Working for a living

This February I was offered and accepted the top job at my company. In a year of many changes, this one was a biggie. I’ll spare you all the selfpity that I’ve been accumulating – I figure bitching about being the boss is right up there with whining about the gargantuan size of one’s tax bill.

So I am once again the Top Dog, the Big Cheese, or simply, The Man (in canine, dairy and countercultural terms, respectively.)

To keep things in perspective, our business, by most measures, is pretty small potatoes. We are virtually unknown outside our tiny niche, and it’s nearly impossible to describe to outsiders what exactly it is we do. General Motors, it is not. Think we made more money than them this year, though.

Anyway, my ascendance to the throne, modest a commode as it may be, puts me back on top for the first time since the late sixties.

That’s right, this is not the first time I have been my own boss.

That would be my very first job, one of many I inherited from my older brothers. For reasons I can’t articulate, even to this day, we all put in our time at a series of odd jobs that were handed down, sibling-to sibling, starting in pre-adolescence and continuing on, until one-by-one, we all joined the “real” workforce.

My memory can no longer be trusted, but I think I started working at about age seven or eight. Third grade was apparently the minimum required education for entry into the Dickens-lite world of Corcoran servitude. Being the fourth in line, I was the beneficiary of the underage workforce pioneers that had toiled before me. I never knew why we had selected the various labors we did, or even why we bothered. At some level I think we all felt that working was important, and that having a job, no matter how inconsequential, made one a Man of Distinction, even if only slightly.

The early jobs all revolved around newspapers. I did not start out delivering them, although that would come soon enough.

I started out collecting them.

Not new ones. I dabbled in what might be called the “post-read” market. My journalism was yellow, but from age (and the occasional puppy,) not bias. I and my sibling forbears, were at the vanguard of the recycling business, although we didn’t call it that then.

It was my first real job, and like all of the others that have followed it, it was not a labor of love. I was,
however, in charge. I took command of The Wagon, a sizable personal transport unit equipped with four
wheels, six slats and a handle, and foraged the neighborhood garages for used newsprint. I set my own hours, managed my own inventory, decided on business strategy, and took a lot of long vacations.

As simple as the job was, it was an early introduction into the laws of the business jungle.

For instance, the gig was substantially easier if you steadfastly cultivated your clientele: Steven and
Jeffrey had trained a lot of the locals to save their papers for us. Of course, I lost a lot of this good will, and their re-usable resources, after numerous unannounced suspensions of business operations. As the sole proprietor, this was my right, and I exercised it to the point of abuse.

Neglect your base and they will desert you. The Boy Scouts ran paper drives that would periodically clean out the entire neighborhood, including the garages of the folks I relied on for supply. Regardless of my own lack of ambition, I still felt entitled to their half finished crosswords and moldy mastheads. That was my candy and soda money Troop 318 was buying their tents with.

There was also a business cycle of sorts. One wall of the garage, stacked with bundled papers, about head high, just about equaled the cubic storage capacity of the Chevy II. Once the wall was filled, it was time to stuff every square inch of the station wagon with expired editorials, cast-off circulars, and faded funny pages for the trip to the recyclers. The recyclers employed a system in determining your payload that seemed entirely too clever for its own good: They weighed you, your car and the newspapers on the way in, and then everything but the newspapers on the way out. The difference was what you got paid on.

My brothers and I were convinced there were flaws in this naive approach to be exploited. Long before
Kramer and Newman hatched their Michigan bottle deposit caper, we spent considerable scheming capital evaluating various approaches to rigging the game. “What if I put some rocks in my pocket, empty them out with the papers, and boost the take?” I mused, “Better yet, I could not get back in the car at all!” Even at eight, we were not to be trusted.

The best angle, as is often the case in business, was one discovered by accident. A late pickup combined with an ill-timed thunderstorm, resulted in a batch of soaked dailies. Turns out, the stuff weighs a lot more when it’s wet. Of course, the recycling guys got wise to that one early on, but you could still juice the scale if you judiciously mixed a wet Classifieds in with two or three dry Sports sections.

Then there was the reckoning. I learned about the indifference of the marketplace before I mastered cursive. Back then, prices for recycled newsprint varied wildly. (Although, for most of my career, it stairstepped steadily downhill.) I have only very vague recollection of the economics of newsprint recycling circa 1966 but it can be boiled down to, “as of Right Now, the recycler is paying X cents per hundred pounds.” My Dad probably kept an eye on trends to try and time the market a bit (he was in finance, after all) but eventually, the newspapers had to go, at whatever the going rate was, lest they start to decompose beside the bicycles and old paint cans.

Some trips I would net as much as seven or eight dollars. Towards the end, I can recall clearing as little as two or three bucks and change. I may have been the last of the recyclers. I vaguely recall my Dad complaining that the price had gotten to the point where it wasn’t worth the gas to haul the papers over there. Dad was paying all of nineteen cents a gallon back then, and that included full service and a Sunoco Bucks game piece. Or perhaps he needed the space for the ladders we used to clean the gutters and touch up the paint.

Whatever the reason, without much fanfare, my brief sojourn as a minimogul came to an end. Had I known what was in front of me, I might have held on for a while longer.

But time marched on and bigger and better things beckoned. I traded my Big Red Wagon for a Schwinn with metal “baskets.” Swapped the uncertainty of the going rate for the promise of Christmas tips. I gave up the freedom, independence and heady entrepreneurialism of newspaper recycling for the safety (and comparatively high wages) of the Small paper route. At the tender age of ten I became part of the workforce.

I put in a couple of years on the Small route, and somewhere around my twelfth birthday I took over the Large route. The Small route was a model of inefficiency – thirteen unwanted subscribers spread at the distant periphery of the neighborhood. The Large route had a lot more patrons, but they were all closer to 6 Dorset Way and more densely packed. In retrospect, it seems apparent that the two had once been one, but had been divided by an exploitative elder to maximize ROI. This Faustian bargain no doubt made possible by leveraging labor laws and preying on the disenfranchised. (You had to be 12 to legally deliver newspapers in New Jersey in the sixties. The small paper route was an obvious sub-contract to underage, undocumented workers.)

In high school, I was the fourth Corcoran to serve as one of “Augie’s Doggies”, the unofficial job description for school janitor. We cleaned the blackboards, emptied the trash, arranged the desks – and endured the ridicule of our classmates. I recall watching the Oakland A’s beat the Cincinatti Reds in seven games on the St. Joe’s classroom TV’s when I was supposed to be lining up the desks with the lines on the tiles. I was fourteen when I started.

Eventually, I went off to college. In addition to being placed on double secret probation by the Engineering School, I also experienced the joys of Dish Machine Operator (DMO- a lovely position that combines a relentless conveyor belt with superheated steam that takes the skin off your fingers if you forget to put on the protective gear.) I also endured a stint as a short order cook (“Hey, I said ‘no cheese’!”) It might have built my character had I shown up enough to avoid termination.

Sold pianos at fairs, drove a cab, pumped gas, cashed checks, ushered at the Plainfield/Edison Indoor/Outdoor Drive-In Theater (had to answer the phone that way, too. Couldn’t they make up their minds?)

I’ve been employed by IBM and McDonald’s, possibly in the same calendar year. Used cars? Been there, done that.

But after forty years in the trenches, I’m back on top.

I’m well aware, my reign may be short-lived. By the time you read this, my regime may have already been toppled by financial scandal, boardroom shake-up or boll weevils. And I’ll miss it when it ends.

But for now, I’m the boss and I’m going to try and make the most of my time in the sun.

Wish me luck.

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