The Working Life

One of the highlights of my professional career was watching a boss of mine get drenched by a dishwasher. It happened when I was a young buck of 28, working as an office manager for a chain of Western Sizzlin’ steakhouses that could not have been more poorly managed if you put a chimp and a couple of corpses in charge. This was during a stretch of my career arc that I refer to as the Black Hole. It lasted about a decade or so, and found me bounding between jobs like a wayward sailor bounding between life rafts, except each life raft was worse than the previous one, and meantime I’m drowning.

Anyway, the dishwasher…

My boss was in his mid-50s, big and round, a former college football lineman with a doughy white face and a head of white hair that was rarely groomed and often veered recklessly in different directions. His sweet and long-suffering wife, who also worked there, once described him thusly: “I married Tarzan and ended up with the Goodyear Blimp.”  

This boss had made a nice pile of cash in an earlier career as an insurance salesman who eventually owned his own agency. Then one day he and his business partner, an old college football teammate, got the bright idea to buy some steakhouses in a market they didn’t know, and in an industry they had not one clue about.

“These steakhouses run themselves!” my boss was told by the man who sold them to him. “All you do is sit back and count the money!”

By the time I came on board, these steakhouses were running themselves into the ground, and the only money my boss was counting was in the form of debt. I was hired to manage the office and help right the ship, or something like that. I’m not even sure. I had no experience in running an office, or much of anything else. I was trained as a journalist, and had some prior restaurant experience as a line cook. But, I was upright and breathing, so I guess that qualified me to be an office manager and bookkeeper.

My boss spent 80 percent of his time cursing the fates that landed him here, and the other 20 percent waxing philosophic about how life is a series of challenges, or some such shit. I was his right-hand man, so I had a front-row seat to his ever rising mountain of grief, anger and madness. When he wasn’t cussing me out for having the sheer nerve to be alive, he was telling me how lucky he was to have me.

So, the dishwasher….

One day my boss decided to show off a brand new industrial-sized dishwasher he spent a huge chunk of cash on, for reasons unknown to God or man. Now, this guy knew about as much about restaurant equipment as I do about heart surgery, but he wanted to show off his shiny new toy. So, he put some pots and pans in the machine, added some detergent, set the dial to “high,” and hit the “on” switch like a maestro leading an orchestra.

The problem was, he forgot to close the sliding door on the machine. So when he turned it on, it immediately sent a tidal wave of soapy water straight at my boss, soaking him from his snowy white hair to his shiny black shoes and nearly knocking him ass over tit.

I didn’t laugh. Oh, I mean a volcano of laughter erupted inside of me that nearly tipped me over. But on the outside, where careers are made, I kept a straight face and properly grim visage.

My boss, on the other hand, could not even pretend to be cool about it. His face was candy apple-red, bathed in a combination of embarrassment, indignation and soapy, soapy dishwater.

“Brilliant!” he shrieked. “Brilliant, just brilliant! Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!”

And he was right. It really was brilliant.

The other day I sat down and figured out that over the course of my working life, I’ve had 27 jobs where I drew a paycheck. The first paycheck came when I was 16 years old. The last came 42 years later. So that’s 27 salaried or hourly jobs in 42 years, or about one every one-and-a-half years. A very stable and stellar work record, no? More on that later.

The longest I ever worked for a single employer was 16 years. The shortest was one day. More on that later.

The list doesn’t include the various free-lance jobs I’ve had – and that I have now – where I act as an independent contractor who bills clients by the hour or the project. There have been quite a few of those. For the last four years I’ve focused exclusively on free-lance jobs, all of which involve writing or editing copy for websites or industry publications. The work has been pretty steady, and I’m happy with it. When there’s a slow spell, I just write fiction in addition to taking care of the house chores while my wife brings home the bacon. We have two school-age kids, so you don’t get bored.

I guess the reason my working life has begun invading my thoughts is because I just reached the age where I can apply for Social Security retirement benefits – if I want to. I’m looking into it,  but only because we have young daughters, and apparently you can get extra benefits for them if you’re an old fart like me with kids under the age of 18. On the downside, you also have to deduct outside income from your benefits, so it might not be worth it, from a strictly math standpoint.

