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Lessons Learned on the Midnight Bindery Shift and Other Dirty Jobs

[fa icon="calendar"] Fri, Feb 07, 2014 / by Andre Palko

I’d wager that the real story of our work life isn’t in the bindery and printing jobs found on our resumes or posted on our LinkedIn profiles. What makes us who we are is more often found in those long-forgotten jobs we don’t bother to include. Other times it’s the story behind a job that carries the real meaning and lesson, often in ways we don’t expect.

farmer horse200My first work experience isn’t exactly what you would call a job. Growing up on a farm, I remember crops being harvested, hay being baled, cows milked, eggs picked, chickens fed, the garden tended, barns cleaned, and the countless other chores that went into making up a day in the life of a farmer. When I was old enough, probably 8 or 9, I was drafted to participate in the chores. Farm life has a rhythm tied to nature. So farming work didn't really seem like work; it seemed as natural as the rising and setting of the sun. It was simply the way the world functioned.

In later years, when I began learning my way around the bindery and print shop, the amount of work involved didn't intimidate me. Hard work, and lots of it, was, after all, a natural thing. But there were a few educational stops along the way to my adventures in print finishing.

My first ‘real’ job was as a dishwasher at a traditional road-house diner frequented by interstate travelers, truckers, construction workers, and hungry locals. It was the summer before 8th grade and at thirteen, I was delighted to be earning the princely sum of $1 an hour for 40 hours a week. It was big money to me.

The personalities at the restaurant, both workers and customers, were right out of a TV sitcom. You didn’t want to bother the owner on a Monday morning if she had a bad weekend at the track. The efficiently flirtatious waitress was skilled at earning maximum tips in minimum time and had a regular and quite colorful cast of daily breakfast and lunch customers. The ornery short-order cook softened on slow days and called me over to the grill to teach me how to cook.

I already had a good work ethic from the farm but the folks here taught me to be diligent. If I let some dirty silverware get by they’d ask me how I would feel if I were sitting down to eat with a dirty knife and fork. Thus I learned to put myself in the customer’s shoes.

I had no choice but to learn to be sociable since I was surrounded with a casting director’s dream crew of dysfunctional personalities. I learned to ask the owner how she made out with the horses before asking for a day off. I learned to step up to the plate when early one morning, with no cook in sight, the waitress convinced me that I could indeed handle the grill and take care of those first breakfast orders. (That’s when I realized why the cook shared his skills with me. I was the perfect cover for his alchohol-induced tardiness and I wouldn’t dare squeal!) I learned that for value delivered to others, you get value in return. 

In high school I worked with my two younger brothers in the kitchen at a local seafood restaurant. Since it was closer to home and we were too young to drive, we could ride our bikes to work.

Here I learned about building trust. In just a few months the owner and manager came to trust us enough to let me and my brothers man the kitchen alone. Looking back I am amazed at the level of trust placed by an adult in three pimply teens who couldn’t even drive. We did all the prep, cooking, handled the take-out window and did all the clean up. It gave us all tremendous confidence. You can’t buy that anywhere. While my two brothers both learned they liked the business (they each own restaurants) I decided I’d prefer a different career.

When that place closed down after the young, well-liked manager embezzled restaurant funds and ran off with a waitress to Mexico, I went to work at the local all-girls college cafeteria. Hey, where else would a teenaged boy go for a job? Here I learned a little about destruction of trust.

One afternoon someone stole my wallet from my locker when I mistakenly left it there while changing. I remember it contained $55 which was probably an entire paycheck. It shocked me. I realized I was working side by side with someone who could look me in the eye, laugh and joke, then turn around and rob me. It was a scary loss of innocence, but I learned that trust in others takes time to develop. Sometimes it never does.

Even with this incident, I liked my college cafeteria job. It was an escape, a way to make money, and actually a lot of fun despite moments of drudgery. The boss' daughter also worked in the kitchen and I remember one day she told me her dad thought I was often angry because I didn't smile much. This stunned me as much as having my wallet stolen!

How could my outside appearance be so different from what I was feeling inside? Sure, I was quiet and introspective but never angry at work. I loved work. From that day on I learned to smile more, to match the outside to the inside. I didn't want to wrongly put others off. In turn this taught me to not judge others so quickly. Outside appearances usually don’t tell the whole story.

One of the toughest jobs I had was working nights in a print shop. The work itself was easy. It was the emotional toll that was hard. Prior to this job I had been laid off from a really good, long time job as a bindery supervisor. I quickly got a new job but that came to an end soon after the tragedy of 9/11. Desperate for work I took the night shift job. My duties were whatever needed doing, including sweeping floors, loading the saddle stitcher pockets, packing boxes and when they had the work, some guillotine cutting and folding machine work.

It was not fun but I learned a few things that changed my life. I learned to be grateful for a job when so many had none. I learned the importance of perseverance. Keep at it and never give up. It was this lack of full time employment combined with relentless searching which led me to start representing Technifold products. If I were safe and comfy in a full time job this never would have happened. Lastly I learned there is honor in all work, no matter how inconsequential it might seem.

There were other jobs too. I packed miniature doll-house furniture, worked in the furnace rooms of an aluminum manufacturing plant, drove a lumber delivery truck and did warehouse work.

It seems that today, here at Technifold USA, I’ve come full circle. Work isn’t work; its part of the rhythm of life, just as it was on the farm. I would never have guessed that 43 years later I’d be writing fondly about my dishwashing experiences, and that others might actually find value in the story. The best education however, has come from those of you reading and from the thousands of clients with whom we’ve worked with through the years. I’ll share those in future articles. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll even share some more stories of misadventure from my years as a print shop insider.

Have you learned something valuable from a job? Feel free to share your stories below.

Topics: Bindery Business Tips, Personal Development

Andre Palko

Written by Andre Palko

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