Architecture

I had lots of short-term jobs in the sixties. Some lasted days, weeks, and a few even lasted months. So I wasn’t particularly fussy about my employment history. One of these jobs was standing behind a giant machine that printed large-scale blueprints at the architectural firm of Stone & Poor

Along with my peers, my job was to use a very sharp pair of scissors and neatly shear off one print from another as they rolled out of the printing machine. This task was done from day beginning to day end without stopping, except for lunch and one afternoon break. There was nothing intuitive or creative about the job; shear the print, the next person rolled it up and put a rubber band on it. Eventually, a trolley cart would fill with prints, and the trolley boy would roll the cart off to the various departments. 

A break in routine was changing the large roll of paper that fed the machine or clearing a jam. Then, of course, you might aspire to run the cart around; at least you got to see the rest of the building. But that was a plumb job dispensed to favored employees. 

Our supervisor bragged that he had started just as we had, and look at him, in charge of all ten machines. I’m positive that he never saw anything ironic in this statement. He got to wear a suit, keep his hands clean and eat in the executive dining room. 

One of the machines had a wiring flaw that repair had never adequately fixed. As a result, every morning, I had watched a sluggish maintenance worker lean on the machine, apply pressure with his back and softly kick the baseboard with his heel. One morning no maintenance worker appeared. After an hour of fuming and calls, the supervisor was at his wit’s end; his production schedule was behind. I walked up to the machine, leaned on it, and gently kicked it with the heel of my foot. I was the supervisor’s hero, but my workmates now looked at me with disgust. I just hated standing around and doing nothing. 

Day in and day out, with minor oscillations caused by breakdown, this was the job. Finally, after a month, I was about to go crazy. But my supervisor claimed that I was bound for big things in the company. My initiative had not gone unnoticed by my betters. I was destined to become the next trolley boy when Jared finished his course in mechanical drawing and moved onto the drafting department. “will there be a raise?” “not initially, but there will be much greater responsibility.”

I was young enough and naive enough not to parse the real meaning of this. So to the disgust of my workmates at the back of the machine, I became the trolley boy.

I soon found out that the trolley boy did more than move mail and prints around the building. He also went to the shop in the lobby to buy coffee, snacks, and cigarettes for the office workers. On occasion, you might also get dispatched to take rolls of blueprints to other offices in Boston’s financial district. Thus you were a tiny cog in a big machine; you were essentially invisible but indispensable. But, unfortunately, you also did not get a raise to go with the job.

One day I spilled coffee on a set of essential documents and found myself back at my old job the following day. A new favorite got installed as the trolley boy. 

Behind the machine, I waited with my peers for maintenance to kick start the machine. The supervisor glared at me. I slunk into the mass of my peers and sipped from my coffee, and did nothing. The supervisor had never bothered to learn how to start the machine. Supremely confident that someone else could and would do the job, he had missed out on that part of supervisor training that mentioned that good sups knew all the jobs skills as part of their job. Instead, all he knew was that I leaned against the machine and did something. 

Eventually, someone new from maintenance came and started tearing down the machine. The supervisor screamed at him and pointed at me. I just stood there and looked dumb; I had learned my lesson.

I was gone by the end of the week with no regrets and moved on to another forgettable job. I had learned, however, a few lessons:

if you get a promotion without a pay increase, it’s not a promotion. And what you volunteer for today becomes part of your job tomorrow. 

The main lesson I learned was something I remembered in later years when I managed organizations: when you have people who exceed job requirements, reward them as well as you can and keep faith with them.