Friday, March 12, 2010

Odd Jobs




In my writing group the other night, I asked my fellow writers and poets about the weirdest jobs they've ever had. It was my turn to "share" and since there are a couple of upcoming contests, one of which involves work (Work Magazine). I thought they and I might like to try our hands at a bit of memoir.
So we went around the room with good success. A cab driver in Honolulu, a really bad waitress, drinking vodka with the Polish army, stuff like that came up. I recalled a job that was passed around among roommates in a Berkeley house back in the 70s. I had the pleasure for a couple of months. It was essentially being a janitor in a small "art house" movie theater. I'd go in about 3:30 or 4 p.m. and sweep up then vacuum two small theaters. Next, I'd clean the two restrooms in between Theater A and Theater B. All told, about two hours a day. Aside from free movies... (mostly what were termed "foreign" or offbeat films" back then) sweeping the aisles and between and under the seats could be lucrative. I found lots of small change, occasionally a wad of bills, a big Swiss Army knife, and many, many, sweaters jackets, hats, and even a few wallets. Of course it would all go to a lost and found, but, aside from the wallets, people rarely returned to claim anything. After a week or two, the owner said just throw it away or donate anything useful. Some I donated to myself. The small amounts of money amounted to tips in my mind.
Those "tips" were welcome because often I'd find "surprises" in the theater. It seems there was an ice cream shop nearby. Some folks would buy a pint, smuggle it into the theater and then eat only a half a pint. Quietly, they'd set the container down on the floor or under the seats. By cleaning time the next afternoon...surprise!
That job was as pleasant as popcorn compared to my all-time weirdest: working at the Del Monte cannery.
In the summer between finishing up my student teaching and graduate work at UC Berkeley and getting a full-time teaching job, I went to work for Del-Monte in Emeryville, Ca. If you don't know, Emeryville, is a small town located in what was then a highly industrialized area between southwest Berkeley and west Oakland. Del Monte operated Cannery #35 there since the early part of the 20th century. It was a fruit cannery running work shifts 24 hrs. a day during summer when peaches and pears were in season. Word was that a broke college student could make good money for a few months because all the jobs were union wage. In late June of 1972 I applied and within hours I had joined the union and went to work in the pear department from 1:00p.m.-10:p.m. on weekdays. It took all of my first hour on the job to train me. Here's what I did: Report to work and change into all rubber rain-suit, the classic yellow one complete with hat. Apply a lanolin solution to arms and hands and then cover with rubber gloves. Clock in. Wheel a large steel wheel-barrow from the loading dock to the pear department where teams of women were monitoring peeled and cored pears on conveyer belts for rotten portions of the fruit. They would also arrange the washed, peeled, cored and split in half pears according to size. When a large wheel-barrow was filled with rotten or unusable fruit pieces, I would then wheel it back to the loading dock and empty it into large dumpster-like bins that would eventually be trucked away. That went on for 9 hours. But there were a couple of other duties I performed each day as well. One was an important task when the women took their lunch break. The fruit traveled on stainless steel tray like conveyer belts. The machinery was shut down for their 40 min. lunch break about 5:00 p.m. every day. That's when I'd go into action with an enormous fire hose. The equipment has to be hosed off, first with steam, and then hot water before they returned for the remainder of their shift. I turned very large valves. I dredged the hose through the factory and with steam and then hot water pouring forth, I washed the pear belts down. It took all my strength, but being 24 and in the company of all manner of gritty workers, I tried to fit in, to show my grit, to survive and get that check.
Occasionally, things would not go as planned. That's the topic for tomorrow.

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