Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, It’s Off To Work We Go

It’s premature to launch into Time and Place’s real mission in the world—travel writing. The first trip of the year, San Diego and Bay Area, is still almost three weeks away. Until then here are a few other topics to explore. You know; work, family, spring, cooking, life…

Most of us spend a large part of our waking hours as workers. But the word ‘worker’ sounds old-fashioned doesn’t it? Now we all have professions, or we’re employees or we’re part of the workforce. But who ever calls us all—from Bill Gates to Dr. Stoerner (my doctor) to me to that that tiny woman crouched by the train tracks in Delhi selling mangoes—workers anymore. What ever happened to “workers of the world-unite!” Of course when Marx said that he probably didn’t mean to include Bill Gates and my doctor, but the mango seller and me…we would have been included. And, although there are way more of us than there are of them…guess who’s still getting screwed?

However this post isn’t about that…not really. It’s about the belongingness of being a worker and the pride we feel, especially when we’re fortunate to have jobs that have interest and value, in what we accomplish. I’m proud of the fact that everyone in my family is good at working—our jobs vary in terms of just where in the 99% we fit, but we all get up every morning and go to work, finding camaraderie among our work friends, and feeling satisfaction, more or less, when we get our paychecks.

This watershed year of 2019 (watershed only in that I formally move into another age category…about which I would prefer not to elaborate) would appear to be a good time to review the history of some of my multiple identities and, today, it’s Marjorie the Worker’s turn. “We dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig in our mine the whole day through/To dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig is what we really like to do/It ain’t no trick to get rich quick/If you dig dig dig with a shovel or a pick” sang the dwarves—and isn’t that the basic workers’ song of all time—and my theme song for this post.

Ready for the big city…Not

I do like to work—not every job necessarily—but the activity called ‘work’ is positive. Let’s see, it’s been 60 years since, just out of high school, I moved to an apartment on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis Minnesota and went to work at Cargill headquarters out in the upscale suburb of Wayzata. My first real job. Before that my only experience was a few hours of baby-sitting for the hometown doctor and two weeks as a waitress, a job at which I failed miserably—just couldn’t remember who ordered what…and couldn’t bring myself to care. At Cargill I was a boardmarker—as the ticker tape machine spewed forth quotes for the prices of various grains around the world, we pretty young things from rural Minnesota quickly wrote the numbers on a giant chalkboard so that Oscar, the grain buyer, could buy and sell and make more money for Cargill. An entity which, according to Wikipedia, is the largest privately held corporation in the United States in terms of revenue. As I look back, I do believe that the boardmarker stint at Cargill was one of my few laps in the corporate world. I’m rather proud of that since making money for the man—or the One Percenter as we now know him—is not among my goals.

Did I like my job? Apparently it was okay or I would remember otherwise. A company bus picked those of us living in Minneapolis/St. Paul up every morning and whisked us out to the rather luxurious headquarters building in a fancy leafy-green suburb (or pristine white depending on the season) and dropped us off again in the real world every night. We were the minions from humble Twin Cities’ abodes on nondescript street corners—the precursors of the toilers in the vineyards of Google and Facebook who are whisked south from their $2000 hovels in the San Francisco of today. We napped and read the papers on the way to work—in fact my primary memory from that job may be the morning we all simultaneously reached the Star Trib’s article on Ed Gein, the Wisconsin man also known as “The Butcher of Plainfield” a particularly gruesome murderer who skinned his victims as material for lampshades and the like. Wisconsin being right next door, it was a local news sensation for quite awhile. That moment in time (my addiction to bloody murder is obviously of long-standing) along with the later image of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air in front of the Foshay Tower, comprise a mind’s eye photo album of my first big city job.

