A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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I went to camp every summer until I reached the age at which I was too old to be a camper, too young to be a counselor, and still too in love with the place to leave. So I got a summer job working in the camp’s kitchen.
Each evening the kitchen staff loaded the day’s trash into the camp director’s pickup, and I drove it down a sandy hillside for dumping. The truck was the largest vehicle I’d ever driven, and one humid night, when returning to camp, I took a turn too tight and heard a wrenching, metallic scrape. I jumped out to see that I’d hit the steel volleyball pole in front of the dining hall, leaving a four-foot dent on the side of the otherwise pristine truck. The repair would likely cost more than I’d earn that summer.
I was hiding behind the kitchen, pretending to rinse out mop buckets, when the head cook saw the damage and told me to tell the camp director.
Bob was a retired schoolteacher, gray-haired and slight of build. I went to his cottage door and gave him my stammering account of the accident.
He told me it was OK; the dent was unimportant. There was no anger or irritation in his voice. He didn’t even scold me before letting me off. He was simply kind to the terrified kid at his doorstep.
I tried to dress well for my first day at my work-study job at the university library. I even tucked in my shirt and wore a belt. But I quickly learned that such efforts were unnecessary.
“Here’s your broom and dustpan,” said my new boss, Dan. He wore a golf shirt in the colors of the university, stretched tight over his beer belly, and had a walrus mustache. Dan explained that my duties were to sweep and mop all four library stairwells, empty all the trash bins, and make sure the study carrels were free of soda cans and other waste.
“Other than that,” he said with a wink, “your time is yours.”
After a couple of shifts, I learned to have the stairwells gleaming and the study areas trash-free in under an hour. Occasionally I’d cross paths with Dan, and he’d share a joke or ask if I needed anything. Then he’d disappear, perhaps to his office in the basement, and I would tuck my timecard into my pocket, ride home, make dinner, have a beer, and chat with my roommates. Sometimes I’d catch up on schoolwork or go for long bike rides around the neighborhood, returning to the library at the end of my shift to punch out.
Those hours I snuck away from work were some of the best in my college career. Because it was stolen time, I relished every minute.
Dan never knew how meaningful that experience was to me, and I don’t think he much cared. He was probably too busy protecting his own time. On the day he’d trained me, he’d given me a tour of the building, ending in the basement in front of a door marked MASTER CUSTODIAN. “I’m free to answer questions during the first hour of your shift,” Dan said, “but unless there is an emergency involving blood, don’t ever knock on this door.”
As the oldest of seven, I was the quintessential bossy big sister, herding my siblings around with the enthusiasm of a sheepdog. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that, as an adult, I’ve become a manager.
In the beginning I was naive enough to believe that if I praised employees for good work, they would keep on producing it. In reality I’ve learned that some employees take praise as an indication that they can slack off. I’ve also discovered that my decisions can appear unfair even when, if the full story were known, it would be obvious to all that there was no unfairness. And I’ve come to realize that a look of consternation on my face may cause employees to think I’m upset with their performance when really I just have a headache.
Far too often, workers prefer to criticize management rather than accept responsibility for their own shortcomings. “The boss is so unfair,” they complain, as they write out baby-shower invitations at their desk or click off Facebook when I walk by.
I have experienced sleepless nights over employee disciplinary actions. I have been threatened and stalked by employees whom I had to fire. But being a manager has also called me to a higher level of responsibility. I make it a point to treat all my employees the way I would want to be treated. I don’t ask them to do jobs that I wouldn’t do myself (which is why I can be found picking up trash after large events at work). I can’t expect my employees to adhere to a schedule if I don’t, so no one will ever find me coming back late from lunch. I typically leave work exhausted.
When I was young, I thought being the boss would be easy. I’ve learned otherwise.
Mr. S. had fingers like fat pink sausages, and his nose whistled with each breath; I could hear him coming like a miniature train. He would prowl past our cubicles, muttering about everyone’s laziness and incompetence.
