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man janitor plumber  silhouette

Filed Under , , on November 5th, 2016

Starter Memories

By Seth Kabala

He wrote with the eloquence of Hemingway but spoke with the cadence of R2-D2. That sentiment is what I sought to avoid when I joined Toastmasters. This week, I gave my first speech: the Ice-Breaker. As directed, I reduced this to notes and spoke extemporaneously. Full text:

I think it’s fair to say a large part of any person’s identity is wrapped up in what they do for a living. That’s certainly true for me, and while the work for which I’ve been paid doesn’t represent 100% of the pie-chart that is the sum total of my life, it is a big chunk. Work, particularly non-professional work, has forged some of my most indelible memories. Today, I’m going to talk about three non-professional jobs I’ve had. Call them starter jobs:

  • * Paper Boy
  • * Piano Mover
  • * Janitor

Did I have a paper route as a boy? Yes. Is that what I’m talking about? Not exactly. I’m talking about delivering papers as a 34-year-old man, from the hours of 2a-6a, while holding down a full-time job, every day, for a year, in all types of weather, ranging from blitzkrieg Midwest thunderstorms, a hellish summer, to nuclear winter, all buttressed by Biblical plague levels of bugs.

Why did I do this? I needed the money. My family and I were preparing to move across the country for the job I have now.

But it wasn’t all bad. I made $1,000 in Christmas bonus tips. Turns out, older folks really appreciate having their paper on their doorstep instead of the roof. Who knew?

Rewind to the late 90s.

I was an 18-year-old piano-vocal music performance major at Black Hawk College in Moline, IL. I needed money. Needed a job. What’s the best job I could get? You guessed it—professional piano mover! My rational: I could play lots of different instruments (uprights, grands, keyboards), demo-ing them for customers, logging extra practice time.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Between the rich guy who only let us touch the instrument while wearing white, cotton gloves, which made it super easy to move; the chain-smoking delivery crew leader, who resisted cracking the windows in the delivery van; and buyer after buyer who would drop $25,000 – $50,000 on a furniture piece, because they liked the look of the instrument despite lacking the ability to play—I was fed up and excited to move on to the glamorous world of stripping—and waxing floors.

Isn’t it great to have friends? It’s even better when you get perks because you know people. Guess what? I know people, too! My people got me a full-time janitor gig. I cleaned my fair share of toilets, but I specialized in stripping and waxing floors, holding this post from 2001 – 2006.

I started at $9/hr, soaring to $11/hr five years later. Not to overshadow the financial boon I received, this job also made these possible:

  • * Earning my Bachelor of Business
  • * Earning enough credits to sit for the CPA exam, which, 10-years-later, I have almost completed. Sidebar: I oppose procrastination in all forms. I believe in striking while the iron is hot. Otherwise, I might end up in my mid-30s in Portland, OR and …

Anyway, my favorite assignment was working on the loading dock for the freight company Conway Central Express. I remember it like it was yesterday: driving the miniature Zamboni-looking dock sweeper; classic rock and country blasting from an ancient sound system, 0% bass, 100% treble, daily bringing my eardrums to the point of rupture; wielding a chainsaw, cutting damaged pallets into pieces small enough to fit in the trash compactor.

Good times.

In all seriousness, graduating from college has brought many benefits. I’ve had four really interesting professional jobs, in state government, the office furniture industry, entrepreneurship, and local government; I’ve achieved a modicum of financial stability, allowing my wife, of 13 years, and I to have three maddeningly intelligent, beautiful children; and I’m on the path to a comfortable retirement.

The pay’s better, sure. But my stories are less interesting.

For me, professional jobs, from an indelible memory standpoint, fail to compare to the wild west, Cajun, spicy flavor fest of non-professional work. That comes from starter jobs. That create starter memories.

Some days, after spending 10 hours researching and writing about case law concerning the legal incidence of taxation on telecoms, I imagine my boss walking up to me, and the conversation goes like this:

Boss: Seth, we’ve got a special project for you.

Seth: Yeah, Boss? What’s that?

Boss: Today … you get to use a chainsaw.

I’m still a ways off from headlining LA’s Orpheum Theater, but I’m coming along. In your beeping face, R2-D2.

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Seth Kabala

About: Seth Kabala
Seth is an entrepreneur, writer, musician, family man, and juggler of balls--big ones. He lives with his wife and three children in Portland, OR.

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