Retirement can be an easy gig. Most times you transition from something that is sapping your strength to something easier. Then there are these dinners and luncheons and you say things about the kind of career that you’ve had. You talk about the people who have influenced you. Respect is paid. Then you shuffle off like thousands and millions and billions before. Is there a sense of meaning to be found in it?
A simple question: to what did I dedicate my professional life? Let’s look. At first it was a form of survival, and some lessons endured. I also wanted to earn my way into the adult world and saw working as an opportunity to do that.
I was a pin boy in a bowling alley that never converted to automatic pinsetters. There was a slot under the end of the alley and when you stepped on it, metal prongs would appear out of holes that you aligned with the holes in the bottom of the pins. When you got good, you could set four pins at a time, two in each hand. I got there but it took a while. I could do two in my right hand but had to learn to do two in my left. The pay was twelve cents a game, plus whatever tips you might get. Human speed and accuracy were important.
I soon realized that I was the only Caucasian pin boy. Many of the men were mature black men, and I was a boy of twelve, claiming to be fourteen. They didn’t need the competition. They didn’t want me there but I had begged the owner of the alleys to let me pick up some money, and she took pity on me and set me to work at a job that few others would want.
Settings pins can be painful. The pin setter balances himself on the division between the alleys. You cross your legs at the ankles over the top of the division so that the pins don’t bounce up and hit you. Then you hop down and clear the alley, or reset the alley and hop back up to do the same with the other one. Some very strong, very professional pin-setters have been able to do four alleys. But it slowed the game. I learned to do two.
At the end of the games, the bowlers would slide change down the polished wooden alleys. That was your tip and you scampered for it like a delighted puppy. This was my first job.
My second stint of employment came as a stock-boy at a corner soda shop. A soda shop was not a delicatessen, which was on the next block. A soda shop had ice-cream, floats, splits, magazines, cigarettes, newspapers. My job was to keep things stocked. I worked every day from after school until dinner. I worked all day on Saturday. On Sundays, I started at 5am because I had to put together the Sunday papers which arrived incrementally throughout the week. Sunday was payday, I got $10.
Truth was though that I had my first access to soft porn. From Playboy to Jet to some the raunchy things in the Enquirer and the Hobo News, I snuck them down into the stockroom to look at them.
Wait, I have forgotten something. Before I was a pin boy, I was hired for 1$ to kill flies in a diner. After I was done, the busboy came muttering under his breath to clean away the dead flies. A live fly is an annoyance. Dead one sets off a sense of concern. I did not realize that I was making more work for an already over-worked man. And twice I was hired to shovel snow. But they were just tips, like those slid down a lane.
At a men’s clothing store I learned three significant facts. I was Jewish and not Jewish, stealing was exciting, my mother was desired by other men and she used attractiveness to get what she wanted. She and I had a scam. People would in and place a deposit and then fail to return. It was called a layaway plan. The deposits sat there but could be reclaimed. We reclaimed them if they had been left long enough so that we could reasonably assume that no one was returning. We also stole mohair slacks of the best variety that the store offered, and I wore them.
It was the manager of the store who lusted after my mother. I have no idea if she ever requited his need for her, but she did use it as leverage. I had expensive clothes. I had income. I saw it as a gateway to other needs.
After I graduated from high school, and one semester into college, I was in a hospital bed. My right knee had been sliced open a year after my left knee had been cut. I was behind on the work of school. I decided to quit.
There was an IBM office at 570 Broad Street in Newark. I applied for work and after a battery of tests, they hired me to be an overnight dispatcher for a tri-state region.
My predecessor was a man named Ed, my father’s name, except this man was black. He showed me how he tailored his life to his job. He was the most alert between 11pm and 7 am the next day. The rhythm of his life was constructed around this clock. His family’s life was constructed around the dictates of his job. He taught me that I should not go to bed after work but should stay awake for the same number of hours that I would if I worked a nine to five job. I had great difficulty doing this. There isn’t much for a 19 year old kid to do from 8am until 1 pm. I tried my best but I was bored and never got enough sleep.
Then the overnight work turned to magic. It helped me to understand how different I was. While they slept, I was awake. That was how I found my companion, Bob Fass. It was how I learned to modulate my voice, so that those that I had awakened would want to do what I needed them to do. Bob knew how to talk in the night. He was a beacon that flowed out of WBAI, listener sponsored radio.
