Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Working in Montana: 1988-1990

I had a number of jobs in Missoula, none of them splendid. Montana, even a vibrant city like Missoula, wasn't exactly a employment mecca kind of place. As I recall, the Forest Service and the state government were the biggest employers in the state--probably still are--with mining and timber extraction following them up. I was a student, not a ranger or lumberjack or office worker, so I looked for my usual hand-me-down jobs when I lived there. And when Fru and I were in the cabin in Stevensville, we found no work.
Stevensville, like the rest of the small towns lined up along the Bitterroot Valley, had few jobs, even in the small business' and cafes and such. Fru and I looked for work in Missoula, but employers were reluctant to hire us because we would have to drive into town, because we were not really Montanans, because we were both students at the University of Montana, I guess. Don't blame them, really. So, it wasn't until we moved into Missoula--a little cottage of a house on Rollins Street--that we found employment.
Fru found temp work doing books at All West Tractor. I landed a job as dishwasher at the Old Town Cafe on Front Street or First Street, up near the railroad yard, near the Double Front. It was owned by two guys who--by the time I worked there--hated each other. But it was a great cafe--sold mounds of good food, especially breakfast, at decent prices. It was popular and I enjoyed working there at first. Restaurants have a sense of energy and camaraderie, a necessary team effort, to function. But there's also a lot of stress. Cooks and chefs are well known to have hot tempers. And the two owners, who were both the main cooks, taking different shifts, together at times on weekends, were jerks most of the time. There was a lot of negative energy, a lot of negative reinforcement to urge employees to do their jobs (which was not needed--positive reinforcement would have worked better). Most of us there came to love/hate the place. But, there weren't a lot of jobs in town, so you buried that anger and kept your mouth shut and did the work. Eventually people exploded. I quit--walked off the job, essentially (with the owner's blessing) because of it. Had never done that before and still have a lingering dislike for both of those jackasses.
By then Fru had a steady part time job with the university. Any job with the U was considered a plum one. So, we were in Missoula, poor, essentially happy, in love and I was out of work. I went right to it and landed a job at a truck stop off I-80 just west of town.
Officially I was a pump jockey.
Though I was working for minimum wage, wore a silly Conoco polo shirt uniform, at times I liked the job. I was outside a lot, near the big highway with its traffic and trucks and sense of "the road", could see the mountains and the valley each day. I'd handle the pumps for the big trucks, do small jobs, sometimes had to clean showers but otherwise just tumbled around doing what was needed. But I knew I wanted to get out of it and, come summer, I applied for a landscaping job, put down my landscaping/nursery experience (from Urbana) and concrete experience (from Champaign) and turned out one of the owners (a good group of youngish guys) was from Illinois originally, so I got the job. And it was fun. They had a contract to plant trees for the city, so I got to go around town doing just that. Loved being outdoors, loved the plants, the hard work, the guy-stuff. A few people from the cafe saw me out there, so it was sort of revengeful to know that they'd seen me working like that--a job like that was also considered plum. We did yards and gardens all over town and down in the Bitterroot, did driveway and trash can pads of concrete. I recall one day, one of the owners had me hop in the pickup with him and we drove up Highway 12, up towards the Blackfoot River, looking for rocks. That's right, getting paid to go looking for rocks. Big ones, with moss or lichen, for someone's new garden. It was sunny, warm for Montana, country music on the radio, out on the dipping curving road in Montana. Nice work if you can get it. But, Fru and I were poor and the U wouldn't give me a Teaching Assistantship, so I quit school and looked for a job that would pay better, would give me benefits, and that's how I became a janitor at the University of Montana.
I looked around for better paying work, applied at the U and got the job. I'd spent time in Des Moines, at Younkers department store, being a maintenance man, also had worked such work at the University of Iowa in the summers, so I passed my test on how to strip and wax floors, on how to use a buffer (actually had to do a buffer test, that is, they had me change a pad, run a buffer--which I did one-handed and which honestly impressed my two bosses-to-be: "Wow, look, one hand."). So, I worked afternoons to evenings as a maintenance guy, a janitor, at the U. Went from student to janitor in one year--great! But it was boring and fun. Easy if embarrassing. It was also considered a good job in Missoula--anything that was full time, paid over the minimum and had benefits was a plum (again, a plum!). Other janitors were college grads, were Vietnam Vets, were local small business owners supplementing income and health insurance and future retirements. I eventually fell in with a group who, on Fridays, disappeared from their stations, went up upon the roof on one of the buildings (where they had lawn chairs and coolers) and drank beer for the last few hours. It was that kind of a job. But it was sweet--on the roof at the U, Mt. Sentinel looming above us, under the stars drinking beer at work. Nice bunch of guys, too.
I also was in the newspaper business. That is, I got a paper route one winter. I wanted to go to Mexico and needed some extra cash, so I got a route. Had to get up around what? 4 or 5 am, walk my route in below freezing temps in the dark. One time, around Xmas, my brother--Youngest Brother--came to town with friends. They gave me a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey and I drank it down. Was still drunk when I got up to do my route. But did it. Threw up in the bushes twice. Had one customer come to the door, he complained about where I left the paper but I was too hungover-drunk to comprehend what he was saying, really, and just smiled, said, "Merry Xmas" to him. Another time a dog followed me on my route and then followed me all the way home to my neighborhood (it was a ways away). I tried calling the owner off the dog's tag--it was a nice dog--but they were out. Finally got a hold of someone who was feeding the pooch and they didn't care. Eventually the dog went home (I think). But that job only lasted a few months and I went to Mexico by myself and that's another story.
Fru got a decent job offer back in Champaign and we made the decision to return there and that was the end of my work in Montana. But I still dreamt of Missoula for many years. Still do now and then, but it's rare. I could, though, go back to Montana, to Missoula, but don't know if I could be so poor. Definitely would not go back into the newspaper business.

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