Just because, here’s a memory about working:
I’ve had far fewer jobs than most folks in their early forties. I’ve been teaching here at Pasadena City College since 1993, when I was 26. Before that, most of my paid jobs were in grad school at UCLA: editor, athletic tutor, teaching assistant, researcher. But I did work summer jobs during my undergrad years, and I found myself thinking this morning about what I did for eight weeks twenty-two years ago.
In late May 1986, after my freshman year at Berkeley, I moved back home to Carmel. Jobs in my hometown tend to be centered around the tourist industry, but for any number of reasons, I had a hard time finding a job waiting tables or working in a shop. Responding to an ad in the Monterey Herald, I took a position as a “night janitor” working for the Carmel by-the-Sea public works department.
The hours were very strange: 2:00AM to 10:00AM, Monday through Friday. It’s the only time in my life where I’ve worked such a schedule, and even now, twenty-one years later, I can remember how grueling it was. I was paid $5.25 an hour (well above the then minimum wage of $3.35), and I got to drive the department’s brand new Ford Aerostar around town. My job was to perform janitorial services at the City Hall and the library for the first four hours, and in the second four hours to assist the department’s senior maintenance supervisor with his work around town.
For eight weeks, I vacuumed carpets, scrubbed toilets, washed mirrors, and swept floors in my hometown’s little city hall. I emptied lots of ashtrays. My students today can’t remember a time when smoking indoors in public buildings was common and permissable; those of us on the high side of forty easily can. (Remember all the burn stains on the carpets in movie theaters and offices?) And in the summer of 1986, ours was a famous city hall: Clint Eastwood had just been elected as mayor. Though I only saw Eastwood from afar, and usually only once a week, I remember that from the first night on the job, the main phone line at city hall rang and rang. I was instructed to pick up the phone each time; in a pre-cell phone world, my supervisor often called me on that line. Calls came in from Australia and Germany and Japan; the callers were usually drunk, barely coherent, and invariably, wanted to speak to Clint. I was always polite, reminding the person on the other end that it was 3:00AM in California, and the mayor was unavailable, but I was happy to take a message. And take messages I did. I left stacks of “While You Were Out” yellow slips on Eastwood’s assistant’s desk; what was done with them, I know not.
Carmel City Hall was and is small: perhaps 2500 square feet, total. Still, I was impressed by the amount of dirt and mess that could be made each day. Mondays were always the worst; some city hall employees worked weekends, and the building wasn’t cleaned on Saturdays or Sundays. Much like Barbara Ehrenreich, who went undercover with a maid service, I remember being amazed by how much pubic hair ended up on the floor next to the toilets in both the men’s and women’s restrooms. I was stunned by how much was thrown away — and in 1986, the city did not yet have a regular recycling program. There were fewer than a dozen employees working full-time that year in city hall, but at dawn each morning, I carried at least three huge bags of trash out of that building.
Now, I’ve been enormously privileged. I’ve done relatively little manual labor in my life. When I was fourteen, in the summer of 1981, I spent six weeks working on a vineyard owned by a cousin in the Napa Valley. It was hot, backbreaking work, and I labored alongside my cousin’s crew of migrant Mexican workers. I won’t pretend for a moment that I worked as hard or as well as they did; I provided them more with amusement than with assistance, but I did the absolute best I could. I came home that summer thinner, darker, and with actual earned blisters. It was a fine time.
Five years later, at age nineteen, I remember alternately loving and hating the night shift with the Carmel Public Works Department. On the one hand, there was something marvelous about being awake and invigorated when I knew everyone else was sleeping. I would walk to work each morning, often passing couples stumbling out of the bars that were about to close. It was surreal, occasionally fascinating, but in the end, utterly discombobulating. The 2-10 shift wreaked havoc with my sleep. I went to bed at 9 each night, and rose again at 1:00AM. When I got home from work around 10:30, I would nap until 2:00 in the afternoon. I slept two shifts: four hours in the evening, three or so in the middle of the day. I was always tired, and by the end of summer, starting to become seriously depressed.
What was my take-away from this experience? I learned enormous respect for those who work swing shifts. I learned, or tried to learn, to be more careful with the amount of waste and mess I generated for other people. And I learned to be humbly grateful for the chances and opportunities I had been given. My all-too-brief experiences doing “real work” have helped me empathize, at least in part, with those who must do this work all of their lives. I never take for granted that the trash I leave in my office each day will be gone the next morning, and I retain a great respect, bordering on awe, for those who year in and year out work while all around them are fast asleep.