Chapter 25: Caged Ennui
Jobs #73 – 76
There was one major life event which transpired while I was a student at the university. My dear mother passed away, rather suddenly in October of 2000. Her health had been rather poorly for a number of years. She had given up smoking several years earlier, but it may have been too late. She had long suffered from angina, and had some close calls with cancer, resulting in a double mastectomy, and I think a hysterectomy as well.
Finally her health became poor enough that she sold her little house in Cambria and moved in with my sister Buff and my brother-in-law Roy at their home in Fair Oaks, near Sacramento. Then one day she had what was apparently a massive stroke. My poor sister performed CPR on her for a good hour before the paramedics could arrive.
Unfortunately, it was too late. My mom lingered for a day or so before the painful decision had to be made to turn off her life support. It all happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to drive down to the hospital to say goodbye. Actually, that may have been one of the times we were carless. I got updates from my siblings via telephone. I had seen my mom that summer at my brother Dick’s house in Sacramento, so at least I had seen her fairly recently after a gap of a couple of years. My other brother Jack had come out from Virginia for a rare visit and my mom wanted to see all her children. Perhaps she sensed her time on this earth was short.
I was rather stunned, to say the least. It may sound callous, but I hadn’t been terribly moved by the passing of my father, so this felt like my first real experience of losing a parent. I didn’t really know how to behave. I emailed my teachers to tell them I’d be taking a couple of days off and why, but I went to work for Scot as I was scheduled to do. My heart wasn’t in my work, though. When I told Scot that my mom had just passed away, he very kindly told me I should go home, which I did.
My mom had made arrangements with the Neptune Society to handle the disposition of her earthly remains, and there were no immediate plans for a funeral. In April, which was my mother’s birth month, my sister held a memorial service at her home. In the intervening months, the settling of my mom’s estate had taken place. My mom had always been very good at being frugal – to the point of rinsing out and drying paper towels for re-use. I reckon the house in beautiful sea-side Cambria probably sold for a pretty penny as well. Whatever the reason, my mom left behind the tidy sum of almost exactly 200,000 dollars, and each of her kids got one-fourth of that. Roy said he used to try to encourage her to have some fun with her money rather than leaving it for her children, but she wouldn’t listen to him.
50,000 dollars seemed like all the money in the world to my perpetually financially-developmentally-delayed mind. Lurleen asked if we were going to buy a house. I doubted without really knowing that even that princely sum would be enough of a down payment for a person with extremely bad credit to purchase a home. To be honest, I didn’t even consider it. I figured even if we could buy a house, then we’d just be sitting – broke as ever – in a house we owned, with all the expenses involved in that. There’s something to be said for renting, especially when you’re poor. If something goes wrong with your domicile, your landlord is responsible for it (provided you have a decent landlord). Of course, it is a shame that all that money we spend on rent doesn’t build up anything, the way equity in a home does.
A few years later, I sometimes watched “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. I thought it was cool how the show helped struggling families, but it was interesting that these poor families always somehow owned their homes. It amused me to think that if we had somehow been able to purchase a house, we might qualify for a makeover from ABC. However, those families always had something else going on besides financial difficulty – whether it be a family member with a dread disease or life-altering disability, or they are just super-duper people who do tremendous things for their community. None of those things applied to us.
As it was, I spent some of my inheritance paying back my long-suffering brother Dick for some long-overdue loans. The largest single investments we made with our windfall were a mini-van and a maxi-family vacation. The van was just under ten years old, which made it the newest car we had ever owned. For the vacation, we drove the kids and my mother-in-law to her family’s annual reunion picnic at her brother’s house in Arlington, Washington. Mrs. R’s grandmother traveled by train every year to attend the event, but her mom, Jordana had not been for able to attend for many years. After the picnic, we took the ferry to Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The trip was spread over several days, and a splendid time was had by all.
We hadn’t been able to afford to take our kids on the kind of vacations that both Mrs. R and I remember from our childhoods. Critics may say we spent a little too much on the trip, or didn’t invest the rest of my inheritance wisely, but I (no longer) have any regrets. I used to torture myself wondering how things might have been different if I had just been smarter with money, but I finally decided that I was expecting too much of myself and 50 thousand dollars.
Okay, back to the jobs! After graduating from the university, I tried to find work in what I had just been trained to do. Unfortunately, I had a run into a problem while in my upper division classes. For one thing, I learned that while I’m generally very good at academic stuff like reading, writing papers and taking exams, I’m a little slower at learning things which are more “hands on”. Unfortunately, old-fashioned cartography and its newer incarnation – GIS (Geographic Information Systems) – are very “hands on”. I was already pretty comfortable with computers, but the software for GIS was overwhelmingly complex. Many of the younger students seemed to take to it like ducks to water, but I struggled.
