The Northeast is getting whacked by a blizzard, bringing back memories of one of my favorite gigs when I lived in Boston in the late 1970s. Following is an excerpt from the Public Policy Hooligan chapter on “Playing Left Field in Boston.” That chapter begins, “My 1977 move to Boston was akin to the Beverly Hillbillies going to California, except that I didn’t arrive with $80 million in the bank.” I used quotes from Thoreau and Emerson in that chapter as foils for my reaction to Beantown. The following sections are from halfway through the chapter.
In early February , Boston got trounced by 30 inches of snow. The storm killed a hundred people and injured almost 5,000 throughout New England. All private cars were banned from the roads, riots erupted in Roxbury, and the National Guard was called out to keep order throughout the city.
I heard the Harvard Business School was paying $4 an hour for snow shovelers, so I propelled through the snow drifts and past endless buried cars and reported for duty.
I was running slightly behind on the rent and was literally down to my last dollar the previous weekend. Things had gotten so tight that I had even stopped buying beer. I welcomed the chance to shovel my way to solvency. I worked 43 hours over the next 2 days.
It did not require a landscaping degree to figure out which sidewalks to clear or where to heave the snow. This was before snow blowers were common, so the work was relatively serene. The students semi-hibernated, but those that did come out were civil.
My co-workers included two middle-aged guys on the permanent grounds crew staff. They were either immigrants or first-generation Irish Americans, and their brogue was charming yet clear. They exuded a contentment which seemed as scarce as January sunshine in Boston.
Thoreau declared in 1856: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which snowflakes are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.” After the first 30 hours of shoveling, the poetic allusions wore thin.
The purpose of a job was to buy time to write. A bad job barely paid the cost of living while working. A good job left a swath of free time in its wake. I also rated jobs according to their mental fallow potential. Snow shoveling was great work because it paid well and required almost zero thought. Best of all, I could gild my resume by adding a boast about my “path-breaking work at the Harvard Business School.”
Thoreau wrote in Walden: “What is a country without rabbits and partridges?”
I have my dignity. I never worked as a partridge. But I did serve time as a Killer Rabbit.
Technically, it wasn’t a “Killer Rabbit” – but merely a prop in a Beatrix Potter promotion at a Filene’s department store. The rabbit suit was as comfortable as wearing a half dozen winter coats encased in an old-fashioned diving bell.
I suspected the artist who crafted the rabbit’s face was disgruntled. Or maybe he missed his meds that week. Instead of a loveable, carefree bunny, this Peter Rabbit looked like he should be swinging a chainsaw in a “Friday the 13th” movie. I was the Cottontail from Hell.
As I was lumbering around the store, one woman came around the corner, saw my bulging, bloodshot eyes and my canine grimace, and began screaming as if she expected to be torn from limb to limb.
Filene’s assumed the Beatrix Potter event would bring out droves of parents and kids. Didn’t happen. So the store was stuck with a giant rabbit and a photographer, and no gaggle of kids. A quick-thinking manager decreed that sales girls could have free “souvenir photos.” (Perks were pitifully few on that job.) I never had so many women clambering on my lap before or since. But the outfit was thick enough that it remained platonic, at least for me.
My Beatrix Potter debut occurred a year before rabbits entered the Pantheon of American Politics. President Carter was fishing in Georgia when a rabbit bee-lined for his rowboat – “hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared and making straight for the president,” according to Wikipedia. The rabbit fled after Carter thumped it with an oar. But Republicans seized upon the incident to portray Carter as a feckless leader and did their best to portray that rabbit as Carter’s running mate in the 1980 election.
Thoreau decreed: “A man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.” I took a less dogmatic view on the value of innocence.
So I applied for work carrying a sandwich board in downtown Boston. I liked the idea of getting paid to immerse, Three Stooges-style, in a moving circus of humanity. I showed up at the temp service to get my walking papers after seeing their classified ad.
Alas: the job was filled.
“Do you have any other skills?” The matronly office manager asked.
I shrugged and began edging towards the door.
“Do you know how to type?” She prodded.
I crinkled my nose and admitted as much.
“Would you take a typing test for us?”
I reluctantly acquiesced.
She almost fell out of her chair after she heard how fast I typed and saw the accuracy. A mini-star was born… or at least a cash cow for the temp agency. I became their fastest and scruffiest typist.
The office manager was confounded that I preferred carrying a sandwich board, which paid less. But working as a typist dulled my brain like no other job. Besides, if I was going to be typing, I’d prefer to plink the alphabet under my own flag instead of being farmed out by a temp agency for half the pay. But I couldn’t run a typing biz in a neighborhood where customers feared getting shot when dropping off papers.
I toiled one day at public television station WGBH, but they refused to list me in production credits for any of their award-winning series. (Nor was I permitted to scarf up leftovers from Julia Child’s “The French Chef.”) I had a few assignments near the new Government Center monstrosity in downtown Boston – an excellent venue for counting dead souls.
I was renditioned one Friday to an architecture firm in Cambridge. Their “end of the week” office party occurred that afternoon, but, as a lowly temp, I was banned from the festivities. However, some benevolent staffers tossed me free beers as they passed by. I lined up the empty Budweiser bottles beside my IBM Selectric.
My supervisor – a peevish woman whose coarse brown hair was bundled far too tightly on the back of her head – – was furious and lusted to fire me. But I kept finishing tasks faster than she expected, and she could find no errors in my work. It wasn’t like I was throwing the empty bottles out the window onto Massachusetts Avenue. I began to suspect she was prejudiced against beer. Or maybe she was one of those prohibitionists who believed that typing and drinking never mixed.
I worked one day at the Boston freight yards unloading a rail car of Idaho potatoes. Heaving 50 pound boxes was a pleasant contrast to flogging the hot air out of my prose. The guys at the freight yard seemed wired completely differently than other Bostonians. They didn’t offer any ideas on saving the world, but they always delivered top quality spuds to Boston restaurants. I lacked reliable 6 a.m. transportation to the freight yards, so I could not make this a regular job.
I also worked as a campus representative for the American Institute for Foreign Study, which ran summer studies programs in Europe. I biked to a dozen campuses, attaching tear-off-coupon mini-posters to bulletin boards, from Boston College in the western suburbs to Simmons, Northeastern, and other colleges nearer the heart of the city. I also blanketed the Boston Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music, and the New England Conservatory of Music, but those forays did nothing to curb my disdain for opera. This assignment provided more exercise than profit, and the proceeds were not collected until long after riding far and wide.
I rode my bike all winter, except when the roads were unplowed or the ice was thicker than my tires. Even with multiple layers of long underwear, those north winds bit deeper than anything I’d felt in the mountains of Virginia. When the sun made cameo appearances, it was lackluster because of the northern latitude. No wonder Currier and Ives never produced “Boston in April” engravings commemorating piles of brown snow.