My first job where I was an actual employee of someone other than my family came when I was sixteen years old. There was a local catering hall in my town that employed a fair number of youths in basic positions. I approached the owner, made my case, and was hired on the spot as a bus boy. I was told to show up that Saturday at 6 AM, to wear a white button-down shirt, black pants and black shoes (a black vest and black tie were provided by the establishment from a large supply of cheap versions they kept on hand; smart of them).
I showed up early and worked from before 6 AM until just after 2 AM the (technically) next day. Despite the 20-hour shift, I felt wonderful. I was treated very well; plenty of free food (the family-owned-and-operated hall always made plenty of extra for the employees), lots of good music, and many of my co-workers were people I knew from school. Like any workplace of mostly teenagers, the environment was fun. Unlike many, the management actually encouraged that fun as long as the customers were happy and we worked as hard as we laughed.
The owners were a local Italian family (because this was a catering hall in New Jersey… who did you expect to run it?), and so the crew spent the after-hours cleanup time singing Frank Sinatra songs as we worked. Most people were told they could go home when the last party ended; the few that volunteered to stay longer for cleanup were compensated extra. I had worked over 20 hours (obviously with breaks and such, but not many), but I also left with over $250 in cash from my first night of work, ever. I was over the moon.
But that’s not all I left with. At the end of that first night, the owners called me into the small adjacent office and told me they’d never seen a kid work as hard as I did and not have a word of complaint or ask to go home even after all that time. They asked me if I wanted to be “head bus boy.”
Thinking back on it now, I laugh and laugh. “Head bus boy!” What a concept. It turns out they just wanted someone to coordinate getting the appropriate number of teenagers to show up for work each weekend, and it was easier for me to do that since I went to school with most of their employees. They offered me an extra dollar an hour and more hours during the week after school (most people only had the option to work weekends) to take on this responsibility. I eagerly accepted.
(It turned out to be a great move for me, socially. Suddenly I had the hookup, and word quickly spread that if you wanted to make the best money a sixteen-year-old high school kid could (legally) make, you needed to talk to Johnny Roccia. It also quickly got around that our after-work parties were the best, so that helped too. That’s not the point of this story – but it’s a nice reminder that there can be a lot of non-compensation benefits to your job!)
When I got home, my father was still awake. His son was at his first day of work, and he was eager to hear how it went. We stayed up even later and I told him everything, including the part where at the end of my very first day in the workforce, I’d earned a promotion.
My father has never, in all the years and accomplishments since, been more proud of me than he was that night. Nothing has ever topped it. I’m not sure anything ever will.
It was years before I first realized that some people were ashamed of their jobs, based on their relative social status. I was well into my 20’s before I came to understand that some people used the phrase “flipping burgers” in a derogatory way, instead of just as casual slang. For my father, that was such a ludicrous concept that I never even came up against it. There were no bad jobs inherently. There were bad bosses, and there were plenty of people who were bad at their jobs (my father had plenty of examples of each from stories of his own youth), but no work that needed to be done was inherently a “bad job.”
He taught me that respect (including self-respect, the most important kind) didn’t come from what you did. It came from how you did it. The way my dad talked about me, I could have been a Nobel-Prize-winning astronaut president. It didn’t matter that I was a bus boy. Because I was head bus boy.
Sometimes I drive by where that catering hall used to be. It’s not there any more and the staff have all moved on. I lost track of them years ago; I’m not sure where the owners and managers are now. I worked there for almost four years, and I loved every second of it. Sometimes when I drive by, I think of Mario, the owner (of course his name was Mario); his daughter Maria who ran the kitchen; and Gary, his right-hand man and general manager. The people who gave me my first promotion, who showed me that when you hustle and smile, there are people who notice.
Whatever you do, do it well. Do it with pride and with respect, especially for yourself.
“Head Bus Boy.” Still cracks me up. And also makes me feel very, very grateful.