I intend to work and earn outside income as long as I can. If I wait another four years to get benefits, I get to keep all my outside income, while still getting the extra benefits for the kids, who will still be under 18. Win-win!

Now, about those 27 jobs in 40 years: many were part-time jobs I worked in high school or college, either while I was in school or during the summers. I had 12 of those. So if you take out those jobs and those years, I had 15 jobs in 34 years as a working adult. That averages out to about one job every 2 ¼ years. Much better! My father worked for the same company his entire life – from college graduation to retirement. A period of 40 or so years.

The truth is, I never liked having jobs. I didn’t mind the work, mind you. I usually liked it.

What I hated was being managed,  being told what to do, having to spend a good chunk of my life pleasing some boss. Whatever molecular makeup you need to take orders with a smile on your face and a song in your heart, I don’t have. This is nothing against my bosses, most of whom were fine people who just wanted to get along, and had to answer to bosses of their own.

No, the fault lies with me. I just hated being managed. Rather, I hated being micro-managed over every little thing, every excruciating detail, every mindless piece of minutiae sent my brainless way by some brainless management drone.

This is not an easy way to get through life. The fact is, we all have to answer to someone, whether it’s a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a sibling, a boss, a cop, a tax authority, a coach, a teacher, a government bureaucrat, a landlord, a loan officer, a building superintendent, or a neighbor who doesn’t like your tree sending leaves into her yard.

But a lot of people – maybe most people – don’t like it. I’ve been a manager in some of my career roles, so I know from experience that there are two kinds of employees: those who like to be managed and coached, and those who hate it. The former will sit by your desk and take copious notes when you share your luminous insights with them. The latter will slink down into their chairs, nod their heads, and bolt the second you’re done.

I’m among the latter – which goes a long way toward explaining why I’ve had so many jobs in so many different sectors of the economy. I’ve worked as a grocery bagboy, stockroom employee, furniture deliverer, roofer, construction worker, house painter, pizza deliverer, yard laborer, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, telemarketer, cook, bartender, bookkeeper, accountant, office manager, writer, reporter and editor.

I worked a total of one day at a restaurant that hired me as a cook and ended up having me waiting on tables because nobody was in charge, nobody knew what the f**k they were doing, and the world had gone completely insane inside the restaurant’s four walls. I called them the next day and suggested that it probably wasn’t a good fit, me and them. I thanked them for the opportunity and told them there was no need to pay me for my one day of work. They spent the next couple of months trying to convince me to accept my one-day paycheck, but I never did. I felt I owed them that much.

My favorite job from a purely Zen standpoint? Probably cutting grass at an apartment complex in Charlotte while I was between colleges. It was just me, the lawnmower, the grass, and nothing else. The same thing every week. First this section of the complex, then that one, then that one. Nobody had to tell me what to do, so I had almost no contact with my bosses. I could take my shirt off and get a tan. I could zone out all by my lonesome. There were some ragged fellas from Michigan who worked with me – two brothers and a cousin – but all they wanted to do was get high, get drunk, cut grass, and eat at Hardee’s.

My most memorable bosses? Well, that’s a tough call. There were two who stand out, even after all these years. I won’t say their names.

One of them owned a construction company, which overstates things by about 93%. His company consisted of a truck, some tools, himself, and me. I worked for him one summer during college. He took every shitty job you can imagine, the worst of the worst. I spent one day pinning metal to the underside of a mobile home that served as a resort of sorts for rats and snakes.

I spent another day – 10 hours straight – jackhammering an entire pool deck in the 100-degree heat and humidity at an old hotel that used to be owned by Arthur Smith. If you don’t know Arthur Smith, he was a local musician who had two major claims to fame: his “Feuding Banjos” composition was later renamed “Dueling Banjos” and became a hit single after being played in the movie “Deliverance;” and his “Guitar Boogie” instrumental hit was played at clubs by a young British group called the Quarrymen, later to become the Beatles.

That day of jackhammering in the oppressive heat was the single hardest day I’ve ever worked in my life and ever will work in my life. I went straight home, ate dinner, sagged down into the bed and zonked right out.

