writers reflect on labors of love, odd jobs, tough jobs,
lonely jobs, and jobs that were not meant to be
several summers dur ing my early 20s, I worked for a Saratoga
socialite, a wealthy department-store heiress with a mansion
on North Broadway, a box at the racetrack and invitations
to all the season’s balls, galas and parties.
The job was never advertised. It was passed down from friend
to friend, starting with Skidmore girls before me. We wore
starchy white dresses that looked more like something nurses
in the 1950s would wear than maids in the ’90s. One time
my friend was taking the garbage out in this frumpy getup,
and a group of guys in a car drove by and yelled “Slut!”
We found this hysterical and laughed until we practically
As summer jobs go, it wasn’t a bad one. Our pay was pretty
good, under the table. Getting up early wasn’t required,
as the first task involved bringing our employer (we’ll
call her Ms. M) breakfast in bed, and she slept until noon.
Ms. M would buzz down to the kitchen with breakfast instructions.
She was a lifelong smoker with a love for late-night parties,
and her voice was always gruff on the intercom. She never
pronounced my name right, but liked to tell people her maid
went to Vassar.
Ms. M only ever wanted one of two things to eat in the morning:
soft-boiled eggs with toast or a can of chocolate meal-replacement
shake. She was skinny as a stick, and had tight pants to
fit into. The hardest part about breakfast was arranging
all the china and silverware precisely to her satisfaction
on the worn-out television tray. It took a diagram to remember
how to do it. The second hardest thing was balancing the
tray up a flight of steep stairs without spilling anything
on the plush white carpets, which I once stained with an
entire pot of coffee.
After she ate, bathed and dressed (she favored suits over
dresses), Ms. M spent most of the day in her box at the
racetrack, and then went out to dinner. So my friend and
I, we usually worked in pairs, had hours alone in her three-story
Georgian mansion, wallpapered in leopard-print and other
jungle designs. We made the beds, washed and ironed sheets,
dusted gaudy statues of lions and birds and vacuumed the
real animal-skin rugs—mostly zebras although a giant open-mouthed
lion guarded the main foyer. By late afternoon, we would
help ourselves to gin and tonics from the bar while scooping
out melon balls to wrap with prosciutto for when Ms. M returned
from the track with guests.
By the end of the summer, we began the arduous task of packing
up the expensive china, the Calder paintings, the animal
statues and the roaring lion rug. Ms. M wouldn’t be caught
dead in Saratoga outside August, and the contents of her
house had to be shipped by moving van back to Palm Beach,
Fla., where she wintered. You know racing season is starting
and ending when you see these full-sized moving trucks lining
the streets of Saratoga’s East Side. Many of the most beautiful
houses are occupied for only a month of the year. We went
through a lot of bubble wrap.
skinning and disemboweling hogs and cattle was not at the
top of my list of potential first summer jobs when I was
16. In fact, it wasn’t even on my imaginary first-job list.
Rock star was at the top, video-game/bookstore clerk in
the top 10, fast-food clerk and farmer very close to the
bottom. Slaughterhouse worker was so off my radar that it
never even occurred to me.
I was a budding vegetarian, and the very idea of killing
anything made me nauseous. I was a professed atheist at
the time, but I was pretty sure taking the life of anything
above a moth on the evolutionary scale would likely cost
me my soul.
My mother presented the job to me as a cashier position
at a private butcher shop. We had recently moved to the
wilds of southern Albany County. I had no car, and the closest
store was miles and miles away. The idea that my mother
was able to use her connections to get me a job within walking
distance of the house meant that I couldn’t dare reject
During my first day, the lanky, mustachioed owner (almost
certainly Daniel Day Lewis’ inspiration for his role as
Butcher Bill in Gangs of New York) was warm, but
extremely intimidating. He never let on that I would soon
be murdering things for their meat, but when only one customer
actually needed to be cashed out on my first day, I realized
I would likely find myself in the backroom. The room where
all the squealing was coming from. The room from which the
overwhelming salty smell of fresh blood emanated.
