Jimmy Stewart and My First Job

A comment on one of Dan’s great posts of business reminded me of my work life. Plunging in – getting caught up in the moment – I don’t have much to give someone beginning. I love his ability to step back, to analyze, to learn. This is personal, of a time past.

I haven’t had a career – I’ve had jobs: a Kelly job here, teaching one there and here, building the business. Hannity talks manual labor, beginning long before he was 16 and ending in front of the cameras in blue jeans; he’d think himself less of a man in a suit. Work = who I am, yes, that I understand. I consider myself the kind of person who delivered papers: from 6th grade through 8th, I think, the Omaha World Herald; in high school the Hastings Tribune. That was who I was, what Kenesaw was, what the fifties were. It reassures me – I came from that time, that place, that role. I’m less and less sure of memories, but bicycling around town, putting the paper in the doors – that was me.

We could always have used more money but when the big Sunday paper came out – far too large for our bicycle baskets – our parents took us in the car, as well as in heavy snow and ice. My mother knew it was hardly a profit center in our strained family budget – unless you counted experience. But she counted that. She’d put herself through high school, working to earn room and board because her mother, teaching in a one-room school in the teens, made damn sure her daughters, stuck miles from town and, in the depths of the depression, got an education. And then college, where Mother lived in a Co-op (as my daughters did two generations later). She wanted children with resilience, with pluck.

Little money was involved. I think from all those years I paid for my first typewriter. I hated collecting and I hated getting up (the World Herald was a morning paper) but rather liked delivering. Bicycling around town I was free, climbing the two-story pile of milo to reach the elevator’s front door (those were the years of plenty), avoiding the dog at Traeger’s. They complained when I didn’t bring it to the front door. (After ripped pants, I tucked it in the front gate; their dog thought it was his play thing – better it than me I figured.) A couple of years ago a friend from grade school said they had felt sorry for me, forced to go into the tavern to get the owner’s pay. Sixty years later I was surprised anyone knew or cared about that but me. My father, a regular, was irritated when the bar owner complained I didn’t collect regularly.

Before us, the Jackson brothers had the routes. They were legendary: one ended up an M.D., the second an M.F.A. in piano (who also baby sat us), and the third taught vet science at Michigan – I know this because their proud mother kept my mother quite aware of their accomplishments in their final years in apartments for the elderly (both too resilient to want much care but needing simpler floor plans and less icy driving). I’m sure they also shared that fifties belief: paper routes taught kids lessons. All work has dignity was a refrain at our house. It helped – I’ve only realized lately how much more my mother must have expected of my father – and he of himself. But work was work and life, well, it was a lot of things. And I suspect that was the first lesson I learned: it wasn’t collecting, at which I was pretty lousy, nor profit – I didn’t keep track of that stuff much at all. It was the act – work itself. It was getting up, getting out there: it was doing. My brother became quite good at business and I kept a small one going for 13 years. However, I didn’t take lessons I should have. I took others, less useful except for understanding myself, my time.

I recognized myself in one of my employees, a.b.d. in Entomology, supervising student labs and examining fruit flies that trembled with footsteps so she peered through the big microscopes quiet late nights. She also worked making copies, taking orders, binding – keeping busy. She turned down authority but always took responsibility, forgot to pick up paychecks, leaving each summer for Hawaii then returning, ready to work the fall rush. She never finished her dissertation; a couple of years after I sold out, she asked for a recommendation to law school. I guess (hope) she found why she hadn’t finished her degree – maybe it wasn’t really what she wanted to do. But she needed to stay busy while she was finding herself and On the Double was as good a place as any.

I was reminded of much of this last year when I phoned the Adams County Bank to get an address for a memorial. The woman who answered knew us and my niece’s four children, was right I’d graduated with her parents in 1963. Sixty years later, the bank still offers free checking accounts for kids delivering papers. A local Texas bank helped me start my business, get loans for the dry summers, buy our first house; it taught me the importance of equity. But they don’t know us; its institutional memory is not rich. As decades passed, one buyout followed another, pausing now, it is enveloped in Wells Fargo. It’s not the same and I don’t like it, but then people have always said that as the world changed around them. “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t true in College Station in 2021 but remains the eternal “now” of my Kenesaw.

