For some reason, allowances never worked at our house; we did piecework. Vacuuming, cleaning, painting, working as a human roto-tiller, but mostly mowing the lawn. When I was thirteen, we moved to Iowa and one-acre yard, so this helped line the coffers.
Through my early years, more piecework: raking leaves, shoveling snow, painting. When I was in about 5th grade, my friend Scott Dixon and I shoveled for some newcomers to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, they had moved from some tropical island, and so didn’t understand why we couldn’t remove the 3-month accumulation of solid ice from underneath the snow. After about 6 boy-hours of work, they sent us away without any payment.
When I was 15, I worked in a print shop for one day. It was sweet. I didn’t crush my hands in the paper cutter, but understood very clearly how one could.
My big break: at 17, I got a job with my Bible Study leader Dave Knapp at Bruce McGrath Pontiac/Jeep/Mazda as a Junior Lot Boy. Taught myself how to drive a stick-shift on my first night. Partnering with the Gael Brothers, we moved every single car into the indoor wash bay, cleaned it, and put it back. Until we had washed the entire inventory, at which time we started over. Three nights a week (lest we miss Bible Study). Memorable lesson: if you bring a fiberglass-bodied Pontiac Fiero in from the 10-degree lot, the first dose of warm water will flash-freeze on the surface, and stay there while you wash the car and return it back to the lot. Later, when the Fieros thaw, your boss will ask you why you didn’t wash them as directed.
Several months and several hundred cars later, I got my first lesson in the corporate machine. Dave moved across town to Zimmerman Ford (“but Dave, I thought you loved Pontiac!) and his whole team of rag-tag night washers was, umm, “sent home”. Bitter injustice! In my new free time, I thawed out my hands and spent my accumulation of $3.45/hours acquiring stereo equipment from the brand-new store in town: Best Buy. CD’s are digital, and Christian music is awesome!
After finishing my junior year, I got the nod to return to the lot for the summer, full-time. More car washing, this time outside in the hot sun. I wear Jams, a tank top, and wet running shoes every single day. My duties also include driving to the carwash, running errands, buying gas, putting cars in the showroom, and detailing cars for delivery. If it needs to be done, you call a lot boy. Also, if it needs to be driven, hard, you call a lot boy. I drive everything at least once, and can’t decide if my favorite car is the RX-7 or the Formula 350 Firebird. Or maybe the 626 turbo coupe. Better drive them again. The salemen act strangely when they’re around the night receptionist (who is my classmate), and very creepily when they’re not around her.
After my senior year, I’m back. My co-worker is Dave, an 18-year-old man of the world who lives with his girlfriend and actually owns two cars. He teaches me that the V-6 Fiero (in a 5-speed) is pretty awesome, too. I learn to speed-shift out of a skid in a residential neighborhood. If you put too much water into the 200-gallon tank in the back of the wash truck, it will cut the rear brake line. If you race a Grand National in a 4-cylinder Sunbird, you lose. I get the breathtaking 20th Anniversary RX-7 up to 15mph– in the showroom. I drive 100 that summer (twice) and one Friday Dave and I burn through half of a tank of gas while double-teaming a Trans Am GTA on a 10-mile errand. Whoo! I’m cool, tan, and off to college.
In school, I hear of the wonders of self-employment. Specifically, sealing asphalt driveways. So when I return home for the summer, I put some tools in the trunk of my car, an ad in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and rake in the dough. Actually, halfway through the summer, I went back to the car lot to see if they could help fill my time. So I was washing cars in the evenings. My brother is now working for Dave over at Ford, and gets me a job there, too. So I end up working at Ford in the morning, and Pontiac in the evening. Now I’m a part of the corporate machine, and enjoying the thrill of acting covertly.
The lot boys at Ford are fairly evolved. At the same time, they are kind of feral. They mostly pass on the muscle cars (Mustang GT’s and Thunderbird SuperCoupes) in favor of M-Series BMW’s and giant trucks. They have also formed a strong brotherhood, so we do science experiments with leftover sandwiches in the backs of panel vans and ‘lose’ keys to the Beemers so that we can move them to the tent sales as a team (ahem!).
I go back to my second year of college with a Honda Accord hatchback, and so start working during the school year. My buddy Scott hooks me up with a job at 41 Sports Club. I’ve never played a sport or ‘worked out’, and still don’t. But I can wash towels like a champ, and I learn how to clean the pool. We eat Subway or Wendy’s on Tuesdays, and try not to insult the Almighty Investors by asking them to follow the rules of the club. The tennis pros have lopsided arms and lots of cash, and the janitor has one of those extra-long pinkie nails for snorting coke.