The things that I heard changed my life forever. Work became a drama that was part of my life. My voice became smooth and soft. I made it sound like a dream. I was seductive in the way that I described things. “Hello, Red, its 3am. I need you go out and do a simple fix. I’ll make it right for you to have a late start.” And I did. There were a dozen like him. They were my go to guys. They wanted the overtime. They wanted to get ahead. I was their middle of the night catalyst. But I did not like the life. Being alone so much made me feel unworthy and somehow reduced. I knew that I was one of the unusual ones, but I was yet to embrace that notion.
I was still able to turn it off and retreat into the immaturity and uncertainty about what I would ever be able to do. So, after two years, I went back to school.
As I think back, I am so grateful that I was not asked to work in a butcher shop or picking up trash. Some of these jobs are harder than others. I learned to talk men into waking up and getting out of their beds in the middle of the night with the promise of four hours guaranteed overtime.
So there was IBM for two years and then a yearning for freedom. I took an educational leave of absence and went back to school.
My next job became delivering water softener. It was kept in 50 pound bags and I delivered it to customers. For the first time in my life, I drove a flatbed truck. When it rained, the bags were heavier. I slogged them in until the day in the rain when I cut off an ambulance that swerved and then stopped and flashed its lights before it continued on. I was shaking when I returned the truck and never delivered water softener again.
I dug ditches in the sun. I enjoyed the visual progress of the digging. There were stones and roots and they provided resistance. I dug through and around them. I worked with my friend Tom, but he didn’t dig ditches. We both worked for his father. I was strong but not totally in control about how to direct my strength. I did have a sense of humor. Tom was often reluctant.
We had been scrubbing eggshell crates for a building that we were retrofitting to be a community college campus. We stood over the sink for hours, bored and scrubbing. Then a look of wicked glee passed between us and Tom took the dormant hose over to Art Williams Junior and pretended that it was a microphone. He spoke into it and then passed it over and Art Jr. spoke into it. Then Tom spoke again and readied myself at the sink. When Art Jr. opened his mouth to speak again, I turned the water on full blast. He sputtered. He choked. Tom’s father laughed uncontrollably. Art Sr. laughed uncontrollably. It was an instant of comradery, male style, which would be relived for years.
Then I learned about the pressure that came from being the bosses’ son. One afternoon, we artfully rearranged the configuration of ballasts inside of flouriest light cases. We found that what we had done caused the casings to no longer fit. It was the end of the day but Tom looked nervous.
“I don’t think that your dad is going to pay us overtime.”
Tom’s dark eyes looked up at me and then he dissolved into a self-deprecating laugh. “No, I’ll just go home and say, we are now behind where you left us after lunch but we didn’t want to work overtime and so we left it that way.” We stayed and reconfigured the ballasts, repeating the lines and imagining how they would be received. It was a bond and I learned that life had other pressures for the boss’s son. Tom was my friend and the boss’s son. I was a bit stunned by the realization.
Magic struck and I learned to teach. I was stunned by the wonder and power of teaching. I worshiped it. I loved it as I have loved nothing else. I was a teacher and there was a sanctity and beauty to that. I was that. Everything that I loved screamed out to be that. The teaching sang back into my ear. I embraced the song. If only I could teach others, I could achieve salvation I taught a college class as a graduate assistant. I had power and so I ordered the Journey to Ixtlan as my primary test.
But before that, I worked as a bill collector. I called people who had incurred debt that had become difficult, or even impossible, to repay and I talked them out of money. There were no rules. Whatever a collector could do to get a payment sent was OK. We were encouraged to intimidate children, order unrequested products and services and generally harass. The trick was to get the actual debtor on the phone. Call screening wasn’t around then and they behind their kids or their grandparents. We found ways to knife through all of that.
Some of the debtors were gamblers. Some of them had women that they were keeping on the side. They could be elusive and would promise you anything to get off of the phone. What I wanted and, was good at, was securing their employment address. Then we were able to issue a garnishee. It gave me pleasure because my step father had been a gambler like this and my college savings had been sacrificed to pay off his debt.
Then there was Mrs. Key. Her husband had borrowed $1000. The payback over three years was $1440. But he died and the interest just mounted. I called because I was told to call. Because I had successfully talked her out of $10, I was told to call again. One day, I just refused and was fired. The debt could never be paid off. It should be written off to profit and loss, but the company had a policy against doing this if any payment had been yanked out of her over the subsequent two years. I had successfully yanked one out of her.
I had been very good at it. I’d learned how to talk on the phone. I’d learned the power of that vague but immediate communication. When I thought about what I was doing, I recoiled.
