My qualification

I spin the carousel and grab the easiest to reach miniature cup. I don’t think that my wife realizes that I can’t really tell the difference between French or Italian roasts, and I have no idea what makes “100% Colombian” any different than “Donut Shop Blend”. I simply grab, drop it in the coffeemaker and press the preset button. In what seems an eternity, I get a 12 ounce “extra strong” cup of what passes as coffee in the modern world. I pause to think about how my grandmother would have spent at least half an hour producing such sludge. I take a sip, wince at the awfulness, and set upon my newfound career.  When I say “career”, I say it jokingly because the unpaid work that I’m endeavoring upon this morning is the same thing I’ve been doing for the last six months. I have unwittingly been thrown into the last semblances of what used to be a “high tech” job, the online job search.

There was a time, long before things like smart phones, dating apps, and application scrubbing tools, that applying for a job entailed printing out a stack of resumes and heading out the door. Back at the beginning of this current adventure, I knew that times had changed but now I find myself in what feels like the twilight zone of employment. I log into my computer, launch my email program and start weeding through the dozens of “alerts” of jobs that some other distant computer thinks matches my skill set. I chuckle as I read a few. “Master’s degree with 10 years of experience” reads one. Yet, when I check out their website, the responsibilities read like something that a teenager is doing in their spare time between swiping through pictures of girls, and playing Assassin’s Creed on his Samsung 27.  It seems that hope is all I have left to qualify me for half of the positions that are out there.

Out of curiosity, I do an unfiltered search on several of the employment websites that I have signed up as a user. As an average, I find that there are over 47,000 jobs listed in my home state. Being on the east coast within driving distance of the nation’s capitol, combined with half a dozen nationally recognized hospitals nearby, the odds are very high that many of those thousands are tech related. So, I figure my odds should be pretty good. I dig further into my own electronic application stack. Not including the jobs that required some sort of secret application process, that I may have lost track of, I have applied for over 500 jobs. I take my fingers off my keyboard, and sit back for a moment. Can this be real? I couldn’t POSSIBLY have submitted that many job applications and resumes, to then hear NOTHING from any employer! Could I?

I recheck my numbers and review my resume once again. Yes, everything seems to be correct. I stop myself from an emotional response. I get up from the little desk that is sitting in my guest room that has been my temporary office. A few months back, I deemed this miniscule piece of wooden furniture more than enough for what I was sure would be only a few weeks of job searching. I was wrong, so terribly wrong. I’ve spent my entire life working at just about any job that I could get, always working hard and willing to do what others wouldn’t. I’ve done jobs that some would find revolting, and jobs that others have actually saluted. It never seemed to matter as long as I could provide for my family, or at least help provide.

I sit on the edge of the guest bed, take a deep breath, and dejectedly reminisce about some of those jobs. They started so long ago, that even I have a hard time recalling them all, but I remember the first job “real” job rather clearly. It was the summer that I had turned fourteen, and my family fell into the government statistical bracket that allowed it the largess of government spending. You see, I was the youngest of five kids, and my father had passed away at the age of 49. Even in those days, that was considered quite young. Since my father had always worked from one blue collar job to the next, without any type of insurance, my mother was left holding quite the proverbial bag with 3 young boys still at home to raise. So when in my freshman year I learned of a chance to get a real government job, with no work experience, I jumped at the chance. I went to the guidance counselor’s office and obtained the appropriate application and work permit, which I took it home and had Mom sign. I had it back to school the very next day. I can’t express how excited I was when I had learned that I had gotten the job! In just a few short weeks, school would be out, and I would be earning money!

I don’t remember the exact date, but do remember that I was told to report the local elementary school custodian on Monday morning in early June. I dressed in my best jeans and button down shirt. I had no idea what to expect when I got there, but I was full of enthusiasm that I was given the chance to help “bring in the bacon” at home. I was especially excited because just that year the minimum wage had increased to $2.65 an hour. I just knew that my new found career was going to make a difference at home. So when I got to the school, walked the eerily quiet hallways down to the custodians office, I felt a sense of gratitude and pride. I was finally going to be able to help Mom for a change.

The custodian was a middle aged black man, with a rough and grimacing face, and shards of white running through his wavy hair. This was the same man that I had watched many times over the years, bring in buckets of sawdust to clean up the latest mishap of my classmates. He was now my boss. I was the first, of what eventually ended up being three employees, in the office. Of the three, I was the youngest. Both of the other boys were 16, and seemed massive. I recognized one of them as a football player from the high school, his name was Gary. Once all of us were assembled, the “boss” (as Gary always called him) had us fill out timecards, demonstrated how to “punch” them, and escorted us down the hallway. Although it was still very early in the day, you could feel the heat that was building in the mid-century structure. In those days, air conditioning was still a luxury that was reserved for expensive homes, not working class schools that were devoid of pupils. He walked down to a kindergarten classroom that I once sat in years before. I must admit that the feeling is quite odd to see some of the same furniture that at one time seemed huge, now appear to be built for mice.

