I was fifteen years old, answering phones in the main office of my high school. “Good afternoon, Park Ridge High School, how may I direct your call?” I’d look up the extension on the printed sheet and punch the square plastic buttons for HOLD and TRANSFER. My best friend had a work-study job in the guidance office, and I put in a few hours a week at my floating desk in the front office. One day, I was answering phones and a tall, handsome woman in a pantsuit pushed open the glass door.
She introduced herself as a small business owner from down the street, and said she wanted to post a help wanted notice. “I need someone to work in my business, doing office work after school hours.” I took the index card from her and read the typed requirements. Typing, filing, something about shipping.
“I’d like to apply,” I said. I put the card in my pocket, as if to say, I’m not posting this on any bulletin board.
“All right,” she said. “Come on down to the office after school, and we’ll see how it works out.”
I walked the two blocks from the high school to the single-level office building next to Julie’s, a squat concrete building where every childhood temptation was sold: swiveling racks of comic books and shelves filled with candy (wax lips, candy dots on long strips of paper, Wacky Packs trading cards). The grownups had their own section with dirty magazines and cigars. I remembered my mother idling in her station wagon outside while I skipped into Julie’s with my dollar allowance in my fist.
I had walked past the nondescript “professional building” next door a hundred times and never even noticed it. But now I saw the little gold plated sign for GILFER ASSOCIATES and pushed the intercom button. Mrs. Ferrell, the woman I’d met at the high school, buzzed me in and I walked to the back office. It smelled like Office to me. It smelled like Work. Carbon paper, envelope glue, typewriter ink and stamps and labels. My fingers tingled. This was no babysitting job, my only other source of income thus far. This was a real job in a real office.
Mrs. Ferrell introduced me to the president and CEO of the company, who also happened to be the husband of Mrs. Ferrell. He mumbled a gruff hello at me, and went back to talking on the phone in an important tone of voice. He was talking about radios – shortwave radios. There was a row of books with his name along the spine – Oliver P. Ferrell – and dozens and dozens of shortwave radios.
The UPS truck. The man in brown shorts. We became flirt-buddies. He knew I was just an after-school high school girl, and, in fact, he called me Kid.
I learned that this little husband-and-wife company was the only distributor of books solely dedicated to shortwave radios, as well as the radios themselves. They had a mailing list of thousands, and my job was to keep the mailing list current. This was decades before computers and electronic databases. Every time we received a change-of-address postcard, I had to find the little corresponding card for the customer and type out a new label for them. I memorized the two-letter abbreviation for each state: NE stood for Nebraska and NV for Nevada. The differences between IA and ID, MO and MI.
I had been working there for months when I saw Mrs. Ferrell sign something as Jeanne Gillespie. GIL… Gillespie! And FER Ferrell! GILFER. This delighted me no end – a secret and familial code I’d cracked. I recognized it because my own parents, Kikuko and Masaji, had formed their own little company, KIMAS Associates.
Eventually, I graduated from mailing-list updater to an official shipping clerk. When an order came in for books, I could easily identify the item, slip it into the right-sized padded envelope, weigh it and print out a postage label. For boxes, I knew how to fill out a UPS order form. I had my own little cave downstairs, near the parking lot where the brown truck pulled up.
The UPS truck. The man in brown shorts. We became flirt-buddies. He knew I was just an after-school high school girl, and, in fact, he called me Kid. But he winked on his way in and out the door. Our fingers brushed when I handed him a stack of Shortwave Voices of the World, sheathed in corrugated cardboard. I crushed hard on him. It gave me one more reason to love my job, to rush down to my shipping lair and package up boxes with long tongues of tough tape, wet down with a giant sponge.
Late in the fall, I found out about the rush of Catalogue Week, when Gilfer’s annual catalog came in from the printer and we had to ship them off to each of the thousands of customers simultaneously. I learned about bulk mailings and trundling stuffed canvas carts up to the post office up the street. There was an urgency to this week and an excitement about this product I could barely decipher. The shortwave geeks were breathlessly awaiting their catalogue, and we were going to deliver it so that they could get their orders in before the end of the year. This week, nothing mattered but the catalogue. I skipped school, and so did the Ferrells’ daughters. We became a single-focused, determined machine: slapping labels onto mailing envelopes, coordinating zip codes for the bulk bins, endlessly, until the very last zip code – 98150, Washington state – was stapled and sealed.
But like a first kiss, or first sex, or first anything, that first job imprinted on me what a job is supposed to feel like.
Mr. Ferrell pronounced that we were all – including me – going out to dinner to celebrate the successful mass shipment of the catalogue. We drove to a steakhouse a few towns over, a place I’d seen on my way to the mall with my mother. It seemed unspeakably fancy – it had a salad bar, something brand new in those days – where one could choose from an endless variety of tiny tomatoes, delicately cut cucumber and beans! I’d never heard of putting kidney beans or garbanzos on a salad. Silver buckets nestled in ice with half a dozen salad dressings that you could ladle on yourself. I went wild with the bacon bits and crunchy noodles and made my way back to the table. The boss was giving a speech. “Good work, team,” he said, and he raised a glass to all of us.
“Susan,” he said, “We had no idea what we were getting when Jeanne went up there to the high school. But you’re a damn good worker, and we’re glad to have you part of the company.” Part of the company. I’ll never forget that moment. I was part of a company, at fifteen years old. I was doing a good job. I had a good job. They paid me better than minimum wage, over three dollars an hour, and for a teenager with no expenses other than concert tickets and record albums from Sam Goody’s, I was rolling in it.
I worked there for the rest of high school, until I graduated and went off to college. I had many jobs after that – waitressing, working in a liver research laboratory, in hospitals and summer camps and colleges. But like a first kiss, or first sex, or first anything, that first job imprinted on me what a job is supposed to feel like. You’re supposed to learn to do a thing, and then to get good at it, and then you get to do more and more. People recognize your good work and you get appreciated and rewarded. You feel part of something that matters. Even if it doesn’t matter to you – even if you never comprehend the product or the purpose – it matters to somebody, and it’s important that you do what you do.
Little did I know that that job would be the benchmark for every other job I would ever have; and if I ever felt less than that chemistry of good people, engaging work, learning new skills and feeling appreciated, I knew it wasn’t good enough. On the surface, it felt as mundane and ordinary as one could imagine – shipping clerk in a shortwave radio company – but it taught me more about what “good job” meant more than any other.