Honest labor

A young boy once interviewed the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow for his school newspaper. “How did you become such a successful attorney?” the boy asked.

“Hard work,” Darrow replied. He nodded a couple of times while the child wrote this down. “I tried it once and hated it, so I became a lawyer instead.”

Me too.  At the end of my first year of law school, I resolved to leave the bosom of my family, where I had a warm bed, a spacious back yard and excellent home-cooked meals so that I could live in a three-room apartment with no furniture and eat Rice-A-Roni™ which I cooked myself. Aside from the obvious attractions of such a move, I had a particular reason to move to my own apartment.

I couldn’t drive.

I had flunked the driver’s test, like, six times at that point, so there was no way for me to get to my law school classes except to have my mother drive me. I was the only student at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law whose mother drove him to class. And picked him up.

And my mother – who didn’t particularly like to drive – wasn’t wild about this arrangement either. So she supported the idea of me finding an apartment close enough to the University for me to walk to classes.

Tim's first job. Read on to learn what happened next.
Tim’s first job. Read on to learn what happened next.

But to do such a thing, I would first have to find a job that earned me some cash money. I realize that on TV first year law students get summer jobs at immense law firms, doing research on obscure cases which ultimately lead to multi-million dollar judgments and settlements. But in Buffalo, which at the time had the highest per capita population of lawyers in the nation outside of Washington (and may still have, for all I know), they had a name for such legal schleppers. They were called “first-year Associates.”

In order to earn rent money, I would have to find a job which took advantage of my skills. So: unskilled labor it was!

In Buffalo, all the unskilled labor jobs were already encumbered, so I agreed to take a job which would permit me to travel the world.

After much deliberation, I chose to accept a position handing out free samples of laundry soap to the American people. I concluded that I had joined the helping profession, as an enabler to clean clothes. Plus, there were instructions even I could follow. I was to ring the doorbell. If someone answered, I was to hand her a plastic bottle of the liquid detergent and say “free sample.” If no one answered after thirty seconds, I was to loop the plastic bag the soap came in around the door handle and yell “free sample.”

It paid minimum wage, which at that point was $2.92 an hour.

The product we were distributing was a new Proctor and Gamble soap called “Era®”. Crew bosses drove the trucks which carried the distributors and their samples. The crew bosses made four dollars an hour, and if you distributed enough soap you could eventually become a crew boss. Alas, this was beyond my reach, as you had to be able to drive to be a crew boss.

It was a good thing for Proctor and Gamble to do, because it allowed for the employment of the least employable segments of the American economy: ex-cons and liberal arts graduates.

I started each morning at nine with a box of twenty-four bottles of Era® strapped to my back.  I’d walk up to a house, reach back, pull out an Era™, say (or shout) “free sample!” and then it was on to the next house. I wore a watch, so that when I had finally emptied my box I could say to myself “I just made a dollar eighty-five!” or whatever, and imagine all that I could buy with my newly-earned money.

We started in Amherst, New York and then moved east, going as far as Batavia. We swung into the Buffalo Southtowns: Hamburg, East Aurora, Eden.

After a few weeks I got my first paycheck. Bummer! I had added up all the dollar eighty-fives and expected to earn $116.80. But it was only ninety-two dollars. Taxes!

Well, I was twenty-three years old. I understood taxes in the abstract. In fact, I could have taken a class in Tax in law school. Instead, I took “Legal Process Among the Bartose” so that I could understand the law in an organic way.  Did pretty well in it, too. But if I had taken Tax I might not have felt the breath whoosh out of my body with my first paycheck.

So, to a certain extent, the work had to be its own reward. In Hamburg, a woman ran up to me and shook my hand. “I think it’s wonderful you’re doing this work,” she said. “It’s really needed.”

I was a little mystified that the cause of clean clothes would have such a passionate advocate, but everyone likes to think their work is important. “Thank you,” I said. Then I improvised a line off of my script. “Have a free sample!” I said, reaching into my box and pulling out an Era laundry soap.

I never saw somebody look so crestfallen.

When I got back to the truck I told my crew boss what happened. He started to laugh. “She saw the truck,” he explained. “She thought we were working for the Equal Rights Amendment.”

The Equal Rights Amendment was an effort back in the seventies to amend the constitution to prohibit discrimination against women. It failed, apparently because too many people were convinced that it would result in unisex bathrooms.

When we worked in Eden, a lovely rural community on the southern lip of Erie County, we were given more time to unload our Era™ bottles. I remember tromping up to one house, ringing the bell, waiting the requisite thirty seconds, then hooking the bag with the bottle in it over the door handle and yelling “free sample!”

“I’m around the back,” a woman’s voice answered.

So I took my laundry soap and went around to the back. I saw a lady about five years older than me. She was lying on her stomach on a raft in the swimming pool.

And she had forgotten to put the top half of her bikini on! Should I say something? From the look of the even tan on her back, she had forgotten many times in the past as well.

“Free sample,” I croaked.

“Thanks,” she giggled. “Put it on the picnic table.”

“Very good, madam,” I said, regaining control of myself. “Do you require anything else?” Somehow I had turned into a butler.

“No thanks,” she said. “Have a nice day.”

“Have an excellent day yourself, madam,” I replied as I left.

I had many other mystifying adventures that summer. Eventually we ended up in Chicago, where I would come to spend more time later in my life.  With my minimum-wage salary I managed to snag a studio apartment on the North side.

I know the word “studio” connotes glamour and celebrity. These connotations were not applicable here.  It was nice of the cockroaches to let me share their room with them, though.

My interview with the landlady was very short. “Are you sober?” she asked.

“Well, right now I am,” I said.

“Good enough.” I paid in advance.

We did the suburbs first, and then the City. I remember finishing a neighborhood in Oak Park and waiting for my crew boss to pick me up. I sat on the curb, bathed in sweat. My stringy hair was plastered to my scalp. I hadn’t shaved that morning, or, to be honest, the morning before.

All of a sudden a car drove up with the legend “Notre Dame Class of 1974” on the back windshield. My alma mater! The newly-minted graduate stepped out. “Hi!” I said. “You go to Notre Dame?”

“Yeah,” he said, very cautiously.

“Me too!” I said. “Class of 1973!”

A look of horror possessed him, and without saying anything he ran into the house.

We started working in the City in the second week of July. Within a week, I began to notice something odd. Many residential buildings in Chicago are comprised of three horizontal flats piled on top of each other. These flats all had back porches and you could climb stairs from one to the next. This was the best way to deliver laundry soap to these buildings, and the method I employed.

But what I discovered is that as the summer rolled on, more and more people were watching television all day.  In mid-July it might be one or two people but as July rolled into August I found people transfixed in front of their sets. “Free sample,” I’d say, but nobody would pay attention.

In working-class Chicago, work ground to a halt. I, too, slowed down, listening to the broadcasts through the windows, open in the sweltering Chicago summer. So did my fellow deliverers of soap. It was too important not to.

watergateMagruder. Dean. Erlichman. Haldeman.  And finally: Richard Nixon. “My mother was a saint.”

It was all over by the time I got back to law school. Watergate had been wonderful for law students. It was as though there was a special summer law semester, starring our nation’s leaders. Particularly in the area of Executive Privilege, new law had been forged, and it gave us in the legal profession, whether well-established or in utero, yet another reason for self-importance.

But Watergate hadn’t been staged for our benefit. The messy, painful, and ultimately unstoppable accounting to which we held our leaders was done for the deliverers of free laundry soap, and for those like them, who sweated all day long on the north side of Chicago, and places like that.

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