FEEDING THE BULLDOG: TURNING A BUCK IN THE REAL WORLD
Take this job and shove it!
One warm summer night in his cabin in the woods of Upper Michigan, I and Al Learst, my former student, fellow writer, and friend, lubricated by a half-gallon jug of vodka, set down a list of jobs we'd held in the course of our lives; any job that paid made the list, excepting the realms of academia and fiction writing (the latter, of course, usually pays a pittance or nothing, the former less than a busy long-haul trucker earns). Hobbies (beekeeping, wine-making, gardening) were of course ineligible, along with anything done gratis (painting my mother's house my first summer after discharge from the army). Below, briefly annotated, and without regard to chronology, is what I remember coming up with:
1. Bottler: Renor Concentrate was one of the early weight-loss formulas (I think it sold for $5 a bottle maybe three times the size of airline liquor bottleswhich, incidentally, now sell for the same price). The firm's owner mixed up a daily batch, a thick fluid that smelled strongly of prunes; I filled the bottles from a hose with four spouts, capping with the other hand; the sole other employee, a middle-aged woman, affixed labels, answered the phone, answered mail, etc. Renor was quite popular for a time, until, I suppose, people figured out it was nothing more than a super-laxative.
2. Pinsetter: I worked at two different bowling alleys. I recall being paid 10 cents a line. I broke the boredom, between ducking flying pins and avoiding smashed fingers, by heaving an extra pin into the setup as the ball arrived, thus giving strikes to ladies and small children. If I didn't like a bowler's looks, I put a backspin on his ball when putting it on the return, forcing him to come down the alley to retrieve it. Working league nights at a place called The Marble Arcade (six alleys attached to a tavern), jumping two alleys for two leagues brought $6. It was there that I saw a fellow pinsetter, a Native American, create a drink called a Pink Lady by squeezing canned heat and filtering the fluid through a piece of bread. Now and thenthe job was supposed to rotateI got stuck sitting in a niche up in the wall from where I rang a buzzer on any bowler's foot faults. This paid only $4. When I complained about getting this assignment too often, the owner, a stout woman named Charlotte, told me, Gordon, if you don't want to do something, but you do it anyway, you're a better person for it. I'm proud to say I'd already lived long enough to recognize bullshit when I heard it.
3. Babysitter: I sat for two nieces and two nephews. I think the going wage was about 35 cents an hour then. I also sat for twin boys on my paper route, hired by their father. I jumped at the extra money, but was horrified when I learned, on the job, I had to wipe the boys' asses for them when they crapped just before bedtime. I got through that by looking away as I performed the task.
4. Newspaper Delivery Boy: My Milwaukee Journal route was too small to pay more than a token each month. The Milwaukee Sentinel paid better, but this was a morning paper, which meant getting out of bed seven days a week at 4:30 AM. Each December, we bought art calendars from the Sentinel. We handed them as gifts to our customers, who, the theory went, would bestow a Yuletide tip, making for a profit on our investment. I never turned a profit, but delivered papers for three yearsI can't imagine why. The best part of the job was buying a half dozen glazed doughnuts fresh from a bakery's oven, washing them down with a quart of chocolate milk bought from the delivery truck making its rounds before the rest of the world woke up. The Journal and Sentinel have long since merged, and is delivered to my door by a grown man who covers his route by automobile. Are there any paperboys left in America?
5. Process Server: This was in Denver. The money was goodpaid by the lawyer bringing the given legal actionand the work easy, if I don't count that stricken, deer-in-the-headlights look that came over the faces of the recipients I served. I also felt a faint anxiety that one of them might vent his or her anger on the messenger bringing the bad news.
6. Private Reading Tutor: Hired to coach a kid aged ten get up to grade-level, I quit when I discovered his problem was a speech impediment; he professed not to know words he could not correctly pronounce. The epiphany hit me the day he read aloud bowl instead of the text's dish because his s always came out mushily slurred. The money was good, since his father was the only stockbroker in Marietta, Ohio.
