I’d forgotten those huge mainframe rooms when I started work, forgotten punch cards and scheduling overnight program testing, ordering print-out’s to happen overnight – large boxes of green paper to scour for results.
I wish now that I’d thought to take photographs of the ‘things’ and not just people – they seemed so high tech and other worldly, it never occurred to me at the time that anything better could come along!
This week, there are some definite themes emerging for first jobs. We’ve all valued those tedious piece-meal tasks enough to think a bit more about our education. Food features regularly – especially cake shops – and there are glimpses into world’s already gone by.
Some of us were so bored we found creative ways to pass the time, daydreaming or ‘improving’ food. There’s quite a bit of cleaning – muck of horse and human kind.
Whilst some were caught out in those first jobs, actually getting a job was another’s undoing!
And sadly, there was a good proportion of us women dealing with misogynistic humiliation in skimpy ‘uniforms’ or needing to pee in public..
Thank you all – A great job!
I remember wanting to tag along with my friends when one of them suggested not attending class that day – what could it hurt, just one day.
I remember laughing and trying to quiet the nerves roiling in my belly.
I remember a phone ringing and the one living there saying she had to get the phone, oh how I wish she hadn’t.
I remember my heart sinking as one of their mother’s asked if we were all there and the one on the phone looked at me with irritation and maybe a little murder in her eyes.
I remember hearing my mom had called the school excited to let me know, Winchell’s Donut shop had called, I got the job and had to be there after school.
I remember I never got away with anything and that is why most of the time I didn’t do anything too bad because I knew I would get caught.
I remember my little brother telling me I smelled like donuts when I got in the Volkswagon bus when they came to pick me up after my shift. I remember the smell of cigars as my boss would smoke in the shop when he would stop in.
I remember I was horrible at giving out change (long before the registers told you how much to give back) and in the end it is why my boss let me go.
I remember my friends forgave me, after razzing me about it and making sure I knew it was all my fault that we got caught.
A kitchen hand at the community cottage hospital was my first job. I dislike kitchen work immensely so I wasn’t well-suited to it but it filled in the time between finishing school and commencing my nurse training. My task was to prepare the vegetables, peel the multiple potatoes, carrots, beans and chop the onions. The cook taught me efficient ways of doing all these chores but it didn’t relieve the monotony.
Twice a week I covered the evening meal as well as lunch. Sometimes I had to cook scrambled eggs for the night meal.
One evening, thoroughly bored , I thought it would be amusing to add green food colouring to the scrambled eggs. I tried it first and it tasted okay but it almost cost me my job. Neither was my mother pleased when her porcelain stained green.
From the time I was 12 until 18 the local ranch paid me to push cattle to summer pastures. That first fall round-up when I rode with the other ranch hands, peeing posed a problem.
I could pee outside, just not in front of a bunch of lanky men in Wranglers and boots. Whispering my dilemma to the foreman, he shouted at the cowpokes, “Don’t watch!”
Thus I did. And no one watched. Cowboy code of dignity. But such codes didn’t exist off range. At 19 my first labor union job was flagging for road construction crews; mostly men. “Flaggers” were the token females.
When it came time for our union pee-break, our boss laughed and pointed at the sagebrush. The other men, knowing we wouldn’t dare, jeered at us, crossing their legs in fun of our discomfort. So I walked out to the sagebrush and peed like a cowgirl.
I remember the smell of fresh donuts, and wearing shirts with sleeves I could roll down when bagging fresh-baked French bread, which would scratch up my arms, otherwise.
I remember my boss wearing a suit and sitting at his desk, with a stack of porno mags in front of him, all featuring women with enormous breasts.
I remember losing a small Band-aid in a 50 pound tub of potato salad I’d just made, frantically searching for it when the deli manager wasn’t looking, and *phew* finding it just in time!
I remember customers asking me for wine advice, and how I made up crazy stories about why this wine would pair with that food, because – at 15 years of age – I knew nothing about wine, and couldn’t believe they were asking me.
I remember my boss remarking that, “I don’t understand why you bother with a bra when all you’ve got are those mosquito bites,” then slapping me on the back and guffawing, as if expecting me to laugh along with him, and how scrutinized, ugly, and ashamed the exchange made me feel, and how the deli manager said, “He was only teasing you,” and that I should “quit being so uptight.”
