Friday, June 19, 2020


My first real job was around age 15 or 16. I was not a very ambitious teen. Sure, I'd worked before that, but only fitfully -- running the cash register, answering the switchboard, and checking in guests at my parents' motel when circumstances demanded, if one can call that work. I didn't get paid to do that, but again, my parents did feed me, so I guess it was a fair trade-off. 

By the time it sunk in that I really, really needed money of my own, my mom reluctantly hired me as a motel maid, for seventy-five cents an hour in the summers and in March during the state basketball tournament. Shamefully, I didn't actually know how to clean. The maids worked in teams, and an older woman named Martha had the sad task of training me in. Training in the boss's daughter, a girl she had no option of firing, was no doubt a delight. Truth be told, she could have told my mom I was hopeless and Mom would have fired me. Mom was a no-nonsense woman. The first time Martha and I made up a bed together, she scornfully came around from her side and showed me how to form a hospital corner. I was mortified, and have never, ever forgotten how to do it.

Cleaning rooms was hard physical labor, and I was a teenager! At Martha's age, I would have quit after scrubbing my first room. The motel had 52 rooms. What that grubby job taught me was to dig in and just do it. I can't numerate the number of toilets I swished or the multitude of beds I stripped and neatly remade. Nor the countless steps I climbed with a heavy Kirby vacuum in hand. Once all 52 rooms were done, it was time to wash, dry and fold towels, inside a suffocating garage when the outside temperature was 88 degrees and the inside was about 99. But eventually I earned enough money to buy school clothes and record albums, and at last a decent stereo. Like all jobs, what seemed impossible at first ultimately became old hat. Martha even told my mom I was a good worker; the ultimate compliment.

I was enrolled in the clerical program in high school, after a doomed attempt at "college prep". Math and science were my downfall. If I'd cared enough, I could have squeaked by in algebra and physics, but I rarely cared about any of my classes, even the easy ones. Typing was something I was good at, and shorthand was simple to master. My goal was to secure a state job as a clerk-typist. State government jobs were plentiful and I lived right across the river from the capitol building. Thus my first non-parental job was working for the State Health Department, Division of Vital Statistics. I basically filed and sometimes typed up facsimiles of birth certificates for my director to emboss with her official stamp. Apparently I was a proficient filer, because I was approached to become part of a new project -- committing all the birth, death, and divorce records to a newfangled thing called microfilm.Scintillating work! All in all, my government employment lasted about a year, before personal conflicts convinced me to crawl back to my parents and guilt them into giving me a job, this time in the motel office - early mornings.

In late 1976 I became a full-time mom, which lasted for three years, until my dwindling bank account informed me that I needed to find a job. A new catalog store was being erected a couple blocks from my home, and as I would drive past, I'd mutter, "I'm going to work there". And I did. I'd never worked in retail, but I did know how to run a cash register, which cinched the deal. I liked the job, but I almost always found something to like in any job I held. Retail paid only a pittance, yet we employees still had to endure yearly evaluations. During mine, my supervisor chastised me for not creating an advertising campaign -- I hadn't even known that was an expectation! So I trundled down to a travel agent's kiosk and convinced them to hand over a travel poster, from which I devised a placard to place in the luggage section. I think it read, "for your flights of fancy". My boss argued that it should be "flights of fantasy", at which point I realized she was an idiot.

Scouring the want ads in the local newspaper, I found an opening for a "communications clerk" at the local hospital. I definitely knew about clerking. The RN manager who interviewed me, Laurel Sullivan, was kind and not an imbecile and she offered me the job. I stayed at St. A's for eight years. I loved it. I can't exactly pinpoint why, but it may have been because I learned so much that I'd never in my life known. I worked on Third Floor - Medical -  with the RN's and LPN's. I was the communications center of the floor -- scheduling surgeries and ordering labs and special meals. I became certified in CPR and I had to call a Code Blue once, which scared me to death. Code Grey meant tornado watch; Code Black was a tornado warning, when we'd have to wheel all the patients out into the hallways in their beds. I worked second shift, so in the summers greys and blacks were prevalent. I would have stayed at St. A's forever, but a hectic night's dust-up bruised my feelings and it was time to move on.

I transferred downstairs to the Admissions Department, but it was so dank and quiet, I couldn't endure it. I lasted a couple weeks and realized this was all wrong. The only job I could locate in the Tribune was a receptionist position at the Teachers' Retirement Fund. This turned out to be almost the most boring job I ever had.I daily worked the four longest hours of my life, distributing mail in the mornings and occasionally typing a letter on my IBM Selectric. Nobody actually spoke to me; I was the invisible front desk automaton. When I finally found a replacement position and announced my resignation, the woman who'd hired me said she was so satisfied with my performance she was about to offer me a full-time job. Kind of the wrong time to finally let me know.

The job I traded that in for was surreal. Mrs. Fortman ran a medical transcriptionist concern -- her most reliable customer was most likely her husband, Doctor Fortman, a grizzled octogenarian whom we'd all hated when he showed up at St. A's, stumbling around, slurring dictation into one of the nurse station telephones. All the eighty-year-old patients worshiped him.

Mrs. Fortman had promised me a transcriptionist job, but that dang machine just didn't show up in shipping. She had no idea why it didn't show up, but didn't seem concerned. She already had two transcriptionists ensconced in separate bare one-window rooms, huddled behind giant boxy green screens. I was to become the third. A couple months went by and still "the machine" wasn't delivered. Meantime I came into work each day and filed envelopes into mail slots and hovered about until lunch time; drove to McDonald's drive-thru and got a hamburger and fries and returned to hover about until quitting time.

