Honour in All Work and the Worst Jobs

All work is honourable but some jobs are awful. The luckiest among us marry jobs and passion and often have smaller houses but broader smiles. The saddest folks labour only for money and many end up struggling to fill holes in their soul with stuff. There is something to be learned from all work and perhaps the best lessons are offered by the worst jobs.

My worst job was not the winter I laboured as an Esso gas station attendant. Besides changing oil, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the place, and occasionally swiping stale chocolate bars, I would have made Pavlov grin when at the ping of the ding I jumped into coat and hat to leap to the pumps outside. With the temperature often far south of zero, I became quite adept at yawning hoods and checking oil in mere seconds and at kicking the frozen pail of ostensibly un-freezable blue goop to squeegee windshields. I had a cold all that cold winter. I received one tip – fifty cents.

My worst job was not the two summers with the Peterborough parks department. I enjoyed one morning each week when I drove the golf cart to ball diamonds around town to drag the angle iron in circles and then chalk baselines. But I also pierced garbage with a broken hockey stick with a bent nail in the end. In a hard hat and steel-toed boots, I ignored my allergy to freshly cut grass while pushing a lawn mower in circles around trees and up and down hills and other places the big tractors couldn’t go. I nodded obediently when my suggestion for punctuation was ignored and then dutifully erected thirty signs that read: No Golf Playing Motorized Vehicles. They were certainly effective because after that I didn’t see a single motorized vehicle playing golf.

When it rained, the three crews of university students were gathered under the Hunter Street Bridge where we sat in a large bunker-like room on makeshift seats with traffic rumbling above and covering us with dust. Against one dank and filthy wall lay a mountain of tulip bulbs. For several chilly, soggy days, hour after excruciating hour, we peeled each bulb and placed it in the correct bushel baskets: large, medium, small, and rotten. There were bulb wars and songs and jokes and one afternoon a guy entertained us with Penthouse letters; he inserted the word blank for the nasty bits, making each depraved offering seem even nastier still.

My worst job lasted only one night. My friend Chris and I were fifteen when we saw the ad in the paper and showed up at the Towers Department store parking lot that night at 9:00. At the yelp of the crew-boss, we boarded the ancient yellow school bus, gasped at the smell, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the scary looking people around us. We bounced in silence beyond the city’s lights to a rural golf course that in the inky darkness was as creepy as our workmates. Given no instructions, we followed the others and secured miner’s lights to our foreheads. Using big elastic bands we fastened empty juice cans to our ankles and scooped a handful of sawdust into the left one. We began following the safest looking man but in a truly impressive demonstration of the manner in which the “F” bomb can be noun, verb and adjective in a single, complex sentence he suggested that we find our own spot. It took a while, but we finally wandered to an empty fairway.

We had been promised a cent a worm. Chris had calculated how much we could make in only one night and all afternoon we couldn’t wait to begin. But now that we were there, stumbling through the chill and darkness, we couldn’t wait to earn our first penny.

We couldn’t find a worm anywhere. It was nearly thirty minutes before I lunged at my first victim. I missed him. It was another thirty before we mastered the plunge and yank needed to can one, as we began calling it. We jumped and ran when the automatic sprinklers clicked to life but then smiled when worms began appearing on the wet grass that glistened black under the August moon. We learned to time the rotations. We’d run in, can a couple, and then scamper back without getting too wet. The sawdust on our fingers kept the slippery buggers from sliding away and we learned to be quick. With a slip on the wet grass I lost nearly half my catch but we kept going.

Honour in All Work

We worked hard all night and at the horn’s blast returned to the bus. We were stiff and dog tired but stood proudly in line to present our haul to the crew-boss who sat behind a long beat-up wooden table. Some of our work mates had earned the money that we had dreamed about but I had managed to pick only one full can – 250 worms. The tough looking women with the Ukrainian accent counted out two dollars and fifty cents. Chris earned just a little bit more.

