Getting a Job
From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
My room had all the cheeriness of a dungeon and the appeal of a tomb. It was going to be impossible to stay there, but leaving held no attraction for me, either….
The answer came to me with the suddenness of a collision. I would go to work. Mother wouldn’t be difficult to convince; after all, in school I was a year ahead of my grade and mother was a firm believer in self-sufficiency. In fact, she’d be pleased to think that I had that much gumption, that much of her in my character. (she liked to speak of herself as the original “do-it-yourself girl.”)
Once I had settled on getting a job, all that remained was to decide which kind of job I was most fitted for. My intellectual pride had kept me from selecting typing, shorthand, or filing as subjects in school, so office work was ruled out. War plants and shipyards demanded birth certificates, and mine would reveal me to be fifteen, and ineligible for work. So the well-paying defense jobs were also out. Women had replaced men on the streetcars as conductors and motormen, and the thought of sailing up and down the hills of San Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer at my belt, caught my fancy.
Mother was as easy as I had anticipated. The world was moving so fast, so much money was being made, so many people were dying in Guam, and Germany, that hordes of strangers became good friends overnight. Life was cheap and death entirely free. How could she have the time to think about my academic career?
To her question of what I planned to do, I replied that I would get a job on the streetcars. She rejected the proposal with: “they don’t accept colored people on streetcars.”
I would like to claim an immediate fury which was followed by the noble determination to break the restricting tradition. But the truth is, my first reaction was one of disappointment. I’d pictured myself, dressed in a neat blue serge suit, my money changer swinging jauntily at my waist, and a cheery smile for the passengers which would make their own work day brighter.
From disappointment, I gradually ascended the emotion ladder to haughty indignation, and finally to the state of stubbornness where the mind is blocked like the jaws of an enraged bulldog.
I would go to work on the streetcars and wear a blue serge suit. Mother gave me her support with one of her usual terse asides, “that’s what you want to do? Then nothing beats a trial but a failure. Give it everything you’ve got. I’ve told you many times, ’can’t do is like Don’t Care.’ Neither of them have a home.”
Translated, that meant there was nothing a person can’t do, and there should be nothing a human being didn’t care about. It was the most positive encouragement I could have hope for.
In the offices of the Market Street Railway Company, the receptionist seemed as surprised to see me there as I was surprised to find the interior dingy and the décor drab. Somehow I had expected waxed surfaces and carpeted...