Saturday, 22 June 2013 19:16

Ask the Editor: Your first job? Try 'gandy dancing'

Written by  J.R. Williams Frederick News-Post Staff
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True story: A group of fellow News-Posters and I had barely settled into our chairs one night downtown when a guy ambled to our table.

"Hey," he said, perhaps because we were dressed for the office. "Where do you guys work?"

I told him, but made the mistake of introducing Colin McGuire as the newspaper's music critic. At this news, the man brightened with surprise, leaned back and began to sing.

With emotion.

Others in the room turned puzzled faces toward us. Another colleague of mine scowled and massaged his forehead.

Despite his questionable tact, the guy surprised us. He didn't sound half bad, and eventually we got him to quiet down and had a conversation. Turns out he's a subscriber, and he even announced a favorite day of publication: Monday.

It's been more than a year since we brought back the Monday paper, which was suspended in 2009, and launched a new, tabloid-format issue focused on business and agriculture.

We've published 71 Monday issues with cover stories on the expanding influence of Asian business owners; farmers growing beer ingredients; 13 up-and-comers under 30; and why car repair in Maryland costs more.

Readers have told us they like the format and the reliable features they look for the rest of the week. But we've also received positive feedback on elements unique to the Monday paper, including "Five Questions" and "Six Things to Know This Week." One reader emailed us to say she looks each Monday for "My First Job," where community leaders tell us how they got their start.

We've had dishwashers and hotel workers, lawn-mowers and golf-course gofers. Moira Bogley sweated inside a duck costume at an amusement park in 1982. Get this: Howard Levine walked into a U.S. Secret Service office in 1964, and they put him in a lab processing counterfeit money for fingerprints.

A particularly memorable first job story was published June 3. Jorge Ribas, president/CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, wrote elegantly about his tenure in 1966 as a "gandy dancer" railroad laborer. Talk about a job. This was the real deal. Here's Ribas describing what it was like to align rail tracks for $2.80 per hour:

"Track alignment required a unity of movement, too, in that we lined up on one side of the rail, wedged in our lining bars and leaned in on cue to move it. If even one person was off, there was a jarring sensation of failure against the rigid rail. But when we moved in unity over several repetitions, the rail moved neatly — or danced, as it's been called — and it was a beautiful feeling."

Ribas and his co-workers had a secret to pass the time that reminded me of the guy we met downtown.

"The work was made easier by singing ... so that we coordinated our movements in time to the music as we shuffled along the rail prying and pushing, which also gives an image of a dance. The speed and cadence of the song matched the nature of the task. The singing helped relieve boredom for the workers, too."

We make the effort to find and publish these stories because they're often unexpected or funny, but ultimately because we see ourselves in them. We've been there.

It was no railroad work, but I won't forget squinting under a relentless Alabama sun, pushing a snake of burning shopping carts across a parking lot radiating waves. I remember the pride of cashing my paycheck at the service desk. I was 14 years old and made minimum wage.

It was worth it.

Where were you back when? Sing out.

J.R. Williams is news editor at The Frederick News-Post.

Read 3446 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 December 2016 15:00


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