He was the worst boss I ever had.
Thankfully I wouldn’t stay in that job long. I was at the top of the waiting list for a position in medical social work with the county. In the meantime I had to deal with Mr. S., who hovered over his employees, listened to our telephone conversations with customers, and provided blow-by-blow critiques afterward.
We made him thousands of dollars every day with our sales, but it was never enough. Exceeding one month’s quota meant that the next month’s would be higher. As a single mother of three, I worked hard and kept my head down, knowing I’d be out of there soon.
After I’d been working at the company for a few months, Mr. S. began to wink at me as though he and I shared some private joke. My co-workers noticed and warned me to avoid being alone with him.
One day, when everyone else had gone to lunch, Mr. S. came into my cubicle and leaned over my shoulder. I finished my yogurt, and as I stood to toss the container into the wastebasket, he grabbed my breast and rubbed himself against my rear end at the same time.
“I can’t believe you just did that,” I said calmly, pulling away from his grasp. I threatened to tell his wife, who visited the office often with their two daughters.
Mr. S. backed out of my cubicle. I could only imagine what absurd fantasies had led him to believe I would be receptive to his advances, but I really didn’t care. I was looking forward to his wife’s next visit, if only to see him cringe.
I was fired the following week — for not being a “team player.” When my co-workers gathered around to commiserate, I assured them it was for the best. And it was. I had a real job waiting in the near future, with a retirement plan, health benefits, and, most important, a strong union.
I manage the music department of a well-known Episcopal church in New York City. My former boss of ten years was an icon in his field — the top choir trainer in the world and one of the finest church organists of our time. He had a tireless work ethic, and we all knew he would never retire. It came as a great shock when he died of a cardiac episode shortly after returning from a European tour. He was in his late fifties, and his young wife was nine months pregnant.
A strange aspect of working for a church is that you help bury your dead co-workers. It was my responsibility to prepare the leaflet for the funeral, reserve the seating, and wrap up my boss’s cassock, organ shoes, and personal effects to give to his widow. A friend who was to be the organist for the funeral sent me a picture on the night before the service: my boss’s coffin was readily visible from the organ bench. Where else does your dead boss watch you work?
My boss’s widow gave birth to a boy a week before the funeral. The child was christened at the church on a Friday at 4 PM, and his father’s body was received at 6 PM. The next day more than 1,500 attended the funeral service. It wasn’t until I watched that plain pine box being carried out of the sanctuary that I knew he really wasn’t coming back.
New York, New York
The elementary school where I work sets aside one evening each fall for parents to formally meet their child’s teacher. In preparation for this event, the teachers instruct students on the finer points of making formal introductions: “Mrs. Smith, these are my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jones. Mom and Dad, this is my teacher, Mrs. Smith.” As principal, I roam the hallways that evening and welcome the parents.
One parents’ night I was making my rounds when I happened upon Jason and his mother and father. Jason was a kindergartner whose acquaintance I had already made on more than one occasion — and we were only three weeks into the school year.
I greeted Jason in a formal manner and asked, “Will you introduce me to your parents?”
He bowed his head and said, “Mom, Dad, this is the punisher.”
Dennis Van Haitsma
When I was fourteen, in 1984, my Commodore Vic 20 personal computer was my most prized possession. The Vic 20 used a cassette recorder for external storage, and this tenuous system eventually degraded. To upgrade to the 1541 disk drive cost $279.
I told my mom and her boyfriend about the money I needed and why, but they only gave me funny looks. They were not interested in supporting my strange hobby, financially or otherwise.
A friend had a job as a prep cook at a mom-and-pop restaurant in town. The owner was a jerk, he said, but they had an opening for a weekend dishwasher. I interviewed with Jolene and Wes, the mom and pop. Wes was intense. He looked deeply into my eyes, his face glistening with sweat or kitchen grease. Jolene, who waited tables, was his opposite: affable and quick to laugh. They asked why I needed a job, and I told them about my computer issues. They, too, gave me funny looks, but they hired me.
