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Hard Work

by janderson on January 12, 2012

“You don’t know the meaning of hard work.” My father used to say that a lot to me when I was a kid. I hated hearing that back then. It seemed to me that there was no pleasing him, sometimes. He’d wake me up at the crack of dawn, hover over my bleary head and say “I’ve got a project for you.” I would cut and stack firewood. I would help him build a fence. I would help him put together a tool shed, or a duck blind. I would help him clear away brush. Hammers and saws and nails were my enemies. No matter how hard I worked, I still heard it, that refrain. I love him for it today.

When I was about twelve, I got my first job. I was a busboy at the local country club where my mother was the book keeper. I ran butter and rolls, pitchers of ice-water and napkins, dropped silverware on the tables of the fortunate and the well-to-do of Ft. Madison, Iowa. When they were done eating, I took away their dishes and wiped clean their table cloths. I got to learn the class that they were and the class I was not, back then.

I went on to a string of constant jobs after that. I washed dishes and waited tables at a local beer and burger joint. As soon as I could drive, I got myself and my brother jobs as corn de-tasslers. We woke up at four in the morning so we could drive to a corn field, half an hour from home, and spend twelve hours pulling the silky tassle parts from corn stalks. Up and down the rows we went, sometimes riding in the baskets of a detassling tractor, sometimes just walking the rows, cutting our hands on corn leaves.

I felt like a big brother then. I looked out for my little brother. Then there was the one day that neither one of us wanted to go. We skipped out on work, driving around for a couple of hours before going home, when we knew no one was going to be there to catch us. We didn’t know the meaning of hard work. – At least, that’s what my dad would have said.

When I graduated high school, I got another job. My mother had moved on from book keeping at country clubs to book keeping at nursing homes. It was a natural progression. I was hired to scrape and re-wax the floors of the West Point nursing home. Sometimes, it was an overnight shift, so that the nurses and residents would be out of the way while I worked. So, I scraped and I scrubbed and I waxed. The crazier residents would call out at night. Sometimes, they would come out of their rooms, naked and aged, calling for someone that was no longer living. I watched a woman die once. It was an accident. I happened to be sweeping her room when she went into cardiac arrest. The staff rushed in and made a big fuss, but none of their ruckus could overwhelm the quiet of her passing. I saw her eyes dim.

I remember coming home at seven in the morning from a shift about two weeks before I left for college. My father was just waking up to go to work himself. He walked in on me cobbling together some kind of breakfast in the kitchen. He put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Now you know what hard work is. I’m proud of you, son.” He cooked me eggs after that. It was one of my favorite moments with my dad.

But, the hardest work I was in for came later. It wasn’t the cooking jobs I got in college, rushing around various kitchens, burning myself to sautee vegetables, grill burgers and steaks for two hundred people in a night. It wasn’t the factory job I spent two summers doing. I worked a production line for eight to ten hours a day, piping chemicals into superheated steel molds to make armrests and dashboard parts for cars. It was a hundred degrees in that factory. The supervisor ran back and forth across the line, barking at us about moving faster and making our quota. I sanded my knuckles off on a belt sander once, making an armrest smooth. I came home every day with bruised hands from knocking open the steel molds, at first with an iron bar, then, I just got tough enough to open the molds with my bare hands. Burns and bruises meant nothing.

The hardest work wasn’t the landscaping company. I worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, planting trees and cutting sod with a box knife. I ran a skid loader and a fork lift. One day I walked off the job, because I was going to kill a guy with a rake for repeatedly driving over the area I was planing for sod. The next day, the owner of the company dressed me down for leaving, until I told him why I did. Then, he gave me a raise for having common sense. A few weeks later, the owner was broke and he couldn’t pay us. I went to his house and threatened to kill him with a rake, before I got my check. I walked off the job then and never went back. He still owes me money.

The hardest work came one day when I was broke, as usual, and looking for the biggest paycheck I could find. I got a newspaper and saw an ad for a job that was paying over seven dollars an hour, a fortune back then. The only job description was ‘laundry service.’

The University of Iowa has one of the largest hospitals in the country. I’d worked there before on several other jobs, delivering packages, sterilizing sutures. Those were the jobs not worth mentioning, the easy jobs. I called about the laundry ad and was directed to a squat concrete building across the river from the hospital.

There I met the angriest looking man I’ve ever seen. He was so angry that the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth had folded in on themselves from scowling so much. He called me into his office and grunted everything he said, like a big alpha gorilla. One of the things he grunted was that nobody lasted there. He grunted that he was doubtful I’d last beyond one day.

He reluctantly led me upstairs to the upper level, past the steam and gears and roaring of the massive machines downstairs that were pressing and cleaning and drying clothes from the hospital in huge loads, pushed around in big plastic carts by sad looking individuals.

