Last Word: Gainful Employment

I’m not afraid of hard work.

In fact, I’ve almost always had a job, unless shopping and petting the cat don’t count.

Like many pre-teens I began my career at 11, babysitting the neighbor kids.

As part of the gig, I was expected to bathe, dress, feed and entertain the tots, as well as clean the house, cook meals and do the dishes, even if they weren’t mine.

 All for $1.00 an hour.

Considering that I’ve done all those things for the last 25 years, free of charge, it doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.

Anyway, by the time I turned 13, I was ready for “real” work and decided to detassel corn.

Common in the Midwest, detasseling is an agricultural job where teams of kids are shuttled to farms to pluck the tops off corn stalks, preventing pollination or violating child labor laws. I’m not sure which, but probably both.

 My brother had spent three summers detasseling, earning him a new Pentax camera one year and a used Volkswagen Rabbit the next.

Eager to earn some worthwhile cash of my own, I signed up. 

On the first 100-degree day in July, I filled a grocery bag with potato chips, a thermos of Kool-Aid, and boarded a bus at dawn.

Despite being surrounded by all the country kids who didn’t speak to me during the school year, I was excited, contemplating how I was going to spend my paycheck.

Besides, I was one of them now. We’d work the fields together. Camaraderie among the corn.

 Upon arriving, I was assigned a row and instructed to walk at a clipped pace, removing tassels in sync with the other workers.

It seemed easy enough.

Until it wasn’t.

The combination of wet stalks and tropical heat almost immediately gave me a rash and pulling tassels proved to be harder than I expected. There were also insects crawling all over the corn.

A lot of them. 

Scratching and slapping, I began to run, feeling faint, tripping in the dirt and missing most of the stalks in a frenzied attempt to reach the end.

In the span of 45 minutes, my agricultural career began and ended.

Once old enough, I picked up a job at the local fast-food joint.

I nearly quit on the spot after discovering that I had to wear a brown polyester jumpsuit with orange stripes and matching visor.

Instead, in a desperate bid to make it more stylish, I had it altered.

A decision I’d come to regret.

With dominion over all living creatures and the drive-thru window, Deb, my shift supervisor, wielded her authority like a razor-sharp scythe.

Sensing that I’d never adequately scoop fries, she disliked me from the get-go and made sure to put me on the bun oven whenever I worked.

Upon noticing the alterations, her face grew blotchy, red, and in nothing short of fury Deb demanded to know who gave me permission to modify the company uniform.

Since we both knew no one had, I felt like it was sort of a trick question.

 But she didn’t fire me. Instead, on a journey of personal exploration, she opted to see what it would take to get me to quit.

In the weeks that followed I found myself cleaning out the drain of the men’s urinal, razor-blading gum from beneath chairs and mopping up soda from the bottom of dirty garbage cans.

When that didn’t work, she tasked me with wiping down the baseboards that ran around the restaurant.

Though it doesn’t sound too bad, Deb had me do it immediately following my high school’s homecoming football game.

With hordes of my classmates ordering food and jammed into every free booth, I crawled under feet and tables with my bucket and brush, scrubbing the tile paneling until the job was done.

 I didn’t quit. In fact, I worked there until leaving for college nearly a year later.

In the end, my determination earned Deb’s grudging respect and we became friends.

A complete lie, of course. We hated each other right up until the day I left.

However, I did eventually move up the ranks to work the drive-thru window, a small victory if nothing else.

I’m not sure whatever became of Deb, but hope that wherever she is, she’s working the bun oven.

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