The work was tough. Wes was tough. He moved back and forth inside his cooking area like a caged animal. When he put a finished plate on the counter for pickup, he mumbled, “Order.” If the order sat for more than thirty seconds, he would say, “Jolene.” There was never a second “Jolene.”
I lived in fear of Wes. My friend and the busboy told me stories about him: tirades, firings, stints in Mexican jails. The angrier Wes got, the quieter he spoke, which was unfortunate, because he also hated to repeat himself. It got to the point where, if I sensed he was about to murmur something to me, I would lean in close before he even said a word.
The restaurant served breakfast and lunch and closed at 3 PM. After we locked the door, Wes, Jolene, and the three of us teenagers would sit down in the dining room, have a beverage or a smoke, and talk. We didn’t discuss current events, the weather, sports, movies, customers, or work. We talked about our lives. Wes, in particular, seemed transformed once the workday was over. He laughed often and shared stories from his youth. He and Jolene, who didn’t have kids, would ask us about school, girls, and cars. My endless computer upgrading baffled them, but they respected me for working to earn the money for it.
My friend quit shortly after I started, saying he was “tired of Wes’s shit.” I stayed on for two years and would have stayed longer, but my mom and I had to move. Although he could be terrifying at times, Wes was like a father to me: a steady presence, not going anywhere. And Jolene was like a warm, funny mom. I came to see them as family, and I think they saw me that way, too.
My first real job after college was as a technical writer in a high-tech Silicon Valley firm. Priscilla was my boss, and I was the only employee under her.
The others in my department made fun of Priscilla, who talked too fast and cared too much about the job. Most of them were more interested in their off-hours literary pursuits than in the content of our work. During a spirited afternoon meeting about voice-mail features and online documentation, one of them whispered to me, “You’d think we were finding the cure for cancer.”
Priscilla truly did care. She was older than most of us, married, childless, and unfailingly cheerful. She sometimes annoyed me with her many enthusiastic instructions, but I believe she would have done anything to help me succeed in the corporate world.
Priscilla’s main project was to create a pamphlet on how to use the new computers the department had just purchased. The document she ultimately produced was lengthy and confusing. The day she delivered copies to the writing staff, Priscilla went home early, because she and I had worked late the previous night. After she’d left, I quietly went around to the writers’ desks and used a yellow marker to highlight in each eight-page document the ten lines that actually contained useful information. We all laughed at the verbose Priscilla, who made everything unnecessarily complicated.
A few days later I was animatedly telling my office mate about the torturous brainstorming meetings Priscilla pulled me into when I heard a noise at our office door. I turned to see Priscilla looking bewildered. Before I could speak, she backed away and said sadly, “I’ll leave you to it, then. Good night.”
I wanted to curl up under my desk and disappear.
Cerrillos, New Mexico
I had come in to work expecting a holiday party. Instead I was told I had twenty minutes to clear out my desk. The unemployment rate for the county was above 16 percent. Not a great time to start sending out résumés.
I thought of the many companies for which I had worked. I’d come in early and stayed late and covered for people who’d been sick or on vacation. I’d given those jobs my all, and for what? I’d rarely received a raise or a promotion or even a word of praise. So I decided to start my own business.
Five years later I own two businesses and work seven days a week. I start as early as six and sometimes finish as late as eleven — that is, if I can ever consider myself finished. I’m not even financially comfortable; I still struggle to pay for dental work and car repairs. As a single parent of two, I’m glad I can take time off to attend a PTA meeting or a choir performance, but I’ll probably be making up those hours later.
Of all the ungrateful, miserly, slave-driving bosses I have ever worked for, I’m the worst.
Culver City, California
I graduated from college in 1972, thinking I was destined to become a professional singer. But first I had to get out of my Pennsylvania steel-mill town. When one of the owners of a chain of lumber retailers asked if I’d be willing to move to Ohio for a manager-trainee position, I accepted without hesitation.
