Labor Day Tales: Blood, Guts, Gift Wrap and Daycare

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(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.

One Princess House Crystal suitcase remains. The crystal is long gone.

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.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is 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, California.
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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Roberta Busher says:

    I also worked as a motel maid, during my high school years. The worst was when a group of duck hunters left the bathtub full of feathers. My favorite job was working at a veterinarian office while going to college. I was a registered dental assistant before I got married, and like you Doni, I have a weak stomach. I wasn’t very good at it!

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I always thought being a hygienist would be a great profession . . . IF your patients practiced good home hygiene. Otherwise, no thanks.

      Doni, besides being a mother and grandmother, I hope being the founder of ANC has been your most rewarding job.

  2. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    A temp job at a bank that offered incentive prizes for opening accounts of more than $10,000. (This was a loooong time ago.) I was continually amazed at how many people had $10,000 and wanted – no, demanded – their toaster for opening an account. One very nice elderly couple came in week after week with yet another $10,000, gradually collecting a bridal shower’s worth of small appliances. I guess it was the principle of the thing.

    I lasted one day at Bear Stearns answering the phone. Nothing would happen for hours, then the phone would ring and a man would yell “FLUGHS MJUR ROPG!” and I’d say, “What?” Turns out that’s what they do on the floor of the stock exchange – make frantic yelling calls about whatever it is they need to tell you, all of which is unintelligible. I suppose it’s different now.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Before I turned 30?

    Caught and sold nightcrawlers
    Found and sold golf balls
    Carpenter’s assistant
    Gravel pit laborer
    Ski instructor
    Fishing guide
    Ski area maintenance
    School sports referee
    Racquetball club maintenance
    Grain Inspector
    Bookstore shipping and receiving
    Research Assistant
    Teaching Assistant
    University Lecturer
    Statistics & Methodology Fellowship

  4. Steve Steve says:

    I, like you, Doni, have had many jobs. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Over the years I went back and forth between my home city and Hollywood, California. My first jobs were working in movie theaters. I made popcorn by the barrels for theaters. I also worked the candy counters, was usher, doorman, and assistant manager. In Los Angeles I worked at the Wiltern theater. One of my co-workers was Sally Struthers shortly before she got her gig as Gloria Stivic in the TV sitcom “All In The Family”. I got to see many actors at the concession stands and tore tickets at the door. One night tearing tickets, Groucho Marx came in with a beautiful woman on each arm. Very memorable.

    Another memorable job, was being a DJ for the #1 country music station in Salt Lake City. People were fun to talk with on the radio.

    I worked for a law firm in Los Angeles who set up new corporations. I traveled a bit to various cities, which included flying in small planes. I conducted the first business meetings with new business owners. Quite memorable. Most of my time was in Las Vegas, where I also got to do a little stage performing – The Union Plaza, Sahara’s, Danny Thomas’s Hide-a-way, and Paul Anka’s Restaurant Nightclub.

    So I’ve done a little acting. One favorite job was for a potato chip commercial out of Salt Lake City. I was a goofy court jester trying to satisfy the king with a cupcake. He hated it and I was carried away to my death. The king settled on Clover Club potato chips. Definitely funny and memorable.

    After moving to Redding in 1986, I had the honor of performing in 3 plays at the Riverfront Playhouse. My favorite and last was “Foxfire”. I played a sleazy real estate agent. I didn’t get paid for that. It was just fun to mention.

    Right after that play, I got my career job with the postal service on Churn Creek. For the most part, I enjoyed that job until I retired. It was quite memorable for many reasons.

    It’s been a good working life. Busy, but memorable.

  5. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    Early on jobs I was “let go” from:

    Madame Tussauds wax museum in San Juan Capistrano, CA. High school freshman, got to wear a frilly costume, and I had frilly ideas. There was a scene depicting the famous bullfighter, Manolete, in a bullring with an Ernest Hemingway wax figure on the exterior looking down from above. I would stand still next to the wax figure, and when enough visitors were present, I would pop into life and startle them. Really, they loved it! And it was better than cleaning the glass eyes of Alice in Wonderland with a q-tip and alcohol, which scared me for some reason. Reason given for being let go was too many Guides.

    Monterey Bay Aquarium during their construction phase. I had just completed a five year wonderful experience at the Monterey Museum of Art. I was even allowed to build my own darkroom for processing film. Yet, I thought the Aquarium would provide more opportunity. Nope. I was hired to answer the twenty phone lines, and type correspondence at the same time. Also, special events. I was responsible for catering a lunchtime Board meeting. And trust me, very nice Carmel Valley wines were served. I explained to Julie Packard’s assistant that we ought to provide something non-alcoholic as well. The assistant insisted that wasn’t necessary. After the meeting, Julie Packard’s mother approached me. She graciously said how lovely the catering was. However, she had one suggestion, “offer something non-alcoholic next time.” I didn’t think it was appropriate to mention the assistants role. Shortly after, while eating her lunch (I can still recall the slurping sounds from her soup), Julie Packard, along with the assistant, told me I wasn’t “suited,” and that maybe later some other position would be a match. I noticed the assistant was also let go shortly after as well. The work culture of that place was fascinating. Lot’s of under 25 year old Phd’s. I’m probably exaggerating. Once, I was at the copy machine, and it jammed. There was a line behind me, and I explained I was new, and did anyone know how to fix a paper jam in the copy machine. One by one, they all turned around and simply walked away. Well, there was one exception, he told me it wasn’t his job.

