YOUTHFUL EMPLOYMENT

A common predictor of success in the business world is early industriousness.  For instance, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP MORGAN, worked at three jobs as a teenager.  Michael Bloomberg delivered papers.  Bill Gates pulled all-nighters to assist professors at the University of Washington with programming issues.  I was at the other end of the spectrum.

Until my senior year of high school, summer occupation for me consisted of watching re-runs on television, throwing or hitting tennis balls against the garage wall, and practicing golf putts in the living room.  It is surprising my putting is so terrible now, considering how much of my youth was consumed with that activity.

My parents did not seem inclined to upset this leisurely routine.  Perhaps, their lack of vigilance was due to my lack of acquisitiveness.  I did not crave a car; I did not seek a social life; I was not interested in purchasing clothes or records, or any of the usual drivers of teen employment.  In sum, I did not call attention to my lassitude and, so, for nearly all of my teen years, I was able to stay aboard a low-key gravy train.

The halcyon days ended abruptly when my aunt, the secretary (now called an “administrative assistant”) to the director of the Lower Merion library system, told my mother that the system needed a “page” for the summer (now called an “intern.”)   Such a position involved floating among several of the system’s six branches doing odd jobs, such as:  a little cataloguing; a little organizing; and, a little filling-in-at-the-front-desk-while-the-real-employee-is-on-vacation.  Inevitably, I inquired if a “page” could be promoted to “chapter,” or even “book.”  The answer was “no.”

The good news was that the position was paid, if one considered $1.75/hour payment.  Among the bad news were that the shifts would be irregular – two or three hours one day, a full day the next, and the commute to several of the sites could be as long as an hour.  As a money-making enterprise, this job stank, as I pointed out to my mother with modest understatement:  “This will ruin my life.”

“It is appropriate for someone your age to experience a job,” she responded.

“Isn’t the point of a job to make real money?” I asked.

“If you have a better idea, you are free to pursue it.  You could work at Dad’s store for no pay,” she added.  Suddenly, libraries seemed tolerable.

My first project was at the Ardmore Library, an edifice dating to the 1890’s with vintage lighting and furniture.   I was to work from 6-9 in the evening for two weeks “organizing” the magazine collection.  A generic (I must have known her name and face at the time) middle-aged woman directed me up dimly-lit stairs to a mezzanine in the decrepit building where magazines had been accumulating for, seemingly, several centuries.  These magazines were obtained via library subscriptions, and also donations from patrons who emptied their attics and basements.  She asked me to sort each title chronologically and alphabetically.  She did not suggest how I deal with the dust, cobwebs, and insects that enveloped the moldering piles of reading material.

Suffice it to say that I did not find the task stimulating.  In two weeks, not a single patron inquired about the periodicals.  Occasionally, an article in a ten-year-old magazine caught my interest.  Reading was difficult, however, because the light was dim in the mezzanine and, theoretically, at least, I was supposed to be “working.”  In reality, the librarian who remained downstairs was so uninterested in what I was doing that I feared she would forget about me.  My suspicions were confirmed one evening at closing time when she turned off all the lights while I was still working.  I shouted un-libraryistically and her reaction was barely audible, “Oh, sorry about that.”

The “magazines in the mezzanine” project was rendered particularly unsatisfying by my absolute certainty that no one would ever choose to peruse the fruits of my labor.  There were no learned journals that a scholar might consult.  Rather, the fare trended towards “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Boy’s Life.”  When the two weeks ended, and I was to move to my next assignment, the project was incomplete.

I spent the next several weeks at the Gladwyne Library manning the front desk and shelving returned books.  My knowledge of the alphabet again proved critical.  Farther out Philadelphia’s “Main Line,” Gladwyne is wealthier than Ardmore, and considerably younger.  The library, accordingly, lacked the same fossilized vibe.  Actual patrons came to read and borrow books and there was a lively children’s program.  The staff was pleasant.  My only grievance was the commute.  My mother’s car was not available for all-day borrowing and I had to take a bus from West Philadelphia.  I joined a contingent of domestic workers at the stop each morning; my lack of a lovely Jamaican accent distinguished me, among other things.

The third and final assignment of my summer as a page was at the Belmont Hills branch.  It was a tiny outpost in the war against illiteracy, more a kiosk than a real library.  The librarian worked alone.  My role was to learn all the necessary procedures with her for a day or two, then cover the next two weeks, while she vacationed.

My main memory of the Belmont Hills library is that there were hardly any books.  Somehow, besides a collection of older classics, the “library” could borrow newer, popular books from the “real” branches in the system and lend them to local patrons who had ordered them.  “Looking for Mrs. Goodbar” was the low-brow hit of that summer, I recall, and there was a list of over twenty women waiting their turn.  Besides spending ten minutes each morning re-stacking the trickle of returned books from the previous day, my job involved calling people to tell them when a reserved book came in, and answering the telephone inquiries to advise Mrs. Jones, for instance, if she were number twelve or number fifteen on the waiting list.

My main memory of the Belmont Hills library is completely unrelated to the job itself.  My older brother, David, took a several-weeks-long camping trip with friends that summer.  He graciously insisted that I consider his Volkswagen Beetle mine while he was away.  The problem was that the car had a manual shift, something I had never driven.  David provided fifteen minutes of tutelage and pronounced me competent.  His instruction took place on flat terrain, however, and, well, Belmont Hills came by its name honestly.

The experience of rolling backwards, repeatedly, on the way to my first day at the Belmont Hills library was traumatic.  I am not generally a believer in miracles, but I am willing to consider the possibility, given that I did not crash.  I hunched over the steering wheel, praying for green lights.  I rolled through every “Stop” sign, and finally coasted into the parking lot at the library trembling.   While I did develop a grudging semi-competence with the clutch by the end of the second week, I am forever a believer in automatic transmissions, as a result of my work at the Belmont Hills library.

In sum, my summer as a page did not launch an entrepreneurial career.  It did not inspire me to value work.  It did not inspire me, Carnegie-like, to value libraries.  In fact, I was so unimpressed with the “value” of summer employment as an end in itself, that I never prodded my children to seek summer jobs.  They all chose, on their own, to earn spending money, but not because their father insisted.  I may have a moral failing in this regard, but that is a defect I am willing to concede.  I approached my first job without enthusiasm, and I remained a page who never turned.

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