Anyway, this boss was probably mid-40s or so. A big old country boy, grew up on a farm a couple counties east of Charlotte, a very strong dude, could probably pin a rhino in a wrestling match. He was as handy as they come. I bet he could build a house all by himself in three weeks if he put his mind to it, but he couldn’t, so we’ll never know. He could hammer a thick nail in a couple of powerful and well-placed blows, while I was alongside him tap-tap-tapping away, trying to drive the damn thing straight without smashing my thumb.

This boss had three distinct and contradictory qualities: He was impatient, he was a born-again Christian, and he liked to smoke marijuana because it “eased his headaches.” If he smoked a joint in the morning, forget it – the day was shot. We might have a big project ahead of us, but he’d spend the first three hours talking about the Bible, losing all track of the time. I’d be trying to hammer nails or paint shutters and he’d be over there beside me, yakking away, getting deep into the stories of Josephus or Mary Magdalene. Then, somewhere along the line, he’d look at his watch.

“Goddammit, look at the time!” he’d screech, jerking his eyes at me. “You ain’t even halfway through the framin’ yet! What you been doin’ all this time? Man, I need this job finished and I mean today! You’re gonna bankrupt me, sure as the world you’re gonna bankrupt me!”

And that would be the end of the discussion about Josephus or Mary Magdalene.

He was a memorable boss, but maybe not quite as memorable as the one who co-owned the steakhouses, and for whom I was hired to serve as office manager and accountant, but ended up doing every crapstatic job on site: setting up the morning buffet, cutting meat, frying burgers, whatever. I spent about a year there, and had aged five decades by the time I left. I worked six days a week, 10 hours a day. I got paid $18,000 a year. On Wednesday and Saturday nights I moonlighted as a bartender at a comedy club.

This boss, unlike the other one, did not smoke pot. But he did keep a flask in his desk drawer and would nip it all day long while he looked through the two-way mirror into the kitchen and restaurant on the other side and watched his hundreds of thousands of investment dollars sink down the drainpipe and into the sewer below.

He hired me to get his books in line, and even though I didn’t know jackshit about accounting or bookkeeping, I was a quick learner. With the help of intensive training and a CPA we had on retainer that I’d call from time to time, I eventually got all of the company’s accounting onto a new computer system and began to log all assets, liabilities, revenue, expenses, accounts receivable, accounts payable, etc., into the system. Everything became streamlined. We finally had real numbers printed out on nice monthly, quarterly and annual reports. And here’s what those reports told us:

These people sucked at running steakhouses, the steakhouses were going to go under any year now, and nobody in their right mind would ever buy them and take them off his hands.

So, my boss grumbled. All the livelong day, he grumbled and bitched and cussed and yelled and pounded the desk. It was a sight to behold. He hated everything, this boss: his workers, his suppliers, his contractors, his creditors and debtors, the GD assholes who sold him these GD restaurants, his GD business partner who just wanted to cut GD pies all day at one of the other GD restaurants instead of helping run the GD business, one of the other GD office workers who always put too many GD paper clips on the GD correspondence he put on his GD desk.

I had one day off – Sunday – and my boss would call me up and ask me if I could come in and bake potatoes or somesuch. Then he’d get drunk and spend three hours reminiscing about the old days, when he was an insurance man, living in his mansion up in Raleigh, dining at the country club.

My nerves were shot, every single day. Every day I hated going in, hated being there, hated the thought of coming back the next day.

Not that there weren’t the occasional moments of levity. Once on a business trip to Atlanta we hit a piano bar and sang Sinatra tunes with a bunch of other people 30 years older than me, so that was fun. And of course there was the dishwasher….

I left that job after about a year and drove out west to California, alone, with no plans and no idea how I would spend the rest of my life. After a few weeks I drove back home. It was a much-needed, soul-cleansing experience. The boss ended up selling those steakhouses a few years later, probably at a hefty loss. I recently googled his name and found that he’d passed away, as had his wife.

As for me: I eventually was able to get on a more stable career course, and wound up doing not too badly, all things considered. The amazing life I have now all boiled down to making a couple of smart career decisions.

And now I’ve reached retirement age, in a flash, a blink of the eye, a snap of the finger. I have no plans to retire. But what a long, strange trip it’s been.

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