Updated: August 27, 2012 11:16AM
Once, while interviewing for a job at The New York Times, an editor remarked, “If you come here, John, I hope that what happens to some who come here doesn’t happen to you.”
“What’s that?” I asked, puzzled.
“They get a new last name.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“New York Times ...”
“I promise.” I said, chuckling. “That will never happen to me.”
I got the job — a national correspondent, a gem of a job in journalism, working for the national newspaper of record.
While there, I endeavored never to lose my focus.
That was difficult at times. Covering an 11-state region had me rushing to the airport at a moment’s notice and incessantly engrossed in covering the news. The prestige of working for the Times admittedly was sometimes a temptation to abandon all else, and the lure of awards and accolades an enticement to become singularly focused, to lose sight of what was most important.
I have seen it — career dream chasing with reckless abandon. The tendency to define ourselves by what we do rather than by who we are. The tendency to forget that jobs come and go.
Our jobs, on the one hand, can swell our chests with pride and a certain sense of accomplishment and over-inflated importance but on the other can leave us empty deep on the inside.
“So, what do you do for a living?”
It is the first question during cocktail hour after your name. And the answer too often, I have witnessed, is the determiner of the ease, enthusiasm or longevity of the rest of the conversation.
I have long believed that what one does for a living is hardly a measure of one’s worth. Still, I have seen the so-called upper crust or elite, even bosses and supervisors — or those who simply deem themselves to be “better than” — turn up their noses at perceived underlings, at janitors and secretaries, cafeteria staff, garage attendants and myriad service workers who help make this world go ’round and whose families depend on them to make a living.
I used to be a dishwasher. I once was a bank janitor. I cleaned and unstopped clogged toilets, mopped and buffed floors, polished desks and windows.
I flipped burgers at a fast-food restaurant. I was a file clerk at a manufacturing company. A security guard at a discount department store. A food service worker at a hospital. A proofreader.
What I remember about a good number of those jobs was how some of my supervisors or the people I served made me feel “less than.”
What I also remember about each job is that it was an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and that my occupation was never a barometer of all that I was or all that I might ever someday become.
I vowed back then, even as I experienced less than humane treatment at the time, that I would never do the same.
I vowed to place the money in a cashier’s hand rather than shove it on the counter. I vowed to always say “thank you” to those who served me, to treat service workers and those I might ever supervise with dignity and respect.
And I vowed to never forget from where I came. To never forget who I really am.
While at the New York Times, I once asked my daughter, about 8 at the time: “…So-o-o, what does Daddy do for a living?”
“Hmmm,” she wondered aloud. “Uhhhh…”
Finally, she answered simply: “You take care of us.”
No big deal.