They may have great skin, but who would really want to be young?
I don’t know about where you live, but here in Britain it’s not easy for them. Unemployment figures this week showed that one in five people aged 16-24 is unemployed. And, that’s just the ones who are claiming unemployment benefits. It doesn’t include the unpaid interns, or the against-their-will part-timers, or the ones at university racking up enormous debts thanks to the fee increases that neither they nor their parents had the time to save up for.
This vast reservoir of untapped talent is not good for the country. It’s also not good for the reservoir.
These young people are not only missing out on a salary, and the independent life that having some money in your pocket can bring, but also on the self-confidence, camaraderie and experience that come with having a job. Not to mention all the stories they could be collecting about the weird people at work.
I hate to say this, because I really do understand how ancient it makes me sound, but things weren’t like this in my day.
Between the ages of 16 and 24, I had a variety of jobs. At each of them, I earned a bit of money, met some people I wouldn’t have otherwise known, learned something about myself, and about what I wanted, and didn’t want, from work. Many I came away from with fond memories, while looking back on others makes me realise that things could always be worse – I could still be there.
And so, the highlights of my weird and wonderful career:
Ages 16 and 17:
Babysitting is probably the main way for people in suburbia to make some money at this age, but living in multi-cultural Astoria, NY opened up a much wider pool of job opportunities. On any formal CV I would say that I spent this period as a tutor, but in reality I was a ‘homework helper’. I went around after school to the houses of children whose parents didn’t really speak English and sat with them while they did their homework. It was harder than it sounds. Thinking back on it, little Leonardo was probably dyslexic because no matter how many times we went over it, he never really mastered The Cat in the Hat. His mother didn’t help. She kept interrupting with helpful comments like ‘But where their mama go? How she leave them like that?’ Meanwhile, Dmitri refused to learn anything about numbers. Anything. I would get 10 objects and try to show him that no matter how you split them up, there were still 10 of them. So, 5 on one side and 5 on the other is 10. Two on one side and 8 on the other is still 10. He didn’t care. He just wanted to shove all 10 of them into his mouth, which was understandable when I was using M&Ms but a lot stranger when I switched to pebbles. And Nicolo’s handwriting never improved, probably because his mother kept grabbing the pencil and showing him how she had learned to make letters, in Cyrillic, when she was young.
All in all, I can honestly say that my charges didn’t learn a thing. But I did. I learned there was no way on earth that I wanted to be a teacher. And, that if I ever had children, I was NEVER going to tell their teacher how to do her job.
I’ve managed to stick to one of those resolutions.
The next summer, I found myself working for a book club. You know the kind I mean, you order every month from a catalogue and they send you your books in the post. Of course, if you forgot to order, they automatically sent you their ‘book of the month’, which was usually the one they had the most of in the stockroom.
I had the crucial job of taking the order form out of the envelope and putting it in a pile. That was it. The envelope already came pre-sliced because someone else had the job of opening it. Another worker took the pile away and did something mysterious with it. I have no idea what. I just took the forms out of the envelopes, all day long, along with the three other people at my table.
We tried to think of ways to make it more interesting but, let’s face it, there were NO ways to make it interesting. So, we raced each other to see who could get through their baskets the fastest. Until, that is, the supervisor put a stop to it. Apparently we were causing ‘backups down the line’. That sounded ominous. Then we tried to see who could do it the slowest. That made her even less happy. So, we just chatted. Well, Shelly chatted about her boyfriend Sheldon, and Danny chatted about the car he was going to buy when he had enough money and Rico chatted about some gang in his neighbourhood that he was obviously desperate to join, and I just sat there, figuring out how many seconds of the day had already passed and how many more were to come. I chatted enough when I got home though, mostly about how if that had been my last day on earth, I had totally wasted it.
Still, I learned many things that summer, such as: I did not want to date an idiot like Sheldon; did not want a car with ‘rims’, whatever they were; did not want to know anyone who wanted to join a gang; and, that time passes very slowly when it is being counted. I also learned to never forget to send in your order form to a book club, because you really did not want the book they were going to send you.
Ages 19 and 20:
Moving into the world of retail, I spent the next two summers working for our local drug store, Genovese. I have the awful feeling it no longer exists. It has, I think, morphed into a CVS. For those of you ‘confused in Britain’, its closest equivalent in the UK is probably Boots. But before you start picturing me in a pretty smock, looking vaguely medical and professional, I should mention that I spent that summer below ground. Yes, I was the marker.
