“I Try Retail”

I am amazed at how many jobs I went through in my 20’s. Somehow I had blithely forgotten my job hopping in those years. Plus, there seems to be little logic in my choices. Ah well, I finally arrived at a career, but not without a few more jobs!

I went into the management training program for the Fred Meyer chain. Freddie’s was like an early Walmart, with groceries, household items and clothing. I was sent to the Burlingame store, near my home and was the Assistant Manager in Apparel. In those days everyone in management worked six days a week, eight hours a day not including the hour for lunch or dinner. The days shifted around, as did the time of day, depending on when the manager wanted to work. I often worked 1 until 10 on Saturday and then 8 to 5 on Sunday.

The job was very physically demanding since I was on my feet the whole time, often shelving merchandise. I had trouble maintaining my weight and actually carried roasted nuts in the pocket of my yellow polyester jacket to nibble on. I learned many useful things, most not useful outside of retail. Most amazing to me was that many women actually enjoyed pawing through piles of reduced sale merchandise, a task that always put me off.

I only met Fred himself(pictured above) once when he dropped in to survey the store. When I went to say hello, he asked me why I wasn’t helping anyone. He clearly had a serious work ethic! Our department nemesis was a very crazy woman who used to come into the store at 9:59pm to begin her shopping. We had to stay after the 10pm closing time until the last customer had checked out. She knew this and often browsed for a long time and finally left without a purchase. I lasted in retail for 12 months. A new employment record!

“A Year in the Salt Mines”


So many things were wrong about that year teaching in middle school that it gives me a headache just remembering it. This was the middle school in Portland and it took kids who were used to having one teacher all year and plunked them into a schedule where they had new teachers every 50 minutes. And as far as I could tell, with no preparation. So essentially no one teacher had responsibility for any one student. It took the kids about five minutes to figure this out and act out accordingly.

We were expected to handle almost all discipline issues on our own. I had one very disturbed boy who literally picked up his desk over his head and threatened to break the window of the classroom door. He had “problems” that I was supposed to know how to handle. My most difficult student met with me, his father and the principal to figure out how to handle his behavior. His helpful father said, “When Mike acts like that I throw him against the wall. He will never listen to words.” And the meeting came to an end with no further advice for me.

I made it through the year but decided to quit teaching. That vow lasted through several more jobs.


“Stuck in the Middle”


Well, as you may well imagine, with my stellar employment history I had not been able to save enough money to go to graduate school. My rent and utilities would be free (except for the insanity) because I would be managing Tom’s new apartment house. But I needed money to pay for school and to do things like eat. I entered a special graduate program at Portland State University to get a M.S. in Education.

This program combined studies with teaching, as an intern, in a public school half days. The intern teaching was paid, enough to cover tuition and my living expenses. What could be better? (Some time I ought to count the number of times I fell for this kind of thinking!)

I was assigned to a team at Portsmouth Middle School in an economically challenged(i.e. poor) neighborhood. Because no one on the team of seasoned teachers and other interns felt comfortable teaching math, I ended up teaching 6th and 8th grade math classes, three a day. Fortunately, the students never taxed my math skill level, since most of them were functioning at least two years behind.

Middle schools were making their debut in Portland, and Portsmouth was to be the first to open, taking students from 5th through 8th grade. What a splendid cutting edge idea in education. More tomorrow.

“Time for a Change”


By the time I returned to work in the late winter, not only did Tom have a real office for the construction company, he also had decided to run for a position on the Portland City Council in the May primary election. Portland in those days was far from the hipster laden, coffee drinking town it is today. It was a solidly lower middle class, conservative city run by solidly lower middle class conservative council members. Tom decided to go up against one of these men in the hopes that Portlanders were ready for a change.

Tom was young, enthusiastic, idealistic and energetic. His main opponent was older, tired, settled and content with the ways things had always been. Tom rallied a group of similar minded people who did all the work of campaigning while I did office work for the construction company and looked on in wonder. The primary field for the office was broad, but Tom came in first followed in a close second by the incumbent.