  6. I love hearing about all your jobs. So Interesting!

  7. Avatar Eleanor Townsend says:

    OK, in line with Steve, before 30:

    Delivering morning newspapers on my bike at 14. House to house on Saturdays to collect payments.
    Picking peas in the fields, still dark in the mornings.
    Saturday jobs:
    managing a dress store, alone. Man wanted me to ‘try on clothes for his wife.’ Right,
    handbag store in town, ‘Sherry’s’. Four Seasons’ ‘Sherry’ on loudspeaker outside all day looooong.
    Woolworth, of course.
    Supermarket, stocking shelves.
    Pulling pints in a bar on the Kings Road, Chelsea. ‘Shaft’ anyone? Can you dig it?
    A year living in Paris, matching au pairs with families in NYC.
    Special events for ballerina at The Royal Ballet in London.
    ‘Hostess’ at TWA.

  8. Avatar James Montgomery says:

    So, we were all hippies in Santa Barbara, living loosely together in a building up on the hill. Smoking dope, eating brown rice, playing music and sometimes going to college at UCSB. Living off scholarships and fish we could catch from the ocean, but occasionally we all fell into the need to go to work. One of the standard places was a long-term care place down the hill in Goleta.
    It happened that I needed to go to work, so I went down there looking for a job. On the way, some nurses and aides were walking some old and disabled people across the street, so I helped them get across, wheelchairs and what-not. Boy Scout, you know.
    The nurse said, “Thank you.”
    I said, “Happy to oblige. I was just going over to that place over there to apply for a job.”
    She said, “Young man, come with me,” marched me to the admin office and told the head guy, “Hire this young man right now.”
    So that was the easiest job I ever got, for sure. It was interesting too, for awhile. I always got my beds made for me, because there was always someone who needed something heavy lifted, like violent patients, for instance. It was strange for me, because I was physically the strongest person in the building, by far. That never happened on any football team I played on, or any gym I went to!
    I liked the job ok, but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t mind the gross bodily fluids (really gross!) or the feedings or any of that stuff. What happened was that there was this patient I really liked, a retired contractor. I admired him. Strong, hard-working, honest and funny, but he went downhill rapidly, and became truly pathetic, needing diapers and yelling and thrashing about, confused and afraid. One day it made me so upset that I just had to go into one of the bathrooms and cry.
    Listen, I didn’t just admit that, and if you tell anyone, I’ll call you a liar. Anyway, I quit not long afterward.

  9. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I have a pretty boring work history before 30.

    In sixth and seventh grade, a was a carrier for the Ventura Star-Free Press.

    During summers after my freshman, sophomore, and junior years in high school, I worked as a lumper loading and unloading big rig trailers for my dad’s employer. That was cool because I usually worked with my dad.

    During my senior year in high school and until six months after graduating, I worked in a movie theater until I went into the Army to become a rotary-wing jock.

  10. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    A gem of a job for me in the sea of jobs I did (janitor, cook, waitress, motel maid, bar maid, mill worker, housekeeper, etc. etc.) was a job as a dragon mask maker in a Chinese Art exibition at the L.A. County Fair. I also designed and painted all of the wall hangings and created shadow puppets for the Chinese puppeteer. I worked on my masks right across from the famous Chinese Brush Artist Ning Yeh A woman who worked on beautiful pieces of cloisonne while other people engaged in various arts. For lunch, one of the artists, George Wong would cook us a stir fry meal that he created in a huge wok. What a wonderful experience.

  11. Avatar Candace C says:

    I worked at Strout Realty on Cypress ( stuffing envelopes); D’Amato’s Restaurant on Pine St.; Shakey’s Pizza on Eureka Way; Kozy Corners Pizza on Athens; SunWest and Jean Nicole clothing stores in MSM; Sears snack bar in MSM; cocktail waitress on the Hilltop strip (for two weeks, lol, where I drove my first car, a ‘69 Dodge Coronet “home” every night to a house with no electricity (free rent) located down a road that was located below the first passing lane on Buckhorn Summit); maid at the Brookdale Lodge in Felton, CA; and finally 33+ years in the Advertising Dept. at the RS.

  12. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    While in Taft College, I taught PE at St. Mary’s Catholic School. During one summer, I worked at the Seattle World’s Fair. My Uncle was good friends with a chap who had a booth in the food court. Uncle would tell people that I was a cocktail waitress, which I was, but it just happened to be shrimp cocktails, not alcohol, which I was too young to serve.