I knew early in life what it felt like to be hungry for work. If we kids wanted pocket change, we had to earn it, and we knew we weren’t going to get paid working at home. So, at nine years old, determined to make some money and apparently unafraid of rejection, I set out with Bryan and began combing the streets of our neighborhood. It’s a wonder our parents didn’t stop us, two young street urchins, from knocking on the doors of perfect strangers and begging for work. But those were different times. Besides, Mom and Dad strongly encouraged us to be financially resourceful, often overlooking apparent dangers.
I might have forgotten this experience altogether had Mrs. Murdock not hired me. A soft-spoken, diminutive, white-haired widow living just three blocks from our house, she asked me to come back the next Thursday afternoon to do little odd jobs. (Unfortunately for Bryan, she only wanted to employ one of us, which made me feel a little guilty.) Mundane tasks, such as cleaning cupboards, dusting, and sweeping, were a snap for me, and I could tell by the way she quietly observed me that my new employer was as grateful as she was curious. Who was this little girl willing to take on whatever job she was assigned? Impressed, Mrs. Murdock could see I was not above scrubbing the toilet or doing any other unpleasant tasks. So, she invited me to come back the next Thursday for two hours, which I did every week.
I got paid one dollar an hour. One time, however, after spending a very long time together cleaning out her garage, my new employer decided to not pay me in dollars. Instead, she offered to pay me in kind with a circular bamboo swivel chair we’d unearthed from the garage. She had not received any prior consent from me, but in the moment, I didn’t feel I had much say in the matter. Later, though, after hefting home the chair, I felt proud to have a piece of furniture I earned myself. Eventually, Mom recovered the dusty green cushion with a dark blue floral fabric, and I kept that chair all through high school and even during the first few years of marriage. The chair wasn’t really beautiful, but it was a beautiful reminder that I could make good things happen by relying my own initiative and resourcefulness.
That first job colored my future employment experiences. For instance, although at the time I didn’t know what it was called, I began to cold-call potential employers. From a young age, I believed the victory of landing a job was more important than the possible dread of being turned away. In high school, I approached employment in a similar fashion when I needed a job. (I always needed a job.)
I thought learning about the insurance industry would be interesting, which it wasn’t. So, I simply turned to the Yellow Pages Directory, and began pitching myself to each firm, convincing them of my genuine interest. Certainly, I said persuasively, they must need some extra help. I repeated my pitch over and over until I got an interview and a job.
By working for Mrs. Murdock, I also learned that children, whether they realize it or not, begin building their reputations early. As an adult, I’ve seen this for myself when I’ve done service projects with younger people. Within the first ten minutes, I can spot the hard-working, dependable, cheerful ones. I tell them as much, and occasionally I offer to be a reference for them when they begin to apply for paying jobs.
What I did not expect to learn from my first job was how to like eating avocados. One Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Murdock let me have a little break, and she kindly offered me wheat toast with real butter, topped with a sliced avocado and salt. I wasn’t sure what to say since I’m quite sure I had never eaten an avocado before in my life. Also, in Tanner Manor, we loaded our toast with margarine and jam, and we called butter “real butter.” However, I was also taught manners. So, I took a small nibble. I’m not sure if it was the real butter or the salt that made the avocado taste so delicious, but to this day I cannot eat an avocado on toast without thinking of Mrs. Murdock and the chance she took on me, just a young girl, in giving me my first paying job.
I'm the twelfth of 13 children. I was born into a poor family living in a big house on top of a hill in South Pasadena, California. We called it Tanner Manor, and these are my stories of growing up there.