I remember how I was the only employee who never once got cut while using the meat slicer, how slicing head cheese made me queasy, and how I innocently handed a Russian exchange student a glass of water after misunderstanding his accent when he had actually asked for vodka.
I remember my boss calling my Indian friend a “camel jockey” and my pretty blond friend a “big-boobed slut,” yet he’d also make disparaging comments about women who were anything less than a D cup.
I remember being arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and locked in a cell as we were caught on our way to throw eggs at our boss’ house because vandalism seemed like the only possible revenge, and hearing him bellow, “Lock up those hoodlums and throw away the key!” at the police station.
I remember that when my parents found out, they called me a criminal, told me how ashamed they were, and said I would “never amount to anything.”
I remember thinking that if I ever parented a teenager, I would do my best to keep the communication open so that my child would always feel safe enough to tell me their problems.
Our village was run by a Mafiosi of formidable women; my mother, second lieutenant, secured me a gardening job with the ‘Boss’, Mrs G. She was never still, generally leaving people in a cloud of confusion and talcum powder. She waved vaguely at flower beds and instructed me to ‘involve’ myself. I was 14; I had no clue what that meant, but whatever I did seemed to please her. Every second Sunday her son came home; he was a newly-minted solicitor – after university (Bristol) he and his girlfriend took a campervan across Europe, ending up in a kibbutz. While he rebuilt his sports car, a TR3, I held the spanners and absorbed his extraordinary stories of drink and drugs and sex (especially the sex) at Bristol, in the van and while training in London. I resolved to follow suit. I made it to Bristol and became a lawyer. The rest was bullshit.
My first job was cleaning the bathroom. I pretended I was recording an advert for a cleaning product, but when the cameras started rolling I’d confess to the truth which was that a mixture of different ingredients worked better than the one I was meant to be endorsing.
At 13, I got a paper-round. When delivering to the flats in Lexington House you had to switch the light on at the bottom and hope you could get to the top before it went out. At the end of Urban Street there was a fence sectioning off a wide stretch of open land. In the first light of morning I watched a spider trembling in its dew-decorated web. Every Monday, a woman in her back yard was doing laundry in a dolly-tub. I dreamed my way through the paper round, surprised that the bag was empty on reaching home.
I held up my newest uniform for work.
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“That’s it,” my boss laughed. “It’ll look great. Trust me.”
I didn’t trust him. But I did walk out of his office with my piece of fabric pretending to be a dress. I also carried a huge plastic bag of what my boss called “trinkets and trash”—beer koozies, blinking buttons, key chains, and bottle openers. People clambered for this stuff at the bars and clubs.
I smiled like the idiot I was supposed to be and handed out these goodies. Even with all the girls in short skirts and low-cut tops, I always felt half naked. Like some nice guy should offer me his coat. None of them ever did.
I cringed at some of the bar-hoppers. Others, I laughed at. When you are the only sober person at a bar, human behavior becomes particularly interesting.
When I was at school we all had Saturday jobs. My mother wasn’t too keen at first, because she wanted me to do well at school, but I convinced her that my marks wouldn’t suffer. I had always loved big department stores, so I decided to apply for my first job at Debenhams, the biggest department store in neighbouring Harrow, which was a thirty-minute walk from my house in Wealdstone. I was about fifteen at the time. I remember filling forms, and being interviewed, and feeling quite in awe of the managers. I imagined I’d be selling designer clothes, or make up, but my first job was at the bakery department. I had to wear a uniform and a cap, which wasn’t very glamorous at all! The first day was nauseous, I was sick that evening, although I proudly took a box of leftover cakes home for my mother and my sister.
I remember not having the energy for both a proper Saturday job AND clubbing till two in the morning. Although it meant less money for clothes, the dancing won out.
I remember being commissioned to help a neighbour’s son with his reading but his mother’s chatter got in the way.
I remember poles and theodolites on the hillside with my dad.
I remember losing a registered letter when delivering the Christmas mail.
I remember swimming off my fury after a day in the bread wrapper factory.
I remember expecting to improve my German at the pickle factory but ending up speaking Spanish instead.
