Even when you’re writing about something you think is completely different, in the end you’re always writing about yourself. Each of us has a unique take on life, and elements of this will invariably creep into your work, no matter how rigorously objective you try to be. In my middle grade fantasy novel The Family That Wasn’t, for instance, I created a character with the pen name Lot O. Jobs. He was the author of an autobiography Travels of a Mixed-Up Man, in which he described the hundreds of different jobs he had held, each with its own special flavor. The character didn’t just pop out of my head. He’s me, of course.
Not that I’ve had hundreds of jobs. Let’s just say I’ve had my share. And yes, I’m still mixed-up.
I remember my first job as paperboy for the Hartford Courant, in Connecticut, supposedly the oldest continually published newspaper in the U.S. I should explain here, particularly for younger readers, that a newspaper is a multi-paged object composed of wood pulp, filled with news of local and world events, that is published daily or weekly and requires you to hold it up at arm’s length to read while you flip through the pages and grimace before using them to line your parakeet’s cage.
Since it is a morning paper, I was required to rise at 5 am, which for a school kid is inhuman. Fortunately, my dad, being a mailman, was used to getting up early. He would wake me, then put on some strong coffee. I forced myself to drink it because it was the only way to stay awake and get moving.
Then I had to walk two blocks to where half a dozen bundles of newspapers awaited me. In those days, if you took on a newspaper route you didn’t get to cancel delivery on account of weather. Just like my dad’s mail, newspapers were to be delivered through rain, snow, sleet, flood, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or nuclear war, the latter being very much a possibility in my early youth. So if we had a big snowstorm, and all the schools had snow days, you were still expected to trudge through two feet of snow and deliver your damn papers. Often it would take me hours to finish delivering my route, while my buddies were out sledding.
Delivery was bad enough, but then came the hard part—collecting each week from my cruel, miserly customers. This was before the days of credit card subscriptions. Each Friday evening—and the following Saturday morning if that didn’t work—I was expected to ring doorbells and politely ask people to pay up. You wouldn’t believe the lengths some people will go to to avoid paying what they owe. They would simply hide and not answer the doorbell. In some cases, I could plainly see them scurrying around inside like trapped roaches. Other times, they would let out their big ugly dogs in the yard, timed just before I showed up. Or they would purposely avoid being home, for weeks on end, then when I did finally catch them home would question my accounting and try to convince me that they couldn’t possibly owe for two months. I did have my little pay stubs to prove otherwise, but they would then accuse me of forgetting to hand them out when they had obviously already paid. And forget getting any tips. How dare I accuse them of not paying? I suspect many of them secretly enjoyed this game of screwing the paperboy. I think this is when I first became deeply cynical about human nature.
During high school, I was a page at our local library, which for a bookworm like me was a dream come true, though the wages sucked. The job involved mostly re-shelving returned books. I simply wheeled my cart of books through the aisles where, for a brief time, I diligently placed the books in their proper locations. After a short time, however, I learned how to find a quiet, secluded section of the stacks, preferably upstairs and out of sight of the main desk. This was where the benefits came in. As long as I stood in front of my still full cart, I could make it look as if I were working while reading to my heart’s content. That is, until the hatchet lady head librarian invariably found me, chewing me out so badly I didn’t dare do it again until next day. I think back on her fondly and can still see the poor woman chasing us pages through the stacks, shaking her long, bony finger in stern chastisement.
There was one other aspect of the job I should mention. It involved taking reference room calls to retrieve past issues of magazines and newspapers from the basement, where such materials were stored. I would be issued slips of paper, with names of the items and dates published. In those ancient days, you couldn’t simply Google something on your smartphone or computer and find a hundred online articles on the subject. There were no personal computers and no digital information. Repeat, no digital information. Let that sink in for a moment. Any information you needed could be found only on the printed page. So there I was, lifting up piles of musty magazines, searching for some obscure issue, only to discover that it had been lost or misplaced. It was sort of like the great lost Library of Alexandria, where all the world’s knowledge at the time was stored on scrolls. Being a page back then was probably a lot harder.
