Professional Histories – Part I

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If you don’t have a stupid or demeaning job skeleton in your closet, you should make one up. I always find that when I meet people who went from high school to a divinely ordained lifelong occupation, they are either lying, had enough family money or connection to bypass the proverbial crap job, or lack that particular quality or dimension of character I value so much of having been once humiliated and degraded to such a degree as to forever hold that tiny burning seed of self-doubt and painful remembrance in the secret folds of their hearts. You know who you are.

In terms of a bad jobs, I consider David Sedaris my personal hero. He has endured and triumphed brilliantly. I am still in the endurance phase myself. If you haven’t read When You Are Engulfed in Flames or Me Talk Pretty One Day, you’re missing out.

My first memorable “paid” gig came at eleven when I had to drive from Mill Valley to San Leandro and back in the tattered rear seat of a cat-fur covered Volvo sedan with my hermetic piano teacher who was taking one of her 17 cats on a cross country mission to see a veterinarian that specialized in feline nervous disorders. (That there wasn’t one of THOSE in Marin County, I find hard to believe.) My job was to comfort the cat (did you ever read The Witches of Worm?) who basically clawed his way up my neck and shoulders all the way across the Richmond Bridge until it finally wharfed up a hairball and puked all over me. I am deathly allergic to cats and the ordeal precipitated as asthma attack that sent me to the hospital. I think my mother was bartering my services to defray the cost of lessons. It was about 110 degrees that day and my piano teacher provided neither water nor food for the three hour excursion. To this day, I get a rash when I say “San Leandro.”

Most of my teenage years were spent as a lifeguard – either at our community pool or at a family camp in Yosemite where the pool was a modified trough that had served at one time as a cleaning station for the railroad cars that brought building supplies up the mountains during the time Hetch Hetchy Dam was being built, and the lake was a pond plugged up by the unseen dump decaying on the bottom. At the end of each summer on this “lake,” large mats of orange algae would form like bacterial nebula, inducing in all who swam in these treacherous waters an intestinal distress so savage that some lost control of their bowels while swimming. This bacterial apocalypse was endearingly referred to as the “Tuolumne Trots.” Usually around August it hit hardest. Adults and children alike could be seen running in visible discomfort from the dock to the bath-house where the guy who cleaned bathrooms (normally a cush job) was on official “grunt patrol” until the end of the swimming season when, due to low water levels, the treasure trove of abandoned tires and the remains of an old pickup truck began to emerge from the surface of the lake.

I think one of my favorite bad jobs was when I worked at a community recycling center in Wyoming. I had first come to the center to work of a traffic violation and, after the supervisor observed my keen skills with the can crusher, was hired on as 1 of 2 regular staffers. This job consisted of loading aluminum cans (most of them beer cans as the town was a ski resort) into an archaic crusher that turned them into flattened discs that were then sold to Idaho for God knows what. (I try not to think about Idaho very much.) The rest of the time I stacked pallets of newspapers and magazines with a forklift that I learned to drive in the snow. This wasn’t actually so bad as I had a view of the Tetons in the back. Somedays, when business was slow, my co-worker and I would crawl into the gigantic cardboard boxes of magazines and rip of labels of non-recyclable catalogs so that we could send “reminders” to the people who dumped them at the center that catalog quality paper couldn’t be recycled. Because it was a small community, we quickly learned about the shopping habits of many of the residents – most of whom were Mormon. Lots of mail-order hunting supplies and lingerie customers.

For several months in the winter the temperature hovered around 10 degrees and by the end of my second season, my toes were black with frostbite and my boss fired me for “poor circulation.” Despite the lowly nature of the work, I did have the sense that I was contributing, in some small way, to dealing with material culture gone mad by finding a better home for this stuff than landfills and those unofficial over-the-roadside-railing dumps one finds after the spring thaw. However, the defining moment came when my Jewish grandmother called from the East Coast and asked me what I was working at the dump for with a college degree. She seemed to think I was making a living by scavenging in the garbage. Old world anxieties, I guess.

more to come…

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