I drove to Cincinnati and quickly found a cheap, furnished apartment near the university. My first night there I met a guitarist who lived across the street. We sat on the stoop, played a few songs, and daydreamed about working up a set list and getting some gigs.
The job was not a good fit. My boss was a gruff, cigar-smoking, ultraconservative family man. I felt uncomfortable working for him, but I had made a commitment. I carried two-by-fours to contractors’ trucks all day long, with the promise that, if I stuck with it, one day I might manage my own lumber store — which would mean dealing with employees and payroll in addition to carrying two-by-fours. I followed the days of physical labor with nights of drinking at the local bar. Meanwhile my new music partner and I kept adding songs to our repertoire.
The owners of the lumber company sent motivational texts to all their stores and required employees to read them in hopes of keeping our spiritual lives on track. I was approaching my one-year anniversary on the job when we were assigned the novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach — a bestseller at the time. I had to take the book home for the weekend, read it, and return on Monday ready to answer questions from my boss.
I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the story of a dissatisfied bird who strives for perfection in flight. His inability to fit in gets him expelled from the flock, and he embarks on a quest for personal transcendence. One line in particular stuck with me: “You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.”
When I returned to work Monday morning, my boss confronted me, his morning cigar in hand, and asked if I’d read the assignment. I said I had.
“Well, what did you think?”
I handed him the book and gave my two weeks’ notice.
Sherman Oaks, California
Though I’d been to Israel more than twenty times and knew the country well, I was still surprised to be hired to promote tourism. I would be only the second American working at the Israeli Consulate and the first gentile ever.
This was in the late 1980s, during the first intifada — the Palestinian uprising. Despite the hostilities, Christian tourism was at a peak. My job would be to speak at churches and synagogues, to staff the booth at conventions, and to escort groups of radio hosts, pastors, and travel agents around Israel.
One of my first assignments was to organize several two-hundred-seat dinners for visiting travel agents. I selected the hotels, printed and mailed the invitations, and ordered all the food. About 9 PM on the night of the first dinner, I got a call at home from my boss. He was speaking quickly and sliding between Hebrew and English, so I had a hard time understanding him, but I caught “kosher,” and “shrimp,” and “this is not working.”
Although I knew Israel well, I did not know about the Jewish dietary law against shellfish. The next morning I called and had the shrimp removed from the menus of the remaining dinners. Then I waited to be fired.
On Monday at work my boss exclaimed: “Why would you put shrimp on the salad? This was an Israeli event. The travel agents were aghast!”
The ministry’s director, calmly standing behind my animated boss, told me to come into his office while my boss waited outside. Tears came to my eyes as I apologized and explained that I hadn’t known that shrimp was on the list of forbidden foods.
The director leaned forward and asked, “Did anyone die?”
I shook my head.
“In Israel we live with life and death every day,” he said. He looked me straight in the eye. “No one died, so it was a good day.”
Los Angeles, California
In 1966 I left my communal pad in New York’s East Village to take a job as a rookie reporter with the Associated Press (AP) in Detroit, Michigan. When I got to the office, I was greeted by my new boss, who quickly set me straight: he said a reporter who’d given me a warm reference was a good newsman, but his obsession with civil rights and his participation in the American Newspaper Guild were holding him back; and he announced that it would not be appropriate for me to take an apartment near Wayne State University, because that was where the dope smokers and leftists lived.
A few hours later I joined the American Newspaper Guild, and within a week I’d moved into an apartment near Wayne State. Every day my boss expressed his disapproval of my work in detailed memos. The more he got to know me, the more withering his criticism became. I developed blinding headaches at work.
Just before midnight on my last night at that job, my boss and his superior called me in and told me I had neither the ability nor the potential to be an effective AP staffer. In my expletive-laced response, I pledged to become such a good reporter that I would be a constant source of embarrassment to them. As I left the office, a colleague said I looked more relaxed than at any time since I’d started.
