Sunday, April 10, 2016

Work History

When I was thirteen, all I wanted was a job as soon as possible.  I wanted this job to separate me from my life and family somehow, maybe even from myself.  A job seemed almost romantic to me in that way:  weekly earned income, a place to go besides school, friends at work instead of the many a-holes I had to contend with at school, cigarette breaks, free pop, a uniform, saving up for a car.  I was not popular at school.  I hid from most everyone in either the school newspaper office or the art-room.  I was always trying to figure out how to get away from peers and cheers and everything having to do with "school" and "spirit."  At work you have to show up, clock in, do your job, go home; at school you have to go to class but there's all kinds of mandatory extracurricular crap, social events and activities and odd run-ins, PRESSURES that make life a lot more complicated, and basically at least from my purview miserable.

My family was working-class and poor, so maybe this hunger for employment and solidarity came from my not knowing any other way except escape through work.  But I knew that school wasn't really my thing, so I kind of understood instinctively that work would have to be.

And it was.

I got my first job at thirteen at a greasy spoon called The Irish Point.  The old couple who ran the place, Pauleen and Irving, paid me and some other kids out of the drawer at the end of the night, so it was a dream come true.  I didn't even have to wait for a weekly check.  Pauleen and Irving had an apartment above the restaurant where they lived, and at the end of the night, I would carry up the night's cash and receipts, and Pauleen would give me the wages for me and the rest of the crew -- usually just two other people, a cook and a server.  I was a car-hop and dishwasher at the start and worked my way up to grill-cook by the time I was 15.

The Irish Point was all roughed-up linoleum and fake-wood-paneling, frayed vinyl booths and a juke-box that seemed to always either be playing "The Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart or "Life's Been Good" by Joe Walsh.  I worked my ass off there, and found friends my own age who went to the same high school, but who would not even look at me in the hallways at school.  At the Point somehow we were equals, sharing shifts, duties, rushes, jokes.  One time, Pauleen and Irving had a health inspector come through and a shitload of citations were dispensed.  A bunch of us volunteered to come in and do deep cleaning on a Saturday to help them pass the inspection.  I remember I had a really bad earache, but I still showed up and cleaned out the tarry grease filters above the fryers and grill, because I knew everyone was counting on me.  All of us swept and mopped and painted and did all we could to make sure the place was as clean as possible.  Nobody got paid.

Irving and Pauleen were pretty old.  There were still a bunch of Bennie Goodman records on the jukebox from their glory days.  They were heavy smokers, and basically I think they were just running on fumes, trying to get by, their small apartment above the Point so overcrowded with furniture from the house they used to live in it was almost like a miniature Egyptian tomb.  That Saturday, though, we all cleaned that place like it was the House of God, and by the end of the day, my ear hurting so bad I wanted to cry, I felt a part of some weird, sad family, focused on our short-lived future together.

What I do now for work is try to help people with developmental disabilities get jobs in the real world with livable wages.  Many times this is a hard thing to do, because a lot of the people I'm trying to help and work with often aren't on the same wavelength I am.  I guess the "wavelength" I'm referring is the one I just wrote about above:  that need to have a job in order to know who I am, what I'm capable of, and to be a part of something where I'm equal to everybody else.   Also, to escape through that process of constantly showing up, doing what's expected of you, and feeling as if what I'm doing is if not important at least getting me closer to what is.  And yes that crappy job at Irish Point was a stepping stone to more crappy dish-room-smelly jobs at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Rax Roast Beef and Bonanza Steakhouse and TGIFriday's and so on so forth, but at least I kept busy, in a zone, and I made friends, and I found a way to find meaning in what I was doing, even if no one else could, or even wanted to try.

This isn't an Horatio Alger gig by any means:  I didn't pull myself up by my bootstraps.  I just worked, because I had to, and besides that I felt an almost primal urge to enter the workforce in order to leave behind stuff I found meaningless and annoying.  That excitement, even in the face of mop-water buckets and overloaded bus-tubs and the smell of fryer grease in my clothes, got me through because I knew I was doing something about my situation, even though it was not a dream come true by any means. In fact, often times it was a nightmare (alone, in a dishroom with a thousand bus-tubs stacked on the shelves and floor by the dish-machine, people yelling they are out of forks and drinking glasses upfront -- just try that one on for size).  No matter what, though, working that hard without a lot of payoff is, and really has to be, a nasty-smelling, super-exhausted version of hope. Not something you look forward to doing, God knows, but something you have to tolerate in order to create the momentum to go on to do something else, hopefully better.

Of course one of the biggest issues for job-seekers with disabilities is they often get stuck in that zone of "menial work," always at the bottom of the totem-pole, often in the dishroom or bussing tables or some other entry-level pigeonhole.  Ironically, though, if you don't start somewhere, then you don't have a platform to show what you can do.  And that desire even to start out menially sometimes gets squelched, ambition lost because there's no way up or out.

Trying to get beyond the issue of businesses and employers assuming that everyone we're trying to support is only dish-room-valuable is just the beginning though.  A lot of social-work-types and caregivers and teachers and others many times want to help the people they support by asking them about dreams and wishes, etc.  "What do you want to do?"  Instead of:  "What do you need to do?"   Dreaming is great and necessary, but I guess I also want to include in the conversation: what are you willing to do to make that dream come true? That's just as important, right?

The choices you have to make sometimes wear you out.  You have to make your own moves, piecing each phase together in order to make sense as you get there, improvising, pushing, trying, failing, trying, failing..., Hopefully laughing, getting through, with co-workers, family, friends.  And you'll need a lot of help.   But it's you at the end of the day who has to do most of the work, and most of the dreaming. You can't confuse the two though:  "dreams" are fuel for getting through what you have to do to take care of yourself, to be responsible enough to better yourself and contribute.

We have a huge amount of work to do in order to support employers and businesses to get over the prejudice of perceiving people with disabilities as only capable of certain kinds of work.  That systemic pigeonholing and scapegoating will only finally go away, though, when all people with disabilities who want to are given a chance to show they can do the work, put in the hours, have the ambition and grit to push through.  That Catch-22 is the core problem:  people with disabilities not given a chance to ascend, but also not wanting to try because they're not given that chance.  That self-fulfilling prophecy on both sides has sadly often become the status-quo.

Just to be clear, many people with disabilities in this area are getting good jobs, with and without anybody's help.  I don't want to end this on any sour notes.  I could tell you success stories till the sun goes down, but I want to focus on the many other folks who are floundering, trying to connect but a lot of the times giving up.  It's vitally important to remember what it takes for anyone to get somewhere:  ambition, sometimes foolish, sometimes tempered by reality, but always that ambition is an engine that allows you to push past frustration in order to see you're going to be okay, this is worth it, don't worry.  No amount of support and outreach to businesses and to people with disabilities works without confronting the fact that you have to want to work hard to get anywhere, and you have to have the opportunity to prove it, and for that proof to matter.  That last statement might be axiomatic for everyone entering the labor market, but it's truly profound for people with disabilities looking for work.

Which brings me back to the Irish Point, that Saturday when a bunch of us gathered together, no pay, to help out the old couple who owned the place.  I can still feel that ear-ache.  But despite that I also felt obligated not just to Irving and Pauleen, and the kids I worked with there, but also to that sense of myself as a part of something, contributing to something, connected to a purpose beyond myself and even a pay-check:  it was a sort of duty, I guess, informed by my ambition to grow up.  Get on with it. Make something out of nothing.