Opinion

Growing Up Eighties — Get A Job, Boys: Life With The Old Man

Conventional Wisdom: High school kids need internships, not jobs. It’s all about positioning for college. For best results, parents should be intimately involved in the process.

Truth: There were three summer job requirements in my childhood: that you have one, that it be paying and that you find it yourself. Dad was involved only insofar as necessary to communicate these terms.

The smiles on our faces faded with each passing mile, as we got further from the beach and closer to home. I drove as my brother Jack, lulled by the rhythm of the tires on the asphalt, stared blankly at the tobacco fields and weathered barns dotting the countryside. Beach Week, a tradition dad did not so much celebrate as tolerate, had ended. To his way of thinking, if his sons wanted to blow off some steam for a week after their sophomore and senior years of high school, fine by him, as long as they paid for it themselves and came home ready to work. Jack and I operated on the buddy system: if I could secure a place to stay I simply included him in the deal, and he did the same. It had worked well over the years, and this time it was I who had hooked us up.

Jack was coming up a day later, so I’d given him detailed directions to the beach house. As it turned out, not so much beach house as sketchy apartment complex just close enough to shore to make its maritime theme not materially misleading. The directions however missed a crucial fact. They failed to convey that we were staying on the second floor of the complex. When Jack stuck his head in the open kitchenette window of what he thought was his first floor abode, he took a frying pan squarely on the melon. The renter, a chain-smoking woman justifiably terrified by Jack’s hey cupcake greeting, had decided to take defensive action. I came downstairs when I heard the commotion, and while my brother almost certainly suffered a concussion –then just called getting your bell rung – we all had a good laugh. Even Jack, once his wooziness subsided.

But all of that seemed a long time ago now, the beginning of a fun week that was now only a memory. We knew what awaited us from the old man, and were in no particular rush to get home. Jack finally broke the silence.

“Do you think we should call first?” Of course, there were no cell phones back then. Car phones existed for members of the Illuminati, but not two chuckleheads like us. Calling from the road meant stopping at a pay phone.

“Better than just showing up,” I agree. “We’re close to the grocery, let’s just go there.”

“Do you think we’re the only guys who have to do this kind of stuff?”

“I dunno, man, I dunno.” I had long ago stopped questioning the rhyme or reason to the old man’s rules. It would make you crazier than simply gritting your teeth and serving your sentence. Example. After getting a speeding ticket junior year my choices were pay for my own auto insurance – an impossibility at sixteen  – or attend six months of weekly diocesan meetings designed to encourage vocations to the priesthood. The only calling I knew I had for sure was not being reliant on the city bus, so I took the deal. “His house, his rules.”

We pull into the Safeway parking lot, not more than four miles from our home. From the passenger seat I sense Jack wants to delegate, a tendency so habitual that he doesn’t even need to say anything. “Fine, I’ll make the call. You’d just mess it up, anyway.” I flick on the hazards and head for the pay phone. As I dial my mind begins to drift. I have been to this Safeway hundreds of times, and never have used the pay phones. Then a familiar thought as my gaze fixes on the video store across the parking lot. It’s well understood in my family that anytime you are getting something at Safeway, it’s never a bad idea to swing by the video and grab a movie, particularly if that movie is Red Dawn. The phone is ringing on the other end. After three rings, dad picks up.

“Hello.” Somehow when dad says it, it’s not so much a greeting as a declaration.

“Hi dad. It’s Mike. The beach was great, really good time.” Silence on the other end. “Anyway, Jack and I are on our way back home now, and we stopped at Safeway. Need anything at the store?” He ignored the request.

“Do you boys have summer jobs yet?”

“That is our first priority, dad. 100%. I know what you said when we left for the beach last week – ‘don’t come home until you have jobs’.”

“So we’re clear then. I will see you when you and your brother have summer jobs, not before,” and then, an afterthought, “while you’re up there, get Red Dawn.” He hangs up. I look at Jack in the passenger seat.

“What did he say?”

“He said don’t come home until we have summer jobs.” I don’t even return to the car. Instead, I head directly for Safeway.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting a job.” I see Mr. Ackley, Safeway’s manager, almost immediately, as he happens to be coming out of his office over by produce. I know his name from the tag he wears. He has a reddish-brown mustache and always seemed kindly in the many years I’ve seen him in the store. I hope he has forgotten about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions that were shoplifted back in ’84, a great year for Paulina Porizkova. (I had nothing to do with it, although I know who did.) I introduce myself, firm but not vice-like in my grip, slight downward angle on the approach and locked-in on the eyes. The old man taught me there are no do-overs in handshakes.

“Nice to meet you, Mike,” Mr. Ackley says. “I have seen you around since you were a little kid. It’s nice to know your name. Can I help you find something?”

“Yes, sir, you can.” He is visibly appreciative. Dad was right, sir goes a long way with men of a certain age. “I’m looking for a summer job. Need anybody?”

“Well, I like your manners, that’s for sure. Let me think about it for a minute. You’re a little young for the register, and the union won’t let me put you on the loading dock.” He plays with his mustache as he ponders, pushing against the grain, which gives me the willies. “I suppose we could always use another bag-boy around here. Our regular kid Brad is a good egg, but he keeps getting injured on that dirt-bike of his. A bag-boy with his arm in a cast is only so useful to me. You don’t ride a motorcycle, do you?”

“No, sir. My parents don’t allow it.” He sizes me up and down one last time.

“So, are you sure that bag-boy is the kind of job you are looking for?”

“I’m sure, Mr. Ackley. It’s perfect.”

“Well it’s settled then. I’ll see you at 9:00 tomorrow morning for training.” Then, almost sheepishly, “there’s really not that much to training.”

I’m beaming when I walk out into the parking lot. Not because it’s my life’s ambition to bag groceries, but because the old man pitched one inside on me, and not only did I not flinch, I dug in and went yard. I have a summer job – I’ll be sleeping in my own bed tonight. Jack looks at me as I approach the car. He senses my good fortune.

“Did you get a job!?” I walk right by him. Not walk so much as strut. But I’m not done yet. There’s an advertisement on the community board. A student painter business is looking for summer workers. I focus on three key words: no experience necessary.  I rip off the phone number at the bottom and, approaching Jack curbside, drop the paper scrap dramatically on his lap.

“I did indeed, little brother, I did indeed. You are looking at Safeway’s newest bag-boy.” He studies the paper in his hands. “That’s for you. You my friend are officially a student painter.” Jack thinks for a moment as his new professional identity, for the next three months anyway, settles in.

“Student painter. Yeah, I can see that. Let’s get Red Dawn.”