Boss instructed two of us to take all of the Lilliputian furniture from the classroom and move it outside into the hallway. He wanted it lined up in neat rows along the wall as to not interfere with any traffic up and down the empty hallway. I stood wondering what traffic would be going through these halls for months, but started on the task as instructed. Boss tapped Gary on the arm and said “You’re with me”, and the disappeared down the hallway. A few minutes later, they returned with mops, buckets, and a floor buffer. We spent the rest of the day mopping the floor, fanning it dry, waxing and then buffing. Since Gary was older, and considerably larger, he was the one assigned to use the floor buffer. I was assigned the mop. The mop was the kind with the removable cotton heads that once fully wet, weighed half as much as I did back then. I worked up a sweat in no time, but it was a fulfilling sweat, the kind that makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something. And I was. I was starting a life of hard, honest and necessary work.  The kind that all these years later, I hope that I can find again.

Because hope is my qualification.

Good soul

A recent conversation spurred a memory for me of an old friend, a man that my wife and I met on the island of Chincoteague many years ago when wife and I had very little money. Truth be told, we have very little money now, but we had even less back then. Anyway, we had gone to the island because my sister had purchased what we saw as a “vacation home”.

For the grand sum of $7,000, my sister had acquired a wonderful little one bedroom camper that was parked in Tom’s Cove campgrounds. We were excited to jump on the deal that she had offered us, which was we could stay there for the mere price of mowing the grass and cleaning out the toilet. My excitement was soon dashed because the latter was needed much more often than I had originally anticipated. Although the camper was hooked up to city sewage, the lines would regularly get clogged, and I would spend a day or two of our five making sure that the plumbing worked.

As my family and I had no money to speak of, one of our favorite things to do was to go window shopping (my son once asked what kind of windows we were looking for, but that’s a different story). The many shops that we toured were small, modest, and authentically Chincoteague. A few had foreign made trinkets like shot glasses with glued on stickers that we could have purchased at our local dollar store, while others had hand crafted artwork by local artisans that we couldn’t dream of affording.

As we were wondering around the town trying to find something else to investigate, we rounded the corner off Church St. onto Willow and stumbled upon what appeared to be a store sign. It was a simple sign that looked more like a historical placard than an actual retail location. It appeared to have originally been white, but was aging to a humble gray in the summer sun. It simply stated “Ark II” on it. We weren’t sure if it was really a store, but thought we might as well take a look. We walked onto the old creaky wooden porch, and opened the equally creaky wooden screen door.  When I tried the door, it opened and I could see a quaint little store inside. It was modest little shop with artwork scattered about what was originally the parlor of a turn of the century home.

As we stood for a moment waiting for our eyes to adjust to light after being in the summer sun, from behind an old glass display case came a hearty “Well, Hello there!”  I must admit that the voice startled me, as I hadn’t seen anyone in the store. Behind that glass case was man, not small in stature, with a long beard full of salt and pepper plumage He smiled and asked how our day was going. It was an unassuming question that now seems telling of the man that asked it. He didn’t start the conversation trying to sell me anything. In fact, he never tried to sell me anything. He relayed stories, showed me things, and told me how he made things. He was so excited because he had started this “new” thing of taking the inside of oyster shells and polishing them into fine jewelry.  This was a break from his usual painting.

When I looked around the shop, I saw there was rack after rack of cards and pictures of various sizes. At first, I didn’t realize that all the artwork all share one thing, the signature of John Hamberger. When I finally noticed that the greeting cards were the same art as the massive paintings on the walls, the gentleman laughed. He said “Yeah, I can sell more cards than I can of my paintings”. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I was actually talking to the man that painted all of these beautiful nature paintings. There were paintings of egrets, whales, manatees, and all sorts of marine life. To this day, I’m still amazed at how lifelike this artist could bring a painted fish.

We stayed in that shop for quite some time chatting. John told me story after story about how he created the different artwork in the studio. He told us how one of his paintings even sold to one of the Bee Gees. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember which painting, or which Bee Gee. My wife finally found a little ring that fit her perfectly in the display case that was only five dollars. We bought it and my wife decided to wear it rather than put it in bag. As my wife and I started on our way home, we talked about how we’d like to buy one of his paintings. It was a dream, because his paintings cost at the least hundreds of dollars, some were even thousands. We eventually scratched up enough to buy one of his posters for $30, a very tidy sum for us in those days.

We visited John every time that we went to the island. He was always a happy, warm, and inviting man. He remembered our faces each time, and asked us about our kids, our home, and how things were “back in Baltimore”. His shop was always one of the warm welcome spots of the isle. It exemplified what we loved about Chincoteague. It was a place that was humble, but full of charm, talent, wit, and love.  A few years later, his shop was closed. We weren’t sure why but thought maybe he was on vacation. We later discovered that he had passed, and his son was selling the shop. Both my wife and I were saddened that John wouldn’t be there anymore, but we both feel blessed that we met his soul. I look forward to meeting it again one day.

John Hamberger is a published author, editor and illustrator of children’s and natural history books. Among his publications are Little Whale, Magic World of Words, a concise guide called Pet Birds, Sea Monsters of Long Ago, Seisam, Birth of A Pond, and The Hidden Magic of Seeds.


For more Chincoteague memories, see this brief video that I made a few years ago: