Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The World of Work: Des Moines 1975

I'm not even sure how I got the job, other than I recall my mother took me up to the employment/customer service department of Younkers at the Merle hay Mall and had me apply. I really--to the best of my memory--know what I was doing exactly, but I got a job in the stockroom there at Younkers department store. (Younkers was a local Des Moines/Iowa store, a trusted and somewhat "high-end" retailer--they are still there, but I think now owned by Macy's.) I was deep into high school by then. I had quit playing football--I'd broken my arm that summer playing street football, but that wasn't the reason I quit the Urbandale High team--and I guess Mother had decided that I needed a job. Though I was old enough, I didn't drive yet and, anyway, there were only two cars in our seven person family. So, I usually walked to work or got a ride. The mall was near our house.
It wasn't really quite my first job. I'd worked a few weeks for Dave's (Dave a school buddy) father in downtown Des Moines, in the upstairs of an old building on High Street. That temporary job was all about filling envelopes, about collating advertising material and putting them in big envelopes to be sent out. But my first real employment was in the stockroom at Younkers.
I worked off and on at that Younkers for many years--up into college, full time between college years and then for a while in the first years post college. But I'm thinking of the first few years there, when I was a self-blind, extraordinarily moody and ignorant teen. I was also shy and a good worker for the most part. But work at Younkers opened up a new world in many ways--a world outside of the kinds of people I'd always met, away from high school and people my age. That's not to say I didn't work alongside other high school students, I did at times, but I also worked with very blue-collar adults, I worked with some college students (one, Jim, from the Chicago suburbs, who became my friend and sort-of mentor). But I now had a couple of bosses, I had bosses above those bosses, there were heads of departments, there were truck drivers and delivery men, there was the occasional customer (as we also did shipping and took out packages for pick up); there was a large strata of people I interacted with in different ways as a stock boy. The job mainly consisted of unloading the trucks that came in from the warehouses downtown, then sorting all the merchandise (the boxes or tags would have numbers on them that coincided with each department--we had to learn the numbers and which department they were--I came to know these very well). We--I--also did clean up duties as needed, even bathroom duties. There would also be calls to come pick up hangers as well as trash, there'd also be calls for help lifting or unpacking or about anything. And on weekends we worked with the cleanup crew--old men, mostly--doing the mopping and buffing and vacuuming. There was a restaurant upstairs--The Meadow Lark--which someone was always assigned to vacuum. Usually Jim Cisco did this. This was not the Jim from Chicago, but a local guy about my age who, unlike most others and unlike me, was very competent and talented. he wasn't exactly wise, but more of a boy scout type. But we got along well and I saw him outside of work as a friend. (More on Jim Cisco and Jim from Chicago down the pike, and others, I'm sure.)
I began to see a lot of my co-workers outside of work. I built a second tier of friends from that job. And--my senior year in high school--I spent more time with these people than my longer friends from school (this shift was on purpose as I'd come to hate high school). But what I'm thinking about are the older guys, the full timers or the retired guys who came in on weekends to supplement their incomes. They were an interesting lot.
Most of them were uneducated people, people who had been laborers all their lives. Another job in the stockroom was running the bailer. The bailer was a machine that squished down all the cardboard and other paper-type trash into giant heavy squares. It was a noisy machine and when the bailer was full you'd select wires and tie it off, then open the machine, push the big bail out and then use a handcart to set the bail out of the back dock. Usually one of the old retired men ran the bailer and I recall one guy whose name escapes me, but I'll call him Charley. (I have not thought of these days in so long, but names and memories--small thoughts--will come back to me.)
Charley was bald and had a huge fat nose. He used to go to the deli upstairs to get their trash because he'd take the meat and cheese they were tossing out and take it home. We younger people made some fun of him for this, or saw it as pathetic, though I don't think I did much. I did feel sorry for him. But Charley (I'm thinking his name was really Al or Alfred) was also a gambling man and he loved to tell me about shooting craps.
Now, this was before all the Indian casinos and other casinos that have spread across each state. The only gambling was in Nevada, then maybe by that time Atlantic City, but I'm not sure it was even there yet. But Charley would always try to show me how craps games worked. He always had dice and he'd even bring in a book that explained the game. What he had done was work up this elaborate system to play craps, to make multiple bets and cover the table so that you'd almost always win. I can't recall it all (I've never played craps, though I went to quite a few casinos over the years, to Vegas numerous times, until about my 30s) but he was very insistent that it was a fool-proof system. He taught it to me and always said I should leave Des Moines and go to Vegas and play the tables. I asked him once that, if was so foolproof, why he didn't do it and he said, "I'm an old man. I've got a wife who needs me. You're young, you should go."
I don't know. He had more faith in me--in my youth--than I had in myself. I wasn't mature enough to go alone to Vegas back then, but it would have been interesting: a young man from Iowa out in Vegas shooting craps for a living. Hah.
Anyway--there were a whole bunch of Charleys and Jims and others, there were my immediate bosses of Farrel and George. There were Marks and Craigs and truck drivers and the limping head cook who ran the kitchen of the restaurant. There were African Americans and Jewish Americans and Hispanic-Americans; there were Poles and Germans and Norwegians, even an Englishman, people from other suburbs and from the inner parts of the city, people from other cities and some from small towns, people with long histories, sad histories (including a number of Holocaust survivors) and others just starting out. Though I'd been around--South Dakota and Washington and Tennessee--this was all new to me in most ways, this mix of people (Urbandale High was stuffed with people just like me, there was one single black student there at the time). And the thing was, my parents knew nothing of this world I was in. Oh, they knew where I worked and met some of the friends I'd made there, but over all it was my own world and my own experiences which I never shared with them or with my brothers and sister. I guess by 1975 I was inventing myself and the world I lived in, independently, and it never occurred to me that my parents or sibling should be involved in it.
I don't know to this day if that was good or bad, that lack of parental connection to my life at that age. I see it--at times--that my parents had raised us, five rowdy kids, and they were pretty much burnt out from the experience, or I see it at times, that they were calculated in the idea that this was now my life and not theirs and that I'd have to sort things out for myself like most people do, like they no doubt had (under much tougher circumstances). But I was a boy/man who lived a dual life, who fretted and was also stridently independent. I was capable of making friends and being very social as well as being full of self-pity and self-isolation.
Ah, those days. I don't think I'd want to live them again.

No comments: