Wednesday, August 24, 2011

First Job

When detasseling corn, grasp the tassel neck firmly. Bend it a bit and pull in a steady motion. The stem will resist for a second, then slip out easily. If it breaks mid-glide, you’re pulling too hard.

We were a mix of high school freshmen and migrant workers. The only thing we had in common was that almost anything could sound like sex.

The supervisors would pick us up in a supermarket parking lot and we’d ride in a flatbed to the cornfields.

The migrant workers were white like us and about the same age, but you could tell us apart. They had hard little nut-like faces, their lunch was Twinkies and a thermos of Kool-Aid mixed with Vodka. They could put out cigarettes with their bare toes.

It didn’t occur to us to mess with these guys. We knew they could kick our ass for a dime and then ask for change. But we admired them, vaguely, as you admire anyone who feels more comfortable in a given situation or environment.

I didn’t know how they lived, where they stayed. I didn’t know any of their names. But then again, I didn’t know why we were detasseling corn. Still, a couple of them took a shine to me, and I liked that.

Some of my friends lasted all summer and socked away a few hundred dollars. By day 3, I realized I didn’t need the money anyway, and walked off in the middle of a job.

The guy supervising us had an old nut-like face, and told me I couldn’t visit the farmhouse to use the bathroom. That’s what the aisles in between cornrows were for.

We stared each other down.

It took two rides to hitch my way home. Country roads, crows, and corn, corn, corn. The parental units said they knew I’d be too soft to stick it out, and maybe now I’d be more appreciative of home and the country club.

They didn’t know anything. I had drunk Kool-Aid mixed with vodka, and could, if pressed, snuff out a cigarette with my barefeet. I could hitch a ride home. I had quit my first job. I had my first taste of freedom, and it was sweet.

42 comments:

  1. You learnt to detassel corn? I bet that's proved useful your entire life. I'm impressed you stuck it for 3 days - my daughter and her friend gave up picking blackcurrants after the first day, when an entire day's toil brought in just $15 (I think they ate rather a lot of their harvest). Thank goodness they weren't offered drinks by the "professionals." Or maybe they didn't tell me.

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  2. Good piece.

    I was going to leave it at that but then Bellis had to say, "I bet that's proved useful your entire life."

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  3. 3 days to learn and see the value of freedom in earning freedom. Pretty sweet

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  4. They don't have Kool-Aid and vodka at the country club? Seems a blaring oversight to me.

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  5. You've painted such a vivid picture. I love these pieces of your past.

    Fresh out of college, I worked at an employment agency in Manhattan. I had to cold call companies to find open positions and my boss's motto was "don't think, just pick up the phone." On my third day, I sat at a diner for lunch and accepted the fact that I wasn't a salesperson. I never went back. It was sweet to get the hell out of there.

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  6. I had to google yesterday to find out why in the heck we were detasseling corn in the first place. turns out it has to do with cross pollination.

    Turns out it's still done by hand. Just think, even today kids are drinking Kool Aid and vodka on hot summer days in Illinois.

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  7. This is so well written it makes me wish I had quit my first job so as to have something tangible to add.

    Actually, I think *everybody* should quit their first job.

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  8. I had a friend who lived in Nebraska one summer, and she had a detasseling job. Neither she nor I had country club parents, so they never expected that she would quit.

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  9. Hmmm. The mother in me finds this a little distressing. Were you making good choices, Karin? I know you think you were, but toes were met for nail polish not putting out cigarettes. And koolade and vodka. Do you know the artificial colors they put in koolade. Do you?

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  10. There were some things the Girl Scout handbook didn't cover.

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  11. I wasn't allowed to have Kool Aid once Dixie Jane got hold of me. She gave me Jell-O to lick right out of the package instead. Suited me just fine.

    My first job? I was a fashion illustrator at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. I had my choice of models who would stroll out and take a pose. I had my own work booth and had art supplies brought to me. I was insulted when my drawings were called "kicky" and "nifty". An artist co-worker asked me to join her to go shoplifting during our lunch break. I quit after one week and went off to grad school on student loans.

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  12. " We stared each other down"
    You are a rounder.

    I like your boss's motto, Susan. I often apply to all my endeavors.

