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.