Chapter 21: The Mad Men of Danville

I’ve recently had a revelation.  The concept of ‘”summer jobs” is really a passe concept.

Nowadays it seems kids spend the summers going to “camps” to increase their skills and marketability for College as opposed to earning cash for college like my generation did.

I think this is a contributing factor to the break down in societal cohesiveness and the understanding of Class Structure in America.

I know it was a different time and place, but I think I got almost as much education in Life 101 from my summer jobs as I got from College.  For one thing, the jobs we had back in “the day” generally required us to interact with people from- how does one say this politel? Other classes?

My Father had a very strong work ethic.  He believed you worked yourself to death, like he did at age 55.  He was from the traditional school of thought that men worked and made money.  Period.

I delivered papers from the time I was about 10 until I went away to College.  In addition, as soon as I turned 16, I had Summer Jobs.  I’m not talking internships.  I worked in the Warehouse of my Father’s Company or at Dan River Mills.

My Father was the top Sales Rep for a wholesale hardware company.  His “territory” covered several states and ranged from local hardware stores to Belks and other department stores.  They had cornered the central distribution of hardware and housewares for the Southeast.  Every time someone sold a plow point, a screw, a piece of Silver, a Rubbermaid Dish Drainer or a Corningware teapot in those three States, Daddy got commission.

And Daddy did well.  I figured this out once.  Adjusted for inflation, even with my fancy College degree, I don’t make that much more money than my Father did.  But then, I don’t have to support 3 other people on my salary.  And we also have Steve’s salary.  There are some benefits to being a Gay Couple.

My Father and his friends were very much like the guys on “Mad Men” on a smaller scale.  They were hustlers on the make.  It was all about sales and making the client feel special.  They also drank a lot, smoked a lot and did not come home when expected.  Many a night their wives drove by Earl’s Bar and Grill to see if their cars were there- and were almost happy if they were.

These guys got “free samples” of every toy, houseware item  or new appliance to try out so they could “know” them and “sell” them.  My Mother’s storage room is a 1960’s-1970’s  goldmine.

There were conventions in Miami and other places where the wives went to support their husband’s careers.  My Mother never recovered from the convention at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach in the mid-1960’s.  She claims to be the first woman to wear a pant suit to a social affair there.  That’s where she was mistaken for Jackie Kennedy by some senile woman in a store.  She still has her wardrobe from that trip hanging in one of the closets at Lansbury Drive like a trophy.

She also tells the story that my Father’s then boss entered the lobby and everyone rose and rushed to him to suck up to him.  She remained seated until he came to her.  She said it was because he recognized quality.  A Lady never rises for a Gentleman.  It is not done, therefore, he thought she was a Great Lady.

It’s also one of the family secrets that my Mother went to see this same boss once because some woman called our house.  She put on her best copy of a Chanel suit, her pillbox hat and her white gloves and went to see this guy.  Somehow, that part of my Father’s “territory”, that required overnight stays,  was assigned to someone else after that…

My Father’s boss, who owned the company,  put a bullet in his head a few weeks later and they all had to find new jobs, but I like to think that had nothing to do with meeting with my Mother.

After the suicide, the New Company bought out the Old Company and hired all the top Salesmen and life went on.

The New Company absorbed all the assets and territories of my Father’s old company.  Except for the one my Mother cut out…

The man who owned the New Company was a Classic Southern Gentleman and my Mother quickly ingratiated herself with him as the favorite Corporate wife.  She had him and his wife wrapped around her little finger until they died.

When I was in High School, the moment I turned 16, I spent my summers working there.  I still had my paper route.  I would get up at 5:30, deliver papers, have breakfast and be at the Warehouse by 8:00.  I would finish at the warehouse at 4:30, then go home and deliver the evening papers.  Then play until midnight and start all over again.  I’m tired just typing this…

Warehouse really should be plural.  It was several interconnected warehouses, with no air conditioning.  It covered several acres of land.  Some parts were decades old. Those warehouses had everything from screws to plow points to sterling silver place settings to Rubbermaid dish drainers.

And they had “special” jobs for the sons of their Sales Reps.

My job was to get the orders and work with the workers to stack the merchandise on pallets for men to come pick up on forklifts and take to the loading dock to go on Tractor Trailers.

I’ll never forget my first day there.  Before I went to work there, Daddy gave me a lecture.  In summation, it was that I was going to meet a lot of low rent trash in the Warehouses and to remember who I was and that I was not one of them.  I was not to get too close to them or think of them as equals.

When I got to the Company for my first day of work, his Boss called me into his office and gave me the same lecture.  His point was that I was working there to earn some money and see the results of being “sorry white trash” if you didn’t play by the rules.  He was clear that I was there to work and not to be part of the lives of the people I worked with.  This was to be both an educational and a cautionary experience.

