Nice Work If You Can Get It
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Part 1 of a Series on Work
How Do You Like Your Burger?
My earliest jobs were in food service, the first at Wendy’s Fast Food where I earned the California minimum wage of $3.35 per hour in 1985. Before reporting to work I was required to purchase unflattering navy blue polyester blend pants that I would never wear again. I stood just out of sight of the customers, listening for what condiments people ordered for their custom square patty burgers, and quickly learned to slap on various combinations of ketchup, mayo, pickles, round slivers of sweet onions, and American cheese slices as requested. This lasted for less than three months as I quit after my manager said she didn’t like me. Not my work, which was adequate, but me. I was too quiet she said, and she felt silently judged. Which, following this revelation, was true.
Racing to Pour Coffee
My next job was Hostess at a coffee shop on Katella owned by two brothers with dark curly hair, thick gold chain necklaces that would peek out of their shirt collars, always one or two buttons undone. The one who was the manager patiently taught me how to count back change, as most people paid with cash. He would roll up the cuffs of his dress shirt as if about to plunge his hands into the muck, and count out loud, upward from the total of the bill.
“Four twenty-five… fifty, seventy-five, five dollars,” he demonstrated as he plopped three quarters into the outstretched hand of the customer. I had said I knew how to make change, but I didn’t until he demonstrated this simple method of counting it back.
Occasionally I pulled out that heavy contraption that felt like a brick for running credit cards, from where it was stored on a shelf underneath the cash register. I would carefully place the customer’s card in the indentation, then cover it with the rectangular triple carbon copies of the charge receipt. After positioning both items meticulously, I firmly yet carefully - so it didn’t crimp or slide out of place - pulled the handle across from left to right, and the raised numbers of the card made their impression on the carbon receipt.
I worked there with my friend Jenny and her mother Rhonda, both waitresses. Rhonda was a woman who’d lived hard, chain-smoked cigarettes, and sometimes snorted a line of coke before beginning a shift. She worked one waitressing job after another to make ends meet and was always flush with cash from tips. At sixteen I foolishly thought this looked like good money from hard work. Rhonda taught me to discern between the coffee carafes with the orange plastic rim that signified decaf and the black-rimmed carafes that were regular. There weren’t a lot of decaf drinkers among the patrons.
“Carry both as you walk around and ask which they want before pouring,” she explained the obvious.
The dining room bustled with noise from conversations and dishes clanking in the kitchen or the bus station. The pungent aroma of bacon, mixed with that of the freshly brewed coffee fueled me as I rushed from here to there, making more coffee as Rhonda had coached me. I zoomed from table to table, asking people probably multiple times too many if they wanted a refill to avoid them sitting there with an empty cup calling for me, or looking for me. If people bobble-headed around, their empty cups waiving in the air, this suggested I hadn’t done my job.
At the sound of the jingle bells tied to the front door handle, I was pulled to the entry of the diner to seat new customers, grabbing the plasticky menus as I ushered them to an open space that was just cleaned by the busboy. I was surprised one day when my racehorse jockey cousin Luke Myles walked in with his family. They lived nearby due to the proximity of the Los Alamitos Race Course where I had gone with my grandmother to watch him race. We’d sat with Luke’s mother Juanita who always won when she bet on the races. Win, Place, or Show that woman knew how to pick a horse. I sat my cousin’s family at a booth in Rhonda’s station and told her to take good care of them, which she did because she knew her business.
I experienced my first work dreams while I was employed at the coffee shop, bolting upright in the middle of the night, reaching out to pour invisible streams of coffee to dream customers before realizing I could relax, I was not at work.
When I would return to the coffee shop on Friday nights with Jenny, to pick up our paychecks, the owner would always tell us to wait, as he opened up the cash register and gave me around $25 saying:
“Here’s the rest,” by way of explanation.
When we were back in her car Jenny clarified, “It’s because you don’t get tips as a hostess.”
I wasn’t sure that made sense but I didn’t think too much about it. I was happy to have cash like the waitresses.
My next job was during winter break working at Knott’s Berry Farm. I was required to wear a sailor dress costume and I stood at a kiosk near the parachute drop that sold worthless souvenir junk, categorized in melamine cubbies with face-high glass fronts so that children could see the inside of each bin if they were tall enough. Pens, key chains, tiny plastic telescopes, flashlights, rubber figurines of Snoopy. About half the items had no tags or signs and so people would come to me as the authority to inquire about the price.
"One moment,” I quickly learned to stall, raising my voice just enough to be heard over the constant screams from the visitors free falling in their parachute plunge. I grabbed the white sheet of paper with typewritten descriptions and prices from a drawer underneath the register, and if I couldn’t locate the individual souvenir price because maybe it was a new inventory item, I would just make something up.
“That’s $2.99” I would decide. People would either go for it or not. But they never questioned my authority, because I wore the sailor costume.
The Root of All Evil
When I was a senior in high school, I waitressed at a bankrupt restaurant that owed me more than two hundred dollars in back wages, because I was silly enough to keep working there for tips. My grandmother researched the process and then drove me to a stodgy government agency in Santa Ana where I filled out forms. Around a year later, I was delighted (my grandmother shocked) when I received a check in the mail for $147 from the bankruptcy proceedings.
