The Worst Jobs We’ve Ever Had
The Staff of The Stranger on the Weirdest Work We've Ever Done (Not Counting Working at The Stranger)
By Paul Constant
I was an Easter Bunny at the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs for about a month and a half. For six dollars an hour, I was required to wear a full-body Easter Bunny costume and sit in a wicker throne in the Citadel's food court. Children would sit on my lap for pictures. Sometimes, during the slow periods, my assistants would guide me by the hand around the mall to wave at children and lure them back to my lap.
The suit—full-body tan fur, with an egg-festooned vest and matching bow tie, and a giant, hard plastic head sitting awkwardly atop my shoulders—was hot, but at least it kept the smell inside. I basically gave up on hygiene during my time as a bunny. I always wore the same gray T-shirt and cutoff jeans under the suit, and I stopped trying to shower the smell off because the second the suit went on, the reek would cling to my skin like it never left. Occasionally, my manager would take the suit home and flock the fur with baby powder when it became matted with baby-fluids, but the only way to clean the head before I passed it off to the other bunny involved spraying an aerosol disinfectant inside; if anything, the disinfectant smelled worse than my own stale breath.
And the tail! The suit's poofy cotton tail jabbed into my ass every time I sat down, and it ground into my skin every time a new child was sloughed onto me. Eventually a raw, bloody welt the size of a 50-cent piece blossomed on either side of my ass crack. Sitting down caused a sharp, raw jolt to zap up the length of my spine. I had to sleep on my stomach.
Soon after I took the job, the only other full-time Easter Bunny, a 16-year-old high school dropout, had to quit. (She got pregnant.) My eight-hour shifts became 12-hour shifts, and I started working seven days a week.
The repetition drove me mad. My assistants would plop a child in my lap. I'd ask what her name was. She'd tell me. (Britnee!) I'd ask what she wanted for Easter. She'd tell me. (A tricycle with Barbie on it!) I'd look over at the parents, who'd nod approvingly. (Maybe this was a regional thing, or maybe the customs had changed since I was a kid, but to my surprise, most of the children who visited me got presents on Easter morning, like it was Christmas redux.) I'd say that I would see what I could do. My assistants would snap the picture. The next child would be dumped in my lap and immediately begin shrieking in fear. I'd try to console them from behind the screen of the bunny mouth, my voice no doubt distant, coming as it was from the cavernous depths of my helmet. The child would be removed. Another Britnee would land in my lap. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Teenagers punched and kicked me and shouted cruel names that I couldn't hear through the bunny head.
It wasn't all torment: Once, there was a fashion show at the mall, and my keepers brought me into the dressing room, where a bunch of models in their underwear fondled my crotch and made jokes about my Easter basket. Even during the drudgery of putting people on my lap, I got groped a lot; drunk mothers and young women loved to sit and massage me in my tenderest bunny parts and squeeze the boner that developed. I wondered what they'd think if they could see the young man they were fondling under the suit: Filthy, ass-smelling, my skin pale and clammy, in asymmetrically cut jean shorts, a huge oozing sore on my ass.
It was all worth it for the time when Hunter S. Thompson was walking around the Citadel Mall. My friends and I had seen him in town that week—this was the spring of 1996—and there he was, for some reason, making a beeline through the food court to the parking lot outside. I was on one of my irregular walks, and I stuck out my paw for him to shake. He pushed me away. I like to think that he was tripping balls, and that I appeared in his vision like a looming demon, but probably he just didn't want to be seen with a mall Easter Bunny. I loved him more for it.
The time passed in a gauzy blur. When I slept, I dreamed that I was looking out on the world through the inside of the bunny head. My ass felt as though it would never heal. I lost my grip on reality; sometimes, when a child was taken from my lap, I couldn't remember whether I had engaged in normal patter or if I told him that his mother was a whore. Finally, on the last Saturday before Easter, I was saying my good-byes to my manager. She thanked me for all my good work and asked me what I was going to do with myself. I wasn't sure. She told me that Christmas, on balance, wasn't very far off. I didn't have a naturally white beard, so I couldn't play the Big Man, but she said hopefully, "We're always looking for good elves!"
I left Colorado Springs a month later and never returned.
By Dominic Holden
I had dreadlocks at the time, so I had to wrap my hair in an old T-shirt every day before work. Otherwise, my dreads—which were admittedly pretty gross—would fill up with paint, making them way grosser.
