by Jack Edwards
It doesn’t take long once your oldest kid enters those joyful teenage years to realize that, for all practical purposes, you have unwittingly engineered a panhandler into your home. Sure, the kid doesn’t carry a cardboard sign saying, “Anything Helps! God Bless.” (Frankly, most parents wish their kid would throw in a God Bless now and then). Another difference being that many of them are deeply antisocial and struggle to interact in normal society – the teenagers I mean. Other than that, they’re DNA twins.
At this stage, fathers begin reminiscing to their children about their first jobs. Stories to inspire their children for the rough road ahead. I was no different. At every opportunity, I interjected a comment about one job or another, often to my little panhandlers chuckling in response. They baahed like sheep, “Daaad!” It was ancient history.
My mini lectures featured three jobs of my youth. The first was carpet shampooing. Not normal carpet shampooing, like driving a van to somebody’s house and cleaning some old lady’s living room while she shuffles around and fusses and you do ten minutes of work. Then she offers you a piece of rhubarb pie. Not hardly. No, my shampooing job at the ripe old age of way the hell too young, was shampooing dormitory carpets at a local state university. This is in the summer, so the buildings are empty. Floor after floor, building after building. Conservatively, a billion square feet of carpet. The good news was that this was before state institutions were required to pay the federal minimum wage. So I was raking in like 18 cents an hour. At least I received training my first day. Some old guy who moonlighted as Father Time pointed his boney finger at this honking machine that I had absolutely no idea how to operate and said, “There it is. Soap’s in the closet.” It wasn’t until late that first morning that I realized the shampoo was supposed to be diluted at a ratio of one cup per gallon of water. Until then, I didn’t know that water played any part of the equation. Yeah – pure shampoo concentrate. I must have burned through ten gallons by the time the light went off in my head. Thirty years later, the place probably still smells like shampoo. (This is why you don’t save money hiring untrained labor.) My second job was advertised with a very specific description: “Manual Labor Needed.” Perfect, I thought, I can do manual labor, anything’s better than subminimum wage shampooing. The screening process was intensive. I was hired about one nanosecond after I called the number and said the first half of my name. I was told to show up at a house in a suburban neighborhood. Once there, our boss, a guy who announced that we would get paid in cash at the end of the day, directed me and three other young laborers to the backyard. We walked around to the back and then stood in awe. The boss never explained how a mud ball pile the sized of Mount Everest got there, only that we needed to move it to a truck out front. At first we tried using shovels to pick up the balls and put them in a wheelbarrow, but it didn’t work. They were too sticky. We were left with no choice other than to actually grab these basketball sized mud balls and set them in the wheelbarrow one by one. We looked like creatures from the black lagoon by the end of the day. So, at that early point in my life, I’m thinking, this is it. I’ve hit the bottom of the mud ball barrel. But I’ve always been one to reach for the gold ring. And unfortunately, I managed to grab it. The local school district was remodeling a building. In retrospect, a chiropractor must have been on the school board and actively engaged in the planning. Our task was clearly designed to exact an almost intolerable amount of pain from us “construction assistants.” I use this term loosely because those of us who were fodder for this particular cannon weren’t helping to construct anything. We were actually cogs in what I have ever since referred to as the Human Conveyer Belt of Rubble. Numerous brick walls were demolished in the building’s basement, thus leaving piles of old brick with abrasive angles of 100 year old mortar still attached to them. It was reminiscent of the mud ball job, only with stairs and without a wheelbarrow. We piled bricks into two five gallon buckets and then hauled them up to ground level. I’m not sure what was worse, climbing up with the crushing weight of a bucket in each hand, or walking back down for another load, which created just slightly more mental anguish than waterboarding. You may have seen this type of activity if you are a fan of films depicting mid-fifteenth century China.
With my children well versed in the mental, physical and financial challenges of entry level teen jobs, I stood back and waited to see how my oldest child fared. What indignities would arrive at her doorstep? And then it happened. Her first job. The horror of it. All I could do was shake my head. No shampoo, no mud balls and certainly no Human Conveyer Belt of Rubble. Much to my crushing expectations, she landed a job as a hostess at an upscale restaurant. Not only was it devoid of cancer causing chemical agents, dirt and debris, it was required to be so. It was inspected by the government to ensure it. And she was earning well above minimum wage. There was only one thing I could do. When she came home after her first shift, a grin on her face no less, there I was standing just inside the front door holding my sign: “Anything Helps! God Bless.”