Friday, October 26, 2012


I’m currently editing my latest novel, which partly takes place in an office building in downtown Chicago. It’s drawn loosely from my work experience from 1995-2000, when I was the receptionist for a Chicago philanthropist and investor.

I’ve been unemployed for twelve-and-a-half years, since shortly before our first son was born. And sometimes my time in the world of the employed seems like ages ago, another life. That’s not to say being a full-time mother isn’t work. (If you tire of mothers talking about how difficult mothering is, look away). Because motherhood is the strangest, best, always changing, most relentless job ever. It gives you certain freedoms while granting you almost no time to yourself. There are no regular hours; kids feel quite entitled to wake you at any hour, to impose on you any occurring whim.

My parents were self-employed when I was growing up, so I’ve never had the delusions some have about working for yourself. The fact is, self-employed people usually work longer and harder than anyone else, because there is no time clock at the end of the day, no one else to take accountability. Now that I count writing as a career, I can definitely say self-employment has benefits but unique stresses too.

My first job was at the fast food restaurant Carl’s Jr. I was sixteen years old and those who know us know that my husband Jason and I initially met there. Aside from this propitious event, I learned much from my time flipping burgers and dipping baskets of fries into sizzling oil. It was hard and tiring and required teamwork. I learned about customer service and gender inequality in the work place. Our manager often promoted boys before deserving girls. I learned how little a minimum wage, part-time salary would buy.

For a few years, I worked in the hardware department at Sears. This included hand tools, manual and electric, also, paint and paint tools, lawn equipment. Of all my jobs, this one probably had the most practical results for later life. I still know a thing or two about which type of paint to use where, about types of wrenches and hand drills.

I worked at a credit bureau, answering questions about consumer credit reports and resolving disputes; also, we put together mortgage reports for potential home buyers. I learned people will say almost anything when they want a house, and they’ll lie about credit matters if they think they can get away with it. This was reinforced even more when I transferred to the collection side of the bureau and became a bill collector. 
This may surprise you, but people are not always friendly to bill collectors. Many of our accounts came from local hospitals, so I learned a little about insurance and the countless things it will not cover. Of all my jobs, I return to this one most often in dreams. It was my first experience on a computer, with my own cubicle and work load. In my dreams, I’m trying to get through the debtors in my “queue,” desperate to make enough phone calls to keep up with the new accounts pouring in.

During college in Denver, I had a couple part-time gigs. I manned the front desk at a local Radisson hotel. Many college kids worked there, most of them several years younger than I was, so I suppose this was my last foray before college ended and adulthood really stuck. It was a fun job with occasional excitements (police called because a man had barricaded himself in a room, the night shift recounting a celebrity sighting), but it was a job I was happy to quit. For a short time, I had a heavenly job at a used book store. It was housed in a strip mall, books stacked everywhere, rarely a customer. I wondered how they stayed in business. Day after day, I propped my feet up behind the counter and worked my way through a list of “500 Books Everyone Should Read.” Guess which job was my favorite.

By the time I started working at the office in Chicago, I’d had lots of experience with low-paying, barely above menial jobs. But they’ve all taught me something and remembering them makes me thankful for the jobs I have now. They are tough, but I could be doing worse things.

1 comment:

  1. Gee I wonder which job was your favorite? Hmmmm... working in a bookstore w/ no customers and nothing but time on your hands to read all the inventory? :-)


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka