Prompted

Fall 2017

Prompt: Tell us about a job you’ve had, either while at Grinnell or afterward.

When I was at Grinnell, I was lucky enough to snag a job at the fine arts office, working for Berneil Mueller. All through my time on campus, she proved to be a fine friend and mentor. She taught me, among other things, the value of meticulous proofreading. I helped her prepare and proof many of the flyers for arts-related College events, and she would have shaved my head and beaten me bloody if I had ever let a spelling mistake or grammar goof get past me.

Now she is long retired, the fine arts building is long gone, and auto-correct has taken over the universe, but I have gotten a lot of mileage out of the lessons she taught me, maybe even more than from some of the classes I took. Now that’s a liberal arts education, and I am grateful for every aspect of it.

In 1960, the early bird was first in line for breakfast at Main. My roommate Ellen Weitz DeNelsky ’62 and I were always those early birds. We were up every morning at 5 a.m. (including Sundays), faithfully delivering The Des Moines Register to all subscribers on South campus. That was before technology disseminated the national news; and to be informed, people actually read the newspaper. There were a significant number of subscribers and thus, very heavy loads for two “little” girls.

Ellen took all floors in all dorms from Haines to Loose, and I did the same for James to Main. We got a complete workout, up and down stairs toting papers all before breakfast. Only once did I wimp out, and dear Ellen did the whole route by herself. We certainly learned self-discipline and to be self-starters, while earning some money toward books and an occasional splurge at the student union.

I did other student work over my mid-1950s’ college years, but my best job was all-night switchboard operator for the campus telephone service.

Located above the heating plant, the switchboard served as a communications hub. Using brightly colored cords, I connected dorms, offices, and the outside world, responding to incoming calls with the same descriptive greeting: “College Central.”

Women operated the switchboard by day, men at night. There were three night-shift guys; we rotated, reporting for work every third night — in at 10 p.m., out at 7 a.m. At 11 p.m., the switchboard closed to the usual telephone contacts; however, it remained open for emergencies. Learning how to handle the 3 a.m. requests taught me how to be at the ready for others. Words from an ancient Welsh folk song kept me company throughout each night: “The moon her watch is keeping.” I, too, kept watch. 

One of the worst jobs I had was a temp job over Grinnell’s winter break. I had to file for eight hours a day in a room solely filled with files. What made it the worst job was if there was no established place for a file, I couldn’t create one but had to put it back in the to-file box. By the end of the day I was just walking around the room with files that I knew had no place to go. I learned about the absurdity of real life.

At Quad during lunchtime in the early ’90s, you could often find me unloading the dishwasher. Sure the work wasn’t all that stimulating, but I made a game of it. In order to avoid a Lucille Ball-style catastrophe, the dishwasher would shut down its conveyor belt if the dishes weren’t unloaded before the end of the belt. The goal of the game was to make sure that I unloaded dishes and trays fast enough so that the conveyor belt never stopped during my shift. I typically won. It helped that the person loading the dishwasher didn’t know that he or she was playing the game.

In my second or third year at Grinnell, 1950 or 1951, I worked in the Carnegie Library as a stacker, putting returned books on their proper shelves. There was roof repair in process, the work site covered every night with large tarps. One night a storm, with fierce winds and much rain, blew away the tarps and drenched the second floor stacks and reading room. For several weeks I had much extra work, at 55 cents an hour, helping lay out damaged books to dry, among blowing fans, on the reading tables. My love of reading was thus enlarged to loving care for printed books.

My first job after college, I worked for The Grinnell Magazine as an editorial assistant and researcher, and my first assignment was covering Reunion. Within about 5 minutes of arriving at the bagel brunch, Rebecca Quirk ’86 had made me an honorary member of their class and brought me under their tent physically and metaphorically. That class gave me such good advice, I started adding my own question to each interview — if you could give one piece of advice to someone like me (young college grad), what would you say, and why? Being adopted into that class year gave me the courage (and advice) to survive early grad-hood and kick-start my first career after my time at Grinnell.

I wanted to try something different, so one December I worked in the order-packing department for Signals magazine orders. We stood at a station and got orders in bins, chose the right size box, packed the items as efficiently as possible, affixed a label, and sent them in a bin to someone else. I enjoyed being busy, having time to think, and the constant challenge of packing each box just right. I hated the way all those people moved together like sheep when the bell rang for break time, their souls draining away with each shuffling trip to the dreary break room. Office work seemed pretty sweet after that.

Like many Grinnellians, I worked in the dining hall, which had some high highs and low lows. Getting busted in the walk-in cooler, giggling hysterically, with a co-worker sitting on my shoulders to grab mushrooms off a top shelf was a real high point. Meanwhile, the time a supervisor told me not to pick up the big box of onions because I “have to have babies” was a definite low. Another time, during a particularly tough week, I hid in the freezer and ate a whole unbaked big cookie. Still not sure if that one’s a high or a low.

I lived for my Grinnell paycheck of  85 cents an hour from working 20 hours a week.  I had the highest-paying job on campus, 20 cents more than waiters got at Cowles Dining Hall. I washed pots and pans during Saga Foods’ management of cafeteria services in the 1960s. This paid for my daily coffees at the Union and my 3.2 percent beers at the Rex off Route 6. 

When there was an opening for another pot walloper, I invited my roomie George Santoni ’61 to join me. Fifty years later, after his retirement as a professor of French at SUNY-Albany, he said, “Walt, that was the worst job I have ever had!” 

The work wasn’t that bad, except when the cook made scalloped potatoes. Then I needed a putty knife to clean pans of baked-on food. If they’d given me anything sharper, we’d have had a mortally wounded cook.