A company of three, our painting business was known for meticulous work. It's hard not to be meticulous when you smoke that much weed at 7 a.m. Things become very, very methodical. Plodding, even. But once we got known around town, we'd get paid fantastic hourly wages finishing the interiors of new houses that had to be painted in a way that captured the architects' aesthetic vision.
Aesthetic vision is subjective. And often impractical. One wet December, we began a job at a new house in the Mount Baker neighborhood, in which a vaulted ceiling soared three stories above a concrete-floored living room. This ceiling was to be painted with a faded whitewash so that the wood grain showed through, while the beams in between were to remain raw brown wood. A paint roller or sprayer would not do the job—the ceiling had to be painted carefully with a brush. This required an incredible feat, and the person selected to accomplish this feat was me.
Every day, I had to lay out a few planks of plywood on the crossbeams, crawl out several yards above the chasm, carry a bucket of thinned whitewash and a paintbrush out onto the plywood with me, and then lie on my back to paint the ceiling. The plywood plank was held in place solely by gravity (no screws, no harness), and once positioned on my back, I'd dip my brush upside down into the thin paint and then swipe my brush on the ceiling.
In case you hadn't considered it before (and why would you?), paintbrushes don't work well upside down. Particularly with paint about as thin as water. Rather than saturating the tip, the paint pooled in the base of the brush, and then in creeks that began running down the handle, dripping onto my arms and elbows and face. Driiiiiiip. Drip, drip, drip. Drip. Drip. After a week lying upside down three stories above concrete, tempting certain death, and swallowing paint, the job was done. Just as the architect had wanted, the ceiling was slightly lighter than the beams. He walked in, looked up, and said, "You know, I was wrong. It should be lighter. Let's put on another coat."
By David Schmader
No, not even that: I was the night watch whose job was to watch the night-watch security guard. It was June 1991, I'd just graduated college, and I was living with my parents in St. Louis while I worked to save enough money to move to Seattle. The job was a full-time position with a home security firm, and it required me to sit in a fluorescent-lit office from 10 at night till 6 in the morning, five nights a week. My primary task: making sure the guy in charge of responding to the alarm calls didn't fall asleep. The firm had learned from experience that leaving one man alone in an office all night was too risky, so I was brought in. Occasionally, I was given a stack of reports to file. But mostly, I just had to make sure the other guy stayed awake. This other guy had had his job since before the second-man mandate came down, so he was used to working alone, and he made it clear that the only time I should speak to him was if he fell asleep.
In other words, my main task was keeping myself awake. I accomplished this through reckless caffeine consumption and immersive study projects. The first installment of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series had just come out, gathering four hours of music onto three CDs that I listened to on headphones, start to finish, every single night I worked. The remaining hours I filled in reading Madame Bovary, which I got through four and a half times before I'd scraped together enough money to flee. I never had occasion to talk to the other guy.
By Emily Nokes
Before I understood anything about schedules and uniforms, I understood one thing: I had to get a job so that I could buy better jeans than the single pair my mom evaluated as being "still in good shape." Good-shape jeans were NOT the low-rise hip-huggers in extra-light denim I so desperately needed.
I turned in an application (which must have just included my name?) to the closest business to my house—a corner Dairy Queen. I'd been there a million times throughout my 16 years, and I considered myself an ice-cream expert. How hard could it be? I was hired by the high-anxiety, extremely tan husband and wife team who owned the franchise, but then informed that my shifts would take place at the other Dairy Queen, the smaller, summer-only location clear across town from where I lived.
At first, the gig seemed okay, but once I tried every Blizzard option, made sundaes that were mostly marshmallow sauce, and attempted baking handfuls of the cookie-dough topping meant for Blizzards in the toaster oven, the job lost its charm. In fact, it fully sucked. My 18-year-old manager was a heavily made-up beast with a bad perm who lazed it up during our shifts together, only to kick it into "stressed-out and super hardworking" mode whenever the owners showed up. Tan Husband lost his temper when the machines hadn't been polished (polished!) at the end of a shift, and Tan Wife would nearly burst into angry tears if the Dilly Bars had not been properly stacked in the stupid freezer.
Speaking of Dilly Bars, there were a lot of cute boys cruising around with their learner's permits that summer, and when they requested a couple freezer treats, I didn't think twice about it. I hated those boring Dillies, and if I was allowed a few per shift, then someone could have mine. Especially if that someone got to cruise around in his mom's Dodge Neon all summer.
Meanwhile, I grew less interested in DQ by the minute. Everyone was catty, the customers were cranky, and polishing gunky Blizzard machines was the most futile task ever. Work, I felt, might not be for me. The new school year was rapidly approaching, but at the hourly rate of early-'00s Montana minimum wage, I'd barely succeeded in saving any hot-jeans bucks after factoring in the gas it took to get to work in my Dad's embarrassing Jeep.
