Mendel Letters 81 — “Real Work”
The other day I was moving some furniture for my son Solomon who does not appreciate how old and decrepit I’ve become. I didn’t complain too much because at least at the moment it felt good to flex my muscles and be doing what I call “real work,” as opposed to pecking away on the computer keyboard.
Since I was 14 and you brought me to the Astoria luncheonette, I’ve enjoyed physical work, “real work.” I started sweeping and mopping, counting and organizing newspapers, and making change at the cash register. Gradually I moved up to the counter and fountain and then the sandwich board and grill. Eventually I was preparing coffee, making salads, and slicing cold cuts. I always liked earning my own money.
The summer after my senior year in high school Uncle Abe Werner got me a job in the Hunts Point, Bronx office of Daitch Shopwell, a supermarket chain. I started in the mailroom sorting invoices and bills, which was incredibly boring, but was able to switch to work in their cafeteria, which was something I liked to do. I still have a scare where I sliced off a tip of my finger while flirting with this really attractive young woman. She wasn’t Jewish. You will see why that is important in a second. She ordered a roast beef sandwich with mayo on white bread, not the way we eat it. I joked I only made roast beef sandwiches on rye bread with ketchup. Then I looked up to smile, cut my finger, and had to go to the hospital to top the bleeding.
When I was nineteen and in college I got my hack license and became a New York City taxi cab driver. I knew the city well from bicycling and was driving the day shift two or three days a week. I was able to put aside enough money so that when I student taught in my senior year of college I didn’t have to work.
Summers starting during college and continuing into graduate school I worked at Camp Hurley. In addition, during the spring and fall work crews opened and closed the camp. I maintained and drove the camp bus and truck, did laundry and garbage runs, and took campers on hikes and trips. On work weekends I reinforced and screened cabin windows and reroofed buildings. I don’t know if you remember, but you and Mother actually joined us on one work weekend.
As a toddler, Solomon came with me on the weekends and joined my work crew. Once when the work site was a little too dangerous, my friend Martin tried to take him away, but Sol refused to go because “we’re not finished yet.” On one work weekend, my teenaged stepdaughter Heidi and I had to repair the wooden supports for a cabin. We lifted a corner of the cabin off of its cinder blocks using hydraulic jacks so we could cut out and replace rotten beams. The problem was that I was too big to fit under the cabin so she had to do all the sawing and hammering. Judi walked by and almost had a heart attack when she saw Heidi under the cabin but Heidi was a great worker and never was afraid.
While in graduate school at Rutgers I did some substitute teaching in Bronx middle schools when university classes weren’t in session. I also taught discussion groups for the large lecture classes as part of my teaching assistantship and twice had the opportunity to teach my own classes. I liked teaching better than graduate school and during the 1974–1975 school year I got a job as a reading teacher at a Brooklyn middle school near where I was volunteering at the United Community Centers.
That summer New York City went bankrupt and in the fall I was laid off as a teacher. During the next three years I was lucky to get a series of real work jobs. I worked at Coca-Cola assembling and distributing display cases and delivering soda. I drove for a tobacco and candy distribution company in Brooklyn and Manhattan. My last paid job before returning to teaching was on the midnight shift driving a bus for the New York Transit Authority. During this time I married Judi and Solomon was born. Judi was the assistant director of the community centers day care center. Gender pay inequity was in full swing. I always earned more money at my working-class jobs than she did as a professional educator.
In September 1978, the New York City Board of Education called to offer me a high school teaching job so I “retired” as a bus driver, which meant taking a pay cut. Yes, I was making more money as a bus driver than as a teacher, at least at the start.
I taught in New York City high school until 1990 and again during the 1992–1993 school year. Since September 1990 I’ve been a teaching educator at Hofstra University and I’ve also been able to teach history classes. I’m starting to slow down and will enter the University’s retirement protocol next January.
I did have one more unpaid job that I am very proud of. I spent two weeks in Provence in southern France at a historical restoration site called La Sabranenque. We rebuilt eroding medieval terraces using traditional tools and materials, repaired a castle wall, and when we couldn’t find rocks that have fallen, we cut stone to repair a medieval arch. The foreman would give us instructions in French and my French is terrible. I finally turned to him and said, “oui ou non, juste oui ou non.”
Thanks for teaching me to love “real work.”
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
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