Upstairs was a locker room. The doorways were covered in plastic. Inside, a cart full of rubber aprons, gloves and surgical masks stood by the door. There was a row of solemn rubber boots on a bench. “Get dressed.” He told me, pointing to the rubber robes. I did. Then I followed him through a door in the back of the locker room.

The smell was indescribable. Opening the door fed into my lungs a funk of rot and death that would cause anyone instant retching. I swallowed my retching and entered. It was a concrete industrial room the size of a gymnasium. A large conveyor belt ran through the middle of the room and made a square turn at the far end, descending into the floor below. Seven men lined the conveyor belt, breaking open garbage bags full of laundry. They were surrounded by six-foot piles of various types of hospital garments on all sides. Another two men were scooping armloads of the garments into canvass bags hung on hooks that they filled and pushed along tracks in the ceiling until they came to a stop over a chute that led to the washing machines downstairs. They dumped the soiled clothes into the chute and returned for another load.

“Welcome to the sorting room.” The angry man pointed to an open spot along the conveyor belt. “There’s your spot. They’ll tell you what to do. Let me know when you want to quit.” He shook his head and walked out.

I thanked the luck that I did not eat a big lunch and took my station, to the left and right of me were masked men who smiled with their eyes. An alarm rang. A light on the ceiling began to pulse, and the conveyor belt began to move. Suddenly, a line of garbage bags appeared, marching up the conveyor belt from the floor below. The first two men in the line up smacked the bags and popped them open, dumping them on to the belt. I saw turds roll away from the piles. As the piles came closer to me the workers began to sort, throwing garments expertly in front and behind them to their appropriate piles -scrubs to one side, baby blankets to another, hospital gowns, mop heads, sheets and blankets, all to distinct piles around the room. Fresh blood and coagulated blood poured out of the laundry. I picked up this and that, tossing here and there, according to direction from some of the sorters. The speed was intense. A truck load had to be sorted in a matter of minutes. Pieces of bone, brain, human meat, dropped and bounced as the laundry was picked through. Feces fell everywhere. The smell of every type of human fluid puffed anew as each bag was opened. There was also broken glass, sometimes syringes, bloody and just used.

All the time, some of the men kept cat-calling to the new guy – me. “Pick it up, fish! You suck at this, little boy! Better sort faster! If we have to stop the belt, I’m kicking your ass, boy!” I was too slow and they had to stop the belt. It was a big red button next to the man who was yelling at me most. He hit that button and turned on me. He walked up to me in a fit and shoved me so hard I nearly fell down into a pile of shitty baby gowns. If the belt had to stop again, he said, I was going home with my teeth in my hands. I found out later that he was a murderer. Many of the workers there were on parole for rape, murder, armed robbery from the max prison nearby. It was part of a jobs program for parolees. He became my closest friend at the laundry.

In a month, I was the one threatening to knock the teeth out of newcomers. Ex-felons and college kids, the last frontier in a college town, the best symbiosis I could imagine. I got by because I could make them laugh. I became endeared because I did a good job, put my nose down. I knew the meaning of hard work. I was fearless and they respected me for it. Even John, the angry manager took notice and, after four months in the sorting room, promoted me downstairs to run the washing machines and the dryers on weekends. I went back to the sorting room during the week.

One day John called me into his office. He was angry and ugly, as usual. He put a pen and a piece of paper down on his desk and looked me in the eye, with his angry eye. “I never thought I’d be doing this, but, I’ll pay you to leave.” He said. I looked confused.

“You’re becoming too much like them.” He nodded upstairs. I shrugged. John pounded his fist on his desk. “You forgot who you are!” He yelled. “You have more important things to do than this. Don’t be like them. They just came out of something you don’t want to go into. I see you heading there.” I shrugged again and walked out of his office. I didn’t see what he wrote on the paper. Maybe I should have looked.

Three months later, I got another job, through a friend. It was a good university job. I gave my resignation to John and he looked happy, for the first time since I’d known him. I’d lasted over a year. He didn’t think I could finish a day. He didn’t realize I know the meaning of hard work. Thanks, Dad.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie R. Fitch January 12, 2012 at 11:06 am

I love that you are uncomfortable enough to write about your best day( so far ) is the spontaneous praise from your Father and comfortable enough to write of all the wonderfully crappy jobs you’ve had. You are a fortunate son, Jeff. You’ve been given tacit permission to do anything you like with your life, and you’ve chosen to do the difficult things. The roads less traveled are the most interesting by far! Now the undiscovered country called parenthood has given you new perspective on your folks. Use it well, young padawan! (sorry for all the mixed references–it’s 4am here) Love ya!


ben Eaton January 12, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Jeff. Short stories are like songs and you are a fine songwriter I would say…


Dad January 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I’m so very proud of you…You’re such a stick-to-it-sort of guy and you have gone far because of it. Now your challenge is to pass it on to your children. Love Mama


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