I remember eating constantly through the half hour for lunch and going back to university half a stone heavier.
I remember putting flies in the pickle jars, but I’d deny it if it ever came to court.
I remember having more money than I’d ever had in my life, despite we foreigners and girls being paid at a lower rate.
I remember resolving to work harder at my studies in the hope of landing a less mind-numbing job.
My first job was at my dad’s movie theater. I started serving popcorn the summer before I turned 15. By the next summer, I was an assistant manager. I worked hard.
Let me rephrase that. I work hard to beat out my older brother for manager. I didn’t need to work that hard.
His time as manager was short-lived. It lasted about as long as it takes to steam-cook a dozen hot dogs. One night, during a crowded intermission (this was back in the 70s when you got a double feature for less than five bucks), my bro looked inside the hot dog steamer and called out: are they supposed to be green?
I’m pretty sure we didn’t sell any dogs that night.
And, no, they aren’t supposed to look green, but they might reflected against the green wallpaper.
So ended my brother’s theater management career and began mine.
Opening up the white business envelope to see my first paycheque nestled inside was a thrill not to be forgotten quickly. Though minimum wage, it was still three times what I was paid for babysitting kids in our neighbourhood, which was one dollar per hour.
I thought the salary was glamorous, but the work was not. I was one of six students hired to do janitorial work after school each day at my high school.
Every day immediately at dismissal bell we headed over to the janitorial room to pick up our heavy industrial vacuums and rolling carts of cleaning products to get busy vacuuming classrooms, emptying wastebaskets, dusting, cleaning blackboards, and worst of all scouring the washrooms.
The only real perk was the privilege of reading the graffiti on the walls of the boys’ washrooms before we had to wash it off, always hoping never to see our own names.
Simon – UK
I went to Reiterbund Saarbrucken to muck horses and perfect my German. Until then my stable experience was Thelwell ponies in south west England with jolly jodhpur girls cleaning tack and making pancakes on the range.
The German set up was a different world of over 50 horses, indoor dressage and separate show jumping arenas, two exercise paddocks, a bar and restaurant !
Thirteen boxes to be mucked out by 9.00am everyday (with incredible hangovers) and then the horses to be brushed and cleaned. Hot afternoons loading muck or unloading hay from wagons. Free time with great friends at beer festivals, BBQs and galloping through the woods..
The horses insisted on speaking German but the people wanted to practice English. Still, my German was good enough to know my faux pas calling a client’s young girlfriend, his daughter.
And I came back incredibly fit and strong, to my best rugby season ever!
Fresh out of school in the summer of 1976, I started my first job at Eastern Electricity in Ipswich.
Along with five other girls, I sat at a large desk, watched over by a supervisor. We had to ask permission to go to the loo. It was worse than school.
When ordered down to the computer room, I escaped, briefly, from the tedium. I loved staring at the huge, robot-like machines with the whirring mad-eye spools.
Returning with heavy wads of green computer paper, I spent hours reading every line for numbered codes while Nurse Ratched watched my every move.
I vowed to get out and ‘better’ myself; college course and four years later I was working as a trainee paralegal for a law firm in Los Angeles.
Still, there was one good thing I remember: The office overlooked Ipswich football ground and at lunchtime, we watched the players practising.
Lisa Reiter – UK – Baptism of Fire
Excited but sure they’d soon find me out, I was a 1987 graduate trainee for British Gas ‘Productivity Services’. One of four women, plus a ‘right Sheffield lass’, in a department of fifty, mostly middle-aged men.
‘Induction’? More like ‘baptism of fire’ to catch me out – passed like a rugby ball around a main-laying gang; in agony because I wouldn’t ‘piss in the trench’ like the rest of them; running up and down cellar steps chasing the speed-walking shop steward, stop watch in hand, supposedly rating meter reading for bonus schemes – not a word all eight hours til we parted:
‘Tha’s not bad for a lass..’
I cried all the way home with exhaustion and pride.
Sara helped me out of bed to face the office the next day. A quiet new respect – they’d all heard the union report. More than equal?
It got better after that!
The next prompt for Bite Size Memoir is out tomorrow at 2pm BST.
Will you have a go?!