My most eye-opening job was the first one I ever had, and it started 28 years ago in a bank basement.
Mom had been working at Union Federal Savings Bank since God’s bar mitzvah, and when they announced a summer employment program especially for the families of current employees, she saw it as a perfect fit. To her, it would be “Take Your Kid to Work Day” every day that summer, a chance to show off the son about which she was profoundly (and unreasonably, if you asked me) proud.
15 at the time, I agreed with her at first. I could carpool with her to work downtown, do my job while she did hers, then ride back in a routine that, by the end of summer, would help me buy a certain ancient Chevy Impala.
The only downside was that it was, well, BANKING, a profession I’d written off as hopelessly dull, where you sit around, hand out suckers and money every once in a while to total strangers, move numbers from one column to another, then go home to fuel up for another day of buttoned-down boredom.
This beggar couldn’t be choosy, though, and while most of my friends would be sweating outside doing scut work around their parents house or menial work in farm fields de-tassling corn or baling hay, I’d be working in air-conditioned comfort in a cushy office building, sitting comfortably and making money. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
This fantasy died 3 minutes after Mom escorted me to the UF basement on my first day.
There to greet me was Othella, the energetic head of Facilities. She smiled a thanks to Mom and an enthusiastic hello to me, then led me into a cramped storage room filled floor-to-ceiling with every size of storage box imaginable and dominated in the center by two huge paper shredders that resembled the unholy union between R2-D2 and a lawnmower.
Another guy stood near the behemoths, rocking back and forth nervously with his hands crammed so far into the pockets of his wrinkled khakis that it looked like he was trying to scratch his kneecaps without bending at the waist. I asked him his name and a noise fell out of his mouth that Othella translated to “Steve”. I pegged him for no older than 15, primarily because he had the same constellations of acne that I did.
Othella introduced us to one another, we dead-fish gripped each other’s hands while making fleeting eye contact with the other’s cheekbones, and turned back to her for our first instructions as employed pre-adults: “See all these boxes? They all have paper in ‘em. I need you to shred every last sheet. Have fun!” And with that, Othella was gone.
I looked at Steve. He looked at me. We each grabbed a box from the wall, rolled up our sleeves, and sighed.
It was the last significant utterance we would make in each other’s direction for the next 9 hours.
And yet, it was so much less fun than I’m making it out to be.
Each Papersaurus Rex gave off the same amount of heat as the sun when inserted inside of another sun, then placed 10 feet from my face. After one hour, drops of sweat claimed my underarms and collar, overwhelmed wide swaths of my back, and leaped to their death off the tip of my nose every time I bent over to get more paper out of a box.
But that’s not the best part.
You know the sound a chain saw makes when it hasn’t had an oil change in 3 years and it’s using a rusty blade to carve up a howler monkey? I know…doesn’t everyone, right? Now pump that up an octave and you have the cry of the P. Rex as it wolfed down the fistfuls of condemned documents I shoved into its maw. Listening to it in stereo all day, in a sweltering windowless room with Captain Charisma working next to me, was a special sort of bliss I was sure I would never experience again this side of death.
After three dehydrating days, Cap and I finally finished up and shut down the P. Rexes for the last time. We had turned a few hundred storage boxes of paper into several dozen huge plastic bags of confetti. We spent the rest of the summer working through Othella’s endless list of projects, most of which involved the movement of large heavy objects from one area of the bank to another.
That job gave me more than money. I saw banking differently because of it. Nearly everyone else I met at UF saw their work as a way to improve the financial lives of those they served, bought in as they were to the truth that there are no small jobs, just small attitudes toward them.
I saw my mother differently as well, because those same employees said their perspective came from her quiet leadership. Banking wasn’t just a pastime, but a serious profession with meaning and purpose for those with the eyes to see it.
It had become a career and a life for my Mom. For the first time, I understood why – and for the first time, who she really was.
And it all started with a shredder.
Thanks, P. Rex, wherever you are.