My work history began as many had under sixteen: Dishwashing, gas station attendant, fast-food, landscaping, and house cleaning. I worked my longest job in a greenhouse, over a hundred degrees in winter. Albert was in charge of spraying the chemicals. His hands were stained blue and lacked any fingernails. He acted insane, and rumors were he stirred the toxic brew with his hands and huffed the fumes. He retired at 28. Most likely to a mental hospital or perhaps even hospice. I was 'promoted' to his job the next day--with no increase in pay.
Head to toe, covered in a heavy plastic suit, thick rubber boots, and a respirator with a rubber seal that would melt, leaving black rubber outlines on my face. At the end of the first day, the knee-high boots were filled nearly to the brim with sweat.
After two to three years on that job, I quit two days after being promoted.
Sixteen changed everything. I began working in a factory, sitting long hours on a stool and babysitting a deafening machine. I fantasized about climbing atop the machine and spraying the room with flying lead to get through the day. (I am a lifelong pacifist who grew up next door to a shooting range and have always despised guns.) I would come home daily, plop on the couch in pain, and moan for an hour or two.
My next and last attempt at a 'normal' job was at a dog food factory. Having been vegetarian for years, the stench alone made me quit after one hour on the job.
My whole perception of the definition of work had changed. If I worked a job for pay, it was because I wanted to do the job. Because I was having fun, or, more importantly, what I was doing really mattered.
My preferred experience from then on was volunteering. It started in the soup kitchens. Sure, I cooked, served, and did everything you would expect. I also did entertainment. My friends and I did poetry readings, live music, storytelling, and even produced plays for the homeless.
From the '80s through the '90s, I started a food insecurity outreach. The university church lent me their van to collect food from food banks and take it to the streets and even the subway tunnels. That led to the opening of shelters and resource centers, including a library for the homeless.
In the mid-'90s, I volunteered for one hour with a group, "Philadelphia Youth At Risk," I was supposed to help search through bags for weapons and drugs before the teen gang members departed to an intensive program. On the spot, they asked me to join them for the whole ten-day ordeal. I agreed to go without hesitation. I didn't know what I was about to experience. There were riots. There were tears. Thousands of dollars of destruction to the resort that lent us their facilities. Kids who were murderers, or relatives of the murdered, faced their victims and perpetrators. Rival gangs who would kill each other on sight now broke down in tears begging their rivals for support. It changed their lives. It changed mine as well.
March 25th, 1990, was a date that changed everything. I was dating the wrong person. She wanted to spend about $1500 a month on makeup. She and my mother pressed me to follow in my father's footsteps and start a career in business mainframe programming. Coding--one misplaced semi-colon in a few hundred thousand pages of code could shut a business down for hours. (My father looked back on 'the good ol' days' when 1000 lines of code filled a warehouse full of punch cards, one card out of place caused the total failure.) I buckled under pressure, put on a suit and tie, and went off to school, chasing a career I never wanted. A job that gave me a permanent headache. On March 25th, I graduated and retired at 22 the same day. I was injured and became disabled at my graduation.
Mainframe programming training took six months to complete. It only took six months in the hospital to forget it all.
They cut off the suit and tie while I lay screaming on the rock that broke my back. Free from the forced conformity of the three-piece suit lifestyle, I discovered a new passion and purpose. I started training to be a disabled glider pilot. I am still on the Board of Directors--unpaid--three decades later.
From 2000-2010 I spent the decade in a crack hood. No, not as an addict; I started by picking up trash. Within weeks "Lots of Love," a community garden open to all equally, without fees or registration, altered the neighborhood profoundly. The 'criminals' declared it a crime-free zone, as the drugs moved blocks away voluntarily. The police and dealers sat around the fire late into the night, solving the hood's problems through discussion, not arrests and imprisonment. The garden fed the entire neighborhood, and the fatherless kids who terrorized the streets got tutored and became model citizens. Hope, joy, and love overcame and displaced desperation.
Lots of Love was magical. That is why I spent every waking moment (almost) there every day for a decade. There was no gate, just an arch. Someone glued a fortune cookie “love is so close you can taste it.” The arch was an archway of champagne grape vines. The hood would break an ankle trying to walk the crumbling sidewalk. The buildings were collapsing only three had all 4 walls and a roof. The hood gave us those buildings. A city councilwoman whose son is a senator, and who feeds the homeless in her own home tried to make them legally ours. The mayor had other ideas.
People came from the opposite coast to open-air camp there. In one corner was a hermit hut, and a junkyard. The guy who spent all day in the hut owned the house across the street. We had an oven built out of clay and brick dug out of the lot; collapsed an entire block of row houses coved in clay. The oven was convertible to a fireplace and was kept burning 24/7 for three years straight. We had children's gardens (and tutored the kids and took them on field trips), as well as an elder's garden for the nursing home on the next block. In total, a five-by-three block area became a magical peaceful place where everyone gathered. Every Halloween thousands of kids came from three states.
Months before starting Lots of Love, a ten-year-old pulled a gun on me. When I first went there, handfuls of kids wandered the hood throwing rocks and breaking windows. A month after I arrived they were helping to cook three meals a day for 1500+ people. Now they ran up to hug you instead of throwing stones.
In the following years, I was a counselor to thousands: substance abuse, sexual, verbal, and physical abuse, and suicide prevention. Hundreds are alive today because I had the free time to devote to them.
I had a knack for caring and became known for my blunt and often brutal honesty. The first woman I helped had one word beaten out of her vocabulary. She could not say "no" to anybody since she turned eight. When she found me, the situation was desperate as can be. A man online, whose name she was not permitted to know or whose face she was not "worthy" to see, had made her promise to leave her children, meet him alone in the woods, and let his friends rape then dismember her. Even knowing she would be chopped up and disposed of in pieces, she could still not say "no." I spent eight months, twelve to sixteen hours a day, working with a stranger. The self-proclaimed 'master' wiped out sixteen hours of deep intensive therapy in five minutes of 'punishment.' The spell broke when I exposed the 'master' as the pathetically weak, fat slob he was. She said no for the first time in three decades.
Before "me too," I was the sole repository of thousands of horrific abuse stories. So I started helping some escape. My 'job' now entailed spending half my cash almost monthly helping one woman after another to escape.
I am now fifty-five, with a resume that may have many valuable accomplishments despite listing nearly forty years as unemployed.
Yesterday, just ten years before retirement, I announced I had finally chosen a career. A career where accidentally spending two years hitchhiking the country or living in a cabin without heat, water, or even windows is valuable career experience.
Today, I am a creative writer and an author. The only job choice where a blank work history can be an asset.