Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Monday, August 22, 2016

Jobs that Taught Me About Life, Part 8: The College Clerk

I had been at the cleaning gig for nine years when my husband suffered an unfortunate accident that resulted in the loss of his right arm. About six weeks later, while we were still reeling from this change, I stopped to pick him up from the community college where he taught an Accounting course. While I waited, weary and dirty from a day of cleaning houses, I sat in a chair in the hallway. Suddenly the manager breezed by.

“I need to talk to you before you go,” she said to me. “About some work.”

I watched her disappear into her office. Forget it, I thought. I am not interested in adding one more cleaning job to my list, especially one the size of this. I felt tempted to sneak out, but she caught me and called me into her office.

To my surprise, it was not a cleaner she was looking for but an evening clerk. Someone to man the office from regular quitting time until evening classes began. The work would be cyclical and varied. It paid more than I currently made. And if I wanted, I could take classes free of charge as long as they were relevant to the job.

It might have been a no-brainer, except that it would mean I’d be at work during those critical after-school, homework-coaching, chore-nagging, supper-preparing, kitchen-cleaning hours. How could I do that to my family, especially during this traumatic time when my husband was trying to navigate the chaos of his new life? I prayed and sought advice from my mother and sisters, who encouraged me to go for it.

What I couldn’t see then was that God was holding a unique door open and if I didn’t step through it now, the next several doors after this one would remain closed to me.

Though the hours did prove challenging, I spent the next four years at that job. The rusty hinges of my office skills were quickly oiled as I got up to speed with computers and took several courses toward the Office Administration certificate—free of charge.

By this time I’d also been hired one day a week at my church, leading the drama ministry I’d been involved with as a volunteer for several years. I quit all but two of my cleaning jobs (offices that could be cleaned on the weekend and for which I recruited the help of my teenage daughter).

I look back on that time now as one of the craziest in my life and the life of my family—juggling three part-time jobs while raising three kids—and Hubby and me with only three hands between us. “Help me Jesus” became my breathing prayer.

It was during this time that our church secretary asked if I’d consider writing an article on stress for our women’s ministry newsletter. Stress? What did I know about stress?

I gave it a shot. Feedback started coming my way. A seed was planted. I think I’d like to do more of this, I thought.

But that’s a story for another day.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Job that Taught Me about Life, Part 7: The Cleaning Lady

I stumbled into it. A friend’s mother needed someone to clean her house once a week and I was willing if I could bring my two children along. A third child was on the way, but we’d cross that bridge later. As long as I worked while Sesame Street and Mr. Dressup entertained my kids, it was a great arrangement and a little extra income. But when the lady of the house came home one day to see how huge I’d grown and observed me lumbering around her house, she insisted it was time for mat leave.

Several weeks after the baby came, I returned with all three kids in tow and somehow we made it work. By the time the older two went off to school, word of mouth had worked its magic. I began taking on more cleaning jobs and by the time the youngest started school, it was my career. I was cleaning up to eight houses a week plus a couple of businesses on the weekends. It allowed me to finish my workday in time to pick kids up from school and stay home with them during school breaks, and for that I was grateful. I spent the next ten years scrubbing floors and bathrooms. I once calculated that I cleaned 600 toilets a year, counting our own.

Many clients came and went from my roster during those years, but I found they tended to fall into one of two camps: housekeeping-challenged families who expressed deep gratitude for anything I could do to lessen their chaos; and working empty nesters with more money than time. Some of the people in the former group would be the first to label themselves “slobs” and the disgusting messes I found could fill a book if I wanted to tattle. But they appreciated me!

The second group proved less satisfying to work for because sometimes when I arrived, I could still see my vacuum tracks from two weeks before in an unused room. This group tended to be pickier, each client having their own pet peeve they let me hear about if overlooked. One wanted their bathroom fixtures polished to a mirror finish; another insisted the door frames be dusted every time I came. As a result, I started addressing all the pet peeves in every house, including my own, and making myself a little nuts in the process.

The best part of this job was imagining my clients coming home from work to a clean house after a tiring work day.

The worst part was going home exhausted to my own dirty one.

My body began wearing out. Though I gave myself pep talks about doing honorable work with nothing to feel ashamed of, I feared cleaning was all I would ever be able to do. While I’d been sweeping and dusting, the world around me had become not only computer literate but computer dependent. I prayed about it a lot, because even though I did not regret this choice that allowed me to be there for my kids, I felt trapped.

One day I was stopped for a red light at Saskatchewan Avenue and Royal Road. Having finished my morning job, I was devouring a sandwich on my way to my afternoon job—already tired and feeling ugly in my worn jeans and tee-shirt. And perhaps a bit lonely. As I waited for the light to turn green, four nicely dressed women emerged from City Hall and crossed the street together—city staff going out for lunch. I watched them with a little envy.

I think I’d like to work there some day, and not as the janitor, I thought, certain it would never come to pass. The office world where I’d once fit now felt out of reach and there was neither time nor money to go back to school. God would have to surprise me if he was going to pull me out of my cleaning lady attire and, more importantly, my cleaning lady mindset.

But that’s a story for another day.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Jobs That Taught Me About Life, Part 6: The Chemist

It was the oddest setup: a company that sold swimming pools but operated out of an office in Longview, Texas. When customers stopped by expecting to see a store with a display pool and shelves of chemicals and pool toys for sale, they often thought they’d walked into the wrong place. Although a display pool would be built later, for now they took prospective customers out to view residential pools they’d built. They needed someone who could handle their calls and a certain amount of paperwork, as well as direct visitors to the other businesses in the building. I felt thrilled when they offered the position to me since it seemed like a huge step up from McDonalds. Plus, there was a pretty red phone on my desk.