For most of the daylight hours, I was in the basement, putting little stickers on goods and then putting those goods on a conveyor belt that spat them out onto the shop floor. I bet you didn’t realise that such a job, or person, even existed. I know I didn’t.
The rest of my time was spent trying to avoid Guilliermo, the guy who took the goods off the trucks and brought them over to my little subterranean workstation. His command of English was non-existent but body language really did help and I quickly came to understand that Guilliermo hoped that we could do more than exchange glances over a box of unpriced cold remedies and bandages. Sadly, I did not share that hope, which made it lucky for me that I was the one with the little box cutter.
Every now and then I had to bring something upstairs which could not be trusted to the conveyor belt, such as drugs to the pharmacy. That was the domain of Norman, the fattest pharmacist in the world. He was enormous, and sweaty, and wheezy, and fancied himself a bit of a ladies man. I have no idea why, it must have been the result of breathing in the fumes from all those drugs. He was also the person in charge of the thermostat, presumably because of the medicines. This caused enormous tensions between him and the manager, Alphonso, who was more concerned with the electricity bill than with best storage practices. Their confrontations were endlessly entertaining, in part because Norman was Norman and Al was 4’11” tall, all of which was mouth. It was like watching a tug boat circling an ocean liner. Still, Al never won. Norman was, after all, the pharmacist and that made him king.
I actually loved working at Genovese. The staff were mostly young and irreverent and totally united against the enemy, the customers. It made for a great sense of camaraderie, as well as a never-ending supply of ‘guess what just happened in Aisle 9’ stories.
I learned many things that summer, such as: never let an amorous Guatamalan get between you and the door; it’s not a good idea to sit on the conveyor belt just to see what would happen; don’t ever give control of the thermostat to a fat man, unless you like being cold; and, the customer is NEVER right. I also learned how much fun work can be, and that sunlight is something which should never be taken for granted.
My next job came via my mother, who was very active in our local Democratic Club. Strangely enough, everyone else in the office also had a relative in a Democratic Club. What were the chances of that?
It’s hard to describe this job by using the word ‘work’ because, to be honest, there was very little of that involved. Basically, New York City had a programme to keep young people off the streets and out of trouble during the long summer holidays. They were organised into groups and then given jobs to do, such as cleaning up a local cemetery or painting fences in a park or, in the case of the ultra-religious Jewish kids in Brooklyn, studying. We were given the task of … watching them. Yes, we went around visiting these projects to make sure the kids were doing something. Since most of the time they weren’t, we didn’t really have all that much to do either.
Except once every other week. Then we had to go pay them. We would get our lists of children, we would get the attendance records – which always showed that every single child had been there every single day – and then we would give them their pay. There was, however, never enough money for the number of children who turned up. Never. It was probably too much work for someone to figure out what the total of X days times Y children at Z dollars per day was. Or perhaps it was because there were more people in the line than there were names on the sheet. Who knows why that kept happening, although I would put my money on the fact that it was because there were always a bunch of kids there with the same name, although it was never the same, same name.
Whatever the reason, there was frequently a fight. It got so bad that my father would drive me in on pay days and wait for me outside. I have no idea what a 5’6″ 60-year-old man thought he could do in the face of rampaging teenagers, but it was comforting to know he was out there. Besides, it made for a quicker get-away.
The exception, of course, was the Hasidic kids at a Yeshiva in Besonhurst. There were no repeat names there, or shoving, or pushing, or fighting. There was, however, enormous resentment. They, or to be more accurate, their teachers would insist that only men hand out the fortnightly pay packets. The city, naturally, took this to heart and, after considerable consideration, sent me. Every single time. After several stalemates, during which the boys didn’t get paid and I had to spend hours trying to find out what to do with the money, we worked out a system. It was a system we all hated, but it meant that the boys got paid and I got rid of the money and got out of there. Basically, I put the pay packet with each boy’s name on it down on a table, his teacher would pick it up, using gloves, dust it off with one of those little feather duster things, and hand it to the boy. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. It wasn’t pleasant but at least it beat cowering under a table while a riot raged around you. I suppose.
