Although I now work as a university professor, I have had a number of other jobs that would look out of place on a professional resume; however, most of these jobs have enriched my life in immeasurable ways.
The jobs include: piano player in a bar, night man in a detox house for alcoholics, soil sampler for the N.C. Highway Department, soybean farmer, truck driver and spare hand in a cotton mill.
These jobs not only taught me patience and humility, they also brought me into contact with a wide spectrum of interesting and colorful characters, some of whom have later turned up in my writing.
I was 10 years old when I got my first job: delivering newspapers. The circulation manager admitted I was “a little young for the route,” but he gave me the job, in part, because my mom worked as a reporter for the newspaper.
I delivered my newspapers in a seedy neighborhood of pawn shops, bars, apartment buildings, warehouses, diners, and—I was to learn later—brothels.
The circulation manager pointed out that I would be a “young businessman,” and discussed the importance and value of “operating your route as a business.”
He told me that my paper bill was due each month, and that I would need to pay it to keep my route. Any customers who didn’t pay would be cheating me, not the company, so it was vital that I bill customers promptly, and cut off their service if they refused to pay.
I hated to cut off people’s service; however, I soon learned the necessity of stopping the service of those customers who refused to pay. This was my very first lesson in “knowing when to fold ‘em,” to borrow a line from the song, “The Gambler.”
It was a lesson that would later prove valuable not only in business dealings, but also in human relationships. There just comes a time when you do have to “know when to fold ‘em, and, especially, “when to walk away.”
My route taught me to be organized—to add new customers to my route book and to keep track the dates of my customers’ payments.
Because I delivered papers in a rough section of the city, I had to learn how to be wary of those individuals who would see a small newspaper boy as a victim. The circulation manager had warned me that “there are people who will crush your skull for a nickel.”
On those occasions when a drunk demanded money, the pocket knife I kept in my newspaper bag gave me some sense of reassurance. I am thankful I never had to use it to defend myself against a physical threat.
My first job also taught me the importance of responsibility. I knew my customers wanted their newspapers when they came home from work and that there was no excuse for failure on my part.
I have tried to maintain that same sense of responsibility in every job I have had since.