I stopped doing it, but I needed work and there was always work for bill collectors. And I had learned how to sound so understanding on the phone, until I got the person talking and then I would turn on a dime. Once I had that shred of information that I wanted, I threatened to use it. I bullied those people and it haunts me.
I got lost in the flow of time. It isn’t linear, it flows back and forth with back-washes and surges. The teaching was a major surge. Those two grad school classes, I devoted myself to them but I was immature and brash and in need of refinement. I taught some students. I ignored others. Some, I think that I damaged. That also haunts me. I do not know how it impacted on them.
Sometimes karma plays a role in employment. That’s happened to me twice, at least. The first time, I was hired to play chess. My only job was to sit in the manager’s office and play chess. I also had to study to get a license as an agent of Health and Accident Insurance so that I could sign off on all the loans which were made at the company from which I had been fired. We split the commissions on all the loans. It netted me five thousand dollars a year, for two years. I did nothing but play chess.
It was a strange feeling. I wasn’t a great chess player; I was just better than him and he knew me and he had fired me because I would not call Mrs. Key. His ex-lover, my now live in girlfriend, picked up the slack. In some ways I guess that he was punishing her for choosing me by him choosing me. It was a very strange time and I did what I needed to do to keep the checks coming so that I could go to school and avoid making decisions about what I would do when I could no longer go to school. Funny thought that one.
After I graduated, I worked in this wonderful day care program that was run by a Catholic Charity. We administered to schizophrenic people between their continued hospitalizations. We found ways to interact that established pathways of comfort. It was the most therapeutic environment I have ever witnessed.
Each day we met for ninety minutes before their arrival. We reviewed and set individual goals. Then they were with us for more than four hours and we worked as humanely as I have ever worked in my life. We provided reassurance like a light shining through a fog. At least we tried to do that.
When a manic depressive went off meds in those days, there was this time when things had sped to optimum and you could see the brightly shining spirit alive in this world. What they could have been… But then, it would keep speeding up and would dissolve into frantically manic states that needed sedation. And the cycle would begin again.
I felt their delusions inside of me. They did not seem all that absurd. I wondered what that said about me. I was there only a few months before their funding was cut off.
Then I worked in a jail. Well actually it was a detention center in Paterson New Jersey. It was for adolescent males who were serving non drug related offenses and were being held in a halfway situation where they went to school but then were returned to this center which was run by the New Jersey Department of Institutions and Agencies.
For the second time in my life, I worked overnights. In the night I mopped the floors and watched late night TV. The Mary Tyler Moore show became a favorite and I would schedule my night around its repeat episodes. But sometimes I was too tired to stay awake and they would rape the younger boys. The older boys would laugh about their sore holes at breakfast.
I hated the job. I loved the kids and hated the work of being a jailer. I learned that I could never really be more than a jailer, because I was being paid to be that. I also learned that in a bad place it is easy to be used as an instrument of cruelty. One morning two guys got into a fight. And I jumped in to break it up and got punched, quite by accident. I was not injured, but the director saw the event and wanted to keep his population numbers up and so the kid who hit me had 6 months tacked onto his sentence. Eventually, the same director mistreated me and I found a way out. I went to my Allen and said that I wanted to be in more normal situations. He agreed.
My mother sent a letter and my resume to the parochial school that had taken me in when I was graduating sixth grade, working at the soda shop and accused of bringing a knife to school. I had a Bachelor’s Degree in English. I had an uncompleted graduate school record. Sister Marie Isabel interviewed me and hired me to be a teacher of English.
It was a turning point in my life. I had always been plagued by the questions, “Did you give this everything that you had? Did you do all that you could do? Was there nothing else that you could have done?”
I decided that I would do just that. Give it all, hold back nothing, let there truly be nothing else that I could have done. It was successful beyond my wildest dreams. I helped. I taught. I made things better! I am not sure that I have done finer work in my life. Lives changed for the better and I was part of that change. I am still so proud of my first students. To the end of my life, I will be proud of them.
On some dark nights, I wonder if I was ever that for someone else. Was I ever part of someone’s favorite work?
Then I became professional. I would teach and touch and influence, but it was always from that professional distance. It was good. It was great! My mind was challenged. My creativity was alive and daily active.
I loved reading my students’ essays and asking questions that would cause them to probe their thinking in ways that I partially directed. I was teaching all boys now at an exclusive private school. But teaching was the rock. It was always there. I could find it every day. The classroom nourished me every day. I love the classroom.
To call it work almost seems an insult unless one says, “This is my work.”
