Updated: Apr 18
My best friend’s son just got his first Real Job, at Comcast.
Like so many newly employed recent graduates, he is 100% convinced that he is going to work at Comcast for the rest of his career. Work his way up. Rise through the ranks. Perhaps one day he will make Regional Manager. Or Assistant Regional Manager. Or at least Assistant TO the Regional Manager.
Most of us, though, go through multiple careers in the course of our careers. And eventually we end up with a resume that reads more like a collection of short stories than a single, coherent narrative. So we prune out the stuff that’s too old, too unimpressive, too irrelevant, or simply too bizarre to make the cut, and do our best to make it look like we had a plan.
The stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor, though, is often where the best stories lurk: the odd jobs so odd we don’t bring them up in mixed company.
For your reading pleasure, I have delved back into the far reaches of my memory to dredge up all the weird shit I did for money before graduating from high school. I’ve ambitiously titled this “Part 1, the Early Years,” leaving it wide open for a sequel or two.
Fair warning, though, if and when I ever publish a truly comprehensive list of *everything* I’ve done for money over the years, it’ll be after I’ve made my fortune and/or have literally nothing left to lose, reputationally speaking.
OR it becomes socially acceptable for women to use their God-given talents in whatever way they damn well see fit.
Whichever comes first.
Professional Plant Murderess
Though I was a de facto concierge for my mother’s bed and breakfast starting at age 8, I never actually got paid for that, so I’m not sure it counts.
My earliest attempt at actual money-making, aside from the occasional lemonade stand, was to draw up a bunch of signs touting my skills as a houseplant-waterer, complete with colored pencil illustrations, and stick them in every mailbox on Big Bear Place. No, I didn’t realize that was a felony at the time. I believe I also mentioned pet-feeding, but happily no one was gullible enough to take me up on that one.
After the untimely death of a neighbor’s prized orchid, word of mouth buried the business. Which was just as well, because I had already moved on to that most noble and legitimate of pursuits: journalism.
Substitute Paper Boy
When the boy across the street broke his wrist playing baseball, I volunteered to take over his paper route for a few weeks while he recovered. I pictured myself riding around our sleepy suburban neighborhood on my pink banana-seat bike with the fringed handlebars, cheerfully tossing the Issaquah Press onto everyone’s welcome mat and arriving home in time for a leisurely breakfast before heading off to school.
What I failed to realize is that I lived in one of the rainiest cities in one of the rainiest areas of the country: the Seattle suburbs. That meant I had to get up an extra half-hour before it was actually time to deliver the papers (6 a.m.) so that I could stuff every last paper into a protective plastic covering, my tiny fingers growing increasingly stiff and slow in the early-morning chill.
Also, our neighborhood was located smack on the side of a rather steep mountain, so riding a bicycle, especially in the rain, was challenging ill-advised. So most of the time I ended up walking my bike and just using the basket as a newspaper-carrying device. I was late for school pretty much every day during the 3 weeks I was filling in for Broken Wrist, but I did make almost $40 for my troubles, which I promptly spent on a decent pair of gloves and better bike tires.
Just kidding, I blew it all on candy and vowed never to deliver papers again.
Here’s where we get to the weird shit.
I’m honestly not sure where I met the guy who hired me to buy used Levi’s at a makeshift roadside stand one summer. I assume he was an acquaintance of my mother’s. All I can tell you is that he was tall, skinny, unnaturally tan (especially for the Pacific Northwest), had a wild mass of sandy hair that was quickly going silver, and several tattoos that did not look professionally applied.
We’ll just call him Mr. Sketchy.
Mr. Sketchy took one look at adorable, outgoing, bubbly little blonde pre-teen me and decided that having me hold a sign saying “CASH FOR YOUR LEVI’S” would be good for business. So he offered me $20 just to stand there in a cute summer dress on the weekends, holding the sign and waving people in.
After a while, though, I got bored and started taking more initiative. Come to think of it, a lot of my stories start that way. But I digress.
I struck up conversations with people as they sat waiting for the light to change and convinced them to come back with a pile of old jeans. I watched Mr. Sketchy working and got to know his schtick.
I figured out that the “redlines” are the most valuable Levi’s, since the red seams mean they’re vintage.
I also figured out that most people, being totally unaware of that fact, could be easily convinced that jeans worth upwards of $500 on the Chinese or Australian market were only worth a few dollars by pointing out tiny flaws such as fraying edges or thinning knees.
Pretty soon I was doing most of the talking, and Sketchman was just standing there, doling out the cash and raking in the Levi’s.
