The Daily

Odd Jobs

Equestrian Summer Camp; Desolation Canyon Ranger

September 20, 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.

Laura van den Berg: A friend and I once spent two summers running an equestrian summer camp. Our qualifications? We knew about horses, my parents lived on a small farm, and my friend’s job as an elementary school teacher provided us with an eager clientele. But we had never run a summer camp before, which might explain why we fed all our charges peanut butter sandwiches; saddled up a white pony as old as Gandalf who lived to stomp the toes of small children; failed to require release forms; offered cold, hard cash to the camper who could go the longest without asking another question; and decided our time together should culminate in all the campers spray-painting psychedelic designs on an edgy 1,300-pound Pinto aptly named Art. Miraculously, no one ever got hurt, lawsuits were never filed, and no horses were harmed in the making of this summer camp.

Maile Meloy: After college, I had a summer job in Utah as a river ranger in Desolation Canyon, on the Green River, working for my uncle. It wasn’t even really a job—it was a volunteer position that came with a stipend and a tiny trailer to live in, which looked like it was full of hantavirus. The job usually attracted very crazy people, so I think my uncle was using me as a buffer against the lunatics. The river trip down Desolation Canyon takes five days, and the launch is in one of the most remote places in the country, at the end of a long, tire-eating dirt road through the desert. I’d brought a friend along, who also wasn’t crazy. We had Bureau of Land Management baseball caps and a list of permits, and our job was to check the boaters onto the river early every morning. We told them not to touch the pictographs on the canyon walls and made sure they had firepans and groovers. Firepans keep ash and cinders out of the sand. A groover is a rectangular ammunition can, repurposed as a toilet. Nothing decomposes in the desert, so everything has to be packed out. Some people say it’s called a groover because the steel can left grooves on the backs of your thighs before people started adding toilet seats. A couple of kayakers showed me an empty plastic mayonnaise jar and insisted that they were going to use that. There was an odd intimacy in having such conversations. People invited us down the river, and we declined, so some left us beer and all were gone by 9 A.M. Then the day stretched out, empty and unimaginably hot, with no TV, no phone, no Internet, and a crackling CB radio for emergencies, and I wrote stories. 

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

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Busker; Deposition Delivery

September 13, 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.

Glen David Gold: The summer I was seventeen, I delivered depositions for my uncle, who had an office in midtown Manhattan. My uncle was a lovely fellow and was very kindly trying to find work for an unemployable nephew. I recall spending many long hours sitting quietly in front of his desk while he looked at piles of paper and then finally said, “Go to Macy’s.” To summarize, perhaps to the point of inaccuracy: some of his work came from writing “cease and desist” letters when, say, a belt manufacturer had a dispute with a designer over unpaid invoices or copyright infringement. So I would bring a scary-looking document to a boutique asking them to stop selling some kind of merchandise until the legal problems were cleared up.

Delivering the subpoenas themselves was an adventure every time. For instance, Bloomingdale’s—it turns out they’d had subpoenas delivered before and were prepared for me. I walked to the information desk and asked where the legal department was. Fifteenth floor. I went to the elevators. Which stopped at twelve. After ten minutes of investigation, it turned out that the employee elevators went to fifteen. When I got to the fifteenth floor, I pulled out my subpoena and the receptionist, without batting an eye, said, “Room 1532.” Need I say that there was no room 1532? I walked the rectangle of that floor for what felt like an hour, asking where room 1532 was. It wasn’t. The legal department was now locked and no one answered the door. Finally, in defeat, and wanting to prolong my return to my uncle’s office, I went to take the stairs down. I opened the stairwell, and there it was: Room 1532, where they received subpoenas. I took mine from my pocket and extended it like it was a fucking sword. Ha! The guy behind the desk—that’s all it was, a converted maintenance closet with a desk in it—wiped the mustard from his chin and looked up in surprise. “Wow,” he said. I took that as a compliment.