Thanks to solid references from my peers, I was soon hired by the Detroit bureau of United Press International (UPI). Within a few months the 1967 Detroit riot occurred; state and federal troops were called in, and thirty-three African Americans died, twenty-seven of them shot by police or soldiers. As the only white reporter in town with connections in the black community, I filed a number of exclusive stories that ran in newspapers all over the country.
But that’s not all. One Friday a reliable source called me to say that the heir apparent to the top position at General Motors was going to be passed over. It was unheard of to pierce the auto giant’s veil of secrecy and break a story about a new CEO in advance of the official announcement.
The night after I filed the story, I was having a beer with one of my former AP colleagues, who told me that my old boss had gotten a call in the middle of the night asking if there was anything to the UPI story. My former boss had said not to worry about it; there was no way I would have had access to that type of information.
The next day the General Motors board made its announcement. My story got everything right.
When I was a high-school junior, I got a job as a full-time attendant at a gas station just three blocks from my house. My boss told me all I had to do was greet each customer, gas up the car, and clean the front and back windows. He would take care of the rest.
That Friday afternoon a Cadillac pulled up to the pump. The driver got out, told me to fill the tank, and went into the station office. I walked around the car three times, looking for something that might be a gas cap. I even checked behind the license plate. Stumped, I headed for the office, where the customer and my boss were standing and looking out the window at me. “It’s under the taillight,” the man said as I entered. Sure enough, a push of a button on the left taillight revealed the gas cap.
After the customer left, my boss told me the Cadillac driver was the owner of the station, and that he’d ordered him to fire me. “Personally, I like the way you hustle,” my boss said apologetically, “but it’s his station.” I was shocked.
I went on to college and paid my tuition by washing dishes in the cafeteria and working in the chemistry stockroom. I even got my PhD. I had some great bosses over the years, but I tended to turn down higher-paying industry jobs and gravitated toward academia instead. It may have been an illusion, but in teaching I felt as if I were my own boss.
In my thirty-fifth year at the university, two journalism students interviewed me and asked why I’d become a professor. I told them the story of my arbitrary and capricious firing and explained the effect I thought it had had on my later career decisions. One of the students said that if I could find that gas-station owner today, I’d probably thank him.
I think he was right.
My parents did not believe in paying for their daughters’ educations, so I worked my way through college as a bartender at a hotel nightclub near the airport. The club attracted a hard-working, hard-drinking crowd. Customers sometimes got out of hand, and fights were common.
The bar manager, Dave, was a good boss. He listened to my ideas about how the club should operate, and though he sometimes got defensive or irritated, he also took some of my advice.
After I’d finished my undergraduate degree, I told Dave — who by then had worked his way up to hotel manager — that I would be moving to attend grad school and looking for a job at my new location. He insisted on writing me a letter of recommendation. Maybe because my degree was in English, he also wanted to show me what he’d written, so I could make sure it was OK.
On the first draft I pointed out a misspelling of conscientious. When Dave brought back the final draft for my approval, he beamed with pride. “It’s perfect now,” he said.
The word was spelled correctly — but it was the wrong word. He had written, “C. is a very contentious employee.”
In a way, maybe I was. But I didn’t have the heart to correct him again.
© Jon Kral
I wonder: if I stabbed my husband with my paring knife, would he leave the kitchen?
I’m making a frittata with potatoes for dinner.
“If you heat the skillet first,” my husband says, “then the egg won’t stick, and you’ll save me some time later when I’m doing the dishes.”
My husband is usually right when it comes to matters of the kitchen, but he offers advice as if laying down commandments.
Being a new stay-at-home mom, I find solace in cooking. It’s like a daily meditation that makes the house smell good and allows me some time to myself without anyone asking me for anything.
Before placing the bread in the oven, I slash the top to let it rise without bursting. My husband says I should slash it more quickly.
