"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 4, 2015

Summer Jobs Build Character, Right?

‘Summer jobs build character’, a familiar old saw of a generation ago. Well-off families found summer jobs for their teenage children not because anyone needed the money, but because working at menial jobs taught discipline, respect, and the value of work.  Perhaps most importantly of all, it discouraged indolence. The thought of an able-bodied teenager doing nothing productive with his life was unthinkable. Indolence bred sloth, and sloth led to dereliction, drugs, and bad company.

My first job was as a stock-and-errand boy at Nishan’s Pharmacy, an old-fashioned drug store in New Brighton.  The pharmacist didn’t need any help, but in the quid pro quo culture of the Fifties, he was happy to hire the son of a doctor who would send patients his way.                          

My job was to ‘spruce up the inventory’.  Nishan’s basement was filled with racks with old, discolored vials of pharmaceutical ingredients that he had once used to confection drugs on order. By the time I went down into the hold of his galley, industrialized production had replaced the handiwork of local druggists, and there was no need for the liquids and powders Nishan had stored there. 

Drug Store


Cleaning the old bottles was no simple task. Dust had accumulated for years, and the bad air blown in by the exhaust fan of the cheap restaurant next door had covered them with a film of grease. They had been laminated with aerosol pork fat and schmaltz, and I needed an industrial solvent to clean them.

Nishan never bothered me.  No matter what I did down in the basement made no difference to him at all. Every broken bottle was one less he would have to throw out when he sold the store.  Since I was being paid as a sinecure, I could sit down there for hours doing nothing for all he cared.

What saved the day and my summer were the bottles of chloroform on the bottom shelf. Intravenous anesthesia had not yet come to New Brighton General Hospital, and ether and chloroform were still the rule. Doctors and dentists in private practice gave small doses of chloroform to knock patients out for minor surgery or extraction, and my own father’s clinic always smelled druggy and sickly sweet.



I had already begun to sample the sleeping pills in my mother’s medicine chest, so I figured that chloroform would be no different. I nearly knocked myself out on the first go-round, but got the dosage right after that, and the days went by very quickly indeed.

My next job was also secured by my father who had a similar cozy arrangement with the X-Ray Department of the hospital – free medical consultations for the head technician in exchange for jumping the queue and special attention for his patients. My job was shuttling patients to and from X-Ray. At least I was out of the Nishan’s basement.  I missed the chloroform but liked chatting up the Candy Stripers on C-4 and making out in the surgical supply closet.

Image result for images x-ray department hospital 50s


In short, these jobs were irrelevant and insignificant.  As far as I could tell they never built character nor gave me any insights into the world of business management or money.  They only hardened my conviction that most people had shit jobs and I never was going to have one. Long, leisurely summers among my own kind at Green Meadows Country Club would have been more logical.  No one of wealth, breeding, and education ever cleaned anything for a living, and far from giving me any empathy or compassion for labor, these low-level jobs made me realize how humdrum, difficult, and mind-numbing most work was.

Image result for images new england country clubs

Chores were part of what my father thought were character-building. Helping out around the house was the way children contributed to the integrity of the family. It fostered respect, a sense of duty, and the notion of sharing.

All well and good except my father’s ideas of chores were very different than most. I did the heavy-duty yard work now done by Latinos – weeding, reseeding, transplanting, mowing, and raking. I hated it.  Not only did the lessons of sharing and duty not take, I resented the fact that commercial lawn services took care of every other yard in the neighborhood.  At least I should get paid. It took two summers of raggedly-edged lawns, irregularly-trimmed hedges, brutally-pruned trees, and burned, over-fertilized and -limed gardens for my father to break his rules, abandon his principles, and hire DiCecco Lawn Service.


                Wall Street Journal

As far as I was concerned my summers were wasted.  A perfectly good two, warm, sunny months spent either in Nishan’s coal pit, in the darkroom of the X-Ray Department, or in the backyard digging out rocks and roots.

However, parents soon wised up and traded in principle for productivity. Empathy, compassion, and learning a trade were jettisoned in favor of summer jobs that would lead somewhere. Internships in Washington, for example, or volunteers at a local non-profit; or better yet, summer courses in pre-law, economics, and accounting. Summer vacation jobs made sense once more. 

Image result for images summer interns on capitol hill

In the early days of the Republic there were no such things as summer vacations. Everyone worked to keep the farm, to supplement meager wages, or to take care of younger children. The Fifties was an interstitial period between an era of family income and one of individual accomplishment, merit, and achievement.  I had summer jobs for no good reasons whatsoever. 

Chores fit into the same category.  They are no longer promoted on principle (sharing, caring, and helping), but means to assure minimal household maintenance. Unless a maid comes in every day, dishes pile up, junk accumulates, and bathrooms begin to smell.  When parents and children come home late in the evening after work, school, and extracurricular activities, unless everyone pitches in, the place will fall apart.

So there are few complaints all around. Children have inherited the same ambition and drive of their parents so are quite happy grinding out extra credit in the summer or filling the resume with career-oriented internships. They willingly do chores because they see how the delicate balance of the household would fall apart without everyone pulling his weight. 

Millennials are back on track.  Summer work is a profitable investment in the future; and parents can accrue indirect rewards. Sadie can’t say ‘My son the doctor’ unless he takes calculus or works at NIH in the summer; but he is more than willing to work to be at the top of his class.  Principles, economics, and parenting have been happily realigned after an awkward period of 75 years

While some critics lament the demise of the principled work that taught character, most admire how every element of the American economy is working together.  The family unit has been reconfigured to meet the new demands of the 21st century. Principle is learned along the way and in the school of hard knocks. There is nothing like beginning life in the fast lane and fighting to stay there. 

Of course there are many American families who have missed out on most everything over the last two generations. Jobs of any kind are scarce in the ghetto. Majority values – the one’s my father tried to teach me – honor, discipline, respect, honesty, and hard work – got lost in the shuffle and now many black families have neither productive jobs and educational promise nor the moral foundation on which to acquire and fulfill them.

I don’t think back on my summers in Nishan’s basement or in the antiseptic-smelling hall of New Brighton General Hospital or the nasty, acrid X-Ray darkrooms.  Nor do I dwell on buggy days pulling weeds.  I was part of a cultural hiatus, that’s all. A period spinning moral wheels and uncertainty about the new postwar prosperity. Water under the bridge and no regrets.

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