My assumption proved correct. The butcher led me into the
back room. I had already nearly vomited when I’d seen the
pig carcasses dangling from hooks, the cows’ heads stripped
of flesh—their eyes still intact—propped up on steel barrels
full of hot, steaming organs. The workers grinned, waiting
for my visceral reaction to the site of a hog—throat recently
slashed, thrashing back and forth—whining like a banshee
as its blood splashed and pooled and finally ran down a
I wanted to punch someone. I wanted to scream that they
were all ignorant trash. I wanted to save every animal in
the place. But I was trapped. I had already eaten meat of
my own will, and worn leather, and now I was going to earn
the guilt I felt as a wannabe vegetarian. As quickly as
it had come, the anger faded into numb resignation. Someone
handed me a bag. “Here,” said a worker with a ponytail,
chuckling as he handed me the pig’s still-beating heart.
I put it in the bag.
At the end of the day, I walked home caked in blood. I watched
the diluted blood pool at the bottom of the shower, picking
congealed blobs of the stuff out of my long black hair.
I promised myself I wouldn’t return.
But I found myself there the next day and was given a new
After the carcasses of freshly killed hogs were lifted by
chain from a vat of hot water, I would scrape off all their
hair. It was like touching, well, a lightly boiled dead
dog. I worried that the hogs would wake, half dead, and
bite and thrash. They twitched as I scraped the hair onto
the floor; if they were cooked too long, the skin would
come off, too.
On the following day I learned to skin the hide from a cow:
“Don’t cut the leather,” I was told. I wasn’t very good
at it. My hand shook as I skinned, afraid of the dead thing
below me, and I punctured the hide. It went on for weeks,
with me hoping my knife would slip, that I’d injure myself
and be unable to continue.
But I returned to complete increasingly grisly tasks. The
boss even offered me a chance to slaughter an animal—an
honor I refused.
One day a particularly large cow was pushed through the
slaughter gate. It had to be tazered to force it to squeeze
itself through. It thrashed about, unlike the other animals
that had just slumped down and died. It took three or four
shots to the head before it collapsed with grieved sigh.
When he cut the cow open at last, the butcher reached his
hands inside the mass of guts and pulled out sacks: baby
cows. “No wonder it put up such a fight,” someone said.
I went home for the weekend. My friend and I made macaroni
and cheese for dinner. I asked him for a knife and in some
odd sort of serendipity he handed me a carving knife, blade
first. I grabbed it without looking and nearly chopped off
the tip of my left pointer finger. A doctor in the emergency
room reattached it with stitches. It took time to heal—enough
time that summer was over and I went back to school knowing
with absolute certainty there was one job I would never
in the Archives
my often obstinate refusal to admit defeat, I have grown
comfortable enough with failure to admit, in retrospect,
that I was damned awful at more than one of the random employment
endeavors undertaken in my young life.
I belatedly apologize to the year’s worth of diners who
received, at best, disappointing service at Oliver’s Tavern.
I’ve done penance for the birthday party that finally opened
their own celebratory champagne after cringing at their
cocktail waitress’ hopeless attempt to wrestle the bottle
into submission between her knees. And for the dropped TVs
likely purchased from Service Merchandise (my 17-year-old
frame just wasn’t built for warehouse work). For marine
gasoline carelessly sloshed over freshly oiled teak, for
garbling docking reservations. And, yes, for mildly electrocuting
my supervisor during a fish population study.
But my ultimate poor-job apology is owed to the patrons
of the Bailey-Howe Library Department of Special Collections,
Rare Books and Vermont State Archives.
I was just a clerk, there to shelve the constant influx
of new materials and, on the rare occasions that someone
appeared at the circulation desk with a call number scrawled
on a request slip, to efficiently retrieve the desired volume.
The Department of Special Collections houses hundreds of
thousands of books, photographs, maps, pamphlets, birth,
death and legislative records. I don’t even remember how
I finagled the job, some sort of university work-study program
I think. I’m sure I impressed in the interview with my keen
understanding of cataloging systems. I was, after all, raised
by a librarian.
