Dear Jackson,

August 26, 2009

To be or not to be…a good little worker bee

You slept in your crib for the first time last night. Not having you in the bedroom with us was strange at first, but it started to feel normal by the time I woke up in the morning and walked into your room to see you. It was YOUR room now. I took a few minutes to just lean against the crib and look down at you before getting ready to start the day.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel real. It still takes a few moments for reality to sink in; that baby in the crib is MY son. I am his father. It brings a smile to my face to see you lying there with the whole world in front of you and thinking about all of the good times we’re going to have. This is usually the point where I can feel my tear ducts begin to dampen and I have to compose myself. Yeah, it’s like that.

Anyway, it’s been getting harder and harder for me to keep getting up everyday in order to go to a job that I am in no way motivated to work hard at. I used to have an incredibly strong work ethic and take pride in the work I did. Not so much anymore. I’m 26 years old and I need to stop making excuses for why I’m not doing the things I want to be doing.

“Life passes most people by while they’re busy making grand plans for it”

– Blow (2001) [A rephrased John Lennon quote]

When I was 15 I started working at this little Italian pizza joint by my house called Louisa’s. My best friend Adam hooked me up with a job there as a dishwasher. We’d pretty much work about 15-20 hours per week, mostly on the weekends and sometimes a few hours after school. It wasn’t a cakewalk. Friday nights were the worst because that’s the day everyone decides to either get takeout or come and dine in the restaurant. It just so happened that my first day as a working man was a Friday night.

Yay me.

When I walked in, the kitchen had to be at least 100 degrees. I don’t know, maybe I’m exaggerating—I just know that it was damned hot in there. Adam gave me a brief tour of the place and introduced me to all of the cooks and servers before we got started. I already knew half of them from school so I felt pretty comfortable right away. By the time we got to the sink and put on our aprons, I was already sweating. When I saw the pile of dirty pots, pans, and dishes waiting to be cleaned I was ready to go home. Prep time usually begins about an hour before we opened so there was already a rather daunting pile of items to be cleaned and it was getting bigger by the minute. Since there wasn’t an automatic dishwasher installed in the place, we had to do everything by hand.

Holy shit, what did I sign up for?

Adam started filling up one of the three sinks with scalding hot water and squirted in a generous amount of dish soap as I started contemplating how I was going to sneak out and go home. Before I could formulate the perfect escape plan, Adam threw me a sponge and some steel wool and said, “You wash, I’ll rinse”.

Shit. I was stuck.

I started piling dirty pots and pans into the first sink as Adam started filling up the other two—one with warm water for a rinse and the last one with nearly boiling hot water and about an ounce of bleach for final rinse. Once we had all three sinks filled, we put some music on the CD player behind on us and went to work. It only took about 10 minutes for me to break my first dish—a salad bowl. It just slipped out of my hand as I was attempting to drop into the first rinse sink. Everyone in the kitchen looked over as it shattered on the floor. A stirring round of applause ensued as I cleaned up the glass and did my best to try and hide my embarrassment.

Six hours later, my first day at my first job was finally over.

It had been nonstop action and the work was intense. Not only was I washing dishes, I was re-stocking food (pizza toppings, boiling noodles, mixing dough, etc) for the cooks, carrying quarter barrels of beer from the cooler to the bar, cutting and boxing pizzas, taking out the garbage, and about a hundred other things. “Dishwasher” was just my official title; “kitchen bitch” was what I was actually getting paid to be. I’m not complaining though. The harder I worked, the quicker the night went. Eventually, it all just became habit and I didn’t even realize I was working. My first goal of every evening was to burn through the dirty prep pile as fast as possible so that I would be able to keep up with the constant stream of new dishes from newly departing patrons. It usually took about an hour or so, but I’d eventually get caught up to the point where I was even delivering the pizzas when it got too busy for the other drivers to keep up.

I was like a machine and there was never a dull moment to be had. Hell, we even staged impromptu wrestling matches in the kitchen after closing. We’d hit each other with pizza pans and spatulas while listening to hardcore gangsta’ rap. It was ridiculous—but awesome. We all worked hard and played even harder. I remember nights when it was slow and Adam and I would pour bleach on our hands and pat people on the shoulders or backs. They wouldn’t know what we did until they checked their shirts later that night. It was stupid stuff like that, but we were young.

Eventually, I became the go-to guy for most errands at Louisa’s after about 9 months and was dubbed Johnny Teamwork (or JT for short) by my boss. No shit, that was the name everyone there called me. It may have been cheesy, but it was legit and I earned the moniker through hard work. I’m still pretty damned proud of that nickname. Along with delivering, I’d also been given the task of cooking the pizzas and some of the other food when it got busy or whenever I had some free time. That was the stuff I really enjoyed. I took a lot of pride in cooking the perfect pizza, cutting it into perfect slices, and putting together some of the other orders. It was fun, but I’ll be honest—there were times when I dreaded going into work because I just knew we were going to be slammed and it was going to be a long night. I remember many nights where we wound up closing after 10 and cleaning up until almost midnight. You have to remember that most of us were only 16 or 17 at the time and were working pretty damned hard for very little pay. I think I was getting about $6.25 an hour when I started washing dishes. Working in a restaurant is extremely fast-paced and if you aren’t a hard worker when you start out, you’ll either get bounced out or force yourself to man up and bust your ass to stay on top of everything. I saw plenty of kids come in who couldn’t hack it after just one night. It felt good knowing that I was so well-rounded and awesome at my job. Hell yes, I’m bragging. I’m proud of how strong my work ethic became at Louisa’s because it prepared me for the real world. Many of those long nights sucked at the time, but today I look back at the work I did with fondness. I learned a lot during my two years working in a pizza kitchen that I still apply to my life today. I wouldn’t change any of that for anything.

It was about 6-9 months into my stint at Louisa’s (around October, 1999) that I realized I wasn’t making as much money as I wanted to be making. Thankfully, my mom worked at a company that allowed high school kids to come in and work an abbreviated (4 hours per day) second shift after the school day was through. After pulling some strings, she was able to hook me and a few friends up with jobs at Intermatic. So at 16 I became a factory worker every Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 7:30 and remained at Louisa’s on the weekends.

Intermatic—shit, where do I begin. The work was pretty easy but you had to bust your ass. It was mostly small electronics assembly, packaging of small electrics, and unloading boxes from semi-trailers. Most of us would be doing different jobs each day which helped break up the monotony. Each job was hourly rated, meaning that you had to do X amount of pieces or work in X amount of time in order to stay employed there. You had to work fast, and constantly. If you were good enough at certain jobs to the point where you were doing more work than your hourly rate required, you entered “bonus” territory. Going above the hourly rate increased your pay. It was just more incentive to work even harder. We were already making more than most kids our age (I think I started at just over $8.00 an hour and was making almost $13.00 by the time I left) so we were pretty stoked for the opportunity to pad our wallets even further.

Just like Louisa’s though, while we all worked pretty hard, we played even harder. There were always watchful eyes during our abbreviated second shift (which was referred to by the company as C-Shift, so we referred to ourselves as the C-Shift Mafia). Let me be honest; we were teenagers, and we liked to fuck around a lot. We did some pretty wild shit at Intermatic while no one was looking.

For instance:

  • We once shrink-wrapped a co-worker’s car during a break—just because.
  • We used to build tunnels through the hundreds of boxes that filled the semi-trailers as we unloaded them. We’d take turns hiding behind walls of boxes and then pushing the walls over onto an unsuspecting co-worker.
  • I once built a 6 foot long marijuana pipe out of several pieces of screwed together plastic tubing. It was affectionately dubbed the “bend-a-bowl” on account of how it could be twisted up into many different shapes. It actually worked too.
  • On a lunch break during one of the summer months, a co-worker bought a 40-oz of beer and slammed it in the parking lot prior to going back inside and working. He spent the next two hours being loud and obnoxious whilst dropping shit everywhere and almost falling over. We all laughed like bastards and our supervisors had no idea what was going on.
  • We’d sometimes go to McDonald’s for lunch during the summer months and bring it back to eat at a picnic table outside. Some of us would take the pickles off of our burgers and throw them at the side of the building for shits and giggles. They’d usually sit out there and rot for a few days before falling off. At one point I think we had about 20 of them on the wall at the same time. Coupled with the splattered ketchup, it must have looked like some sort of pretentious art project.

