A recent conversation with some friends at the bar ended with this statement, directed at me: “I don’t understand how you have a job. You do everything wrong.”
So, at the risk of permanently ending my tenure in the work force, I’ve decided to assemble a small guide to surviving forty years of thankless labor. First some history. Here are most of the jobs I remember having, with their official titles:
Flag Carrying person
10 or 11 years old, 20 bucks a week or something. My friend an I would just put the flag up the pole in the village green and take it down. Even though my friend was respectful of our country’s flag and all that, I got him to drop kick it across the road once.
Tennis Court Maintenance Custodian
Early teens, I swept, watered and steamrolled our clay tennis courts. Still one of my most impressive job titles.
Sailing Teacher Assistant, 2nd Class
I was definitely 14. I wasn’t very good at this, and got out of it at every opportunity.
Think I was 15 for this. Did some research on child psychological disorders for a friend of the family. When I received my pay for this, my dad taught me the phrase, “Well, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.”
Tennis Coach Assistant
Maybe 15 or 16. I was pretty bad at this, too, but I made an honest effort. The coach I was assisting looked and sounded exactly like Christopher Lambert when he played Rayden in Mortal Kombat.
At a now deceased major retail chain. I can’t emphasize how much this job sucked. They scheduled me for 6 hours and 59 minutes so they wouldn’t legally have to give me a half hour break, even though I always worked at least eight hours. I was reading 1984 at the time, which seemed appropriate in our shoebox, fluorescent lit break room. My first paycheck was for a forty hour week, and it was 94 dollars and change. I was the only person in my training group who made it past the first week. Our manager once lined us up by height to yell at us for taking too long to dust all the shelves. After six weeks, I realized I was probably earning a loss between gas and lunch at McDonald’s, so I quit. When they went out of business, I gleefully went to every store I could find just to watch the managers fret.
In Ellsworth, Maine. Despite the smell, and the workload, this remains one of my favorite jobs. One of the cooks would sneak me beer if we were both closing, and the dishwashing area was efficient and easy to work with. The waitresses were all bitches, but they kept to themselves. There was something gratifying and relaxing about dishwashing, which I’ve never found at another job. I did two summers of this.
At a college. This involved checking library VHS tapes for errors by fast-forwarding them, watching a minute here or there, fast-forwarding, etc. What did I do? I holed up in a media room with a bag of chips and a soda, watched Eyes on the Prize start to finish, billed them, and went to bed. They made me do some other stuff, but I was stoned a lot then, so I don’t remember. Probably labeling.
This job also sucked, so I called out whenever I got bored of it, which was difficult, because you could see into my 2nd floor apartment from the dining area, so I had to literally lay low if I was calling out sick. One of the things that bothered me most was that servers were expected to work the window for the same pay as serving tables (2.15, I think), and all the window consisted of was making tons of desserts for assholes for maybe six bucks in loose change at the end of the day. I refused to do it. I also refused to answer the phone, because it meant I’d have to do essentially the same job for a pickup order that wouldn’t tip. I quit when they said they were going to change the outfit to purple, just to be a dick, since purple would have looked better than the puke pink they had us in up to then. The manager also yelled at us all once for letting a customer slip out without paying, as if the hit to her paycheck (maybe a buck) was worse than us losing a five dollar tip. She’s one of those people I’d slap if I ever met her again.
This time down the street for a catering group. If my first stint as a dishwasher was one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, this was one of the least. It was filled with neurotic jackasses, and I had to do my job by hand in a tiny two sink basin. When they left, I got to scrub the entire kitchen, floor to ceiling, by myself. I took any excuse at all to get out of this one, eventually quitting by phone.
Or something like that, at a home for the profoundly mentally and physically handicapped. Basically, I got to work at 11pm, drank a lot of coffee, read a lot of books, watched the history channel and the occasional horror movie, while our residents screamed and moaned in their sleep. In the morning, we changed their diapers, signed out, went home around 8am, and tried to get as stoned as possible and pretend it was all a dream. Everybody who worked this job was a little shell-shocked. I had to do things at this job I will never tell another living person, but eleven dollars an hour is serious bread when cigarettes are 2.50 a pack and you’re homeless. I got passive-aggressively fired when one of my partners, whose job it was to keep me awake, turned me in for falling asleep because he wanted some girl he had a crush on back on his shift. They had to fire me for insurance reasons, I suppose, but everybody hated him for it.