These early employment experiences compelled me to go to college with no specific plan other than ultimately obtaining a higher paying job that was not in foodservice. In California, community colleges charged a mere $5 per credit hour in 1988 when I began. That worked out to $15 per class for a typical 3 unit college 100-200 level course. I don’t know how they could afford to pay the instructors who all had a minimum of master’s degrees in their field, but before 1985, the community colleges cost even less - they were free.
My grandmother gladly paid for my community college tuition, giving me a signed blank check to hand over to the clerk when I registered for classes each semester. Of course, I still had to work. By this time I was living with my eventual husband (I’ll refer to him going forward as Barry) and we were both cobbling together a living while renting my mother’s house by the beach for $250 per month because it covered her mortgage at the time.
In 1990 I’d worked for two years at a Heidi’s Frozen Yogurt shop, becoming the assistant manager. A man named Skip owned the location by my mom’s house near the Huntington Beach pier, and another store in Newport Beach. As the economy tanked, or maybe the consumer’s taste for frozen yogurt diminished, Skip closed one store followed by the other less than a year later.
He had a lot of business contacts in the area, always considering some new money-making scheme, and he both liked and respected me. Skip had more faith in my ability to learn complex concepts and do quality work than I did. He initially recommended me for a position at an escrow company owned by his ladyfriend Joanie, but when I ventured there for an interview, I found the office atmosphere too intimidating, the girls employed there were all dressed professionally and expensively, and when Joanie explained what they did with title searches, earnest money, and closing in escrow, I didn't really understand any of it and felt entirely out of my league, ill-prepared and unworthy. She assured me that Skip had confidence I was right for the job. I felt at that moment Skip's optimistic assessment of me was irrational.
Skip introduced me and Barry to a man named Ron, who operated a business called Consumer Response from a small rented unit in an industrial park in Huntington Beach. There was a tiny cluster of offices in the front and a narrow warehouse in the back. Skip became a salesman for this company which produced custom calendars. They had contracts with car dealerships all over southern California. Upon closing a sale on say, a new Hyundai, the car salesman would photograph the driver standing in front of their shiny new car and send the photos to us once a roll of film was finished, 24 car sales later.
We assembled a calendar, which was no more than a rectangle of cardboard with the new car customer photo laminated onto the top portion of the rectangle, along with the dealership’s logo with their phone number prominently displayed. We punched holes with an industrial-grade three-hole punch and used brads to attach a stack of calendar pages interspersed with coupons for oil changes and engine tune-ups. The rationale behind the calendar, from a marketing angle, was that it would keep the customer returning to the dealership, either for maintenance, or when it was time to buy their next vehicle.
“Because nobody can stand to throw away a picture of themselves,” Ron told me. That was the psychology behind the concept. This was 1990 still in the days of putting film in cameras, that would be dropped off at photo booths; drive-thrus situated in the center of parking lots in retail strip shopping centers, or kiosks in the mall, and nobody had a cell phone, let alone one you could take pictures with.
Ron worked with a photo processing company that was located in a different building in the same industrial park. When they started coming to the office asking for money, I may have suspected something was wrong. The first time this happened, Ron gave them a check and I didn’t think much of it, assumed the late payment was an oversight, which Ron confirmed. Business continued as usual.
Barry and I often ate out for lunch at a sit-down taco place walking distance from the industrial park, located on Newland between Beach Blvd and Goldenwest. We made money, and then we spent money. I voiced that I didn’t think we could afford this and should consider packing our lunches in the future.
“I mean eight fifty an hour is nice but if we want to have any leftover…”
“Actually that’s not what I negotiated with Ron,” Barry took a sip of his water.
A look came over him that was simultaneously guilt at his wage compared to mine, and pride... at his wage compared to mine.
“Ron agreed to pay me twenty dollars an hour.”
I just stared with my mouth hanging open a little.
“So we can afford this lunch but if you want to pack…”
“I don’t understand. How did you get more money?” My brow furrowed involuntarily.
I couldn’t decide if I should be annoyed because we both worked in the same warehouse, sometimes standing side by side, sometimes across from one another at the rectangular table with the paper cutters and the lamination machine that was plugged in and needed to heat up each day. Using the same industrial hole punch, refilling the same container of brass brads. We both did an identical job. Same quality, same general speed, although now I could see myself competing, trying to be faster maybe as if to prove that my performance was also worth $20 an hour.
Or maybe I should be pleased that this was my future husband and he knew how to hustle this businessman that we’d both recently been introduced to? I wasn’t certain if this was a glimpse into his future earning capacity, to always get more? To reap more than his peers? I decided I would be proud, impressed, appreciative.
“I just factored in how much he’s paying for the materials, rough guestimates, and I determined that he’s clearing close to sixty dollars per calendar. And we probably assemble at least twenty or thirty each in an hour...”
