No Worse for the Wear and Perhaps Significantly Better

I just read a New York Times article about a recent college grad, Scott, looking for work while residing with his parents in suburban New England after completing school debt free since his family paid his tuition.  He’s not been able to find his dream job or any job that meets his standards, having just turned down a 40K position with an insurance company because, well, it wasn’t the level of salary or responsibility he desired.

Not to worry: nearly every commenter duly chastised him for such ridiculous hubris in this economy and the article itself guided you to such thinking since even his own family evidenced some measure of frustration with his job-hunting decisions.

Some who commented made reference to their own first jobs and most of these took the form of the cliched, hard-life stories, like I walked 10 miles to and from work backwards on my hands wearing high heels, etc.  Point well made—over and over again—if only by the sheer volume of responses (1,487 and counting).

I won’t bore you with such details of my own first job out of college in a similar economic circumstance–a major recession—because I really don’t want to make that same point exactly.  But I will regale you with some tales of what I think Scott might be missing out on besides money and why an imperfect first job might be just what you need to get launched formally into adulthood.

Through my own lack of planning and absence of foresight, I graduated with an unmarketable liberal arts degree during a horrific recession.  I had whiled away the hours during college reading Chaucer and the Romantics and conducting sociolinguistic research on unsuspecting friends and family, completely oblivious to the economy crashing down around me.

The only job I could locate in 1980 was as a police dispatcher at the college police department where I had worked part-time during my last year of school.  (See Where You are When or A Museum of One’s Own: Love Letter to the Nelson if you want to know precisely how way led on to way in this instance.)  Frankly, I wasn’t anxious to resume living with my parents, lovely people though they were.  So I was relieved to take any full-time job, even one where I made only 8K, which was just as small a salary as it sounds like it is today.

Don’t bother trying to say at least milk was cheap or rent was low.  It mattered not;  gas prices and interest rates were sky high (15-20%), I couldn’t afford a car, and I still have check ledgers showing I borrowed $10.00 a month from my then boyfriend, now husband, to cover my phone bill when money ran out at the end of each month.

And the money always ran out because, as state employees, we were paid monthly.  That last week of the month, everyone’s funds appeared precarious at best.  One officer would bring in a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread for sandwiches to last him that last week.  Al was an imminently resourceful, portly fellow with a handlebar mustache twirled up at the ends with wax and his nasal twang signaled that he hailed from the southernmost tip of the state, an area known as the boot heel.

Rather than be troubled by maintaining an expensive leather briefcase, having gone through several in his career, he took to carrying what he called his “attache can,” a plastic trash receptacle, sized for a bathroom, in which his metal clipboard for report writing, ticket pad, and roll-a-tape fit perfectly.  It sat upright on the passenger seat next to his shotgun.

I found an apartment close to campus and rode my Raleigh bike, an 8th grade graduation gift, to work.  When I worked midnights, I wore a department-issued reflector vest over my uniform and plastered my bike with so much reflective tape that another officer swore I might actually cause a wreck by blinding drivers, so he offered me a ride out of concern for the public good.  Bruce was a bit like a big brother to some of us; by the tender age of 29, he’d already had his fill of urban police work in a big city on the east side of the state and made his way to a college town to escape the endless armed robberies and drug deals gone bad.

I took Bruce up on his generous offer on rainy nights, though there were a few mornings I regretted not hitching a ride home when I felt sufficiently fatigued and sleep-deprived as I pedaled that I thought I might slip right off the seat of the bike and pass out on the roadway.

The surge in the hire of women officers during the 1970s left no vacancies in the cramped women’s locker room,  which doubled as a copy room since it housed the lone copy machine for the department, so I was assigned a locker in the men’s locker room.  I knocked before entering, then locked the doors when I went in to get my stuff, and usually changed clothes in the restroom upstairs.  If anyone minded, they were too polite to say.

I was trained by a man who clearly had missed his calling as a disc jockey.  His radio voice and demeanor evoked that of Adrian Cronauer, the manic radio personality played by Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam.  Barry impishly penned several miniature cartoon books with me as a central character, mercilessly lampooning my robust naivete.  He was a budding musician and played electric guitar in a punk rock band when he wasn’t dispatching.

