Via good ol’ Josh Modell: What was your first job, and what film/book/song/etc. do you most associate with it?
Not counting paperboy (which really doesn’t count, since it’s slave labor and not a job), my first real workforce experience was as a clerk at a small pharmacy/convenience store. The customers were mostly old ladies and alcoholics (and old-lady alcoholics), and one regular who had a business card that said his name and the words “disabled person,” as if that was his job. Anyway, the music of choice was an oldies station played at a volume soft enough that it was incredibly easy to tune out—after an hour or so, I’d completely forget that music was playing at all. But at least once a day, and often more, Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” would come on. Through most of the song, it floated by unnoticed just like everything else, but once the whistling started, I immediately became aware that music was playing. (And that I’d missed most of one of the greatest songs I’d ever hear.) It snapped me out of a retail-hell lull, and I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad. And ever since, whenever I hear that whistling, I think of Thompson’s Serv-U Pharmacy. That’s not necessarily good either.
My first actual job was as a library page, sorting returned books and putting them back on the shelves, and doing other minor clerical tasks. (Fifteen-year-old Egghead wuved her booky-wooks.) There are a bunch of books I read for the first time around then, and strongly associate with that library and that period of my life—mostly mildly transgressive science fiction like Robert Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy Of Justice and Damon Knight’s The Man In The Tree, the former because it was the first thing I’d ever read that treated God in a flippant, disrespectful way, and the latter because it was frank and graphic in a subdued, sex-is-natural manner I’d never encountered before. But neither of them got me in trouble like Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, a totally trash-ass “thriller” I got caught reading on the job. Surprisingly enough for a bookworm in a book repository, I didn’t normally slack on the job, but in this case, I was putting it back on the shelf, and I stopped and opened it surreptitiously looking for a particular sex scene I’d half forgotten, and wound up flat-out caught up in some ridiculous action scene where the heroine was, I don’t know, trying to smuggle diamonds to the Nazis while simultaneously poisoning a Mafia don while on the set of the biggest Hollywood movie of all time, or something ridiculously faux-glam like that. Then the head librarian walked up behind me unheard and said—in the kindest, politest way possible—“Tasha, we’re going to need all of your time today.” And yet I jumped and flinched as though she’d hollered “Put down the stroke book, bitch, and get back to work!” and I stammered out something idiotic like “I wasn’t reading it!” But I was. I really, really was. And I would again, if I were still 15 years old and thought Sidney Sheldon was the most daring, exciting “adult” writer in literary history.
Boy, I would have killed for a library book-sorting job as a teenager. If I could have managed it, I would have run away from home and lived in the library. But my actual first job—gluing little square samples of carpet into sample books at my uncle’s carpet mill—wasn’t bad at all. You know those books you leaf through at the home-improvement store to choose your floor covering? I was the one cutting carpet off of mill ends, beveling the edges to a perfect angle on a rotary wheel (the best part), coating the bottom with adhesive, and carefully lining them up in the little pre-printed outlines. The work was done inside a large warehouse with half a dozen other workers, all impossibly elderly to my eyes. And the radio was always tuned to US 101, Chattanooga’s Hot Country Favorites. I heard every country hit of 1987 several times a day, but the one that will always take me back to that unairconditioned cavern, the air filled with microscopic specks of acrylic fiber, is Randy Travis’s chart-topper “Forever And Ever, Amen.”
I didn’t grow up with country music, and when I got my own money and my own wheels, I gorged myself on rock and pop. But that summer, I learned to appreciate the pleasures of a country song—even the calculated platinum-grabbers that tend to dominate the airwaves—at the same time as I learned to appreciate the odd satisfactions of mindless handwork. I got a lot of thinking done while I was pasting squares of carpet into books. I listened to a genre of music that I wouldn’t have chosen myself—and I listened to it really carefully, because there was nothing else to occupy my brain. Some of my interest in understanding pop culture, and in analyzing my experiences with it, probably started right there on that floor, with Randy Travis and his neo-traditionalist hit. That summer didn’t make me a country fan or a happy assembly-line drone. But it did make me into a person disinclined to discount the disreputable, someone for whom status, class, and cool aren’t bright lines delineating what’s worth paying attention to.
