Saturday, October 18, 2008

Gainful Employment

My parents, Patricia and David Young, at a party in the sixties. Aside from raising four kids by herself while my dad was flying jets for the Navy, this might have been one of the few times when she wasn't "officially" employed.


My mom, who is 77, has had roughly 50 jobs during her life. Probably more, but it’s hard for her to remember them all. “Does it count if you got the job and left after the first day?” she asks.

This peripatetic approach has rubbed off on her children. My sister, who is 46, has racked up at least 36 different jobs. My brother and my other sister declined to even guess, placing them in the too-many-to-count category. And at 42, I’ve shown admirable stability by only logging 22. (And yes, I’m counting two jobs I agreed to take and then never showed up for. Why? Hangover on both occasions. Excuse? I was a college student.)

The family can list carnival ring toss hawker, stewardess, golf caddy, gun seller, model, track coach, high school guidance counselor, horse groomer, professional cheerleader, mural painter, journalist, college professor, snow shoveler, movie extra, plastic factory worker, realtor, and bartender at the airport lounge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on our collective resume. This cavalcade of gainful employment has taken at least one of us to New York, Detroit, Miami, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Little Rock, New Orleans, Havana, Puerto Rico, Paris, Seattle and various other far-flung locales. Oh, and one of us ended up in San Jose, California, for a two year hitch, which is not recommended.

Focused? Hardly. But I’m proud of our track record. Mom always emphasized the importance of hard work. And for a family that spent decades living in Flint, Michigan —a bastion of unemployment and industrial decay showcased in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me — we’ve shown a remarkable facility for just that. And we’ve managed to keep our jobs as long as we could stand them. Out of more than 120 places of employ, a family member has been canned just four times.

I’ve never lost a job, despite actively trying to get fired on more than one occasion. My sister’s dismissals are fairly prosaic. She was once 86’d as a cocktail waitress at Jimmy Lum’s Aloha Lounge (left) on Dort Highway in Flint when Jimmy discovered she was only 16. He found out because my mom called him up and demanded to know what the hell he was doing hiring underage high school girls to serve Mai Tai’s to autoworkers, affectionately referred to as “shop rats” in Flint.

But this is my mom’s story, and her hirings and firings tend to have long backstories, interwoven with convoluted plots that lead up to the numerous jobs she eventually gets and the few that she ultimately loses. Technically, her first job could be considered her first firing, although it’s more of a you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit situation. It’s 1946 and Flint is a far cry from what it would become when the General Motors plants started closing in the eighties.

“Flint was wonderful,” mom remembers. “The factories were going. If you went downtown it was like New York — there were people on the streets all the time. It was a big deal to go downtown to the Capital Theater on a date. There were good restaurants. There were beautiful dress shops. There were great little bars in the alleys. You could go downtown at night and you were safe.”

She was 16 and took a job behind the counter of a local drugstore on St. John’s Avenue in a predominantly African-American section of town. It was rumored that the white-owned drugstore sold “abortion pills” and overcharged its black customers. It would have been considered a wildly inappropriate job for a white girl in a very segregated factory town, so mom didn’t tell her parents about it.

“They wouldn’t have let me work there," she says. "You just didn’t do that then. I would have been allowed to have a job at the YWCA being a lifeguard or something like that. But you don’t think about consequences at that age. You just want to do what you want to do. I wanted money and I wanted to get a job.”

At the end of her first day working behind the counter, the husky, middle-aged pharmacist counted out the cash register. He shook his head and announced there was $5 missing.

“I knew that wasn’t right,” mom says. “I’d been careful. There was no way money was missing.”

He had a suggestion to clear the whole mess up: “Look, we’ll forget about the $5. Just stick around until we close. We’ll have a little fun, and I won’t have to call the police.”

Mom is not stupid. “Well, I knew what that meant. I waited until he turned his back and I just ran out the door and ran all the way home. I never went back and that was it.”

Welcome to the working world. But this introduction to the joys of low-wage labor didn’t seem to faze her. “Oh, it didn’t bother me. I just thought, ‘Well, I got out of that one.’ I was fearless at that time, as most young people are.”

A few years later, mom dropped out of Wayne State University in Detroit and returned to Flint.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ran around with the musicians in Flint and the big thing was always, ‘We’re going to New York; we gotta get enough money to go to New York.’”

Finding a job was not a problem in Flint. She landed a spot on the assembly line at AC Spark Plug. It lasted three days.

