Anne here, and today on "ask a wench" we're responding to the question, 'What was your first ever job?'
That was fun but a lot of work. A friend and I had to take a cooler on the bus downtown (we were only fourteen—and our mothers didn’t have cars) to the candy wholesaler. We’d load up on everything we liked, then hauled it back to the neighborhood and sold it out of a little park building no one was using. We made enough that summer to outfit ourselves quite nicely when school started in the fall!
But I suppose my real live out-in-the-world job was a cashier at Value Village, a place I could walk to. I doubt anyone remembers them, a precursor to K-Mart. I was only fifteen (my birthday was a few months away) and not exactly legal, but the store had just opened. They were desperate to fill positions and didn’t ask questions. The entire neighborhood was thrilled to have this exciting new store (oh, those were the days!) and the lines curled to the back of the building for weeks after it opened. I swear I memorized every code in the store because the stock moved too quickly to be marked. Can you remember ever being excited by the opening of a cheap discount store?!
Of course, the best part of that job—besides the paycheck—was that all the guys went there to buy parts and oil for their cars. My IT Guy was one of them. <G>
Christina says: My first proper job was a summer job working in an office. At the time, I’d been at university in Sweden for a year and I wanted to earn some extra money. Students never have enough, do they! My father worked for a Swedish company with branches all over the world and he managed to secure me a six-week stint in their London office, because he knew the manager. I was very excited to be spending so much time in the UK, staying with my aunt and uncle – that felt like a vacation in itself – although I was a bit apprehensive about the work as I had no idea what it entailed. And when I turned up on the appointed day, I think the manager had forgotten to tell his staff I was coming as everyone was a bit taken aback and no one knew what to do with me!
They soon rallied, however, and I was installed at a desk and asked to help one of the younger secretaries with copying invoices. It wasn’t difficult and she kindly took me under her wing. I spent those six weeks typing and keeping my head down, and not once did I come across the manager. Then, a few days before my job was about to end, he seemed to remember I existed and asked me to come to his office. He must have felt guilty for ignoring me (or maybe he was afraid my dad would find out he'd forgotten me?) because he invited me to dinner and the theatre with his wife and son the following week. To be perfectly honest, I would have preferred not to go since I didn’t know them, but it turned out to be a lovely evening. The dinner was delicious (and very expensive!), he and his family were charming and I really enjoyed the play, an old-fashioned murder mystery. We had great seats, in the dress circle of course, with drinks in the interval, and afterwards they drove me to Victoria station (where I had to catch a train to my aunt’s house) in an old-fashioned, luxurious Jaguar. I felt thoroughly spoiled! So perhaps it was a good thing he only remembered me at the last minute?
Nicola says, I’d like to say that my first job was in a bookshop but that was only for one day when I was sixteen. I remember it so well, though! I was in absolute heaven and I even sold a couple of books. It felt like the right place to be and I’ve wanted to own a bookshop ever since. Maybe one day.
My first summer job was a 6 week stint as a volunteer working on a steam railway. My stepfather had always been very keen on heritage railways and restoring steam engines, and every year we would go on holiday to Porthmadog in North Wales where he would volunteer as a fireman on the Ffestiniog Railway.
I’m not particularly interested in engines and how they work, but I did find something very appealing about those steam locomotives. Some of them were so elegant and they had very imaginative names such as Merddin Emrys, named after the 6th century Welsh poet! When I was allowed up on the footplate for part of the journey it was amazing; the heat of the fire, the smell of cinders and the sheer power of the engines was all a new and exciting experience. I didn’t fancy being a driver or fireman myself – too oily – but I did like the idea of working on the railway. When I was sixteen I was allowed to join in and my first jobs were all station-based, selling tickets, working in the gift shop and waitressing in the cafeteria. We worked long shifts and it was very tiring but there was a sense of camaraderie and seeing the trains coming and going, and the visitors enjoying their trips, was lots of fun.
