(Editor’s note: This is an encore column that was originally published in 2013.)
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.
My first summer after graduating high school I worked for six weeks as a counselor at Camp Woodhill at Camp McCumber, a camp for developmentally disabled adults and kids. Each week delivered a new batch of campers to my quaint little cabin with wood bunk beds. My favorite campers were kids. My least favorites were the adults, because I was just 17, and felt out of my league. In retrospect, I’m lucky I made it through those six weeks without anything going wrong. I still get creeped out remembering a schizophrenic developmentally disabled older woman named Sylvia who preferred to sing “Me and My Shadow” than sleep. I didn’t sleep much that week, either.
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. I adore gift-wrapping.
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, where I found my thrill in convincing my department head that he should let me create shrink-wrapped layette gift boxes filled with stuff I got to pick out. (I still like making shrink-wrapped gift baskets.)
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 and cleanings. 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 where I lost my breakfast.
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.
I had another brush with the medical field when I cleaned a dermatology office after hours where my friend worked. I went in late, after my husband was home with the kids. The office was in a big house on Trinity Street in Redding, a place that felt scary to me at night. My squeamishness kicked in a few times as I dumped trash cans and encountered stuff I’d rather not have seen. The kicker was the job also included cleaning the doctor’s kids’ play room upstairs. I hated that job, too. I lasted about six months and finally quit.
When my daughter was a baby, I had a brief stint selling Princess House Crystal at home parties in Stockton when my husband was home studying for his pharmacy exams (he also worked two jobs in addition to going to school). Selling Princess House Crystal was similar in concept to the Tupperware parties back in the day. The thing is, crystal is heck-a heavy, and I had two big suitcases filled with the stuff to schlep into women’s living rooms and set up: glasses, cake stands, candy dishes, and the dark velvet tablecloths and strings of lights to make the crystal sparkle.
I loathed that job, mainly because I was really bad at it. I hated lugging those heavy suitcases, and I hated trying to talk women into buying crystal that I didn’t really like. I also hated trying to strong arm the guests into booking parties. (Funny, now when I see Princess House Crystal in antique stores, I appreciate it as kind of pretty.)
Later, as a young mother, I endured one of the most miserable winters of my life when I decided to do daycare in my home through a county program that provided child care by people like me for mothers who were on public assistance. It made sense. 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.
There was a time I joined a friend in her business that catered to Worker’s Compensation clients. Mainly we taught job-seeking skills workshops and created resumes. My favorite part of that job, by far, was when insurance companies paid me to take clients shopping for new clothes so people changing careers could look presentable for interviews and new jobs. I spent many, many joyful hours at Montgomery Ward in Redding with a variety of men and women, tossing clothing over dressing rooms, and begging people to just humor me, because I knew they’d look great in whatever I’d picked out.
As a young mother, I taught children’s cooking classes for city of Redding Parks and Recreation Department. It was an incredible amount of prep and clean-up for a tiny bit of money.
All those jobs were before I returned to college and earned my journalism degree, 20 years after I graduated high school. Better late than you know what.
On this Labor Day, I give thanks for the jobs I’ve held over the years, and all I’ve learned, including revelations about what I liked to do and what I couldn’t stomach.
In honor of Labor Day, let’s hear it: Your most memorable jobs.