloging 100+ year old police charge books and town rate books from a spider, rat and bat-infested barn that the sheep sometimes slept in. Plus substantial water leakage from years of storms, and more kinds of mould than i knew existed. Scraping the slime away was an experience in itself.

I'd come home at the end of the day black with dirt, dust and shit, wash it off, and continue to cough it out of my lungs for most of the night. I smelt like sheep droppings and urine, and food tasted like wet paper for the entire time.

The best part of the job? I get my first paycheck to discover that after tax, i'm only $20 a fortnight better off than being on the dole. Ah, the joys of capitalism and the minimum wage and being too proud to want to be unemployed...

I stuck that job out for three years!

The Viscount LaCarte said...

The worst job I ever had was my first one out of college. I was hired by a personnel department for a large bank in NYC. I was an "exit interviewer" and I had to fire people.

I was of course, struck by this:

>My very first paying job was cleaning [procto]scopes after use (along with all other manner of medical-surgical equipment...the skin graft scraper-thing-ey was by far the worst). Now, whenever I find myself in a round of "who here among us has had the worst job" I nearly always win. It's the job that keeps on paying.<

It reminded me of an obscure song from the new-wave days called "Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage" by Killer Pussy.

"First you put the nozzle in
There's really nothing to it
It's a dirty job
But someone has to do it."

Don't bother hunting it down though. Beyond the one joke, there is nothing there.

For reference:

XTCfan said...

Ned, sorry, after all the shite I (and probably all of us) have to put up with dealing with "grown-up jobs," there is something idyllic and very Zenlike in the description of your job. Reminds me of Genesis' I Know What I Like.

My worst job was selling encyclopedias. Didn't last long on that one.

So, did you water the lawn even when it was raining?

Neddie said...

<< there is something idyllic and very Zenlike in the description of your job.>>

Mmmm, yeah, I suppose. I had a moment with a co-worker a few years back, a youngster who'd recently been named to the Fast Track among the design crew, and suddenly he had a huge amount of responsibility and no power, and was learning real fast that it's lonely at the top. (Something I learned about 1988 -- the happy death of my ambition!)

He was bemoaning his fate, and said wistfully, "You know? At this point I'd rather be a ditch-digger. The pay might not be great, but you don't find yourself digging ditches in the shower, you know? You don't wake up at 2AM with a sudden angry thought about ditch-digging. You don't yell at your windsheild about digging ditches."

Employee of the Month said...



$2.15 an hour

Mom and Pop Chinese Restaurant

No one in the kitchen spoke English

I spoke no Cantonese

I stole their beer with Swiss-watch precision.

Best Job Ever

Matt said...

I think the protoscope cleaner beats the lawn-waterer by an ass-hair in the worst-job sweepstakes.

My own worst job involved maintenance work, too -- cleaning bathrooms at a public pool.

One of my old bosses told me that his first job was at a Chinese restaurant in Queens. He had to go through a vat of duck sauce and pick out the cockroaches.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

I'm not even going to weight in.

I will say this- 1979. Ahhhh.