The AC Spark Plug factory from the air.

“I just didn’t go back,” she says. “My favorite method — just disappear. I was too afraid underneath to be an adult and say, ‘I’m sorry but this is just not for me, and I apologize but I’m quitting.’ That thought terrified me.

“I wouldn’t have liked anything because I had this thing inside of me that just wanted to be a big band singer or go to New York or be a model. I can’t really describe it but I wanted something exciting. There was just no way I could work in a factory.”

The next few years are a blur. I can’t vouch for the order of things at this point. Mom and I sat down in the living room and tried to chart it all out, but it was too complicated, the scattered trajectory of a beautiful young woman looking for …something…in the 1950s. She made it to New York and went to Barbizon Modeling School, then worked as a model in the wholesale district, modeling clothes for buyers. She posed for art students, once as a gypsy, she remembers. And because many of her friends were black jazz musicians from Detroit, she immersed herself in Bebop. She hung out at Birdland and Minton’s Playhouse. Once, she hitched a ride with Charlie Parker to a gig in Philadelphia.

But New York was a sporadic experience. She went back and forth to Michigan, often when she wearied of a city that sometimes left her broke and depressed. She remembers sitting in her apartment one night, looking out at the lights of all the other apartments, and feeling as lonely as you could possibly feel. And there was the time she asked a roommate, who was a tough girl from Brooklyn, if she could borrow her radio when she was bedridden with the flu.

“Why?” the roommate asked.

“Because I’m sick, and I’m stuck in bed all day,” mom answered.

“That I should care if you live or die,” the roommate informed her with melodramatic finality. (It's still used as a funny line in our family on occasion.)

On one trip back to Flint, she met a guy named Ted, managed his beauty shop in the Patterson Building, moved to Miami with him and worked as a department store model at Burdines. Then it was back to New York, again, and modeling at Bergdorff Goodman’s. Then she got married to Ted, and ended up back in Flint. Again, she needed a job, and suddenly AC Spark Plug didn’t seem so bad after all.

“I was married and it was kind of a good thing, and I’d decided I really wanted a job. I was happy and Ted had a job and everything was better. So I was sincerely trying to make it work. I thought I’d gotten rid of the feeling that made me leave AC the first time, but it was really just submerged.”

She figured she could go back to making spark plugs because she was married now and had a new last name. They wouldn’t know she was the same person who walked off the line years earlier. She claimed she’d never worked there before on the application.

“My first day on the job, after I’d worked on the line a few hours, a supervisor came over and said, ‘We know you lied on your application. Please pick up your purse and come with me.’”

Mom was escorted to the factory gate, where she surrendered her badge. She remembered that Ted was going to the movies that day, so she went to the theater and wandered the darkened aisles looking for him. “I found him and just started crying. I was humiliated. He told me not to worry.”

The timeline continues to blur after that. The next time mom got fired, she’d been married and divorced three times. She had four children, including me, the youngest. In the interim, she’d been a stewardess (not a “flight attendant”) for National Airlines, shuttling between Miami, Havana and New Orleans. She’d worked for two car rental agencies and had a one-day stint as a “hostess” in what turned out to be a Mafia bar. She quit when she discovered the hostesses were expected to go to after-hours parties with the patrons. She’d taught modeling at the Barbizon branch in Jacksonville, Florida. Then she was back in Flint, working as an admitting clerk at McLaren Hospital, when she saw a want ad in a travel magazine for the manager of a hotel in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. She called the number and found out the owner dreamed of transforming an old hotel for miners into a ski lodge. This would be the first of many cross-country trips with my mom.

“It was a bad thing I did,” she says. “I packed up the car and just went off. I left the house for my parents to sell. Very bad. Very selfish.

“We got to Cloudcroft and it was beautiful; you drive up through the pine trees and everything. We drove up to the hotel and there was a pot-bellied wood stove in there. It was hanging off the side of the mountain and it had this big old rickety porch. I knew we couldn’t stay. One of the kids could have rolled off the porch down the hill. I was panicked, wondering what I was going to do. I’ve got my little kids out here.”

She turned to my 16 year-old brother, Matt. “He was older and he was my buddy, so I said, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’”

Matt had liked the white buffalo statue in the courthouse square in Snyder, Texas, when we’d passed through town on the way out.

“So we went back to Snyder,” she explains.

It was as good a plan as any.

