05 June, 2013

Sometimes, I'm proud of what I do.

I've written about my entry into the crazy field of auto mechanics before so I'll spare you the details.  For those of you who are new here I'll do a brief recap.  I grew up in a blue collar family, in a blue collar town and never imagined doing something other than blue collar work.  My senior year of high school the guidance counselor pulled me out of class, asked me if I had given any thought to what I wanted to do after high school, I ran through my options and told him I wanted to be a mechanic.  Graduated high school, went to tech school and landed my first auto job.  Went to the second auto job for more money (I'll never make that mistake again), got fired and took it harder than I should have.  Up to date now?  Good.  On with the ramblings of a slightly drunk mechanic.

Having grown up in a blue collar town I always thought (and still do) that manual labor and the skilled trades were a respectable way to make a living.  Somewhere in my youth something got me thinking that certain jobs were things to be ashamed of.  A janitor for one.  When I was young, my Dad worked at "the plant" which is what everyone in town called the local GM assembly factory.  Dad worked on the line, doing various jobs, and ended up as a janitor in the EDS offices.  I never gave it any thought until I saw how the janitors at my junior high school were treated.  As I passed on through junior high and high school in the late '80s, the term "blue collar" almost became a four letter word.  Blue collar parents, which were usually the traditional family of working Dad and stay at home Mom, naturally wanted better things for their children.  Emphasis was put on "white collar" jobs such as doctors, lawyers, accountants etc.  In large part this was due to money.  Overseas labor was cheaper than paying for union labor at home.  The bean counters were looking at the bottom line and didn't consider the long term consequences of their actions.  America was once the industrial giant of the world and that distinction has evaporated.  As have an alarmingly large amount of the skills we (America) once had.  The white collar/blue collar pendulum had swung over to the white collar side and the blue collar professions suffered accordingly.  The day I told my counselor I wanted to be a mechanic, the move to white collar was already in progress and I didn't know it.  The day I got fired from auto job number two devastated me.  Not so much from the fact I would have to find another job, but because I had to go home and tell my Dad I got fired.  Before I even graduated from high school, my parents had instilled certain values in me.  My Dad may not have liked his job at the "plant", but he had a family to provide for, and that was his first (and only, looking back on it) priority.  Food on the table, roof over the heads.  Dad spent four years in the Navy and when he got out he was unemployed for a short time.  When his first child (my dear Sister) was born he didn't have a job.  In those days birth certificates had a spot where the Father's employment was written down.  My Mom told me that when my Sister was born and Dad had to write "unemployed" on the form, he was devastated.  So, getting that "mundane" assembly line job was a gift from God to him.  Dad had a union job with good pay and good benefits which allowed him to care for his family.  That job put money in the bank with which my Mom could go and buy the food she would feed us with and the clothes she put on our backs.  That "shameful" factory job also gave my Dad the option to buy bonds and invest in retirement accounts and life insurance policies.  I didn't realize until my adult years that the reason I had to do without certain luxuries (popular brand name clothes, cable TV or even color TV) was because my Dad was socking away money for his family's future.  My parents sent all of us to college of some sort.  And my Mom?  She worked for a short time before my Sister was born, for a few years when I was a teen and a few years after Dad died.  But, she didn't have to.  Those lowly blue collar jobs allowed comfortable lives for families across this nation.  This is the situation in which I was raised.  I never expected anything else for myself.  But things changed.

I'm the youngest of my siblings.  The next youngest being eight years older than myself.  The oldest, my Sister, 13 years older than myself.  The next youngest (I'll call him Spaz) suffered through the horrible early '80s when it was hard to find a job at McDonald's much less at the "plant".  As a kid, I watched Spaz go through some really hard times.  He eventually got a job at "the plant" but, unfortunately, it was towards the end of the "happy times".  Spaz got a layoff notice more than once.  But, he made it in with enough seniority (which unfortunately doesn't mean jack-shit these days) that he was able to support his new family and have a pretty decent future.  He's now just a couple of years from being able to get the decent retirement which he has most definitely earned.  However, that short time span of eight years between us may as well have been 100 years for me.