How do you slash a loaf of bread “more quickly”? And even if you can, would it really matter?
“Get out!” I shout. Seriously, who asked him anyway?
Sometimes my husband will punctuate a kitchen tip with a kiss on the back of my neck. I find this the most infuriating, because it leaves me feeling confused and guilty. I love him, but I hate when he comes into the kitchen. I’ve called him “bossy” so many times that my two-year-old now says, “Papa is bossy!” I feel guilty about this, too, but not that guilty.
I just want to be alone in the kitchen, this domain where I rule, unlike the rest of my life, in which I get peed on by my child and have to clean up cat vomit and collect dirty socks from the floor. When I pull a loaf of bread out of the oven and it’s failed to rise, that’s all on me. And that’s how I like it.
San Francisco, California
In the mid-1980s, I took a break from college and moved back home. My mother’s new husband, Joe, offered to make a few calls to help me find a job. Within a week I was employed as a phone operator at a bustling hotel in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood.
Joe was quite the celebrity at the hotel. The day of my interview, when we pulled up to the entrance, a smiling doorman opened the car door for him and shook Joe’s hand as if pumping water from a well. The doorman then reached into his red uniform coat, extracted an envelope, and pressed it against Joe’s chest.
Inside the hotel the bellhops all called out Joe’s name, and two of them handed him envelopes.
I was worried that Leslie, who managed the phone system, wouldn’t like me. Joe noticed me anxiously clutching my résumé and said, “Don’t worry, kid. Leslie owes me a favor.”
When Leslie opened her office door to welcome me in, she winked at Joe. I quickly learned that not only did I have the job, but I was being given the day shift — unheard of for a new employee. Leslie explained that I would be working with her, and she would train me personally. Since parking was a challenge in Fisherman’s Wharf, I would get my own spot in the hotel lot.
“Others around here owe me favors, too,” Joe said with a grin.
As he turned to leave, Leslie slipped him an envelope.
Leslie was an affable manager, and I didn’t mind that she spent more time reading the racing forms than answering phones. Aside from that first day, I never saw Joe at the hotel again: Leslie, the doorman, the bellhops, and others all gave me sealed envelopes to deliver to my stepdad. I never looked inside them, but I suspect they contained illegal bets on sporting events. My new stepdad had connections.
My husband and I once had a job milking 125 cows twice every day. Our bosses, a father and son, would use rubber hoses and short wooden sticks on the cows to herd them into the barn for milking. Uncomfortable with this method, my husband and I retrained the cows to accept gentle encouragement. Within a week they would come willingly into the barn on their own.
The cows were identified only by number, and we learned the quirks of each. Number thirty-five’s back hooves curled up like elf shoes, and she would kick off her milker unless we scratched her behind her ear. Number fifty-eight was skittish and always defecated when she was in the stanchion — a device that holds the cows in place for milking. To keep the milk from being contaminated, we used old license plates to scrape away the shit and rinsed the area with plenty of water.
When a cow was fertile, our bosses wrote her number on a board, and we would catch her when she was leaving the milk barn and walk her over to the breeding barn to be artificially inseminated. (Our bosses took care of that process.) One day a cow refused to go over for breeding, and my husband and the son chased her unsuccessfully all over the holding pen. The son used the rubber hose again. I was incensed and refused to speak to either of them for a while.
The next day I approached the cow, looped my arm around her neck, and calmly walked her to the breeding barn, where the son waited. “How did you do that?” he asked in amazement.
In the spring it was time to train the new mother cows to wear the milkers without a fuss. Our bosses showed us how to convince the cow to come into the milk barn; get her into the stanchion; hold her tail over her back to keep her still; and put on the milker. When the cow resisted or tried kicking the milker off, our boss exerted more pressure on the tail. Many times the tail would break with a loud pop. That was enough for my husband and me. We quit.
