Part 3: Cradle Songs and Distant Melodies
My young adulthood in our first house has a lot to do with the ‘where do you come from’ question I've written about in the first two parts of this series. That house sat in an unincorporated zone known locally as ‘The Avenues’. My nearest neighbors came from Samoa, Colombia, Iran and Minnesota. And those were just the people I was closely acquainted with. I’m not sure where the guy on the corner, we called the ‘Christian Biker’ came from. A heavily muscled, tattooed, ancient car-fixin’ veteran of the Vietnam War, he took in a variety of woebegone characters, fed them and got them back on their feet. He was also the fellow who explained to me that the gunfire we heard periodically in the neighborhood was ‘automated weapons fire, Honey’. Eleven years in the house on Twelth Avenue means I’m from The Avenues.
The people I worked with, shaped my ideas as well. There was Henry, an African-American man who’d just moved to San Carlos by way of Georgia. He scorned the custard pie in the cafeteria as not being fit for pig food.
And there was Stan, whose Latino ancestry was stamped plainly on his face. Stan had worked his way up the career ladder, from an assembly job in Detroit. He’d heard about an early programmer training opportunity in the sixties, and taken advantage of it. Stan walked like a toreador and he dressed like Saville Row. One of the supervisors once looked scornfully at Stan’s beautifully tailored three piece suit and told him, “You know you don’t need to dress like that”.
“I’m comfortable,” Stan replied proudly.
Stan, Henry and I were a little outside of the group of other programmers. We were non-standard. I, because I was the first female programmer hired in. Stan and Henry for the color of their skins, and their accents. The two older men could have shunned me and made fun of my general naivete. I was only twenty-three years old, there was an awful lot I didn’t know about people and work, and I was so young it didn’t occur to me to hide the fact. Instead Stan and Henry took me under their collective wings and taught me how to survive at work, how to stand up for myself and, most importantly, how to laugh up-my-sleeve at the local customs.
We had a supervisor named Joseph. Joe was only a few years older than me, somewhat pretentious and pedantic. He walked a bit like a pigeon with his chest stuck out a little farther than normal. Joseph would ask us questions like ‘Now do you think of your job as just a job, or as a career?’ “Gee,” Stan laughed after Joe walked away with his characteristic strutting walk, “I wonder what the right answer to that was supposed to be?”
Joseph liked to walk in unexpectedly, and sit us down for motivational talks. These included little chats about team work. Periodically he’d consult a magazine article in which he’d underlined items he clearly thought were winning phrases.
Henry thought I was responding a bit too much to Joseph’s pep talks. “Hey it’s Little Joe!” he said when I came back in from one of our supervisors supposedly impromptu and friendly, one-on-ones over coffee. I learned a lot about attitude and what team work really meant, from Henry.
In a small, but very decided way, I’ve come from the places that my neighbors and co-workers are from.
Next Time: Whiskey in the Jar