Luckily, mom has an uncanny ability to bond with strangers. She’s just somebody that everybody likes. She met a woman in a restaurant, who called a friend, and we soon had a little house to rent. We were now officially residents of Snyder, Texas, then known as “The Star City.” Our neighbor had a steer, an oil well and an okra patch in her backyard.

And the next day, mom secured a job as a dental assistant.

“The dentist had been in the Navy, and I told him I’d been married to a Navy pilot, which was a mistake because everybody else in the Navy hates the pilots, probably because they get all the girls.”

She’d been training to be the dentist’s chair-side assistant a few days when he said he’d like her to attend a Wednesday night meeting. Mom asked if it was a meeting related to dentistry. He said no, it was a gathering at the local Church of Christ.

“I told him I was Catholic, and he just said ‘Oh’ and he let it go. The next day I came to work and he called me in and said, ‘I’m sorry but I just don’t think you’re dentally oriented.’

“I was crushed because I wasn’t used to being rejected. I always did a good job and I didn’t like being treated like that. I was walking out, and I was almost in tears and the receptionist said, ‘I don’t know why he did that. You learned faster than anybody.’”

Getting fired for being Catholic wasn’t surprising in west Texas. The Catholic church in town regularly had dances, and the local Baptist teenagers would secretly attend, begging the people at the door not to stamp their hand so their parents wouldn’t find out they had been fraternizing with the Papists.

But losing the dentist gig wasn’t all bad. It allowed mom to learn about firearms at her next job as a gun “sales lady” at Star Discount. And it led to her brief stint working with the carnival before she sold ads for The Snyder Daily News.

The family eventually made it back to Flint in 1971, give or take a few years. Mom quickly got her old job back at the hospital — remember, everyone likes her, even her old boss — and she worked there for 15 years.

As the youngest kid, I spent the bulk of my childhood watching her dutifully head off to work in a white uniform, dealing with demanding doctors, confused patients and petty admitting office intrigues. This was in the days when divorced women got the kids and little, if any, child support. (And despite taking a hit in Texas for the Catholic church, she wasn’t even allowed to receive communion at Mass.) There wasn’t much money, but we did have a huge jazz record collection. I’m sure I was the only 10-year-old in Flint who regularly listened to “Salt Peanuts” by Dizzy Gillespie. And while mom didn’t exactly find contentment with a steady job, she did achieve something admirable.

“I had kids and I decided I had to settle down and take care of them. And I did.” she says. “I’m proud of myself. I’ve had a lot of bad circumstances, and I’ve always found a job.”

She took an early retirement package in 1985, when Flint was in its economic death spiral, and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, of all places. My older brother had landed a teaching job in Jax, as the locals call it, a few months earlier, but there were deeper motivations for her migration. She had met my dad there when he was flying jets out of the naval air station in the early sixties; they had always loved each other, although cohabitation was out of the question. She remembered it as a “wild Navy town,” a fun, sunny place where she was young and happy, not the charmless Baptist enclave demarcated by strip malls that it had become. Or, perhaps, always was.

After a series of sales jobs, she ended up working as the fine arts manager at Jacksonville University, booking various acts into the school’s performing arts center. She got to talk to musicians and agents in New York — who loved her stories, especially the ones about Charlie Parker — and generally organized everything related to a performance. She could also talk to the talent in a way the Ph.D. types could not. At 70, she’d finally found a job she loved.

“I think that might have been the right job for me in the beginning,” she says “But I’m not sure any job would have been right when I was young, when I was chasing that dream. I’m still not sure exactly what the dream was.”

Pat Young working on dinner this summer at the family farm she's restoring in Iowa.


My Mom’s Jobs ( give or take a few dozen)


Babysitter — Various, Flint, Michigan
Cashier —Drugstore, Flint, Michigan
Usher — The Strand Theatre, Flint, Michigan
Record Store Clerk — Smith Bridgeman’s Department Store, Flint, Michigan
Scarf Saleswoman — Smith Bridgeman’s Department Store, Flint, Michigan
Record Store Clerk — Al’s Record Mart, Detroit, Michigan
Factory Worker — AC Spark Plug, Flint Michigan
Factory Worker — Unknown, New York City
Art Model — Art Students League and Columbia University, New York City
Model — Wholesale District, New York City
Factory Worker — AC Spark Plug, Flint, Michigan
Manager/Receptionist — The Coiffure Shop, Flint, Michigan
Department Store Model — Burdines, Miami
Department Store Model — Bergdorff Goodmans, New York City
Stewardess — National Airlines, Miami, Key West, Havana
Saleswoman — Avis Car Rental, Jacksonville, Florida
Saleswoman — Hertz Car Rental, Jacksonville, Florida
Instructor — Barbizon Modeling School, Jacksonville, Florida
Admitting Clerk — McLaren Hospital, Flint, Michigan
Hotel Manager — Cloudcroft, New Mexico
Dental Assistant — Snyder, Texas
Gun Sales Lady — Star Discount, Snyder, Texas
Ring Toss Hawker — Carnival, Snyder, Texas
Advertising Representative — Snyder Daily News, Snyder, Texas
Admitting Clerk — McLaren Hospital, Flint, Michigan
Admitting Clerk — St. Vincent’s Hospital, Jacksonville, Florida
Manager — Blue Cross Gift Shop, Jacksonville, Florida
Babysitter — Jacksonville, Florida
Saleswoman — Dilliard’s Department Store, Jacksonville, Florida
Saleswoman — Steinmart, Jacksonville, Florida
Fine Arts Manager — Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, Florida


11 comments:

  1. Wow! what a marvelous Lady! a Strong, Self determined, Self Reliant Lady. What happened to you Gordon?! just kidding Mon! You should be Proud of Mom, which I know You are. Wonder if our moms worked together at Smith B's? Can't check w/mine-She passed last summer. I'll check w/Dad and see if I can get the dates She was there though----

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  2. What a story. The norm would suggest that Mom couldn't hold a job.

    But on the other hand, you surely do resemble your mother...

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  3. Excellent story that illustrates that life is a journey. Sometimes you're not sure of your destination, but everything you experience makes up who you are. I bet your mom's life might have been a little hectic at times, but I'm sure it was never boring. And a boring life is the worst fate of all.

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  4. What an amazing life, and what an experience it must have been for you to experience so much of it as her youngest. Our jobs, past and current, shape the way we interpret the world, I think. ... Really nice post, Gordon.

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  5. What city is your mom's farm in Iowa? My hubby is from Mason CIty and came to Flint in 1967 to attend GMI. I met him in an alley (not kidding, it was Sports Bar in Brush Alley) in 1972 (he was just back from Army as he had been drafted after nearly flunking out partying). I was 18 and had transfered from Powers (via St Mikes) to Northern and was on my own-so I worked at Sports. Anyways---my son now lives in Iowa after losing his job with Oakland Co Sheriff dept and moving there for another job-which he lost. Stayed at Gramma's in Mason City, stayed with aunt in Burchinal/Rockwell area, moves to Cedar Falls for new job and met his wife at church. He now lives in Nashua. I still find myself shaking my head over it all.But I told him before he met his wife not to come back here-there were no jobs. And that he was there for a reason. He was-and two years later all is well with him.

    Your mom has to be close to my mom's age-where did she high school? My mom went to St Mikes (still is her church). Might be funny if they knew each other.

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  6. Wow -- from Birdland and Minton's to a farm in Iowa. Truly a 'long, strange trip.' Probably the last place where you'd expect to find someone who palled around with Bird and Dizzy.

    Gordo -- did you or any of your sibs acquire your mother's taste for jazz?

    "Salt Peanuts." As a kid I thought Diz was singing "Soft Penis" and I was amazed that he could actually say that on a record. Found out sometime later what the name of the tune was.

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  7. My mom's farm, which is the house my grandmother was born in and a place my grandparents visited every summer from Flint, is in Howard County. It's in the northeast corner of the state. The closest town of any size is Cresco.

    She graduated from Central in 1948. Here are two items she wrote for Flint Expats:



    http://www.flintexpats.com/2008/04/why-cant-i-be-like-alberta-whaley.html

    http://www.flintexpats.com/2007/11/sentimental-journey.html

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  8. Now THAT's a story of a lifetime!! Your mom is a star, and the pictures you have of her are great, too!! She really looks like she was enjoying herself when they were taken. Tell us more, tell us more!!

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  9. What a great short story!

    Sounds like the making of a screen play.

    The pic of your parents looks like a promo for the TMC series Mad Men.

    With all due respect the picture of your mom and dad....your mom was hot!!

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  10. When I read stories about your mom I just feel so inspired! She is such an amazing woman! blueskyjen

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