Still homeless, I did a few stints as that sketchy, unwashed guy who maintains rich people’s lawns. It was boring.
At some point, a girl I knew and her twin sister said I could come live with them in their cabin on their family farm and get fed if I worked the fields. This is another amazing example of my not managing to get laid despite all the forces of the universe conspiring in my favor. Got a lot of whatever it is in hay bales that get stuck in your skin stuck in my skin.
They say the best indicator of future crime is the perpetrator’s income for the previous year. I’m pretty much a poster child for this: since I started getting office jobs, I don’t even pirate music. While I was homeless, it was a different story. I finally got caught at K-Mart, which was so embarrassing I decided I wasn’t cut out for a life of crime.
This job featured Viper Lady, who was tiny, thin as a rail, withered by the sun, and had a narrow face with gigantic eyes. She would point at people like the Wicked Witch of the West and yell at them for things they hadn’t done. Once I served a table of fourteen kids next to a table of three attending adults. Everybody ordered appetizers, bread, water, and lemons, and two hours later they asked me for a calculator so they could calculate 10% of $112.53, and when I said I didn’t have one, they ended up doing the math on a napkin and rounded down the last penny. Friendliest people I’ve ever wished death upon. Quit because I hated the work, and made the good manager cry, which I feel bad about.
Concurrently with the previous waiting gig, this was a night shift at the oddest restaurant I’ve ever worked at. The owner was an old stoner who really wasn’t qualified to be stoned and cook for 20 people by himself, which is why they went out of business. I never even got a W-2 from them. An hour into each shift, I and the other waiter and the owner would smoke a bowl in the walk in freezer, then serve drunk people until three in the morning. It was fantastic, since drunk people are one of the most entertaining things in the world when you’re stoned, and nobody in the entire restaurant was ever sober enough to make a coherent complaint. This was the summer I went nuts on acid and managed to run into this boss during my bender, so my shifts dried up quickly.
At Two Cats Bed and Breakfast. Also concurrent with the above two jobs, which made it a busy summer. There was a cute little blond girl who supposedly “liked me” but, as mentioned above, I went nuts, and alienated the entire community, so not much I can do about that.
Did this for three summers. It was good and bad. Good because I got moderately buff, and was allowed to stand around all day swinging giant bags of lobsters in and out of boiling seawater. Bad because it was hot, heavy work, and I had to eat 5000 calories every day just to supply sweat. Also, repeated exposure to cooked lobster guts and saltwater will destroy even those shoes the burly men wear in truck commercials. Also, I had to listen to all the hippy scum tell me lobsters feel pain and scream. I’ve personally killed several thousand lobsters with nary a peep, so this is bullshit.
For some UMass thing. This ended up being very strange, since my supervisor was a polka enthusiast who told me I seemed like a polka enthusiast and was estranged from his kid and told me about it a lot. He was nice, but seemed to hate me because I was better at video editing. The chief editor was a very nice thirty-something woman, but every time I said anything to her, she reacted like I’d just snuck up behind her and shot a kitten.
Public TV Intern
For a local station in Amherst. This involved editing what I estimate to be four billion hours of traditional Tibetan music, which still all sounds the same to me. There was a girl there who gave me a lot of nasty looks from the moment I met her, and I have no idea why. I later discovered that the director had spent the end of the sixties in jail for tearing up his draft card, and believed the government had thousands of underground nukes planted around the world as a kind of failsafe.
At the UMass student union. The only thing more degrading to the average low wage worker than having your customers look down on you is having your younger classmates look down on you. I lasted a week, took a check, and stopped showing up.
At UMaine. I feel I was pretty good at this, but eventually my partner stopped showing up for mysterious reasons, I had nothing to do, and my boss stopped liking me, which was too bad, because I got the job by just walking into his office with no references or resume, not even knowing what the job was, and getting hired an hour later.