In high school my first real job was at a Chinese restaurant.  Spaz was the host/bartender there during one of the layoffs he suffered through at the plant.  One night as I was eating dinner with Mom and Dad, Spaz called.  The guy who was the busboy at the restaurant didn't show up (he was worthless from what I heard) and Spaz apparently told the owner he could get someone in to work that night.  My brother thought of me.  I showed up, was given the briefest of training and started my new job.  The other guy eventually showed up but, from what I gathered, was fired on the spot.  The restaurant owner apparently appreciated dedicated employees.  I guess he saw that in my brother and assumed that if my brother was recommending me he could expect more of the same.  I cleaned tables and poured water and made coffee.  Not terribly difficult but it was a job and, for the first time in my life, I had money coming in.  Spaz got called back to the plant and when summer came I quit because the fife and drum corps I was a part of was more important to me than money.  That was my sophmore year of high school.  My junior year I was completely unemployed except for the random baby sitting I did for Spaz.  I guess you could say that was my only experience with being unemployed.  I applied for a job at a local greenhouse and didn't get it.  Failure.  Not something that sits well with me.  As I began my Senior year of high school I was informed that the restaurant was looking for a dishwasher/side order cook.  I hemmed and hawed over it because my pride prevented me from what I thought would be crawling back to the restaurant.  A short lesson from my Dad cleared things up.  He told me that the restaurant had given me a job, on the spot, before and they were giving me the chance to be employed again.  Applying at the green house was one of my first "independent" moments and it had failed.  So, I became a dishwasher/side order cook.  I don't regret it at all.  Then, a bigger leap.

I was expecting to spend the summer after my high school graduation with the fife and drum corps as usual, but things took an unexpected turn.  My best friend, Pete, had applied at a grocery store and when they didn't respond quickly (he's a seriously motivated individual) he moved on.  The grocery store eventually called him and though he told them he'd moved on he called me to let me know there was a job opening.  I applied, interviewed and got hired as a dairy/frozen foods assistant.  My first grocery store job.  This job was short-lived as the place went out of business a little over a year after I was hired.  The things I learned from that job were many.  I was given responsibility for certain (though menial) tasks, I learned that I was capable of doing all sorts of things and, most importantly, that when you work with good people a job can be enjoyable.  I guess I learned that at the restaurant but, being my first job, I had nothing to compare it to.  Sadly, one day my boss called me at home and told me not to come into the store because they were closing for good.  I was crushed because the people I looked forward to seeing every day wouldn't be around anymore.  Then the things I learned from Mom and Dad kicked in.  "I need to find another job.  Fast."  My brain was screaming "You need to provide, provide, provide!!".  I was still living at home and had no debts except to Dad.  I borrowed $500 from him to buy my first car.  The day my boss told me the store was closing, I went to the store to turn in my shirts and name tag then went directly to every other grocery store in town.  I got an application from every store, went home, filled out every application and then went out and returned them.  All in less than twelve hours.  The next day I went down to the unemployment office.  I walked in, got in line, picked up the first form and started filling it out.  At some point I thought "This is ridiculous.  I need to get a job."  I was unemployed for less than a week when another grocery store called.  I didn't care what the pay was or what the job was.  I took it.  Again, I ended up in a great place.  New people, new building, but the same "family" atmosphere.  Somehow, the manager thought I was responsible enough to be "promoted" in a way.  I delivered flowers for them.  This was during my second year of tech school, the '91-'92 school year. 

Tech school, of course, helped get its students into the jobs for which they had been training.  My two professors, Mike and Bill, knew their jobs well.  Still do.  They had the the know-how to place their students in jobs that were appropriate.  I didn't go searching for my first auto job, Mike told me about the opening and suggested to me that I apply for it.  Mike knew me better than I did.  Interviewed, hired...  Food on the table.  I still remember asking the manager at the grocery store for a minute of his time.  I still feel the shame of telling Ken I was leaving for another job.  I was raised to be grateful for a job, any job, that allowed you to provide for your family.  Job hopping was frowned upon.  If someone gave you a job, you showed that employer some respect by staying with them and giving them your all.  So, having only been at this second grocery store about four or five months, I felt horrible telling Ken that I was leaving.  Ken being older and therefore wiser than the 19 year old me, therefore, knew that I was trying to begin a professional career.  He understood completely and even gave me his blessing.  I still felt terrible for leaving.  But, I did move on.  I won't rewrite my experiences with what happened next.  It's all in the "Career Blues" series of posts I have on here.  I will, however, fill in the blanks.

