In honor of labor day, here’s a blast from our not-so-distant past. What better to make us appreciate a day off of work than ruminations on the privations suffered in jobs present and past…
I could buy myself a reason
I could sell myself a job
I could hang myself on treason
All the folks I know are gone
Modest Mouse, “The Devil’s Workday”
Our friend the Historian’s vivid entry on his paper-route playlist and my brother’s musings on his forced music choices reminded me of a list of my own I started a while back. See, he and I are both older than our years. All of us who went to high school (and part of college) before google, before Napster, and before cell phones or text messages, keep part of ourselves in a world wholly foreign to siblings and cousins a mere five years younger. It is strange how time moves that much faster.
Before ubiquitous CD players, mp3 players and satellite music, the car was one of two places where you could find yourself subject to the whim of faceless disc-jockeys or the machinations of entertainment executives. (Some of us even drove cars that didn’t even have tape players.)
The other place? Work. Before I found myself in a life where silence was more common than noise in the workplace, where my voice was the sound that could most often be heard, I worked a series of jobs to pay for band equipment and long distance phone bills, to pay for college, and to put myself through graduate school. At each one of these jobs I found myself subject to the musical choices of others: a boss’ favorite radio station or CD.
At times, I was the master of this domain and the music of these years makes even work a happy memory. Other memories, though, are not so pleasant. Here’s a list of some of the places I worked and the music that worked over me. Six jobs, 2 songs each: a nice little compilation album.
- Little Caesar’s, Kmart
“You Oughtta Know”, Alanis Morrisette
“Say it Ain’t So”, Weezer
My first job on the clock (I had done work in carpentry, table busing and yardwork on a more informal basis) was at a Little Caesar’s that was inside a Kmart. The Kmart Musak was the assault on good taste you would imagine, but I was hired to work in a sanctuary. For $4.25 an hour I arrived early in the morning to mix, weigh and package pizza dough. In the backrooms, I had my own radio.
This was the summer that the local alternative station willed itself into being. It was also the summer that you couldn’t go an hour without hearing Weezer or Alanis. When I hear both of these songs to this day I imagine the stainless steel walk-in freezer, the man-sized dough mixer, and the smell of yeast. I can see the little Panasonic radio player and hear myself singing loudly along to either song. I also learned the hard way that just because people can’t see you that doesn’t mean they can’t hear you singing.
- A Variety Store at the Beach
“Can’t Fight This Feeling”, REO Speedwagon
“Come Sail Away”, Styx
I left Kmart for a few jobs working for the Mix Tape Girl’s father who was a partner in some local variety stores. First, I worked pumping gas (in the winter), an experience so dreadful that I have suppressed all memory except for the smell of the Subway sandwich bread that cooked inside the same building. (Both that smell and gasoline take me back to frigid wintry nights and the way that I crawled hppily back into the Ford LTD stationwagon at the end of every shift.)
Then, I moved to another location where I didn’t have to pump gas but I did have to clean rental cabins occasionally. The second store was situated in a nearby beachtown that had lost its luster in the 70’s. It became a seedy and dirty place for Canadian tourists and local ruffians. The cabins rented for 30 dollars a night. The worst mess I ever cleaned? Someone had bled all over a bed, substituted used condoms for an ashtray and then tried to urinate in an empty malt-liquor bottle standing on a dresser.
One of my co-workers was a local woman who stopped listening to the radio when she was in high school. She wore fake native American jewelry and pronounced Italian “EYE-talian”. The cool bands in her day? According to her, nothing was better than Styx and REO Speedwagon. She monopolized the CD player every shift; I hid in the walk-in cooler and rearranged the beverages.
- The Arcade
“The Freshman”, The Verve Pipe
“Push”, Matchbox 20
My next job was a dream job for any adolescent: I worked in an arcade with a laser-tag arena. I used to arrange for my band to play there on weekends. We had the keys to the building and the alarm code. I don’t know what was going through the owners’ minds. Didn’t they know that their adolescent employees were coming in after hours, playing all the games, and rutting like animals? (When they weren’t just stealing from the till?)
While we could play the music we wanted to, there were often disputes (I was eventually banned from any input over the CD player). I do fondly remember leaving work (on the clock, of course) to purchase Radiohead’s Ok Computer and blasting it on the giant soundsystem. Too often, disputes were resolved by turning on the radio. That summer two of the biggest hits were by The Verve Pipe and Matchbox 20.
What kind of collective insanity gave us these two bands? I hated “The Freshman”. I hated the album version. I hated the live version. I hate the fact that I can still sing along: “For the life of me / I cannot remember….” Matchbox 20? I never got the band. I couldn’t even bother to hate this song. I remember eating a turkey burger, sitting in the kitchen, admitting that alt-rock was dead. Thank you, Rob Thomas.
- The Dish Room
“Rockerfeller Skank” Fat Boy Slim
“Give Me Daughters”, Jonathan Fire Eater
When I went to college I spent a month or so deluding myself that I had saved enough money to make it through the semester. In under four weeks, I was down to almost nothing. So, I took a job doing what I knew how to do well: make pizzas (a task I had repeated at the variety store and the arcade). The problem was that there were very few shifts for pizza makers.
To round out my schedule, I joined the dishroom. I was rather aggressive in recruiting friends to suffer with me. By the end of my first year I almost always had a full room of friendly co-workers for every shift (they even made me a student manager the next year). We brought our own radio and were tyrants when it came to music. Most often we were playing something like Soul Coughing or Ben Folds.
But my keenest memories have nothing to do with these artists. Instead, I remember playing the Jonathan Fire Eater EP and having someone who had actually seen the band play in NYC burst into the dishroom (a man who wore scarves and eye-liner). “Give Me Daughters” is a great song, but a little dark for my crowd. Sometimes, we took pity on co-workers and listened to the radio. This was the year that Fat Boy Slim was almost as big as Elvis.
When I hear this song I remember the peculiar smell of the dish room, the way the floor sludge stuck to shoes and saturated clothing, and the small acts of vengeance we took on fate for bringing us to work in dining services. See, we expropriated fooditems as if they had no monetary worth. I walked out with a turkey, a pound of roast beef, at least a few meals every shift. The best stunt? One night we left a shift to go to a party. We took a case of spoons and a five gallon tub of cookie-dough ice cream with us. Who goes to a party with that much ice cream? In college, it doesn’t matter. My memory is hazy, but I do seem to recollect a crowd surrounding that tub. Not sanitary, not sanitary at all.
- Vacationland Restaurant
“Cheeseburger in Paradise”, Jimmy Buffet
“Buffalo Soldier”, Bob Marley
The summer after my first year of college I arranged for some of us to work at a restaurant in a seaside town that was a bit better off than the shithole of the cruddy cabins. The restaurant, poorly named for a food appetizer that was also slang for a drug popular among gay partiers, was always about to fail. It was off the highway and looked and acted like a chain restaurant even though it wasn’t one. In a town of seafood shanties, fine dining and bed and breakfasts, it was doomed to fail.
It also had a terrible soundtrack. One manager thought the place should be branded as a vacation spot, an island vacation spot in the cold northeast where only children and maniacs enter the ocean before July. Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley were on repeat. I heard the same songs, 10-12 hours a day, ever 3 or 4 hours. I came to find peace with Marley. But this is what I have to say to you, Jimmy Buffet: Fuck you and your cheeseburger. I can’t hear or think of that song without seeing the steaming nachos, smelling the melted butter of lobster platters, and imagining an empty bar.
Two positives of that summer: I was entertained in the less busy days by the Monica Lewinsky trial. Also, the network FX hit the big time that year and played almost nothing but re-runs of the X-Files. A good year. I made $2.75 an hour plus tips and often came home with over $100. Where did it all go? No idea.
- The Delivery Truck
“Steal Your Sunshine”, Len
“Thank You”, Dido
In the following year, I decided that I couldn’t handle being nice to strangers anymore. I also think that I would have been indicted for murder if I heard one more Buffet tune. So, I took a more regular job driving a delivery truck. I delivered anything you can imagine to hotels and motels, from toilet paper to television sets. I made 8 dollars an hour to drive around seaside towns.
I arrived at the warehouse in the morning, packed the truck, and arrived back in the evening. Whatever I had to deliver took the entire day. No questions asked. There wasn’t a tape player or CD player in the truck, so I was subject again to the whim of the radio. That summer was the summer of Dido, so I could never avoid “Thank You” and I would be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy it every time it was on. I distinctly recall the DJ announcing the song for one of the first times it played. I was on route 1 between mill towns, sneaking a cigarette with the windows rolled all the way down. Who needs air conditioning when you can look so cool?
My real guilty pleasure of the summer was “Steal My Sunshine” by Len. The song is odd, but catchy. Every time the bubbly intro came on, I drove a little more slowly. For four minutes or so, I was happy with my job. Not that it was a bad job, but driving all day can get a little wearing. This is especially so if you have to fight summer traffic, get rear-ended by aimless tourists, and more than once scrape the sides of buildings with a truck you really shouldn’t be driving anyway.
Well, I used the truck to move band equipment; drove it across state lines while listening to Howard Stern with my much younger brother all while letting myself get addicted to nicotine. Along the way, I ripped up my left knee by carrying air conditioners, ate lunch on every major beach along a 100 mile corridor, and decided I would never punch a time-clock again.
I can’t have a list of songs about work without mentioning Rush’s “Working Man”. It is the law. What about you brother, you’ve worked your share of shit-jobs. What were their soundtracks?