Michael Moorcock: I got into publishing at the age of sixteen, writing features and stories for a national weekly juvenile magazine. I later edited the magazine, but before that I sold my collection of toy soldiers to buy my first guitar. I left the magazine job to travel to Paris, where I busked outside George Whitman’s shop, then called Le Mistral and now called Shakespeare & Company. George didn’t mind, since I spent pretty much every cent I earned in his shop. Later I got a gig in Montmartre singing familiar songs for tourists in a little cabaret, and, when I went back to England, I continued to take whatever work I could get playing guitar. My best job was working for a madam called Mrs. Fox, who paid me to perform at parties she organized for groups of men. She supplied the ladies and the drink. I supplied the music. I performed for Icelandic sailors, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and a couple of soccer teams, among others, and became very friendly with Mrs. Fox’s ladies, who were all very sweet and kind to me, perhaps because I was far too shy to make a pass at anyone. They told me some wonderful, sometimes frightening, stories. It was great experience, and stood me in good stead when I came to write my first adult fiction at the age of seventeen.

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

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Labor Days

September 5, 2011 | by

Detail from Jean-François Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure, 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. Here, in honor of Labor Day, T. C. Boyle and Jim Shepard present stories of factory work.

T. C. Boyle: I worked one summer at a factory near my hometown of Peekskill. I was a college kid, the other workers were lifers. I was never quite clear what the cast-metal things we made there were—they were called muffins and aximaxes—and I wasn’t much good at repetitive tasks. I was far better at after-work activities, like driving my spavined, oil-burning Renault to the local bars and the deep clear lakes. But when I think back on that time, I see elephant-size pots of molten metal, steam rising—or maybe it was some sort of carcinogenic gas—and I see the one-armed guy my own age, Vinnie, a lifer, to whom I eventually sold my Renault for the same amount I’d paid for it at the beginning of the summer: fifty dollars. My final recollection of him, of that time, that place? Waving good-bye.

Jim Shepard: For some weeks one summer when I was in high school I worked as something called a passivator for a company that manufactured cabinets for computers. The cabinets were the size of desks and dressers and made of stainless steel, and the solder marks discolored the steel in rainbow patterns. Those patterns had to be removed, but the steel couldn’t be sanded, so that’s where I came in. I stood in a large sink, like a small above-ground swimming pool made out of steel, in the basement of the building. There, I swabbed the discolorations with a wand covered with gauze soaked in hydrochloric acid. The wand had an electric current flowing through it. The combination of the current and the acid washed away the discolorations like magic. Alas, the fumes from the acid were also so strong that they made it hard for me to see straight. And the gauze had to be changed periodically. And the acid ate through my giant rubber gloves. How would I know when the acid had eaten through too much of the gloves? I would feel, I was told, a slippery sensation, before the burning began. And that was indeed the case. My father put a stop to my working there when he heard, with some disbelief, what I’d been doing.

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

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Delivering Chinese; Self-Esteem Bingo

August 30, 2011 | by

Detail from Jean-François Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure, 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.

Darin Strauss: I worked freelance at The Aspen Times as a nightlife correspondent: seven hundred words for fifty bucks, an article a month. Then I thought, Hey dummy, you published with The Aspen Times, you should go to New York and write for their Times! It didn’t work out. I lived with my parents on Long Island and delivered Chinese food. To avoid the embarrassment of being seen doing this, I took a gig at a restaurant two towns over. My first day, a girl opens her door to me, and it’s someone I went to summer camp with. “Darin,” she says, somehow unsurprised to find me on her doorstep. “Good timing. Come in, I just ordered Chinese food.” I told her I knew, I knew.

I finally got a job at a financial technology newsletter, where I wrote stories with openings like: “Morgan Stanley is reported to be buying the Telerate trading platform to replace its Thomson real-time, turning from Unix to tcb/ip servers, with four hundred real-time end users.” I never bothered to learn what any of that meant; I wanted to keep my mind free for fiction. I was going to write, write, write. I thought I’d be fired instantly. When my boss said, “Telerate’s TIB is in trouble with its real-time market data platform—find out if data delivery is ... ,” I didn’t know whom to call, what to ask, even what I was supposed to do if I found out. Some kind woman gave me a list of questions to ask, and some numbers to call. Three years I worked there, interviewing people without a clue what I was asking.

