In 1977, I thought I knew what hard work was. In rural Illinois, corn detasseling, mowing grass and shoveling snow were not odd jobs—they were necessary.
Going to college was not necessary. But I was determined to go and necessary became less about mother nature or buying a car and more about the green I’d need to become someone new.
I applied to all of the summer jobs listed in the Decatur Herald. The most important-sounding one at Taylor Pharmaceuticals was the one I was lucky enough to get. Minimum wage was $2.30 and this job paid $3 an hour. Forty hours a week. With my student loans, I would be rich enough to attend Illinois State by the end of the summer.
I don’t remember the requirement of a uniform. Just to be there before my 7 a.m. shift, which I knew would be the hardest part. But it wasn’t.
My high school had two study carrels, both reserved for juniors and seniors who could listen to either John Denver or Bachman Turner Overdrive on headphones. At Taylor, about 100 mostly middle-aged women didn’t listen to anything but the clinks of glass vials as we lifted them from their corrugated nests stacked in boxes, inches from our right arms.
These carrels’ interior walls were painted white and black. A naked light bulb lit up the box so that we could detect “foreign particles” in each vial’s suspension. How animal, vegetable or mineral ended up in a tube of tetracycline was the most interesting thing about the job, but we were not to ask.
The job required nothing but decent eyesight, which was not tested. You picked up a vial, shook it and held it up to the light against the white wall and then the black one. If you could see a chunk of something floating around, you put it in the reject pile. If the specks were small enough, it passed.
My future college roommate Mary and I worked the same shift, and experienced that first morning’s 15-minute break together. As we watched all the women walk out into the sunshine, pulling Marlboro and Salem packs out of their pockets, we looked at each other. One of the women came over: “Well, was it what you thought?” She chuckled, but the skin around her grey eyes didn’t crinkle. Her eyeballs just sat in their nests of dark circles. Mary and I must have smiled and said no or that it was alright. The last thing I wanted, I thought, was to be seen as an uppity college girl.
When the woman walked away, a conversation between my roommate and me seemed redundant. We stood together under a tree for what could have been an hour or 10 more minutes. In the distance, I watched a farmer mow a pasture. I thought I heard Takin’ Care of Business on his tractor’s radio. Mary said something about remembering to bring cigarettes tomorrow as we slowly walked back inside to what was now required.