I ended up passing with C grade from my GIS and cartography courses, and those were the core classes of the particular geography option I had chosen. I thought desperately of changing my option to planning – which I also found very interesting, but didn’t require so much computer gim-crackery – but it was too late to switch. If I could have repeated the classes, I’m sure I could have improved that grade, but that wasn’t an option, either. Getting C’s was a blow to my ego, and it made me worry for my chances of finding gainful employment in my chosen field.
However, the old saying says, “‘C’s get degrees”, and besides, the rest of my grades had been almost all A’s. I hoped that any potential employers wouldn’t be looking too closely at my actual grades. Unfortunately, when you’re trying to enter a field for which you have no practical experience, employers don’t have much else to judge you by. As it was, one job I applied to did ask me to send copies of my transcripts. I complied with their wishes, with little hope of success, and – as expected – I never heard back from them.
The three problems I had with finding work in geography were location, location, location. There was just nothing available in Butt County. Most of the jobs I could even hope to get would have required relocating, which wasn’t really feasible. The closest place I could have found work would have been in the state capitol, Sacramento, and that would have been a very difficult commute, as I had no desire to live there. In fact, I did apply for a state job there, and even traveled down for the civil service test, which consisted of both a written and an oral exam.
I quickly found out that oral exams are the most awful things in the whole broad spectrum of job search hurdles. Having already gotten over 70 jobs, I had become fairly adept at the art of the interview, but an oral exam combines the worst aspects of an interview with the stress of trying to answer questions without benefit of pen and paper. For some reason, oral exams always seem to involve three interrogators, rather than the usual one-on-one of an interview. I’m not very fast at thinking on my feet, and here I had three people staring me in the face and expecting me to answer questions off the top of my nervous head. At one point, I mistook their request for an explanation of the term “topology” in relation to GIS for “topography”. I think my answer included a fairly good definition of topography, but it certainly didn’t answer the question. In fact, I’m sure I appeared to just be babbling. I did wonder at the time why they were looking at me funny, and I really wondered later why they didn’t see where the mistake lay and give me a chance to correct myself. Needless to say, I didn’t get that job.
I’ve had to endure a few more oral exams since then, for various types of jobs, and I can safely say that I’ve never passed a single one. I don’t know if they represent a valid way of evaluating applicants, but they certainly seem to be effective at keeping me from getting hired for the job in question.
Job #73: Cage(d) Cashier
While I was engaged in the increasingly hopeless task of looking for a job in geography, I also needed to think about how I was going to feed my family. One of the local Native American casinos was advertising for cashiers. I applied and was hired for the swing shift. I was the only guy locked in a cage with a bunch of women, which sounds like the plot of a Z-Grade exploitation film, but wasn’t nearly that fun.
It’s already established that I’ve never been good with money, and, to my chagrin, this extended to the simple task of making change. At the end of the night, my cash register drawer almost never balanced with what I had started with, usually to the negative. It was never a huge amount, but I was giving a little too much change to some lucky recipients. It became something of a joke, but amazingly, they kept me on.
Job #74: GIS Technician (!)
Meanwhile, I still kept my eye on the geography market. Soon, my fortunes seemed to take a turn for the better. A lady who ran a small consulting firm in College Town needed a part-time GIS technician. Her daughter had previously filled that role for her while she was in the geography program at the university, but she had recently departed for a real job in a city far away. Fortunately, she didn’t ask to see my grades, and I was able to talk my way into the job with a combination of sincerity, charm and a little bullshit.
I continued to work at the casino while I worked part-time at the consulting firm. My wages at the casino were decent, but my new job paid a whopping 15 dollars an hour, which the highest wage I had ever earned. So I was feeling pretty good about my situation. I occasionally felt as though I was paying for the bullshit part of my interview because I sometimes found myself stymied by some aspect of the GIS software. I had to call my employer’s daughter a couple of times for help, which caused my boss to question her hiring of me. However, in some ways that job was a bit bullshit itself. It turned out that the GIS software she had me using was the same student version I had used when I was in school. Obviously her daughter had provided her with a copy of it. So she wasn’t even paying for the software she was using for profit, which is illegal. It also meant that we could get no updates or technical support. I kept this fact in mind whenever my boss seemed dissatisfied with my lack of experience.