Basically, my video teacher and advisor selected a golden boy each semester who would fall in and out of favor, because he didn’t realize it was a biological urge to have a kid, so he wanted to be a mentor or sensei of some kind. When it was my turn, I was taken to Sicily to be an assistant teacher to a roomful of stunning Sicilian girls, so this pretty much made up for everything else that’s ever gone wrong in my life.
I was committed to this, since I got a real video job at a real video place despite being burdened with a film degree. I sucked at it initially, then I rocked, then I was laid off, or asked “not to come in for a couple weeks” and realized I was out of a job three weeks later. I also got credit as the co-
On a couple of cable shows I edited because I told them I could script the footage better than they could. Eventually they didn’t even bring me scripts. I felt like a stud, though the whole gig did involve working in a dark, windowless office.
For a failure of a show. Whatever. I got paid.
For a non-profit. Yes, I got the job because my mother was the executive director, but I did manage to film an event, set up all the interviews, and put together a seven minute video universally loved by the board and staff. I think they still use it for fundraising, but I have no idea.
Freelance Flash Developer
This was the beginning of the end, for me. I made some flash toy of a big gray dude who moves his arms depending on where your mouse goes, and people just wouldn’t stop hiring me to do web work, which was entirely a hobby up to this point. So I did a sprawling test system for some client. Lot of bureaucracy, and I ended up working three months for free for them. They asked me why I was bitchy, I said because I kept doing more work for less money. They asked if that was going to be a problem. I stopped taking their calls.
Freelance Web Designer
I took about four jobs doing websites for people. I committed every cardinal sin I could think of, including working for flat fees, never setting up a cutoff date for changes, not really knowing how to do what I was charging people for, not billing properly, etc. Mostly, I was desperate and moderately talented at giving clients exactly the look they wanted, so that got me leveraged off a cliff. I think if you add it all up, I was probably working for three dollars an hour during this period.
At a predominantly Japanese adult education school. How on Earth this society let me be a teacher, I will never know, especially since I didn’t really know jack about what I was teaching, and only got decent at it by the third session. This is where I learned how to be a web designer and a programmer, since my life was three to six hours of teaching every day, then eight hours of researching what I was going to teach the next day. I don’t know how many of my students got anything out of my class, since only a few of them spoke passable English and they almost never asked questions. This is the best job I ever had, and I’m sorry I can’t afford to do it anymore.
This was definitely the nicest office I ever worked in. And the work was alright, although my boss played too many political games with our clients, got bored of work as quickly as I did, and had anger issues. This was another guy who wanted a kid but didn’t realize it. I hate people who want to mentor me in professional situations, because I just want their money. He methodically scared off every other employee, and I should have been wary when I realized that everybody who’d had my position in the past was referred to as “that idiot” and “that jackass” or worse. He eventually thought I was selling trade secrets to the dancer turned event planner who worked next door, because I liked hanging out with her and I was the only one in my office who knew how to flirt. After a number of frustrating meetings where he was unable to communicate what the hell he wanted, I just stopped doing work, and he rightfully fired me about three weeks later. Oddly, he asked if I wanted to come back as a freelancer and we parted on pretty good terms, until he registered my “bonus” as a 1099.
It was cool that my business card actually said “Code Monkey.” Other than that, I can’t talk about this job.
I got this job on the strength of my letter of inquiry, landed like a rockstar, fixed everyone’s problems (including some of the network administrators’ problems) then was fired four days later. They still refuse to tell me why.
In my spare time, I still do consultations for people and businesses just getting into the wacky world wide web. I’m incredibly awesome at this, which is why it costs an enormous amount of money just to talk to me these days. Since I don’t really have any spare time, I now charge so much that very few people call me.
For an ad network. And that brings us up to date. Fortunately, despite it still being programming, my job now is pretty cool.
So I’ve kept fairly busy for the last 20 years.
