May 2014

Publisher's View: Jobs

Steven J. Moss

My first job, which I got when I was 13 years old, was a classic: delivering the Sunday San Francisco Examiner. A pile of papers would be dropped off, along with a bag of rubber bands, early Sunday morning. I’d roll the fat layers of newsprint together, strap on two rubber bands, stuff the resulting bundle into a canvas poncho-like bag that had pouches in the front and back, and heave my heavily weighted body onto my fat-tired, one-speed bicycle. My route took me several blocks around my Palo Alto home. It was mercifully flat. After I was done I’d pick up breakfast at a nearby Jack in the Box, crawl through my bedroom window so as not to disturb — really, encounter — my parents, read the comics and columns by Charles McCabe and Herb Caen, and go back to sleep.

It was a fine entry into the workforce, which included canvassing my customers for payment at the end of each month. My only disappointment was that, contrary to urban legend, I was never greeted at the door by a bored housewife with a towel wrapped around her wet, just-showered body. Though I never lost hope that I would be.

My next job was another classic: gardening for an elderly neighbor. The vegetation around her bungalow was thick and thorny. It constantly needed to be hacked back, which was good, because, now at age 14, I had no clue as to how to do anything carefully or thoughtfully, but I was really good at whacking things. After I was sufficiently grimed and thorn-scratched, my client, a widowed former school teacher in her 70s, would hand me $10 or $15, with an offer of some clumped-together, off-brand hard candies. I tried to accept one once, but couldn’t break it off from the sticky crowd. When her back was turned I hurriedly put the dish and its contents on a side table, stuck my tongue in my cheek, and thanked her profusely. 

That job turned out to be a career highlight, at least until I graduated from college. I got another gardening gig, in a wealthier part of Palo Alto. But I spent more time sneaking into my client’s garage to look at his pornography stash than caring for his formerly well-manicured shrubs. Within several weeks he gently fired me, saying that he was going to “hire an Asian kid,” who would pay more attention to details. “You white kids don’t like to work so hard,” he said, good-naturedly. 

I got a job at a veterinarian clinic a short bicycle ride from my house. That went well for a while. I had a high tolerance for bad smells, and it wasn’t hard to clean out cages and spray down runs. But then, perhaps inevitably, as the number of pimples on my face multiplied so too did my sloppiness. Rather than move the animals to empty runs, I started to spray the doggy boarders where they were, along with the cement. The whole thing ended shortly after I left an elderly dachshund I’d just bathed in a small metal cage with a blow dryer running too long. The dog expired of heat exhaustion. 

As guilt-wracked as I was for committing dog-slaughter, I didn’t learn from my mistakes. In college at Berkeley I got a job putting different size hypodermic needles into separate plastic bags for shipping to laboratories. I lasted a couple of months before the owner of the medical supply company told me he was replacing me with a handicapped guy, “who could get the job done much faster.” 

I then worked in the warehouse of a family-owned rattan furniture outlet in Oakland. A few weeks into the job I sent a loveseat to Alaska using TNT Express. Shipping costs were twice the price of the furnishing, and the client refused to pay them. The expense came at a time when the economy was especially bad; I almost put the small business under. The husband and wife owners were surprisingly nice about the whole thing; they even offered to hire me after I graduated from college.

I had other jobs, as a cashier at a 7-11 in Albany, a page at a university library, and a two-week stint as a vacuum cleaner salesman. I didn’t screw up too much. My poor performance streak finally ended when I volunteered for a kibbutz in Israel after I graduated from Berkeley. I worked picking grapefruits alongside mostly Swedish and British volunteers, which I enjoyed. Until one morning the foreman informed us that he was transferring us all out of the orchard to the diaper factory that had just been erected, to be replaced by Palestinians. “They pick faster, and worker hard,” he said, with a smile. “Even though you’re free, they’re more valuable.” I tried not to think of the transfer as a metaphor, which was hard in a Jewish state, where everything is subject to interpretation.

Since the diaper factory I’ve shifted to jobs that mostly depend on my mind, rather than my hands. I’ve done okay, so far. And, even though I had a rocky start, I’m grateful for those early opportunities. They enabled me to earn money. They taught me that temperament can be as important as skills and knowledge when choosing a career; and that one’s race or ethnicity can matter in the workplace, in my case providing a dose of white privilege, which was enough to get me started—a nontrivial boost—but required actual merit to be successful. My guess is that today’s teenagers, especially ones that aren’t white, middle-class, and growing up in Palo Alto, aren’t so lucky.

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