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Crummy Jobs Taught Me Four Important Lessons

Published in ChicagoNow, September 1, 2014

Let’s see – I sold nylons in a low-end downtown Detroit shoe store, was a cashier in a tiny discount drugstore, and sold newspaper subscriptions over the phone. My husband was a “soda jerk” in high school, a waiter at his college fraternity, washed trailers, and delivered phone books. I helped with the latter job. All were minimum wage or straight commission crummy jobs.

Aside from earning enough “spending money” to buy clothes in high school and books and other necessities for college (and in my husband’s case, to pay college tuition), what did we learn from these crummy jobs? Well, I can only speak for myself:

The dignity of hard work. Working at the drugstore during my “summer vacations” was tough. It was a small store in a pre-air-conditioning era that offered huge discounts. People lined up outside to enter and wove their way through the narrow aisles. In those days, a cashier had to know how to make change. If there were any errors, money was deducted from the $1/hour I was earning. And if, by chance, there was a rare moment when the store wasn’t packed, I was also expected to stock the shelves. Thus, lesson one: hard work was not beneath me, even when I was attending a good college.

Responsibility. I understood from an early age that, if I wanted something extra, I had to work for it. Before I could be officially hired at age 16, I babysat and ran a backyard summer program for younger kids on my block. Ironically, my crummy jobs did not come with sick or personal days. Missing work meant no paycheck. So these jobs taught me lesson two: I needed to show up and do my job.

Pride. I knew I was making a contribution to help my family. But more than that, every crummy job could still be done well. There was no point in being a slacker. If I did a good job as a babysitter, the kids would tell their parents and I would be asked to sit again. As long as I was there, I might as well give it my all and pay extra attention to the kids I was watching. I think the only job I couldn’t approach with some degree of pride was selling newspaper subscriptions over the phone the summer between college and starting my teaching job. Several of us worked in a hot, cramped office over a small movie theater. None of us made any calls unless the boss was there. But that was the one crummy job I had with no opportunity for pride – just a small but much needed paycheck. And it proved lesson three was true: you need to find a way to feel proud of your work, no matter how menial the job. Without that, the work becomes meaningless and intolerable.

Appreciation. Having to work at a variety of crummy jobs from an early age taught me to be grateful for what I have. I learned that lots of folks work very hard to support themselves and their families. I learned that the monetary reward often doesn’t match the amount of effort or the importance of the work to the lives of others. And I learned that, as my parents often told me, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” So lesson four: Lots of folks work very hard for what they have. Be grateful.

When I was at the University of Michigan, I was hired as a waitress at the Brown Jug. This popular student hangout was extremely busy, and I lasted three hours before I literally threw in my towel. The experienced “townie” waitresses laughed at my pathetic efforts to serve my customers. Humbled, I returned to cashiering at a campus drugstore. No pride for me here. But the wait staff was clearly proud that they performed better than a college student.

Many years later, I complained to a junior minister of the church that housed the preschool I directed at the time. I told him it didn’t seem right that our teachers, many with Master’s degrees, earned less per hour than the custodian. He replied that all work had great value, even a custodian’s. While this was said to perpetuate the low wages paid to preschool teachers at that time, he did have a point. The man who cleaned up our messes was essential to the smooth operation of the preschool.

So in honor of Labor Day, I salute all who work so hard at their jobs. All of us make contributions to the social fabric through the work we do. There is a saying, “It’s a crummy job, but someone has to do it.” Thanks to all of the “someones” out there.


by Laurie Levy
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