A good work ethic is a rare trait today, often misidentified as a severe case of brown-nosing. However, the two are quite different. A person with a good work ethic is the girl or guy who puts in one hundred percent every day, regardless of who is watching. A brown noser puts in one hundred percent only when the boss is looking.
I like to think I have a decent work ethic, for example, as I write this story I have had the flu for three days and have been suffering fever-induced hallucinations for the past twelve hours and I am still managing my day job. Although I did not come by my work ethic naturally, rather it was forced upon me at the ripe old age of fourteen by a crotchety grocery store owner I refer to as “old man Luke”, although not in his presence or anywhere within the state of Oklahoma for fear he might hear me.
As a country kid I drove the tractor before I could reach all the pedals and the pickup truck before I could see over the dashboard. I jumped at every opportunity to drive something, anything, it didn’t matter what it was. Indeed, I developed an affinity for automobility at an early age. For my first official car, I had my eye on a 1970 Mustang Fastback which was currently being held hostage in a junkyard. I daydreamed about speeding down the street in my bright red Mustang, the radio blaring while people gawked with jealousy. The only thing missing from this daydream was money. The Mustang was in desperate need of, well just about everything. The only thing that could be salvaged was the dashboard, everything else needed to be fixed or replaced. Not to mention the guy at the junkyard wanted five hundred bucks just to buy her freedom.
One of my grandfather’s friends owned a grocery store, and he got me a job bagging groceries after school so I could earn money for my car. Old man Luke was a meticulous, micro-managing monster who ran his grocery store with the finality of a mob boss. He had a particular way to bag groceries. He had a specific way to mop the floors, and cleaning the toilets was an exact science from which there was no acceptable level of deviation. He sat in the customer service stand and directed the employees like a malevolent orchestra conductor, “You there, sweep the floor! Put the carts over there, do it now. Cavner, cans on the bottom, BREAD on the top!”
After a painful week learning the ropes I received my first paycheck. The old man handed it down from his service counter with authority. I grabbed the envelope and anxiously peeled the top open. Forty-seven dollars and twelve cents. It was going to take years to buy that Mustang. “Next week, I am going to teach you how to clean the toilets,” he smiled. I inquired if the added responsibility would come with a raise to which he responded, “Certainly not, you learn to clean a toilet properly and you will barely be worth what I am paying you now.”
Public toilet cleaning, as it turns out, is a task second in difficulty only to getting the space shuttle ready for launch. You have to put up the wet floor sign, lock the door, use the blue stuff for this and the green stuff for that. There are all sorts of legal governance you must adhere to in order to circumnavigate culpable liability. You must wait until all the surfaces have dried, then and only then could you have old man Luke inspect your work. His inspection consisted of him taking a newspaper into the bathroom for thirty minutes, after which he returned and yelled, “Do it all over again and make sure to use the air freshener cause it stinks something terrible in there.” This process went on several times per day as deemed necessary by the old man. I tried to give it my all each time I was summoned to the task, but I suppose I might have started slacking off after the third time. I mean you can only get a bathroom to a certain level of cleanliness before it becomes an exercise in futility.
The old man’s voice boomed over our heads, “Cavner, get up here now!” I put the flour on top of the eggs I was bagging and ran to the service desk. He slammed a newspaper on the desk, “Did you clean the bathroom exactly as I directed you?” I knew I hadn’t given it my all but I wasn’t going to ever admit it. “Yes,” I responded. He handed me my check and said, “Your FIRED!”
Dejected, I walked home, analyzing what had gone wrong. I decided it was all the old man’s fault. I blamed him, I had already cleaned the bathroom two other times and it was fine. I cursed under my breath because now I would never get that car. My dreams were shattered.
The next day after school, instead of going to work I went straight home, still angry at having lost my job; still mad at the old man for being such a control enthusiast. As I sat about drowning my sorrows in a huge bowl of Lucky Charms there was a very deliberate pounding at the front door. It was old man Luke. I opened the door. “Why aren’t you at work,” He demanded. “You fired me, remember?” He scowled and said, “Just because I fired you doesn’t mean you give up. Get in the car, the bathrooms need cleaning.”
Over the next year or so, he fired me weekly. Each time he came to my house and picked me up when I didn’t show for work, until I got my Mustang all fixed up and I drove myself.