The holidays are over and it’s time for all of us to get back to work, one way or another. So it’s appropriate that the wonderful Squashed Mom, Varda, has collaborated with Stasha to ask us to write about our worst jobs.

I don’t suppose I would win a worst-job contest–I’ve never had to muck toilets for a living or clean out the holds of fishing boats–but I’ve had a lot of crappy jobs. There’ve been a few where I just walked out the back door and kept moving and a few where I’ve been fired asked to “pursue opportunities elsewhere.”

All I’ve ever really wanted to do in my life is be a writer (seriously–I had my writer’s pseudonym picked out when I was in 4th grade–very precocious, except I pronounced pseudonym as puh-sood-oh-nim), but until  I can figure out how to “monetize” my words (as they say in the corporate world),  I’ve got probably the best job I’ve ever had, right now. Except for the small but pressing detail that most of the people I love are about six thousand miles away. But that’s why god invented skype, right?

These crappy jobs all contributed, in some long-view sense, to me being where I am now.  And as a result, that’s probably why I’m going to insist that my kids go get their own crappy jobswhen they hit working age (which, according to Newt Gingrich, is right now. I mean, Liam is eleven and has not contributed one red cent to this household yet. Slacker. I’m going to apprentice him to the school custodian, that’s what).

1. Babysitter. In high school, I babysat for a neighbor whose house was, even to my adolescent eyes, disgusting. Dirty dishes piled in the sink, overflowing garbage pail, make-up covering every surface of the bathroom counters and bureau tops.  I barely remember the girl I babysat for, but I will never forget her dog: a huge sheepdog whose fur was the equivalent of the dirty-dish filled sink. Matted dreadlocks of hair, long streams of drool sort of patted into its chin whiskers, and it stank of old food. The mother chain-smoked long skinny cigarettes and she would frequently leave one burning in the ashtray downstairs while she went upstairs to get dressed for her night out.  Of course, the smoke itself didn’t bother me because I smoked too (on the sly) and being at her house gave me the excuse I needed: I smelled like smoke because I’d been at the Ingrassia’s house. On the other hand, I was always worried the house would burn down.

2. Usher at a convention center. Sometimes this was a great job, at least in the early 1980s when the rock shows would come to town. I totally got to see Loverboy, dude, and Foreigner (the “Jukebox Hero” tour? Surely you still have that t-shirt?), and of course Judas Priest. Big hair, big fun. Got to wear a cool uniform and hang with my friends who came to the shows. Of course, then they would leave for the after-party and I would be left in the arena picking up bottles and cigarettes and vomit. Lovely.  Working for the Ice Capades show, the gift conventions, and the Gospel Music Tour was hellishly boring, by comparision, but at least there wasn’t vomit in the aisles afterwards. Or at least not as much.

3. Short-order grill cook. I worked the grill every Saturday morning at the women’s college I went to, which meant I was the witness to the morning walk of shame.

(Sidebar: to appreciate the walk of shame, you need to know something about women’s colleges, or at least the one I went to, in the mid 1980s: frequently of a Friday night at our college, there would be a dance with a band, and guys would come from other schools–friends of friends, or friends of somebody’s boyfriend or brother or whatever. The conversation often went something like this (imagine loud bad 1980s music and tepid beer): “Hi, I’m Keith. Howyadoin? Is your roommate home?”  The phrase “is your roommate home” was code for: you go to a woman’s college and therefore must be horny as hell and would like to take me to bed)

Sometimes Muffy or Bitsy or Boopsy (the school was in New England; there were girls there who actually answered to these names) would accommodate Keith or whomever, and then it would be morning and there would be this…guy wedged into that hideous single bed (how did anyone have sex in college give the beds we all had?) and this guy would have to eat. So she’d bring him over to the grill and they’d order. Me? I’d be behind the grill in my Izod shirt with the Grateful Dead skeletons silk-screened on the back, nursing my own sad hangover, and wondering how to explain to Bitsy that if you try to cook an omelette on a grill with NO BUTTER it will burn.  Working the grill (with or without Bitsy’s butter habits to deal with) is ugly: the grease gets everywhere: under your nails, coated across your skin, in your nose, your hair, your ears, your mouth. It’s hot and dirty and smells bad. Now imagine doing that on three hours of sleep and a hangover.  Thank god I was only nineteen or I’d have died.

4. Cumberland Farms. Do they still have these any more? They’re like 7-11 stores or NYC bodegas: band-aids, porn, soda, coffee, condoms, newspapers. I worked the Sunday 6AM shift. That meant putting together the Sunday papers. Oh, you say, I thought the newspapers just came like that? Oh no, my dear, oh no. Some poor slob has to fold the sections, pile them together, stick in all those circulars you’re going to throw away. Not hard work but it did mean having newsprint pretty much embedded into my skin until Tuesday. In true colleagiate fashion, after a particularly long Saturday night, I may have called in sick for Sunday morning and then never gone back. Sorry!

5. Waitress, waitress, waitress. I can still sling a full tray onto my left shoulder, carry it through a crowded room, and then hand out the plates and drinks without spilling anything. It’s a very macho skill, acquired through a looong time in the food-service trenches.  All I can say is that if everyone in the world had to work in food service for a full year–either line cook, busboy, waitress, front-of-house…we would all be a helluva lot nicer to one another. Plus waitressing was the best training for being a parent I’ve ever had: Multi-tasking? yep. Being nice to idiots? yep. Cleaning up messes not your own? yep. Being asked the same idiotic questions over and over again? Oh yeah. Not getting paid what you’re worth? You bet your sweet bippy.

6. Temp secretary in any number of office buildings in Manhattan. As a graduate student, before I started teaching, I temped. Shuffled into some random office where someone showed me how to answer the phones, and then left alone. Actually, as jobs go, it was clean, air-conditioned (this was in the summer), and I had access to office supplies.  There may or may not have been petty theft during my temping time.

7. Writing coach for the Department of Labor in NYC.  Yes. True story. I spent about three months as part of a pilot project (that never took off, probably due to my own ineptitude) trying to teach statisticians at the NYC Department of Labor how to put their numbers and data into words that regular humans could understand.  I had no idea what I was doing; the bureaucrats who were working with me had no idea what they were doing there, and the whole thing was something of a fiasco. To all of you still writing passive-voice sentences comprised primarily of numbers…I’m sorry! I was finishing my master’s thesis, breaking up with a boyfriend, and living on about 10K a year, in Manhattan. None of these things is conducive to being a productive worker (although I’m not sure how you measure that fact, statistically).

I’m going to stop this list at seven instead of my usual ten. After the Department of Labor gig, my work life starts to be more grownup (although frequently still crappy).  I did a long stint (like fifteen years) teaching at a conservative Catholic college (despite having never been conservative nor Catholic, myself), where more than once I realized that I’d sworn in front of a nun (she wasn’t wearing her outfit! How was I supposed to know!), and now here I am…in Abu Dhabi. Still working and still very, very nice to waitresses.