Last week I alluded to a job at a sleazy motel. I said it paid my college expenses and was educational. I’d like to share that education.
In 1969, my piggy bank was empty. I had tuition to pay. I wanted to escape my parents’ house. My thinking was, paying rent would call for even more money.
There was a problem. In the spring of 1969, when I began this job search, so did every other college age kid in Washington state. After two years of hippiedom and peace and love, every kid on every campus decided at exactly the same minute they also wanted out of the commune and/or their parents’ house.
A word to the wise: Never join a baby boom. Because, wherever you go, the rest of the boom of babies will go, too. Your age cohorts will dog your life until you die.
Every normal job I sought had at least 500 other applicants.
I realized I had to think of something to do that the rest of the Boomer Nation wouldn’t want. What would a boomer not do?
Then I spotted job offerings listed as “live-in” jobs. They sounded dreadful. They paid way less than regular jobs, and deprived you of the freedom to live some place cool. So I thought, perfect. Maybe I’ll only be one in 100 applying for one of these, instead of one in 500.
I applied to be a night clerk at a motel. I was one in five. Mrs. B, the Norwegian immigrant, now in her 70s, who owned the hotel, interviewed me. She didn’t like the other applicants. She thought they only wanted money to buy that Mary Who Wanna all the kids those days were after.
It was the North Star Motel at 105th and Aurora. Rooms rented from $6 to $12 per night. Every $8 room had a door, normally locked, leading to one of the cheap $6 rooms. Which cheap rooms, needless to say, were most popular with the clientele least interested in sleeping. Whereas the $10 and $12 rooms were deluxe.
Weeknights my job was to rent out the motel rooms, and then I could go to sleep in a little bedroom behind the rental office.
I had Saturday nights off, but had to work from 9 a.m. Sunday to 7 a.m. Monday, 22 hours straight. Why the heck?
Well, you see, the North Star wasn’t just a motel, it was also a slum. Behind the motel were several wooden buildings that looked like army barracks and had apartments renting for anywhere from $25 to $75 per month. My long Sunday shift required me to manage the slum.
We’re getting to the education part of the story. While my country put astronauts on the Moon, I managed a slum one day a week.
Mrs. B only rented to people who presented as decent and upstanding working class people.
Sometimes she was disappointed. One woman claimed to be employed, then turned out to be on welfare. Such kinds of betrayals deeply scarred my boss emotionally. Mrs. B complained bitterly, “You just can’t trust anyone these days.”
Her worst disappointment came when she learned her favorite renter of ten years, Jack, who’d always paid his $25 rent on time every month, was an ex-convict. Mrs. B was terribly hurt. “How could Jack have lied to me for so long?” While he was at work she padlocked his apartment and posted an eviction notice.
Jack had also been popular with the other tenants, but when they found out he was an ex-convict, they still thought he was a good guy. So the tenants complained about Jack’s summary eviction. A protest letter was circulated around the complex to be signed. Mrs. B’s sense of betrayal exploded. It was the worst thing that had happened to her since growing up dirt poor in Norway, with no food or shoes or sunshine, with only her beloved pony.
I thought it would end at that. A one page letter with 30 signatures. What else could all these poor people do?
Then, the unexpected: At once, dozens moved out in protest. Within a month the slum went from nearly full occupancy, to almost empty, and Mrs. B would have to put the property up for sale.
That action provided the education I was talking about. Never underestimate the power of poor people.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd.
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