What did I learn that summer? Well, the main thing was that if you have a job you should actually do some work. Not only does that seem like the honest thing to do, but it’s also much more interesting. Also: never work for New York City; never enter a room where you know large, angry teenagers are going to be gathering without having first figured out where the emergency exits are; never be female in an orthodox Yeshiva and always remember to appreciate your get-away driver.
My next job definitely ranks as the oddest one I have ever had. I worked in the laboratory in a sewage treatment plant. I was the only female in the six-person lab, which would have been ok if I had not also been the only female in the 40-person treatment plant, or the only one in the 400-person construction crew who were rebuilding the sewage tank. My first morning there was spent watching people look around for the key to the ladies room. They eventually gave up and just took the door off the hinges, which didn’t really solve the problem as far as I was concerned but they all seemed ok with it.
The four scientists in the lab were very nice, chivalrous men. They knew I was coming and had gone out and bought me pink lab gloves because…well, I have no idea why but they were very pleased with themselves for having thought of it, so I was too. There was another summer employee, a boy, who didn’t get special treatment of any kind and always got asked to do the worst jobs, the ones I couldn’t be asked to do because I was a girl. I don’t think he particularly liked me, but since he never spoke to anyone, it was hard to tell.
We spent our days running tests on the sewage water, at its various stages of treatment. My fellow summer worker got the first stages, I got the last ones. The chief scientist would take notes and at 4pm every day phoned the other treatment plants around the city to compare numbers. He always recorded ours in pencil ,which I thought was odd, until one of the other scientists said it was standard practice. Apparently it made it easier to change the results in case ours were too out of sync with everyone else’s. What?! I’m hoping they were joking, but I can’t honestly say for certain that they were. It would, after all, explain the taste of New York City’s drinking water.
Possibly fudged figures weren’t the most surprising thing about that job. No, the most surprising thing was one of the scientists. He was a million years old and didn’t actually do all that much except sit in the corner reading books and magazines, in Hungarian. It turns out that he was famous. In fact, he was credited (or accused, depending on your point of view) with having started the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. According to him, it was all a misunderstanding. He just happened to be standing next to that burning Soviet flag in the place and on the day when everything kicked off. He was now in the corner reading, instead of in a gulag freezing, because he had subsequently been traded for a captured Soviet spy. Being in a New York City sewage treatment plant was probably a lot better than some of the places he had been in before. Probably.
That summer, I learned many valuable things such as: pink is not my colour; never trust statistics; don’t stand near burning flags unless you are willing to take the consequences, both short and long term; and, bottled water is worth the money.
It’s hard to believe but, despite the kind scientists and the pink gloves, I decided that sewage just wasn’t for me. And so, the following year I went after, and landed, a truly amazing job. I was an intern, of the paid variety, at the US Embassy in Cameroon.
My job was so far beyond my abilities to perform that it was truly ridiculous. The Cameroonian government wanted US aid money to help rebuild the railroad from the north, where all the goods were, to Douala, where the port is. According to US regulations, any aid had to be shown to benefit the rural poor and it was my job to see if a better railroad would do that. I know. Me, a 23-year-old former water tester/teenage payer/price marker/form remover/homework helper being tasked with writing a report that could affect the lives of millions. Totally ridiculous. Still, it quickly became obvious that everyone wanted to help them. They just needed the boxes ticked, which probably explains why I got hired to do it. I duly spent the next six months travelling up and down on the incredibly dilapidated railway and, amazingly enough, concluded that a straighter, faster one would be better. It was a brilliant experience. I met the most remarkable people that year, from subsistence farmers to Canadian diplomats to Nobel prize winners, not to mention a fair number of chickens, goats and other things that got carried on trains.
What did I learn from that job? I learned that I desperately wanted to be a diplomat; that chickens aren’t happy on trains; that learning a foreign language is easier in a foreign country than in a language lab; and that French Canadians, as a group, must be the nicest people in the world, but they have very strange accents.
My diplomatic years. Which just goes to show that all those weird and wonderful jobs really did lead somewhere.
That’s it. My life as a young worker. From testing Leonardo to testing water. From the Hungarian Revolution to the Cameroonian railroads. Every single job a memory. Every single one a story. Most of them good. Some of them not. All of them mine.
So, what are yours? What was your best/worst job as a young person? What advice would you give young people now? What are you glad you did? What do you wish you had done differently?
As usual, answers on a postcard, please.
Not Leo Tolstoy
(aka Eileen Riley)