Thankfully, I was sent to special week-long residential training sessions at the Highway Patrol academy an hour away to learn the fine art of radio communication from serious professionals.  These sessions offered fascinating peeks inside a male-only law enforcement mecca.  I knew when I saw a cadet on his hands and knees measuring the distance between two buildings with a ruler that these folks meant business, though I wasn’t quite sure what crime his punishment fit.

During the school year, I watched in awe the carefully choreographed security provided on weekends for large-scale events like football games where upwards of 50,000 people were brought safely in and out of a football stadium by a number of law enforcement agencies.  The major who hired me had researched and developed plausible theories about crowd behavior, including the likelihood of fights erupting when the score in a game reached a certain point spread.   His observations were amazingly accurate and contributed to effective crowd control by his department.

Tragically, his young life was cut short when he was killed in a traffic accident shortly after he approved my hire.  He was a charismatic and respected leader well-regarded across the campus and in the community, and I entered this particular workforce during a difficult time of grieving, watching his stalwart colleagues deeply mourn his passing.  The command staff decided to proceed with my hiring because they needed to and deemed it was what he would have wanted; it somehow represented an act of hope in the wake of the unexpected devastation the department was experiencing.

When I worked midnights, couriers made deliveries of hazardous material ordered by the nuclear reactor personnel which I signed for and then tucked in the freezer of the refrigerator where we kept our sack lunches.  I read a remarkable number of Margaret Atwood and Joseph Wambaugh novels during this period of employment, usually around 3 AM in the break room while eating my peanut butter and honey sandwich for lunch.

Occasionally I would splurge and go out to dinner with another officer, Joan.  We’d wend our way through the silent, empty streets to the only restaurant open all night, IHOP, where I’d order my favorite menu item, a tuna melt.  Joan was interesting company; she was married to a Philosophy professor and raised goats as a hobby.

The waitress always offered coffee, which I always declined.  Though an unapologetic coffee addict since my children were born, I didn’t drink any back then and managed to stay awake merely through benefit of youthful exhuberance and the intense endorphin rush that comes from picking up the phone and hearing someone screaming for help on the other end of the line.

On evening shift, whenever I rode to the campus Wendy’s for dinner with another officer, Barb, students would wave the police car over and invite us to parties.  We tactfully refused.  A tiny and attractive redhead, Barb was a masterful detective and always the bad cop in interrogations, which surprised the hell out of the suspects she interviewed.

I worked for commanders with radically different leadership styles and personalities. One captain was a tall, strapping man with a distinctive rural dialect who spoke glowingly of his small hometown in the county next door, or as he referred to it, the Kingdom of Callaway.

He had developed interesting philosophies of law enforcement, like “The civil defense gives warnings, we don’t.”  His rather unforgiving tow policy for the campus parking lots was more than memorable, especially when delivered in his inimitable drawl to those who dared complain: “If you ain’t payin’, you ain’t stayin’.”

Another captain was known for his volatile temper and the tantrums he pitched at roll call, sending airborne any copies of reports he considered flawed. When the press would press him for details on a story, he taunted them with a Cheshire grin and his inevitable response of  “No comment.”  By contrast, his good friend, also a captain, was the spitting image of Robert Redford and exuded a lovely, calming countenance in the face of any calamity.  I was always relieved to be assigned to his watch.

A few sergeants were cynical and caustic, others sweet or sanguine. By this point, most of them had had enough encounters with people from all walks of life to know exactly when to be skeptical and when to be hopeful.  I later surmised that one of my sergeants was the model for the militaristic character Howard Hunter on the popular 1980s TV series, Hill Street Blues. He approached every shift as a military maneuver about to unfold and imbued each roll call with a somber tone.

Officers ranged from seasoned, middle-aged veterans who filled out the day shift roster by virtue of their seniority and worked awfully hard to minimize paperwork so that it wouldn’t interfere with their lunch breaks to the many tireless 20-somethings and overzealous rookies for whom this job was a stepping stone to a career in law enforcement, usually with other agencies.

One person with no rank at all wielded by far the most power.  She was the wizened secretary in charge of supplies who behaved as if the cost of every pen was directly deducted from her paycheck.  She wouldn’t dispense so much as a paper clip to the chief without a grimace and a growl.  I learned early on how to wrangle bottles of liquid paper and stockpile them for future use since my typing skills were quite negligible at that point.

