The Daily

Odd Jobs


May 8, 2014 | by

Life in the linguistics lab.


Image via Giphy

In August 2009, I took a job as a “confederate” at the “MIXER” project, run by the linguistics lab of a university in the Philadelphia area. The goal of the MIXER project was to gather recorded interviews for a database of conversational American speech. Over the previous five years, the lab had recorded thousands of speakers; having secured a grant from an undisclosed sponsor, they were gearing up for another year. For three hundred dollars a week, my only responsibility was to receive the participants that came to the lab and to get them to speak.

The interviews were conducted in a recording booth known as the Mermaid Lounge, so named for the amphibian girl and paint-by-numbers fish characters painted on the far wall. Inside the Lounge was a single desk where two computer monitors sat head-to-head, surrounded by cameras and all kinds of microphones: clip-ons, standalones, condensers. At the other end of the hallway was the HIVE, a seminar room that served as base of operations for the MIXER-6 team—me, a secretary, and the lead confederate, who liaised with the sponsors. The lead confederate on MIXER-6 had participated in every study so far except MIXER-4, which she’d missed due to dental surgery. Now, after several complicated adjustments, she wore an elaborate dental fixture that rendered her effectively mute. She typically relayed messages through the secretary, Stabler, a burly little man with golden-blond hair and a bushy beard. Stabler was responsible for outreach; that meant flyering, Craigslist ads, and organizing participant data. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by his terrible stammer, which was particularly pronounced whenever he spoke on the phone: “Hello, thank you for c-c-calling the l-l-ab … Are you r-r-responding to the a-a-ad?”

As a confederate, my responsibilities consisted of escorting the participants to the Mermaid Lounge, fitting them with a small, sensitive mic, and seeing them through three “sessions.” The first, the Prompt Session, was scripted. Participants read through a series of warm-up phrases as they scrolled across a monitor. These were mostly binomials like riff raff, hip-hop, flim flam, willy nilly, etc. Once the articulatory mechanisms were sufficiently exercised, I moved onto the Natural Session, during which I conversed with the participant on a topic of his or her choice. If necessary, we could discuss the algorithmically generated topic of the day, which might be Netflix, or terrorism, or gun control. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the participant put on a pair of headphones for the Noisy Session. An automated voiced counted down to zero, and then a steady stream of white noise came through the soft earpieces while I continued to converse with the participant. Read More »



August 13, 2013 | by


I landed my first job in a bike shop at fifteen. My initial assignment was to bleach a deep sink in a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned since the shop opened five years before. I gloved up and went at it with a brush for the first hour of my shift. The manager stood in the doorway for a few minutes and told me when I scrubbed the rest of the bathroom he would let me dust bikes and chase spiders out of helmets in the showroom. He looked like a fat Lance Armstrong, or how I imagine Armstrong would look if his steroid admission led to obesity and an addiction to slot machines at truck-stop casinos. He liked to wear cycling socks with martini glasses on them. He shaved his thick legs and sported tight khaki shorts year-round.

After a couple weeks on the job, it was pretty clear to me the manager had two serious goals for his day: consume two king-size Snickers and race the only other employee around the shop on Razor scooters at least a dozen times. The other employee held the title of head mechanic. A small Bible college in Florida had recently expelled him after he allegedly shared a motel room in Memphis with a female classmate. Of course, he flatly denied it, not that anyone cared. I got the sense he really didn’t want to go back down to the swamps to sweat and study international ministry. He was content at the shop. During the day, he would clamp a repair bike in the stand, ignore it, and just eat several Tupperware containers of Thai food. He used his shop apron as a napkin.

When they weren’t racing scooters or eating, they were dismantling the racks and fixtures and rearranging the showroom. The manager would pace around the showroom and pick caramel out of his molars and say, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” After they made me move all the fixtures and bikes back to the original setup a few times, I figured out they were just trying to construct new courses for their scooter races. The two of them had time for these types of projects. I scrubbed the bathroom, dusted accessories in the showroom, and fetched pizzas that dripped grease all over my jeans. The owner never stopped by the shop, and we rarely had to deal with customers. When customers did walk into the showroom, they just picked up their unfinished repair bikes to bring to a shop with a competent mechanic on duty.

