My first job, I got five bucks a pop to wash the gym teacher’s car. My employer, who earned his keep giving kids rope burn, presented the only real risk. There were no fringe benefits.
That same year, I crawled through dumpsters for nickel recyclables, work that offered danger, excitement, and discovery. I once pulled a condom from the sharp mouth of a Budweiser can. It was my first exposure to the link between sex and booze. The risks, for a dumpster diver, were all tied up with the bennies.
The following summer I worked for the Journal Inquirer, delivering news to the condos across the street. Starting withThen I worked at the the comics, I read the entire paper as I went. The risks included traffic, uneven sidewalks, and dog poo. The benefits were news from the world and an enduring fascination with comedy.
Ellington Ridge Country Club. For under minimum wage I scrubbed rich people’s Titleists and dodged 200 mph drives in a 15 mph range cart. In exchange for these risks and deprivations I was introduced to my first real bennies: free golf on Mondays and all the hot dogs I could eat. We also earned tips: exhausted from a morning on the manicured fairways, the corporate members slipped us five-spots for a lift to their Beamers at the top of the hill.
At 15 I found myself bagging groceries for minimum wage. I had aisles of junk food to pillage and permission to ring my snacks ahead of actual customers. In fine weather, I raced the carriages at breakneck speed down the sloping lot. I risked only indigestion and the nearsighted old-timers backing up their Cadillacs.
At 16 I was hired to work in Kmart’s shoe department. The discount shoe bind gave me an entire store to roam—Music! Games! Sports equipment!—and all the pulp novels I could read. Mad Magazine kept me up to speed on the latest movies my parents didn’t let me see. I had a stock room to myself where I passed the time with remote control cars and a dartboard I didn’t bother paying for. On Sundays the job paid time-and-a-half and got me out of church. Though I dissed the Lord, I never once suffered the consequences of my greatest risk: getting busted for sleeping on shipping boxes in a room full of pilfered goods.
The Kmart dodge came to an end when the mall opened up and I found work in Young Men’s at a department store. The bennies were limited: more sophisticated clients than the Kmart shoppers and special dispensation to play ‘young men’s music’. The risk involved showing off for the sophisticated chick in Shoes by blasting a friend’s Fugazi 7 Songs—which she promptly borrowed and never returned.
I also did some interim work as a lifeguard, enjoying the obvious: the twirling lanyard, the chicks in bikinis. I met my first girlfriend at Spring Pond, a year older than me and in possession of a car. But there were burns on my shoulder and a peeling nose to deal with, and later the broken heart when it became clear I’d exaggerated my ability to drive a stick. By Valentine’s Day my older girl had left me for a boy who could get her where she needed to go.
When wage-workers hit 18 the law lifts most limits on what they can do for a living. With new opportunity comes awesome new benefits and awesome new risks, like slicing deli meat. Sure, a guy can shave his roast beef thin as he likes; but to do so he’s got to bring his fingers within inches of the blade. To clean the slicers, a co-worker taught me to remove the cover and hold a scouring pad against the running blade. This same guy had a motto for the fact that we shared cold storage with the beer department: ‘Fetch a salami; grab a Heiney!’ Always quick about it, we used the shotgun method. And because we shotgunned beers while working with slicers, we became familiar with yet another fringe benefit of the lunchmeat biz: free health care. More than once I lopped off a chunk of fingertip, bloodied but no so bad I couldn’t drive myself—verily buzzed—to Rockville General.
The risk-benefit ratio gets no better from there. One summer I drove a pallet jack at the Sweet Life food warehouse, work fit for Hell’s Angels and other tattooed thugs. It paid well but the Union took a chunk back in dues, then moved me to freezer duty which I quit before frostbite set in. Later still, stocking grocery shelves on the graveyard shift, I got eight hours straight of classic rock and learned to grunt at guys with lit butts dangling from their lips. But my sleep was out of whack; I took to drinking beer for breakfast.
I’m no Lester Burnham, his nostalgia for burger-flippin’ chronicled in American Beauty. Wage labor holds little appeal for me now. But a decade in the salt mines did teach me a few things. First, it’s important to show up on time, but more important to punch in by :07 after. Second, it’s important to work hard, but more important to have fun while you do it. And finally, when it comes to earning your keep in this world, the money may be important, but it’s the risks and bennies that will make or break you.