Knowing who you are by your work

At this stage in my life, in my middle age, I am comfortable knowing who I am. I will not become a successful entrepreneur or highly paid technical specialist in any of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math). Nor will I be a successful business person as measured by the size of my bank account or size of the last budget I managed. I have taken a different path. And it is a good path, and it is also a professional path too. Success has other metrics.

One thing that I am comfortable with is having been a laborer and blue collar worker. I wish I could have developed a start-up company instead of having some of my crummy jobs in my youth. But there were factors and my own choices, and being lower-middle-class, there are constraints that those who are wealthier will never understand. I did run my own lawn-mowing business, but it never really took flight as a true company.

This is how I looked after a summer of hot work outside.

This is how I looked after a summer of hot work outside.

As a result of my earliest jobs, every time I see someone who is using their body to do manual labor, I feel some connection, because I did those jobs at one point. I also now agree with what Karl Marx notes in his Communist Manifesto, which has some stinging truths to those of us who have worked: “In proportion therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.”

Today I work in an office, for a local government. I am separated by a sheet of glass where I see men and women, daily, fixing the exterior to my building lately. It is very odd to have that viewpoint, knowing I had held such jobs, but I am no longer exposed to the hot sun, laboring and sweating.

Here are just a few of my jobs, and many a more famous person had dirtier, harder, and more brutal jobs than me. There is no shame in having done work getting your hands and clothes dirty.

  • Babysitter (really was not suited for this, but few jobs exist when you are younger than 16)
  • Gardener/snow shoveller (self-employed, for years)
  • Fast food cook and kitchen worker
  • Dishwasher (quit almost immediately, and that was wise)
  • Retail store assistant and janitor (yes, I really did janitorial work)
  • Librarian assistant
  • Painter
  • Roofer (hottest job I ever had)
  • Construction worker
  • Chauffeur/bus driver/tour guide
  • English teacher

Some of these jobs paid minimum wage, and one paid below minimum wage. For two of them, I likely was in violation of some state labor code, either being too young to work or not being covered properly working off the books. A few of these jobs did pay well, and the ones that did were with independent contractors, who always were excellent mentors about business, working with clients, and customer service.

By the time I was in my 20s, I finally made a move to climb up the ladder in terms of pay scale and responsibility in an organizational setting. My college degrees helped.

But I never forget the path that led me to where I am. I think former President Theodore Roosevelt summed up work nicely: “No man needs sympathy because he has to work, because he has a burden to carry. Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Fast food lives and fast food memories

Tonight, I walked by two fast food franchises that were closing down for the night around 9:30 p.m. One was a subway sandwich place, the other an ice cream parlor. Their brand names are not important. Inside, shutting things down, three young workers in their teens were hard at work.

Behind the glass at the ice cream shop, I saw two young women wiping down the metal fixtures, sweeping, and ensuring it was sanitary and clean for the next day. One of the those women met my gaze and smiled. She was energetic, attractive, and positive. I smiled back. Next door, a young man, who I think was about 17, was mopping the linoleum floor with an old-fashion slop mop, like the ones I used to use when I was around his age. He looked up, but he went quickly back to his task at hand. He looked like he was ready to leave.

Wow, what a flood of memories that brought back to me. I cannot remember how many times I “closed down the shop,” when I worked in the early 1980s at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet just outside St. Louis.

I wore a hat like that, and apron like that, and likely had my hair even longer, and yes, I used to haul boxes of frozen chicken in and out of the giant freezer to prep the chicken for cooking.

I wore a hat like that, and shirt like that, and likely had my hair even longer. And, yes, I used to haul boxes of frozen chicken in and out of the giant freezer to prep the chicken for cooking.

I was 15 years old—at that time working illegally under the allowable 16 years of age minimum. My job involved cooking batches of factory raised chickens–or rather the edible parts of chickens, soaking them in “special sauces,” covering them special flour, and then deep-frying them in a giant vat of hot oil for the required time til the buzzer went off. That was the “extra crispy” chicken. The “Colonel’s Special Recipe” involved pressure cooking the bird pieces in a giant, and I thought, very dangerous machine. Or, worse, I had to do dishes, cleaning oil-slimed metal cooking ware and trays until my fingers puckered from the chemical cleaners.