    Detasseling to avoid cross-pollination. It may be too late; Monsanto's gentically altered breeds may have "infected" more than half the nations crop. Shades of the Irish potato famine, if a mutated disease should strike this unintended consequence of monoculture. And over time, organic growing has proven more effective, and sustainable, than factory production methods.

    I've quit the job market entirely - I went back to school.

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  13. Right on, Shanna! You are my Sistah!

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  14. I walked off the job at Levitt's furniture warehouse after my second day.

    No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't distinguish the process for the goldenrod order copy from the chartreuse order copy (one went in the pneumatic tube to the warehouse and the other got filed in the vertical file. I think.).

    The idea of spending my summer literally shuffling paper in a dark, dank space surrounded by burnout cases just didn't cut it. But now that I think about it, there was an indoor bathroom.

    I was a wimp. But it was Huntington Beach and y'know, summer. Sand. Surf. Etc.

    BTW: I got a bad skin burn when pulling out my corn stalks last weekend. Those things are wicked.

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  15. What have we got -- picking berries, call center boiler room, fashion illustrator with shoplifter mentor, and Love It At Levitt's.

    And don't let K fool you; it may not have been his first job, but he was deckhand on a tramp steamer.

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  16. I wonder if someone could carry on an entire blog asking for tales from summer jobs. I was just on this at the barbershop a week or two ago.

    Or, what's the longest period of time anyone has felt the kind of freedom you mention at the end? Is it just another word for nuthin' left to lose? Or not?

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  17. Perhaps its the latter, my friend.

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  18. Sweet! one for your book of shorts

    Mine was leaving grad night before dinner was served, realizing I'd never be forced to spend another minute with these people ever again.

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  19. Banjo and Bandit, you haven't told us yours. I know PA served a short sentence at Marie Calender's.

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  20. Great takeaway from the experience, Karin! Freedom under those circumstances is sweet indeed. I could go for some vodka and Kool-Aid right now--and I'm just detasseling loafers.

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  21. Since you ask . . . one summer, I counted cars for the state high department. I started on a crew of college kids stopping cars to ask where from, where to, and why (to plan future expansion of roadways). Then I got promoted to my own state car for the night shift, 10p - 6a. Several times I was assigned to a pullout in a cornfield by a gravel road and counted 2 or 3 cars in 8 hours. How many times were the cornfields haunted? How many times did I almost fall asleep driving back to the motel where they boarded us? How many times did I read the same page of Dickens' Hard Times? (truly). I tried to flee to construction work, but couldn't find another job. The End.

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  22. Great story! I'm glad you stuck around long enough to get the Vodka Kool-Air recipe. And learn the joy of quitting a sucky job. Growing up a Hoosier I almost had a detasseling job, but then they decided they didn't need me. Probably good since I was only 10 (although tall for my age). We moved to Oakland after that and in 6th grade I wrote a piece for my "Golden Gate of Poems" (gag) called something like "The Worst Job in the World". I think all I wrote was "The worst job in the world is detasseling corn for Dekalb."

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  23. Terry, pull gently.

    Katie, you probably said all there is to say about detasseling in one sentence. And you were only 10.

    But Banjo, the end? Don't be a miser, I want more.

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  24. "...my first taste of freedom" and it was sweet. First taste of sweet corn is the same way. Never mind how it got to the table, it is sweet none the less.

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  25. Really? . . . tall for my age, too, I s'pose.

    I was raised by my Dad, so not much opportunity to be rebellious early on, he, a disciplined, sometimes brilliant type-A personality and silver-tongued ad man who suffered occasional bouts of alcoholism.

    I do remember we moved to St. Paul, my grandparent's home was there, after a failed newspaper partnership in Denver, it being the coldest month of winter, and my Dad finagled a newspaper delivery route for me (two, in fact) right in the neighborhood, the former "Gold Coast" of the city, glorious mansions gone to seed, converted to cheap rooming houses for the derelict lower classes of the late '60's.

    I was poorly equipped for Minnesota winters, having arrived from the relatively mild climate of the mountains, with just normal clothing lacking the protection of heavy thermal weaves or woolen threads. The first day on the job, I went out before dawn, right behind one of the heaviest snows of the season, and an arctic jetstream had just blown in frigid air from somewhere near the North Pole.

    It was 37 degrees below zero.