Eventually, Mr. Sketchy decided I was ready to take some shifts on my own (translation: he went day-drinking). That’s how I ended up, at the age of 11, alone at a roadside stand in daisy dukes and a bikini top, with a giant pile of jeans I had talked off of strangers, and a lockbox full of cash.
What could possibly go wrong?
Happily, the worst thing that happened to me that summer was a slow decline into abject moral turpitude. The game of tricking people out of their valuable assets using only my charm was great for my confidence, but bad for my conscience.
Also, since I wasn’t getting a commission, just a flat rate of $50/day to run the stand, I eventually recognized the exploitative nature of the enterprise and realized that I was simply passing on that exploitation to innocent strangers. That epiphany made it a lot less fun, and I declined Mr. Sketchy’s generous offer to re-hire me the following summer for $75/day.
Housekeeper / Model
In high school, being a dedicated drama geek and choir nerd meant that I was continuously fundraising for some trip or production or other.
Ya’ll know what I’m talking about.
You go door to door or stand in front of the grocery store pedaling your crappy candy bars and ill-conceived flavors of caramel corn, leveraging cuteness and guilt to convince people to buy stuff they neither want nor need.
Despite being extremely extroverted, I’m also highly empathic, so while making new friends is my favorite pastime, asking those new friends for money is my worst nightmare. There’s a reason I quit the Girl Scouts, and it wasn’t the ugly-ass uniforms.
During one of these fundraising fiascos, I failed to attain the minimum number of orders required, despite having gone door-to-door in our pop-up subdivision on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado for two whole days. Okay, maybe it was only a couple of hours. And I may not have waited very long for people to open the door. Or knocked. But anyway, that meant I was supposed to refund the order of the only household that had ordered any: a hard-faced brunette with two small children and her eccentric photographer husband.
Unfortunately, I had long since misplaced their cash, so I offered my services as a housekeeper to pay off my debt. Once the debt was paid, though, they decided to keep me on. Not because I was particularly good at housekeeping, but because I was cheap, and convenient.
Most of the job was pretty straightforward: dishes, laundry, dusting, vacuuming… But then I would get to the photography studio in the basement, and shit would get weird.
It was weird enough cleaning the studio without him there. It was full of all sorts of mysterious equipment and stacks of photographs I wasn’t supposed to touch. But then one day, I descended the carpeted stairs to find him sitting there, editing some photos at his computer.
“Oh hey,” he said, feigning a casual tone though I could tell he had rehearsed this conversation many times before my arrival, “I’ve been meaning to ask… are you a model?”
“No,” I snorted. But then added with a subtle hair-toss, “I’m an actress.”
“Oh!” he brightened, “Well, if you need some headshots for your portfolio, I could use the practice…”
I froze. Headshots, for those who don’t know, are quite expensive, and to have a professional photographer do them for free was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But even 17 year old me knew that there was something indecent about his proposal, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. From here on out, we shall refer to him as Mr. Creepy.
Sensing my hesitation, Mr. Creepy added, “And we could do your senior photos, too, if you want.”
For the first photoshoot, I wore my prom dress: a vintage sleeveless gown in heavy emerald green silk. We went with the retro theme and really pumped up the old-school glam. I started to channel starlets of the golden age of cinema, vogueing my way through shot after shot until Mr. Creepy was satisfied.
For the second shoot, we went out into the woods. To “frolic.” Go ahead and say it with me this time: WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Jailbait, in its natural habitat
Actually, it wasn’t until the third photo shoot that things started to go sideways. We were back in the basement, trying to get the lighting just right for a close-up portrait, when he realized that the issue was that my white shirt was causing some glare.
I asked if I should go home and change, and he said no, he had a better idea.
He picked up a baby blanket from the floor (yes, an actual baby’s blanket), and said, “Here, you can just wrap this around yourself. That way we can highlight those beautiful shoulders of yours.”
OK, I can hear you all screaming at me: RUN. Do not walk, RUN out of that house, and never look back. But keep in mind that he still had in his possession all of the photos he had taken of me, and I knew those were damn good photos.
And frankly, being a theatre person, changing in front of other people felt pretty normal to me. So I did as he instructed, holding the blanket up to cover my perky little chest and wriggling out of the shirt. Then I strategically placed my arms to cover the blanket.
He got several shots in before his wife came downstairs to check on us. And honestly? Those photos were absolutely stunning.
That’s how I ended up with a senior portrait in which I look stark naked (though the yearbook committee cropped it so close you can barely tell), and Mr. Creepy ended up in the proverbial doghouse.
That’s also the day I got fired. But you probably knew that already.
Well, this has been a fun and disturbing walk down memory lane. Stay tuned for Part 2: College and Beyond.