• Otter Views: No Experience Necessary

    There are times of year I briefly wish I were a teenager again, but April isn’t one of them. When I was a teenager, April was a time of fear. That’s because if you didn’t get a good summer job lined up then, you might have to answer an ad like this in June: High-paying summer jobs for clean-cut, self-motivated youths. Commission sales; no experience necessary. Call Mr. Snavely for appointment.”

    The smart, strong and well-connected kids all had their jobs lined up in April. For young men of my era, construction work was the most highly prized, because it paid well and built strong bodies seven ways.

    The construction jobs went fast, usually snapped up by guys who had relatives in the trades. You could recognize these guys at the start of the next school year, because they had acquired big muscles and their own cars.

    They walked differently, too. They had proven their mettle to tough, leathery foremen called “Blackie” or “Bull.” They had withstood the hazing of older co-workers, learned to play Texas Hold ‘Em, and been welcomed into the lifelong sodality of labor.

    I applied for a few of those jobs the April I was 15, but it was a Catch-22. You couldn’t get hired unless you had experience, and you couldn’t get experience unless you got hired. The construction company receptionists turned up their hands: Sorry, kid. Way it is.

    Aside from yard work and household chores, my only “prior work experience” had been as a hospital emergency room volunteer the previous summer. There I mainly mopped up blood and fluids, but occasionally I helped check patients in. Clipboard and pencil in hand, I would coax vital information from frightened people in pain (“How do you spell your last name?! Why are you here?!”).

    Once I had watched the ER docs push some loops of small intestine back into a stabbing victim. But a year later, I didn’t figure that experience would put me in the driver’s seat of a D-9 bulldozer at the construction site of my choice.

    There was also, at age 15, the little matter of wheels. Employers were more likely to smile upon an applicant who had “own transportation” than on one who came to the interview with a bus transfer coupon peeping ashamedly from his shirt pocket.

    Mr. Snavely was the exception. He liked to see those coupons. That meant we couldn’t just drive away from the job. I ended up in Mr. Snavely’s office one June morning in 1962 because of pride. I had been too proud to accept my parents’ help in finding a summer job. I would find my own, thank you.

    Along with a dozen other obstinate or desperate teens, I sat on a folding chair in a bare green room. We all leaned forward as Mr. Snavely described how clean-cut youths could make big money selling magazine subscriptions by giving away cookbooks. We also heard from a highly motivated team leader a couple of years our senior. He wore flashy rings and a really nice watch.

    The whole subscription caper is too elaborate to get into here. But the upshot was that every morning our little sales team would be driven by van to some military housing area. There we would fan out through the streets like Jehovah’s Witnesses, toting our cookbooks and subscription packets.

    Our prey was the young, harried enlisted wife; the one with her hair in curlers, a colicky baby on her hip, and Salems smoldering in a couple of different ash trays. We were to present ourselves as students working our way through school. If we could sell enough subscriptions, we would “win a typewriter!”

    Our gambit was a “readership survey” of 48 popular magazines. The free cookbook was the bait. If she answered the survey, she got the cookbook AND a year’s subscription to ANY FOUR magazines on the list, “all completely FREE!” All she had to do was pay the postage.

    It seemed like a good deal to me, but what did I know? I was 15. As it turned out, nine of 10 enlisted wives already had more magazines than they could read or the baby could rip. The other one out of 10 already had our cookbook.

    I lasted two weeks. I walked miles, knocked on hundreds of doors, and sold no subscriptions. At the end, I was giving the cookbooks away just to lighten my load.

    Mr. Snavely was disappointed, but by then he was busy training new clean-cut youths to replace those in the first batch who didn’t have what it took. We who didn’t slunk away to our bus stops, transfer coupons in hand.

    At length I accepted the help of my parents, who knew someone who knew someone who was building a wall. I spent the rest of the summer lifting huge rocks for an angry mason at a hot, dirty, windblown job site. It was way more fun than trying to sell magazines.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 11, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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