    I had that route for two years, not giving it up until high school, after I'd learned the art of incorrigibility from the local urchins. Someone said St. Paul is a city of thieves, others, the most boring town in America, and both those currents run deep, tributary to the Mississippi, and I suppose they always have, and always will.

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  26. As I actually never detasseled corn I have no idea how I learned that it was a sucky job, but I must have heard stories. Like Banjo my first job was a paper route. Granted I was in Indiana and not frigid Minnesota (and never got to learn "the art of incorrigibility from the local urchins" -- what an awesome sentence!), but part of my route was downtown where I got to deliver to Tommy's Silver Dollar Bar. Probably illegal for a 10-year old to have been in there, but it was the early 70s.

    Banjo I'll be in St. Paul in a few weeks -- I love that town! Not that I'd move back (7 years in Mpls was plenty) but it's always fun to visit. I'm especially looking forward to vising Bars Bakery - who doesn't like a good bar?

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  27. What a great first job, even if you did have to pee in the corn-aisles..! I never learned anything near as useful as how to put out cigarette butt's with my bare feet, with my first job (I got fired for tripping my lecherous boss into an open fireplace, as he tried to grope me).

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  28. Shrinky! Atta girl, to you!I don't suppose you could have stared that lecher down?

    Katie, contact me via my blog if you need anything, but I suspect you know your way around just fine.

    Pardon me, Karin . . .

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  29. I grew up in DeKalb, Illinois, the town with a brand of corn named after it. But there was a height limit and I wasn't tall enough to detassel. My brother and sister did it, though. My cute little sister who was shy and sweet and grew up to be a librarian, rose up through the detasseling ranks to drive a combine. I'm thinking now of her toes.

    My first job was at a movie theater owned by a corrupt couple who re-sold tickets for cash. When they got caught and tried to blame it on me (newest employee, scapegoat) my mother stepped in and dealt with them like the mobsters they were. She would either blow the whistle or they'd get me a better job.

    I ended up waiting tables in the local diner. Night shift. Age 15. I raked in the bucks. What was she thinking? Maybe she was thinking "learning experience." I saved for college.

    Today would be her 90th birthday. She snubbed vodka, Koolaid and cigarettes and went straight for the champagne.

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  30. Katie, I was going to say both Banjo and Bandit know their way around a well-turned phrase, but you were referring to Bandit's. Maybe you two should grab a cup of coffee? You're both particular favorites of mine.

    P, happy birthday to your mom, and for all the talent she passed along to you.

    And Yay to Shrinky. Atta girl.

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  31. Yikes, I can't even keep Banjo and Bandit straight. Sorry guys. Ok now I need some Vodka Kool-Aid.

    wv: castorth (if I can't get my names straight I'll be castorth from this blog)

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  32. The minute your child takes their first job they're beyond your grasp. Putting them in a corn field prolly seemed like the safest place on the face of the earth but let's face it, kids just wanna have fun.

    My first job was running a church nursery during a Catholic service. On a Naval Base. Some of those kids grew up to be strange people that needed a lot of social services, I'm sure of it.

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  33. I admire a woman who can make a grand exit. And no wonder this story sounded familiar, you were in Illinois? We had miles and miles of corn fields in Michigan, too :-)

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  34. Wonderful tale. Ah... teenage jobs, first jobs, the taste of forbidden 'fruit'. Great stuff!

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  35. Weird ESP going on here . . . just thinking of the detasseling stories I'd heard from friends when I was growing up. Took the kids to the midwest this week and big sis got to touch actual corn and try to walk through a corn field. Great post (catching up on reading after a week.of.no.internet.in.the.midwest)

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  36. Hard work, done by hard people...
    When they say most amercians won't do this type of work, they are so very right! I'm impressed that you even tried it!

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  37. Reminds me of my stint working in a bottle factory washing bottles...between high school and college!!!

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  38. I also quit my job at Disneyland after only 8 hours of scooping mashed potatoes on plates with a kid half my age hovering over me telling me how to do it!!! (I was all of about 24) Somehow I don't think he could put out a cigarette with his toes...my college room mate could flip you off with her toes though...

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  39. Or drinking Kool Aid and vodka without detasseling corn perhaps? I"m with Shell, what kind of stinking country club doesn't have that!

    Great piece as only you can bring us. After one of these I always leave feeling like a mowwwwron!
    V

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