Monday, April 18, 2011

Maybe the worst job I ever had.

Maybe the worst job I ever had.  ©Joel Baumwoll

Along with fun and games, there are jobs you have to do that have are immensely hard, boring, and interminable all at one time.

These require special effort. It helps to have conquered one or two of these monsters in your early years so the ones that fall in your lap later in life don't seem so bad after all.

Probably the worst job I ever had was given to me when I was eighteen and on summer vacation from my first year in college. I was hard up for money and as driven by hormones as any normal kid that age would be.

My car was survival and cash was essential. The big expense was the weekly drive from northern New Jersey to the Greenwich Village jazz clubs I loved to spend hours in drinking vodka and orange juice and listening to the likes of Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderly.

So when Hank Luther, half of the home building company called Luther and Gottlieb telephoned with work, I jumped (for several years I thought the company name was Lutheran Gottlieb, an odd combination of religions). "Meet me on Valley View Drive at seven tomorrow morning," Hank told me. "I've got a job for you."

I rarely went to bed before four a.m., so a seven o'clock call was tough. But I made it on time, arriving in my '48 Chevy coupe to see Hank's pick up waiting for me in front of a half finished house.

"C'mon," Hank instructed as we walked around the piles of lumber and cinder block to the back of the house. I followed him into the middle of the back yard, which was covered with a hard packed clay and strewn with rock of all sizes. It looked like a moonscape. 

In the center of the yard was an enormous hole. It must have been twenty feet deep and twenty feet across.

Hank pointed at the hole and said "Dry well." He waited for some sign of recognition, which didn't come from me. "Dry well," he repeated. "I need it filled up with stones,” at which point he picked up a rock about six inches across and dropped it into the hole. "Stones at least that big, but not bigger than that one." 

He pointed at a small boulder that looked like a Volkswagen Beetle and must have weighed five hundred pounds. "By the time you're done, the yard will be nice and clean. You can use that wheelbarrow and dolly," he advised me, as though I might think to carry these rocks on my back.

Monday morning I showed up for work, filling the wheelbarrow and dumping the contents in the hole. I started with the rocks closest to the hole, but in a week I was working a sixty-foot radius from the epicenter. Eventually, I was pushing the load from the edges of the property, more than two hundred feet away. It was hot, sweaty work.

The masons, burly black men who drank Ballantine Beer from huge bottles and listened to wonderful blues on a portable radio had fun watching my "skinny white ass hauling rock."

They joked and talked incessantly while they worked and were good company at lunch. I was sad when they finished their work and left me alone at the site. The grim white carpenter who chain-smoked "roll your owns" didn't talk much and cared less about me.

That was the summer of the dry well. At four fifty an hour, I made enough to go to the City every weekend with some left over. 

And no matter how tough a project comes my way, I always remember that huge empty hole and all those rocks.

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