Back to piecework. That summer, I stay in Illinois to work at the club and do a bunch of stuff with friends: painting, janitorial work, windows, cleaning, yardwork, and oh so much more. We stay for free in swanky Lake Forest in a house that is thankfully ugly and overpriced and so does not sell for the entire summer.
Starting to taste some construction, my buddies and I do some framing and painting projects for local residents during the school year. The money is good, the tools are manly, and the comraderie is intoxicating.
After my senior year, I return to my home church in Iowa to do a summer internship. I work mostly as a Youth Pastor, sitting behind the giant desk of my iconic mentor, who has quite recently and mysteriously left the pastorate and his marriage. One of the effects of this is a new emphasis on ‘staff unity’, so the music pastor and I play foosball during our morning coffee break every day. The Senior Pastor writes his sermon on Friday afternoon, and the elders of the church are all ‘successful’ businessmen.
At the end of the summer, I do an intensive two-week painting job with my man Scott at a house in Indiana before I move back to Illinois to start grad school. One of my new neighbors owns a roofing company, and takes me and my roommate John along to help out one Saturday. We do alright, and he throws occasional work our way. His truck has holes in the floor to push chicken bones through, and smells just awful. Shingling in the snow is exciting, and cold. When you get your seminary-trained, missionary-minded, family-man boss to drop the ‘F’ bomb in reference to your work, you’ve really messed something up.
I’m getting married the following summer, and so make the pitch for regular work to my roofing boss. When he agrees, I’m elated, though my learned seminary friends and the esteemed Professor of Church History John Woodbridge are horrified at the thought. Hey, it’s not like I’m joining the circus to do the high wire act, people! Oh, wait, I kind of am.
The roofing work dries up about the time of the wedding, which is ok. Back from the honeymoon, I scan the yellow pages for work. Onan Roofers calls back, so I join this all-immigrant crew full-time. It is pure piecework, naked and unashamed: no nail guns, few toe boards, and full-throttle. Despite what I heard in Iowa, Hispanic people are not lazy. Never tell anyone your wife’s name, or the whole crew will be moaning it for the rest of the day.
Afraid of falling off the roof and unable to do this job part-time in the fall, I start up with a remodelling contractor. I completely screw up a small pair of doors on my fi
rst afternoon, which somehow angers and pleases my boss, simultaneously. I’m under his considerable thumb now. Later that day, I’m tasked with busting through a 10-inch concrete floor with a sledgehammer, and my education begins. I learn everything from footings to framing to finish carpentry, and love it all. During the school year, I work three days a week plus Saturday mornings, and go full-time in the summers. Measure carefully. Sometimes, genius is paired with tyrant. Always, always admit your mistakes. We can fix anything. Start doing the next task before anyone asks.
We’re off to San Francisco to do my seminary internship at a great church in El Sobrante. Since people call me ‘Pastor’ from day one, it seems appropriate to be baptized, so I do. But not before I preach my first sermon. I learn to revere the church, to learn constantly, to preach directly, to manage my own schedule, and to study deeply. Peet’s is the best coffee, Point Reyes is breathtaking, and Maverick’s is the biggest surf in the world.
I’m now legit, and so head to a solo pastorate in beautiful St. Ignace, Michigan. About an hour south of Canada. It’s way, way up there. It is a great church that loves me deeply and trusts me (almost) implicitly, despite the fact that I’m, like, 25. At the same time, between my school loans and car payment, my salary is heading us toward the red. And the town ain’t all that keen on outsiders, so the wife has a tough time finding a job. But we settle in alright, and enjoy it. In a tourist town, tourists are reviled in spite of their absolute necessity. In a small town, everyone knows what movie you rented on Friday. Church can be family.
The clarion call of church planting hits us hard, so we’re off to DC. I find the perfect job on my first try: apartment management, which gives a low-stress job and a place to live in one shot. Over the next 5 years, everything flips: the job becomes a nightmare, the apartment becomes a trap, and the church self-destructs. Simultaneously overstressed and underworked, I run marathons for a diversion. Lots of responsibility + zero authority = pure misery. “Hey, Mike, you’re doing such a great job that we realized you need more to do! Does that sound OK, or do you want us to fire/evict you?”
Piecework, again. I come full circle, fulfill my destiny, and all of that. I’m on staff with a church part-time, I teach a college course or two, I get out the tools for some remodelling projects, and I work as a groundskeeper/handyman in exchange for a rent-free apartment. Freedom is cool, but it can also be a drag. And it sometimes requires a lot of driving.