Still unaccustomed to the southern drawl, I took a message one day from someone named Montel Siggs. I asked him to repeat his name to make sure I got it right, but when my boss read the message he scratched his head, trying to recall anyone named Montel Siggs. When he dialed the number and they picked up, he burst out laughing. The person on the other end had answered with, “Motel 6, how may I help you?”

My boss decided he could get a better bang for his buck if he trained me in pool chemistry so I could help clients when he wasn’t around. He sent me to Dallas to take a two-day training course from our supplier. My husband came as my chauffeur, and it felt like a grand prize for us to enjoy an all-expenses paid trip. Hubby decided to sit in on the seminar too, which saved my hide in the end. The course assumed one had taken basic high school chemistry and I had not. (Hubby had not, either, but Hubby is a brainiac.) It also assumed the students paid attention and didn’t spend the day dozing and daydreaming.

That evening as I studied for a test I felt sure to fail, Hubby explained everything we’d covered in class. The next day, he aced the test and I managed to pass. I returned to my boss with a certificate proving my expertise in pool chemistry.

What a joke.

My first client’s pool looked like pea soup with a cloud of mosquitoes hovering three inches above. But with my expert help, they could soon enjoy clear sparkling water. What a fun challenge! How amazed would they be when I miraculously turned their green swamp into a glorious, shimmering oasis? I tested a sample and laid out the prescription. When I returned two days and hundreds of dollars later, the water had improved to the point where you could actually see your hand below the surface…provided you were brave enough to stick your hand in it. 

My customer was not impressed.

I suggested more chemicals, but he would have none of it. He took it up with my boss, who was kind enough to deal with it and not give me a hard time. After that, I stuck to selling chemicals to people who already kept a well maintained pool and left the fatal cases to others.

One of our building’s more eccentric tenants was a hypnotherapist. This guy specialized in helping people quit smoking or lose weight by hypnotizing them in private sessions. He freaked me out, but I refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing it. One day he asked if I was connected to Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President J.F. Kennedy 16 years earlier in Dallas. 

“No,” I said. “Why?” I didn’t tell him my maiden name was Oswald. 

He said he was receiving some kind of “vibe” about it whenever he came near me. Later, after I figured out that he’d seen letters addressed to my parents in my outgoing mail tray, I felt like vibing him right in the jaw.

I left that job looking forward to becoming a full-time mommy and finally getting enough sleep. But that’s a story for another day.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Jobs That Taught Me About Life, Part 5: McDonalds

It was 1978. I sat in the darkened basement of the McDonalds Restaurant on Marshall Avenue in Longview, Texas, watching the training film flicker on the collapsible screen. I learned the history of the company, how to smile and take orders and—gulp—upsell by suggesting an order of fries and a drink to folks who ordered only a burger.

Working in a fast food joint seemed like a good solution for a starving student’s wife until I learned we had to pay full price for anything we ate. I began packing my own bologna sandwiches and learned to work with a rumbling tummy. “Free Meal” cards were sparingly handed out for special rewards. Just once, I earned one for having the perfect amount of change in my drawer at the end of my nine-and-a-half hour shift.

One day we received a call that a bus-load of football players was on its way. The crew in the back scrambled to assemble dozens of Big Macs and fill the fry bin, while out front we began pre-filling large cups of soda to the brim. When the burgers remained in the bin after their expiry time passed and we still hadn’t seen the bus, I thought my heart might break as we filled garbage bags with the unsold food, counting every Styrofoam box and recording it on the waste form. We learned later that the bus had shown up at the McDonalds across town—which had not received a call and was not prepared.
Me in my polyester uniform.

The polyester uniform seemed like a good solution for a starving student’s wife, too, until I learned I’d need to buy my own navy or black shoes. I stopped at a department store and bought the cheapest pair I could find. They were comfy, but made of nylon that allowed no breathing room. By the end of my first week, the shoes stunk so bad I left them out overnight to fend off burglars. And since my weekly trips to the laundromat were not frequent enough to keep the uniform fresh, I learned to swish it around in the bathtub each night and hang it up to dry.

I was to punch my time card and be at the counter, smiling and ready to take orders before 6:30 each morning. I learned to keep the coffee pots going continually and fill any momentary lull with counter-wiping and cup dispenser restocking. No standing idle, no drinking water in sight of the customers, no chit chat. And never, ever stop smiling.

I got two fifteen-minute breaks for which I needed to punch in and out, neither of them over the noon rush of course. By the end of the first day, I thought I’d die. I complained of sore feet to my parents over the phone. After a month, Dad asked me if I’d grown used to being on my feet.

“Well, put it this way,” I said. “I’m used to sore feet.”

The neatest learning experience coming out of that job came from the mostly African American staff. It was an education to be a minority for the first time in my life, to discover that the others could easily communicate without my knowing what was going on if they wanted to, and that they possessed a sense of humour I could only hope to emulate. I was the dumb white Canadian to be taken under wing, and I could not take myself too seriously if I wanted to get along.

I earned $3.10 an hour. When evaluation time came, Management gave us grades for our work. An ‘A’ grade meant a ten-cent raise. ‘B’ meant room for improvement while you continued at your same pay rate. ‘C’ meant a cut in pay (yes, they could actually do that) and ‘D’ meant you were fired.

Confident I’d soon be taking home an extra 95 cents a day, I went to my appointment smiling. But left in tears.

My manager had given me a ‘B’ and told me I needed to do more upselling. I’d been on the job nine months, and this news was all the incentive I needed. I spent my days off applying for secretarial positions until I was hired by a guy who sold swimming pools.

But that’s a story for another day.