Work, work, work
“All you have to sell is your time.”
My dad told me this when I was a kid. He also told me, “There isn’t a money tree in the back yard.” It was easy to connect the dots with what he was saying; if I wanted something, I’d need to work for it. I was a caddy — a looper — when I was 14. It was a short-money gig, but it was a gig, and most guys from my working-class neighborhood did this for tax-free pin money. It was an alright way to earn a dollar, but I had my sights set on a better paying and steady way to make money. On the day I turned 16 — March 25, 1966 — I went out and scored my first job at a supermarket near our home. On my first day I ran a quick two miles to get to the job on time — more about his later. It was a basic starter gig: pushing carriages, bagging groceries, and sweeping floors — I hustled and was glad to have a job. On that first shift as an official and clocked-in working stiff, my dad came in to the market giving me lasers and he didn’t look happy — I had a bad feeling about this. “What did you say to the nun today? I just got a call. You need to apologize for something — punch out. We’re heading to the convent.” It was my first day on the job and here I was with a dad who needed a phone call from the nun like he needed a root canal without Novocain after working a ten-hour shift of his own. We drove in silence to my school.
In the convent, my teacher — who right from the rip was not fond of me for several reasons — sat stoically as she recounted what had happened and why we were here. My father listened. My teacher explained that I was defiant, disrespectful, and disobedient. These were hard words for my dad to hear. “Explain this,” said my father, looking at me with his poker face. What happened was that on this particular day a fellow student’s mother — who some nuns tooled around town with in her new ’65 Mustang ragtop convertible — was casually chatting up the teacher. The dismissal bell rang, and I got up to leave to go to work. “Sit down, Houlihan,” said the teacher. I politely told her that this was my first day on the job and I needed to walk there. I figured I had half an hour to get to Star Market on time. She didn’t want to hear this and she glared at me. Five minutes passed and the class dutifully sat there — waiting — they had no agenda but I did. Fifteen minutes to get to the job was now all I had and the clock was ticking. “Sorry, Sister, school was dismissed 15 minutes ago. I’m going to work. It’s my first day,” I said. “Houlihan, Houlihan, sit down,” was all I heard as I bolted for the avenue so I could run a straight shot to my job — I clocked in at 3 p.m. sharp. I knew there would be repercussions. That night in the convent we went around and around in regards to what I did. The nun said I should apologize. I refused. Stalemate.
Actor Woody Harrelson was speaking at the University of Rhode Island this past spring. He was talking about his acting career, and I heard that a kid asked him what he had learned from doing his work. Harrelson told the kid he learned he shouldn’t have taken so much time off — from the job of acting he was lucky to have — because time had moved on and he couldn’t get an acting gig. The business he worked in forgot about him. Fortunately for Harrelson the fates were kind and he got a second shot in a very tough and competitive business. He scored some good recognition in an indie film called “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and this helped him get back in the game. (Check my archive regarding this film.) The takeaway from Harrelson’s story is that everyone is replaceable and we can’t let our hubris presume otherwise—we’re not a special nor precious commodity—and if we do, we’re delusional. Working is good stuff if we can get it.
I’ve sold my time as a dishwasher, short order cook, laborer, phone operator for a medical exchange, forklift driver, stevedore, caddy/looper, substitute teacher, English/theatre teacher, saloon singer, fish truck loader at the Point Judith Fisherman’s Co-op, tutor, freelance writer, racetrack worker, courier, shoe salesman, boiler room/phone solicitor, real estate, greens keeper, gas station attendant, production assistant, window washer, juvenile counselor, janitor, and sailing instructor.
Another thing I learned from my dad about working was to never say no to overtime because it may never come again. He taught me to never leave a guy hanging on whatever job I was doing. “Never burn your bridges,” he said. My dad was a very practical guy who had had a tough time in his youth and developed street smarts out of necessity. Regarding my then-problem at school, it was clear my dad was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He had to be glad his son scored a gig on his 16th birthday; however, the jam I was in with a Sister of Mercy was serious and resolution was imperative. He and I both knew this mess needed to be shut down.
The stalemate went on until 10 o’clock, and I finally acquiesced to an insincere apology — for my dad’s sake — but my teacher knew what the deal was. She knew I wasn’t sorry about my actions for one minute. In the car on the way home my dad said. “Tighten yourself up in school and never be late for work.”
Finally, one of the great upsides of the working life is having some slack time — vacation — and this is something I witness people enjoying on a daily basis while working at the Block Island Ferry.