I’ve been thinking a lot about labor, lately.
OK, that’s not 100 percent true. I’ve been thinking about it a little, because tomorrow is Labor Day and I needed a timely theme for this week’s column.
Whenever I hear the word “labor,” I hearken back to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City where — after two days of Pitocin-induced contractions — I delivered my 10-pound, 5-ounce first-born son. That was 30 years ago next week, and I still haven’t lost the baby weight. Cheers to you, my darling! You were totally worth the extended agony and distended abdominal muscles.
Of course, that’s not what Labor Day is all about. Nor is it about the end of summer, the beginning of football season or the drop-dead date for white shoes and handbags.
Labor Day is about workers. And by worker, I mean a lucky Jane or Joe with a job.
It’s amazing how much we remember about our first jobs. Heck, I remember more about my first job than I do about my first kiss. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get paid for the latter.
I’d been babysitting for 50 cents an hour since the age of 11. At 15, I was ready to move to a higher economic echelon in order to support my Yardley cosmetics habit. I set my sights on an illustrious clerk’s job at the local Hickory Farms store. There was one problem: 16 was the minimum age for hiring.
Desperate for Glimmerick’s new Quicksilver eyeshadow and with my 16th birthday a few months away, I prayed preemptively: “Forgive me, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” Then, I lied about my age for the privilege of cutting cheese and beef stick.
I even remember my first uniform — a countrified affair of chambray, red gingham and Earth shoes. (There may have been a hairnet involved, but I’ve blocked this sordid detail from memory.)
My supervisor was a mean, redheaded cheese marm named Rose who kept harping at me to “upsell the cheese, upsell the cheese!” I left work every night, my hair smelling like Limburger. (Come to think of it, there weren’t many kisses during that period.)
In the end, I left that job, disgusted. But, I took with me many lessons, like the difference between blue stilton and gorgonzola and that this “upselling” thing happens all the time. A consumer must constantly be on her guard.
My next episode of employment was as a waitress at Mission Hills Country Club. There I learned the fine art of banquet service and how to deal with Dieter the German cook’s frightening, quick-fired temper. I also learned to fend off the advances of predatory bartenders three times my age, and how to make pantyhose last longer than 48 hours.
Waitressing served me well. I used my experience to secure summer jobs at resorts in Minnesota (where I waited on Paul Newman, by the way), Arizona and, finally, The Magic Pan on the Plaza where most of the bartenders were gay and delightfully unthreatening.
From waitressing, I moved into “health care” as a hospital information clerk, fielding phone calls about patients’ conditions and doling out room numbers to visitors. I enjoyed the public interaction and analyzing the mysterious diagnoses in my oversized Rolodex.
The job was fairly ho-hum until the magical day when George Brett was admitted for hemorrhoid surgery.
“If anyone gets up to Eighth Floor, heads will roll,” my supervisor said, sternly. For five days, I intercepted and rebuffed scores of buxom groupies in Number 5 jerseys, bearing flowers and teddy bears.
“I’m sorry,” I’d say, flatly. “We have no patient by the name of Brett.”
I discovered my poker face at that job, as well as the meaning of angina, myocardial infarction and cerebrovascular accident.
From there, I would go on to labor as an activity director in retirement centers and nursing homes, an entertainer specializing in children’s birthday parties, maker of Kansas-themed yard art, TV reporter, manufacturer of my own novelty product, marketing manager, newspaper reporter and, now, merchants association director.
With each job, came countless valuable lessons, many of which weren’t remotely related to my chosen field at the time.
That’s the thing about jobs. The fruits of labor vastly exceed the number on a paycheck.
9.1 percent of Americans can’t taste any fruit right now. Perhaps the problem is, everyone is thinking about it too little.
Happy Labor Day, lucky Joes and Janes. And, to those of you still looking, best of luck.