Saturday, September 25, 2010

Go home and put some meat on your bones. You're going to work your ass off here.

When you look at my supreme awesomeness today, it's hard to believe there was a time when I was a scrawny, 120-lb nerd.

It was the summer of 1987, I was 14 years-old, and I wanted a car. But cars don't just fall from the sky--I needed a j-o-b. I applied at every place within walking distance of our house. I wanted to land that sweet position at Hardee's about a half-mile away, but they wouldn't hire me. I guess I wasn't old enough. I guess no one thought I was old enough, because no place would even call me back.

Except one.

Just over two miles from home was Tomahawk Car Wash, a full-service drive-through place with a detail shop. It was a fair walk over there, and I didn't see too many people that looked like me working. But it did have to do with cars, so I filled out an application and left it with someone behind the counter.

The next day, I got a call to come over for an "interview." My parents drove me over there, and I was sent over to speak with Tony, the owner, who was out on the lot drying off cars with the rest of the crew. He was a big, Lebanese dude with a deep piercing voice and broken English. I stood there in my good shirt, staring up at him with a "what am I doing here?" look on my face. He looked down at me with a look of disgust. I can recall the entire interview verbatim:

"You want to work now?"

"Well, I kind of wore my good clothes. I was thinking I could start tomorrow."

"Alright. Go home and put some meat on your bones. You're going to work your ass off here."

And that was that. I was all set to spend my summer on the corner of 75th and Nieman Road. And I was scared to death.

Tomahawk Car Wash was a very busy place, and it didn't take long to see that Tony was serious about that working my ass off thing. I started out just drying off cars and washing towels, and there wasn't a moments rest. We were open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and we got a half-hour lunch, for which we had to clock out. I was only making $3.25/hour, so if I was going to make any money doing this, I needed to put in a lot of time.

I worked six-to-seven days-a-week during the summer, and the only time off was when it rained. Unless we had to shovel out the sludge pit or scrub the inside walls. Then we could keep working. Nobody cared how old I was, where I came from, or if I could even drive. They just wanted the line to move, and the customers to be happy. "Quality and Speed!" was the chant that Tony would boom to the troops, and if he didn't get that, he would unleash the intense power of this formidable wrath all over you.

I don't know if it was fear, greed, or a combination of both, but I began to take that "Quality and Speed" thing to heart. It got to the point where it actually torqued me when someone wasn't doing their job right. I didn't just want to work my ass off; I wanted to kick ass at that job.

Luckily, if a guy wasn't motivated to do a good job out there, he usually didn't last long. You absolutely had to pull your weight, and the guys that couldn't usually didn't last more than a day or two.

But the people that wanted to work and work hard usually lasted a very long time. The main crew consisted mostly of people that weren't native Kansas residents. Most of them were Mexican guys, who seemed to live a harder life at home than they had at work. It really wasn't unusual for them to miss work due to gunshot wounds. If the wound was fatal, they missed work even longer. But for the most part, they really got after it, and I had to work extra hard to keep up with them.

They weren't the only ones there, though. We had a pretty big group of Russians there. I never see real Russians anywhere else around here. How did they end up in Shawnee, Kan.? They were hard workers too, but hard to communicate with. I could usually figure out what the Mexican guys were saying, and eventually my Spanish became passable, but that Russian was impossible as far as I was concerned. I think that communication barrier made that group of people a little more intense, because I rarely noticed much of a sense of humor there.

One person who had no trouble talking with everyone was Tony, the owner. Tony's family owned a chicken farm in Lebanon, and when things got too intense there, he relocated here, bringing along his Middle East-spec 500-series Mercedes and the money for the car wash. He could speak five languages, had a sharp business mind, and an inexhaustible work ethic. He was one of the most intense people I've ever met, and ran the car wash like a Superbowl coach.

Surprisingly, he converted to Catholicism, and married the little gal that owned the office supply store across the street. She was the sweetest, most timid person in the world; the Polar opposite of Tony. But somehow, they seemed really happy together and made a great couple.

As time went on, I really gained a lot of respect for Tony and the way he ran his business. If you were good to him, he'd be good to you.

My parents were sure I wouldn't last a week at that job, and they were right. I actually made it all the way through the summer, then worked on the weekends when school started back up. As I worked on a permanent farmer's tan, I continued to find my way back to that grungy little place. Throughout high school. Throughout college. In fact, I kept going back there for eight years.

As much as I really loved that terrible little job, there came a point where I knew that my career aspirations were higher. And as I started searching for a "real" career, Tony wrote me a reference letter, which you can click on and look at in this story. From the same guy who clearly didn't have much hope for me when we first met, the letter is something that I'm still proud of today. I met a lot of good people at that job, some of whom I'm still friends with now. I learned irreplaceable lessons about people, work ethic, and personal pride.

My sister is three years younger than I am, and she actually was hired at that Hardee's for her first job. She always smelled like the deep fat fryer, and never had anything good to say about any part of that experience. I can't tell you how glad I am that they thought I was too young.

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