FINALLY, summer was ending, and therefore so was the summer-only DQ. The night of my last shift, I was so restless. Parts of the store were already put away for the next year—most of the freezers were unplugged and empty, we were running low on everything. It was time to party.
It must have started with the dying whipped-cream container that spewed cream dribbles like a white sparkler. Into the air! Onto the person I was working with! I don't even remember anything about my coworker that evening, other than that I think she was a bit "bad"—tongue piercing, cigarettes, that kind of thing. Suddenly, topping spoons were used to launch Oreo and pineapple chunks; sloppy strawberry goop landed in our hair. We were shrieking, slipping around on the greasy butterscotch'd floor, having the time of our lives at work for once.
I suppose it wasn't the food fight as much as it was the decision not to clean it up. I mean, summer-only DQ was CLOSING, and there would be a deep, professional clean before the dormancy anyway. Sixteen-year-old me had it figured out.
I received the call the next day. Tan Wife informed me that I was fired. Since I hadn't planned that far ahead, I didn't realize they assumed I'd be back next summer. Ha! After a lecture about how she'd been "so wrong" about me, I replied with something equivalent to a verbal shrug and hung up, feeling relieved. Later that evening, I was hanging out at a dance class when my MOM burst through the gymnasium doors. "You're coming with me, NOW." Apparently, Tan Wife had called her about the firing, and now she was irate. More irate than I thought possible. I tried to explain—we left a giant mess, we were sorry, it was closing anyway, it's a messy job, big misunderstanding. After the world's longest-seeming silent treatment, she finally hissed, "Stealing, Emily?" I was completely confused. Huh? Stealing? I hadn't even been taught how to make change! I had no idea how the register even opened! I was the Blizzard grunt whose only job was to make ice-cream treats and apparently clean stuff. I pleaded for explanation. How much money was missing? When did it happen? Who else was working? My mom was given no other details, just that I'd been stealing. I imagined life in prison. I panicked.
When we got home, I called the bosses. For the first time in my life, I yelled (and swore!) at an adult I was not related to. At first I just yelped, "What the fuck? What? What the hell?" I demanded to know what Tan Wife thought she was doing (a) calling my mother in the first place, and (b) lying to her? After I hurled my pent-up ice-cream rage into the phone, her condescending voice coolly explained that Lazy Perm had tattled on me, and that "Giving away Dilly Bars is like stealing."
By Brendan Kiley
Working the sports desk for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer one college summer wasn't the worst job for me—rather, I was the worst for it.
Most of my family members loved playing and watching sports, but I was not a natural athlete. (My mother and sister were yell-at-the-TV types when the Mariners were on; I'm probably one of the few American third-graders who routinely struck out at T-ball.) But I'd been working like a fiend at the Daily, the University of Washington's college newspaper, for two years—it paid a decent college-job wage if you filed enough stories—writing about arts, news, and science. When the Daily's comely, Amazonian sports editor, who I had a minor crush on, suggested I take a summer job at the P-I, I was sold.
The P-I editor, Glenn Drosendahl, seemed like a gentle and intelligent man and had a graying, well-manicured mustache. My job interview mostly consisted of him asking if I was studying journalism, me squirming in my seat before sheepishly admitting I was an anthropology major, and him—to my surprise—beaming. "Good!" he said (more or less—I'm paraphrasing). "No real journalists major in journalism! If you want to be a reporter, major in anything else: history, biology, literature. Study something useful while you have the chance. You can figure out newspapers as you go."
And so I found myself working the evening shift at the P-I sports desk circa 1998, when manager Lou Piniella was dragging the Mariners up from the depths and sports fans across Seattle were actually excited for a change. My comrades were mostly pear-shaped people who watched the games on several overhead TV screens and ate lots of hamburgers while they wrote, edited, and cursed. My first task was to tabulate box scores—the "agate"—which involved me looking at columns of game statistics as they rolled in that night and using mathematical alchemy to turn them into tomorrow's study guides for nerds and bookies.
The thing was, I didn't know an ERA from an RBI and was ashamed to admit it to a roomful of Seattle's most knowledgeable baseball fans. Luckily, I was stationed at the back of the room. On one of my first nights at the job, during an exciting moment of the baseball game when nobody was paying attention to me, I grabbed a phone and ducked under my desk. I called my dad—I knew he'd be watching at home. "Dad," I whispered urgently, "I'm at work. Quick, what's an ERA?" He told me to get a calculator, some paper, and a pencil, and he'd walk me through the statistical mysteries of baseball. I turned in my agate more or less on time that night, and my summer job was saved.
