During my undergraduate years, my family got by on very little income. Since I had spent several years not going to school, getting married, having a kid (and planning another), living in the woods, and making saddles, it was basically our responsibility to deal with school. We did get some nice help from our family, especially my grandfather who sent us $1000/year in 4 installments/year while I was in school. That really helped, and it was particularly meaningful that he was the only scientist I really knew growing up. Grandpa was an entomologist and for some part of his career was the state entomologist of Connecticut. Among other accomplishments, he was influential in convincing the governor of CT not to spray DDT to control a big Gypsy Moth outbreak in the state.
When I first returned to school at the University of Utah, scraping to get by and taking out student loans, I got a job managing the luggage repair shop at Broadway Shoe Repair in Sugarhouse, Utah (part of SLC). The shop was big enough to get referrals to fix luggage that airlines broke. I got very good at replacing roller wheels, big zippers, handles, latches, etc. I got my share of golf bags with torn handles, torn awnings, and of course a lot of purses needing zippers. The nicest part of the job was that I could set my hours and also come in to fix things when then shop was closed. I had my own entrance, but I was part of the main shoe shop. I also learned about what works and what doesn’t in bags, and that has helped my custom bags.
Ever since I worked for Wayne Clark in Tip Top Shoe Repair, I’ve really liked shoe repairmen and other “salt of the earth” workers. I didn’t develop quite such a close relationship with the people in the the main shop at Broadway, because I worked odd hours and in my own space. However, we had a friendly relationship, and I’d always stop in to say hi and to get details on jobs that had come in while I was gone. One day the head shoe repairman came over to my section of the shop, looking a little concerned. I asked what was on his mind, and he told me about some problem he was having with his ear and was wondering what he should try to fix it. Even though I was in my second quarter of General Chemistry and was an Art Major with about 5 years of saddle making experience, he knew that I was a premed (soon to change) and figured that I was qualified to offer some useful medical advice…!
I had been doing a good job fixing luggage, and we were feeling really poor. In addition to full-time classes at school, I was working about 20 hours/week in the luggage shop earning somewhere around $6-7/hr. My wife was pregnant with our second daughter and was providing child care to other kids with our young daughter so that we didn’t need to pay for child care ourselves. We were broke and were incredibly frugal at the grocery store, almost never ate out, and shopped at second hand stores for clothes and furniture. Feeling especially desperate, I went to the big bosses in the downtown main shoe repair shop to ask for a raise. They turned me down, saying that they thought that my salary was pretty good for “beer money” while I went to school.
I quit the luggage shop shortly after getting turned down for a raise, both because they made me so mad but also because I found my first job working in a scientific lab. I entered information into a very old fashioned data base at the US Geological Service. It was dull work but the first time that I realized that I could get paid money and support my family doing science. This was important to realize, since I was quickly losing interest in being an MD but rather was trying to figure out how a person becomes a basic scientist. I’ll always be grateful for the USGS job, dull as it was, because it was a starting point in my new career. I then got a paid job doing undergraduate research to figure out the chemicals that make sagebrush smell so nice, and that was pure joy!
The luggage repair job was in 1985-6, and it was the last “real work” that I’ve done. Since that time, I’ve spent many long hours doing some very difficult things, but my joy of doing it has always been much greater than the grind of the job. It doesn’t get much better than that.