Wissot: When work stopped being work and became pleasure (column)
The warehouse I was working in was not air conditioned. Most warehouses weren’t in 1959. I was 14 and making minimum wage — $1.25 an hour.
Still, in junior high, I was thrilled to be holding down a 40-hour-a-week summer job. I felt so adult but I hated the work. It was physically hard — loading heavy boxes from delivery trucks on to high shelves for a five and dime store directly across from the Port Authority bus station in midtown Manhattan.
I remember taking the subway back to my apartment in the Bronx wearing a white shirt that had turned black with dirt and grime, and worrying that my pungent body odor would offend my fellow passengers.
I was working solely to make money. It wouldn’t be the last time I did that.
When I was in high school my Aunt, who was an executive with Western Union, got me a job on the weekends delivering telegrams in the Hells Kitchen section of Manhattan. Hells Kitchen was the setting for the musical “West Side Story” and the legendary gang rumble between the “Jets” and the “Sharks.”
I wasn’t worried about becoming a victim of gang violence as I climbed the stairs of dilapidated tenement apartments to deliver telegrams. I feared being bitten by the large rats who inhabited the hallways. I carried large chunks of cheese in my pockets as a peace offering.
I appreciated using my paycheck to buy cigarettes and go to the movies but the work had no meaning for me.
In college, I worked part-time driving a van for a motel picking up truckers and shuttling them from their parked trucks to their rooms. The truckers told me stories of all the pills they had to pop to avoid falling asleep at the wheel. I vividly remember their stories each time a semi barrels down on me as I descend Vail pass.
I think those early jobs in my life taught me very little about work except that it could be hard, unpleasant and monotonous. I was like two-thirds of the workers in a recent Gallup Poll who were “disengaged at work, or worse.“ (“Why So Many Americans Hate Their Jobs,“ Anna Robaton, CBS News, April 3, 2017.)
That all changed in the summer of 1968. I had become a high school English teacher two years before and was teaching English As A Second Language in Union City, N.J., a community across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Union City in the late 1960s became a haven for a second wave of refugees from Castro’s Cuba. It resembled Little Havana in Miami after Fidel took power in 1959.
Spanish was the language spoken on the streets and in the empanada-filled bakeries. Men who were prosperous lawyers and doctors in pre-Castro Cuba worked as elevator operators and drove taxis; women who once spent their days getting manicures cleaned apartments.
Their sons and daughters were jammed with me into the lower depths of a windowless boiler room in Union City High School where I taught them English in swelteringly hot and humid July temperatures.
The conditions weren’t much better than the warehouse I toiled in when I was 14. But my attitude was.
My students wanted to learn English. They wanted to be educated. Their parents had brought them to America so that they might someday experience a life similar to the lives they left behind in Cuba.
I didn’t have to motivate them. They motivated me. What had happened?
For the first time in my life I wasn’t working for a paycheck.
For the first time in my life I felt I was doing what I was meant to do.
For the first time in my life I was engaged in a job that was important to people who had become important to me.
For the first time in my life I experienced what happens when time stops, space vanishes and pleasure is payment.
For the first time in my life I understood what it means when work becomes play.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.