What I do remember is that I was, quite possibly, the worst
clerk the Bailey-Howe Library Department of Special Collections
had ever seen. Unleashing me with a call number into the
cavernous stacks of rare books was akin to getting a peanut
by sending an alcoholic out on a pub crawl and hoping he’d
bring you one back.
On one turn into a dusty corner I found the deckle-edged,
cloth-bound Journals of Lewis and Clark from eighteen-ought-something.
Almost five thousand pages of expeditions that saw our country
through virgin eyes. One section brimmed with NASA studies,
another with delightfully kitsch ’50s tobacco literature.
A whole aisle held the bound transcripts of presidential
If I rolled my cart in with six volumes to put up on the
shelves, I took down seven. I spent the bulk of each shift
hunched on the colorful wheeled tripod of a library stool,
or tucked into a nook between shelves, trying desperately
to digest what I could from the pile of unbearably alluring
books and pamphlets I was hording. My ears prickled at the
sounds of footfalls and I’d snap back to the illusion of
So, if you ever handed me a request slip, and waited, and
waited. And waited. I’m sorry. I owe you an hour. Maybe
more. I was lost in Narnia.
people often give credit to their parents for instilling
in them, at a young age, a solid work ethic—an early grounding
in the miseries of labor, which, they say, is good for the
spirit and serves as useful training for the challenges
and degradations awaiting them in professional life. It’s
the kind of powerful myth that sustains the hard-working
folks that I grew up with out in Protestant country, folks
who have faith in a God who despises the lazy and rewards
the early riser.
I remember my mom telling me that I was a lucky kid, getting
up before dawn to build fence or roof a barn day after day,
weekend after weekend, summer vacation after summer vacation.
“You’ll never go hungry,” she would say. And that’s true.
I’ve never gone hungry. And if I needed to, I could build
a house by myself, from the studs and concrete, to the plumbing,
sheetrock and roof.
When I was little, still in the single digits, our 20-acre
field had been overtaken by bull thistles, an aggressive
weed with thick hairy spines, sharp-edged leaves and a blossom
of pretty, purple-blue, needle-sharp pricklies that will
pierce skin and latch on. In one spring, an entire field
can be overrun by thistles. By the end of summer, they’ll
And that summer, it was my job to rid the pasture of this
nuisance. Every morning, before dawn, I trudged into the
field in long-sleeved shirts and jeans and leather gloves,
with a pair of scissors and a bucket for the heads, and
a squirt bottle filled with salt water for the stems (it’s
a particular task to kill a thistle). It was an urgent matter
that the thistles not spread, so there was no rest for me
until the job was done. No swimming pool. No sleepovers.
No Nintendo. Day after day after day for weeks.
I had heard on the streets that the workers’ terms for laboring
could be negotiated with management, so one night after
work I wrote out a contract. It laid out, what I believed,
were very reasonable terms: no more than 40 hours a week
of work, no work on the weekends, no work before 8 AM, and
an allowance (my mom didn’t believe in allowances). And
here’s what I learned from my first attempt at negotiations:
Management doesn’t care. Reasoned, sensible requests are
dismissed by management, aka mom, as trite or juvenile or
unnecessary in the face of the greater good—as defined by
My mom wouldn’t sign the contract, but she did put it on
the refrigerator. And I resorted to more drastic measures.
So now, years later, what I can thank my moms for, what
I did learn—other than that laziness is its own reward—is
an early respect for the labor movement. My very personal
realization that the rights of the worker aren’t just given,
but they must be won by blood. Or tantrums.
of my social life takes place in non-church settings, so
it used to be that when people asked what work I did, I’d
respond, “I’m a Lutheran pastor.” By and large the reaction
would be shock, fascination or veiled disappointment that
somebody as smart as I am could have fallen for the Judeo-Christian
I never liked that moment of having to explain that I wasn’t
that kind of Christian.