We napped on the dirty bus and stumbled out bleary-eyed and filthy. The city was shaking itself awake with cars piercing the morning mist as we shuffled across the street to the neon glare of the donut shop. We bought donuts and chocolate milk until our night’s pay was gone. Later that afternoon, Chris called and we agreed that one night of worm-picking was plenty.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of resumes but I never listed worm picker. Perhaps I should have. This evening, when I slide between clean sheets, I’ll afford a thought for folks who will spend the night standing guard, serving coffee, buffing floors, dumping garbage, and yes, even hunting worms. There is honour in all work. Perhaps there is even more in work that needs to be done but most of us would rather not do and when we would rather not do it and all for wages we would rather not accept.  Maybe it is in that work, at three in morning, with folks doing the best they can for the families they love, that lies the most honour of all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others. You might even check out my books such as my latest, Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front.

The Importance of Ignoring Your Rabbits

Journalists, detectives, and hiring teams love hypothetical questions. Those in their sights are asked to imagine situations and predict reactions. Politicians dismiss them. Suspects leap behind lawyers. Pity the sweaty-palmed job applicant spinning an internal Rolodex of possible responses while balancing honesty with guessing the right answer

As an author, I have been interviewed countless times in TV and radio studios, over the phone and over coffee, and before audiences. Speaking engagements always end with a Q and A. In most cases, I am asked about whatever book has just been published and my answers come relatively easily. After all, by the time a book leaves the nest to make its perilous way in the world, it has been re-written so many times that an author nearly has it memorized. Further, after a while, an author hears the same dozen or so questions and it becomes a little like Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline – the performance is still heart-felt, enjoyable, and hopefully entertaining, but seldom challenging.

But then, once in a while, down the queue comes the query – the hypothetical. It just happened to me again. I am proud and was humbled to have been invited to be one of six artists, authors, business people, and community leaders to participate in the annual fundraiser for the Greater Peterborough Health Services called Peterborough Speaks.

Last Wednesday evening, each of us took a turn on a chat show-like setting at the Market Hall theatre. We were interviewed for about 15 minutes before an audience of 250 and those who will watch later on television. Media personality Michelle Ferreri began my session with a question about my upcoming book and all was going well enough, I thought, until the end. She concluded with, “What advice would the current you give to your 20-year-old self?”

Ignoring Rabbits (photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Wow! Up in the Green Room, I had heard BrandHealth president Paul Hickey asked that question and so I didn’t think the same bullet would be fired again. I was reminded of the same gulping feeling I experienced when asked by a Calgary CBC journalist during a live radio broadcast: “Of all the Canadian prime ministers, which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?”

That time, I was on the phone with radio’s cruel absence of the communication crutches of expressions or gestures and the terror of dead air. Now I was on stage before all those people and cameras. I was suddenly like one of the hundreds of job applicants who, in another part of my life, I had interviewed with similarly tough, hypothetical questions. It was my turn to spin the Rolodex.

I said, “I would tell my 20 year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.” Michelle looked incredulous and there were smatters of nervous laughter from the audience. I explained;

“When I was 20, I was like a frenetic young man alone in a large field teeming with rabbits. I was armed with a tiny net called ambition. I scurried from one to the next, finding that with every rabbit I snared, two more got away. I wish I could convince that guy to leave the field and seek a sanctuary of silence to contemplate what is truly important. I would implore him to imagine shaping his life less as a hunter and more as a gardener before a young bonsai tree. I would suggest that he slowly nurture its growth by picturing its ideal shape and then, over time, mold it into that shape by snipping off certain people, places, activities, and habits and all else that is destructive and distracting. I’m not sure he would have had the capacity to hear me for winter can seldom warn the spring, but I would advise my 20-year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.”

I had considered the metaphor of the bonsai before but never constructed the thought as I expressed it that evening. Now that I have, and because I did it in such a public way and with this writing I am doing it again, I am pressing myself to a new challenge. I will soon be making a couple more snips.

As for the fellow in Calgary, I said, “Sir John A. Macdonald would have been the best NHL hockey player for in the Gordie Howe tradition he had the broadest skill set of anyone at the time and was not above throwing a few elbows.” I hope Sir John and Mr. Howe would have liked that. I suspect that as young men they had learned to ignore the rabbits.

If you enjoyed this column, please consider sharing it with others through your social media of choice and to subscribing to follow my Monday morning blog: http://www.johnboyko.com