7. Drug Store Clerk: I was once scolded by the owner for shouting loudly when asking where I could find a product a woman had just asked for; I learned it was a douche, and then I learned what a douche was. On Saturdays, I was sent to the basement to bring up products for restocking shelves. This allowed me to smoke, open a warm orange soda and a bag of chips, and dead-head for half an hour. I had no fear of being caught because the owner was afraid of both the relative dark of the basement and the steep stairs leading down to it. The opportunities for pilfering were boundless.
8. Pepsi-Cola Route Manager: Age 21, I took home more than $100 a week, which made me ever after very fond of the Teamsters Union. I left the job by mutual agreement with my employer due to two accidents on successive days. I simply was not up to those double-clutching trucks. I sideswipped a car, pinning the driver inside, then backed through a lady's back fence when maneuvering in a supermarket parking lot. I have not forgotten the pure shame I felt, standing on her porch in my blue uniform, informing her what I had done to her white pickets. I also drank a lot of Pepsi, which I still loath.
9. Newspaper Route Manager: Another Denver job (and a well paid one, thanks to the Newspaperman's Guildlike the folk song has it, I'm talkin' union!), my duties included filling newspaper coin boxes and checking to see that my dozen or so paperboys were up and delivering. In the afternoon shift, I drove four or five of them around as they solicited subscriptions. Once a month I collected their money, tooling about in what was not the city's best neighborhood with a couple of thousand dollars in a zip-bag on the seat next to me. Oh to be so innocent again!
10. Vegetable Truck Helper: After school, I met the truck farmer at a prearranged corner. As he drove slowly down the residential streets, I hit the houses, announcing specials for sale, delivering produce to the door, collecting money. At the end of the two or three hour stint, I handed over the money, mostly $1 bills and assorted change. The farmer always admonished me to line up paper moneyLet's get George looking all the same way here. I didn't see the point of that, but continue to order the bills in my wallet according to his prescription. Who knows what will take, or why?
11. Steel Worker: A summer job my junior year of college, this was both the best-paid (God bless the United Steelworker Union!) and most physically demanding job I ever held. Stationed in the pit below the platform of a two-story tall hydraulic press, I manhandled everything from aqualung tanks to jet engine tubes, setting them up for lifting by an overhead electric crane. With piecework incentives, I made something on the order of $2.80 an hour, very good money at the time. Once, attempting to chat up a young lady, having told her this, and that I was a college student, she said, Oh, then I guess you won't be going back to school in fall, will you. A marked advantage on this job was that my press operator was also the union shop steward; when new job orders came in, it was our press that set the production rate. At his direction, we worked as if moving underwater against a stiff current. When he and the foreman had agreed on the production rate, we then set to with a will in order to exceed the rate and get the piecework incentive. I think this taught me there's always an angleany situation can be finessed. And a co-worker told me an anecdote from his Korean War experience that became my novella, The Interpreter, which sold for the most money I ever received for a literary journal publication.
12. Florist Delivery Boy: I drove the florist's van, delivering elaborate displays to lawyers' offices and churches. Art, my boss, impressed me by carrying on concurrent intimate affairs with two sisters, fraternal twins. Unfortunately for him, the homely one got pregnant first, forcing marriage. I tend to be wary of gambling as a result; even fifty-fifty odds can sink you.
13. Theater Usher: I took tickets and swept up the cigarette butts in the men's room after the intermission. I saw Stewart Granger and Peter Ustinov in Beau Brummel twenty-eight times, fended off my first indecent proposal in the men's room, and, because I wore a suit and tie at work, was able to pass for twenty-one in a neighborhood tavern when my theater shift was over.
14. Bar Bouncer: For the most part I stood at the door and checked ID cards to weed out the underaged. There was only one fight, and the bartender, the biggest man in any room, got to that before I had to mix in. This job made me popular with my under-twenty-one friends, since I always passed them in.
