1) Day camp counselor. Summer 1982 and 1983.
At the camp I attended as a child, there was a specific order: you went from senior camper to C.I.T. (Counselor-In-Training), to C.A. (Counselor’s Assistant), and finally to Junior Counselor. I do not remember if we actually got paid to be Junior Counselors or not. What I do remember, however, is how little I enjoyed the work once I had to do it all day long. Being a C.I.T. or a C.A. was a sweet deal – I basically played with the kids in the morning, and then went to hang out with my drama-geek friends in the playhouse all afternoon. Once I made the big leap to Junior Counselor, though, I couldn’t hang out with my friends anymore and I couldn’t be in plays. It was pretty much a disaster – mutual contempt all around. You’d have thought I’d learned my lesson when I was not asked back to be a full-on counselor the next year. No, instead I went to another day camp sponsored by the local YMCA and applied there. Not only did they hire me, they also made me Bus Counselor. If being Junior Counselor was objectionable, this was hell on earth. The kids were mean, and many of the counselors actually talked shit about me to them – making it impossible to do my job at all. I actually hit a kid on the head – hard – with my clipboard when he wouldn’t shut up. I waited all weekend for the pink slip and/or lawsuit, but neither arose.
This job was pretty much the reason I thought I hated children for years. I still get nervous at birthday parties where there are a bunch of kids to chaperone. But looking back at it, there were some good times, too. One of the counselors would play us rap battle tapes by Afrika Bambaataa, the Cold Crush Brothers, and others. It implanted an interest in hip-hop that I never lost. He’d actually sit there and break down Five Percent science for us – never mind that this kid came from East Brunswick, not the South Bronx or Harlem. I also had my first drink there on an overnight (a Molsen Golden, I’ll never forget it), provided by a fellow counselor who, as it turned out, went to school with Matt Pinfield, then a WRSU DJ. All the same, I knew child care was not for me.
2) Pharmacy delivery person/counter clerk. Summer 1984.
My next-door neighbor was a pharmacist at a local drugstore. A week or so after graduating high school, the head of the pharmacy asked me if I’d like to interview for a job. I did and was happy to have it (especially because I’d already been accepted for hire at the Burger King on Route 18 near Tices Lane, but hadn’t started yet). Mostly I sold candy, cigarettes and other sundries to locals, but I also got to use the pharmacy car to make deliveries. This was a decidedly blue-collar town with an old-man bar right across the street, so there was never a dull moment. I remember the day Bryan Bruden came in with his Cramps t-shirt; I couldn’t believe anyone in this town knew who they were. I also remember meeting Judy Daley, a WRSU DJ who was very patient with my incessant phone calls. My background music: the Top 40 hits of 1984. “When Doves Cry,” “Maneater,” “Missing You,” “Dancing In The Dark…” all of them bring me back to working behind the counter, selling Lottery tickets and riding home late at night down Devoe Avenue on my bike.
I mostly delivered to old ladies. One memory sticks out. One Friday night, I was sent to deliver a package way out in the middle of Monroe Township. I pulled up to the house, knocked on the door, and a girl in a wheelchair greeted me. I recognized her: she went to my school. I completed the transaction and started back to my car. As I was getting out my key, her mom said, “Wait a minute! You went to Monroe Township High School, didn’t you?” So I went back in, and we had 10 minutes of awkward conversation. I was too shy to ask her what happened, so there was a lot of hemming and hawing. It was uncomfortable for everyone, and I don’t think I did a very good job hiding my sheer uncomfortableness with the whole situation. This was literally the first time I’d seen someone my age come to grips with their own mortality. Sure, we had a few kids die at our school, but those were weekend car crashes – one Friday they’re in school, the next Monday they’re not. Someday I’d like to apologize to this girl, if she even remembers.
3) Telephone survey researcher. Off and on, 1985-1989.
I was very, very lucky with college. My mom worked at Rutgers as a research secretary; the university had a very generous tuition remission program for children of employees. So I pretty much lived off my student loan for the first two semesters. At the end of the first year, though, Rutgers was not going to be quite as generous – I’d basically get enough to pay for tuition and expenses but nothing else. I needed a job.
It was my dad, actually, who told me about the survey place in South Plainfield. He worked there. That he’d gone from working at a hotel to doing phone surveys in one year tells you a lot about how he was faring in those days; it would be years before he’d finally pick himself back up. But I needed money, and working in an air-conditioned building seemed like not a bad way to spend the summer. So I interviewed and got it.
I held onto the job for the rest of my college career. I’d cold-call people at home and ask them long, complicated surveys. Compensation for their time? Nope; they were doing it for free. I hated it, but I was good at it and usually managed to keep it together when the recipients got impatient (this was the 1980s: no caller ID or screening yet). They were flexible enough that I would sometimes take summers off and come back to work part-time during school.
