Trying to work by
(89 Stories)

Prompted By Going to Work

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After scrimping by on savings, sharing a summer sublet, eating from the weekly food conspiracy veggie box, and figuring out that I would probably stay for a bit in Berkeley, it was clear I needed a job.  Turning twenty, literate (two years of college behind me), energetic, and flexible—surely this would not be too hard.  But it turned out I knew nothing about finding work.

It was clear I needed a job.  Turning twenty, literate (two years of college behind me), energetic, and flexible—surely this would not be too hard.  But it turned out I knew nothing about finding work.

Oh, I had odd jobs, summer jobs, part-time work–babysitting, shelving books in the library, delivering the school newspaper to the dorms, assembling kalliroscopes (a novelty item)–but not work that would have to support me.

I looked in the help-wanted ads in the paper, most of which I was unqualified for, with no degree or experience.  Even the classic entry-level work for women was beyond me—no secretarial skills, no waitressing, restaurant, or retail skills.  And all I had was public transportation of course. I walked the thicket of stores on Telegraph Ave near my sublet, looking for signs and inquiring within.  Meagre results.

  1. Donut King.  A failing store off the avenue willing to hire me to clean tables, but I was let go after a few days for no apparent reason.
  2. Shaklee health products. A pyramid scheme a friend of a friend promoted.  I got a ride to the introductory meeting out in Hayward from the “friend”, but soon discovered I had less than zero ability to sell anything, and couldn’t force myself to hawk the products.  The only thing I ever sold was a can of protein powder to someone had bought the product in the past, and by happenstance found out that I could obtain it.
  3. Encyclopedia sales. The ad was vague, but I showed up to the Berkeley address.  The small anteroom of prospective applicants looked at each other warily, and when the first interviewee returned, he whispered “encyclopedias!” under his breath.  On that intelligence, I left along with the rest of the waiting room.
  4. SIMAS brothers gas station. Rumor had it they would hire women as gas jockeys!  (People didn’t pump their own gas then, and the guys who did it for you were all guys.)  I  made my way by bus and foot on a hot afternoon to the station on 14th Ave and 14th St in Oakland and asked a very indifferent employee about work, but never got a call back.
  5. Tijuana Taco. Score!  Minimum wage of course but just downstairs from my apartment.  I learned how to run the cash register, make burritos and tacos, bus tables, and clean up.  All went well until the area supervisor visited and started commenting on “all the pretty flowers—red, blue, yellow….” What?  I realized I had on the required white blouse, and also a colorful bra underneath.  Stunned, I stared at him, then threw the burrito in my hand at his chest, the sexist pig.
  6. The US Post Office. The big time.  I must have done well on the exam, because they soon called me for Christmas temporary work at the Oakland Sectional Center Facility—a huge central processing area.  Another employee, Molly, had an old beater car she let me ride share in for the price of gas. It took at least 10 minutes to warm up the engine to get going–and it is not that cold in the East Bay.  I swear that ships arriving in the Port from across the Pacific dumped their cargo directly onto the Post Office conveyor belts, as torrents of boxes with green customs labels tumbled onto those of us at the bottom, where we had to quickly sort them onwards.  It was more fun to “throw” the first class cards and letters (remember when people sent Christmas cards?), or the second class circulars and magazines.  The pay was at least double minimum wage, there was a union, and I learned how valuable becoming friends with the timekeeper could be when he took me for a long lunch at the soul food restaurant across the street.

Incredibly, I was able to live off the “bounty” of the Post Office for several months, while I volunteered at the Berkeley Free Clinic and the Women’s Health Collective.  It occurred to me that accessible and respectful health care was something pretty useful.  And, as I was handing out leaflets in the Safeway parking lot for the grape and lettuce boycotts, I thought perhaps it would be of more service to get a medical degree. The UFW (United Farmworkers Union) ran clinics near the fields.  Why not make the most of opportunities I was fortunate to have?

So I ended up returning to school and going to work in medicine– but still find myself in parking lots from time to time, handing out leaflets.




Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Like you, I had a series of jobs in high school and college (most some version of cashier) that convinced me I wanted to do something different. And I’m afraid we will both be back to handing out leaflets again for causes I thought had been resolved years ago.

  2. Marian says:

    Wasn’t it amazing how it was possible to survive having jobs like you did, Khati? I know all those locations well. Really, 14th Street and 14th Avenue? Yikes, that beats 11th Street, where I worked part-time in an abandoned department store that the start-up company’s founder bought for a dollar. My skills were typing and the ability to correct everyone’s grammar. These days I feel most useful if I can write for causes I believe in. Appreciate being brought back to those times in the East Bay.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Glad you could relate to the time and place. And it is indeed amazing we could survive on so little. I’m glad you are using your writing skills well these days. When I mentioned being literate, it was in part because over the years I have come to realize that is not such a common skill as one might hope it would be. That long sentence maybe not the best example of literacy LOL.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Quite the array of ways to get to distant parts of the Bay Area, Khati! Glad the post office job worked out for a while and handing out leaflets gave you some insights for your future.

    I’m with you and Laurie. I am despondent on the state of our nation’s treatment of women at the moment, having gone off to college before Roe v. Wade (as most of the women who write for Retrospect did). But I might be the only one who has actually had an abortion (9 months after an ectopic pregnancy where I lost one Fallopian tube, when the same IUD failed again; this was in 1982 – legal and I was married). I am just beside myself!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    A great story, Khati, about the time and place and the sort of jobs one could take. Sadly, we live in a society now in the US where it is not easier, but tougher, to earn a living wage at such “menial” jobs. What a disgrace.

    Your job arc also reminds me a bit of my father. After he flunked out of the University of Wisconsin for not attending any classes, he got a job in Chicago (trying to) sell vacuum cleaners. This was 1932 — the height of the depresion. He sold none, and his father pulled some strings and was able to get him reinstated. He then buckled down, got his BA and Masters in no time and went on to medical school. But never forgot how tough it could be to earn a living.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Interesting story about your dad. Some of the most useful life lessons and perspectives can come from managing difficult circumstances. I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have understood just living in a college dorm, and have never regretted that.

  5. Suzy says:

    Khati, thanks for this fascinating description of jobs you did or did not work at during your gap year (as we would now call it) from college. Great that this combination of good and (mostly) bad experiences set you on the road to becoming a doctor. You did so much good in your medical career! And yes, we may all become little old ladies in tennis shoes handing out leaflets.

  6. Brava Khati, I know you ended up in medicine but how fun to hear about all the jobs you had before finding your calling!

    And why am I not surprised you’re doing your civic duty in parking lots!

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