In the three months I worked there, I made one big sale: an entry-level mountain bike to a guy with visible anxiety problems. Through his panic attack, he told me he’d never learned to ride a bike and was prepared to confront his fear. The transaction taught me working sales was the lousiest job in the shop because there was a moment in almost every sale where you had no choice but to make the customer keenly aware of their biggest physical or psychological insecurity—bike manufacturers do set weight limits, they don’t make adult bikes for the unusually short or tall. After flipping through the wholesaler’s catalog for half an hour, I had to tell the guy we couldn’t order adult training wheels. The manager listened to the entire transaction from his shitty little office, a dressing room he’d converted into his command center. Afterward, he berated me for the sale, claiming the guy was just going to return the thing. He was right. Two days later the guy wheeled the bike into the shop after taking a nasty spill, looking to return it. He had a big patch of road rash on his cheek. I had to clean up the bike and install new grips. The manager took the cost of the grips out of my last paycheck. Read More »


Pulling Teeth; Cold Calling

October 18, 2011 | by

Detail from 'Peasant Spreading Manure,' Jean-Fracois Millet, 1855, oil.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Clancy Martin: I worked at the buy counter at the Forth Worth Gold and Silver Exchange in Texas in the eighties. The only object there was to cheat people out of their jewelry, old gold, and sterling-silver flatware. If we paid more than ten percent of what we could wholesale the item for, we were paying too much: that was the rule. We kept dental pliers behind the counter so that people could pull out their gold teeth if they wanted to. This happened quite regularly, with very poor and homeless people who came in. They did it in the bathroom. They had to remove the gold from their teeth and clean it before we could weigh it. So that was my job. I was sixteen and still believed that the universe had an important moral order so I was constantly sending people—depending upon how they looked to me, if they seemed poor and deserving—to other jewelry stores where I knew they would be paid better prices. Often these people nevertheless took the price we offered. We ran such large ads and they waited in line so long to sell their items that all the fight had gone out of them.

Téa Obreht: One fiscally woeful summer, I decided to get some cash by teaching ballroom dance. The manager of the local studio, where I sometimes practiced, informed me that a new coaching position would open up within a few weeks, but in the meantime I could perform the equally important task of following up with past studio members and encouraging them to return. This entailed sitting in a subterranean office, going down a list of phone numbers in the student ledger, and saying things like, “Good evening, we haven’t seen you recently, can we interest you in more lessons?” There were, of course, the obligatory no-thank-yous and go-to-hells, but every so often, someone would say something like, “Unfortunately, my recent hip replacement makes that impossible,” or “As I explained to the young lady last week, my wife is still dead and we won’t be coming any more.” After about a week of this, I went to work in the stockroom of a furniture store.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.


Misspent Youth; Reading ‘Fup’

October 11, 2011 | by

Detail from 'Peasant Spreading Manure,' Jean-Fracois Millet, 1855, oil.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

Nam Le: I ran through the usual money-makers of misspent youth: door-knocking in the outer ‘burbs, Christmas-carolling at the bottom of escalators, child-laboring in the family business, pyramid-selling to my parents, my friends, my parents’ friends, my friends’ parents. I did time in a call center, spent one year on my knees lacing up Doc Marten boots for feral teenagers, and another fending off feral twenty-somethings while editing the university student paper. Then I finished my law degree—and threw in my lot with the greatest ferals of all.

Colum McCann: I was a “wilderness educator” back in Texas in the mid-eighties, after taking an eighteen-month bicycle trip across America. This meant working with kids who were at risk, or juvenile delinquents. We lived out in the woods for three months at a stretch, built pine-pole shelters, treehouses, an outdoor latrine, a gravity-fed shower. It was a magnificent interruption in my life: out under the stars. At night I used to read these tough, streetwise kids to sleep—Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, and a fable called Fup by Jim Dodge. They loved Fup in particular, a fable about a duck, a sound-anagram for “Fucked Up.” I still hear from these kids—they’re all over the country now and generally they’re out of trouble, except for the fact that they might be reading Fup to their kids.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.


Fake Paintings; Perfume Tester

October 4, 2011 | by

Jean-Francois Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure (detail), 1855, oil on canvas.


Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

M. J. Hyland: From the age of eighteen to twenty-one, I worked any job I could get my hands on. One of these jobs was selling fake paintings door-to-door. There were four of us in the crew. We were taken out each night in the company car—a white minivan—and dropped on suburban street corners with black folio bags. I’d been instructed to pretend I was the artist.

My first night was the one I remember best. The suburb was a newly built estate, each house a mirror of its neighbor. The grass hadn’t grown on the front lawns yet, and there were cars in all the newly paved driveways—not flashy cars, but not beat-up Holdens either. I walked to the door of a house and knocked.

“Sorry to bother you at teatime,” I said, “but my name’s Marcia Bradshaw and I’m an art student at university. I’m going from door to door to see if I can sell some of my work.” I unzipped the bag and took out a painting. “I need to raise some money so I can finish my degree,” I said. “My parents have no money and my scholarship only lasted two years.”

Life is ruthless, and its bestowal of fortune arbitrary and capricious. I’d been born to morons and mine was a shabby life. I stood on this woman’s doorstep and told the lie about the paintings as easily as I did because, although it was a lie, it was also true. I believed my own lies and told them well. I wanted money, and, like my criminal father, I wanted it the easy way. Read More »


Night Shifts; Manufacturing Arrows

September 27, 2011 | by

Jean-Francois Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure (detail), 1855, oil on canvas.

Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.

John Brandon: I did my best for a while at a lumber mill that fashioned blunt-tip wooden arrows. The only use for the product, as far as I know, is in schools that teach archery as part of their PE program. This may have been the only wooden-arrow producer in the country. I was the new man, as I always was in those days, so I had to drag the colossal hunks of raw cedar around to the head saw. If one were to design a task for the specific purpose of causing hernias, this would be that task. Perilously awkward, perilously heavy lifting. Another thing left to the new guy was rolling the arrows to see which were warped. You had to lean over a wide table for hours on end, knotting your shoulders and neck. I also shoveled out the sawdust room. All the sawdust from the mill was sucked up and blown into this stifling shed that leaned against the main building, and once a week I had to put on a mask and wedge myself in there and shovel it all into canvas bags. It took most of a day. Once in a while a circus would come and purchase all the sawdust—I’m not sure why. Anyway, the place was in the middle of nowhere, so on breaks there was nothing to do but lean against the outside wall and pick sawdust out of your nose and ears.

I worked Monday to Thursday, ten hours a day, with a forty-five-minute drive at each end. Thursday nights, my work week over, my girlfriend would drag me to a beach bonfire where I’d dull my aches with Alaskan Amber and eat hamburgers, tugboats belching in the distance. The wee hours of one of those nights was the only time, as an adult, that I pissed the bed. Being thoroughly drunk and sort of tired had never caused this. Being thoroughly tired and sort of drunk did. Not to mention our studio apartment hung out over the sound, so we slumbered each night to the lapping of gentle waves.

Brian Evenson: In 1987, as a young college student, I had the pleasure of working four abysmally bad jobs, all of them at hours when no human should be awake. First I worked the graveyard shift in a sweeper truck, sweeping parking lots. I was the guy who would get out with a leaf blower in freezing cold weather and blow all the debris away from the curbs so the truck could get it. My partner’s job seemed to involve sitting in the heated cab getting high. When that job collapsed, I moved on to working the graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour fast-food Mexican restaurant. It was just me and a very fat manager with peroxide hair who spent the time from one A.M. to two A.M. smoking, and two A.M. to four A.M. sleeping. When I finally couldn’t take that any more, I took a job as a part-time bread processor for the university, working from three A.M. to seven A.M. putting dough in an automatic proofer and then into an oven. I quit this job because my hands broke out in a rash. Simultaneously, I was washing pans in the backroom of another bakery from seven A.M. to nine A.M. I was fired from that because I couldn’t make it over quickly enough from my bread-processing job. There was, later, ditch-digging, working as a labor subforeman for a construction crew, working as an assistant manager at Hamburger World, and a job trying to program in a computer language that I didn’t know. But, in 1987, I didn’t have a single bearable job.

Chris Flynn is the books editor at The Big Issue and the fiction editor at Australian Book Review.