Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Odd Jobs

In 1952, at the age of 14, I got a work permit and my first job ironing dresses at a Milwaukee Avenue clothing store. Forty-seven years later, after retiring from my PR career, I signed on for a seasonal job at the Gap on Michigan Avenue. Those two odd jobs – all those many years apart – had one thing in common. I was lousy at both of them.

Wait. That’s not exactly true. There were some things I was good at in my Gap days. I arrived on time, absorbed my daily informational meetings, memorized the 10 Principals, dutifully wore Gap merchandise, didn’t grumble when it was my turn to fold and re-hang clothes in the fitting room, kept my eye out for sticky-fingered customers, and cheerfully moved from Denim, to Khaki, to Fleece, to Dressy.

But at the end of each day, I could barely shuffle to the subway. After standing or walking the floor for my entire shift, every aged bone in my body complained. By the time I made it home, I would sink to the couch, motion to my husband for a glass of Chardonnay, and wonder what I had gotten myself into.

During my three months on the job I never took home a paycheck, instead spent every discounted dollar on Gap clothing. That’s why to this day, you’ll still find me in my uniform: black t-shirt, boot leg denims, Steve Madden kids-sized boots. Courtesy of my oddest job.

To learn if others had similar odd job experiences, I asked several friends to share their stories. First up is Jimmy Carrane, co-author of “Improvising Better” and host of Studio 312 on Chicago Public Radio. He’s also taught at The Second City, Annoyance and IO-Chicago. Jimmy’s next “One Day Improvisation Workshop for Everyday Folks” is Saturday Feb 24th, from 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. in Andersonville at 3 Pear Studio at 5219 N. Clark Street. For info, write to jcarrane@aol.com or call 773-528-0433. Jimmy’s story:

“Two things actors desperately need - to be recognized and to make the rent. This job was neither. It was a birthday party for the CEO of The Fruit of Loom Company. The hosts needed four actors to go to his posh Streeterville condo, dressed like The Fruit of The Loom Guys and sing Happy Birthday. I don't remember exactly what piece of fruit I was, but since I was short and fat at the time, I know I was not the Banana or the Grapes. Let's say I was the Apple. I don't want to sound bitter, but the fat guy is always the Apple.

“The condo was in a very fancy building near the Drake Hotel, and in those days I was not taking elevators, because of my claustrophobia, so I walked up the 11 flights of stairs in my Apple costume and tights. When I got to the place, the self-important caterer shoved me into a room with the three other actors as if I was a piece of, well, fruit.

“Two hours later, the caterer let us out and took us to the living room to sing Happy Birthday to the CEO. The room was filled with Chicago royalty. People like Kup, his wife Essie, Neil Hartigan. Celebrities I had only seen on TV or read about in the newspaper. I had never been so close to these kind of powerful people, and at the same time, disguised as a fat Apple, felt so far away.”

Tony Brooks has a happier story. Tony (that's him in the middle of his beautiful family) has been a contributing journalist to sports magazines since 2005 and specializes in profiling sports legends in his “Where Are They Now” publications. Here’s Tony’s contribution:

“In 1981, with a political science degree in hand, I went to work at an Investment Banking firm, and oddly enough, 26 years later, I’m still there. But the real odd job came in 1995 when a mother of one of my Sunday school students asked me to recommend a good high school for her son. I had a few opinions, but told her I would do some in-depth research. To my surprise, I could not find any books on Chicago-area quality high schools. So, with the confidence of having been an Honors English student and a decent writer, I self-published a book called The Ten Best High Schools in the City of Chicago.

“For more than 20 years, I had suppressed my desire to write before finally taking that first major successful step for that perplexed mom. Also, I have always wanted to write about former Chicago star athletes and “where are they now?” stories. Four years ago, when my uncle Lemuel T. Smith Jr. (a former star basketball player at St. Elizabeth) passed away, this passion was ignited and for the last two years, my new on-the-side job has been freelance sports writing. I’m a regular contributing journalist to The Chicago Sports Review and Black Sports The Magazine. In the February edition of the Bear Report Magazine, I will have my first article published about catching up with former Chicago Bears football players. Life is good, and so are Odd Jobs.”