Those are just a few examples of the fun we had while working there. Don’t get me wrong, factory work sucked—hard. There’s no way I would have lasted as long as I did if it weren’t for my experience working at Louisa’s. Both jobs did nothing but boost my work ethic because in order to keep either job, I had to bust my ass. I knew neither job was going to be held for a long time so I was able stay motivated by using the fact that I hadn’t even started college yet to propel me forward everyday. It was all just a means to an end. Those thoughts made every shitty day in a factory or pizza kitchen worth it. I knew that I wasn’t going to be a lifer (a pretty depressing nickname we gave the factory employees who would most likely work there until they died or the company folded) in either place and I had my whole life ahead of me yet. Besides that, I had a pretty kick-ass life outside of school and work so I was doing quite well for myself at that point. It’s because I worked so hard that I was able to save enough money to pay half my way through school (with help from my parents) and graduate 100% debt-free. Hard work does pay off. I am a perfect example.

In my late teens and early 20’s I could afford to screw around because I was still in school, didn’t have bills, didn’t have a career, and you weren’t even a twinkle in my eye.  For these reasons, graduating from college was a bittersweet day for me. I knew then that life was going to change forever and I needed to get my shit together. I was 22 years-old and I still had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Today, Louisa’s and Intermatic are a few years behind me and Kohl’s is my present. I started off my time here as an incredibly ambitious and hardworking 22 year-old kid. I sit here today an enlightened 26 year-old man with a house and a family to support. I’m realizing more and more everyday that life is moving pretty fucking quickly and time is running out. The longer I stay here, the more bitter I am going to become. I no longer have an academic environment to help stimulate my mind or a great network of friends to spend my free time with. I can’t sit here at work and fuck around like I did all those years ago when I had little responsibility. I am a man now. I have bills to pay and mouths to feed. You would think this would be all the motivation I need to succeed in my job but it isn’t. What I’m doing does not make me happy and does not quench my desire for knowledge or excitement. Yes, I’m working at a fantastic company with amazing perks and benefits, but this place isn’t for me. I just can’t care about what I’m doing because it doesn’t interest me in the slightest. When I accepted the job here I wasn’t thinking long term. I just knew I needed a job so I could afford to move out of my parents’ house and start a life with your mom.

Today I realize that what I’m doing is only temporary. I won’t be doing this forever. Kohl’s has given me a lot in my few years here, but it’s also taken a lot away from me. I think it took your birth for me to really see everything from the proper perspective. You gave me a new set of eyes and ears other than my own.

I want to be able to show you a life of happiness and fulfillment.

I want you to be proud of me.

I want to be your hero.

I want you to be inspired by me.

None of that will happen if I stay here at Kohl’s. I’ve worked far too hard to get to this point. I’m at a place in my life where I have everything I’ve ever wanted except for that one thing: a fulfilling career.

I want to go back to school. If I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it. I miss academia. I miss the challenge. I miss the hard work. I miss it all. I want to get back what I’ve lost since Parkside. Believe it or not, I used to be a pretty damned good creative writer. I wrote a few short stories, poems, and screenplays. I’ve somewhat lost the ability to do so. It’s become incredibly difficult for me to get back in the habit of writing but I think I’m starting to come around. I’m thinking about taking some more writing courses, film courses (obviously), as well as some fundamental business courses.

I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, but I think I may have to table that idea for a few years. The economy is currently in shambles, unemployment is at an all-time high, small businesses are shutting down left and right, blah blah blah. Besides, I need to learn quite a bit about business before I take that sort of risk. I have to think of you and your mother now. Someday, though. That’s my long term goal. My short term goal is to get the fuck out of Corporate America as fast as possible. Not too fast though. The best thing about going back to school is I can take my time because there’s really no rush. I have to be home with you and your mom so I’ll have to take it slow. I have the luxury of having done it once already so I think I’m pretty well prepared to make a return soon. Perhaps as soon as early 2010—who knows?

So here’s the bottom line: I’m ready to take back control of my life. I’m ready to try and make up for deviating off of my original path. Like I said earlier, I’ve worked too damned hard to get here today. I owe it to my parents, your mom, myself, and you to make it all count for something. We’ve both given each other the greatest gifts imaginable: I helped give you your life, and you’ve given mine back to me. For that, I will be eternally grateful to you.

You are my inspiration, Jackson. I hope that someday I can return the favor.

jrp

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