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The Working Life

by on March 27, 2014 6:50 AM

So far, the columns I've written for this StateCollege.com have concerned work. I'm not sure this is a coincidence. I've become preoccupied, let's say, about what occupies us. What we've chosen to make our work and why? What bothers us about our work? What do we find in it that gives us satisfaction or even joy?

I've had about 100 jobs in my working life — lost count actually but consider the five W-2s and one 1099-Misc from this year's tax return an indication of my employment stability — so I feel uniquely qualified as a sort of amateur work researcher.

Over time, I hope to use this column to talk to people about their jobs here in Happy Valley, which, as a relative newcomer, strikes me as a great and different (in a good way) place to live and work. And I've lived in almost as many places as I've had jobs, which makes me uniquely qualified to say this.

It's a great place to live because of the abundant places to fish, bike and hike, my favorite activities, and because of the lovely spring, summer and autumn weather. Winters, you'll note have been omitted, but I've lived in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast — aka "The Redneck Riviera" — and their torturous heat and soupy humidity induce a summer cabin fever in me similar to the winter condition here.

It's a different place to live because of the town and gown aspect. I've never lived in a university town as a resident. My undergraduate school, Loyola New Orleans, found its importance to the community overshadowed by myriad things, including Tulane, its neighbor, one block away.

My graduate school, University of Southern Mississippi, though larger than Loyola, was nowhere as big as Penn State and had little of the intense alumni loyalty found here. USM's football program, which counts Brett Favre as an alumnus, has been ranked several times and usually fields a good team, including the time I spent there, when Coach Jeff Bower was assembling 14-straight winning seasons. But I could walk to the stadium on game day and get in free with my student ID. There is minimal tailgating and the team has always had trouble filling the stadium. Imagine that here.

But back to town and gown aspect. I didn't feel it at USM or New Orleans, but, boy, I feel it here. Now, working as a hotel clerk, I belong to the town side and am part of the service industry that keeps the Penn State machine oiled and running smoothly. Most of the people I work with live in Philipsburg, Port Matilda or Bellefonte. One of the women who works the desk at my hotel drives in from Clearfield. It's just too expensive or difficult to rent in State College. They don't eat at Zola's or go to the State Theater. They love Penn State football but they don't tailgate.

My types of employment fall mainly in two categories: journalism and hotel work, specifically night auditor. I've always wanted write but I never remember thinking, as a child, "Hey, I want to grow up to be a hotel night auditor!"

But I also feel that jobs find us. Third-shift hotel work has panned out very well over the years. It paid my way through college and grad school and has always supplied a steady income when I've been a freelance writer. It was a hotel job that made it possible when I wanted to move to State College four years ago.

Also, it suits me. There's plenty of downtime and I can read, do research for articles or even write, which I'm doing right now at work. (But that's just between you and me). I had no idea that working in the middle of the night would be what I liked. I'd done it only once, right out of high school, at a factory that manufactured rubber products -- one of two jobs I've been fired from in my lifetime.

In retrospect, that was a blessing. Although it was one of those "well-paying manufacturing jobs" politicians are always telling us we need, the factory floor held a series of mills, huge rolling stainless-steel cylinders mounted in pairs into which we poured the chemicals and substances needed to produce electrical plugs and lacrosse balls. Should you slip — the floor was slippery and usually home to dozens of errant lacrosse balls — the "safety brake," a quarter-inch steel wire strung crookedly, as if by afterthought, was your salvation. A blessing because most of old-timers there were missing a digit or limped noticeably. My foreman carried a pint of vodka in his rear pants pocket and didn't bother to hide it.

I didn't even know what a night auditor was when answering an ad for The Cornstalk Hotel in New Orleans. My classes at Loyola were scattered all over the place. I had a Pell Grant — remember them? — a modest student loan but didn't want to graduate with crushing debts. So I found this hotel job. And, I'm repeating myself here -- sometimes jobs find us. The Cornstalk, a French Quarter tourist attraction was named after the wrought-iron fence with a cornfield design, its cornstalks painted green and ears of corn painted yellow. The original 1860s owner found a wife in Iowa, so the story goes, who pined for her state's lush cornfields and constructed this fence for her on Royal Street.

It's where I began work as a hotel clerk, a step that defined my life. I think many of us find our working life sort of by design masked by accident or blind luck.

I feel lucky heading down Benner Pike after work early in the morning. A stream of cars is heading the other way, and I can see the drivers' scowling faces and count myself blessed. My day is through and the sun is shining.

So tell me about your work. What do you like or even love about it? What do you hate? What bothers you about your customers? Why do you cherish them and can't wait for them to return? What gives you satisfaction? What brings joy? Drop me a line and let me know.

John Fulmer can be reached at hummingbirdlps@gmail.com.

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Fulmer has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications including The Hudson Review and Connecticut Review.
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