When I was in the third grade, my mother and I sat on the floor with a stack of coins and she taught me to make change. “If you can make change,” she told me, “you can always get a job.”
In my extended blue-collar family, who were survivors of the Depression, “a good job” were almost sacred words. My uncles were carpenters, truck drivers and farmers. My father was a high-wire electrician. My grandmother worked in the school cafeteria. An aunt had the fanciest job of all; she was a telephone switchboard operator.
By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had jobs. I cleaned a teacher’s house on Saturdays. I sold Cloverine salve door to door: “Helps prevent and temporarily protects chapped hands, lips and rough, dry skin.” I had a bicycle route selling Grit newspapers, a folksy independent paper.
Starting in high school I got my first writing job, a stringer writing a column for a Coffeyville, Kansas, weekly newspaper. The downside was I had to deliver the papers, too, in Nowata, Oklahoma, my hometown.
The last two years of high school I had a real job — window trimmer for the local McCrory-McLellan five and dime store. I attended classes in the mornings, then afternoons, Saturdays and summers I worked in all departments at the dime store. My main job, changing the window displays every few weeks, began with cleaning the great windows of plate glass with alcohol until they were streak free. It so warped my psyche that today I have the dirtiest windows in town.
I earned 60 cents an hour. Ready with my own money, I bought contact lenses, all my clothes and my first car from an uncle. It was a Hawaiian Bronze Metallic 1957 Ford with a continental kit. Gas then cost 25 cents a gallon.
I attended Coffeyville Junior (now Community) College with scholarships and working part time for another weekly newspaper. I made $16 a week. More scholarships brought me to the University of Tulsa where Ed Johnson, head of the journalism department, found me a part-time job with Watts Payne Advertising. I cashed my weekly checks at Skaggs Drug Store downtown and took the bus back to the dorm.
At the ad agency I met the glamorous Barbara Roberts, head of promotion at KTUL-TV, who hired me to be the writer in the promotions department. I watched and learned how she organized flamboyant special events.
From Channel 8, I went to the University of Tulsa writing publicity material, teaching journalism writing classes to enthusiastic students (“Dear Ms. Cronley. The reason I didn’t come to class today was because I was depressed already.”) and producing continuing education classes — everything from a travel class to the Galapagos Islands with Dr. Harriet Barclay to a high stakes’ poker class with champion Bobby Baldwin.
After that, general manager at Tulsa Ballet Theatre and executive director at Iron Gate soup kitchen. As a side gig, I wrote books. (Note: Unless you’re John Grisham, writing books is not profitable. As an avocation, it’s a hobby like jigsaw puzzles but more work and expense.)
I have had a work career of great adventures and creative freedom. I suspect today’s young workers rarely have such opportunities for inventiveness. Usually, I thought I was underpaid and overworked, but doesn’t that go with the territory? And yet, I have no right to gripe. None at all.
It’s a different world now. College costs are exorbitant, housing is scarce and overpriced, too often wages are unlivable.
I read with regret the recent death of Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed.” She joined the millions of Americans working for poverty-level wages — hotel maid, waitress, cleaning woman and Walmart sales clerk — and learned that she needed two jobs if she wanted to live indoors.
People working a 40-hour week at minimum wage cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment in any state in the United States. This is wrong. We’ve circled back to the Depression Era American Dream, yearning for a good job.