15. Parking Garage Attendant: This was fairly easy work, retrieving vehicles parked on the four floors via a creaking elevator. On a slow Sunday, my boss, Howie, a most unpleasant man, saw me reading Shakespeare for a summer course. He asked me, Now that Shakespeare, is that in play form? His ignorance amused me, but his persistent abusive manner angered me. This is the only job I ever walked off in the middle of a shift, and I'm still glad I did it. I'm sorry Johnny Paycheck had not yet recorded his hit single; I uttered no bon mot to linger and puzzle Howie in my wake.
16. City Snow Removal: After a blizzard, you could get hired as a temp to shovel out sewer drains and alleyways. You had to get up about 4 AM and get to the ward yard for work on a first-come basis. A friend and I did this more than once. Within the year, my friend developed schizophrenia and is, if he still lives, still housed in a veteran's hospital upstate. I also free-lanced from an early age, pleased to remember earning $2 shoveling a corner walk for a neighbor after the great storm of 1947, the worst in Milwaukee's history.
17: Concession Sales: During half-times at Milwaukee State Teachers College basketball games, I sold sodas, candy, and peanuts, and also cleaned the playing floor with an enormous dustmop. I don't remember what this paid, beyond free admission, but am certain I pilfered far more than what I received for the work. I am proud I gave up shoplifting and petty theft soon thereafter. I think it was due to fear of capture rather than a moral decision. Whatever works toward the improvement of character, right?
18: Contract Editor: The material I copyedited was technical and educational, so most non-literary. I understood nothing of what I read, and have no idea if I was worth the good money the Iowa publisher paid.
19: Civil Court Clerk: My task was to pull case files for the sleazy lawyers who garnished wages and brought paternity suits. I enjoyed reading paternity files, some of which contained rather graphic depositions. The court house still had brass cuspidors in strategic locations, used skillfully by many attorneys in those pre-buttondown days. Lawyers now are better groomed, but, I suspect, no less sleazy.
20. Hospital Administration Clerk: I was on limited contract at the county hospital, my job to file and otherwise order chest x-rays and other medical info gathered from all hospital staff. The work was easy, though tedious, the day leavened by a very attractive Greek girl I hoped to know better. I gave up on her when I learned her parents had arranged her marriage to the son of a fellow Greek who owned a haberdashery downtown for a payment of $10,000. I had no resources, it goes without saying, with which to put in a bid.
21. Court Reporting School: I read texts (literary, question-and-answer, jury charge, medical) aloud at different rates of words-per-minute to small classes of students learning the Stenotype system. I suppose it was good practice for classroom teaching and, especially, presenting readings of my fiction in later years?
22. Library Assistant: In the days when colleges issued texts to students, my job was stamping several pages of each new book with the school's name. Yes, it was tedious, but, age maybe 12, I got a good look at what a lark college life seemed to be. For all I know this pointed me in the direction of the academic I settled into?
23. Tree Planter: I was to plant rows of pine seedlings that would, the owner envisioned, be the backdrop decor of his new free-standing restaurant. I drove past the site a few years ago; the building had been converted into a residence, and nary a pine tree to be seen.
24. Pickle Factory: This was long hours and short pay, stacking cases of pickle jars in the warehouse prior to shipping. For one day I was promoted to work the production line, scooping pickles from a barrel with a huge net, then dumping them on a conveyor belt where women packed them into jars. The women, rural matrons, were paid on a piece-work basis (like steelworkers minus a union), so complained when I did not keep the conveyor full. Their agonized cries of Pickles! tormented me like a harpy's shrieks, but I could not keep up, so was sent back to the warehouse. I was terminated at the height of the season, found simply inadequate, and, probably, insufficiently motivated.