I didn’t like dealing with the subtle assumptions people
make about clergy. (I have a friend who, when dating, would
say that she worked in human services in order not to convey
the immediate impression that her job required celibacy.)
But now, in the two and a half years since I’ve left active
parish ministry, when people ask what work I do, I don’t
know what to say.
Because however socially awkward it might have been to tell
people I was a Lutheran pastor, it feels still more socially
awkward to say “I’m a writer. But, ah, no, I don’t have
any books out.”
So when people ask me what I do, I try to let the moment
I am disciplined and hard-working when it comes to writing.
I have been able to complete a long-neglected novel, a memoir
about leaving ministry, a bunch of short stories. And I’m
working on something new. But here’s my publishing record:
fiction and non-fiction in eight literary journals. Journals
you haven’t heard of, three of them online. And my maiden
voyage to find an agent feels like a rocky one so far, though
I am pressing on.
The truth is, I love the work. I do. I don’t even mind the
grunt part of it: the cover letters, the query letters,
the ritual run to the DIY machine at the post office, tracking
submissions, rejections and the (rarer) acceptances.
I’m extremely grateful for the support that has allowed
me this invaluable gifts of time. And I have hope that I
will find representation and will publish (even teach!).
But there is a another truth, as well: In a world where
we are identified by the visibility of what we do, this
is lonely work. No longer visible as a parish pastor, I
am largely invisible as a writer.
Although maybe it’s that very invisibility that keeps me
self-disciplined: the drive to have a recognized identity
so that when people ask what work I do, I won’t be afraid
to tell them.
I’m Just a Lawn Mower
in all, a cemetery is a very agreeable workplace.
A cemetery is peaceful. There’s no one to bug you. Contrary
to horror-film mythology, the dead don’t rise from the graves,
and ghosts don’t haunt the headstones. If the boneyard’s
old enough, no one ever visits, either. And, barring an
epidemic, there’s only one busy time per year: Memorial
Day weekend, when the American Legion places flags on veterans’
graves. The grass, however, always grows. This is the area
of expertise where my once-special talents were employed.
For half of my life, my only useful skill was operating
a lawn mower. Beginning at around age 12, I cut grass every
summer through junior high, high school and college. I operated
everything from a lousy Black & Decker electric mower
to a succession of Briggs and Stratton-powered push mowers,
to an industrial-grade riding mower for maintaining a manufacturing
company’s far-flung grounds. It was useful work.
But best of all was the summer I cut grass in one of the
handful of cemeteries that serve my small Southern Tier
hometown. With regard to the work, it’s just like mowing
a regular lawn, only with a lot of granite blocks to maneuver
the machine around. And there are no people at all.
While I did have a boss who also operated a machine, this
was—is—a big cemetery. It’s not like we were working adjacent
machines on a factory floor.
It remains a place that seems exactly as old as its 19th-century
vintage would suggest. While there have been newer additions
to the property—people are still dying to get in,
ha ha—the oldest sections are old. Tall trees block
the sun. The grounds are uneven, as most of the “residents”
(and their wooden containers) have returned to nature. And
the monuments are, well, monumental.
In this place rest the prosperous founding fathers—and mothers,
and children—of the village. These were sturdy Protestant
worthies who had plenty of dough. Iron railings, which are
probably still a bitch to mow around, enclose generations
in elaborate family plots; these plots have family names
that survive only, but proudly, on village streets.
So much history is, well, contemplative. With the noise
of the mowing machine to block immediate distractions, and
the repetitive nature of the work, a lawnmower man has plenty
of time to think, ruminate, daydream. Hours pass quickly
in this kind of work.
Why on Earth did I ever give it up?
Are No Accidents
ago, when I lived in Seattle, I answered an ad for a cleaning
service. The owner wanted me to sign a waiver saying that
I was responsible for the deductible on her insurance policy
should I break any of the pricey figurines in her client’s
homes while dusting them.
