It’s common for writers to claim day jobs stand between us and a published novel. I understand. For years I thought if only and when and someday. And yes, working one, two, three jobs at a time took a big bite out of what would certainly have been my fast track to a Pulitzer. But slogging through, learning at, loving and hating a number of jobs, that’s what formed and hold up my novels.
The bosses I despised (especially them), the coworkers who became family, the ones who turned my stomach, those I supervised, fired, hired, found cheating, using drugs, selling drugs: They gave me worlds. The clients. The patrons. Here’s to all of them:
Bartending: my top choice of jobs writers should have in their past. In my 30s, I worked for four years at Winnie’s Pub in Mission Hill, where I received a doctorate in men, alcoholism, racial politics, class, sexual politics and sexual harassment.
In vino, veritas, baby (or a drunk man speaks a sober man’s mind) and the truth often sucked — such as being told by a very high-up member of a local police force, “I’ve never slept with a Jewish woman. I think it’s time.”
Ah, the romance of being wanted to round out someone’s cultural/religious romance resume.
Other nuggets learned at Winnie’s Pub:
- Yes, there is such a thing as live sex at bachelor parties (held across the street at a veteran’s hangout – enough said.)
- Men who come in with their girlfriend almost every night (physician-men, who neither tip nor smile) when visiting alone suddenly become lively enough to ask you to come to their apartments and sleep with them. Despite never having previously spoken to you.
- Sad numbers of women and men, when drunk enough, will go home with almost anyone. Trying to talk said-women out of these choices does not end well.
- When drunk, huge men will attempt to frighten tiny women.
- When drunk, tiny men will attempt to protect tiny women from huge drunk men.
- Drunken men and women are boring to a dangerous degree.
- When drunk and feeling “safe,” men and women will use awful words to describe members of other cultures. These same people will act like good buddies when members of the other culture enter. These same people will also believe a bartender when she claims her father is: African-American, Japanese, Korean, Hispanic, Italian and Muslim.
- And there are incredibly large groups of kind and funny men at bars.
Three (blessedly) short college jobs made a huge impression. Making subs at a Blimpie restaurant taught me that this: When you walk out of a fast food restaurant after eight hours you carry that smell with you forever. Folding pajamas and placing straight pins at the seams (for one day) at made me forever realize I was blessed (as I could quit that job) and that the clock can move backward. Twisting sheets into ropes, tying them off with rubber bands and dipping them into vats of boiling dye (in the lower East Side) broke any illusions I held that “counter-culture” factory work was more benign than any other factory. Political lessons all over the place.
Many lessons I learned working for the City of Boston I wish I could erase. Bring back my innocence. While many employees were dedicated and committed, others spend vast sums of time and money on self-indulgence and political purposes. Some treat the coffers of the city, the treasures of the city, and the people of the city, as toys and puppets.
I also found true heroes walking the street of Boston.
Running a community center, I learned that local sports (basketball!) is intense enough to grab even the guts of a sports-moron like myself (even weeping when my team won the city-wide championship.) I’d never understood sports fervor without that job. Nor would I have a clue about gym rules, day-care environments, weeping teachers wandering the halls and how much guts it takes to fire someone. Plus, it was my favorite job ever. So I learned what it means to love what you do, and what it means to leave because you need more money.
And then I learned why managers in “central offices” get paid more than those in the field. Because the decisions are made in central office.
Working with batterers taught me far more than I can put in a paragraph, but this is the Abusers 101: never underestimate the hatred some men have for women. Never think that people “snap” (other than psychotics). If they chose to find it, people can access that one sliver of decision-making:
- We have agency.
- We do not choose to hit and scream at our bosses.
- We choose to hit and scream at people in our homes.
In the scarf department of Gimbels (long gone) in New York City I learned that people steal. All sorts of people; people you’d never suspect. I also learned, again, that I hate folding — but that wasn’t so useful for characterization.
Working at Barton’s candy counter in San Francisco I learned that it takes very little time to get sick of eating candy. And that despite being sick of it, being bored will drive you to keep on shoving it in your mouth. And that sweet leads to salty to sweet and back again.
Babysitting (sorry, all you guys who let me into your homes when I was a teenager) taught me that the most average-looking folks have porn and pills stashed in their cabinets.
Being a waitress meant knowing for the rest of my life what it means to be invisible. Being a supermarket cashier taught me about absorbing anger and sadness.
Working as a camp counselor helped me understand that one can trust one’s children with other folks, because I loved those kids to pieces.
I remember 25 jobs. I’m sure there are others. They all gave me material, taught me humanity or illuminated inhumanity. I can’t regret one.
- manager for city agency
- camp counselor
- fast food worker
- factory folder
- factory twister
- wall street coder
- insurance paper pusher
- encyclopedia salesperson (door-to-door)
- writing teacher
- candy counter salesperson
- department store salesperson
- counter-culture non-profit bookkeeper
- pregnancy post-partum group counselor
- community center director
- camp director
- afterschool director
- assistant director of batterer intervention program
- grant writer
- violence prevention group facilitator
- supermarket cashier