Well there is another fond memory—of pastries with names like Spicy Apple Twists or Ring a Lings,  Pillsbury Bake-Off winners in those years; they along with various cake-mix cakes all tarted up with pineapple and Jell-o and vanilla pudding, and chocolate bars with the latest and greatest in canned frosting, arrived in our apartment every other Thursday evening. Two of my roommates’ brothers worked at Pillsbury and were part of the experimental kitchen tasting crew; we all greedily benefited. (Well okay I did go back and look up those names—but I baked from Pillsbury Bake Off cookbooks  for a long time; eventually a sort of faux-level of cookery sophistication took over and I guess those frosting-splattered old mementos are stuck in back files where old things go to die—what a sad thing to say!)

I only had one actual date that whole winter; a boy named Gene took me to the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul on a Saturday night; I was awkward and nervous—Northome had so few ballrooms…and I wasn’t asked on a second date. Probably something to do with the fact I couldn’t dance (before, then or ever after…I mean, who can’t dance!)

It’s safe to say I wasn’t inspired to corporate advancement in my Cargill job since I remember nothing about the actual work—although what can there have been that would have lingered in my mind from writing numbers on a large blackboard?  Anyway a restless me quit my job in the spring, bought a bus ticket and two new outfits with my tax refund, and headed off to Orlando, Florida. Why not? My cousin said I could stay with them and her husband, an Air Force sergeant, helped me find a job as morning coffee server in the NCO Club dining hall.

Wow. It was a whole new world full of palm trees and deep-fried food and a nearby ocean. My morning coffee gig put me in a world of dashing young airmen which I did not find objectionable either. Since I didn’t have a car I shared a ride with two young black women who worked in the kitchen; we became pals although the arrangements did bother the cousin’s husband, a Floridian who hailed from the deepest of alligator-infested back country. To his credit, he expressed his concerns and then dropped the matter altogether. Petronella and her sister were my first non-white friends—Minnesota not being known for its human diversity back then.

Soon I met an especially personable young airman. It was a foggy morning and when I commented on that fact, his response was, ‘Yeah, just like London.’ The need to see the world was already bubbling up in my consciousness and I was immediately alert. ‘Oh, you’ve been to England?’ To which he replied, ‘Yes,’ making him even more desirable in my eyes. It would turn out not to be true…but I had no premonition at the time that there might be a persistent pattern of mild untruths that would not be the healthiest baseline for a marriage. Nevertheless he was a most appealing guy and I was in love; we married on a cold January night in a Lutheran church in Orlando, and within the next four years produced two fine sons. Quite a change for a nice girl who simply wanted to read books and lay on a beach now and then.

The only job I remember from this new wife-and-mother life was as a clerk in Sears Credit Department in downtown Orlando. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t very good at it—I seem to remember it being one of the two or three most boring jobs I’ve ever had—but it didn’t matter because my boss Lucy was a serious alcoholic who kept us nervously alert and accidentally entertained. She arrived each morning heavily perfumed, though not heavily enough to cover the distinctive scent of a stiff morning gin. Oversight of staff, all two or three of us, was lax shall we say. Funny enough, I can still see Lucy—stout, lava-black hair, red slightly-smeared lipstick, silky bright dresses. That was a between-babies job, one of those nothing gigs that offer up a few dollars along with zero stress and zero satisfaction.

When I started this post there seemed to be this endless stream of mildly amusing worklife details I could offer up about the past 60 years. However most of those early jobs were not particularly inspiring…well except for the part where I met the cute airman. Also I forgot about the nine-year sabbatical from working life that started in 1963 with the birth of my second son and continued with a move to the Philippines. When we returned to the States in 1966 I focused on motherhood and a BS degree in Secondary Ed/History.

This post will end here, but I’ll pick up next week in 1972 with the job that would truly change my life—for better (mostly) or worse. Its importance would certainly not be in the amount of money or prestige involved, but rather in giving me a chance to do what women were doing back in ’72…figuring out who the hell we were!

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Thank you Helen Reddy…for giving us some lines to hum while a few pieces of our lives crashed and burned and others took on an ever-brighter glow of excitement and possibility.

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