In my senior year of college, I briefly had the best job a lonely, testosterone-fueled young male could ask for. It was only part-time, in the evening, but the benefits were priceless. I was the designated male host—sort of a bodyguard—in a women’s residence hall. All I had to do was sit behind a front desk and check male visitors in and then escort each of them off the premises at a set time, defined by each dorm. A word of explanation here. I went to college during the late 1960s when many colleges and universities had what were referred to as parietal hours, limited times when men were allowed to visit and mingle with women in the female dormitories. Dorms would often insist that doors be kept open and couples instructed to keep “three feet on the floor.” Talk about thwarting your sex life.
Of course, creative women would always find ways around restrictions to get their men inside. Meanwhile, as I sat at the desk—studying, of course—young ladies wearing slinky nightgowns or pajamas would come downstairs and greet me, offering cookies and snacks. I was treated like a god. Even the kindly old dorm matron liked me. I admit, it was quite possible that some diversionary tactic was in play here, with dozens of guys sneaking past me as the women plied me with cookies. But what did I care? Life was good.
My other part-time job in college was as freshman counselor during my senior year. In exchange for a free room in my dormitory, I was expected to offer information and advice to incoming freshman. You can imagine what a perfect fit this was, wise old senior that I was, enjoying my own first year on campus after commuting three years. In the midst of cramming as much drinking and carousing with women as humanly possible into just two semesters, I did manage to fit in some actual counseling. Not that I had much advice to offer. Mostly I just listened. And sometimes I would break up unruly dorm parties at 2 am, for which at the end of the year I was ceremoniously awarded a carved wooden wand in the shape of a penis with the words “King Prick,” signed by my grateful freshmen.
Fresh out of college, and not finding any suitable positions based on my considerable experience drinking and guarding co-eds, I took a job as science teacher at a small residential private school for emotionally disturbed kids. As part of my forestry major, I had taken some basic science courses, and that was good enough. The fact that I had no educational certification or training, and even more important, no psychological or counselor training, did not matter in the least. I was a warm body who knew how to dress for an interview and to give the right answers. And they were desperate for someone who knew at least a little about science and would be willing to work for slave wages.
My first experience with one of my new charges gave me a clue of the challenges ahead. As part of my duties, I sat behind a desk after class in the administration building, as a faculty member on call to assist students with their homework. One of my female students—an attractive, shapely, and much too mature looking sixteen-year-old—approached my desk. Then, looking over her shoulder at her friends in the corner, who seemed to be daring her to do it, promptly sat upon my lap.
Dazed at first, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what was happening and what to do. (There was no mention of such things in the employee handbook.) Normally I am not at all averse to attractive young women suddenly deciding to sit in my lap. But this was way different. I could hear a little voice in my head ask, What’s wrong with this picture? Then, seconds later, the voice started screaming, “Stand up, stand up, you fool! I jumped from my chair, nearly dumping the girl on the floor as I mouthed some indignant protest. She just smiled and walked away.
As someone with no teaching experience, suddenly thrown into a classroom filled with unruly teenagers, I fared no worse than most first year teachers, many of whom leave after only one year, vowing never to return to that infernal snake pit. Fortunately for me, the class sizes were small, and the kids were too emotionally messed up to notice what I was trying to teach anyway. I’m talking real heavy emotional issues. Kids hooked on drugs or suffering from various traumas. Kids who had been verbally and physically abused, often by their parents or other relatives. Many had even been sexually abused. They were shunted off to this school because their parents and their former schools could no longer deal with their problems. If this didn’t work, the next stop was military school or an institution.
So there I was, a 22-year-old guy, still screwed up in far too many ways, surrounded daily by a bunch of emotionally bleeding kids. Forget about the lesson plan. All they wanted was for me to listen. So I did.
In the process, I quickly realized that I was in no way equipped to handle this. I became too emotionally involved with these kids, talking with them frankly while trying to teach them a little science, but not having a clue how to help them.