The waiver was long and wordy, rambling on in new-agey lingo
about choices. Though that piece of paper is long recycled,
here is a fictionalized rendition of her thoughts:
of all, there are no accidents. This means that divinity
was involved in your filling out this application. If you
don’t believe that fate led you to this place and time,
then please put the pen down, hand the secretary this piece
of paper you’ve wasted, and tenderly open the door. Best
of luck to you on your next step, whatever random, uncharted
and impossible-to-predict step that might be, even if you
choose to walk in front of a Mack truck.
however, you choose to continue filling out this application,
and we recommend that you do, in a slightly bullying but
also friendly fashion, please remember that there really
are no accidents, that anything you do to harm us, however
slight, will really harm us. Although we are a corporation,
we can sense your distaste for us, and if you harbor even
the mildest resentment toward selling your time, we will
notice, and the universe will notice, and the mistakes that
happen because of this are your mistakes, not ours. What
if we lose a hard drive after you sneer at a computer? What
if you walk too hard on our carpeting and wear it out? You
we have insurance against this sort of generalized malevolence
raging inside our employees. This insurance carries a deductible,
equivalent to two weeks of your pay, which is, we figure,
a manageable amount, especially since when you have to live
without your paycheck we will provide a ration of bread
(stale) and milk (warmed, not quite soured). This ration
will include doggy bags you can take home for your supper,
or, in the instance of those who have families to support
(remember, no accidents in terms of dependents, either!),
giant doggy bags of old bread and aging milk so no one will
starve while you learn your lesson.
see, because there are no accidents, we believe that you
should do unto others as others would do unto you. We will
treat you with suspicion and doubt until such time as you
can freely give yourself, all of yourself, and not the fraction
that isn’t thinking about a certain iPhone auction on eBay
or whether you should start Twittering on bathroom breaks,
or if you deserve a candy bar. Until you can give yourself
to the company in the mode of mid-century job devotionals,
consider us paranoid.
you surrender, your days at work will be almost orgasmic.
You will want us as much as we want you, and work will become
so satisfying that you will only go home on weekends, preferring
to doze between projects on a cot beside your desk.
you can imagine our shared future, please tell us every
single thing about yourself. What titillating rituals get
you out the door in the morning? Do you want your neighbor
more than your spouse?
the end we will all benefit from this atmosphere of mutual
disclosure. We will give and give and give, and the world
will get fuller and fuller like an overripe cantaloupe waiting
to burst upon the kitchen counter. Until then, every day
will be a delight of swells, beginning with campfire songs
at breakfast, reinforcement lectures at lunch, and naps
mid-afternoon. The shuttle will haul you home on Fridays
and you’ll ignore your friends and relations all weekend,
sleeping and dreaming of us.”
Was Mr. Edwards, Briefly
this is Mr. Edwards from the Riteway Basement Waterproofing
Company. If you’re experiencing water or dampness in your
basement . . .”
That’s where the my memory of the spiel ends.
I was Mr. Edwards. So was any other man working the phone
banks in a small office in suburban Philadelphia in 1973.
The women making calls, were, unsurprisingly, Mrs. Edwards.
For many years I remembered the entire opening pitch, the
stuff you’d say before the callee could get a word in edgewise
and at which time our scripts could provide the follow-up
answer. In the early ’70s, this sort of bothersome call
was not as common (or automated) as it has become, and being
hung up on was rather rare. When I recently tried to tap
back into this mantra, I discovered part of it was now missing
and presumably gone forever.
I was attending—barely—Temple University. It was my second
halfhearted attempt at college, and I was working this part-time
job in the evenings several nights a week. The only remaining
records I have to indicate the general time period are the
little pocket notebooks I kept (as I had been doing all
through high school). I’d put a title on the front of the
filled notebook and toss it in a box. The notebook covering
this era was titled “Project JJ.” This project was laid
directly over my work responsibilities. Using street directories,
my job was to telephone homeowners and inquire about the
condition of their basements. Through a brief conversation
it was then possible to determine that a particular neighborhood
may have been beset by water in the cellar; subsequent calls
to other houses in those specific areas could yield more
needy, leak-inundated dwellers. These were cold calls; if
someone indeed was having problems with water or dampness,
we’d fill out a small form and a follow-up call would be
made by someone more fully versed in these matters. I was
simply in the front line of telephone-anchored foot soldiers,
tromping call-by-call across the Pennsylvania and Delaware
suburban hillsides in search of customers.