My very first job was at the Nickel Pickle Deli in Valley West Mall. The lesson I learned from it, and have adhered to all these years, is that I will become a professional criminal before I work in food service again. I lasted exactly one day, not enough to form any pop-culture associations. My second job was tele-begging—making calls for donations to the American Heart Association—and we were supposed to just sit in this tiny wooden cubicle all shift, doing nothing but dialing and spieling. Already, at age 16, I thought the idea of spending eight hours a day with no exposure to culture was total bullshit, but in this pre-computer era, what could I do? Well, one thing I could do was smuggle books into the bullpen and read them while I was supposed to be working. Unfortunately, then as now, I had a taste for thick, weighty, difficult-to-conceal literature, and one of my most vivid memories is getting busted for reading James Randi’s excellent Flim-Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, And Other Delusions when I was supposed to be working. I devised a counter-plan, which was to take two-hour lunches and catch up on my reading, but really, my entire life up until a few years ago was spent building up to the point where someone would actually pay me to watch movies and read books and listen to records instead of firing me for doing those things.
My first job was actually as a caddy, but I only lasted a few weeks; in that time, though, I did a lot of waiting around (I never wanted to take the really early shift, which meant I had to compete with everyone who had been there all day for the few golfers who came through) and watched plenty of music videos, as the TV in the waiting area was tuned to MTV constantly. I will forever associate The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” with that dingy little room. But my actual first job, with paperwork and all, was in the music section of my neighborhood Borders Books & Music. I was in high school, by far the youngest of all the employees, so each of them decided they could mold me into whatever type of music fan they saw fit. There was the scrawny college dropout Adam, who would go to his car on his lunch break, crank up Ben Harper’s Burn To Shine, and air-drum along; John, the crazy old man who went on and on about the “keepers” (those security devices we used to use on CDs) and loved classical; Aryn, the cranky New Age lover. But most of the staffers, especially the ones who would tackle each other and throw books at each other, were obsessed with Guided By Voices, to the point where they wouldn’t let me continue working until I bought a copy of Do The Collapse. Plenty of other songs remind me of being back at Borders and standing at the information desk—Wilco’s “Can’t Stand It,” Coldplay’s “Don’t Panic,” Belle And Sebastian’s “It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career,” the first songs of the many promo CDs we’d pipe in over the loud speaker—but none resonate like “Teenage FBI,” the veritable anthem of the misfits I knew way back when.
This is a bit of a cheat, but when I was 16, I got a job as a fry cook at a hot-dog place called Wolfy’s. I grew up in a very multicultural neighborhood. Wolfy’s was no different: It was filled with really smart immigrants working far below their skill set. It was heartbreaking. You'd have a guy who was a top nuclear scientist in Russia in charge of the condiments. It was a real rainbow coalition, in that I had co-workers cursing me and my terrible performance in a rich potpourri of different languages. For some inexplicable reason, I associated my very mundane ability to simultaneously hold down a crappy, minimum-wage-paying after-school job manning a deep fryer while getting Bs and Cs at an undistinguished public high school (ah, the Chicago public school system, the shame of the nation) with Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders playing professional basketball and baseball at the same time.
To while away the long, long hours, I would sometimes imagine that an invisible camera was making a commercial about my multi-tasking life as a shitty student/crappy fry cook/glowering, depressed group-home resident like Sanders and Jackson's famous commercials for Nike. Like Jackson and Sanders’ careers as moonlighting two-sport superstars, my gig as a fry cook was not meant to last. I always thought there was something tragic about Jackson. If he'd stuck with one sport, he could have been one of the all-time greats. Instead, he destroyed his body by pushing it too hard. In that respect, he was like one of my other favorite tragic White Sox superstars-for-a-day, Bobby Thigpen, who saved a record 57 games in one glorious season, then limped back into anonymity after ruining his arm through overwork. There was nothing tragic about the end of my Wolfy’s days, however. The owner told me one day that they just didn't have space for me on the schedule anymore. The next day, there was a big “Help Wanted” sign in the window. The smartass in me wanted to head back in and guilelessly gush, “Hey, it looks like you've got space for me now!” The pragmatist in me never wanted to work the deep fryer ever again.
Working as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school meant hearing lots and lots of Star 94 FM, the middling pop radio station at the time in Atlanta. It wasn’t quite the station with the dentist-office jams (that was the ever-smooth-voiced B98.5) or the adrenalized pop one (Power 99!). Instead, it was the station that fell between all the others with identities of their own—and thrived there. That meant lots of Seal (“Kiss From A Rose” still gives me shivers) and Melissa Etheridge. But the song that sticks out most is “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree. There are a couple reasons for this: 1) It rules. And 2) It’s a pop song I remember thinking about and spying from lots of different self-imposed vantage points, as a sort of project. It was a crazy-ubiquitous song in the early ’90s, played more or less every hour on Star 94, and at a certain point, I remember thinking it might be more fruitful—certainly more healthy—to stop bemoaning its inevitability in my life and instead try to find some other way to think about it.