25. City Laborer: I was one of a crew of nearly a dozen men hired to sweep Milwaukee streets by hand prior to a new coat of tar and fine pebbles being laid as a stopgap resurfacing of the macadam. One of only two non-blacks on the crew, I listened closely to my co-workers jive-talk, and brought some of them back in my first novel, Count a Lonely Cadence; Martin Sheen brought them to the screen (thirty years after the experience) in Cadence, along with son Charlie, who I guess played me? The best line I remember was a response to my telling them I had studied English, German, French, and Spanish: Hell, Weaver, you can sweep damn streets anywhere in the world, man!
26. Dishwasher: I was employed by the Owl Restaurant, an archtypical greasy spoon serving blue-collar working men and college students; buying a $5 meal ticket brought $5.50 in purchasing power. I think the house specialty was the roast beef sandwich drenched in canned gravy. I was offered the choice of 65 cents an hour or 55 cents with free meals; I chose the former. My hands shed a layer of skin periodically due to the strong disinfectant (called bartender's friend) that laced the wash water. The owner's wife once opined, during a slack hour, All good things and all bad things finally come to an end, which is wisdom good for a lifetime, I think, as I look back on it all.
27. Football Stadium Ticket Taker: This paid $10 per game. A perk was that one could watch the second half of the game, the admission gates abandoned. I got a character out of this stint, the deputy sheriff in If A Man Truly In His Heart, from a diminutive policeman I saw reduce a dozen drunk and rioting frat boys to shamefaced cowering as he lined them up against a wall through sheer force of personality. I don't recall any of the teams I watched play, much less any final scores.
28. US Army: A broad occupational umbrellaI served as light weapons infantryman, prisoner escort, permanent charge-of-quarters, mailman. I attained the rank of E-4, was guilty and punished under Article 15 twice (missing reveille, drunk and disorderly in the barracks), toured much of Europe on furlough, and, combined with my street sweeping (see above), came away with my first novel.
29. Interpreter: In a German court, I served as translator for a comrade who was pleading not guilty to a paternity charge. The court's agent, a matronly woman, came to my aid when it was clear I did not know the proper term for sexual intercourse, only gutter slang. I can't remember what my comrade paid me, but work is work, right? I know I was grateful to my high school German teacher for imparting he language to me;
10th Mountain Infantry Division,
it's not surprising she didn't teach us geschlectesverkehr.
30. Court document transcriber: I worked on a typewriter from a dictaphone tape. The subject matter was impenetrable to me, and I was not a good typist, so was terminated in short order.
31. Door to door sales: This was probably, outside snow shoveling and lawn mowing, my first paid activity. I sold potholders I made on a kind of wire frame; I know I sold some, but not enough to keep me at the process of production. And it taught me I had absolutely no talent for sales, which served me well when I was tempted to sell bibles and encyclopedias.
32. Pet babysitter: An across-the-hall neighbor paid me with a $25 gift certificate to feed her cat for a week she was away on travel; I was glad to do it, but would have refused if it meant cleaning the litter box too. I gave some thought to getting to know the lady better, but she moved away too soon for that. Sometimes the mojo just will not work!
33. Television Talk Show Host: For the Mississippi Educational TV Authority, I conducted literary interviews with any noteworthy writer passing through the state. It was an hour format, and the show was distributed widely by the Southern ETV Authority, but I got no residuals. I did meet a few writers I liked and admired, and some I detested on sight, in about the same ratio as I respond to the general population.
From this spotty work record, I conclude I was what used to be called a floater, someone incapable of holding a steady job. I did better in academia (full-time at only four institutions of higher learning over 30-plus years). I realize the above is a list of pure trivia, but, I contend, of some use to the work of fiction writing.
To paraphrase Philip Roth's comment that nothing bad can happen to us writersreplace bad with triviabecause it's all material, what?
GORDON WEAVER is the author of four novels and ten story collections, the most recent of which is Last Stands (U. Missouri Press, 2004). Winner of two NEA fellowships, his stories have been
reprinted in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Pushcart Prize, and other anthologies. His 1968 novel, Count A Lonely Cadence, was adapted for film as Cadence (1991), directed by Martin Sheen, who co-starred with his son Charlie.
[copyright 2005, Gordon Weaver]