My dad, Joe, retires today, after 41 years of work at one company and about two years of worrying if he’d have enough money to retire.
He thinks golf, riding his bike, and traveling will fill up all his free time now, and I think he’ll miss work a little more than he thinks he will. He’s raised two kids (and they both survived well into adulthood), and done lots of other things, but for more than four decades, he’s spent most of his waking hours in a grocery store, and 31 of those years working six days a week managing the meat department.
I grew up watching Dad do his thing, managing customers’ expectations on one side of the meat counter, and the personalities of his staff on the other side. He didn’t have the opportunities I did, especially the opportunity lots of kids of hard-working parents have, where you spend your late teens and early 20s deciding what career you think will be most fulfilling for you, and then go to college to try to figure out how to do it.
Dad didn’t go to college, and as far as I know never wondered what would fulfill him—he tried a couple of different jobs, and when he found one that seemed pretty OK, he stuck with it for the rest of his life. He worked hard, lifted probably millions of pounds of parts of beef, pork, and poultry, made thousands of people laugh on both sides of the counter, and wore through 60-some pairs of meat-spattered black dress shoes. And as of today, he never has to wear another pair of those shoes.
One of my first jobs was helping Dad on Sundays in the store, stocking sausage and bacon into a refrigerator case for an hour or two while he did paperwork in the office. When I was old enough to get a real job, there was no “are you going to get a job?” discussion in my family. When I turned 16, I got a job washing dishes and bussing tables, and later I worked in factories, machine sheds, a couple of cornfields, and behind the bar at several restaurants. After college, I worked in offices, and eventually, was able to work for myself as a freelance writer. My best joke about my career now is: “Like I tell my dad, it beats the shit out of working.”
I joke because I think my dad worked all those hours providing for his family so my brother and I wouldn’t have to work as hard as he did. I’d like to think I do work as hard, but maybe not as physically, and without having to put on a uniform. Because I don’t think you can unlearn the bedrock of what work is, and the unique satisfaction of working hard and doing a job right, after you watch someone do it for decades.
My dad’s old-school. There isn’t a lot of room for management philosophy where he worked, and he didn’t need to sit down and give a seminar to his employees about how to do their job. You show up on time, you do what you’re assigned to do, you’re nice to your fellow employees and the customers, you have fun with it, and if you do all those things, you get more opportunities. You clock in, you do your best, you clock out, you get paid. If you do that enough times, you get paid more.
Dad didn’t go to a management school; he was an assistant manager for a few years, and then got promoted to manager. I asked him one time if he had a problem with employees being late to work. He said no, and then said, “Actually, there was one guy. He was five minutes late for work every single day.”
How did you deal with it, I asked him.
“Well, I told him that if he needed to be five minutes late for work every day, he might think about finding a job where that was OK,” Dad said.
So what happened, I said.
“He’s three minutes early every day now,” Dad said. “Which is not as early as I’d like, but I’ll take it.”
I get to work with lots of people in my job as a writer, and with that comes a whole spectrum of relationships with clients and collaborators. When I get together with other writers (or photographers or filmmakers), we often talk about the ins and outs of the business—who’s good to work with, who really gets it, who is a great editor, who never misses a deadline, who did really well on a certain project, who never complains. And then of course the less-positive things, the nightmare stories of creative work. In these discussions, I often catch myself saying, “I try to not work with anyone I think would get fired by my dad.”
And what I mean is I try to work with people who, no matter what their other attributes, are accountable. Because in Joe’s Management Universe, there are is no such thing as unaccountability. If it’s your job to do something, you do it. If you say you’re going to do something, you do it. If you make a mistake, you admit it, you accept the consequences and you move on. You don’t blame things on other people or waste people’s time trying to explain why something happened when, if you shovel all the bullshit out of the way, you’d see it was your fault. Which is OK, so just admit it. That’s the way you do things, because that’s the way Joe does things. And he’s smiling most of the time, and you don’t fake a smile for forty-plus years. You just have fun, because the alternative is looking at the clock every 11 minutes and sighing because it’s not time to go home yet.
There’s a line in The Departed where a sting operation goes wrong because one officer installed a camera in the wrong place. When Mark Wahlberg’s character, Staff Sgt. Dignam, asks why it happened, the officer asks indignantly, “Who are you?” Staff Sgt. Dignam says, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”
For more than 40 years, my dad has been the guy who does his job, and has in his own understated way, tried to teach dozens of people how to also be the guy who does his job—including me.