I spent the rest of those months more interested in the anthropology of the sports desk than the sports themselves—the gentle-giant disposition of columnist Art Thiel, the world-weary and wisecracking subeditors, the frantic and high-strung sports writers known for locker-room altercations with athletes who were, that summer, Seattle's heroes. I remember the hamburgers. And, above all, the cursing.
By Katie Allison
In college, most people have social lives; I had a horse. As it turns out, horses are absurdly expensive, and her rent was consistently higher than my own. So I spent my weekends working at the barn, whittling down the cost by $10 every hour. Mostly, I cleaned up shit.
An average horse poops around 50 pounds per day. I'll repeat myself. An average horse POOPS 50 POUNDS PER DAY. It's weirdly incredible. Given that my barn had 15 horses, approximately 750 pounds of dense, fly- covered shit had to be removed daily. My only tools were a fine-tined plastic pitchfork and a very large wheelbarrow.
Of all the early mornings I spent enjoying this glamorous work, one really stands out. It was a Sunday morning in January, and approximately six hours prior, I had been playing some sort of topless drinking game. My brain felt like a vomit-soaked sponge full of nails.
In classic Northwest fashion, it had poured rain for days, and overnight, the saturated world froze solid. Mud, churned up into mountainous chaos by many hooves, solidified into a treacherous hellscape of wheelbarrow- and ankle-snagging ruts.
With grim determination, I wrestled my wheelbarrow into the first paddock. I was going to get this done, god damn it, so I could go home and die in peace. But as I attempted to scoop up the first pile, I realized the obvious: The shit was frozen, too. Into the ground.
I tried to work through it, I really did. I jammed my pitchfork's plastic tines into a crack and tried to get enough leverage to separate poop from dirt. Naturally, it got stuck. As I struggled feebly, nauseated, to free it, the frozen grass that had snared it snapped, and with a twang, the plastic tines flung a few bits of frozen shit-shrapnel into my face. The bulk of the pile stayed glued to the ground.
I just started crying. I may have thrown up in a bush.
I no longer own a horse.
By Bethany Jean Clement
That's what we sold: foam. It was the summer after college, and my expensive liberal arts education was not proving useful. The foam store was in the far reaches of North Seattle, on a busy, featureless highway; the businesslike woman who ran it was a friend of a friend of my parents, and she needed help, and thus I found myself in the muffled world of foam.
Foam is all around you, more than you know. People would bring in their couch cushions, and we would replace the old, squishy, broken-down foam, wrapping the new foam slabs in cotton batting to get a rounded effect. We sold foam bolsters and foam fold-up beds and foam mattresses—foam makes a durable and comfortable mattress, if you buy a higher grade, and we could also special order the all-natural latex kind. I only recently have forgotten the measurements, in inches, of all the standard bed sizes. We did boat upholstery, too; I learned how to use a very fast and somewhat terrifying industrial sewing machine, and I made surprisingly shipshape cushions to go between rich people and their yachts. I thought about the drinks they would drink and the water they would watch while they sat on my work.
More than once, a man brought a gun, or plural guns, into the store. Gun cases are lined with foam. My boss would tell the man firmly that we did not allow guns in the shop—the case, yes, and we would be happy to outfit it. The guns, no.
Outside of work, I thought I was in love with a boy with beautiful long hair that I was, in the current parlance, hooking up with. He had no such illusions about me. We played pool at the Eastlake Zoo and went night-swimming in the Montlake Cut, and I lived with very good friends, and we all had a lot of fun, but my central emotion was halfhearted despair: My life was failing to get properly under way. I wrote a misshapen short story about my feelings. If I could reach back through time to the younger me, I would shake her. Enjoy that longhaired boy, I would say, and night-swimming, and a job where you might sew through your finger or see a gun. Things are going to improve, and far more terrible things are going to happen.
By Charles Mudede
In the winter of 1988, I worked in a brick factory in Barking, a neighborhood in East London. It was my first job; it was a terrible and even dangerous job. I'd wake up in the dark (I lived in the Docklands at the time), catch a number of trains to Barking, emerge from the tube, walk across a gothic graveyard, cross ghostly train tracks, enter the industrial district, walk down a mean road, make a left, and enter a factory that came right out of the novels of Charles Dickens. The business was owned by an Irishman, who spoke English with the speed of a drum 'n' bass beat (160 bpm). What the 10 of us did in that black and metal box was cut blocks into bricks, stack the bricks onto crates, cover the stacks in big plastic bags, shrink the plastic bags with a blowtorch, and load the tightly wrapped bricks on a lorry.
