My first car was 1974 Plymouth Satellite. I bought it used in the summer of 1979 from a fellow who was selling all his worldly possessions to become a missionary. I earned the money for that car by working for a nun.
Looking back, I wish one of them would have said a prayer over all the voltage regulators that I went through in the following couple of years.
Is there a patron saint of Mopar? If you have been left on the side of the road by a 70’s Mopar voltage regulator, you probably had your own name for him.
There was no Internet to check reliability ratings on an automobile. (Though if there had been, I would not have cared.) The car had a V8, two-doors, and a bench seat. What more could a young man ask for? I had already learned that it really didn’t matter what I asked for. I was told if I wanted wheels, I would work for it.
The $900.00 price tag was tough to come by at $2.35 an hour.
I spent the summer of my 16th year working in the housekeeping department of a Catholic hospital in my hometown. I was required to have a special dispensation to take the job. It was not one of the original seven. Mainly, I needed special permission from the State of Maine in order to be able to work 40 hours per week. While I had reached the age of consent, the state still felt the need to oversee my formative years in the blue-collar sector. I applied for and received a work permit to make me a valuable member of the summer work force.
I showed up for work each morning at six o’clock in the most horrible way a young man can arrive at a job--being driven by his mother. My mother knew that dropping me off a little further from the employee entrance was a necessity to save me from the inevitable ridicule from the adult members of the housekeeping crew.
The thought of this being the last summer of my dependence on my parents for transportation helped me keep my eye on the prize. A tan Plymouth.
The chrome Cragar Super-Sport wheels were not in my budget. I was able to purchase chrome lug-nuts at the speed shop.
The housekeeping crew was at that time overseen by a nun named Sister Mary F. (last name withheld for fear of reprisal after entering the pearly gates). I learned through that summer that she was a tough Polish woman who had no time for hijinks. My wage was a pittance and she made sure that I worked for every penny of it.
If I even leaned on a mop that woman would come out of nowhere and say things to me that seemed un-Christian. However, I was not positive of this as she yelled at me in her native tongue. Polish 1 or 2 were not available at my high school, even as an elective. If it had been, I might have been able to confirm that some of her words were not on the approved list at the Vatican. Is the Pope Polish? At that point in my life, I never got the joke, but there was no way I would have asked her that.
I recall one event which left a lasting impression and taught me to be more cautious when screwing around on the job, which in turn made me a better employee for future employers.
I had gone in to sweep and wet mop a room after a major renovation job. I don’t remember what we were laughing about with the construction crew but it was not funny to the woman behind me.
She inhabited a habit as well as the darkened and dirty bathroom.
She emerged with her angry-face on, which was probably also her pleased-face as far as I could tell. Being sixteen, I made the assumption that she was unhappy.
Her divine displeasure was made clear in the following colloquy.
She yelled to me that I needed to “cut out the shekanigans.” I made the mistake of of saying, “What?” I truly was confused. Sister Mary F. again repeated the same sentence and I, in my emerging juvenile sarcasm phase, made the decision to build street cred with the construction crew. I asked her, “What is a shekanigan?”
That is when the balled-up dust cloth struck me directly in the face.
It did not hurt, but the construction crew laughed so loudly that I decided to go with a Tim Conway face and just stared blankly at the twisted Sister. I was raised to be respectful to all elders and while not being Catholic, I still felt guilty. I realized that my summer would be made hellish by the Sister, regardless of what I did in that moment. I also knew that I would be spending much more time with the construction crew in the near future as the rehab of the hospital would continue for two more months.
Knowing that I would not be attending any confessionals in the hospital chapel, I decided that I needed the construction crew on my side if I were to make it through the summer and become “one of the boys.”
I took a breath and said, “Ohhhh, you mean shenanigans?” The sister’s white shoes (late 70’s nursing style) began to pivot and suddenly stopped. The construction crew had become silent and I felt very alone.
Picture a moment from The Exorcist, when Linda Blair’s breath becomes visible because of the supernaturally frigid air suddenly surrounding her. With the the former dust cloth now-turned-Catholic-attention device laying at my feet, I waited. I really hoped to see her smirk, but I didn’t dare do the same.
She told me to “Peek it up.” In later years, I realized that Ren, from “Ren and Stimpy” fame sounded exactly like the Sister and made the adult cartoon so much more meaningful to me. It also gave me flashbacks. I never did seek help for this.
She held out her hand and I leaned over, fully expecting to be smacked on the head. She wanted to, I am positive. The pain never came.
I picked up the rag and gingerly placed it into her rock-steady palm. With that, she turned and walked out of the room. I know that I did not win with the Sister but the construction crew remained silent as I finished mopping up the sheetrock dust.
Two things happened in that moment. I earned a small amount of respect from her by “peeking” up the cloth and placing it in her hand, and I was placed on her permanent naughty list.
This gave me more opportunity in my chosen field. I would find myself cleaning the morgue more often and I was allowed to learn about how the sheets at the hospital became so clean and crisp.
Being sixteen and funny in front of a construction crew are easy compared to walking down a dark corridor knowing that there was the possibility that I would be in a cold room with actual dead bodies. I never saw any but I did not go through the drawers if you know what I am saying.
I was terrified each time I mopped that room. I am not sure that I did my best work there, especially after the mandatory knocking on the walls and deep voice salutations that fellow crew members felt obliged to torment me with.
Hazing in the field of hospital housekeeping was alive and well. Especially in the morgue.
I also was sent to the basement laundry more often to help the laundry supervisor, “shaka-tha-sheets.” Sadly, the laundry supervisor was the Sister’s brother. Yes, the Sister’s Polish brother ran the steaming hot hospital laundry room. Charlie, her brother, had no sense of humor. Go figure.
He watched me very carefully. There were no holidays in Charlie’s laundry room. He had been there a long time. I just had to make it until the end of August.
It was evident to this neophyte sheet shaker that Charlie had heard about me attempting to translate the word, "shekanigans" into my native tongue. He was not amused and made sure that I did not take breaks from the shaking and folding and stacking of the steaming hot sheets, fresh out of the huge stainless steel commercial dryers. The laundry room was ridiculously hot and there was no patience or time for hijinks or shenanigans.
I won’t lie to you, since it was run by a tyrant of a man, I thought of it as an earthly representation of what hell would be like. I certainly was not sent there by an angel.
I was raised to work for what you wanted and in some strange way, I have pleasant memories of those people and that experience. Other jobs were easier to acclimate to because of what I went through that summer. There is something about never being completely accepted that will help you adapt to future, tougher times.
I picked up the Plymouth about a week before I returned to my junior year in high school. The Audiovox FM converter was left in the car by the missionary. Perhaps it was by mistake, but I like to think of it as a blessing.
Those things were about fifteen bucks. Doing the math, that equaled a little over six hours of shekanigans.