I spent last night visiting with an old friend from Block Island, RI. She and her mate are friends and former bosses, two of the best bosses I’ve ever had, in fact. When the person I’m working for works hard and doesn’t ask me to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, it makes me want to work as hard as I can for her. Some people might call that a work ethic. I think it ends up being more about human relationships than it is about the work. I hate to disappoint people I like or admire, so in an employment situation, that makes me want to work hard. And it doesn’t matter so much what I am doing. For the right person, I will scrub toilets and floors and enjoy it.
I wasn’t always a hard worker. My first job was at a Thom McCann shoe store. I have no clue why I thought that, at the age of 16, working at a retail shoe store was a good idea. I had no particular interest in shoes at that time (she said as she looked down at her new blue suede cowboy boots; I guess I grew into that girlie fetish). Nor did I have any particular interest in retail sales. I had turned 16 and in my house, when you turned 16, you got a job so you could have your own money to spend on undoubtedly nefarious activities you were unable to spend your parents’ money on.
I was not employed at the shoe store for long. I wasn’t particularly fond of helping people try on shoes, nor did I take the time to learn the convoluted numbering and storage system in the crowded back hallways where the shoes were stored. In fact, I found myself avoiding the back hallways of the shoe store altogether. The manager and assistant manager were snorting black beauties in the back office all the time and I simply could not keep up with that sort of lifestyle at the age of 16.
Then my sister and her boyfriend, Steve, devised a plan to get me a job at the local record store where Steve worked. This seemed like the perfect job for me. As a child of the seventies, I loved music. We were driving to concerts in Columbus and Cleveland all the time, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, David Bowie. So working at a record store seemed like it would be a great fit. We’d stand around, smoke cigarettes and listen to records, right?
To my surprise, they actually wanted me to work. Sort records, file new records, re-order records, re-sort records when customers didn’t put them back where they were supposed to go. But such great demands were cutting into my smoke time and my ability to hang out with my friends. I didn’t last long at the record store either.
I did not yet know how to work. Sure I had worked in my mother’s home, as a housemaid, chambermaid, bathroom scrubber, dishwasher, and occasional gardener. And I did those things, slightly grudgingly, because my mother cared about them more than I did. I don’t think I really learned to work until I went to work in my father’s factory.
You might think that working for my father would be a cakewalk. Ahhh, she’s the boss’s daughter, she’ll get away with anything. With my dad, the opposite was true. He made sure you understood that his expectations of you were higher than for those of his other employees. You weren’t going to embarrass him by being the spoiled rotten boss’s kid.
My father owned a small manufacturing plant that made a variety of non-metallic parts, mainly for the then thriving Ohio automotive and appliance industries. I first went to work there the summer after my junior year, at age 17. Since I was not yet 18, I could not operate the punch presses, so I worked on various assembly jobs. My father’s employees were mostly women doing assembly and operating punch presses, with a couple men to cut and move material around and fix the equipment.
One particular job I had to do was putting a small bit of metal screen around a fibrous white donut-shaped piece that would eventually go into a catalytic converter. This job was piece work for the women in the shop. The more you could produce, the more you were paid. The job was done in pairs and your work was measured with that of your other team member to record your final numbers and determine your pay at the end of the day. All the other women in the shop had been doing this for years, and had certain expectations and a healthy competition about how much they could produce in a day. Two things weighed heavy on me: first, I’m the boss’s daughter and if I didn’t work my ass off, he’d be pissed. Second, these women needed to make money and I’d be mortified if my teammate made less money because I couldn’t produce. I worked my butt off to get up to speed, and it had absolutely nothing to do with how much money I would make at the end of the day.
More than a year later, I headed to college, and the second job I found—the first one was in a fast food joint and I was obviously not fast food material—was in a family owned coffee shop where the father, mother and son prepared and served breakfast and coffee to hundreds of college students. They were close-knit, hard-working, and anal retentive about how to do every little task in the place and I was determined not to be embarrassed so I hustled and learned how to get along. Again, it was more about relationships than about the money I was making, which was only enough to keep me in tea, cigarettes and an occasional beer.
Then after my second year of college, I headed to Block Island for the summer. And in my second summer on Block Island, I worked for Diane. Diane was running the airport diner and she had this bright idea that I could learn to be a short order cook. So I did that, and I lived in the little apartment above her garage for the summer. What I learned from Diane is immeasurable and I am proud to still call her friend after all these years. In those days, when her son Nathaniel was 4 years old and she was raising him by herself, she was running the airport restaurant, tending a huge vegetable garden, making soup every day for the restaurant, caring for her aging mother, and still finding time to go to the beach and teach me what eating fresh fish is really about.
Maybe it was the fact that I was slinging hash in the mornings and laying on the beach in the afternoon. Maybe it was the fact that I lived in this enchanting garage apartment where I had to carry in bottled water and shower down the street at the marina. Maybe it was the fact that I discovered that a piece of swordfish caught wild in the morning and broiled that afternoon could melt in your mouth like a good piece of prime rib. But I felt like Diane had been the shepherd of one of the most magical summers of my life. She was giving and tireless and I’d have done anything for her.
I’m thinking a lot about those days because I am sitting at Diane’s kitchen table looking out on a sunny day on Block Island, taking a brief vacation before I begin a new job in a week. Likewise, Diane and Donn are getting ready to start yet another new restaurant venture. I told them, if I hadn’t already found a job, I would have been happy to stay and help them open the new place. In fact, I believe I said “I would love nothing more than to let you guys work me like a dog.” I’ve always said that it’s important to me that I work for someone who shares my core values, someone who values the people who work for her, someone who wouldn’t ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. Someone with a generous spirit who is motivated to work is someone I will always want to work tirelessly for. If that’s what you wanna call a work ethic, I guess I acquired that somewhere along the way.