Tom began to build apartment houses through a HUD subsidized program for low income people. I found him a burned over lot which had held a furniture store destroyed in rioting some years earlier. He built a large apartment house on it and asked me if I wanted to manage it. As readers of earlier posts will recall, I did, to disastrous effects!

By the fall, however, I knew that office work was not a good long range plan and I enrolled in graduate school to be a certified teacher. I quit working for Tom, and my good friend from Trailways jumped at the chance to work for him. I still campaigned door to door in “swing” neighborhoods. Regrettably I brought him the news that I thought he would be defeated in the general election, based on my door to door visits. He was by a vote of 69,109 to his 67,747. We had a great party and I returned to my studies.

“Less Than Tastee”


I blacked out the name on this converted Tastee Freez so as not to defame them. My story involves the Tastee Freez which occupied a building just like this one. I was working for Tom in that freezing cold office, chopping wood and trying to make a system out of the no system that he was using. Things were going pretty well. There was a Tastee Freez a few blocks away and I bought lunch there one day.

Thanksgiving Day I woke feeling terrible. I was so cold I lay over the heating vent to get warm. I went ahead to my family’s house for dinner, but felt too dreadful to eat anything. I also had an awful pain in my upper right abdomen. My mother noticed that my eyes were yellow and called their doctor. Sure enough, I had Hepatitis A, the contagious one spread by poor hygiene. Not mine, mind you. But I had no idea where I had acquired the virus.

In those pre-computer days, the Department of Public Health sent an interviewer to my home to ask me to tell him everywhere I had eaten in the last few days. He then went back to the office and put a pin on a large map to indicate where I and other people who had just come down with Hepatitis A had eaten. When a large cluster of pins showed up at the Tastee Freez, he went there and found the cook who was responsible for spreading the disease to a number of patrons, me included. He called me with the information.

I was off work for two months, mostly bed ridden, while my body healed itself. Tom didn’t hire anyone in my absence, and when I was well I went back to work for him. By then he had decided he needed a real office, with heat and an electric typewriter. I was its first employee!

“First Chop Wood”


My next job had several aspects, so it will go on for several posts. My family had a friend, Tom, who had started a construction company with his younger brother. In 1969 it was more a couple of guys building things rather than an actual company. But Tom decided it was time to hire someone to organize an office. That was me. He recruited me away from my insurance job, a none too difficult task.

His “office” was a drafting table, a couple of file cabinets, a phone and tons of pieces of paper lying about in no particular order. It was in the basement of an old house and was actually just a room, probably originally a work shop. Plus it was freezing cold.

I asked Tom what he wanted me to do in this “office.” He said he really had no idea since he had never had anyone work for him before. And oh, by the way, if I got cold I should chop some firewood for the old wood stove in the space and build myself a little fire.

And he went off to build.

“Can You Insure Him?”


I have no idea how I went from writing up bus tours to selling substandard auto insurance, but I did. I had lasted about six weeks at Trailways. One of my last memories was of eating at the bus depot and watching a cockroach walk calmly across the counter. It was that kind of bus depot.

I worked for an insurance broker who placed difficult to insure clients with what was called substandard auto insurance. When a client went to a regular agent who couldn’t insure him, the agent would call me and I would call around to various companies to see if any would take him. Our typical client was a 23 year old male with five speeding tickets, one DUI and a sports car. It turned out that for a high enough premium I could usually locate a company willing to insure the driver. I might have to call several different companies, starting with the easiest and going down the list until for an astronomical amount of money I could place the client with the likes of “No Driver Too Awful for Us to Take His Money Insurance Company.” Amazingly, I found those terrible drivers often had enough money to buy the insurance. I guess that is why those companies could stay in business.

I definitely encountered the racism prevalent in the insurance industry at the time.(And still present according to the latest issue of Consumer Reports.) One of my calls was to insure a Cadillac for a man with an excellent driving record. I asked the agent why he was seeking a substandard policy for the man. He told me that the man was a Negro janitor, and “what was he doing driving a Cadillac anyway?” So he wouldn’t place him with a standard company.

This job and I were a poor fit for obvious reasons.(see paragraph above) I tended to voice my disgust with this practice and I groaned a lot about the very rich kids who were driving drunk and smashing into other people. Thank goodness another job was in the wings.