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Paul Batura: Labor Day — A time to remember the good jobs and the ones where I risked my life

Labor Day’s founding is rooted in the belief that honest work is noble, deserving of recognition and worthy of a special day off. Dating back to the rise of the Industrial Revolution, a period punctuated by long hours and often unsafe conditions, the idea of a “workman’s holiday” was warmly welcomed by those on the front lines.

While employment standards and practices have shifted dramatically since the holiday’s inception in 1894, Americans remain committed and ambitious, often logging weeks of far more than 40 hours.

I’m in my 22nd year at my current organization, but my midlife steadiness and longevity belies the many jobs I held prior to college graduation. I didn’t enjoy all of those roles as much as I love my current one, and I think that’s pretty normal. In fact, bad jobs often help drive us to better ones.


Some of the more challenging jobs in my past were because of bad bosses or downright tough assignments. For example, can you imagine having to try and sell laundry detergent to a person whose new refrigerator from your company just flooded their kitchen?

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While in graduate school, I worked at a Sears call center in Provo, Utah, making appointments for people whose appliances were on the fritz. At the end of every call we were instructed to try and sell the company’s unique brand of detergent. I wasn’t surprised when people yelled at me. Heck, I felt like yelling at Sears corporate for making us even ask!


Incidentally, one of the interesting things I learned from that job was that if you’re on a tight budget, don’t buy cheap powdered laundry detergent. Instead, buy the cheap liquid kind. The low priced powdered brands often contain fillers like sand and even small pebbles that will beat up your clothes.

The shortest tenured job I ever held was selling chimney cleaning services over the telephone. I actually didn’t sell anything because I lasted only five minutes. After a brief interview, the boss sat me down in a room full of fellow telemarketers, handed me a script, along with a list of phone numbers, and walked out. I soon realized that all 10 people were smoking and a haze filled the fluorescently lit room. I told the boss I had to move my car and never came back.

I enjoyed doing maintenance at our church in high school until my boss tied a rope around my waist and asked me to sit on the peak of an extremely high, sloped roof. He was planning to attach covers to the vents down on the edge and needed me to “spot” him as he balanced himself. “If I fall forward, you fall back,” he said. I was scared stiff. I could see the entire town and could also see myself rolling off the roof, dying for just $6 an hour. Phil took pity on me and abandoned the project.

I’m grateful for all the jobs I’ve had, the good and the bad, and especially all my bosses, many of whom had great patience to put up with me.

But if I’m honest with myself, many of my working experiences were made memorable because of my own incompetence and even bad judgment.

In that same role as a maintenance worker, I was tasked with telling a homeless man he couldn’t sleep in a storage room in the lower church. I thought I would be funny and write an official eviction notice, adding something about it being by “papal decree.” A week later the guy tried to burn the church down, was caught and told police he felt abandoned by God.

Fortunately, I learned at a young age there’s nothing funny about the plight of the homeless.

I made plenty of other errors, though. Through my job at WOR Radio in college, Arthur Schwartz, at the time a host of a food show and restaurant critic at the Daily News, hired me to help answer his fan mail. One day, I mistakenly mailed out his original and only copy of Irish Soda Bread recipes. He was so mad he stormed out of the office.

Working at Paul’s Deli, I sliced my finger and, in pain and in a panic, wrapped up the roast beef I was cutting in the bloodied paper. My boss grabbed it before the customer could get it.

I loved umpiring Little League and youth baseball – until one of the parents, upset that I had thrown their son out of the game for hurling his bat into the backstop – chased me to my car.

There were plenty of fun jobs, though. In college, thinking about law school, I worked for a semester for our local district attorney. He had me write up orders of protection. His name was Joe Miranda and he used to joke that with him, every suspect was guaranteed his “Miranda” rights.

I loved my job selling men’s suits and shoes at Lord & Taylor, but still laugh thinking of the night I chased after a guy who left his toupee on a hook in the changing room.

Although the world seems to suggest that true happiness is the absence of work, I think the happiest people are engaged in meaningful labor that contributes in some form or fashion to the greater good.


“Work is as much a basic human need,” wrote Timothy Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, “as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer and sexuality. It’s not simply medicine but food for the soul.”

I’m grateful for all the jobs I’ve had, the good and the bad, and especially all my bosses, many of whom had great patience to put up with me. Maybe someday I will be half the boss to others as they have been to me.



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