Summer jobs and stereotyping along


Dick the bagger boy was always the first one up to the front. Dick loved the front check stand where he could bag customers’ groceries right in front of the boss’s office. Dick was always the first to volunteer—for any kind of work—as long as it was the boss, and not one of us, doing the asking.

That was a long time ago. It was my first job. This week my daughter started her first job, and it’s been fun watching her learn the ropes. But it got me thinking back to my first job and a few of the lessons I learned there.

Dick was a standout lesson. I hate to state the obvious, but he was well named. All the bosses loved Dick, but most of us barely tolerated him and a few of us found him as charming as nails on a chalkboard. A few years after graduating high school and then university Dick resurfaced as the head of a municipal department doing promotions for the city. He had a plush office, a crew of employees and a fat travel budget. A gifted talker, Dick always seemed to be promoting himself even while promoting the city. A few years later he married a wealthy man’s daughter and they had a couple of kids, I think, and several years after that he quit his plush job and dropped out of sight—I assume to live happily ever after. We never heard much about him after that.

I’m trying to think if there’s a moral to his story, but I’m coming up a bit short. Unlike Dick, I’ve been a bit of an anti-careerist, I guess. If it came to a compromise between retaining my self-esteem or keeping my job, I always knew I’d find another place to work.

I think trades guys are like that too. Because they can actually make something using their hands and not just talk about it, they seem to have a built-in bull-detector. Artists, architects and musicians seem to share this trait. People who have to produce a real product know that the proof is in the product, not in the presentation.

Lessons like this are, of course, increasingly irrelevant in our post-industrial world. Much of our work revolves entirely around presentation. Sales, marketing, law, business, consulting, counseling—entire fields of endeavour, not to mention management and supervision of all kinds—have little to nothing to do with actual personal production. Naturally careerism can factor very large in these areas of activity, and the players learn to play the careerist game at an early age.

Oddly enough, many of these careerists are also pretty good hobbyists who like to work with their hands. Dick, it turns out, got into restoring antique cars. I saw one of the finished products years ago and it was a work of art. So go figure.

In some odd way, the two towns I currently inhabit (one where I live, the other where I work) are about as different as the careerist and the tradesman. In one town one expects to find flinty, plain speaking folk who for the most part will tell it like it is. In the other town one expects to find a rather civilized, well spoken people who prefer to have their vérité wrapped in velvet, or at least that’s an image they seem cultivate. Though if one drives just a couple of kilometers out of town one expects the velvet to drop off rather dramatically.

To be honest, I can sympathize with both positions. As the old sales guys used to say, “nothing happens until something gets sold.” Which, put another way, means you can’t get anywhere without talking about it first. On the other hand, talk will only take you so far.

It’s always fun to experience both polarities close up. Yesterday we were finishing up some renovating in my new office in St. Andrews, and were feeling particularly good about how it was coming together as I locked the office door. Sharon and I packed the kids up in the van and hurried off toward St. Stephen to hit the Kent store before it closed. We had about 20 minutes to get there. I pushed it without getting too far into speeding ticket territory, and as we got within about 10 klicks from town the engine started missing slightly. I slowed down a little and turned down the radio. Sure enough, the motor was acting up. And then I checked the gas gauge. Dead empty. We made it another 3 or 4 kilometers before finally pooping out.

I set out on foot, leaving Sharon and the kids listening to the radio. The Red Rooster gas bar was only about 3 klicks ahead. I looked down at my jeans: caked white with drywall dust, one knee poking out of a ragged rip. I stuck out my thumb as the cars went by. No way would I get a ride I thought. After walking about a kilometer an SUV slowed, then jammed on the breaks, all four wheels locking up into a smoking, screeching stop. The driver was young, and from a distance might have thought I was younger too, in those jeans and hiding under my sunglasses. His dog leaned over the seat to give me a kiss of approval and off we went. He dropped me off across from the gas bar, and within minutes I had a full gas can in my hand and I was hitching back. An older man, who’d watched me arrive and fill the can, drove past me. Several other cars sped by. I picked up my pace for the long walk back. The next car stopped. They were a nice, well-spoken couple I took to be St. Andrews’ residents. Wrong. They were from St. Stephen.

And there’s where all that stereotyping will get you. Well-spoken people live in St. Stephen. Dick could talk—and work with his hands. And tradesmen can be pretty damned good talkers, too, especially when you’re paying by the hour.

But when you’re starting your first job every lesson is fresh. There are no stereotypes, just your own insecurities and inexperience and a whole new wonderful world out there. And you get a paycheque to boot. Now what could be finer than that?

If I had to answer, I’d have to say “enjoying your end-of-career job as much as your first.”


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