When asked to name some of my most challenging jobs, I tend to recall employment of my youth, before I turned 30.
I’ll leapfrog over my earliest baby-sitting jobs (at 50 cents an hour), because those don’t really count. And I’ll skip my stint as a teenage motel maid at the Casa Blanca, because it’s universally accepted that a motel maid is among the worst jobs imaginable. I won’t elaborate because you may be eating, but two words should sum the most disgusting aspects quite nicely: bodily fluids.
One of my first grown-up jobs was at the then-brand new J.C. Penney at the equally new Mt. Shasta Mall. I was a 20-year-old newlywed with a Dorothy Hamill haircut. I can’t recall my home address at that time, but I still remember my Penney’s associate number: 305. I felt as if I’d won the lottery when I was placed in the gift-wrapping department, where I knew I’d become a legendary gift-wrapping super star. Dream-job easy.
Enter the customer who made me hate my job and question my gift-wrapping talents. His hairdryer purchase for his new bride ruined everything. (Note to guys: Hairdryers are not romantic.) The hairdryer came in its own pistol-shaped cardboard box, all sharp angles. Our department lacked larger boxes for me to place the hairdryer in, so the man impatiently told me it was no big deal, just hurry up and wrap the hairdryer box.
I never took geometry in high school, but had I, it would have come in handy when wrapping that eight-sided box. The man glared as I struggled. I eventually wrapped the !*%&# box, but it took about five times longer than a standard shirt-box wrapping job, and it was a mess of patch-worked paper and criss-crossed tape and a big bow to try to distract one’s attention from the crappy wrapping. This was back before God invented gift bags.
I was transferred to the children’s department soon after.
By the next year I’d found a job working for a nice dentist as his front-office receptionist. I was pregnant with my first child, still at the stage when certain smells, like frying bacon, could make my stomach flip. No frying bacon in a dental office, so that wouldn’t be a problem, silly.
All went well until the day the dental assistant went home sick while the doctor was in the middle of doing full-mouth extractions on a man who was getting dentures.
I’d assisted on simple things before, like fillings. For those times, I concentrated on holding that little aspirator tube so the patient’s mouth didn’t fill with saliva. I was pretty good at that. I pretended I was vacuuming a tiny swimming pool.
But I’d never encountered anything that included blood, which was a good thing because I have a fairly weak stomach when it comes to blood and guts stuff (see motel maid, above). In fact, since childhood, my sisters could make me gag by just pretending they were vomiting.
The dentist apologized, but said he had no choice but to ask for my help.
I lasted through about three extractions before I became aware that the patient was sort of moaning … not in pain … just groaning and moving, which reminded me that there was a real person there, not the frozen Foster Farms chicken I’d been imagining to cope with the extractions. Equally sickening was the growing collection of extracted teeth – decayed and discolored – Tooth Fairy rejects – on the tray. I started seeing spots and hearing a high-pitched buzz. I barely made it to the bathroom.
The dentist was sympathetic, and coaxed me out of the bathroom, where he led me to another room and gave me a little oxygen, just long enough to get my strength up so I could return to assist with the groaning man with the bloody mouth.
We repeated that scene – of me rushing for the bathroom and the dentist coaxing me out with cool cloths and oxygen – a few more times before the appointment was over. I consider that the official end of my dental assisting career.
Later, as a young mother, I endured one of the most miserable winters of my life when I decided to do day care in my home through a county program that provided child care for mothers on public assistance. After all, I was home with my three kids. How much worse would it be to have three or four additional children under foot?
Worse cubed on steroids.
I felt trapped, because we had just one car and my husband needed it for work. My kids resented my divided attention. The caliber of kids – and parents – was pretty rough. Toddlers often arrived in urine-soaked pajamas that smelled like cigarette smoke, and the kids talked like sailors. I lasted until spring and then quit.
On this Labor Day, I give thanks for the jobs I’ve held over the years, and all I’ve learned. Sure, there have been a few bumps here and there, but nothing that my previous training didn’t help me overcome.
In honor of Labor Day, let’s hear it: Your worst jobs.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.