Soon my boss got a rather lucrative contract, and she began to pressure me to come to work full-time so we could get the project done in short order. I was a little reluctant to quit my full time casino job for short-term gain, but she assured me that she would have plenty of work for me afterward. So urgent was she that I didn’t even give the casino the standard two weeks’ notice of my departure. That was my second mistake. The first was believing my other boss.
I have no doubt that she simply fucking lied to me. I went to work full-time at her dodgy little firm, and thought that at last I had “arrived” in the job market, with a good-paying “professional” job for which I had studied at a university. I figured I was finally doing everything right. Even my long-deceased father might have grunted approvingly from the belly of whatever fish had mistakenly swallowed his bitter, bitter ashes.
I quickly finished the project she was so hot for, and no sooner had I done so, then she laid me off, with the added insult that she wished my GIS skills had been just a little better. I thought about reporting her illegal use of the software, but didn’t follow through on that.
I petitioned the casino for my job back, but it had been clearly stated at the time of my original hiring that failure to give a full two weeks’ notice was clear grounds for not being rehired. I continued to beg and plead, even taking my case all the way up to the general manager. I explained that the only reason I had not given sufficient notice was because of the pressure from my duplicitous other employer. I think I had them on the verge of relenting, and at one point one of my supervisors from the cashiers’ cage told me over the phone that I could come back, and to give her a call later to finalize the details. When I did call back, that supervisor was mysteriously unavailable, and one of her male superiors told me that she had spoken in error and under no circumstances would I be coming back. I was crushed. Perhaps if my drawers (the cash ones, not the ones I wear) had balanced more often I might have had a chance, but I’ll never know for sure.
Job #75: Cashier, 7-11 Store
Meanwhile, the winter holidays were fast approaching, and I needed work. I started applying everywhere I could. One place was at one of the three O-Town 7-11 franchises. Another was Walmart. I got hired at 7-11. Seemingly moments later, Walmart called me for an interview on what would be the second day of my new 7-11 job. I must have had an intuition. I agreed to come in for the interview, because Walmart sounded like a better deal, but I had already committed to 7-11, so I reported for training there.
It took only one day to convince me of the folly of that decision. I’ve stated before that I’ve never been comfortable in fast paced jobs, and working alone behind the counter of a busy convenience store/gas station is the very definition of “fast-paced”. I thought I was in hell. The young man who was training me seemed at ease in his job. He liked the hurly-burly of it. He told me of one incident in which he had jumped over the counter and tackled a man who was trying to run out of the store with a purloined 12-pack of beer. He had enjoyed the fracas, but I couldn’t imagine risking limb and possibly life over your employer’s money.
Another interesting thing he told me was that I was going to see “a lot of tit” (as he put it) on that job. Apparently a common way for young women to get free products was by offering to show the clerk their breasts. I guess this wouldn’t be very effective on female clerks, unless they were of a certain persuasion. I also wondered what a clerk would do if he found the proffered bosoms lacking in some way. Could he insist the woman had to pay cash, or had he already agreed to give them their Slurpee just for the viewing? Even the promise of boobs was not enough to convince me that this was a worthy job. When Mrs. R picked me up after that first day, I said, “I think I’ll see what Walmart has to offer.”
My Walmart interview was scheduled prior to when I was supposed to report for my second day of training at 7-11, so I wasn’t even in violation of any proprieties. If Walmart didn’t pan out, at least I could still go to work at 7-11 until something better came along. The first thing they had me do was take a sort of personality assessment.
I had encountered these sorts of tests before. The first one was when I had applied many years before as a driver/salesperson for Schwan’s Ice Cream. It was very similar to the infamous Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory, which I’d had a chance to look at when I worked at Children’s Services. I wasn’t expecting to be bombarded by such a thing at Schwan’s, and I almost ran screaming from the place in the middle of it. I wish I had. These tests are designed in such an insidious manner that you just can’t win. If you try to answer in a manner that you think your prospective employer would like, say on a subject such as your attitude toward minor pilfering of office supplies, you soon find yourself entrapped. Later questions may touch upon the same subject, but the multiple choice answers are worded in such a way so as to completely contradict your earlier answer.
As it was, I made it through Schwan’s first interview after the test, but quickly decided I didn’t want to work for such a weird, cultish-seeming place. I declined their offer of a second interview. If I had passed that one, the THIRD one would have been at my home. I had nothing to be ashamed of in my home life – I just felt that was very invasive and none of their damned business.
