Willie StargellMarch 7, 2007
If one’s employment experiences could be transposed into baseball card statistics, the back of my own card could serve as a polar opposite to the back of Willie Stargell’s. The roots of this difference (which would open into full bloom in the disparity between Stargell’s majestic numbers and the spotty data produced from my mostly half-assed participation in the American workforce) would be found in the litany of transience along the left-hand margin. On the back of this Willie Stargell card, on the left-hand margin, there is one word repeated again and again. Pirates. Willie Stargell signed with the Pirates in 1958, and he retired from baseball as a Pirate in 1982: 24 years with one organization. In my own 24 years of employment (I’m pretty sure I got my first job, stuffing inserts into a woodstove company newsletter, at age 15, and I’m 39 now), I’ve held 24 different jobs. A few of them lasted a day, many for a few months, some for a couple years, and one, my liquor store job, for a period of time that generally seemed no more substantial than a span of aimless weeks but which turned out to be the better part of a decade.
I’ve had a lot of people who were the boss of me, and I guess I’ve been fairly lucky, all in all. No tyrants, a few oddballs, the occasional would-be mentor. There was the ice cream store manager who played bass in a band that sounded, as he once told me while passing me a joint of his pot in the basement, “just like Grand Funk Railroad”; the college maintenance worker who I was assigned to as a helper whose motto for every task was “fuck it; good enough”; the leather store owner with a divot in his arm where a concentration camp tattoo had been who hired me to watch out for shoplifters and who told me, repeatedly, to “be a mensch.”
“You know what a mensch is?” this boss would ask. Oskar Adler was his name. His wife had been in the camps, too.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. You’ve already told me a million times, I’d think. I thought he had a bad memory.
I was bored out of my mind that summer, 19 years old, leaning on a broom for eight unending hours in the small, hot warehouse amid towering stacks of completely uninteresting cowhide. I ended up quitting before I’d said I was going to, making up some preposterous lie that I was needed early back at college, as if there was some emergency at my obscure state school that only I could solve. This left him short-handed for the last weeks of the summer. Fuck it, I was thinking. Good enough.
Oskar Adler didn’t complain. He even drove me home from the Spring Street warehouse to my Mom’s apartment in Brooklyn on my last day. Before I got out of the car he firmly shook my hand with his Nazi-surviving grip. He held the grip and looked me in the eye.
“Josh, be a mensch,” he said. “You know what a mensch is?”
“I know, I know.” He gave my hand one last squeeze.
“Be a mensch,” he said.
I really thought I knew what a mensch was, too. I mean, he had explained it to me a hundred times. But of course you can’t simply say you know what a mensch is. You have to be a mensch, which is not easy. You have to be solid, stable, reliable. A pillar for others, a constant in a changing world. Someone to lean on and to draw strength from.
You have to be Willie Stargell. Or at least try.