What I’d forgotten about until now, though, is how many of the local punk kids worked there. My co-workers included Claudia Zane, who was somehow involved with Bobby Ebz, the infamous Genocide lead singer. If you’ve seen the footage of GG Allin’s last concert on the Hated DVD, she’s the bleached blonde helping GG elude the NYC police. She’s since died too, I think of an overdose. Apparently Pete Powers from Genocide worked there, but I’m sure I never met him. We had Larry Martins, who played bass in Agnostic Front and Sticks and Stones; Lauren Curtis, a local artist known for her long fingernails (when I say long, I mean like 1 foot long); and some kids from the Piscataway and South Plainfield high schools who dressed the part. I even ran into someone on the I Love Music board who remembered me and my radio show.
I swore to myself I’d never do phone call work again. That was before I found myself putting in 12-hour shifts at a rental car company’s corporate help desk last summer. For better or worse, it’s my eternal Plan B. Make that Plan E.
4) Placing flyaway ads in college bookstore bags at a warehouse. July 1986.
The classified ad said that I’d be working in “marketing.” You know when you get your textbooks at the college bookstore, where there are credit card ads and such on glossy paper? I always thought the people at the bookstores put those together. No, it was college kids making $5.00/hr, working on the floor of a hot warehouse off Exit 8A of the New Jersey Turnpike. Total assembly-line stuff, and the most mindless work I’d ever done. I am good at simple, repetitive tasks, and could have actually spent a pleasant couple of months doing this work. What prevented that was the management. We were “the baggers,” and we were looked at with the most blatant contempt I’d experienced until I worked for a difficult partner at a BigLaw firm. The manager would actually tell factory workers, “You don’t like this job? Well, then I’ll put you with the baggers. Then you’ll know what it’s like to work!” After three weeks, they fired half the crew, then tried to rehire them for $3.50/hour. Some actually accepted. A week later, they told us we’d now be paid per unit rather than per hour. When we complained, we were told to “think of it as a game” and go elsewhere if we didn’t like it. I was seriously considering doing just that when they called me the next day and told me they’d farmed out the whole program and fired all of us. This job made me buckle down in my studies – if this was the alternative, then I needed to get my shit together quickly.
5) Sears. June 1986, 25 minutes.
This one was a misunderstanding. The temp agency had told me that I’d be working in the back, so dress code was not important. So I dressed in my usual outfit of the time, thrift-store button-down shirt, jeans, Converse All-Stars and unkempt Jewfro (more Screech than Strokes, sadly). There I was surprised to find out that I’d actually be standing out there on the sales floor, stamping people’s coupons for a promotion they were doing. They were very upset at me to the point of yelling, but I was all they had, so they showed me what to do and put me in my location. 10 minutes later, they insisted that I put on a tie from their men’s department. At age 21 I still did not know how to tie a tie, so it was a clip-on. 15 minutes later, they finally told me to just go home. I got a check in the mail the next week for .5 hours of work, so it was at least nice of the agency to round up. I told this story on my radio show and got a couple of complimentary phone calls.
7) AT&T. June-August 1988.
I told this story in the blurb for Writer’s Block #3. Not a bad job at all for its time and place: light work load, more money than I’d ever seen before, lax dress code…but man, oh man, what a dysfunctional group of workers. The first day I reported for work, the manager had me follow him in my car from the New Brunswick facility to the Cedar Knolls center where I’d actually receive my training. He asked me, “Do you drive fast?” Well, sure, sometimes. So there I was, screaming up Route 287 at 85 per hour – I’m lucky I didn’t get a ticket. We stopped for lunch at some Sizzler-type place, and he had two or three beers in quick succession. I had none. Upon returning from Cedar Knolls, I met my two co-workers: a greasy guy who kept porn mags in his desk drawer, and a thirtysomething female would-be writer/artist who very much wanted to be in NYC, but whose benefits kept her there. She would constantly have battles with the aforementioned manager – I think she finally reported him to his union – and the greasy guy would make comments falling just short of sexual harassment. In law school, I learned the meaning of a “hostile work environment,” and kept flashing back to this poor woman. No one bothered me much, though: I just kept to myself, did my work, and put together the next Writer’s Block in the midst of this drama.
8) A doctor’s office in Princeton. May 1992, 2 days.
Basically a lot of transcription and typing. I learned Word for Windows there. A week later, I went to apply for a job at MTV Networks and told the recruiter, “sure, I know Word for Windows.” Luckily I was a quick learner.
9) Giving out W-2 information over the phone at a call center. January 2009, 1 1/2 weeks.
See here. The worst job of my adult life. Seriously. The help desk job I mentioned at the end of #3? Not bad at all. Professional co-workers, decent pay, a feeling that you’re part of the company as a whole…I considered myself lucky to be there. But this was like the worst call center in Calcutta. Thank goodness I was out of there in less than two weeks.