Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I’m working on a show called “Every Job I’ve Ever Had,” which is the tale of – you guessed it – every job I’ve ever had.
My first job was as an “automotive parts reconditioner,” which is resume-speak for “engine scraper.” I was 6 at the time.
I didn’t go looking for this job, because at 6 I had no need for money. Most of my days were spent digging in the dirt with a spoon. Each day I’d get a spoon from the silverware drawer, and my mother would always remind me to bring it back when I was done. In those days I didn’t even get an allowance. What little needs I had were met without having disposable income or a personal line of credit.
So I was surprised when my father offered me my first job. My dad’s hobby was rebuilding Corvairs. This was the early ’70s, and Chevrolet had stopped making Corvairs in 1969, due in part to Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which devoted an entire chapter to the Corvair.
So, the Corvair is now a collector’s item, and my dad and most of his buddies in the neighborhood are collectors. Broken-down Corvairs are bought and used for parts, so cars in various conditions litter the front and back yards of many houses on my block. Our next-door neighbor gets an A-frame hoist so entire engines can be extracted. One such engine finds its way into our back yard, way out by the metal garbage barrels. It’s a filthy old engine, covered with a thick layer of grease.
After lunch one day my dad says to me, indicating the engine out back, “If someone were to clean that engine off real good, it would be worth five dollars.” What he meant, of course, was: “Go clean that engine.”
This is my first invitation into my dad’s world-o-cars, so in a way I’m excited. It’s also the first time I’ve ever been offered five dollars. This is also exciting, though in a more abstract way. I only vaguely understand why having five dollars will be good. I mean, I’m not exactly saving up for anything. Then again, I could buy my own spoon.
So out I go on an August afternoon in the full glory of the Delta heat, spatula in hand. I scrape off a little curl of grime, leaving behind a swath of exposed metal, then fling the grease strip into the trash barrel. I scrape off another little ribbon of grease, fling it into the can and wipe my forehead. It’s hot and humid and I’m already pouring sweat. I step back to take in the entire engine. Oh man, this is gonna take all summer! I hate this! I hate work!
I have a profound insight, one that many of us have at some point or another. It’s this – the heat and humidity don’t bother me when I’m digging in the dirt or playing freeze tag with the other kids, but now I’m at work – I HAVE to be here – and that changes everything. Now it sucks.
I scrape for a good while. An hour? An eternity? Same thing. I’ve had it. Good enough. I come inside and declare the job complete, pour myself some sweet tea, grab a spoon and head back outside. Later that afternoon I see my dad out scraping away on the engine. He’s mad, I can tell. Apparently my job wasn’t up to his standards. I’m never again “invited” to participate in the Corvair Club. Fine by me.
Even though it only lasted an hour, that first job was important in many ways. The biggest lasting effect is that to this day I couldn’t care less about cars or the maintenance and upkeep of them. Thank God for Jiffy Lube. Also, I voted (and campaigned!) for Nader twice. Oh, and my dad never paid me the $ 5 he promised me for that job, so when you factor in nearly 40 years of compounded interest and penalties, that was the best-paying job I’ve ever had.
(Next time – Plenty more jobs to discuss.)
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