How Long Hair Led Me into Journalism
I couldn't bring myself to cut my hair, and that may have charted the course of my life.
What’s the most memorable job you ever had as a teenager? It’s a great question to discuss with friends at a party. Often I hear people talk about their summers as camp counselors or mowing lawns for five dollars a pop. Some people reminisce about working in fast-food restaurants or as maintenance workers at the local amusement park cleaning up the inevitable results of too much soda and candy mixed with repeated rides on the Tilt-a-Whirl.
Those tales always bring a few laughs, but frankly those are the kinds of jobs I envied when I was a teen. In fact, I applied for those jobs—all of them, but I was always turned down. And the reason was always the same.
I refused to cut my hair.
I was pretty much a by-the-book guy in high school, but this was one thing I couldn’t bring myself to compromise on. It’s not that I had a ponytail or hair down on my shoulders. In the early seventies, the definition of “long hair” meant anything over the ears. Some employers were even opposed to hair that touched the tops of ears or covered any portion of the forehead. And from the time I first saw the Beatles on television, I was determined that, for as long as possible, I would expose little of my forehead or ears to the world, even if it meant forfeiting that lucrative summer job at McDonalds. It was my way of rebelling without hurting anyone.
Yet I managed to find part-time employment. A friend told me about a minimum-wage job where no one cared about the length of my hair, a job where the workers never came in contact with the public. The job was in the mailroom of our small-town newspaper, and it was perfect for me.
The paper was widely read in our community. Stories about school board meetings and high school football games and grand openings kept locals informed, but the paper’s other raison d'être was to sell advertising, and the publisher’s purpose was every bit as much about making money as it was about serving the community. If that meant avoiding the cost of expensive equipment, then so be it. My job, along with everyone else's in the mailroom, was to combine the two sections of the newspaper (section "A" and section "B") into one. The newspaper had obviously calculated that a dozen young men earning $1.60 an hour were cheaper than the price of a multi-thousand dollar section-combining machine.
Twice a week after school and every Saturday we would show up for work, retrieve a stack of section "A" papers from a rack, and set them to our left on a long table in front of us. We would do the same with section "B," placing that stack to our right. Then with a quick fluid motion, we would lift the center of section "A" with our left hand, and then with our right, slap section "B" into it, resulting in a third pile of papers containing both sections. We would repeat this mindless exercise for hours, until each newspaper was intact and ready for delivery.
One might conclude this to be a boring way to earn money, but actually it was just the opposite. That’s because once a worker got into the swing of it, the action became as natural as breathing, freeing the mind to think of other things: that new joke we had just heard, the hot new girl at school, why the Beatles were better than the Stones, or any of the endless cerebral activities that did not require use of the hands. Often my best friend and I would work at a table facing one another and plan future activities, express opinions, and talk about upcoming tests we needed to study for.
In fact, some of us managed to hang notebook paper or even textbooks on the wall in front of us while we performed our menial left-right-left-right movements and actually study while we worked. There were some positions in the mailroom that were more suited to this than others, and every time final exam time came around, we had to draw straws for those positions most conducive to cracking the books. It was the only real source of conflict I ever remember having with my co-workers.
Then there were those lucky occasions when the press would break down and we would have no work to do. I say lucky because we were still on the clock, counting those buck-sixty-an-hour minutes with glee, and planning how we were going to spend all that loot.
We always had to be on our guard not to appear too idle, should one of the paper's higher-ups pay a visit. Now and then, the newspaper’s editor or one of his mid-managers would stroll through the mailroom on his way to the pressroom to see what the holdup was. When we got word of the boss man's approach, each of us would suddenly grab a section of the newspaper and begin to study the copy as if it were Pulitzer-caliber journalism. We wanted to make sure the powers-that-be understood that even if we had a little down time, we were putting it to good use by appreciating the stellar product that we were helping to deliver. I don’t know if we made an impression or not, but it often kept the editor from finding us “busy work” while we waited for the press to be repaired.
There was really only one down side to being employed in the newspaper’s mailroom. That was the ink. Every article of clothing we wore to work became saturated with printer’s ink as the hot-of-the-presses newsprint constantly rubbed against our clothes, hands, arms and faces. By the time each shift was over, we were thoroughly smudged with a thick layer of carbon black, something my bathtub at home could certainly attest to. I don’t know if the rings ever completely came out, and I threw away a lot of blackened tee shirts before I graduated from high school.
When it was time for me to head off to college, I was sad to leave the mailroom. That job had been a wonderful introduction to the world of employment. I still remember most of the guys I worked with, and the newspaper went on to touch me in other areas of my life. I went on to a career in news, and the publisher's son coincidentally ending up marrying my sister. Soon enough I would have to cut my hair when it came time to step in front of a TV camera, but the job allowed me an extra year or two of benign rebellion before I had to make that compromise. By then, every other young male had hair over his ears too.
I like to think that I was simply ahead of my time.
© Nick Walker 2018
What was your first job? Do you remember it fondly or would you rather forget it? Please comment below.