Each night, the oil had to be drained and filtered to capture the chicken and fried coating bits, and, when the oil was too dirty to cook another batch, recycled. This meant hauling large metal containers of burning hot oil to a recycling container out back. Often hot oil burned my arms and face. I smelled like the Colonel’s recipes even the next day after a shower. I looked like hell coming home: greasy, physically exhausted, unable to think, and still with homework to do. Getting home was not easy either. I either biked home five to six miles in the dark on some pretty busy roads, or if I was lucky got rides some times from my mom, sister, or a co-worker. This sucked in the rain and cold.

The day after a night shift, I would be unable to think at school. I could not stay awake in classes. I literally zoned out and barely passed intro chemistry. The teacher, a good guy, suggested I might want to quit my job when he noticed me sleeping in class on the desk. I think I was working about 15-25 hours a week, depending on the schedule. Finally, after five months, I had to quit. I literally was going to start bombing my sophomore year classes, or keep up the routine. It was incredibly hard to give up my only source of income, as I had to rely entirely on my job to buy my own clothes and pay for all of my expenses outside of food my mom bought at home.

I hated, hated cooking this industrial food for this employer. To this day, I cannot eat fried chicken.

I hated, hated cooking this industrial food for this employer. To this day, I cannot eat fried chicken.

Making matters worse, during that point in my life, I was probably smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and blowing up in smoke, literally, a chunk of my measly $3.15 an hour pay. (I quit for good later that year, and never looked back.)

I think I was smart enough to know that the second-degree burns that scarred my arm one night were the signal to escape the chicken shack as quickly as possible, which I did. Though my next job paid less, slightly below minimum wage, it at least gave me more stability, and I only had to work two or three nights a week, and all day Saturday. I at least could find the balance with crappy job and school without the risk of injury at the Colonel’s place, which I called K-Y Fry.

And all of this flashed through my head when I gazed into that young woman’s smiling face. I wondered where she was at in life. Finishing high school, or on track for a GED? She did not look older than 18. Did she have to work to help support her family? Did she envision a better next job, if she could get the skills she needed to move on from the world of dishing out ice cream cones and wiping down the bathroom? I do not know. But, I hope so.

I would never wish my own fast food experience on anyone. Even though I learned how to hold my own doing hard labor, I knew that I could get easily trapped and not move up the income ladder if I did not succeed in school. Maybe I did get lucky. Maybe I found just the right balance and was smart enough to know that this life in fast food America was a pit.

Still, I never forgot where I came from. That is why I always give anyone who works in these ubiquitous food sweat shops more than a little courtesy and respect. They earn it, every day.

Never, ever look undignified, even when you have nothing

I took this photo of a Rwandan refugee who worked on a bus between Kigali and Kampala. He carried himself with great grace. He was among many who taught me how to project this kind of pride, regardless of the environment.

I took this photo of a Rwandan refugee who worked on a bus between Kigali and Kampala. He carried himself with great grace. He was among many who taught me how to project this kind of pride, regardless of the environment.

One of the great rules to learn about life is to not make snap judgments by appearances alone. Appearances often can be deceiving, and wily and wise individuals throughout history use appearances to fool others and the masses. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power describes this well, noting, “Playing with appearances and mastering arts of deception are among the aesthetic pleasures of life. They are also key components in the acquisition of power.”

However, a flip side to this truism is that a person’s true character and intentions can shine through one’s costume. In Africa, during my visit in 1997, I observed extreme poverty among many residents of Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Most of the poorer folks I met in many communities did not let their economic reality control their exterior appearance. People carried themselves with grace and style, even if their clothes were not the finest. I do not recall people dressing down or intentionally looking less then proud or intentionally wearing clothes that made them appear less dignified.

When I came back to the United States, I vowed never, ever, under any condition, look like a bum or show that I did not care about my clothes and appearance. This was true even if was wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. There are obviously different rules in this country, but not the rules I choose to follow. The pride I carry is mine to choose alone, and I at least can make this choice.