Before reading the tips below, remember how this started: “I don’t understand how you have a job. You do everything wrong.” I’ve read a lot of top ten lists for wrong things to say, wrong things to do at a job, signs that your boss hates you, things not to say in an interview, etc. I don’t follow any of them. The one piece of advice I can recommend is the one that works in all areas of life:
1. Chill the fuck out
Nobody wants to be around nervous people. One of the most revealing statistics in this country is that tall people get paid more, meaning that all the career advice and work is secondary to how you make an interviewer or an employer feel right at that moment. You can’t change your height, sex, or skin color (without expensive medical procedures) but you can do one thing in getting and keeping a job: be relaxed. If you’re relaxed, they’ll relax, if they relax, you can make them laugh, if you make them laugh, they’ll like you, and you’ll shoot to the top of their list of acceptable expenses. If they can’t relax and never laugh, you don’t want the job anyway. So never lose your cool.
2. Don’t be afraid to switch careers
If you count service industry, cooking, video work, and programming, I’ve had four careers and I got into all them not knowing a goddamn thing about the industry or even the technical work. I got in through bald faced lies and creative interpretations of “work history” and you can do it too. It’s like dating: if you wear you’re best clothes and seem at ease, they may not find out you’re broke.
3. Be straightforward
This is weird, but if you are completely straightforward and honest with your employer (except about your resume, of course), they will fear you and assume that you have or know something darker and more dangerous than they do. I don’t know why this is, and it can backfire, but you remain in the clear. This is kind of true in other areas of life; since starting this blog, people assume I killed someone or worked for the CIA, since if I admit to all this, there must be something far more terrible in my past. It’s not true. This is it. And the fact is reading it all together makes me sound much more exciting than I am, because I don’t write about the weekends I woke up on the couch, watched 14 hours of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and went back to sleep.
4. Accept that you will probably never really like your job
I would like to sit around all day writing for money. It could happen, and I’m all for it, but the fact is, I liked sailing before I had to teach it, and it’s taken years to get back into it. If I’m an author, I’ll probably start to look at writing as a chore. You have a job, you trade your life for other people’s money, and that sucks. But that’s the way it is unless you get lucky or kill off a rich relative.
5. Don’t work for 40-year-old men who want to “mentor” you
These guys just want kids, and they’ll take it the wrong way if you say “I already got a daddy.”
6. Don’t burn yourself out
The fact is, “ten days for vacation or sickness” is a travesty, and it’s offered as if it were a perk. If you burn out, you’re useless to your employer, who doesn’t really care, because he or she can just find someone else to burn out. Once you burn out at a job, you’re useless to everyone, will soon be fired, and you’ll be that much worse for the wear finding your next job. If you take a few days here and there when you’re about to crack, your employer will lecture you about it, but the fact is you’ll be doing better work and will be less likely to get fired in the long run. As an added bonus, if you do get fired, or if you get so much flak you have to quit, you’ll be better prepared to dive into the next job while your former employer replaces you with another victim. People who have made it say all it took was a few years of hundred hour work weeks. They don’t mention the 99 other people who did the same thing and are now hollow, bitter, and broke.
7. Be a mercenary
For most of the workforce, our employers are not, nor should they be, our friends. I don’t want to work for my friends. I want to drink and hang out with my friends. Being friends with your employers just complicates a situation that is already designed to get more money out of you than is put into you. Cordial, civil, and even friendly are fine. But they’re not doing favors for you, and you shouldn’t be doing favors for them. If they treat you well, personally and financially, stay and work, if they treat you badly, personally or financially, stop working and leave.
8. Nice people will screw you
I’ve probably served a couple thousand meals in various restaurants, and the one statistical constant has been that the friendliest, chattiest people are the worst tippers. Nasty, evil people are also bad tippers, but you expect that of them. The nice people seem to think that their niceness makes up for their cheapness. Customers who treat you like you’re doing your job are the best tippers. Super friendly people want something from you, or they think you’re a character in their script, or they’re crazy. This is why I live in New York City: everybody has a job to do with not enough time to do it, so people are efficient and civil, and I don’t have to be seen as rude when I don’t want to hear about the gas station attendant’s friggin’ kids.
9. Buck up, lil camper
This is life! Can you do better? Maybe. But probably not. You have to work, you have to produce, and no amount of alcohol will cure that (well, some amounts of alcohol will cure it). All I would say is that if you’re unhappy, continuing to do the same thing will not make you happier, so do something different.