It’s a Dirty Job… (or — Nothing You Do is Ever Wasted, part 2)

Artists who whine because they need a grant and the government doesn’t help them – well, tough shit.  I had the same problem.  I worked in a bookstore for seven years to make money to buy art supplies.  And that was fine.  I don’t think artists should ever expect anything from anybody.  For the artist, sacrifice and hardship are a part of the process.  ~~~  Patti Smith

Everything is usable. ~~~  Twyla Tharp

In my previous post I wrote about the artistic paths that led me to writing — which got me thinking about some of the non-artistic jobs I’ve had.  We’ve all had that job, the one that makes you glad every day that you quit, and I’ve had my share.  The best I can say is that they’ve provided me with a rich vein of stories that I mine again and again in my writing.

To start with, I’ve never done anything the usual way.  I delayed college for two years so I could travel the world with a singing group.  Half of our expenses were paid for by ticket receipts from concerts we performed before the trip; the rest we had to earn.  I did this by working in the dental office where my mother had been an assistant for over 20 years.  My job was to work the reception desk: answering the phone, making appointments, typing and mailing the monthly statements, and being a general dogsbody for anyone who needed one.

Occasionally I’d be called upon to help the assistants. I learned to mix alginate and take impressions (yes, I was that one – the one who made you gag).  I developed x-rays and sterilized instruments.  Even less occasionally someone would call in sick and I’d have to assist one of the doctors.  This was not a good thing.  One day I fainted during a root canal.  Another time I was emptying the suction collector (the stuff has to go somewhere), and I dropped it.  But I didn’t just spill it.  Somehow the damn thing landed in such a way that it turned into a geyser and sprayed the contents – water, saliva, blood, filling material, you name it – all over the operatory.  And me.  And the doctor.  And the patient in the chair.  After that they hired a temp if one of the assistants was out.

For several years after the concert tours ended, I worked day jobs so I could gig at night.  After the dental office job (no, they didn’t fire me, though they probably should have; I quit), I worked as a receptionist at a busy orthodontic practice — so busy that the doctor relieved his stress by coming out to the front desk to yell at me in front of the patients.  I quickly left that job and landed another one as a telephone sales rep for a large dental materials company.  If you had braces or dental work in the 1980’s, I probably sold your doctor the materials for it.  Everyone was safe as long as I stayed out of the treatment room.

All through this time I took classes, trying to get excited about completing a degree in some aspect of medicine, my family’s dream for me.  Over a period of eight years I veered from dental hygiene to physical therapy to chiropractic.  During my physical therapy phase, I did a stint at City of Hope Medical Center, where I donned a hideous pink uniform and helped out in the Occupational Therapy department.  All I did during the several months I worked there was mix and pour plaster into molds for the painting class, scrub out the Jacuzzi, and play bocce ball with little old ladies going on and on about that new mini-series, Roots (which they rhymed with foots).  I moved on.

Eventually I got the courage to tell my family that while I appreciated their desire for me make buckets of money as a medical professional, I was changing my major to music. Thus began a series of low-paying jobs so I could I work my way through college, with the help of Pell grants and scholarships.  For a while I worked seasonal retail at a cookware store called – are you ready? – The Happy Cooker (for those too young to remember The Happy Hooker by Xaviera Hollander, look it up).  I bagged (and snacked on) melting chocolate (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as eating too much chocolate), and I ground and bagged specialty coffees, thus beginning my life-long French Roast dependence.

I suppose I should be grateful I never worked in fast food, or as a waitress, but I never had the chance.  Instead I earned my gross-out points working in a hotel laundry.  Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve come in to work at 6 am and unfurled a bundled-up tablecloth from the previous night’s banquet, only to be showered with festering chicken bones and spoiled ranch dressing.  But hey, want to know how to fold a sheet?  Press napkins on a mangle?  Find out what the hell is a mangle?  I can do that.  If it was a slow day I’d help housekeeping gather up the sheets and towels.  This was even more educational than the laundry.  I saw rooms that looked like they’d been bombed.  I saw bathtubs clogged with pet hair where guests had oh-so-thoughtfully bathed their dogs.  I saw messes left for the maids that should have been handled by a HazMat squad.

Ah, but this was far from my last low-paying job. For a while I was a toll-free reservations agent for a major hotel chain (I’ll let you guess: it starts with “S”), where I learned that toll-free numbers are irresistible to obscene phone callers.  I also learned that during a five-hour shift of constant talking with no breaks I wasn’t allowed to drink one sip of anything – because the computers were too valuable, apparently more so than the workers’ voices.  I tried lozenges, but after I accidentally inhaled one during a reservation, I gave that up.  And quit the job.

I also worked at a sausage-and-cheese store (you know the one), handing out samples and pushing items that I would have died rather than eat (processed cheese with beets and horseradish, anyone?).  But without the kindness of a fellow worker, who risked her job sending me home with leftovers from the bakery and deli at the end of the shift, I don’t know how I would have gotten by.  I was at the point of having to choose between buying food or paying my rent.  One night as we were sweeping up, I found a crumpled $10.00 bill on the floor.  She quickly whispered, “Put it in your pocket.  I never saw it.  It’s your tip for the night.”  Rachel was her name.  She was all of 18 compassionate years old.

My last day job was at a credit union, where I handled Vendor’s Special Insurance, affectionately known as VSI.  It worked like this: let’s say you took out a loan and used your car or boat (or first born child) as collateral.  As long as you kept your insurance paid up on said car or boat (or child), everything was hunky-dory.  But if your insurance notified the credit union that your payment was overdue – bang! – you got slapped with VSI, and received a love letter sent (but not signed), by me.

My first day at the credit union was the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I should have seen that as a sign.  Naturally, no one actually read to the part of the letter saying that if they’d already paid their insurance, they could forget about it and go on their merry way.  No, they stopped reading as soon as they saw the exorbitantly high VSI rate (in all fairness, they probably fell to the floor in a dead faint).  But once they’d picked themselves up, they called me.  Not a day went by that I wasn’t verbally abused by an irate member – some of whom I knew, but I never let on.  It wouldn’t have mattered if I had.  To them, I wasn’t a person: I was the embodiment of evil, the gatekeeper of a vast bureaucratic conspiracy designed specifically to bring about their ruin (and the ruin of their children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children).  I would have been thrilled to have had the kind of power they imagined I possessed.

One memorable call — after which I nearly had to dial 911 to be treated for third-degree burns — pushed me over the edge and made me decide it was time to take my chances on starting my own voice studio.  It was a big risk: Oregon’s economy was in a shambles.  People had little extra money for anything, let alone singing lessons.  It was slow and painful going at first.  But for a change I was my own boss, and the pain was mine, which made it bearable.  Over time the word got around, and my schedule filled up with good students and – even more important – terrific people, many of whom became dear friends.

I still remember the name of the man who screamed at me the day I decided to take that job – or any job – and shove it.  I’m grateful to him to this day.