I was assigned to Housewares.  Corningware, Silver, China, Rubbermaid, etc.  The first person I met was my “supervisor”.  She was about 6 years older than me.  Kind of a Sandy Duncan/Peter Pan character.  The first thing she said to me was:  “Hi, I’m Robbie.  My husband is an XXXXX, you know, one of the leading families of Pittsylvania County.  We really are FFV and I’m just here for a while.  I’m not like the rest of this common trash.  I thought we would work together since we will have more in common.”

Only in Virginia would a warehouse worker give her “bonifides” up front.  She never did explain how she was in the Warehouse and not at a Junior League meeting and I didn’t ask.  Sometimes, it’s best to just roll with things….

I loved the people I met there.  It horrified my Father, my Mother and his Boss.  They accused me of being too close to “the help.”  A cardinal sin in Virginia.  But somehow, I never had that filter…

These were good people.  A little rough around the edges, a little tacky in their dress, a little weak and rough in their vocabulary, a little hard…but good people.  Not unlike my Mother’s family in the Mill Village that she tried to put some distance to…They made me understand that Country Music is not fictional…

I liked them.  I had fun getting to know them.  And I learned a lot about life….

I also met my first Gay Person there.  I’ll call him Ronnie.  He worked loading the pallets of goods onto the trucks and rode the forklift through the acres of warehouses with a very straight guy who was his best friend.  You did not say anything bad about Ronnie in front of this friend or it would not be pretty.  You did not mess with the friend or with Ronnie because of the friend.

In 1975 terms, Ronnie was one hot daddy bear.  Big, laughing, twinkling brown eyes, a mustache and a body built from hard work lifting and hauling.  I was fascinated.  He was also one of the sweetest men I ever met.  Not a malicious bone in his body.

The girls in “housewares” where I worked had quite the debate over whether he, and I later found out I, were gay.

Ronnie invited them all to a party one night at his “friends” house over a florist shop.  I was not invited as I was jail bait.  The girls came back and spent a week or two discussing if the fact that Ronnie wore silk lounging pajamas to the party over the florist shop might be a sign he was gay.  They finally decided, no, as he was just not effeminate.  Couldn’t be…

Ronnie eventually moved on to being a sales clerk at Belks and I lost track of him after that…

At the end of my second summer, the Girls informed me they had decided I wasn’t Gay, either,  just a Gentleman– and they said they just weren’t used to Gentlemen which was why they initially questioned if I, too, might be Gay.  They firmly believed nice, normal people they knew could not be Gay.  It was 1975…

That Warehouse could get to be 120 degrees in the Summer.  No air conditioning.  Even wearing an old Izod/Lacoste shirt and old khaki’s and topsiders, you were sweltering.

We found a basement area with a spring under one of the old parts of the building where it was cool and relaxing.  We– me, the girls from Housewares and Ronnie and the Truck Loaders/Forklift drives would all meet there for our 3:00 breaks.  It was our one respite during the course of 8-10 hour days working for minimum wage.

My Father’s Boss caught us there one day and it was not pretty.  He railed at them like an Old Testament Prophet.  “Ungrateful slackers.  Ought to fire all of you.  I’ll dock your pay…”

Then he turned on me in front of all of them, for his worst bit of venom.

He said, again, in front of them: “You are the son of my best Sales Rep.  I expected more from you than to by slacking off sitting here with a bunch of common trash in the basement of my warehouse.  I know your Mother and she would be shocked to see you sitting here with these people.  They are not your kind.  Do you want to end up like them?  Explain yourself, young man!”

I did.

I said:  “These are my Friends. We aren’t doing anything wrong.  Legally, we get a break in the afternoon. Whatever you do to them, you can do to me and we’ll take it from there.”

He walked away…

I finished the summer, but was not invited back to the Warehouse.

Mother and Father were not happy.  The next summer, I worked at Dan River Mills for my summer job.

That’s another blog…

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2 Responses to Chapter 21: The Mad Men of Danville

  1. Pingback: Chapter 21: Summer Jobs and The Mad Men of Danville | My Southern Gothic Life « Lost in the 21st Century

  2. gail says:

    I never knew that you worked. And I certainly didn’t consider the paper route work. HA! How much was minimum wage then? I remember I had a job in 1985 that paid minimum wage plus 3% commission. I think I made $3.15 an hour and my commission wasn’t worth talking about.

    My parents made me work in the warehouse. I hated it then, but I now I have great appreciation for the experience because I know what the family business was all about. I don’t think it did a thing to increase my work ethic or my appreciation for money. I think that those things are inbred long before one has their first job. My father worked very hard to provide for his family and he did it well. It was just what men did in those days.

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