Uwe told me that it was a great way to make money. I was all ear. Money, even a few of these aluminum coins. I was a little jealous about having to wait for another summer. Uwe and I were in the same class, but his birthday was in summer and mine in December. His older sister had told him that you could only get a summer job after your fourteenth birthday. For two weeks out of the two-months school vacation. So, I went home and told my mom I wanted a job next summer. She must have helped me, but I forget how I found the gig in the little furniture factory in town. Everybody called it the Table Factory – Tischfabrik. I guess that’s what they had done for times immemorial; they made tables in the small cluster of nineteenth-century red-brick buildings in the center of town. The former owners used to live next door. In 1978, the factory had long been nationalized and become part of a centralized syndicate in East Germany’s command economy.
Monday morning. Here I was, reporting to the main office on time. Still sleepy-eyed at 6am. I thought they were expecting me, after all I was the new worker. They had to figure out were to put me. Where do you put a fourteen-year-old for two weeks, so that he does the least damage. Put him with the young folk at the presses at the end of the assembly line. If these juvenile delinquents can do it, so can he.
I reported to the shop floor – everyone was in full swing already – and was assigned to one of the presses. The boy at this machine did not look too happy. I was going to lower his output performance, and he would make less money this shift. I didn’t understand. He took the time to tell me. You get tasks for the day. Put the apron of this table together. With the press. Four boards in exactly the right position. Dip the corners in glue, but not too much. Put the corners in exactly the right position. Turn the lever, but not too much. Not the right position or too much pneumatic pressure and the apron was ruined before it was made. Waste of material, they called it. Put the apron on the pile, the ladies in the other room are waiting and will pack the apron, the top, the legs. These tables are to be exported, the boy said. To Sweden. Each apron counted for a minute or two. Some for three. The foreman counts them at the end of each shift. The boy and I got paid for our total of these minutes. Each day. No money for a ruined apron, when I was not focused. Less money for him, if I did not pull my weight fast enough.
Monday noon. The presses had to be turned off for safety during unionized breaks. I was not sure about hanging out with the boys in my shop. When I went home at three in the afternoon, a social worker came and a bus took them back to the detention center at the edge of town. I saw the movies and read the articles about juvenile detention centers only fifteen years later. So, I went into the factory yard and sat with the women who packed the tables also by the minute. They depended on our work to make money. Money to be able to visit their husband. To feed their children. To buy a blouse. I liked chatting with them. They told me things I knew nothing about.
Monday afternoon. The work was done. I cycled home. When my mom came at four, she could not wake me up for two hours. I had fallen into the sleep of the righteous on the sofa. She was still laughing, when we had supper. Maybe, I got a little older that day.
I have signed up for a year-long online writing course. This is lesson 2 on ‘work’. I am committed to the remaining 50 lessons … And yes, I worked each summer after that. And after I turned 18, each year, all year, I worked. I painted walls and fences, made nuts and bolds, tore down brick and concrete at construction sites, cleaned city streets, was a lifeguard in indoor and outdoor swimming pools and at the Baltic Sea, helped clean and polish the final parts produced in an aluminum foundry, worked at an electric arc furnace producing calcium carbide, built wooden scaffoldings as a carpenter for the mechanics doing repairs, laid cable and pipes, taught at a secondary school and at universities in different countries. And I have looked back often to this first real job.