Back in High School my girlfriend’s father set her up with a Gold American Express card in her name. It might not have taught her the money management skills he intended but on the plus side she and I did occasionally have some extravagant fun on her Dad’s dime. Money was not quite as free flowing in my house. And ‘by not quite as free flowing’ I really mean ‘not at all’. Or more realistically, ‘not much over necessity’. Oh I never went ‘without’; I just was not ‘with’ too much.
I always seemed to have some part time job to get extra cash. At one point I was walking dogs for some of our condominium complex neighbors that traveled a lot. My two best clients included one with an oversized knockwurst shaped fat dachshund that I had explicit instructions to carry down the hall and over to the grass otherwise her belly would get scratched rubbing against the pavement. Oddly enough, I think the dog’s owner had the same issue too. My other primary customer had two old poodles and a yippy yorkie. She was away most weekends staying with her husband who worked 4 hours away in Tampa where he made blitzes for a living. This may sound like the intro exposition to a Woody Allen comedy but it was my real world.
I worked one weekend as a busboy in a large menu deli style restaurant called Five Dames. A couple of hours after my buddy and I started the owner slipped us each an extra five dollar bill saying ‘we were the hardest workers he ever hired.’ We quickly learned he was not lying. It was a crazed chaotic mess in there that made Animal House seem tame.
There were food fights in the kitchen, constant drug deals in the back room and oblivious owners that had no control of the place. We saw dirty pots reused over again, we were told to re-serve uneaten bread from dirty tables and proudly was instructed to mix yesterdays old cole slaw into white buckets of new as if it were a precious sourdough starter verses a health code violation. The wait-staff drank more cheap house wine then they served and mice nibbled on the hefty bags full of fresh baked bread, one of which got so full he became slow and disoriented enough to get caught by the tail under the foot of our stoned hostess right in front of a large line of customers waiting for tables.
Things became hellish very quickly after our shift ended the first night when the rest of the staff skipped out leaving us two to stay late into the night cleaning all of the evening’s pots and pans. Two days was all I needed to know I wanted no part of the food service industry. When we left the second night we knew we were done and seriously considered nicking a massive jar of maraschino cherries to compensate for them hosing us on our tip sharing percentage. The bottle was so big we would have had to roll it out the back door. I’m not sure what we would have done with all of those cherries but I am sure we could have been very creative. I know what we did with street cones. It might give you some comfort to know that the restaurant eventually closed a year or so after my brief tenure there.
Most of my friends had some type of after school jobs like tearing ticket stubs at the movies, working the McDonalds drive-thru or bagging groceries at Winn Dixie (or Dicks Winnie as we used to call it based of some long-forgotten bad joke). After my my last horrible job experience I changed course. Through my Dad’s connections I got a part time job at a local jewelry store.
Everyone there was much older than me. As a punk-ass dorky kid I was certainly no great salesman but I kept the job by always working hard and focusing on doing all the tasks no one else wanted to. Which really is an astoundingly good niche if you are starting in any business. I was trusted with more and more responsibilities as I made a point of listening to each staff member and focused on making their lives’ easier. I wish I could honestly say that I was calculatingly building job security and learning a trade from the inside out, but in reality it just seemed the best route for an incompetent novice to not get fired.
One of the things that helped me most was simply being the youngest in a big family. I had grown-up listening to older folks from a different generation yammer on and on about their world. Who knew this would turn into a marketable job skill? I was able to relate to everyone and understood the staff’s references, perspectives and old jokes. At the time I had never actually seen the old Jack Benny routine that an older part-timer named Sy, used to constantly quote, but when he said “Si’ Sy Sue” I knew what he was talking about. Joe Penner, the wacky over-the-top slapstick Vaudevillian, died 20 years before I was born but I still understood the gag when one of the guys repeatedly said “do you wanna buy a duck”.
I thought of that experience today at work. A lot of the people at my current company are younger than me. Much like I did as a kid, I still practice the hard work part but oddly enough I still seem good at understanding the touchstones of a different generation. Its just the ages have flip flopped and instead of acting older, I’m acting younger. Throughout my career rarely have coworkers ever guessed my age correctly; it used to be they guessed older and now they guess younger. Last month someone said they thought I was 12 years younger then my real age. Even if they were just being nice, my ego liked it.
But I have to catch myself sometimes because I don’t want to become the old timer ‘Si Sy Sue’ guy that nobody understands. I leave a lot of my asides and comments in my head because I know most of my coworkers will not get my references. My shared world experiences and view points are very different from those of the Millennials around me. Not better, not worse, just different. I guess ‘acting my age’ is an illusive term for me.