11 thoughts on “Jimmy Stewart and My First Job”

  1. Never delivered papers. Worked at Bickford’s Pancakes, bus tables, wash dishes, sweep and mop, clean out the lavatories — lovely. Not actually terribly hard, tiring, often unpleasant, but whatever. It all turned on whether the manager was reasonable or an asshole. If he was reasonable, it was fine. If he was an asshole, it was unpleasant. But generally, the bad managers were overworked and stressed, not malicious. (I did not find genuinely malicious people in the workplace until after law school. I came to understand that being able to inflict psychological cruelty is a job perk for some people.) The cooks had it hard. It was hot, and when it got busy it was stressful. Dad would drop me off and pick me up. He never said it was annoying or a problem. He just did it. Typical of him, and admirable, as with many things about him.

  2. My first real job was when my father bought a print shop at around 15. The seller showed us the rudiments of hand setting type from the cases and how to operate a Heidelberg letter press. I became a decent pressman and probably the world’s slowest type setter. A wedding invitation took me a couple of hours.

    Working for family might not have been the best way to start and there were certainly issues with management but the customers appreciated my work. I’m still proud of being able to make letterheads and business cards that people found useful. For as long as we had it, I was usually the only person that ran that press. It seemed easier to get people to run the offset presses. I found it easier to work for others latter.

    I’ve thought that it’s probably a good thing for most people to get fired from a job or two and no better time than when they’re in high school. Easy for me to say, with a job I couldn’t be fired from and couldn’t quit. Now, it seems most will go all the way through school before they get their first reality check and find out bosses don’t grade on a curve.

    I think it’s important to let kids screw up when the stakes are low and the fallout limited, but that doesn’t seem to be the fashion. Learning from failure looks fine in books by billionaires. It’s not the sort of thing that looks good on a college application.

  3. I had a paper route. When there was a bad winter storm, the guys at Donnellen Mortuary would let me come in to warm up. They would tease me about staying for dinner. “We are having liver” they would say. It was all in fun and they were good guys.

    Then, I worked in Kennedy Drugstore as a soda jerk By this time I was in high school. I was the only Kennedy associated but it was a pretty good job. One summer, I worked as a helper on a Coca Cola truck. In summer we got so sweaty that the blue dye in our belts would leach out in to the pants, which were salmon color.

    Then I worked a summer for my father at his golf driving range. Hit a lot of balls. Learned to drive his old truck. My high school friends all volunteered so they could learn to drive.

  4. As a boy in the 70s, my “first” job was mowing lawns. My first “real” job (aka, I paid *taxes*) was as a 14yo busboy @ dennys. I kept on that route until i got the official chops to do computer work, with one brief segue into bagboy work for about 6m.

    The highlight of that was when I was 17, and for a brief time had a busboy job at a high end restaurant. Tips had me making 10/hr in the mid 70s for 2 nights work… (That was more than my mom made at the time as a full-charge bookkeeper) Great money, then, with minwage ca. 2/hr. Lost it because they wanted me more nights a week and i was also taking college courses at the time…

    Since then, various computer work, mostly. Sort of a career, but so many jobs, so many places… Little to connect other than the “computer work” rubric.

  5. It’s rarely mentioned except in a few conservative-ish places that raising the minimum wage already has crushed teen employment. Or at least played a major part, though it may be smaller than other societal forces that have led to our wrapping children in bubble wrap, and thus preventing teens and even later from actually achieving adulthood.

  6. @Brian, it’s a combination of higher minimum wage and a large supply of illegal immigrants that has crushed teen employment. Why hire a teen when you can pay an illegal under the table? And frankly, the illegal will probably work harder.

  7. It’s not illegals that have taken all the jobs like grocery store checkout and fast food worker in big cities, that are still done by teens in most rural places.
    The PMCs that run society today don’t want their kids doing menial jobs, and don’t care about policies that eliminate them.

  8. JaimeRoberto beat me to it. I think the fast food jobs in McD’s have gone to illegals. In N Out burger has held the line for kids that want to learn to work, which is what we did. Gardening, dry wall hangers and lots of other dirty jobs have been taken by illegals. In many of those cases it is blacks, not teens, that lose out.

    The drug culture is also a big factor. I have read that many employers find new employees don’t show up for work.

    Gentry class parents may be opposed to kids working but the Menendez brothers should be a warning shot for some. Sorry about the pun.

  9. PMC is Professional Managerial Class. They’re the dominant force in contemporary culture and politics.

    re: McDonald’s, I think we’re seriously in Two Americas territory. In my small NY town the employees there and the grocery store are mostly local teens, but the only illegals around here are farm workers.

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