New Bern, North Carolina
For several years after our father’s death, my younger brother and sister and I lived with our uncle and his wife. Our aunt was a mean, abusive woman. One day, the summer I turned twelve, she packed her bags and left while our uncle was at work. We watched as she loaded her suitcases into her longtime lover’s car.
The responsibility of caring for my siblings and the household fell on my shoulders; my aunt and uncle’s kids were already grown, and the nearest relatives were more than an hour away. I didn’t mind, though, as long as we were free of our aunt’s oppressive presence. I cooked the meals, cleaned the house, and did the laundry with the old-fashioned wringer washing machine.
I made some mistakes, particularly in the kitchen. My aunt’s one redeeming quality had been that she was an excellent cook. I also struggled to get my siblings to help with chores. Once, when my sister wouldn’t assist with the cleaning, I locked her in the bathroom. At that age, what did I know about child-rearing? We all wanted to avoid discipline from our uncle, who used his belt to dole out punishment. A year later he found himself a new wife, and I no longer had to be in charge.
At sixteen I went to live with my mother, who’d remarried and now had four more children. I became their in-house baby sitter. In comparison to my aunt and uncle, my mom and stepdad were lax disciplinarians, and I had trouble controlling the kids, who resisted my attempts to keep them from tearing apart the house or killing each other.
Today my siblings are scattered around the globe. On those rare occasions when we get together, it’s not long before one of them teases me with their favorite phrase growing up: “You’re not the boss of me.”
My first boss after college was Miss Peach, the unmarried director of a small private adoption agency. Our office was on the bottom floor of a brownstone, and Miss Peach lived several floors above it, traveling to work by way of a rattling cage elevator. She seemed lonely and found many excuses for my co-worker, Carol, and me to come upstairs and visit. She would serve us luncheons, and I learned to enjoy petits fours and pickled herring and finger sandwiches accompanied by iced tea with a sprig of mint.
Besides interviewing couples applying to adopt (a task for which I wasn’t qualified), I had to make home visits to the pregnant women who were putting babies up for adoption, and I also had to pick up fish for Miss Peach’s cats, Charlie and Dusty. Every morning Miss Peach would sit in front of my desk with a cup of coffee balanced on her bosom and recount the cats’ escapades from the night before. I’d try to look interested and be thankful for the job, no matter how strange my boss was.
As time went on, Miss Peach’s mental faculties deteriorated. Some mornings her clothes were on inside out, and they smelled unwashed. One day, without warning, we were told that the agency was merging with another. Carol and I would be transferred, and Miss Peach would retire. I never went back to visit or find out what happened to her.
Now that I am a retired social worker myself, I look back on my old boss and wonder what the rest of her story was. Placing babies with married couples was her life during the day, and the adoptive parents loved her for it. Her cats were her world at night, and they loved her, too. But did anyone else love her? I never thought to ask.
I wish I’d had more empathy for this woman who launched my career. I wish I’d been more mature. I wish I’d known then what I know now about getting old. Maybe I would have been kinder.
After three years of struggling to earn an engineering degree, I decided to drop out. My parents cut off all financial support, and I took the first job I could find: as a janitor for a printing business. At least I was free of school and could do whatever I wanted. My elation, however, was fleeting. My friends were busy with their courses, and I spent most of my time alone. And then there were the sad tasks of scrubbing toilets and mopping floors. Exactly zero women found me and my situation enticing.
It didn’t take me long to sink into a depression. I’d show up late for work, do the minimum required, and sneak out early. At one point my boss, Rob, asked me to wash the front windows, but even after a half-hour of scrubbing, I could not get them streak-free. Rob inspected my work, then told me to step into his office.
Rather than reprimand me, he asked what my goals in life were. I told him how I had struggled with school and that I’d wanted to get my degree so I could help “save the earth.” Rob shared a few challenges from his own youth. Then he showed me how to wash windows properly: He filled a bucket with warm tap water — no cleaning agent — and wiped down the glass with a wet rag. To dry it, he used a towel. Finally he buffed out the streaks with a piece of crumpled newspaper. The window was so clear it was hard to tell the glass was there at all.
