I wake up each morning, read and hang out with my wife while the coffee is brewing, then I head to our shared home-office where I sit and write all day. It’s perfect job — the job I dreamed of having even before I fully understood what I wanted to do in life.
Way before my writing career, way before my Master’s and even my Bachelor’s degree, way before my work in the financial and real estate industry… I was a high school student, working at crappy minimum wage jobs to give me a bit of pocket money so I could pay for my car and go on dates and ostensibly save for college.
Those jobs were hell. I keep them locked away inside the vault in my mind where all the unpleasant memories go but I’m in a weird mood today and feel like I want to write about them. So I’m going to list the jobs I had during high school, share the unvarnished truth about the good and the bad, and try to dial in some lessons learned. Maybe by the end I’ll have some takeaways for you… or at least a cathartic experience for me.
Job #1: Race track garbage collector
I was 13 years old and lived near a race track (once a track on the Indy circuit, no less!). This seasonal job had me working 8 hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday to clean up during and after the races.
The good: I think I was paid $4/hour, which was a princely sum to me at the time. But the real bonus was that I got to watch some races for free (and I regret not taking advantage of that perk more often!). It was here that I really developed an interest in motorsports, which is why I like NASCAR and follow it avidly. I also have a great story that I share to this day: During a race, I was asked to run to the main office complex for a box of those disposable relish packets. Rather than going the bridge or under the tunnel, I took the quickest way — across the track. In the middle of a major race. And then I ran back with the relish. I’d like to thank the racecar drivers for not killing me that day, and extend an apology to all race fans for what was very likely a huge, panicked yellow flag.
The bad: 8 hours in the blistering sun is hot and dangerous. I learned that each week! I also learned that bosses can be horrible people: During a rainstorm, the team that I was on took shelter in a shed. The team consisted of me and another guy who was about the same age, and our boss (a highschool-aged student) and his friend. The age disparity became apparent when my peer and I cowered in the corner while my boss and his friend went through the shed smashing whatever they could find. I’ve never told anyone that before. Now I’m telling the world.
I left that job when the summer was over and never returned.
Job #2: Grocery store clerk
I was 14 or 15 (maybe 16?) and worked at a small town grocery store. Actually, it was one of those places that also rented movies and made pizza. I can’t remember how long I was there but it was long enough.
The good: I learned a bunch of stuff about grocery and retail sales which was actually invaluable. Stuff like: Move products to the front of the shelf, put newer stock in the back, and lots of customer service skills. I made ground beef, evaluated produce, and learned to make end-of-the-aisle displays… all of these skills really transfer into other areas of life (except for making ground beef, of course). Oh, and I learned to make a mean pizza.
The bad: The owners were a husband and wife team whose marriage had imploded. So they co-owned the store but never talked to each other. And I would get conflicting assignments and tasks from them because they couldn’t communicate with each other. Oh, and I also learned that gasoline melts styrofoam: When I was asked to mow the lawn, I had to first fill up the lawnmower with fuel but couldn’t find a funnel so I improvised with a styrofoam cup with a hole in it. Lesson learned.
I was at the job for more than a year, I believe, and I can’t remember when or why I left. In retrospect is was probably the best of my highschool jobs but I didn’t like it.
Job #3: Gas station attendant
I was 16 or 17 and got a job at a gas station on a highway. It was attached to a restaurant, a convenience store, a mechanic shop, and a drive-through-only donut shop. My job was to work the pumps and run the convenience store. They told me later that I got the job because I was the first person to ever bring in a typed resume.
The good: I’m trying to think of what was good about this job… and I’m drawing a blank. Well, I guess the regular paycheck. Oh, and later I learned that I had some good counselling/listening skills when the owner of the place would come in and hang out and speak rather openly about his tempestuous family relationships.
The bad: Where do I begin? The people I worked with were jerks. The only person who had even an ounce of class was fired for some reason. The owner was mercurial and would fly off the handle for little or no reason, freely belittling us in front of others. We had to fight to get our paychecks from him. His lackey, the manager, was condescending (although I took comfort in the fact that he was still working at a gas station at his age). My co-workers, I learned later, would make fun of me when I wasn’t around — deriding me in front of the customers because of my religious upbringing. The most puzzling aspect of my job was that I ran the convenience store and the gas pumps so I was required to pump the gas when someone pulled up… but I also wasn’t allowed to leave the store if someone was inside… which guaranteed a weekly yelling by the owner because I wasn’t running to the pumps even when someone was in the store. It still doesn’t make sense and I couldn’t explain it to him.
I left there because I moved and I was happy to be gone.
Job #4: Subway sandwich artist
I was 18 or 19 and my family had just moved and I got a job at a Subway store a few blocks from my house.
The good: The owner was a decent guy, and I made a couple of friends there who I still keep in contact with today. I learned a lot about foodservices, which is another thing that has been surprisingly invaluable in my life… even though I’ve never worked in the restaurant industry since. I also ate a heck of a lot of free subs.
The bad: I worked from 8pm to 4am, which was kind of a problem because I was also in my last year of high school. So I wasn’t really in a very good mental state since I would sleep for a few hours then go to class. I was also robbed twice on two consecutive days and that certainly didn’t help my mental state. I had a strained relationship with the manager, although I don’t remember why. I just remember he docked my pay for something that I didn’t think was my fault.
I left there because I moved away to go to college.
WHY DOES IT ALL MATTER?
Why did I write this post? Well, I was thinking about some of those first job experiences recently and how all four of my jobs were pretty bad. I’m sure that’s the case for most people. I was also thinking recently about where some of these other people are — the owners, the managers, the co-workers. I’ve really accelerated in my life beyond the quiet, shy, put-up-with-other-people’s-shit kid that I was. Have they also changed and matured over the years or is Mike still driving his crappy old pick-up truck and hanging out at the strippers’ every night?
I think it’s also instructive to consider my thoughts about work ethic. I put up with a lot of stuff during those small hells. There was something illegal about each of those job experiences — most often it was illegal pay docking or excessive sexual innuendos that would make for an uncomfortable workplace. If I knew then what I know now, I would never have stayed even a week at any of those jobs. I’ve learned to take charge of my own work environment and to quit when it’s poison.
I wish I could send a message to myself in the past and say: “You don’t have to deal with that. There are other, better work environments out there and this isn’t going to be a permanent stain on your resume.”
And yet, in spite of the horribleness of each of those jobs, they made me a better person today (along the lines of “I learned patience from the impatient”, etc.). They help me to set high expectations with clients (and with jobs when I had jobs). They made me very mindful that the person who was pumping my gas or making my sandwich are possibly putting up with the same BS that I did. They stand as a flag of where I was so I can look back and see how far I’ve come.
I guess I’m learning to be thankful for those experiences — as awful as they were — because they made me who I am today. Although I would never want to repeat them, nor would I wish them on anyone else, I’m a better person because of them.