My 12-year-old son has been doing the first real job of his life — painting a fence at my brother’s house — and learning some of the important lessons that come with working.
He looked at me the other day after standing in the blistering heat for three hours and said, “Uncle Brian’s fence is a lot bigger than I thought. Do you think I’m getting paid enough?”
This was a tough question to answer. I certainly didn’t want to cause issues between labor and management. Ulysses had negotiated a price of just $100 to paint a fairly large picket fence in the Dog Days of August. He was giddy about making a “C-note,” but I had a feeling a lesson in economics was on the way. My brother had continued a long-standing family tradition of attempting to get a lot of labor for very few bucks out of younger family members, and in some ways I felt it was important to let the boy figure it out himself.
It seems appropriate as Labor Day weekend approaches that Ulysses is getting to learn a little about what his sweat is worth. After he’d worked about six hours and only painted about a tenth of the fence, the wheels started spinning. “If it takes me 60 hours to paint it and I get $100, that’s not very much per hour,” he said. “It is if you’re a South American bean picker!” I replied, hoping to raise his spirits. Eventually we decided maybe his best bet was keeping up with his hours, doing a great job and then seeing if Brian might sweeten the pot.
I don’t have much faith he will. Brian and I both were routinely out-negotiated by our mother, who always turned what seemed to be relatively easy money into something akin to Sisyphus endlessly rolling a stone up a hill for $10. Once you were on the hook for a job there were multiple inspections and do-overs. Working for my mother was one of the reasons I was so anxious to get a job when I was 14 because I knew there were at least some child labor laws there to protect me.
Despite negotiating a deal that might pay him $1.25 an hour, I’m proud my son is fired up to work. I explained to him the other day how having a good attitude about work would help him his whole life. No sense in being one of those people who, when you ask how they’re doing Monday morning, say, “Man, I’m ready for the weekend!”
Labor Day was established in 1887 to pay tribute to the contributions workers have made to this country. It was a time when strikes were common and unions were forming because workers were often being abused and working for next to nothing. I suppose we have some of those same arguments now, the main difference being the people complaining about their work conditions now all have cell phones and cars, versus the people in the 1800s who may have had to eat coal.
Although I’ve done more than my fair share of yard work, I learned early on that I’d prefer my labor to be a little cushier than pushing a mower or carrying really heavy objects around while my mother points. My first job was teaching swimming lessons in an Olympic-sized pool that was roughly 75 percent urine. (Just judging from the fact no kids ever got out to pee and once a student’s mother actually told him to get back into the pool to pee. While I was standing in it.)
But they had lifeguards and that job held great allure, so I went all Hasselhoff for about five summers in a row. And if I get skin cancer I’ll still say it was worth it. There’s a reason you don’t ever hear about lifeguards rioting and screaming about wanting a better workplace. Getting paid to stand around watching girls in swimsuits is a solid day’s work.
Stupidly, though, I took other jobs in my life that didn’t involve a whistle or zinc oxide. One of my worst was being a pinboy at our family-owned bowling alley. Yes, my parents owned a bowling alley, and my freshman year of college I would work there every Friday night from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. The suckage factor was really high. I mostly sat in the back waiting for some drunk to get a ball stuck, going deaf from the pins crashing, avoiding getting pulled into the machines and killed, and trying to watch “Love Boat” and “Dallas” on a black and white TV with a coat hanger as an antenna.
Some other dream jobs included helping a guy build a greenhouse on a Wendy’s in Ft. Myers, Florida, where it was 10,000 degrees so I could earn the money to drive up to Jacksonville where it was only 5,000 degrees so I could paint houses the rest of the summer. That summer I also worked at a Kmart for three days before the sheriff shut it down because some idiot hadn’t filed for occupancy or properly bribed the sheriff. All of those jobs were sadly bereft of women in bathing suits.
Probably my most memorable “hard labor” job was at the Tony Roma’s rib joint when I moved back to Mobile after working on Capitol Hill in D.C. The city didn’t exactly throw its arms open to me and I ended up tending bar and waiting tables for about nine months. I started there as the restaurant was opening, and the night before we went live, one of the managers brought in his buddies and drank all the liquor in the place.
A later manager, in his 50s, impregnated a teenaged hostess and they ran away together. Their signature item was a block of deep-fried onions the size of a shoebox called an “Onion Loaf.” Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised when the place tanked.
As hard labor goes, I know I’ve had it pretty easy most of my life. Sitting in a chair writing columns isn’t even as hard as selling onion loaves. So on Labor Day I’ll raise a glass to the people who really sweat for their daily bread and wish my son a hearty welcome to the workforce.