Though I'd only been employed for two months, the big corporate blowout in Kansas City was imminent, and I and my two cohorts, the ones with "machines" were invited.I'd spoken a bit with each of them, and they couldn't have been more different. One was a brassy blonde who had an overflowing list of grievances; the other was meek, plain; a go-along-to-get-along prairie maid. The three of us boarded the plane and two of us proceeded to get sloppily sloshed. The blonde planned to corner the CEO of the company at the party and spill her guts. I was frustrated and had nothing to lose, so I agreed to ride shotgun. All went as planned -- we consumed sirloins and fat baked potatoes and more liquor and I found myself in a quiet room nodding along as Brassy vomited out her complaints. I remember the man nodding, but nothing else. Then the three of us, Brassy, Prissy, and me; convened to the hotel bar and poured down more booze. 

Returning to work the following Monday, each of us got a personal audience with Mrs. Fortman. I remember piping, you promised me a machine! and Mrs. Fortman replying, "We're still waiting for the shipping!" Then she asked me if I wanted to continue my employment and I said, "No, I guess not." And that was that.

Thus continued the slog of awful jobs. 

I went home and scoured the newspaper once again. I eventually zeroed in on an ad for a farm records secretary. I should clarify that the clerical ads at any given time in my small town never exceeded three.The job was located essentially in the country, several winding miles down the interstate highway, near an isolated inn and sagebrush. Nevertheless, I meandered out for an interview, which turned out to be awkward, as the hiring manager, Nancy, was supremely self-conscious and insular. That was supposed to be my role! The two of us, naturally, did not make a connection; yet, she called later that day and offered me the job. 

The girl who trained me in, Linda, was unnecessarily snotty. I asked what felt like pertinent questions and she haughtily flicked me off. Linda wasn't going anywhere; she'd been promoted, so I'd have to work with her every day; sense her peering over my shoulder throughout my eight hours, quick to chastise me for rookie mistakes. I hated her. The job wasn't an algebraic equation -- I filed a bit and typed letters and tried to interpret Nancy's Oklahoma accent on dictation tapes, rewinding and replaying; sometimes giving up and simply typing ellipses so she would have to fill in the blanks. And copies; hours and hours of making copies at the burbling IBM copy machine; copies of tax returns, three of each: one for the client, one for the file, one for the Federal government. Hole punching, dot matrix printouts -- baffles of printouts. 

The records department was situated in the basement of a three-story structure. We had our own bottom-level entrance, so I rarely tiptoed upstairs except to nuke an occasional lunch. Mostly I left the building like lightning as the big hand hit twelve; drove into Mandan and procured a dollar-eighty-nine-cent lunch at A&B Pizza. Nancy had a completely unnecessary rule that the entire department (about 4 people total; sometimes five) had to sit in the reception alcove every day at 10:00 and 2:00 and "enjoy" break together. I learned Nancy was a nerd who spent her evenings reading Stephen King novels. Conversely the highlight of my workday was listening to gags and song parodies on Y93, emanating from a portable radio perched on my desk-side table. 

It wasn't until Nancy took a two-week vacation to visit her kin in Oklahoma that Linda and I got to really know one another. We bonded over a mutual disdain for our boss. Linda eventually became one of my very best friends. Sadly for me, but happily for her, I helped Linda find a way out of the farm records tangle. I spied an ad in the newspaper for a ranch manager in a far-off town, which Linda's husband was scouring for; and soon my friend Linda was gone. I stayed at Farm Credit Services for about a year and a half, eventually making friends. Linda had always known how to mollify Nancy; I never did. My inward nature didn't gel with hers. I became frantic to get out.

I've written ad nauseum about US Healthcare, but suffice it to say when the opportunity to escape presented itself, I pursued it relentlessly. I had to scratch and claw to get that job, but somehow serendipitously I grabbed it. What US Healthcare taught me was that I'd undervalued my talents. At last I had something other than a "job". I had to dodge dynamite and seize the opportunity to get Evil Connie fired, and I have no regrets to this day. People in power should never run roughshod over subordinates. Vile tyrants should never threaten to fire someone for simply doing an exemplary job. Evil Connie eventually found employment as a receptionist -- welcome, Evil Connie, to the me of ten years before. At least I worked my way up, instead of tumbling down.

I was a high school graduate, too lackadaisical to pursue a college education, though I could have had one. What my previous thirty-odd years of sometimes treacherous living had taught me, however, was that everybody blossoms from a kind word. Everyone wants to feel valued. Everyone has worth. One's employment position doesn't dictate that.

In 1999 I moved on. I started over, albeit with a satchel of collected wisdom. My aim was to glide through my last twenty years of employment. I'd paid my dues, wrestled my battles. It was my time to breathe.

It took three years of drudgery to reveal that I just couldn't do it. When an opportunity for promotion arose, I warily pursued it. The position was still a demotion from the old me, but it presented an opportunity to use my dormant talents. I somehow secured the position and eventually put my stamp on it. 

From 2003 to the year 2020 I served as my department's trainer and de facto substitute supervisor. I reveled in the diversity of challenges. I left my mark.

Work life is a cornucopia of ups and downs and ups. Every single work experience I ever had taught me something important, though I might not have recognized it at the time.

That's sort of how life works. One doesn't recognize or absorb sometimes painful, sometimes glorious lessons. But one's mind doesn't allow them to evaporate.

On June 12 my work life officially ended. 

I have few regrets. I think I probably did exactly what I was meant to do.


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