People keep asking me if I’m planning on retiring soon. “No,” I tell them. “I actually enjoy working and always have”
My first big day of work came at the age of 11, in February 1966, when two feet of snow shut down New York City for a week and my two brothers and I hired ourselves out shoveling sidewalks. The $5 earned that first day was a big supplement to our weekly allowance and gave me a taste that there was more to be made out there. I later somehow landed a job with a door-to-door salesman distributing leaflets ahead of his house-to-house calls. Unfortunately, I got a little confused as to which streets I was supposed to be on and missed about half of the assigned deliveries.
By the summer of 1967 I had a paper route, delivering about 40 copies every day of “Newsday,” the Long Island newspaper. As I recall, it was afternoon delivery during the week, mornings on weekends. I had a giant metal basket attached to the front of my bicycle and would fold the papers into a tightly wrapped bundle that I would wing towards the front porch of houses on my neighborhood route. It was a fun job when the weather was good but a real drudge in rain or snow. Never, it should be said, would I have dared to ask my father to drive me around on the route. And when I went door-to-door each weekend collecting payment for the paper, I never worried about my safety. This in a middle-to-working class neighborhood of southeast Queens County, New York, called Rosedale. One memory I have was of the Saturday in June 1968 when I went collecting during Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Everyone was home, watching the service on TV. It was the only time I ever collected from everyone on my list.
Soon the paper route gave way to caddying at a nearby country club. By the end of that first summer of 1968 I was really raking it in, $6 per bag, double looping, two-bags, 36-holes each Saturday and Sunday, making $48 a weekend, plus an additional $1.50 picking up golf balls on the driving range. I’d be out there 7 AM to 8 PM. I loved the job, the feel and sense of endless time spent in the caddy yards. And I quickly discovered a special capacity to relate to the golf course and to the players. All my friends and both my brothers tried their hand at it, but I was the only one who stuck with it – for all four years of high school, ultimately parlaying it into a caddie scholarship to college (at $500 per year) and beyond that, into a career in the golf world.
Club caddying was pretty seasonal. And so during the fall and winter months I also worked as a stock clerk at Alexanders Department Store at $1.75 per hour. I put in 20 hours a week during my junior and senior years and worked fulltime during the summers while juggling that against caddying.
College days, at SUNY-Binghamton (now Binghamton University), passed by in a haze, for all sorts of reasons that were common to the times. I had a volunteer job as concert coordinator for the school, booking rock groups and helping set up concerts and then reviewing them for the school newspaper (no conflict of interest there). As for jobs that actually paid, I held a succession of posts, including two years in campus food service as pot washer and clean up guy, for which I got to eat for free and take home a little money. I spent one blurred semester as the ice-boy and second bouncer at a raunchy honky-tonk bar in town. One forgettable summer included two months as a plumbing supplies clerk in a department store. In the summer of 1974 I came home to Queens and drove a taxi cab in New York City. The work paid well but had its stresses and I quit the night I got held up twice.
When I got back to college I landed a job working 20 hours a week as a short-order cook and dishwasher at a popular family restaurant named Pancho Villas. I took a half load of courses while a senior and thus took two years to finish up, in the process writing an honors thesis while working fulltime as a workshop supervisor for mentally challenged adults (called the ARC).
By the time I graduated with a B.A. I knew I was heading off to graduate school. To give myself a change of pace for the academic grind entailed by a Ph.D. program I started spending my summers caddying on the PGA Tour, in essence hanging out with the world’s best golfers and getting paid to see the country. Coming back to school was always an emotional letdown. I had a free ride all through grad school but scraped out some spending money through a variety of jobs – grading papers for professors, working occasionally as bar tender at private (academic) parties, clerking at a book store, and serving in 1980 as a federal census taker.
After completing my graduate studies I started teaching part time, landing classes at Smith College, Mount Holyoke College and the University of Massachusetts. But the job of which I was proudest came as I was writing the first half of my dissertation, when I landed work with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Highway Division doing tree clearance. Here I was living in ultra-academic Northampton, MA, dressed up in protective gear, wielding an oversized chainsaw and driving around the western half of the state in a pick-up truck with a massive tree shredder in tow. We had complete discretion to cut down any trees overhanging state roads or blocking views of road signage.
I loved coming back into town covered in sawdust, reeking of fuel, and sitting there sipping coffee and eating hamburgers while my bookish friends and colleagues all looked so clean and neat. The contrast with my time spent doing library research could not have been greater. It made me feel complete.