I went to the first auto job, went to the second and got fired.  The day I got fired I went home, early, and walked in to the house.  Mom and Dad were eating dinner at the kitchen counter as I walked in.  Neither of them were expecting me for another three hours.  They both stopped eating, at the same time, and stared at me.  Probably trying to figure out why I was home at that time.  With my parents I never really tried to cushion things.  I simply looked at them and said "I got fired."  I don't remember what happened after that.  The incredible shame of having to tell my parents that I was fired from a job must have been so great that I've blocked it from memory.  I was a product of my parents, however, and the next day I was out hunting for a new job.  Gotta keep that money coming in so you can provide for your family!  Here's the twist to my story.  Just after I started auto job 2, the first grocery store I worked for had reopened under new owners.  My former manager had called me, along with other former employees, asking us if we were interested in coming back.  Prior experience = less training.  I thought about it and politely declined.  I had changed jobs so frequently (restaurant, grocery 1, grocery 2, auto 1 and auto 2) within the past three years that I didn't want to change yet again.  Besides, I was just starting out on my chosen career.  I thanked Dave for even thinking about me for the job.  A few months later I got fired from auto 2.  I weighed my options.  Barely one week passed before I went back to grocery 2 (I'll call it grocery 3 from now on) and asked if I could meet with Dave.  I was honest with him and told him about being fired from auto 2.  I told him that I needed a job and if he had one available would he please consider me.  He hired me on the spot.  I told him that my intentions were to get back into auto and he was understanding.  I put in four years at grocery 3.

Though I hadn't planned on staying at grocery 3 for four years, it just worked out that way.  The shame I felt from being fired from auto 2 was so great that I thought I wasn't good enough.  Why would any shop hire me after finding out I had been fired?  I dealt with this while I advanced through grocery 3.  So many things happened in that time.  Dad died.  Dave came to the funeral and gave my family a card, signed by every single one of my coworkers.  What a great place to work!  People cared about one another.  Why would I leave that kind of environment?  Most of my coworkers were from grocery 1, who had come back, and the business was in the same building.  I started as a third shift stocker and was quickly moved to second shift supervisor.  I had no clue how to run a store but Dave saw something in me that I wasn't able to see in myself.  I alternated between dairy/frozen manager and second shift supervisor for most of my time at grocery 3.  They eventually moved me into the meat department.  I did NOT want to go there, but I did because I wished to remain employed.  Reluctantly, I started in the meat department.  Long story short, if the shit hadn't hit the fan, I would be a journeyman meat cutter right now.  I eventually liked the meat department and the guys I worked with in that constantly chilly environment.  It wasn't going to last.

Having been through one failed grocery store,  I started to see the writing on the wall for grocery 3.  Nobody wanted to admit it because those of us still there loved that place, but the ship was sinking.  My Sister had talked to me about an opening at the daycare center she worked at, for a "maintenance man" i.e "janitor" and I told her I had no interest in commuting or cleaning toilets.  Three months after that conversation I finally realized that grocery 3 was as good as gone and I had better jump ship before it sank.  On a lark I called the administrator of the daycare.  I explained who I was and inquired if the job was still available.  It was.  I drove up there and interviewed.  Honest as always, I said that my current employer was sinking fast and I needed a job.  Period.  Pretty much got hired on the spot.  I'm a lucky son of a bitch aren't I?  So began another career path.

Again my best friend, Pete, came to my rescue (see the Career Blues series) and I'm back in my chosen career.  But, at the daycare center I was ashamed of what I did.  Think of how janitors are looked down upon.  My official title was "Maintenance Supervisor" but I knew, as did everyone else, that I was a glorified janitor.  I cleaned toilets and floors for a living.  I decided early on that I wouldn't try to bullshit anyone.  When asked was I did for a living, I came right out and told them I was a glorified janitor at a daycare center.  Then, finally, things started to change.

I got back into auto repair and started to respect myself more.  There was never any reason to not respect myself.  I have never, ever received unemployment compensation from the government.  Still, I felt ashamed to be working a blue collar job as a mechanic.

Thank you, Alabama!  The band, not the state.  I first heard Alabama's song "40 hour week" when I was cleaning toilets at the daycare center.  At the lowest point of my life (up to that time anyway) hearing that song started to give me back some of my pride.  Sure, I was cleaning toilets and changing light bulbs but I had a job.  I was providing for my (non-existent) family and doing something somewhat useful for society!  Then I moved on to auto 3 and auto 4.  Mike Rowe had his "Dirty Jobs" show on TV.  For the first time I felt no shame in being a blue collar professional.  Sad that it took 40 years to get to this point but I'm here.  When you get down to the bones of it, there's no shame in being blue collar or white collar.  What matters is providing for your family and those who depend on you.  I don't care if you're digging ditches, vacuuming the shit out of porta-johns or crunching numbers.  Family is what matters.  Feed them, shelter them and clothe them.  The rest is immaterial.

In my relatively short life I've seen America swing from blue collar to white collar and back towards the middle.  Jobs are coming back from overseas because the bean counters are, I hope, finally starting to realize that you can't get quality products made overseas.  Here, in America, were able to be both concerned with providing for our families AND providing quality products and services.  I hope things keep going for the middle.  Blue collar or White collar, we both have red blood.  Red, White and Blue!