Susan Stone is a well-known storyteller, teacher of the art, and a published author who has been honored with many awards. She offers us two looks at her odd jobs:

“A graduate degree in theatre didn't help me get a job. I was 22, living at home and decided to waitress for the first time in my life at a family eatery in Skokie. I schlepped platters of burgers and fries, salads, and corned beef sandwiches in a crowded, noisy, bustling restaurant.

“Every day we’d get a ‘bank’ to make change and every evening we’d return the bank and keep the remaining money as our tips. But I regularly came home crying because I had no tips, likely giving the wrong change (math not being my strong suit) to my customers. Once, I could’ve made some real money when I slipped on a wet floor and contemplated suing. Instead, I quit.

“In my current profession, I have a ‘biggest nightmare’ story that could serve as an odd job. I was hired by the Chicago Botanic Gardens to tell scary stories for Halloween. I put on my best witch duds over layers of sweaters, and was seated on a truck with hay (aka a hay wagon), which was actually a very noisy tractor-type truck. It was a dark, freezing, sleeting October night. I stood on the first car of the flatbed truck with lights glaring in my eyes, blinding me. I held a microphone in my shivering hands and bellowed stories over the grind of the motor to an audience who couldn’t see me or the passing garden scenery. I don't think anyone could hear the tales. A nightmare gig for Halloween.”

Jill Stewart is president of Stewart Communications, a public relations and marketing communications firm that works with organizations focused on health care, housing, community development and other important issues. Jill’s Odd Job story follows:

“Maybe this is a common experience; maybe it was unique, but it sure was memorable. I was 18 and had just finished my freshman year in college. I had been a retail clerk the previous summer and was looking to make more than $1.60 an hour, the current minimum wage.

“For six days (after the five-day training period), I sold encyclopedias in Akron, Ohio. Each day at 2 p.m., we met in downtown Pittsburgh (my hometown) outside the building where we had been trained. We were then driven in a van 113 miles to Akron. At approximately 5 p.m. we were dropped off on a street corner in a residential neighborhood with a sample book and the driver’s promise to return at 10:00 p.m.

“For five hours, I pounded the pavement, knocked on doors and when admitted, told my prospects of the wonders of the American People’s Encyclopedia by Grolier Publishing, complete with the transparencies and overlays.

“I sold exactly one set of encyclopedias (“only a dime a day”). Qualifying for the payment plan involved having a working telephone number and only one of my prospects made the cut.

“My boyfriend – beside himself about the job’s safety – talked me out of continuing.

“The experience played to my entrepreneurial spirit. It played to my ability to sell and persuade, and not surprisingly those traits showed up later in life when I started and ran my own business.

“But times have changed. I don’t regret selling encyclopedias. The experience gave me a lot of stories, and insights about myself. But I cannot imagine allowing my own 18-year-old daughter to do the same thing in these very different times.”

Gratitude Corner

To Kelvyn Park High School's Career Day for introducing me and "The Division Street Princess" to its students (pictured).

To alumni magazines from the University of Illinois Chicago and its Master of Urban Planning and Policy Program for featuring us in recent publications.


Anonymous said...

Join the club! When I was 15 I got a job at the bakery a couple of doors west of the Vision movie theatre. I lasted one day, when the lady who owned it rapidly surmised that my adding 2 and 2 were beyond my basic skills! Years later, when we were living on the campus of the U. of Chicago, in one of those veterans' pre-fab villages, there was a food co-op organization among us. Since no one would volunteer to keep the books I rose to the occasion. Three months later I was gently relieved of them and I cower to think how long it had taken them to straighten out each family's accounts! However, I would be a magnificent replacement for you doing pressing at the Gap! Margie

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this one. It brought back memories of my days as a roller-rink deejay for United Skates of America (seriously) while attending Michigan State. I also worked as a "kitchen boy" for a snobby sorority during college. Anything for a buck...