The best part, though, was when I was judged to be experienced enough to work on the train itself. These were highly sought after volunteer jobs as you got to travel up and down the line in the vintage carriages, through some of the most beautiful scenery in Wales. My job was to go through the carriages offering guide books and refreshments. We did an at seat service for passengers in First Class and the Observation Car so I quickly had to learn how to pull pints and carry them down a moving train, or balance a tray of cups of tea as I manoeuvred through narrow doorways and over rattling points! It was brilliant and I loved it.
Mary Jo here. I'd done a bit of babysitting and at college, I'd been a dishwasher in a biology professor's lab and then worked part time in the university library, which suited me better. But my first real job that used my professional skills came in my last two years as an industrial design student when I worked part time as a draftsman at the local urban renewal agency.
I drew maps and made signs and various other useful thing for people who worked at the agency, who were a pleasant lot. In those days, a typical designer or draftsman worked on a great honkin' oak drafting table with a sliding parallel rule and an adjustable task light attached to the top edge of the board. The angle of the board could be adjusted to whatever felt best to the user. The tall drafting stool was also adjustable.
I don't remember the projects I worked on much, but I did learn a fair amount about life. There was the very helpful young married woman who worked in the same big office and did design work. She wasn't from Syracuse and didn’t have many friends in the area, so she confided in me because she had to talk to someone when she was afraid her husband was having an affair. I couldn't do much but offer sympathy. (I knew her husband and thought he was a jerk; I hope her life since has worked out for her as well as she deserves.)
Then there was the very nice young planner who would come through the office when he needed something done. He and his wife were expecting their first baby and I was happy for them. Then came the day he propositioned me. I'm guessing his wife wasn't feeling well enough to be a good bedmate. I was horrified, and he ended up wildly embarrassed and retreated at speed. It was definitely a lesson in life.
But best of all was meeting another planner who was a great guy. We were part of each other's lives for years, and are friends to this day. So yes, I learned lessons in life–some of them better than others!
Here's Susan: Like many teens, my first job was in a restaurant, a local steakhouse. I wasn’t a waitress (good thing, I would have been in the I-Love-Lucy category), but was hostess and cashier, so I got to dress up nicely and seat people, and then fumble my way through taking money and credit cards and doing math. The next summer, I worked as a layout artist in a small graphics and printing firm. I was headed to the University of Maryland as an art major that fall, and thought the job would be artsy—it wasn’t, but I did learn to design basic ads, count words and lines, make things fit and be careful about placing and proofing. That part was fun—what wasn’t fun was the creepy guy who owned the company, who was very touchy-feely. I was tiny, timid, and not very wise about the world—and I bolted to the car every time my mom arrived to pick me up, until I finally quit out of sheer self-preservation.
What I think of as my first “real” job came about after I got my art degree and entered the university’s graduate program in art history, and was awarded a graduate assistantship that paid my tuition and gave me a little income. Assisting professors in preparing lectures, arranging slide carousels, grading papers, all while taking courses and doing my own research and writing, required responsibility, organization, knowledge, and discretion, and I had to learn fast.
Within a couple of semesters, I was teaching my own classes—ARTH 101, 102, and so on. I was still tiny and timid, and walking into an amphitheater classroom with 150 students staring down at me was terrifying. I could barely see over the podium, clicking slides projected on a screen 30 feet in the air, and I faked confidence. I had to learn how to make the material interesting, get students thinking—and how to keep them awake in that big, quiet, darkened room. If it was funny or dramatic, I discovered, they would listen. I learned more than my students–I learned to speak to an audience, learned history could be fun, learned to stand on a milk crate behind a podium—and art history taught me techniques of good writing and storytelling that came in handy later!
Andrea says: I wangled my first real job as a junior in high school. (I’d done the occasional babysitting up to that point— though that had become far more fraught after I was stupid enough to read Truman Capote's “In Cold Blood” one night while sitting alone in a strange house after the kids had gone to bed!) There is, however, a bit of a backstory. I’d become really interested in photography, and while a Brownie instamatic was okay toplay around with, I was dying to get my hands on a fancy SLR camera. The thing was, they cost WAY more than my babysitting money. So I decided to be a little devious! My mother an artist, and really enjoyed taking photos, too. So I gathered all these brochures on new cameras and showed them to her, saying wouldn’t it be REALLY cool to have one of these to take family pics, etc. My punch line was, “Hey, we could share it, so I could learn a lot about art, which would be very educational." Hmmm . . . I think she saw through my ploy. Still, she agreed that it was a win-win, and soon we had a fancy new camera that we both set out to master. (Little did I realize that I had unleashed a monster, as my mother soon cajoled my father into installing a sink in a small storage closet so we could have a darkroom in which to learn how to develop and print film!)
I took this picture of an old newsclipping of me on the job in the high school gym from a family scrapbook.
I got fairly proficient with how to compose and shoot photos, and then—I’m not sure how I mustered the moxie, as I was pretty shy—I decided one day to stop by the local newspaper and see if they had any openings for a photographer. (I think I pitched covering high school sports.) And to my surprise and elation, I was hired on the spot as an assistant staff photographer. I did after-school assignments during the school year (my classmates were very impressed that I was an official press photographer) and worked full time in the summer. It was not only fun, but I leaned a lot about responsibility, as when I was given an assigment, I had to come through. Which meant organizing my schedule and being sure that I got to places on time. All good life lessons. And I still really enjoy photography to this day—and marvel at how amazing the technology has become. My i-phone takes incredibly detailed shots . . .and no futzing in the dark with toxic chemicals!
My first money-making activity, an entrepreneurial start-up, was in the field of recycling. I used to bring a shopping bag and collect glass bottles and cans from the industrial area to the south of where I lived. I got 2¢ each. I immediately invested my earnings in candy bars. I was seven.
That may not quite qualify as a job since the pay structure was what you might call informal … so let me fast forward a few years to when I went to work in my father’s office.He was a physician with a large practice, most of whom didn’t actually pay him because they couldn’t. It was not a rich section of town and he treated anybody who walked through the door.
I scrubbed the place before and after working hours, cleaned the examination rooms between patients, filed away records, answered phones, and made coffee. I started when I was 13 and did it till I went away to college. I got paid minimum wage.
In terms of investment, however, I had advanced way beyond candy bars. Now I was old enough to blow it all on paperback Romances.
Anne again. Such an interesting range of first jobs. My very first job came in the long summer holidays the year I finished high school. (Our school year finishes at the beginning of summer, just before Christmas.) Up to then, my parents had refused to allow me to get a holiday job, like all my friends, as we always went away for the holidays and for some reason they didn't want to leave a 16 year old at home alone. (Naturally I didn't agree.) But this year we didn't go away because my final results would arrive by post in mid January, and I suppose they wanted to wait for them, so finally I was able to get a job.
So my first ever paid job was working in a cat and dog boarding kennels. I loved interacting with all the animals, but basically the job just involved scooping up dog and cat poo. And feeding them. And popping pills down cats' necks — we had an outbreak of cat flu. (These days vaccinations for the various diseases are compulsory, so the problem never arises.) I got quite skilled at dosing cats.
The following year I went to university, and did a variety of part time jobs to supplement my scholarship money. I baby-sat one day a week for a Lebanese hairdressing couple. They were very glamorous and their house was a mix of middle-eastern and French chic. They had two gorgeous little girls and the food I was given to feed them (and me) was new to me, and utterly delicious.
I stuffed brochures and company reports in envelopes and got very quick at it, as we were paid (a pittance) for every hundred envelopes stuffed. At Christmas I worked in the central mail exchange, sorting mail, which was more interesting than you'd imagine. It was shift work and I finished my shift went from 2pm to 10pm, which was perfect for summertime partying—and sleeping in.
I also did some research work for professors and one of the best was reading the Fiji Times newspapers from the 1870's in the beautiful reading room under the giant dome in the State Library. I had to note down shipping and exports, which was fairly dull, but the picture that emerged of a developing colony and all that went on there was fascinating. And when I came to write my third book, An Honorable Thief, I used a story I'd read back then as a starting point.
So that's how we wenches started our working lives. What was your first job?