From a pampered household in Hyderabad to a summer job in a screw-manufacturing company, shares MUSTAFA SIDDIQUI
The year was 1973 and I was a teenaged desi from a fairly well-to-o family of Hyderabad who had come to the US, leaving behind a pampered life of servants, social status, a loving and caring family, and never having to worry about money, never having to get up to get a glass of water, or to serve food, or walk a few blocks to get something. We had servants to clean the house, a cook and her assistant to do the cooking and washing of dishes, servants to get groceries, a driver to take us around, and when we were younger, an ayah (personal nanny) to take care of us. Yet, we still complained. I came to America in January 1973 and started 12th grade in high school. I stayed with my uncle and his family and continued with some of the luxuries from back home minus the servants, drivers, or maids. I had to start doing my own dishes and my own laundry, yet still had the luxury of my aunt doing the cooking for her family and me.
Summer in the US means school holidays. This is during the months of June, July, and August. Just before school ended, one of my teachers asked the students in my class what they would be doing during summer break. Most answered that they planned to work.
“Work?” That four-lettered word was not yet in my dictionary! All of a sudden, a whole new vocabulary/concept hit my 17-year-old brain. Me, work! Where? How? Why?
America, in the 1970s, was still very conservative, with very strong middle-class work ethics. Hard work was very much appreciated and expected by almost everyone. Not having a job was considered a blemish on your personality and a sign of laziness or disability.
At that time, I was living in the Franklin Park suburb near the O’Hare airport in Chicago. This was mostly a “blue collar” area with a lot of restaurants, hotels, and factories. Since I did not have a car or know how to drive, my uncle gave me his old bicycle. This was my mode of transport. At first, I bicycled around my neighbourhood, and stopped at many restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores, asking if they had any
jobs for me. I was offered a job at a fast food restaurant, cleaning tables and helping in the kitchen for $1.50 per hour. The manager of the restaurant, a 60-plus-year-old man, pointed to himself and said, “Son, look at me, someday you could have my job!”
No, thanks! I had higher goals and ambitions. I didn’t want to be him after 40+ years of cleaning tables!
After going around various businesses, and looking for jobs with some menial offers, I gave up and went home disappointed. My uncle asked how my job hunting had gone. I told him about my disappointment. My uncle, having lived in America for 10+ years, sat me down and explained how it was not normal for a teenager, with no work experience nor higher education, to expect higher-level jobs. He added, “In America, no job should be considered below your dignity. In fact, a job is better than no job.” He told me how he and his friends had struggled to get to where they were.
The next day, I expanded my job hunting radius. I was nearly two miles away from where I lived when I saw a sign on a building saying they were hiring people for $3.75 an hour plus overtime. I parked my bicycle and went inside to enquire. They made me fill out a job application asking for my name, address, phone number, driving licence number (none in my case), prior work experience (none, first job), educational
background (still in high school), previous employer references (none, first job), personal references (my uncle). The front desk clerk told me to wait, took the application inside, and after 10 minutes came back with a scruffy-looking African American older man who asked me to come
inside for an interview. After a few minutes of looking over my sparse-looking application, he said it was my lucky day and he was going to hire me!
I was overjoyed, dreaming of big bucks flowing in. Maybe I will have to work in the office, do some filing, maybe answer telephone calls, sell company products. My daydreaming came to a screeching halt when he took me to the factory floor where they manufactured screws! My job, he explained, would be to put threads on screws. It was a screw machine factory.
Since I didn’t have any experience, I would be paid $2.75 per hour for 40 hours per week with up to 10 hours of overtime (paying time and a half for every hour in excess of 40 hours per week—$4.15 per hour). This meant I would earn 40 hours x $2.75 = $110 per week plus 10 hours x $4.15 = $41.50 totalling $151.50 per week. This amount was surely a lot better than what I would make cleaning tables at a restaurant! I accepted.
STARTING MY JOB
The next morning, I reported to work at 7 am, to work until 5 pm. I worked nine hours with a one-hour unpaid lunch break, Monday to Friday, and five hours every Saturday. This was a small screw manufacturing company with 20+ machines, each with its own operator, like me, given boxes and boxes of unthreaded screws that we had to feed the machine, one screw at a time, for 8+ hours a day. The machines spewed oil on the screws where they were to be threaded, spilling over your hands, spraying on your clothes and on the ground.
I was trained to insert the screw with the right hand, and with the left hand turn on the lathe to cut the screw. One day, my left hand hurt so I was slack, inserting the screw with my right hand and turning on the lathe with my right hand as well. My floor supervisor saw me doing that, watched me for a while, then came over and said, “Son, God gave you two hands, use both of them.”
When the floors got wet with spraying oil, we were supposed to sprinkle sand so that people would not slip. People walked on the sanded floors, forklifts also ran over the sand. After several days, the sand would cover the floor and get caked. The supervisor would ask us to scrape the sand off the floor.
During our work breaks, we would rush to the toilets. After a few days, the toilets looked and smelled pretty bad. One day, while I was in the toilet, a gentleman walked in, looked around, and asked me to clean the toilets and mop the floor. I was taken aback! Me, wash the toilets and mop the awful floor! I guess he noticed my hesitance. He opened a closet in the bathroom, pulled out a mop and a toilet brush, got some cleaning supplies out, and started to do the cleaning himself for a few minutes. He then extended the mop to me and said that he was the owner of the factory and if he could do the work himself, he expected his employees to do it too.
One day, I accidentally stuck my finger into the machine instead of the screw. The pain was acute. The supervisor came over and sent me to the hospital. After 13 stitches on my finger, I returned to work. For two days, they let me work in the office. On the third day, with a bandaged finger, wearing a glove on my hand, they made me go back to my machine. No mercy for an injured hand!
I worked there the entire summer. Each Friday was payday! I had extra money, my own, to buy anything I wanted! At the end of the summer, I had saved enough money to ditch my bicycle and buy my own car. A used car, but it was with my own money, my first car.
The author is a real estate investor, technology and banking consultant, who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the US.