Thursday, April 7, 2011

Becoming Invisible

In the winter of 1960 I had to make a major decision. I would be completing 8th grade in June and starting high school. The decision? Where to go. I had three choices. Monsignor Bonner High School was the option for continuing my Catholic education. It was several miles and a Red Arrow trolley ride away. There was no tuition cost then. Springfield High School was the public school. It had (and still has) a good reputation, and was a yellow school bus away. School taxes covered the tuition. The third choice was to attend a private high school. None were close to me. All charged steep tuition, book costs, and activity fees. Plus, public transportation to reach them wasn't cheap and took over a hour each way.

It should have been an easy choice. Bonner and Springfield were close, with free tuition, and a quick trip both ways. Devon Prep, Malvern Prep, Archmere Academy, and St. Joseph's Preparatory High School (known as the Prep) would put a financial strain on my parents, especially since my older brother was already a sophmore there. However, there was an historical connection to the Prep. Father Dennis Comey, a Jesuit priest and cousin, founded the Institute of Industrial Relations in 1943 at the Prep. Workers from every trade in the tri-state area came to the institute to discover and use rational and ethical practices in their businesses. In 1950, President Eisenhower asked Father Dennis to serve as the arbitrator of all disputes on the Philadelphia waterfront. He had unlimited authority and often stood between hard muscled dock workers and management on the freezing docks. There were zero strikes during his tenure. His name frequently appeared in the local and national papers, as well as the Catholic Standard and Times, where he wrote a column. People often asked me, when I first met them, if I was related to the famous Father Comey.

So, with this celebrity relative who had graduated from the Prep in 1914 (and earned his doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome) and a brother already there, I applied to and was accepted at the Prep. However, the morning after my 8th grade graduation, my father told me to put on old clothes and go with him. We drove to an Esso gas station several miles away. My father introduced me to the owner. They both congratulated me on officially becoming a gas jockey. I would work days and some nights for a dollar an hour throughout the summer. I would work weekends during the winter. I would turn my paychecks over to my mother who would use them to assist with the Prep costs.

I knew nothing about pumping gas (no self serve then), or changing oil and filters, or flushing antifreeze and studding tires. I quickly learned. The work was nasty in August from the scorching engines, and freezing in January when your hand stuck to the icy gas pumps. I saw my friends often go to dances and parties when I was working. But, it was my choice and I felt proud knowing that I was following in Father Dennis's footsteps.

As time passed, however, I began to realize that I was becoming invisible. It was very subtle at first. When I approached a car that pulled up to the gas pumps in my Esso shirt, with my rag in my back pocket, I always said, "Good morning/afternoon/evening. May I help you." The driver of the car, regardless of age or sex, generally did not look at me. She/he would tell me how much gas they wanted and frequently asked me to check their oil and radiator levels. While the gas was being pumped, I would wash their front window. The driver and the people in the car rarely looked at me, even though my face was just on the other side of the windshield. After all was done, and I had them sign a charge slip or gave them change from their purchase, they usually said thanks, but they rarely looked at me.

I was confused. Here I was, a hard working kid, earning his tuition to pay for a first class education, but people wouldn't make eye contact with me. My hair was groomed and my tone was helpful. I quickly performed all of the tasks that they requested, and then cheerfully asked them to come back again. I finally asked the owner of the station why I was becoming invisible.

"People are not ignoring you to be nasty or unkind, " he told me. "You're a grease monkey when you walk up to them, not a private school kid working his tail off. They see oil stains on your shirt and smell gas on your clothes. They assume that you'll be changing tires and dumping quarts of oil into their crankcase for the rest of your life. There's a pecking order, Jim, and when you walk out there onto the gas island, you are at the very bottom of it."

I worked at the gas station for 8 years to help pay my way through the Prep and college. Along the way, I also worked as a parking attendant at the Army and Navy Games, a paint store salesman for MAB in Chester and Brookhaven, and later, when I started teaching, as a major appliance salesman at Korvette's in Springfield. At each of these jobs, there were varying degrees of invisibility. Assumptions were made about what I did, not who I was.

Ralph Ellison wrote: "I am an invisible man...I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." It is no accident that, over the last 41 years, in all phases of my educational employment, I have become friends with the secretaries, maintanance workers, bus drivers, technicians, cafeteria servers, electricians, teaching assistants, greeters, and photocopiers, as well as the professional educators. Each has had a story to tell, a dream to be chased, and a laugh to be heard. None has deserved to become invisible.

Copyright (c) 2011 by James Hugh Comey

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