A Working Life II: Going West

“Go West, young man.”
— Horace Greeley, 1865

This is the second part of the review of my working life. Part 1, The Early Years, covered the part-time jobs I had while in school in England. In Part 2 I graduate from college and move to the States.

Student and Teacher

1972: Traffic Survey, Leicester: The summer before my final year any student who wanted to work could find a job on the traffic survey being conducted in and around Leicester. We got up before dawn, sat at intersections and counted cars. Stationed outside the local prison I was often face-to-face with uptight guards delayed for their shift by a long-haired layabout with a clip-board. A local vicar once asked me “Do you enjoy your work, my son?” and I had to honestly say, yes, I did. Fresh air and mindless checklists were a welcome change to the life of an undergraduate.

At this point in the story I must mention a 15-minute conversation that, quite simply, changed the course of my life. In my final term at Leicester I had already secured a place on a post-graduate Sociology course at the University of Bath. It would have given me a path to a PhD and a life as a Sociology professor in England. Then I had a 15 minute meeting with my tutor. He asked me what I planned to do after graduation, I told him about Bath and that “meanwhile over the summer I plan to tour the USA on a tourist visa”. “Oh”, he replied, “why not do your Masters in the US and then come back to finish your PhD here?” I had no idea you could! He suggested the names of a half-dozen American universities with good Sociology departments (Brown, Boston University, Brandeis) and after sending off applications to those colleges which all required a non-refundable $25 application fee I noticed Tufts University which did not require a fee. So I applied there, as an afterthought. I was too late to attend in the Fall of 1973 so had to apply for the 1974 academic year. Tufts was the college that gave me a scholarship and the offer of a job as a teaching assistant to cover living expenses. Academically, it was a poor choice — the focus was on quantitative studies, survey design and statistics. Not my cup of tea. It cured me of a desire to become an academic. But I instantly fell in love with America and that explains the rest of my career, and my life since. That conversation *did* change my life.

Wreake Valley College1973: Humanities Teacher, Wreake Valley College, Syston, Leicestershire: After graduating, and while waiting to go to the States for my graduate education, I was a three-day-a-week substitute teacher. In those days anyone with a BA was considered qualified to teach. There was no training. I had no clue. I was terrible teacher.

Tufts1974: Teaching Assistant, Sociology Department, Tufts University, Medford, MA: During my first year as a graduate student I was tasked with supervising Soc 101 classes. My abstract philosophical approach did not go down well with the undergrads, many of who were college athletes taking Introductory Sociology as a “gut” course. I was still a terrible teacher.

1975: Casual Labor, Cambridge, MA: When I teaching assistant job was not renewed (no surprise!) I had to find another way to put bread on the table. IRS regulations allowed me to work 20 hours a week while studying. I found work with Bobby Ferant, a local contractor, who had me doing odd-jobs remodeling commercial space in Harvard Square, digging foundations, painting hair salons and more. He used to offer me a hit from from his opium pipe on the way into work. The sixites were still alive in Boston in those days.

Roots Shoes1975-76: Shoe Salesman, Roots, Cambridge, MA: Once I’d had enough of demolition work, painting and decorating, I found part-time work selling ‘recessed heel’ shoes in the Cambridge Roots store. The manager was a delightful Swiss woman with a passion for photography and red wine. The other employee was a Rajneesh ‘sannyasin’ who dressed in orange robes. I remember a HBS student who surveyed us as part of his study comparing Roots and the more popular Earth Shoes in the hippie retail shoe market niche. Australians would sometimes walk by the store, do a double-take, and double over in laughter. I later found out why.

Taxi1976: Taxi Driver, Ambassador Cabs, Cambridge, MA: A *very* short-lived stint as a taxi driver. I had only just learned to drive, did not know the streets, and could not understand the Boston accents of the dispatchers on the radio. Apart from that it was a piece of cake. My first fare was a blind guy I took to Church on Sunday who gave me directions from the back seat (he made the same trip every week). After getting lost trying to find the airport with an anxious passenger I packed it in.

Streets of San Francisco1976: Shoe Salesman, Roots, Polk Street, San Francisco: With my East Coast experience selling shoes, my friend James (a fellow Leicester graduate) found me a fill-in job for the summer working in the Polk Street Roots store. It was located opposite the Adidam Bookstore, next door to Buzzby’s (the largest gay disco on the west coast). When the store was quiet, I was sent home early to an apartment I was “house sitting”. Which is why, early one afternoon, I opened the door to find a guy rifling through the place. He jumped out the way he’d come in: through the window and onto the fire escape. Despite everything I’d seen on The Streets of San Francisco, the detective who came by later was not much help. Where was Michael Douglas when I needed him?

SW Portland1976-1977: Shoe Store Manager, Roots, Portland, OR: My first full-time paid employment! I managed the Portland store with the help of two part-time assistants, Faith and Martha. I lived in a wonderful house in SW Portland and walked down the hill to work on SW Broadway with views of Mt. Hood in the distance and the Rose Gardens above me. It was the year of a drought in Oregon so I avoided the incessant rain. Ranchers from eastern Oregon bought our high-top boots which they appreciated because “they sure keep the burrs out”.

Then it was time to return to the UK and find work, which I’ll discuss in Part 3.

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