A Dilemma: Good Climate or Good Wages?
Comes now a confession from me. Until now, I have only complained about my small Michigan hometown and how I couldn't wait to leave for good as soon as I was old enough to avoid being arrested as a runaway minor.
But I must admit that Benton Harbor had one shining virtue. It was a worker's "paradise" -- not in terms of climate or social sophistication, but in the ability to make a comfortable living with a high school diploma or even less education.
This was mainly because Benton Harbor was a strong union town. After World War II, many poor southerners had relocated to Benton Harbor which offered an abundance of decent-paying jobs for a town with a relatively small population of 18,000.
I had fled in the opposite direction to the climate paradise of Florida, a "right-to-work" state where unions were kept out of most industries. Florida should have been called a right-to-starve state based on the wages paid to typical workers.
I was earning only $60 per week and I had no health insurance benefits as a reporter for a daily newspaper in West Palm Beach when I became eligible for my first vacation. It was a one-week unpaid vacation and I decided to return to Benton Harbor to visit my mother and see how my friends were doing.
Although I could brag about living in a semi-tropical place with warm winters, I was surprised to discover that my friends were all making much more money than me for doing much less sophisticated work than I did.
One friend was already assistant manager of a supermarket, knocking down $150 per week with three weeks paid vacation per year plus health benefits. Not one of the young men I went to high school with earned less than $100 per week a year after we graduated. They could afford to live in nice two-bedroom apartments or houses while I rented a one-room "guest house" (read shack) in a fireman's back yard.
I was embarrassed to admit how little money I made doing a supposedly important job.
Before I left Michigan, I sent a job application to the chemistry department of Whirlpool Corporation, the washing machine manufacturer whose headquarters were in Benton Harbor where it was the largest single employer. I was a chemistry nut when I was a teenager and I was curious to see if my avocation could be turned into paying work some day.
During my brief vacation in Benton Harbor, my mother gave me a letter from Whirlpool she had forgotten to forward to me in Florida. It was a tentative job offer in Whirlpool's chemistry department.
I had no intention of giving up my newspaper job in Florida -- I was determined to be a writer even if it meant living on a wage that barely covered basic necessitites -- but I rescheduled the Whirlpool job interview and went in just for the hell of it.
I was surprised by what Whirlpool offered me: a nice clean job as a laboratory technician wearing a smock (as opposed to the dirty factory jobs that many of my friends had.) And the starting pay was $130 per week, more than twice as much as the salary I made in West Palm Beach where living costs were comparable to Benton Harbor.
I lied to the job interviewer and said I would get back to him soon, but the experience made me curious about something else. The next day I went to the daily newspaper in Benton Harbor and talked to the managing editor about a job.
After I explained my journalism experience in Florida, he promptly offered me a job as a general assignment reporter for $120 per week. This was a much smaller newspaper than the one where I worked in Florida, yet they paid twice as much because they had a union.
Of course I returned to my job in West Palm Beach (tropical junkie that I had become), but for a long time I couldn't shake the nagging suspicion that I was screwing myself financially. In Florida the sick joke was they paid you in sunshine because you sure as hell didn't earn much money in wages.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa