I got my first job when I was 15. Before that, I baby-sat, did piece work for a leather company that didn't care how old you were, and worked at a dusty day camp.
The Pewter Pot Muffin Shop in Salem, Mass., was a major step up: 99 cents an hour plus tips could add up to three or four dollars an hour, far more than my sister made scooping ice cream at Friendly's. And our uniforms were better: Short black skirts, white shirts and lace-up red vests beat beige one-pieces and hairnets any day.
By the time I went to college, my sister had joined me at the Pewter Pot. Over the next few years, she and I worked at Pewter Pots all over the Boston area. When I was old enough, I switched from serving coffee to serving drinks, and ended up working my way through law school as the bartender and night manager of Mahoney's in Somerville, Mass.
I have never been unemployed in my life. Not even for a day. I've never even taken more than two weeks off. In the past, when people would complain that it was impossible to find a job, I would just roll my eyes. It was never impossible for me to find a job.
I'm not saying they were all great jobs. No, indeed. When I came home from the Pewter Pot at the end of my first eight-hour shift, having spent every minute of those eight hours on my feet, my father told me something that I have repeated many times since: There's a reason they call it "work."
Work, most of the time, is work — not fun. My worst job was counting candy, cupcakes, and cigarettes for a vending company. I lived in a basement apartment, and our office was in the basement of Sears. I had to be at work at 7 in the morning, made less than everyone else, and, to add insult to injury, had to keep track of every cupcake I ate so I could adjust the count accordingly.
The point is, I have always had a job, usually more than one, and had no sympathy for those who couldn't find one.
I have never seen or lived through anything quite like this. There are no jobs for lawyers or laborers, for painters or waitresses, for secretaries or salespeople. There are literally no jobs to be had.
The kids came home from college this summer, good kids who work every summer and count on it to pay their bills during the year. There were no jobs to be had. No barista jobs. No salesgirl jobs.
My nephew's girlfriend is a hardworking young woman who has never been unemployed a day in her life. She waitresses and is really good at it — experienced, knowledgeable, flexible, smart, reliable. But she's new to town, hoping to go to community college in the fall, so she goes out every day with resumes and smiles — and no one is hiring. It's not that they are hiring someone else. They just aren't hiring.
I am usually the fount of advice for my friends and my friends' friends about getting a job. Do this, do that, don't be so picky, go here, get on the bus, be flexible, send more resumes, call, network. . . . I always have ideas.
I have no ideas.
Don't get me wrong. There are other problems. But if you don't have a job, it's hard to worry about them — or to do anything other than just worry. Good jobs at good wages are the building blocks for everything else, and right now, we don't have enough of them. I'm not sure folks in Washington quite grasp that. But if they don't, they're likely to find out the next time ballots get handed around.