Rob went back to his office, and I went on to clean every window in the shop. “Excellent job!” Rob called out as I left. I went home feeling good about my success and even washed my own windows.
A few months later I heard about a two-week intensive summer program in “deep ecology.” I longed to attend, but it cost more than I could afford. When I mentioned it to Rob, he donated a hundred dollars to my cause and suggested I go around to other businesses and offer to wash their windows in exchange for a donation. A few weeks later I was fully funded. I went to the conference, which put me on the road to a career in conservation biology.
Rob could easily have given up on me. In truth, I deserved to be fired. Instead he looked past my lazy exterior and saw a young man trying to find his way, a person who wanted to make a difference. And he helped me do that.
Morro Bay, California
Just out of high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought about a career in music, but my dad feared I’d be living in his basement for the rest of my life. I thought about joining the Army, but my dad said President Obama would leave the vets “high and dry.” (I’m not sure what he meant by that.) My dad wanted me to work for him at the rendering plant, where animal parts were melted down into fat. He didn’t really ask what I wanted.
On my first day of work I pulled up to the plant at 6 AM, struggling to keep my eyes open. As I approached the building, I heard laughter and saw a group of men cutting up and ragging on a co-worker. They all stopped to stare at me. “You Rick’s boy?” one of them asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
Just then my dad came out of his office overlooking the plant floor and yelled at them to get to work. “Look alive,” he said to me. A forklift pulled up and dropped a gigantic container by my side. My dad handed me a shovel and told me to knock open the container door. I noticed the other men watching from a distance; they appeared to be holding back laughter. I approached the container slowly and began to raise the latch. As soon as I did, a wave of pig guts and fish heads poured all over me. Everyone exploded into laughter, and my dad smugly went upstairs to his office.
I may not have known what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I didn’t want to work for my father.
The summer after I got married, I landed the first job I really loved: being in charge of an after-school program at a high school in Michigan. The school was understaffed and had a graduation rate of less than 50 percent, and almost all of its students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch. Yelling, cursing, and fighting in the hallways were the norm.
In my first year there I received little support from my superiors. I didn’t even meet with the principal. But my boss, Lynn, who directed the after-school programs for multiple schools, always had time for me.
After a particularly rough day, exhausted and beaten down, I would call Lynn on my drive home. Holding back tears, I would tell her how a student had thrown a chair or the school had turned a classroom we were using into a storage closet without telling me. Lynn would listen and then calmly say, “Autumn, you can only control your own actions and attitudes,” or, “All you can do is create a safe space for the kids.”
Soon I didn’t need to call her, because I could hear her voice in my head telling me to change what I could and not to feel as if I had to fix everything.
By my fourth year with the program — also the last year the school remained open — the entire place was melting down. Some classes had more than seventy students, and there were fights almost daily. The after-school programs, however, were thriving. The students treated each other and me with respect — well, most of the time. Some of them came to school only to participate in the program.
Several years later I was directing a number of similar programs in rural New Hampshire. At my new job there was a lot of conflict, and the daily confrontations were soon getting the better of me. Feeling overwhelmed, I called Lynn.
“Autumn,” she said, “put a Q-tip in your pocket.” I was confused until she explained that “Q-tip” stood for “Quit taking it personally.” She and I arranged to talk every Sunday for a month. When my program coordinators asked me for advice, I would tell them about the “Q-tip” and remind them what they could and couldn’t control.
I still call my old boss when I need a reminder myself.
Los Angeles, California
Thanks to Paul Grafton [Readers Write on “Bosses,” April 2016] for sharing the secret to washing windows with warm water and newspaper. It’s a skill that had eluded me, a seventy-plus-year-old woman, all of my window-washing life. My windows look better than they ever have, and it took hardly any time at all. Even my grandmother, a woman who worshiped at the altar of all things sparkling, would have been impressed.