Rant-Man’s Notebook: The University of Rude Awakenings

You know how they keep doing these public-service ads on TV where some celebrity with the IQ of kelp tells you to “stay in school”? Well, let me tell you, brother, this is one time when the kelp is giving good advice. Pull up a chair, and Uncle Jimmy will tell the tale of the lessons I learned in what I call the University of Rude Awakenings.

Education wasn’t what you’d call a priority in my family. My dad got his high school diploma when I was in the second grade. He had quit school to help support his family after his dad had died, since he was the oldest of the nine kids, and then Uncle Sam sent him a big howdy from the Selective Service, just in time for the festivities in a little place called Korea. Mom’s family had moved a few weeks before the end of her senior year and she decided to go get a job instead of enrolling at a new school. By age 19, she was married. They had five boys, of which your humble scribe is number two. Of the five, precisely one actually graduated high school in the usual manner. That would be me. All my brothers dropped out, though a couple of them went back and got the diploma later. Matter of fact, education was such a low priority that my mom was the only one in the family to even show up for my graduation.

So anyway, about a week before the end of my senior year, I have a meeting with my guidance counselor, a woman I had never previously laid eyes on. Sort of a debriefing. “So, what are your plans?” she asks.

Plans? I’m supposed to have plans? “Uh, I don’t know,” sez I, “I think I’m supposed to try to go to college or something.”

She lets me know as nicely as possible that I’m an idiot. I was supposed to apply to colleges months and months ago. Maybe I can go to the community college.

Meanwhile, I’m supposed to get a job.

I had successfully avoided working during high school by pulling down the occasional gig twisting balloon animals for parties, parades, malls, etc. Occasional wasn’t gonna cut it any more. So I went to the local mall and got a job at a restaurant. Balloon animal twister on the weekends, busboy/dishwasher during the week.

Kids, stay in school.

The boss was okay, but the assistant manager was a toad. He had a habit of punching busboys’ time cards out early while they were still cleaning, so that he would appear more efficient to the management. Then, while we finished cleaning, he and the cooks would hit the restaurant’s beer tap, smoke dope, and try to seduce the waitresses. I got out of that job by breaking my leg.

My next job was sculpting little clay animal figures; bunny rabbits, mice and monkeys. I designed the monkey for them, for which I made a whopping $50 bonus. They sold hundreds of ’em at about 8 or 9 bucks each. The sculptors made 50 cents each for them. After a couple of months in that job, I was living in an abandoned car behind a chinese restaurant and mooching off friends.

I finally got hired on by a shop that printed t-shirts and banners. My job was to take whatever the customer brought in and turn it into something we could print. They might have a sample to duplicate, but more often they just had a crude scribble or a vague description of what they wanted. We also did embroidery there. They advertised in biker magazines, and bikers around the world would write in and order patches for their jackets.

One day a group of Hell’s AngelsĀ® showed up at the shop. They dropped by to point out that their “colors” were registered trademarks and could not be reproduced without permission. “Oh, and by the way, if we ever find out you’re making anything that looks like Hell’s AngelsĀ® patches, we’ll come back and burn down your building. Have a nice day.”

After a couple of years of that, I made my way through the newspaper business, then into supermarket ads, back into silk-screen, then into a real design studio, back into silk-screening again, and finally, after going back to school for a while, into the comfy job I have now. With a couple of interesting detours along the way.

Detour 1: Telemarketing. Fraudulently selling gems as an investment over the phone to old folks, stealing their retirement money. Fortunately, I wasn’t any good at it, so I never made any sales. I lasted a month, until my friend who had given me the job (a Vice-President at the company) was set up to take the fall for the crooks who ran the place and went to prison for fraud.

Detour 2: More silk screening. The place I worked at printed t-shirts, ceramics, plastics, signs, whatever. I set up artwork for everything from a thimble to the side of a truck.

Best part was the smell. We used a lot of special inks for vinyl and mylar, and the solvents for them included Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Xylene, Toluene and Benzine, among others. I literally lost my sense of smell for 15 years as a result of the 17 months I worked there. MEK is a solvent so nasty that if you get it on your hand you can actually taste it. It absorbs into the skin and travels through your bloodstream. It causes brain damage; stuttering, loss of vocaulary, loss of memory. Xylene is the most toxic substance you can buy without a permit. It’s the solvent in the really nasty smelling Marks-A-Lot markers. Causes cancer. Toluene and Benzene are both highly toxic and can cause permanent heart damage. And that doesn’t even include the darkroom.

Even today, I generally don’t notice odors at all. I have to concentrate on it, or I don’t smell anything at all. Saves my wife a fortune in perfume.

Even better, the employees had to race each other to the bank on payday. The first 3 or 4 people to get there could cash their checks; everyone else had to wait until the boss put more money in the payroll account or their paycheck would bounce. If you didn’t slip out for an early lunch on Friday to run to the bank, you were stuck until Tuesday or Wednesday.

Finally the state tax board came in and locked the place up. Seized all the assets for non-payment of taxes. That was two weeks before Christmas; my first kid was almost a month old. Of course the boss hadn’t been paying the unemployment people either. A miserable six months of abject poverty followed.

Another shop I worked at was so flakey that the Marshals used to show up about every six weeks or so to collect judgments for people who had sued us. This company did (or tried to do) a lot of licensed merchandise stuff, but they were really bad at it. For example, while I was there, they had an opportunity to go after a property that I thought was going to be pretty hot, the first Batman film. They decided to pass on it, because they had been burned by their last venture into film tie-ins. They had printed a pile of shirts for a Bill Cosby movie called “Leonard Part 6,” a movie that was about as good as the new Scooby-Doo flick looks. It tanked. So they passed on Batman. Har!

Most of my co-workers were convicted felons and/or wannabe rock stars. The most marginal people on Earth are in the screen-printing industry.

It’s a reasonably cheap business to get into (you can start in your garage), it’s easy to learn, and if you’re smart you can make a decent profit. Being smart in this case means hiring people under the table, not paying taxes, shirking all EPA and OSHA regulations, and generally being a weasel.

I’m glad I got out, or I’d be a weasel today. I think it’s contagious; adapt or perish. That’s why Amway reps are all the same.

One thing I learned from all this is that if a job is crappy in all other respects, then it most likely pays badly as well. I get paid a heck of a lot more for sitting on my butt in an air-conditioned office than I ever got for standing on the corner in a chicken suit.

Kids, stay in school…or you may find yourself enrolled in the University of Rude Awakenings.

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