What was your first job? Was it boring, funny, silly or poorly paid, or some combination of these characteristics? Well, now there’s a book that may very well echo your memories, Merritt Watts’ “First Jobs: True Tales of Bad Bosses, Quirky Coworkers, Big Breaks, and Small Paychecks” (Picador True Tales).
Jonathan Adler, who’s now a very successful potter and designer, famous and happily married, talks about running into trouble by having overlapping, conflicting romantic relationships on one job as an assistant to a talent agent and repeatedly getting fired from several others; Kayla Webley, now an editor at Marie Claire, discusses being a gun-club girl setting traps for trapshooting, and Bob Ellis, an atheist who became a data processing architect, describes selling Bibles door-to-door (it didn’t go well — he felt sorry for the poor people who were his targets).
The stories rely for their charm on the winning juxtaposition of the innocence of the employee in his or her first position and the curious culture that often rules in places such as a restaurant, where strangeness may very well be the order of the day. At the end of the story, a sentence or two describes what the subject went on to do in his or her subsequent career. “One thing that I thought was that all the people with terrible first jobs had a happy ending,” Watts says.
Some of the storytellers make money through rather unusual means. Chuck Turner, who later became a development director at Yale University, got into the pecan business as a 12-year-old at a time when pecans were not readily available in stores (the early Sixties). At one point, he made $3,000 in six weeks, a huge sum for the time, and he went on to get all sorts of mailing lists from churches and other places. He also used the remarkable technical innovation of a mimeograph machine to print his order forms. Rita Carbonari, a development director for a liberal arts college, worked packing bacon. Others actually found their métier on their first job, including Jeni Britton Bauer, who went on to become a cookbook author and have her own network of 14 ice cream shops, who began by scooping ice cream at someone else’s. Barry Friedman, a lawyer who founded his own firm, learned that you could start your own business by working as a soda jerk at the local soda fountain at Hollywood Drugs, which actually sold Playboy.
Watts says she was inspired to write the book partly by being the oldest of four children and often being asked for advice, along with watching her siblings get their own first jobs as ice cream scoopers and the like. “The teenage years are actually a great period of growth when you’re trying to learn things like patience, how to deal with bad bosses getting on your last nerve and how to show up on time.” Someone who was working sweeping up in a bar learned about work culture. He ran into Dustin Hoffman while doing this; Hoffman gave him a couple of tickets to the show he was doing locally, and then the group came back to the bar for drinks. The next day, the manager took him aside and said he couldn’t do that — he couldn’t both work in a place and show up there as a customer with famous people in tow.
One story she found moving was that of a young man who joined his father in running a pet graveyard after his father came out of rehab. “It was kind of gruesome but interesting. He got to spend a lot of time with his dad. Before he had been getting in fights with his parents, but now he felt compassion for his father.”