Already proving myself to be a less-than-stellar employee,
I was finding ways to make this job my own conceptual playground.
I was so replaceable than I couldn’t even use my own name
on the phone. I needed to find some way to personalize my
time spent there. As it turned out, this personalization
didn’t erode my focus or time at all—in fact, it may have
made me more attentive. By the second night of working there,
I had noticed how frequently the initials “JJ” showed up
after any given last name in the directory. My “Project
JJ” was relatively straightforward: to write them down.
I was surprised at how often it occurred, far more than
any other combination I encountered.
I didn’t keep the job for more than a couple of months.
The train ride followed by a transfer to the bus, combined
with the fact that I’d ended my university enrollment, brought
on the need for more substantial employment. This came in
the form of a most unexpected job at a men’s clothing store
in downtown Philadelphia, called Mr. V.I.P., not far from
where the Mike Douglas show was taped.
But that’s another story.
thought I was going to get a job in creative. Because I
thought I was all about creative.
I had wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to go
about becoming a writer. The university career-counseling
center wasn’t much help with that, but it did have lots
of information on banking and marketing and advertising.
I decided that advertising would be a pretty good fit with
my urge to create.
I pictured myself hanging out with my creative team in a
spacious, comfortable, stylishly decorated room on the creative
floor of a Madison Avenue ad agency. Sofas, large round
work tables, oversized sketch pads, framed awards on the
wall, and of course, a minibar.
Then one of my interviewers, fixated on my economics degree,
suggested that I didn’t look so much “creative” as I did
“media planning.” Another interviewer must have agreed,
because soon I was offered a job in the media planning department
at the big Manhattan ad agency Young & Rubicam.
And so my first foray into the grown-up work world was about
flow charts and cost-per-thousand and Best Food Day in daily
newspapers. I didn’t really understand what I was doing;
my boss would change the media buy on my brand, Chef Boyardee,
from week to week and I would revise the flow charts. I
would take calls from sales reps. I don’t remember what
those conversations were like because, again, I didn’t really
understand what I was doing. One guy, a balding, round-bellied,
cigar-chomping 50-ish rep from some media company took me
to lunch and talked my ear off about god-knows-what. Maybe
he assumed that in a couple of years I would know
what I was doing and would be a decision maker. In sales,
it’s all about relationships. As if to drive that point
home, he offered me a date with his daughter. I’m not kidding.
For the most part, my five months there were a blur. I put
on a suit in the morning and took the Lexington Avenue subway
to work. I sat in my cubicle and performed tasks that were
essentially mindless; sometimes I just daydreamed. We had
two hours for lunch so that the really important employees
could have really important two-hour client lunches. I would
buy a sandwich at the company cafeteria and enjoy my two-hour
lunch with a good book on the steps of the New York Public
Library. Had I stayed into the summer, I would have had
Friday afternoons off so that I could beat the traffic getting
to my time share in the Hamptons. Except that they didn’t
pay me nearly enough to own a time share.
On day, on a whim, I got up from my desk in Cublicle World
on the 15th floor and took the elevator to one of the floors
I knew to be designated “creative.” I strolled nervously
down the hallways—which were adorned with much more interesting
and avant-garde artwork than anything on 15—and glanced
into offices to see what the people working there looked
like. I came upon what appeared to be a large brainstorming
room that looked surprisingly like what I had envisioned,
with sofas, work tables, sketch pads (I didn’t notice a
minibar). But I didn’t stay long—I felt out-of-place in
my drab gray suit, like someone who would never be called
in to sit on one of those sofas. Like someone wearing his
economics degree around his neck. Or maybe just a stamp
on his head, in big bold letters, “NOT CREATIVE.”