Deb Olin Unferth: In Birmingham, Alabama, I taught “self-esteem” in the Department of Family Services waiting room, where four or five hundred people showed up at seven in the morning and waited for hours—sometimes six, seven hours—for their appointments to get food stamps, or to sign up for welfare, or to meet with their caseworker about the children who had been removed from their homes and placed in foster care. My main activity was to get them to play self-esteem bingo. I handed out blank cards, and people were supposed to write adjectives that described them in the spaces. I provided a sample list: “beautiful,” “smart,” “funny.” I’d call out the words and when someone said, “Bingo,” I’d read their card aloud and say, “Now does she have a good self-esteem or a bad self-esteem?” and whoever didn’t completely hate me by that time would chirp, “Good self-esteem!” And I’d give the winner a tiny cheap notebook and say, “Here’s a place for you to write your hopes and dreams.”

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

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Rubbish Collector; Barman

August 23, 2011 | by

Detail from Jean-François Millet, Peasant Spreading Manure, 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.

Sophie Cunningham: I was once a “Do the Right Thing” girl for the Environment Protection Authority. This meant that I roamed the beaches of Victoria for an entire summer in, I think, 1985, wearing a “Do the Right Thing” T-shirt, with a robot rubbish bin controlled by a puppeteer hiding behind trees. The robot would say, “Please put your rubbish in me,” or, for larks, “Fuck you.” I would smile and hand people a “Do the Right Thing” rubbish bag.

Michael Cunningham: I worked in bars for years. Most prominently, a gay bar in Laguna beach, which featured bartenders who all looked more or less like Michelangelo’s David and wore only slightly more by way of costumes. I, however, did not look anything like any sculpture I had ever seen.

I learned early on that the bar manager always hired one odd man out—specifically, a boy who was more clever than he was beautiful, who functioned as comic relief, who was, as I gathered, meant not only to entertain the patrons but to assure them that the wall of air between them and the men behind the bar was at least semipermeable; to be their animal familiar in a world of robust male camaraderie they were invited to observe but not ever to enter. My predecessor had been a sweet, Rubenesque boy they called Bubbles.

The bar sported a South Seas theme. Brown palm fronds strung with white Christmas lights curled down from the ceiling. Tiki heads scowled from the walls. The bar top was made of glass and, under it, bug-eyed Japanese goldfish swam in listless confusion over a bed of blue gravel. Every now and then one of the fish expired, which would not be good for business in any establishment but was especially unfortunate there, where reminders of mortality did not play well to the generally elderly crowd. If one of the fish went belly-up during a busy night, as they were mysteriously wont to do, we covered the corpse with a pile of napkins or a dish of peanuts, though throughout the night it was necessary to keep moving the napkins or peanuts, as unobtrusively as possible, because the deceased tended to float in unpredictable directions.

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

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Singing Cowgirl; Cigarette Boy

August 15, 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.

Jessica Anthony: I was a singing-telegram cowgirl in upstate New York in the early nineties. I wore the dress, boots, hat, and fringe. I went to various places of business and sang, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” from Oklahoma! to human beings who desperately had no interest in it.

Jonathan Lethem: I once had a job as the assistant of a family friend, a very talented artist and theatrical designer who had, in the parlance of the time, “gone mad.” My tasks included helping him move a discarded chrome car bumper from the street to his tiny Upper West Side studio-apartment bedroom; helping him weld the bumper to a sculpture that also included sardine tins still covered in oil and shreds of fish; and walking his poodle to the liquor store to buy him bottles of gin. But there were problems: the unfortunate, confused dog had a giant clot of bright red paint covering approximately a third of its white curls, so that it appeared to have been attacked by an ax murderer. Also, I was only thirteen. Even in 1977, a liquor store on the Upper West Side wouldn’t sell a tall bottle of gin to a teenager leashed to a zombie poodle.

Adam Levin: I used to hand out Winston cigarettes at bars for a Chicago “guerrilla marketing” firm. I was required to carry around a duffel full of cigarette cartons. We had some discretion over how many packs to give out to each person—usually between one and four. I also carried a box in which an old digital camera was mounted. If you wanted free cigarettes, you had to let me photograph your driver’s license, and you’d nearly always let me, because you were drunk, which is why I picked you to begin with. So maybe it was more like I used to collect personal information at bars in Chicago for a “guerrilla marketing” firm employed by Winston.

Peter Carey: Never, in all my life, have I been employed in a job as absurd and peculiar as the one I have right now. Commuting between 1854 and 2011 is killing me.

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

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