Monday, August 15, 2005

Back on the Chain Gang


I've had some interesting jobs in my day. Not quite as many or as varied as some folks, and although I've entertained interesting work, I've never held a job this scintillating.

But here is a brief synopsis of things I've done for money and fame. Ok, maybe just money.

Some gigs were great, some I'd rather forget.

The Apple Orchard: Took a wrong turn at the Checkov section of the bookstore and wound up spending a summer working in my neighbor's apple orchard. I was about fourteen and promised not to set the place on fire. I got paid a quarter to prune a tree, another quarter to put a screen around the base of the trunk. That denied delicious bark to local woodland animals, like bunnies. Back then and even now, I thought it was one of the greatest jobs I ever had. I worked with my best friend Patrick. We worked outside all day. We ate lunch laying on top of a ten foot high pile of apple boxes stacked in the barnyard. The boxes were waiting for the fall to come, we, knowing school would start, were not. We ate like horses, told jokes and stories, rated rock bands like Queen, Kiss and Bowie and tried to stay away from rutting deer and the occasional bear. I learned to climb a tree or a ten foot stack of apple boxes in record time. Most days the wildlife limited itself to Patrick's dog; Pepper. We didn't work when it rained but that was seldom. We rode in the back of the owner's pickup truck to and from work except for once when Patrick's brother Michael picked us up in his VW bug. He then them promptly drove that into a bulldozer tending to the gravel country roads. The old man drove us to work one day and we got into an argument about his belief that everyone who wore a beard was somehow associated with the Parti Quebequois.

At the end of the summer, Patrick and I had a beer with the orchard owner, got paid one hundred dollars and went back to school. I don't remember what I did with the century note but I know that telling the story years later earned me the unwanted nickname "Orchard Boy."

Leatherman: Back before most blue jean production had been shipped to China, I worked in a plant that made all kinds of leather goodies for the fashion industry. Belts mostly, some leather vests for the S & M crowd, and leather patches with the maker's name for high end jeans. It was my job, start to finish to make several thousand patches for a brand called "Big Blue." I'd cut as many patches out of a hide as I could, then I'd trim the patches down to an even thickness and then, using a hot iron stamp, I'd brand "Big Blue" into the patches. It was boring work but it was work and needed to be done well and honorably as all work should.

The trouble was less with the work and more with the owners of the place. I knew them personally and they were, in a phrase, repulsive greedy bastards. They thought that the plant was there to pay for their Mercedes and luxury house. They had a real disdain for the people out on the shop floor and would trash them at the drop of a hat. The worst part was that they had no financial interest in the place. Daddy had fronted the money to keep them busy and off the streets.

This played a big part in their attitude towards the shop staff. Machines were in bad repair, blade guards were missing and we usually got blamed when something else broke.

That summer job was my summer of sabotage. I pretty regularly cut out too many labels with the die, breaking the die intentionally such that the fat bastard who ran the repair shop (and was married to the owner's daughter) had to fire up the welding torch more than he wanted to. I also cut some of the labels upside down, ruining them, burned the labels crookedly, achieving the same and "forgot" to notice when my machine started overheating and throwing sparks for about a half an hour. When you look like a dumb high school kid, its easy to play out the part.

I'd like to end the story with my actions taking the place down and forcing the kiddies to have to find honest work, or being run out of business by honest brokers who had had enough of their hollow promises but, alas, they are still cranking along.

Steam Kid: Working for the old man who had a knack for finding the most mundane job for me to do put me in a steam degreasing booth all summer long. Basically, I was kitted out in long sleeve flannel shirt, gloves, headgear and visor, given a live steam gun and told to hose down large metal boxes before they were to be painted. The temperature usually hovered around 100 degrees except for hot days when it would spike at about 120 because of the paint baking ovens nearby. I liked the physical rigor of the job coupled with being left alone in my booth all day. That was about it though.

Graveler: Again, the old man figured that a boy, a wheel barrow, a shovel, a rake, two acres of land and a couple of tons of gravel beat renting a Bobcat loader for the day. Shovel, wheel over to a bare patch of dirt, dump, spread. Repeat.

It built a strong upper body and a fine thesaurus for "dickhead".

Photographer: A one day gig for a local professor who thought he stood a snowball's chance in hell running for the U.S. Senate. He didn't and showed his competence railing against domino theory by proclaiming that if the World Trade Center fell over, the McDonalds right next to it would not necessarily get knocked down.

Huh? Twenty one years later, it became an empirical "huh?" easily demonstrated.

Anyway, he hated the photos for their lack of contrast. I tried to point out that he had white hair and insisted on standing right up against white walls when he was shot.

Oh well.

Teacher: Where I failed as a stringer, I succeeded as a teacher.

Those who can't do?

Anyway, I taught a six week course on basic photography. History, chemistry, art, technology. It was a blast and, despite being a twenty year old smartass who wasn't qualified to read laundry directions out loud, I managed to hold onto a six person class (It was a not for credit university extension program for the interested few) and pass along what little I knew at the time. Which wasn't and continues to be, not much.

Elf: Well, QC elf anyway. I didn't make the toys, I fixed them. Clarke Dunham who had had a successful career as a Broadway set designer decided to pursue his other love: Model Railroading. He convinced Citibank to sponsor a giant holiday-themed layout in the lobby of Citibank tower one Christmas. The set up was impressive, professionally done and was featured in some hobby publications as well as Smithsonian which is a magazine read by men who have, unlike the hobby mags, slept with women at least once.

Dunham staffed the layout with theatre techies who knew how to throw switches and sneak out for pot breaks. The other break started to happen when the toy trains got completely overtaxed by being run 24/7.

That's where I came in. A friend knew that her friend was dating a guy who liked model trains. Dunham called me, told me to start fixing things. I told him I could work six to nine every night and I wanted twenty bucks an hour. He said OK so fast I kicked myself for not asking for forty.

The best part was getting to part the crowds and go past the "Staff Only" gate without being told to back off. OK, so I impressed a couple of young boys with my "I'm with the band" routine but what the hell?

It was, for a few weeks, a second childhood and compensated at that. During the day I worked in production at a comic book company, at night I fixed model trains. My interest in women waned...

Yard work: The only job I've held longer than the one I'm at now has to be as the jerk who cuts the lawn for one person or another. I cut neighbor's yards, I cut industrial parks, I cut embankments that would have been happier growing weeds instead of being beaten into submission for a few weeks.

Someday, I will fulfill my dream of finishing and publishing my first book and settling into big sky country as a working writer.

That will be the day I will have made my ideal job my profession and renounced, by virtue of a desert home, the bane of my working life.

Bunny on.

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