Writing books for a living looks like a great gig, from the outside. Well okay, it is. To be realistic, it’s a lot of work done over a period of years for no money, which is less than great. It also demands constant vigilance to one’s capacity for excellent time management, which yes, can put a damper on actually writing things. It’s a job in which self doubt and not office politics is on the ready to stifle productivity–and one gets familiar with the push-pull of internal conversations about choices, strategies, projects. All of this to say is, writing isn’t a perfect career, but it has its very nice moments.
For sure, I’ve had my share of stink-ass jobs. You know the ones–they make you change whole vocational paths, send you back to school or new training, haunt your dreams, make you leave a cart of groceries in the store because oh no, that jerk from three jobs ago is in the next aisle, talking as loudly as ever. Not every job qualifies for this list. Garden variety crappy jobs need not apply.
Blockbuster Video–As part of my hire, I had to go out and buy khaki pants and a light blue dress shirt. In 1993, these came to $40. At the minimum wage back then, it would have taken three shifts to make back my investment in my future. After the first day, I closed my eyes to go to sleep and couldn’t get the image of restocking video boxes out of my mind. On the second day I broke up a fight between two retail colleagues. There never was a third day, because I was fired, miscommunicating with the store manager over whether I had Independence Day off or not. (Apparently I did not.) So I actually lost money on the little part-time job that couldn’t.
ChaCha Answer Service–First, I had to pass a test of my computer knowledge, which amounted not much more than knowing where the power and return buttons are located on my machine. The next screening had me looking up certain information to answer test questions posed to me. Once I passed this test then there was some more paperwork, initializing my account with ChaCha, and installing a special task bar. And then every time I had the browser open, I had to tell the task bar if I was working or not. If I was working, I faced a constant stream of interruptions with the most blase questions from strangers–who won the 2003 World Series? Which countries have joined the Kyoto Treaty? Who is the leader of Switzerland? Even in 2008, when I attempted this foray into the instant knowledge service industry, smartphones were uncommon. Nowadays there’s much less need for human intervention to answer questions instantly available online with a few taps on a screen. Which is great for those of us who don’t want to earn 14 cents an answer and be chained to our laptops.
Food Service Work Study–College students are not known for their cleanliness. But someone has to wash all those hard plastic dishes and inexpensive flatware. And for one inglorious semester, that was me. To add to some context, let me point out that Syracuse University, where this work study took place, was the first university to irradiate all of its dining hall food upon receipt at its warehouse. Everything from the crumbling apples to the grainy tomatoes to the transparent spinach got its very own blast of radiation, which unfortunately did nothing to improve the taste of these products. So many of the dishes that rolled down the conveyor belt to my station were victims of angry unfed classmates. I saw tall constructions of mashed potatoes a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Worse, I had to deal with disgusting mashups of the special meat, drenched and overcooked green vegetables, and something that looked like it had once been in a Fruit Loops box. Or chewed up and spit out food; I’d come home smelling like I’d lounged in the deep fryer. The next semester I cajoled my way into working at the dorm satellite bookstore.
So yes, writing is better than any of these jobs, without question. Plus there’s a baby chewing on my sock as I type this.