Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Confessions of a Pizza Driver (Part I)

And Now for Something Completely Different...
After the heavy emotional stuff, I thought I'd talk about something fun...at least it's fun now for me to remember. And to be honest, it was actually was a lot of fun while I was doing it. From 1997-2000, I needed some extra moolah, so I went to work for the Papa

The Paper-Hat-wearing Fast-Food Cashier (although in recent years the paper hats have now been replaced by baseball caps, but you get the picture); The Car Wash attendant; The Grocery Store Bag Boy or, just a notch above him, the Stock Clerk; The Pizza Delivery Guy...

These are jobs that carry a certain status of "entry-level" in modern society. If you watch TV, the movies, or most any vehicle of pop-culture commentary, you see that notion reinforced again and again. With McDonald's essentially being the standard-bearer for the entire fast-food industry, this class of employment has now even been dubbed, a "McJob" in some media circles.

There's often something endearing about seeing a fresh-faced youngster in this type of position. Perhaps it reminds us of when we had similar jobs early in our work-a-day lives. It can be frustrating, but I think most of us will suffer a sixteen year-old, struggling behind the counter, and even smile when he screws up our change (well, the first time, anyway...) because we can identify with what it's like to be in that situation. We've all been there, right?

However those smiles often turns to sneers when the person behind the counter isn't a teenager, but rather a midle-aged thirtysomething, where those acknowledging nods are sometimes replaced by wags of disparagement — at least, internally, right? “Sheesh, what a loser that guy must be,” we may think. “Who taught you how to count, Einstein?”

Why are we so hard on the older set? Because these are supposed to be entry level jobs. Society expects its adult members to move on up the career food chain in their late 20s and 30s. The McJobs of the service industry should be relegated to the kids, we assume. With few exceptions, any deviation from this established rite of professional existence is usually met with at least some measure of social disdain, albeit usually silent, by the average middle-class American.

I certainly know *I* felt that way. Hey, I had paid my dues, having worked in all of these types of jobs from my sixteenth birthday to my early twenties. By the time I reached my mid-twenties I was working in the Record Industry in Los Angeles, with all those jobs a distant memory. I was working in the real world now, yo.

Fifteen years later, I discovered a new reality.

So as to try and keep this story upbeat, I'll dispense with the depressing details as to how we reached that unhappy place, but in 1996 we found ourselves $25,000 in debt, which by many people's standards isn't a tremendous amount. However when you realize that we only had an annual income of about $22,000 at that point in time, it becomes pretty obvious that we were in deep doo-doo. There was little to no money coming in, and things were getting worse by the day. Oh, you should have heard some of the knock-down-drag-outs I had with bill collectors over the phone on a weekly basis.

To make matters worse, due to our situation, we missed four or five mortgage payments in a row, and the bank foreclosed. Luckily, before they told us they couldn't talk to us anymore, they referred us to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). There was at that time a program that they suggested we might qualify for, since our situation was essentially brought about by the failure of my freelance business. Thankfully, we did qualify for that program, and HUD bought our mortgage and allowed us to keep our home while we got back on our feet. Our mortgage payments were based on what we could afford, based on our cashflow and our other debts.

We were thisclose to bankruptcy — but we were given a chance to dig ourselves out of it. There was a catch to this HUD program. They re-evaluated our debt status every six months to monitor our progress. If we made any purchases over $300 without the HUD's approval, they could pull the whole deal and everything would come crashing back down on us. The idea was to get real, get busy, and get out of debt.

And for me, that meant get a job. My freelance business was in the toilet. More on why, some other time. Remember...this is a happy story.

Digging out
I had been self-employed for eight of the previous ten years and now I had to start sending out resumes — and fast. I managed to get on part-time with a company designing web pages, which paid well but was kind of inconsistent. Michelle got an entry-level job with an newly-built outlet for Ford Motor Credit that had just opened here in town. We were making steady progress, but at that pace, we would have run out of HUD program (it was designed to be in place for a maximum of only five years) long before we'd payed off our debts. We needed more money.

A financial counselor we'd seen suggested delivering pizzas part-time. He said you'd be surprised how good the money is, and that a lot of his clients had done really well in using it as a means to get caught up. I nodded and said "Yeahhh...that...sounds...interesting." Because everyone knows, the ultimate loser job for an adult was to be a pizza driver! Or so I was convinced in my own mind. Apparently I was willing to lose my house but *gasp* not to deliver pizzas!

So stubbornly, I decided if I was going to have to get another job, it was going to be something I wanted to do and that I knew. I'd worked for years in the grocery industry as a retail clerk, and made good money at it throughout high school and college, so I went to the local Kroger and applied for a job. They hired me on the spot. It was only then I learned that Tennessee wages weren't even close to what I had made in California ten years earlier!

I felt stuck. So I took the job anyway, checking freakin' groceries 32 hours a week for $5.50 an hour. After four weeks I figured that there was no way delivering pizzas could be any worse than this. And besides you actually get to move around — and you get tips.

I gave my notice, and went to the local Papa John's Pizza to apply for a driver position. And I didn't give a rip what anyone else thought.

Next: Come to Papa
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