First Jobs. First Pay ChecksA tale of pickle pushers, golf ball shaggers and cow milkers

By Michael Turton

Few of life’s milestones are more memorable than the first time we are hired to do a real job.  Not a paper route. Not babysitting. Not cutting the neighbor’s lawn. A real job”¦with a real pay check. I started asking people about their first job about thirty years. It began with my good friend Carol, when, one night over what was not our first cognac, I happened to ask her what her first real job had been. Without blinking she said, “I was a pickle pusher.” I did blink. And I asked a very logical question, “What???” 

In a Pickle
“I worked on the pickle bottling line at the Heinz plant in Leamington” she said. “As each jar went past, my job was to push one extra pickle into it.” I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to top that answer ever since. Last week I set out in hopes of finally finding an even more intriguing answer than “pickle pusher.”

 Hep vs Hip
Gary Arcery is an artist and a partner in Ellen Heyden’s Gallery in Cold Spring. “My first job was in the toy department of White’s Department Store in Massapequa on Long Island. Believe it or not my boss’s name was Izzy Hired. I had long hair and looked like a hippie.  One day this older woman came up to me and said ‘Look, I’m hep too!’ I thought it was very funny that she said ‘hep’ instead of ‘hip.’ She opened her purse and showed me a joint!” Arcery had one other highlight when Herman G. Fisher — co-founder of Fisher-Price Toys – paid an unannounced visit to the toy department. 

Name that cow
Cold Spring landscape architect Brian Higley grew up in Vermont. “My first pay came from milking cows at the Boyd’s farm in Guilford.  We milked sixty cows twice a day — at 5 a.m. and 4 p.m. I knew every cow by name. I rode my bike up about 2 miles to get to the farm, and it was on the top of a hill so I could coast almost all the way home after work.  In the middle of the day I had time off to go fishing or do other things – like all my chores at home.” 

Clean Sweep
For Bill Sohan, owner of Whistling Willies, his first stab at employment was a business lesson. “I worked at ‘Meats and Treats,’ a grocery store in Howard Beach, Queens. I stocked shelves and swept floors. The owner didn’t think I swept quickly enough. He grabbed the broom right out of my hands and said, ‘This is how to sweep!’ I never forgot that. And as a business owner today I notice how people work.”

Police Protection
You know that saying “some things never change”? Well some things definitely do change. For Sharon Squire, her first job at Clemente’s Dry Cleaners in Peekskill may not have been quite as interesting as the time she spent next door – at the Hampton Pub. “I was fourteen years old and played softball for the state troopers’ team that the Hampton sponsored. I used to have a beer there with the troopers. You could do that back then!” 

 Too Fast Food
The first day on a first job can be stressful. Just ask Paul Rowan. He works as a surveyor now but as a teenager he got his first job at O’Neil’s Concession Stand at FDR Park in Yorktown. Paul served fast food and kept the pool area clean. Pool maintenance agreed with him just fine – but the constant smell of all that greasy food didn’t. “I threw up my first day on the job” recalls Rowan. To his credit he came back on day two. The grease had settled. 

Vinny’s Secret
Grease wasn’t an issue for Putnam County Legislator Vinny Tamagna. While attending Walter Panas High School he entered the working world at  Kentucky Fried Chicken at age sixteen. “I felt very accomplished when I received that first check. I was also thrilled”¦because I could drive after dark with a junior license as long as I was coming home from work. Gas prices were very high – over 60 cents a gallon – and there were odd/even days when you were allowed to buy gas. There were times when the gas lines on Route 6 in Cortland would make me late for work. I was written up and reprimanded several times.” But the job also had its advantages. “I was very popular with my friends because I got to take home the leftover chicken. I never really liked chicken before KFC. I eat it today for the memories” Tamagna said. 
       On the 4th of July, 1974 Tamagna may have set some sort of record. “I dipped over 2,000 chickens in the Colonel’s secret recipe – which came in an unmarked brown bag.” Hmmm. Wonder what Vinny’s secret recipe for political success is?

Three’s Company
For some, one job first job just wasn’t enough. Colleen Dew had three. “When I was sixteen I held three jobs in Peekskill – I was lifeguard at the pool and worked at a beauty salon and a diner. I was ambitious. I wanted money – and a car.” 

 Now THAT’s a Golf Hazard
Tom Kivel was just twelve years old when he was hired to work at Fairview Golf and Country Club in Elmsford. Because there was no driving range golfers used to practice off the first tee. Kivel’s job was to stand in the middle of the fairway shagging golf balls – as they were hit. “It was an elevated tee. I couldn’t always see the ball when I looked up into the sun. I got hit once in awhile. It wasn’t fun” he recalled. Things were much safer the next summer when Kivel got a job selling night crawlers. 

Junior Jingles
Terry Platz, a member of the local trio “Motherlode” used her vocal abilities to collect her first paycheck. “I sang advertising jingles – for Thomas’s English muffins, Vaseline Intensive Care and a toy called Secret Sam. I was a member of the Screen Actors Guild the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.” That’s a pretty cool first job but there’s more. Terry was five years old. Even cooler.

Making Hay
As for me, when I turned sixteen I went to work at McKee Farms, a 1,000 acre cattle operation. I helped bale tons and tons of hay that summer. I also spread tons of manure. Some might say I still am. 
       During the seemingly endless haying season, Grant McKee and I worked the baler together. Grant drove the tractor and I stood on the wagon behind the baler building giant loads of hay. Occasionally I’d fall behind and have to yell “Grant! Grant! Whoa! Whoa!” He would stop the tractor, turn off the engine, bring me the jug of cold water, sit next to me and tell me to take break. More than once he said, “You know, when you yell ‘whoa’ you sound exactly like your brother.” My oldest brother Len had done the same job a decade earlier.  Grant was the most charismatic, natural leader I have ever known. He had a quiet manner that somehow made us want to work very hard for him. He was also the only farmer I knew who drove a robin’s-egg blue Thunderbird. A few years later, when Grant took his own life, it was one of the few times I have been truly shocked.

Your Story
What’s your first-job story? Send us a paragraph or just a comment.

3 thoughts on “First Jobs. First Pay ChecksA tale of pickle pushers, golf ball shaggers and cow milkers

  1. My first job was a summer job. I was a carnation de-budder in a greenhouse. My job was to walk up and down rows and rows of carnations and remove all the buds but the one on top so that the bud that was left would burst into the largest flower. The greenhouses were hot and very humid and you had to wear boots because you were slogging through puddles and muddy ground all day long. I was so thrilled to get my first paycheck and I earned the enormous salary of 50 cents an hour. The following year I realized I could do much better babysitting and it certainly was more comfortable. As an after thought maybe working in that greenhouse set me on track to my current membership in the Philipstown Garden Club, who knows.

  2. Your ability to remind your readers of our similarities and not our differences, has become a refreshing treat, Michael.

    As for my first job, I was a “deli girl” at Your Country Store in Nelsonville. At one time, I could tell you how many of the locals took their coffee and what newspapers they preferred. My bosses, Rae and Tony Vilardi became mentors and dear friends, that I continue to keep track of, today.

  3. At my first job I operated a Lily-Tomlin-like switchboard at my uncle’s law firm for a summer in high school when the regular switchboard operator was on maternity leave. It was a blast. I got really proficient at sitting on the swivelling stool while wearing a large headset and pulling out/plugging in connecting lines. When it got busy you had to juggle lots of lines and take messages on pink pads. My father would call up, ask for my uncle and say he was Casey Stengel. I was so busy the first time he called I really thought he WAS Casey Stengel.