This was in high school, when people’s primary charge is to define themselves in opposition to pretty much everything else. And certainly in opposition to pop songs that might be enjoyed by anyone outside of a chosen personality group I desperately wanted to identify with. But it was just too exhausting and pointless to maintain an enraged reaction to Des’ree. Grousing about “You Gotta Be” playing all the time was like saying, “My, the sun is bright,” or “Say, murder leaves a lot to be desired on moral grounds.” It was just a given. So I decided to simply listen to it and try my best to hear it for what it was. Minus all the angsty noise I initially brought to it on my own, I actually really liked “You Gotta Be”—and that its likeable aspects were likeable for reasons a lot more interesting and constructive to think about than other aspects of it that were beside the point. The sun was still bright and murder was still bad, but neither required my own reiteration to make it so. With that, work became so much more bearable.
My first job was as a food-schlepper (or “dining room attendant”) at an assisted-living community. Aside from having to deal with occasional bouts of senile dementia from the residents and a decorating scheme that I liked to call “death in the key of mauve,” it was a pretty sweet first job, mainly because a) I worked with four of my best girl friends, and b) no one gave two shits what we did, as long as the oldsters got their pudding. This led to the typical sort of shenanigans you get when you give 14-year-olds access to a golf cart and unlimited vanilla ice cream.
So the kitchen was run by a couple of older, sassy ladies who regarded us with a mixture of tolerance and exasperated amusement. One of them, Linda, usually allowed us control of the radio during our shifts, despite her (justifiable) distaste for the sugary pop dreck of 93.1FM that we usually settled on. Eventually, though, she would call rank and put her gospel cassette back in the player, leaving us to sulk as we made our way through the dreaded post-dinner dishwashing. Then, one day, someone (okay, me) came up with the idea of pranking Linda by stealing her precious tape and recording over it with some of the devil’s dance-pop. (We dubbed the tape first so she would still have a clean copy—we were brats, not jerks.) So after a night of fiddling with the stereo and a little sleight-of-hand back in the kitchen, we waited for Linda’s reaction. I calmly sprayed a rack of salad plates to the strains of Lauryn Hill’s “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” which, 20 seconds in, gave way to the opening chords of a particularly ubiquitous, particularly grating number-one pop hit of the day. Five seconds later, I found my giggling ass being lifted up by a yelling, furious Linda (she was a very large woman), who proceeded to throw me INTO the huge metallic sink I was working over and spray me over the head with the dishwashing hose while calling me every bad name she could without angering Jesus. And that’s why I will always associate Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” with the day I got hosed.
I did not like being a camp counselor. This came as a surprise to me, since I loved going to Camp Echo in Fremont, Michigan, and I was excited about all the perks that came with being in charge: total access to the kitchen after the campers went to bed, being able to swim without a “buddy,” free nights. However, I learned that all this fun came with two major drags: taking care of kids, and working under a senior counselor who wanted nothing to do with me. I thought Georgina, the mother superior of my cabin, was pretty cool: She was a crabby Australian who dipped, the kind of thing that in retrospect is repulsive, but when you’re 16 or so, it’s mildly intriguing. However, she seemed to look at me as just an older version of the whiny kids who bunked with us, and we had none of the fun sister-esque mentorship I was hoping for. However, whether she liked it or not, she did influence me in one way: One sunny afternoon during naptime, while we stretched out on our sleeping bags in the screened-in cabin porch, she put Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon on the CD player. “This guy’s voice is so fucking sexy,” she said, and I had to agree. I didn’t like that being a camp counselor meant giving up a lot of the freedom that being a camper entailed, but I could forget all that for a little bit as I listened to Grant Lee Phillips sing while the breeze blew through the pine trees outside.
For three consecutive summers, I worked at Opryland USA, Nashville’s music-themed amusement park, and for the last two summers, I was employed by the costumed character department, which was sponsored by General Mills, the same company that sponsored the park’s children’s area. For 30 minutes out of every hour, I strapped on a costume sporting the likeness of Count Chocula, Trix Rabbit, the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee, or—most often—Lucky Charms. For the most part, we shook hands and posed for photos (and hugged pretty young ladies) in and around the kiddie rides, but in the morning, we’d greet the guests as they entered the park, before retreating to our home base by walking through Opryland’s ’50s area. The music playing over the loudspeakers in the ’50s area was taken directly from the American Graffiti soundtrack, and I used to like to linger by The Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster long enough to hear The Flamingoes’ “I Only Have Eyes For You,” a song that sounded extra-dreamy from inside an oversized leprechaun head. I’d dance around slowly in my big foam shoes and furry peach-colored gloves, swinging around lampposts like a mute Kabuki Gene Kelly. There’s also a strong link in my memory between Opryland and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (which I read behind the counter during my first summer, when I worked in one of the park’s shops) and the first Batman movie (which opened during my third summer, and which dominated the apparel of most of the park’s patrons that year), but more often than not, when I think of Opryland, I think of syrupy “shh-bop-shh-bop”s resonating in the courtyard between the funnel-cake stand and the Whack-A-Mole machine.
My first job was at a Burger King, and I sucked at it. I spent two months putting burgers on a conveyor belt and throwing away the ones that came out mangled. Sometimes I’d eat the ones that came out wrong, and I’d hate myself because they tasted awful and I thought I was gonna throw up, but they smelled great, and I was really hungry. And there was this one time where I was carrying a bag of trash out back, and it was full of milkshakes and rotting meat and bread and thawed frozen fries, and the bag broke five feet from the Dumpster. I spent 20 minutes trying to get the goop together just to dump it.
You know how everybody at The A.V. Club loves Freaks And Geeks? I can’t watch it. I’ve tried, and I made it through one episode, and that’s it. I associate it with my shitty Burger King job, not because I think F&G is shitty, but because it captures that horrible feeling of failing at something that anybody should be able to succeed at. That miserable, sinking sensation you’ve got the suck built in, and maybe there’s a better world out there, and you shouldn’t be caring so much that your boss doesn’t think you’re good enough at making sandwiches to get a position upgrade, but you care anyway, because you don’t like yourself enough to move on. I’m sure F&G has beautiful, uplifting sequences, and that it’s honest and true and all that. But I can’t watch it, because it has those three months (and all the other crap) built in, and I’m not ready to get past that.
For most of my life, my mom worked at the same mortgage-law firm in Houston, where I spent a lot of time from ages 5 to 22. I mostly worked in a back room with two other guys, monitoring a bank of 11 fax machines. They never stopped, and we were on our feet all day, but Louie, Scott, and I got along famously, so it wasn’t too bad. All we had was a shitty transistor radio, tuned to the crappy alt-rock station (so in '95, that meant lots of Filter, Better Than Ezra, Sponge, Toadies, etc.), but what I remember most was something else. Hear me out, because this still sounds crazy 14 years later: The faxes used paper rolls, and when they reached the end of a page, they’d scroll a bit, then cut the sheet. When they scrolled, they made these humming sounds that mimicked (in my head, anyway) the synthesizer melody at the beginning of Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only.” They did this a few hundred times a day, which means I had that song stuck in my head for the entire summer (and when I worked during other school breaks). It was, of course, maddening. To this day, I can’t hear that song and not picture fax machines.
My first job, which I worked for two summers for some reason, was at Taco Bell. The first pop-culture association that comes to mind is The Munsters, because some of my nastier co-workers called me “Herman” when I couldn’t hear them. (“Couldn’t hear them” should be read with sarcastic quote marks around it.) To be fair, they had a point. Here’s another pop-culture association: I spent the first summer hunching my Fred Gwynne-like frame over a deep-fryer while wearing a Batman T-shirt, since Taco Bell had a promotional deal with the movie. (Ghostbusters 2 had to settle for Hardee’s.) But here’s the most lasting pop-culture association I have with the job: Blowing my paycheck on CDs. 1989 was the first year I had a CD player, and the first year I started to get into music in a serious way. So hours of making taco shells got converted into Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie and The Best Of The Velvet Underground and so on. The rest went to movie rentals. I didn’t think it frivolous then, and I still don’t.
Working at Saint Louis Bread Co. in Atlanta ruined pastries for me for life. I showed up around 5:30 a.m. to pull the sweet stuff out of the oven and arrange it on the bakery shelves, and now I can't separate the smell of danishes from the memory of those early mornings in high school, sick with lack of sleep and breathing in syrup and glaze. Most of my customers were just stopping in for breakfast to go on their way to work, but I had a few regulars, mostly elderly men, who would hang out by the counter and chat with me when it was slow, which it often was.
One of these men was Walter, a soft-spoken, well-dressed gentlemen with an accent I never bothered to place. He'd hum along sometimes to the jazz we used to play over the speakers, music I mostly tuned out. "Listen here," he'd say, and point to the ceiling. I'd shrug. "That's Miles Davis!" Through his prodding, I began to actively listen to the music, and he introduced me to the tempered tease, hook, and whine of Miles Davis' trumpet. I think of Walter and our conversations across the pastry case whenever I hear the aching first notes of "Blue In Green" in particular, or when they finally break into the more leisurely, hopeful "All Blues." It's hard for me to separate Kind Of Blue from what I assumed his story to be, the one I was always too afraid to ask about. I'd seen the numbers on his arm; he told me he'd been in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. I never asked for his story outright, though. I just fantasized about going on break one day and settling into one of the tables with him, and he'd tell me everything. Walter must be dead now, but I feel lucky and sad at once that he somehow wanted the companionship of a 16-year-old girl at a bakery in a strip mall, and that he took the time to teach her about jazz.
My first genuine “you’re not just gonna lay around the house all summer” job was voluntarily stocking books at the public library, where I was the only “volunteer” whose service was at the behest of my parents, rather than the Arlington, Texas juvenile courts. As such, I didn’t forge a lot of pop-culture bonds, because odds are that if one of my conscripted coworkers—who took out all of their frustrations about being caught shoplifting or smoking weed in Veteran’s Park on all that poor, defenseless literature—caught me reading something during my downtime, it was yet more conclusive proof that I was super mega gay, and it was time to let the air out of my bike tires again. It also meant that it was years before I was finally able to finish Philip K. Dick’s Valis, because every time one of my coworkers would catch me reading it, it would spark hours of “Sean likes looking at Dick” catcalls—which, in retrospect, was probably the wittiest thing that guy ever said. (Hi, Josh! Have you finished ninth grade yet?)
My first actual “you’re too old for an allowance and besides, your father has worked every day since he was 15” job was at Eckerd Pharmacy (R.I.P.), where my name tag said I was a “Drug Associate,” which I still find very funny. Eckerd was unique in that it had its very own in-house radio station, the Eckerd Satellite Network, which always led me to imagine a blue-and-white spacecraft orbiting Earth, its sole mission to ensure that Eckerd stores throughout the South received uninterrupted transmissions of Bryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt. The ESN also had a habit of interrupting its songs with preprogrammed commercials, so these days it’s next to impossible for me to hear, say, Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt’s “Don’t Know Much” without expecting it to fade out midway, and the Voice Of Eckerd to break in saying, “Eckerd’s knows what you want: Great-tasting snacks that are healthy, too. Look for Snackwell’s in the cookie aisle!”
But if there’s one man’s work I most associate with those days spent denying weepy housewives their Percocet refills, endlessly restocking douches and enemas, and becoming far more knowledgeable about tampons than any 15-year-old boy has a right to be, it’s Mr. Rod Stewart, who apparently struck some sort of deal with the Eckerd Satellite Network to keep his entire catalogue—from “Maggie May” to “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” to “Forever Young”—in such insanely heavy rotation that it colors all of my memories of that place. For example, I know it’s improbable, but it seemed as though every single time I was stuck doing something particularly degrading—sorting the adult diapers, for instance, or mopping up some sick little kid’s errant barf—that clever bastard the Eckerd Satellite Network somehow always knew to beam down “Some Guys Have All The Luck” to provide an ironic counterpoint. And yet, no matter how many times his raspy burr drove me to the brink of madness, and despite how often he would taunt polo-shirted me with his unfettered-by-a-day-job, swaggering, chesty Rod Stewartness, I have to admit that The Rod was also there during my greatest moment of triumph: The day I finally decided that not even the few painkillers my friend and I managed to sneak on the side were enough to justify the shit wages and perpetually angry customers, and I decided on a whim that, instead of going up front to fetch the manager to help me negotiate a particularly nasty standoff over an expired coupon (for 12 cents off Metamucil, that fucking shameless cheapskate) as promised, I would just keep right on walking to my car, drive home, and never come back. That day, my grand exit was to the sound of Rod’s “Young Turks,” and even now, whenever I hear those lyrics (“Don’t let them put you down / Don’t let them push you around”), I remember the thrill of—for the first time, but definitely not the last—taking control of my life and just walking away from doing something I absolutely hated, because my young heart was free, and time was on my side.