I made it through the academic year and decided to leave, when the school offered me a limited, temporary contract due to financial uncertainties. Shortly thereafter, the school closed, though my decision probably had nothing to do with it.
After my ill-fated experience with teaching, I decided to try something else. A local pet shop was looking for a full-time sales associate (Don’t you love the way stores add that little word at the end to make the job sound more important?). This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pet shop, but an exotic pet shop. In addition to the usual puppies, birds, and tropical fish, they also sold critters like lizards, tarantulas, and snakes—my kind of animals. They liked the fact that I was a college boy and promised me that, if I worked really hard for two years and brownnosed the boss and didn’t mind taking orders from his wife, who arrived each morning wearing more makeup than Alice Cooper, I would be promoted to assistant manager.
What I really wanted, however, was my first python, at full employee discount. He arrived at the shop one cold winter evening. A beautiful baby African rock python, he was only 18 inches long and perfectly gentle. I put him under my coat and brought him home to my parents’ house and placed him in his cage, where he thrived and grew … and grew.
The problem with pythons as pets is that, with proper care, they can quickly begin to approach adult size, which in the case of a full grown African rock python can be over 20 feet long, with a thick, muscular body used to constrict its prey.
Not only did my darling little pet quickly outgrow his cage, but he was now six feet long and quite a handful. Though still gentle as ever, there was always the danger in handling such a powerfully muscular snake that he might suddenly grow frightened of falling and wrap his coils around your neck for support, which is not conducive to breathing. In fact, that is exactly how they constrict and kill their prey. So sadly, I found him a new home and bid both him and the pet shop goodbye.
After that came a stint as a computer operator for an insurance company in Hartford. At the time, I knew nothing about computers—and still don’t—but the job’s hours seemed ideal. All I had to do was work three consecutive 12-hour shifts from 7pm to 7am, and I had the rest of the week off. And for full-time pay and benefits. How tough could it be?
Basically, the job involved running large, room-sized computers called mainframes, which were series of various processing and communication units all hitched together and operated in batch mode. I was expected to keep them going, feeding them punch cards and magnetic tapes to run them at near full capacity while they spat out tests, insurance policies, statements, and payroll. I would then collect the continuous printed copy that came out. Scattered throughout the room were interactive terminals where you could push a button and make the computers pause in their operation.
One night, I was told by my shift supervisor to go hit a certain button. Now I knew perfectly well which button to push, having been instructed numerous times in proper button pushing. Turns out there was another button, way on the other side of the terminal console, which I think read “System Stop” and which was never, never to be pushed unless absolutely necessary. This button, you see, didn’t just pause whatever operation was being run but shut down the whole system. Meaning that whatever programs had been running at the time had to be completely restarted, at considerable cost.
To this day, I still can’t figure out why I pushed the wrong button. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was wrong. Perhaps the subversion of my circadian rhythm and the cumulative lack of sleep had something to do with it. I remember a lot of yelling throughout the department, with people running around, looking for someone to blame, followed by the sound of laughter from my colleagues.
I was due for my annual performance review, the very next week. My boss, a kindly man whom I really liked, told me that I was doing great, overall, with top marks in all categories. Then he looked me straight in the face and shook his head. All he said was, “Why?”
Shortly after, I decided to pursue more normal work as a public-school teacher, normal only in the sense that I was able to work during daylight hours. Despite the fact that my private school teaching had pretty much left me as much of an emotional wreck as the students I tried to teach, maybe I wasn’t as bad a teacher as I thought. I took a few more college courses to get certified and to show I was serious. I was ready, or so I thought.
As it happened, there was an opening for a science teacher at the very same junior high school I had attended. I desperately needed a job and didn’t give a second thought to any potential weirdness of going to work with my former teachers, including my much-feared, former Phys. Ed instructor, who had treated us worse than Marine recruits in boot camp.
The interview was a snap. The vice-principal and science department chairman briefly glanced at my Forestry degree transcript, with a minor in philosophy. It was not especially heavy in hard science courses. However, they remembered that I had been an A-student and science nerd and hired me on the spot.