But getting back to Walmart, their personality test wasn’t nearly as mind-fucking as Schwan’s and some other places had been. Some of my answers were geared toward trying to make them happy, but at least they didn’t try to trip me up to the extent that Schwan’s test had. Right after the test, my interviewer went over my answers with me. She only had an issue with one of my responses. It had been a weird question having something to do with how an employee who had been caught stealing should be treated. The response I chose was that she should be discharged, obviously, but that was all. The response they preferred I would have made had something to do with her misdeed also being made known to her co-workers. My interviewer wanted to know why I hadn’t chosen this. I said that I thought that would be a violation of not only her rights as a person and a citizen of a free society, but that it was almost certainly in contradiction of standard human resources practices, and possibly illegal. She didn’t seem terribly satisfied with my response, but since it was the only question I had “failed”, I passed the test. It did make me worry a little, however, about what Walmart was willing to do to me if I ever violated one of their rules.
By the end of the interview, I was offered a job on the truck crew. I didn’t really know exactly what that would entail, but it sounded better than 7-11. I was essentially being hired as extra help for the approaching holiday season, but there was the possibility of continued employment after Christmas, so I accepted. I called 7-11 and said thanks, but no thanks, and I wouldn’t be coming in any more. Perhaps a slightly shitty thing to do on such short notice, but it was a shitty job.
Job #76: Walmart Truck Crew
I soon found out what truck crew was all about, and I was a little surprised that they had hired a 43 year old man for the job. Most of the people I was working with were about 20 years younger than me. I guess I somehow looked fitter than I was. I’ve had less physically demanding jobs for which I was given a physical examination to see if I was up to the tasks. Usually companies are wary of having to make payments to injured workers. Walmart seemed to have no such qualms. They probably changed their policy after me.
Truck crew is simple in concept, but brutal in practice. A tractor-trailer would back into one of the two receiving bays. We would set up a long, serpentine belt of little rollers at the back of the truck, then two people would stand in the trailer and furiously unload boxes and shove them down the line to the other workers, who would stack them on pallets according to which department they were destined for. We usually unloaded two trucks a night, but sometimes there were as many as three or four, especially the closer we got to Black Friday, that much anticipated “biggest shopping day of the year” that retailers dream off the rest of the year. However, even if it were only a “one truck night”, all trucks seemed to have to be unloaded at the same fever pitch.
I tried to keep up as best I could, but it was murder. I was so sore and tired at the end of each night, I sometimes wept when I got home. One night I was one of the pair of people in the trailer. Apparently I wasn’t getting boxes on the line fast enough, for at one point our supervisor stuck his head into the trailer and screamed, “FREIGHT!” I thought he had said, “BREAK!”, and it was with great relief that I stepped out of the trailer. Then I noticed nobody else had stopped working. Realizing my error, I took a place along the line and began transferring the boxes I had just unloaded onto a pallet. Somebody else took my place inside the trailer and nothing was said about my mistake, if anyone even noticed. I think they were all just satisfied that the freight was now moving at an acceptable rate.
Eventually the rigors of the job took their toll upon my body, and I was stricken with a horrible case of sciatica, which I’d had problems with before. I had to go to the emergency room, and was off work for a couple of days, and then I returned to work, but on light duty. By law, Walmart couldn’t discharge with me a pending worker’s compensation case, but they didn’t really have an open position that fit the requirements of “light duty” for which I was qualified, so I was sort of left to my own devices. It may surprise you to hear it, but I do have a work ethic, so I made work for myself. I began limping about the store, finding misplaced merchandise and returning it to its proper department. I got pretty elaborate about it. I borrowed a shopping cart, and began carrying a roll of packing tape, some zip ties, a pair of scissors and a one-hole punch, so I could make repairs on torn packages that didn’t hang on their hooks properly. I kept quite busy that way, and no one seemed to worry about me. Much later I found out that this role I had taken upon myself was almost exactly the same as a position called “zoner”. Why no one had simply told me to be a zoner was beyond me
A couple of weeks before Christmas, I had paused in my self-appointed tasks to converse with an acquaintance of mine who was shopping. A call came over the public address system asking me to come to the manager’s office. I thought I was in trouble because I had been spotted slacking. No, that wasn’t it at all. It was worse. It was explained to me that Black Friday hadn’t been as profitable as they had hoped, and they had to lay off some of the extra help. I’m sure the fact that I was an injured free agent factored into their decision. Now they had a legal excuse to get rid of me. They gave me my final check, which had a candy bar tied to it with a bow, and wished me goodbye, good luck and merry Christmas. I left with mixed emotions. On one hand, I hated working at Walmart, so I was glad to be rid of it. On the other hand, I wasn’t happy about being unemployed again, but at least it wasn’t my fault.
And that seems as good a place to stop as any.