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The valuable lesson our janitor taught us in 1962

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Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 12:00 am

Back in the 11th grade, my work ethic was way ahead of the times.

One day, a group of my classmates and I walked into the boys’ locker room at Longfellow School (now Sidwell Friends) in Bethesda, Md. There was our janitor — stretched out on bench while he dreamt about snagging fish on the banks of the Potomac. His belly protruded through his unbuttoned flannel shirt, as the fly on his soiled jeans saluted at half-mast.

One of the students awakened him while another said, “Jake, you look depressed.”

Jake answered, “I am, boys. They just don’t pay me enough ’round here.”

“But why are you complaining?” said a sarcastic classmate. “You don’t do anything now!”

“I know,” replied the sleepy custodian. “But I want to get paid MORE for doing nothing!”

Right then and there, I knew I had discovered my life’s goal. Little did I know that 50 years later, millions of Americans would join me with the same precarious, non-productive philosophy as so brilliantly expressed by Jake back in 1962.

I knew college would be a good start toward this objective. I always heard that university graduates gave the orders while others did the real work. But graduation from one of these hallowed institutions would take careful planning and some part-time employment along the way.

My first job was working as a waiter at a Hot Shoppes restaurant in Washington, D.C. The days were long. Tips and wages were low. The small compensation did not come easily. At the end of the day, my feet felt like I had walked upon hot coals at one of those “you can do anything” seminars. Obviously, food service was not the way to my “no-work” objective.

The following summer, I got a government position as a histology technician. That’s someone who makes glass sides of organic tissue for physicians. It was a sit-down job in an air-conditioned lab. The workload was light. People spent more time at the water cooler than they did at their workstations. I thought, “Now we’re getting someplace.” However, the pay was not high enough to meet my long-term goal.

Soon after graduation, I entered the Army as a commissioned officer. Those stories I had heard about college graduates having it easy were true! The non–college sergeants had a saying in those days. It was, “Don’t call me ‘Sir,’ (as they were required to address officers). I work for a living!”

During my various careers and jobs, the original goal remained the same. There were high and low points in attempting to reach that objective.

The highest was working as a psychotherapist. What could be easier than sitting in a chair all day and collecting $120 per hour while people voiced their vulnerabilities? Of course, listening on my part was strictly optional.

The low point was teaching classical music to a group of juvenile delinquents, especially when one of them broke into the classroom and stole all the musical equipment. There wasn’t enough money in the world that would make me take that job again!

But life has its strange ironies. Today, after my quest to imitate Jake the janitor, I now find myself working as a writer — spending several hours in front of a computer for little or no compensation.

Could it be that Jake and I missed something along the way? Were we wrong in our quest for seeking jobs with the most amount of money for the least amount of work?

Maybe we had it backwards. Perhaps the most rewarding jobs really come from those with the least amount of compensation, but take the most amount of effort.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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