I was to teach Earth Science, which included geology, meteorology, and astronomy, to ninth grade students. As a kid, I had loved to collect rocks and gaze at the stars with my small telescope, so I was sure I could transmit that enthusiasm to my grateful, attentive students. Trouble was, I didn’t know the first thing about either ninth-grade students or class control, which as I learned the hard way is just as important as knowledge of subject matter.
I shall not dwell here on the ugly details that still haunt my dreams. The kids were rude, disruptive, sneaky, and downright mean, constantly inventing new ways to torment and subvert me. In other words, they were perfectly normal, ninth-grade students. They ate me alive. A couple of times, the department chair who had hired me, upon hearing all the yelling and commotion coming from my classroom across the hall, came running into my room, as if someone were being murdered. As soon as he entered, of course, the kids would all be sitting at attention, perfectly quiet. He would give me a disdainful look, then shake his head as he walked away muttering.
Bad as things were, at least I didn’t have to worry about mass shooters. The worst event to happen was when one of my troubled students pulled a knife on a jock, right outside my classroom. We all ran out, and I momentarily froze. Then I herded my students to slowly back away. The issue was quickly resolved, as the jock yelled and threatened the student enough for him to drop his knife and run out the door. Show’s over. No heroes, no deaths, that day.
I was a terrible teacher, but I made it through my first year. That was the main thing, the principal told me upon renewing my contract. “You survived.” I had passed the test, and he expected me to carry on.
I worked there five more years, becoming a reasonably competent teacher, able to control the classroom while providing my students with a creative learning environment. I was now teaching seventh-grade life science and was given an expanded new science lab, which I lined with tropical plants and cages filled with snakes (including two boa constrictors), tarantulas, hissing roaches, and other exotic creatures. On Parents’ Night, the principal would always show off my lab as a model classroom.
I did not delude myself into thinking I was a great teacher, however. During that time, I came to know some truly extraordinary teachers, fully attuned to their students and learning outcomes. But that would never be me. I had fallen into teaching because it offered a regular paycheck while aligning with my social and intellectual ideals, but my mind was elsewhere. And that’s always a dangerous thing.
One day, one of the boys in my class called me out, openly challenging my authority. Something inside me snapped, and I suddenly shoved him up against the wall and shouted in his face. I watched myself, as if in slow motion, acting out this scene, and knew right then and there that I had to get out. (Can you imagine a teacher doing that in a public-school classroom today?)
There were many other jobs on the journey. None lasted more than five or six years. Yet, much like my character Lot O. Jobs, I saw each job as having its own flavor, providing new insights on life. I never wanted a big house or family, and fortunately neither did my wife, who found her niche early, pursuing a long career in education. So that left me free to follow my dreams, whatever the hell they happened to be at the time.
Some of the jobs, like groundskeeper and landscaper, involved down-and-dirty grunt work, even menial tasks, such as picking up trash. Others, like teaching and bookselling, required me to use my brain more than my back. Most of the jobs paid so little that, had it not been for my wife’s job, I would have qualified for food stamps. What they lacked in remuneration, however, they repaid in new experiences and discoveries. It may sound corny, but through them, I found dignity in a day’s labor and the simple joy of performing a job well. Mostly I was flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I went, though the last job I filled—Instructional Specialist at the University of Arizona—made it sound as if I knew something. And when I left there, after working the usual five years, I actually did.
Through it all, writing remained the one constant thread. It was the one thing I really cared about. Since my twenties, I had dreamed of making a living from my creative writing, something that very few writers achieve. I did manage to find jobs as columnist, feature writer and editor at small local newspapers, and scored occasional sales of my stories, essays, and poems to magazines and newspapers—always the sweetest dollars earned—as I continued to feed the writing madness.
Maybe someday, I kept telling myself, if I do this long enough, I will make some real money from my writing. Yeah, right.
Meanwhile, I think back to all the jobs along the way, a rich tapestry which has given me enough raw material to last a lifetime—or at least to fill these pages—and to make a life from my writing. First published in Work Literary Magazine. 3-19-2018