When I was in college and learning about mass communications, journalism and advertising for some reason I always craved summer and winter jobs where I could use my hands. I spent several summers and Christmas breaks working in various warehouses, my favorite being a window and door factory. I learned so much there and met some truly interesting people that I respected and did two full summer and Christmas breaks with that crew.
When I started they called me college boy, and they immediately gave me shit every single day. They didn’t understand why I would be working there when I could be working a cushy office job somewhere. I understand it. They saw some kid coming in and working really hard and this was their full time gig. I like to believe that I actually elevated the team to working harder. But it pushed me to bust my ass even more than I would have. Eventually after two years, the only reason that I left there was because I tore ligaments in my back and could no longer lift. Even today, if I help someone move or over do it I can feel that injury almost 20 years later.
Currently, any time I hear someone I work with telling me how hard they work, I can’t help but laugh. In business and marketing most of our work is far from hard, it is actual smart work.
At the time I didn’t really think much about it why I wanted to work in these places. Maybe it was because I came from blue color roots. One grandfather (an immigrant from Scotland) ran his own electrician shop out of Brooklyn and another was a career union bartender in Manhattan. I grew up idolizing both of these men as salt of the earth people who were not afraid of getting their hands dirty. I also grew up on stories about how I was so much like my great grandfather, Pop McDonagh, built his own house.
Back to my job at the window factory. We started every morning at 5 am. Most of the day was spent inside the warehouse. We would wait for big trucks of windows and doors to show up on our loading docks and drag makeshift wooden carts inside lifting heavy windows by hand and loading up the carts dragging them out where other more senior employees would unstack the windows from the carts so those of us inside the trucks would have more carts to do more work. On hot summer days in the 90s it would be 130 degrees inside of the back of the tractor trailers.
I was in the best shape of my life during those summers and I didn’t need a gym membership. Seriously, my arms were ripped. I used to have to lift 200 lb doors with double sided glass panels over my head resting on my back. Moving those suckers is quite a life skill.
These guys worked hard and played hard. The guy who built doors all day used to bring a six pack of beer in his lunch cooler and it would be gone by lunch time. Most lunch breaks were liquid ones at the pub down the road. As a college kid I didn’t think much of this but looking back now I appreciate how hard a life a manual work truly is on the body, mind and life.
The regulars in the warehouse would give me shit for working so hard on a summer gig. It wasn’t about doing a great job as much as earning my co workers respect. I have always wanted to be respected by the people that I work with.
I also almost died in this job. I could have died at 21 years old. No one there was trained on a forklift, we all just jumped on and figured it out. It was a lot of fun, until … one day one of the owner’s nephews a 16 year old kid was working there and was manning the forklift. The forklift would drive onto the back of the truck and we would stack up about 15-20 double pain window (about 90 lbs each). Someone had to stand at the back and walk it out to make sure that the last one didn’t slip off. On one particular day, I was the guy holding the windows. The 16 year old had it in neutral and almost stalled out when he hit the ramp and threw it in reverse. All of the windows on the stack came flying at me. I held it for about 3 seconds and jumped out of the way. The windows crashed off on the side of the tractor trailer and the steel frame on the first one bent in half. If I hadn’t been paying attention I would have been dead. I wanted to kill this kid but was more relieved I walked away without a scratch.
I got to drive my first box truck and fork lift during this job. I am so thankful for these experiences working so hard. It taught me the difference between working hard and smart. For a while I often glorified a job like this. As I entered a stress filled career, I often thought how easy it would be to go to a less stressful job. It taught me that I shouldn’t bitch about stupid things around the office when I could be dragging windows and throwing out my back. I eventually lost touch with these guys, but I often wonder what happened to them.
James is the Marketing Director at StratIS. He was named Top Voice on LinkedIn in 2015, and the number two voice in healthcare from more than 2 million bloggers on the platform. He was the creator of the Seinfeld Birthday Project, which went internationally viral, received more than 1 million YouTube views, and was featured in hundreds of newspapers, blogs, TV shows and radio programs. He also co-founded TAP Social Media, a boutique-marketing agency located in Philadelphia, PA. James holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.