There are stages that one goes through in retirement. The first I think might be relief. What was joy became burden and that burden was carried until retirement allowed you to set it down. It occurs to me that changing careers is like retirement. But yes the first stage for me was relief. Now I have to consider if entering administration and supervision was a form of early retirement.
I stopped teaching slowly. Instead of five classes, I taught three. I think that I had one of my finest years of accomplishment teaching three classes. I promised myself and my students that every essay assignment would be returned thoroughly read and graded at the next class. It was an honors class, AP actually. I had designed the curriculum.
That September we giggled together at our first meeting. They knew what to expect and were excited by the possibility. The real feat was their research papers. I provided a deadline that gave me a four day weekend. In those four days I did nothing else. I ignored everything around me except for my students’ papers.
I returned them at the next class and my students applauded the effort. They knew what I had done. It was a bond between student and teacher.
But times change and there is that time when the magic is no longer there to have. Or the alchemy no longer makes sense to the alchemist. Maybe that was it, but it doesn’t feel that way. I stopped teaching because of money.
I sold my skills for many tens of thousands of dollars a year, and tens of thousands of dollars in retirement. I ended my administrative career broken on the belief that I had the chance to create something better. Defeated by what I was compelled to do for my self-interest and needing to leave. I did have one fine shining accomplishment. I knew how to pick good teachers and I assembled two staffs of them. The irony was that they didn’t like me and would not let me close enough to truly communicate what I had learned about teaching.
I was the boss. Conversations changed when I entered the room. My presence anywhere could easily be misconstrued. My insights became legal questions. I saw teachers who were done and ready to be done but if I said that I was committing age discrimination. I was always in trouble and to some extent fearful. I found it difficult to stop telling what I perceived to be was the truth.
Retirement is relief from all that and it’s sweet and sometimes it is bitter sweet. I envy those “Mr. Chips” types who retire from the classroom beloved. I feel empathy for those who have overstayed their classroom time and need to be told that it is time to leave. They may have started out very much the same and then took a wrong turn and just kept going, with deference to Bruce Springsteen.
I told myself that the team was in place. It was going well. But there is always higher management. There is always politics in education. Politics is warfare that creates losers and winners. I straddled the fence by standing up for what I believed but still knowing that I would do whatever was required by the politics.
In Japanese business lore, there is the story of the position with a window seat. These are reserved for losers who are kept on as a symbol of their defeat. They do nothing. They are paid to come into the office and sit as viewable symbols of their failure.
I ended my career in an American version of this fate. I was required to supervise and be held accountable for that which everyone knew I had detested: standardized testing scores. I supervised two libraries, more than fifty teachers, five secretaries, but my primary responsibility was overseeing standardized testing. I was very well paid.
My relief from that hypocrisy was an enormous weight taken from my conscience and shoulders. That is the first stage of retirement, relief. You don’t have to do it anymore. That comes with relief. It’s like a binge. It’s a binge of relief.
My body responded well to this relief. It felt like freedom.
After a while, the second stage of retirement sets in. That is irrelevance. You are no longer what is happening today and most assuredly not what is happening tomorrow. It’s the ending of the adult phase and the beginning of that part of one’s life that can be considered “elder.”
You must accept that you are part of the process that will become a past. You are moving towards being part of a past. And for the first time, the present provides a different option. The irrelevance grants your present freedom. There is a sweetness to the process. There is also an element of sadness. The nostalgia can be entwining.
Everyone needs a present, but suppose one’s present became a reliving of one’s past. The reliving makes it a present, but only a present of sorts. Nostalgia is one of the snares of retirement and it is, I think, connected to irrelevance.
Another stage is the contraction of a person’s professional life, and often for the sake of balance, an expansion of a person’s personal responsibilities. A professional persona dictates a certain amount of responsibility. One has to be at a certain place and time and represent a certain point of view. The process demands a good deal of attention. A person might even become immersed in it. But retirement brings it to a conclusion. There is a retraction of responsibilities.
The energy turns inward because it is seeking an outlet, not unlike water. There can be a flood of expansion in one’s personal life. Of course if the dedication to the profession has served as a substitute for a personal life, retirement can be lonely and even devastating. The irrelevance is suffocating.
Some people are eaten from the inside out here and become a shell. Some can find joy that helps them to move on. Some find a little of both. It feels to me that each of my jobs in some way prepared me for the next, and that my career prepared me for retirement. Sometimes the preparation is subtle and can only be understood after the fact.
After contraction, what is next? Is there an acceptance? Is there a renewal? Retirement is a shade of death. Is there acceptance? Is there renewal?