First jobs tend to imprint your memory with good or bad experiences. I can relate to migrant farm workers, because my very first paid job as a young teen was picking tomatoes. My mother, sister, brother, and I woke up early, before the sun grew unbearable and walked to the neighbor’s field. We got 50 cents CASH per bushel basket. Yes, you read that correctly.
My next most memorable job was in the Singer store at the new Hickory Hollow Mall. I was bursting with experience after a single home economics class and various small sewing projects at home. At 17, they didn’t have to pay me minimum wage, so I got $2.79 an hour. I felt rich. Even cooler, I drove myself to work.
My senior year and the following summer, I lucked out with a job at the Vanderbilt main library. Prestigious sounding, but all I did was put bar code stickers in books. See, there used to be something called a CARD CATALOGUE where you had to open a drawer and find a book alphabetically. I know, outrageous, right? But times were a-changin’, and our little group of workers put thousands of those little bar codes in books as they converted their system. The basement of the library was my very favorite place. I found some books that hadn’t been checked out in nearly 100 years. The smell of the books is what I remember most and the crinkling sound of the bindings as I opened the cover.
The summer after my first year of art school, I got a job as an artist at Opryland Theme Park where the current Opry Mills Outlet Mall is located. I had an easel set up on the sidewalk, a uniform, chalk, and an immense fear of people. I was supposed to solicit theme park visitors to get their profile portraits drawn, an introvert’s worst nightmare. Two of us did this type and two or three other artists did caricatures. I got $2 for every one that I drew, though they cost $12. I also had to pay for my own supplies. I could draw one in 20 minutes if the person cooperated. I preferred dental surgery over portraits of children, since it meant drawing a moving target. The most memorable drawing was one of a young adult woman. It was obvious that she and her sweetheart didn’t get to “the big city” too often. She wouldn’t stay still. She kept moving to see my progress and asking questions. “How long you been artin’?” she asked in a thick Southern accent. How do you answer that?
My son is now looking for his first job. I don’t think it is quite fair that minimum wage is over $7 compared to my 50 cent bushel basket of tomatoes. It’s a different world now, but I wish him all the best.