Work and identity are closely connected. What we do is who we are. Work is pleasure, work is pain. What have you worked at? What kind of jobs have you had? What did you do? What were your co-workers like? What kind of stuff–tools, materials, processes, activities–did the work involve? What made it satisfying? What made it unpleasant?
Choose one of the jobs you did and write about it.
Fall of 1972 I turned 20 years old. I worked the morning shift in the Delta College Grill. I got up at 5:15 a.m., pulled on shirt and pants, and drove 15 miles from my house to the College. My shift started at 6:00. When I got to the grill Jean was already there. She was a stout lady in her fifties who ran the place. Jean was moody. One morning she was cheerful and chatty, another morning she was grouchy and impatient. I know she bowled on Tuesday nights. Some Wednesday mornings she would say she’d had too many Tom Collinses the night before She had short brown hair and a red face from a little too much to drink a little too often or from high blood pressure.
The rest of the morning crew was Jeff, a short slight bearded guy who wore glasses, and Carmen, a pretty hispanic student who her hair pulled back. The pecking order was clear. Jeff cooked. Carmen cooked. I got the idea they had worked together for a while. They liked each other in an easy collegial, co-worker kind of way. I did not cook, which was fine with me. I didn’t know how to do much. At home I made popcorn and hot chocolate. I could also butter bread and squirt mustard on a baloney sandwich. That was about the extent of my culinary art.
My job at the grill was making toast, which I was good at, and stocking the cold table students passed by with little tubs of jam and single-serving boxes of cereal. I also poured juice into glasses and filled the milk cooler, which involved lugging three gallon bags of milk from the refrigerator in the back and loading them into the dispenser. There was regular milk and chocolate milk. The bags came in cardboard boxes, each with a long tube protruding from the top of the boxes. I’d milked cows on my grandfather’s farm. Bags and udders, I thought, lugging those boxes. I was good at milk duty.
Every morning, beginning at 7:00 a.m., we saw the same students. They came from one of the two dorms on campus, ordered the same food every morning. Sometimes the girls looked kind of blurry, with messy hair and clothes they had just thrown on. When I passed them a glass of juice, it seemed like kind of an intimate moment. I didn’t have sisters. So this is what girls look like, I thought, when they get out of bed.
Good morning, I would say.
No response, usually.
Is there any mixed fruit jam? one would ask.
Let me go check.
One morning a student asked for ham and eggs. Jeff nodded, as if to say Go ahead. He’d been watching me. Maybe he thought I was ready. I broke two eggs onto the grill and glanced over at him. He shook his head.
“The meat takes longer to cook,” he said. “Always start the meat first.”
No, I wasn’t half asleep. I just wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t really want to be a short order cook at the grill, and I’m embarrassed to look back now and realize I didn’t want to learn anything. Before the term had started that fall, I filled out work papers in one of the college offices. I could check what kind of work I wanted to do–office work, custodial, food service. Of the three, food service had the hours I wanted. Early and out.
At 7:30 I started bussing tables out in the dining area. I liked rolling around out there. Three songs for a quarter played on the juke box. Al Green sang “Let’s Stay Together.” Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” played on 15 minute intervals, as did Joe’s Cocker “Feelin All Right.”
“Can I take your plate?” I would ask one of those half-awake girls.
“Are you done with that?” I asked.
I learned not to hover close to a table. I thought people would be happy to have me remove their dirty dishes. They weren’t. I learned not to ask. Some people didn’t want to have their plates whisked away until they were damn well ready. They sat, they chatted, they smoked. They left cigarettes squashed out in ketchup smeared on a plate.
On the juke box, Neil Young sang “Heart of Gold.”
Toggle to your word processing app and start writing. Use my sample as a model if it helps, making some of the same moves I’ve made. Or go your own way. Try to reach your quota or exceed it. You don’t have to write everything all at once. It might even better if you don’t–because you can continue thinking and remembering, letting details and ideas come to you.