The factory was cold and smelled of raw stone. To keep warm in the morning, we burned whatever would burn in a metal barrel. But it seemed nothing but the heat blasting from the blowtorch could unfreeze my fingers. I, like most of the other workers, was always slow and sore. Indeed, the efficiency and speed of the operation entirely depended on one man, a drunkard, who was born to only do two things in life: cut bricks and drink beer. He would stumble into the factory at around 8 a.m., completely wasted, and somehow sober up at the roar of the dangerous saw, cut bricks with the precision and agility of a demon, meet his quota not long after lunch, get an advance from the accountant (a short but prim Pakistani), and return to the bar. I don't think he ever ate (he was thin and most of his teeth were missing), nor had a home (he wore the same worn jeans and army coat every day), nor could read nor talk. Not once in the four months I worked at the factory did I understand a single word that came out of the tooth graveyard that was his mouth.
By Jen Graves
I remember—during the summer I was a hotel maid at the Susse Chalet in East Greenbush, New York—going out to my car parked near the woods behind the hotel and stashing stray, abandoned wine coolers in my trunk before anyone could catch me. They were still in their six-pack boxes, but usually only one or two were left. Nobody drinks a whole pack of wine coolers. I also found condoms in the beds and condoms in the little trash cans, and I unceremoniously picked them up and dumped them into the garbage bag slung onto the end of my cart. They were not that interesting to me, nor that disgusting. Thanks to my mother's zero-tolerance policy for kid whining, and also to the pets we had, there really isn't anything I find disgusting to clean. So even though you'd think being a hotel maid is a horrible job, I didn't think of it that way. There was really nothing horrible about it.
I couldn't fail, for one—I knew exactly how to succeed at my job: Make it clean. If I'd had to do it for a lifetime, I'm sure I would have felt differently, but the way it was, this was an honest job and a quiet job, and I daydreamed the entire time I worked, when I didn't have one eye on a soap opera. I'd knock, go into the room, switch on All My Children, clean the room, leave, knock, go into the next room, switch on All My Children, and so on. My favorite rooms were the ones where somebody was staying for an extended period of time. I was their housekeeper; I knew them. Or I knew how they placed their things. I am slightly obsessive about the placement of things and would notice when something had changed. I missed those people terribly when they left. I would never see it coming. From their arrangements, I'd try to guess how long they would be my clients, but I would never know when I would knock, open the door, and see that everything I'd memorized would have vanished.
The Susse Chalet chain is no more. On Wikipedia, it says they became Fairfield Inns. The 24-hour Howard Johnson's next to my Susse Chalet closed, too. A Cracker Barrel moved in. I hate Cracker Barrel. Only now do I realize that "Susse" probably meant "sweet," as in the German, rather than Swiss. I have no idea, given that I really do pay attention to words, why I thought it was a Swiss chalet. It was, I think, dark brown like a roadside place in the Alps, but that's no excuse.
I'll tell you how much I didn't in fact hate the janitorial job you'd think I would have hated. Once, a few years later, when I had a summer job as a camp counselor in New Hampshire, I was driving to the camp, when my car broke down and I was stranded in White River Junction, Vermont. It is a very small town, small even for Vermont. A mechanic said he would need all day to fix the car. I knew nobody and had several hours to kill. I felt like a runaway. Seeking comfort, I guess, I found myself walking into the local hotel, which looked a lot like my Susse Chalet, riding the elevator down to the basement where I knew the maid station would be, and asking them if they needed volunteer help for the day. They, of course, looked at me like I was bananas. I just wanted to get inside those rooms. I still feel that way about hotels.
My actual horrible jobs came slightly later in life, when as a member of the Stanford synchronized swimming team, my teammates and I had to clean up the football stadium and basketball arena after the men played their games. The floors were sticky and steep, and the trash was boring and public. Not long after that, to raise money for the synchronized swimming team—this was before a handful of women's teams newly achieved varsity status thanks to Title IX—we also had to drive out into the middle of nowhere in Silicon Valley one night for the purpose of performing inside a bar that had a giant fish tank, like the one with the mermaids floating around above the heads of Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. We synchronized swimmers were the fish for a private party. The partiers ate snacks and I don't think looked directly at us once. It was a little hard to see out from in the water. I thought about the football players and basketball players and wondered what they had to do to sell themselves.