Despite their idiosyncrasies and the low wages of their jobs, these seemingly quirky people were all actually quite proficient in their work.  They responded to their share of accidents and disturbances and painstakingly solved crimes ranging from innocuous college pranks to significant drug and theft cases.

They dealt compassionately with the homeless and mentally ill transients who often sought refuge and could easily stay under the radar in a college town.  All displayed a genuine desire to help people.  I am certain that more than a few of them patiently looked over my shoulder as I struggled to get my sea legs in their complex universe.  I’m astounded now that they had faith enough in me to believe that I ever would.

Most of the time, I sat alone in the tiny radio room, surrounded by a few pieces of ancient equipment and reams of paper streaming from an old dot matrix printer.  Clipboards hung from every square inch of wall space.

For 8 or 12 hours a day, I spun a web of activity through transmissions of the spoken word lobbed into the atmosphere via airwaves.  I could only imagine the scenes people described to me, as I leaned forward in a dilapidated office chair on rollers, speaking into a large desktop microphone which I keyed up by pressing the buttons on its base with one hand while simultaneously transcribing all transmissions with the other.

When I started there at age 21, I was the youngest full-time employee on staff.  When I left 18 months later, I was not much older but, unquestionably, I was a tad bit wiser.

I had learned to do all sorts of things I didn’t know I could do and that my sheltered Catholic background and college degree had not prepared me for in the least: operate a two-way radio system in order to verbally acknowledge and track every move of every police officer on duty, decide when and where to send available officers, record every radio transmission by hand, discern the kind of problem callers had and determine the kind of help required, speak calmly and distinctly even when everyone else was yelling, monitor city and county radio traffic, follow legal and safety protocols, organize and prioritize my varied work tasks, manage my life around shift work with rotating days off throughout the week, work weekends and midnight shift, operate a computer (a monstrously huge pre-Internet CRT, loaded only with an in-state DMV system and NCIC warrant system).

I’m confident that I fit the demographic cited in the NYT article of people who exited college during the ferocious recession of 1980 making 30% less money initially and at least 10% less thereafter.  Since I eventually landed in the field of education, I suspect this is more than true in my case.

And, if I remember correctly, my nurse friends made at least 3 times my 8K salary upon exiting nursing school.  Big deal.  I wouldn’t trade one minute of those first 18 months of my working life for the world and I bet you can guess why.

That said, I wish Scott only the best in his continued job search and the courage to explore worlds he doesn’t yet know exist.


6 thoughts on “No Worse for the Wear and Perhaps Significantly Better

  1. You’ve captured the vividness and adventure of a first job, similar to my own as a rookie police reporter. I’m nostalgic for it, or perhaps for my youth, but also for what else you captured: the good feeling of making your own way, even if they paid so little in 1977, in my case, that I was truly among the working poor.

    • Oh my gosh, Richard. I think we’ve been leading parallel lives! I wouldn’t have the stamina now–emotional or physical–to do what I did then, but I do have pangs of nostalgia for what that time represented, just as you say.

  2. As Stanislavski (founder of The Method) said, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” I think this statement could apply in everyday jobs as well. My mother was fond of saying, “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” That doesn’t really apply in this case, but I just wanted to throw it in there. 🙂

    I’ll bet there’s another thing you learned from your experience…how to be frugal.

    Too bad Scott can’t read this excellent post, Mary. He could learn a lot from you.

    • Susan:

      Hey, I think it does apply! My dad had a great fondness for your mother’s saying. That message still plays in my head most of the time, especially when I just don’t feel like doing something!!! I’m not sure the lessons on frugality stuck, but there’s no doubt I had ample opportunity to learn them! ; )

  3. You described that first job perfectly. We learn so much more than “the job” at our first job… at any job.

    So many have been hurt in this economic environment. Perhaps someone who has a family and mortgage will be offered the opportunity to accept the job this young man found unacceptable. One could only hope.

    • Bella:
      That’s a good thought and I hope that is the epilogue to that story. And you are right: what we learn from jobs about human nature alone is priceless, before even tabulating all of the other knowledge we accrete through them!

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