My String of Shitty Jobs

By Jesss Morel
December 1, 2002

When I was 11 my mom thought it was a good idea for us to pick strawberries at a big farm near us in Pennsylvania.  You could go pick your own, or you could just show up and buy quarts of strawberries and some home-grown honey and Christmas wreaths and shit.  It was that kind of place.

We went after school or 6 A.M. Saturday, my two older brothers and I, our mom untucking our shirts from our jeans so we wouldn't overheat.  Mind you, this is the same woman that wouldn't let us do the dishes or laundry or any other around-the-house chores.  No, somehow strawberry picking would be the work experience we needed.

After school, we worked a couple of hours.  Saturdays, 6 a.m. until noon.  You squatted or knelt in the berry fields, picking, filling your green quart boxes in your flat (8 quarts to a flat).  When you filled your flat you carried it over to the truck where our foreman, a mean 16 or 17-year-old guy named Jason, marked it on his chart.  You got paid by the quart.

On really hot days, early June in Pennsylvania, it sucked.  We got a brief break mid-morning on Saturdays to go the main building, get drinks or ice cream before we hit the fields again.

If you crossed the strawberry rows too quickly, you might step in someone's flat.  I did this once and never 'fessed up.  It was done to me, too.  You picked a flat and then it was squashed.  If you stepped in someone's berries, you moved on, hoping your stained sneakers wouldn't give you away.

Strawberry fields can get god-awful hot.  Picking is probably how I first wrecked my knees, and to this day the smell of strawberries is enough to make me sick.

I think my next job, my senior year of high school, was as hostess at a restaurant, but it was a crappy strip-mall place and I was an anorexic vegetarian, so the customers were put off by the sight of a skinny purplish chick seating them, and I'd only eat the steamed spinach on my breaks, and in the end the owners and I agreed that it wasn't working out.

I got good jobs in college, painting and building with reasonable, smart people, and then I moved to the city and tried working at a start-up.  Unh. Talk about cult of personalities.  I was the office manager; my friend was the bookkeeper. Together we tried to talk sense into our lazy-ass, SCA-member, polyamorous Goth CEO.  He wouldn't listen.  He made deals we disparaged; any idiot could see they made no sense.  I had to manage all the 'techies', a bunch of unreliable former speed freaks our CEO had met out at the Pennsic War, all of whom lived an hour away, one of whom slept in the office, one of whom failed to double-check the back-up of a financial industry client's hard drive before erasing it. We were dealing with idiots of the highest order. The guy who slept in the server room thought nothing of drinking a Guinness one morning before going to our best client. Something had to be done.

Plus, none of the techies could drive stick so I sometimes had to drive them to the clients.

Our genius CEO decided to bring in his friend Dave.  Dave swore his own funds for saving the company. Dave was a fucking moron; the bookkeeper and I saw that off the bat.  Dave promised a merger between our failing, badly-managed hellhole and some wildly successful guy on the South Shore.  The bookkeeper and I tried to get answers on why this guy would possibly want to merge with us. We tried to keep our current clients happy. I placated them over the phone when the previous techie had tanked their system and the subsequent one was late for repairs; the bookkeeper tried to cajole money out of them.

Though we were barely able to make our bi-weekly payroll, Dave convinced the CEO to double our techie staff. We obviously couldn't pay them, or any of us finally. We all went without pay for a month (well, some of the newbies went longer; I was friends with the bookkeeper, remember). I quit about three days before the CEO laid everyone off; with minimal struggle, we all got unemployment and eventually our back pay, and the CEO soon moved to the opposite coast.

I haven't even mentioned that to save money we shared our office space with, variously, another (more successful) startup, as well as the Green Party, a BlueTooth subsidiary, and some kind of telemarketing firm.  It was a leather-clad, multi-pierced, polyamorous, geeky, mismanaged free-for-all, not to mention the local Ralph Nader campaign headquarters, and when it all tanked for good, I did kind of miss everyone. 

Some decent work after that, until a friend called me in to where she was working:  textbook publishing. 

Good Jesus.  This was textbook publishing services, development and translation and art and composition and production for the textbook publishers.  I found myself paid low wages to try to get a huge series of textbooks (approx. 150 interrelated books in all) translated into Spanish.  Partway through the project, we found out that the client wanted the books to be kind of bilingual, Spanish for the kids and English for the teachers (i.e., teacher's editions were in both languages). 

Royal pain in the ass, none of us spoke Spanish, we were spending long hours trying to fax things to translators in Chile and Argentina (the management's thinking was that their labor was cheaper than translators in the U.S., never mind that you might spend 4 hours on a Saturday trying to fax 5 pages to Chile or Puerto Rico but couldn't b/c there was cement on the lines or something).  Client's changes were frequent; our boss got that information to us less and less frequently.  She was her own wild little cult of personality.  We gave our team a cute name and gamely carried on.  The project was to end in May.  In July. In September. November. End of the year. 

I made several Spanish-speaking friends on this project.  Mid-summer I found myself having to proofread pages in Spanish (high school Spanish classes do NOT prepare you for this).  We all carried various degrees of blame for not carrying out changes we hadn't been informed of.  We weren't permitted contact with the client but took the rap if the thing we were questioning wasn't right. There were errors in the printed books after about 17 rounds of proofreading and editing (done out-of-house)

Overall company climate:  The Yoda-like president sent a company-wide email of a doctored photo of a hippo in a thong. Some other guy plus the president sent emails about building team morale.  The day of our big open house for our clients, our VP ordered a bunch of pizzas earlier in the day and, as we ate, told us that the hors d'oeuvres to be passed at the open house were expensive and could we please not eat them.  We were supposed to be doing editorial work but instead found ourselves making and using Excel charts to track various lessons and chapters.

Requests for market-rate pay were met with suggestions to falsify our hours, something no self-respecting freelancer (we were, after all, "term of project") would do.

My cube-mate and I sent an S.O.S. to a company we used to work for; we start there next Monday, purely editorial work, at 50% more than we are getting paid now.  Thank fucking god.

On the day we gave our boss our one-week notice, they laid off the entire art/design department at noon, no warning, and had a conference with the company president to be told to lay off everyone, force the small number of staff to take forced vacations, shut down for a month.  The CFO and CEO waved into the videoconference camera and told management to figure out the best way to do this, as they themselves would be in Hawaii.  

Yeah.  These are some of the jobs I have held.  I look forward to my new job, I am trying to get published, and if anyone recognizes themselves in this piece, well, that's how it looked from below. 

*Postscript:  On our last day our colleagues took us out for beers.  They gave us boxes of pilfered office supplies: White-Out, rubber bands, binder clips, staples, as well as gifts that our boss had once bought and instructed someone on our team to send to the client.  Kim instead threw them under her desk, to reappear as our parting gifts.

Hey, check out Jesss's blog for more whining!

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