“Uh, huh.” I was bedazzled. How did he even think to calculate that? While I assembled the calendars, I often focused on the photos of the people. Some chose to smile stiffly like it was a school photo, while others became zany and kissed the car, or climbed on the hood, or did some swooping motion with their arms ala Vanna White, and I decided that’s probably what I would have done if I had been offered a photo calendar when I purchased my Honda Civic. We didn’t have many Honda accounts and not with the dealership my car came from. Skip was trying to land a contract with Honda at the corporate level to extend beyond the individual dealers in California. He dreamed big.
“So I asked for twenty figuring the worst he could say is no. But he didn’t. I had only hoped for fifteen.” Barry smiled.
I smiled. He proceeded to coach me on how to ask for a higher wage when I spoke with Ron after lunch about the new receptionist position. The prior receptionist, an elderly woman, had up and quit, somewhat mysteriously, seeming irritable and bitter when she left the day before taking her few belongings from her desk.
The next time the photo processing vendor came to the front door the following week, Ron called me at my new receptionist perch from his office in the back. I had “negotiated” $12 an hour and was sitting in the front entrance at my desk. While less than $20 this job was easier than assembling. I spent most of my days writing in a notebook I carried with me and answering the phones that rarely rang.
“Tell them I’m not here, Heidi. Tell them that I’ve gone to the bank to make a deposit.”
“Okay.” The door separating the front lobby from the back offices and warehouse was closed. It was also locked which made me nervous because that’s where the restroom was located.
The front glass door swung open violently, the bells tied to the crossbar jangling pointlessly to announce the photo processing vendor, who I could clearly see was angry.
“I know he’s here.” The owner was maybe in her late twenties and I was amazed that she owned the photo business. She was furious yet composed at the same time, standing with one hand on her hip, elbow pointing out. “His car is parked out back.” She looked at me with a sort of pity, as if to point out how ridiculous were these shenanigans.
“Ron? No, you just missed him actually, he’s gone to the bank to deposit some money.”
“So the check he wrote me will clear then? By tomorrow?” The girl was plain with straight brown hair. She wore a sleeveless button-down shirt with a collar and kaki capri pants with Vans and no socks. I wondered how she got into this business.
“Definitely,” I said. “I mean... I would think so?” I wasn’t sure how confident I should pretend to be.
“Is Shirley here?” she asked. She could tell I had no clue what was going on and I sensed she didn’t want to lay this on me.
“Yeah!” I said happily, pointing to Shirley’s office that I faced while catching Shirley’s barely perceptible shake of her head, eyes wide, irritated with me. Too late.
Shirley was a young petite woman with coarse dark hair that fell below her shoulders and was frequently pulled back in a single braid. She had recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in accounting. I was intimidated by her because she never smiled and she seemed permanently angry as if followed around by a gray murky cloud of doom. I sometimes had difficulty understanding her when she spoke because of her heavily accented English and I was embarrassed to continually ask her to repeat herself because, on the second and third attempts, I felt no closer to understanding, which agitated me. This state of anxiety shredded my ability to synthesize decipherable words into meaningful sentences, and I would stare back at Shirley with a blank expression.
As the receptionist, Shirley the office manager was now my boss.
I caught her thinly veiled glare in my direction as she emerged from her office to talk with the photo girl. It was agreed that she would not release the most recent batch of photos, “Already processed!” until she was paid current for the prior batches, with checks that transformed into cash and not the worthless paper with Ron’s meaningless signature.
“We need photos to continue production,” Shirley stated truthfully in sharp clips. “We cannot gain money if we cannot produce.”
“That is not my problem. Our terms are due on completion. I don’t know what terms Ron has with his clients, that’s his issue.”
“Can you give me photos now? So we can produce?”
“No,” the girl seemed livid at the preposterous question and exasperated now with Shirley. “Tell Ron to come talk to me in person when he returns. I don’t want a phone call, I want to talk with him face to face.”
When she left, Shirley seemed even more stressed than usual, and made an effort to commiserate with me, because we were “in same boat.” I didn’t know what we were in or why. All I knew was that production did cease. There were no more calendars to assemble. The last couple of batches of film were taken to another vendor who didn’t know yet not to trust Ron, and that was it.
The photos stopped coming in because car sales plummeted as jobs were lost in southern California in 1990. Barry had taken this assembling job with me because the car dealership where he had previously made good money as a salesman, simply didn’t have enough people coming onto the lot to purchase cars and the hope for commissions dried up. Only those salesmen supporting families stayed behind for the few opportunities that stumbled upon them. My family all worked in government; my grandfather the federal government, my grandmother the City of Huntington Beach, and my mother the County of Orange. Their jobs always had the illusion of security and none were ever lost.
I did surmise one tidbit of information from Shirley though. She was as resentful as she seemed, and the receptionist had quit in an irate huff, upon entering the wage information for Barry with his higher than everyone else $20 per hour rate of pay. Because that was more than the loyal receptionist earned, and more than Shirley with her accounting degree.
Drop me a line in the comments and answer this: What is the most peculiar job you ever worked?
Some names have been changed for privacy.