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Column: Work paths

Posted: May 14, 2018 2:55 p.m.
Updated: May 15, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Ever stood on Holy ground? Read on.

Monday a fellow told me, “If it weren’t for work, I don’t know what I’d do.” I knew what he meant. For most of us life means work.

Last week, I was visiting Aunt Vivian when I told her about the things I’d been working on. “Work makes you feel good,” she said. It does make you feel good.

Work is a tonic.

Work was on my mind as I raked up limbs from pruning Mom’s tea olives the other day. It struck me that I was standing on the spot where my working days began. When I was 9, Dad paid me a dime for cutting the grass with an old manual push mower. That’s where I was in an old photograph of my first “paycheck.” That dime taught me a lesson. You don’t get something for nothing.

As I pruned and raked, I formed a mental list of all the jobs I’ve had. I first worked around the yards and in Dad’s saw shop. Then I worked at Goolsby’s Groceries and later at Central Supermarket in downtown Lincolnton, Ga. I worked a summer at Reed’s Poultry Plant, a summer at the Almar Rainwear Factory in Washington, Ga., a summer as a reporter for the old Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation agency, and two unforgettable summers at Elijah Clark State Park.

While I was at the University of Georgia (UGA), I delivered flowers for a florist and worked two years as a waiter, a job that taught me to be nice to servers. (It’s difficult to wait on tables.) Following graduation, I taught one year of public school then returned to UGA for a master’s degree and following that work took me into classrooms and offices. I never liked working inside all that much, so it was a great pleasure to work outdoors as a filmmaker in the 1980s.

I quit a magazine job to be a freelance writer, one of the more reckless things I’ve done, but I had faith in myself. Granddad Poland told me, “If you can make money for the man, you can make it for yourself.” He was right. Add self-employer to the list. The list goes on … bus station ticket agent, college teacher, speechwriter, editor, and author/speaker. I wouldn’t be who I am had it not been for my kaleidoscopic career. Work paths shape us as surely as a potter’s hands shape clay. Schooling educates us, but work plays a major role in forming our core identity. Icing down chickens, packing plastic rainwear, hauling garbage, and serving fries and burgers taught me things about responsibility, discipline, and life itself. It exposed me to a wide range of people, mostly good ones, but I also encountered buffoons, phonies, and self-important blowhards. To this day, I feel more at ease around blue-collar folks who don’t take themselves too seriously. That old Georgia writer, Harry Crews, was right. Put a suit, white shirt, and tie on a man, and you can find out real quick how sorry he is.

Thanks to my different jobs, I learned what I like and what I don’t like to do when it comes to time, the blood of life itself. That’s why that spot where I’m standing in the photograph is sacred ground. That’s where I ventured into the world of work.

Standing on Dad’s brick path, I reflected on all my jobs and thought long and hard about where I ended up. The work path I’ve traveled amounts to a story and when you tell a Southerner about something you did they’ll ask, “Well, where did you end up?”

Well, I ended up OK, but that shiny dime? Probably bought BBs with it. “It was burning a hole in my pocket,” as Grandmom Poland used to say. Should have saved it. That dime laid many a path before me. I’d like to think it did the same for another kid.

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