From the Count My Blessings Dept.:
I love my job now – writing – but I've had some baaaaad jobs in the past. Before I get back to working on my new novel, let me think back on some of the really bad jobs I've had, ones that make me count my blessings today.
KITCHEN WORKER IN RESTAURANT – I did this for a while on weekends when I was a student at Columbia, to earn some extra money. I think the restaurant was called "The Steak Pub" or something like that: very clubby, very beefy, and very male. My entire job consisted of opening clams and arranging them on platters of ice chips, constructing shrimp cocktails, and putting whipped cream on top of frozen parfaits. And cleaning up for hours afterwards, of course. Remember whenever you go to a restaurant, the staff spends many hours after closing, cleaning up the kitchen. At least, you hope they do.
The next day, I was still smelly from all the clams. I should have washed myself with lemons just like Susan Sarandon in "Atlantic City." (Well, maybe not just like Susan Sarandon.)
Unsurprisingly, I didn't stay in that job too long.
TELEPHONE SOLICITOR – For a while, I was a telephone solicitor, selling subscriptions for New York's "Daily News." This was before there was even the term "telemarketer." It was still just as annoying – for the caller and the receiver – as it is today. All day long, I called my way down the list of numbers in the phone book they gave me, every time saying the same script. The script included, "You DO read the 'Daily News,' don't you?"
We telephone solicitors say at long, gray tables, separated by gray partitions, working the phones, all day long.
I don't think I sold a single subscription in all the time I worked there. Not a one.
My first job out of college was Editorial Assistant at a New York book publisher, on Fourth Avenue and 11th Street, just south of Union Square. My job was split between working for the Managing Editor, doing drone and clerical work for him, and working for a ditsy economics editor, doing drone and clerical work for her.
Let me first say that I learned many valuable things in the years I worked there: proofreading, copyediting, how books get published, how publishers and editors work, etc. But I also hated it. They underpaid and overworked me. And worse, they bored me to death.
Part of it was my fault: I was not ready for the crushing tedium of office work at the grunt-work level, especially after the intellectual excitement and personal freedom of college. Working in an office can be cool, if you're doing cool things. But if you're Xeroxing, filing, typing, etc. all day, and for very low pay, it's not so much fun. They made me take on a whole other, full-time job and gave me a five-dollar raise. Really! That's five dollars a week. In fairness, the company was in financial trouble and soon went out of business after I left.
But to concentrate on the positive side, the publisher was well known for its art books,
and I began my lifelong love of art books there. Big, giant beautiful art books.
Anyone who's read WHAT IT WAS LIKE can guess that I might have some experience with summer camps, and they'd be right. I was a camper for many years, but a counselor for only one. And it was at a very badly run camp, one that does not even exist anymore.
Everything about this camp – including the counselors' salaries -- was on the cheap. The food was bad, the bunks were poorly constructed, and the camp "lake" was a small, round, manmade ditch that the campers called "the Polio Pit." I was hired as a fencing counselor (something for which, I admit, I had only marginal qualification), but this camp had the most pathetic collection of foils, masks, protective vests, etc. It's a wonder that no one was skewered.
The big pitch for this camp was that it was a "non-competitive" camp. No competitive sports at all. I kind of forget what we did do with the kids all day long, but I do remember that one day, a bunch of us counselors improvised an actual baseball game with the kids. And it was the best afternoon the kids had all summer.
The only good thing about the camp was that it was close to Woodstock, New York, and I saw some incredible music at nights that summer. (Fred Neil!!) And there were some nice people. But I saw that there was a real difference between a "good" camp (like the one I attended as a child) and this low-rent hellhole. There are different ways to do things: you can do them right and have an on-going, honest enterprise, or you can do things on the cheap and go out of business.
I had another job in publishing: copywriting at the "in-house ad agency" of a large, independent book publisher.
This wasn't a lousy job. In fact, it was a "good" job: Senior Copywriter, with my own office, and very little supervision. And I was very good at it. They loved me there! As long as I turned in good copy – writing that my superiors liked, and that the editors, authors, and higher-ups approved – I was pretty much left alone.
Of course I was underpaid – as are most people in book publishing. That's for a variety of reasons: many book publishing people are women, and women are traditionally underpaid. And books generally don't make a lot of money as a business. And, finally, publishers think they can underpay young people for the privilege of working with those holy items – "books." I guess I was lucky to be paid at all; today, I'd be an unpaid intern.
No, I was the one who was lousy for the job. My attitude was lousy. I was spoiled: I wanted to be writing my own stuff, not direct mail packages about text books or space ads about technical treatises for academic journals. Again, I learned a lot about book advertising and promotion, direct mail and sales, for textbooks, professional books, and some trade books. But it was not what I wanted to be doing.
But years later, my very wise daughter -- The Flower – nailed it perfectly. "If you don't want your boss' job, you're in the wrong business." And I didn't want to be head of advertising for this publisher. I wanted to write full-time, all the time; not just on weekends, lunches, and nights.
I learned a lot at these jobs: any job can be lousy, but you can make almost any "lousy" job better, simply by changing your attitude.