March 19, 2014 —
What was your first job?
My first job was as a reporter at the Sullivan County Democrat in Callicoon, where I worked during the summers when I was home from college. It was an interesting time in our river valley—the National Park Service was holding public hearings on the Upper Delaware wild and scenic park plan, and there was lots of fist shaking and yelling going on. It was exciting, and eventually I even learned how to operate the 35mm camera so that my photos of those wild crowds came out in focus.
The Democrat was my first “real” job, but before that I did babysitting and a summer of helping to clean the prodigious mess of Ruth Anne Nevin’s attic. Not that I did much cleaning or organizing of any kind. Instead I sat sullenly and looked through old copies of National Geographic and Ladies Home Journal.
I think often of those first tentative jobs and of all the short (and lengthier) employments I have had. They are like the glue that held me together in the course of becoming a newspaper reporter and eventually a nurse. But, perhaps, more importantly, these jobs gave me experience and with that empathy.
Who could forget some of those jobs? I once spent a freezing cold January break travelling around upstate New York helping to inventory underwear for a garment factory. We counted brassieres (sort of) while Guns ‘N Roses blasted “Sweet Child of Mine” from a boom box. I got made a “foreman” on that job. Just showing up straight and sober was a qualification.
I also waitressed, delivered food trays at a hospital and modeled for art classes. I washed dishes in the dining hall and read stories at a children’s library.
For a while I worked third shift at a factory that packaged and bottled cosmetics and soaps. I got that job through an employment agency, which took a cut of my pay and required that you take a test prior to employment. A bunch of people turned up to take the test, which involved screwing nuts and bolts together as fast as you could.
Let me state: I am not mechanically inclined. In fact, I barely remember left from right, and I wouldn’t have passed that test if it weren’t for a boy named David who found my ineptness so entertaining that he helped me out. Later, after we were both hired, we worked at the same production table, and he helped me figure out how to fold boxes for the fancy face creams we packaged. And still later, I would go to visit and talk to him at his production line each night.
Until one day David said, “See those guys over there? They don’t like me talking to you. ”
Sure enough, a shifty looking crowd of guys was watching us. I can remember the lurid brightness of the fresh ink of one of the boy’s brand new tattoo.
“What?” I said, “That’s stupid. What age is this?” You see I am white and David was black.
“You’ve got soul,” laughed David, above the crushing noise of the line machines.
But after that I didn’t talk to him again. The next week I left to go on a trip to California for a friend’s wedding, and after I came back, I never saw him again. But I will never forget him.
Now it is 2014 and I am writing about this for The River Reporter. And I’ll ask again: What was your first job?