It's rare for a non-political Twitter hashtag to take off as widely as I've seen with #firstsevenjobs, but people have such meandering career paths now that it's compelling to look back at what everyone has done for money — especially if we've gotten safely to the other side. The artist and writer Austin Kleon tweeted, "The #firstsevenjobs meme makes me think we might identify ourselves more by jobs we've *had* than jobs we *have*." A run-of-the-mill bad job (or an entertainingly bizarre one) can be crushing drudgery in the moment, but usually isn't so traumatic that you can't reflect on it and have a good laugh about it later.
A friend of mine co-owns a taco restaurant that has grown quickly from an informal, bike-delivery-only service to a thriving local spot. He worked in advertising for a few years, and has said that part of the impetus for the taco business was that he realized out of all the jobs he'd held, his favorite had been delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns. I instantly knew what he meant: though I've had plenty of good office jobs, I've long romanticized my first job at the movie theater in my hometown, where I worked every summer and winter break through college. At the theater, I would actually volunteer to work on my birthday. I'd sadly count the dwindling days every August until I had to hang up my bow tie and newsboy cap and get on with finishing my degree. I came home smelling like dirty popcorn every night, burned my hands with hot oil, got a "positive write-up" for uncomplainingly cleaning up poop, had to help remove a dead goose from the parking lot once (we shoveled it into a cardboard box that read "Snacks"), and still somehow loved most of the people I worked with, and spent a lot of time there grinning and laughing.
As I graduated from college, my theater experience gave me some comfort: I knew even if I ended up working at a low-paying service job, I could have fun and be good at it. But my applications for Twin Cities movie theaters and food service jobs went unanswered. For three weeks, I invited Mall of America shoppers to take surveys, gloomily negating our "market research" every night as the other employees and I scrambled to fill out dozens of surveys to meet our daily quota. When I ran into a journalism school classmate, with whom I'd attended a banquet honoring the major's graduates two months earlier, the skepticism on her face was all the prompting I needed to quit.
Working with a temp agency was an improvement, and I enjoyed dropping into various offices for a few days at a time. In January 2011, I watched Fox News' take on the Arab Spring from the giant TV next to my desk at a company in Edina. My job there consisted of downloading documents from one online portal and uploading them to another. At a car dealership in Bloomington, I spent a day removing staples from packets of paper.
But my worst job, before I shuddered onto the right track a few years after college, was the fireplace store. It was another temp job, and I was used to simply showing up wherever I was told for these assignments, so I assumed the "interview" was just a formality. On the way there, I took a wrong turn and got desperately lost; with no smartphone and no number to call for the store, I called the temp agency to let them know I was running late. When I arrived at the store, I discovered that the manager had not gotten my message. He spent our interview scolding me for my lack of professionalism until I burst into tears. "Why should I hire you now?" he demanded. I mumbled something about how I'd never be late again, and he offered me the position magnanimously.
I could have kept my word, worked hard in the knowledge that I would find something else sooner or later, and formed positive relationships with the fireplace salespeople. I could have enjoyed the fact that the showroom, with its rooms of fireplaces and fanned-out fireplace-related magazines, allowed me to wander around with my thoughts, warming myself at various hearths. I could have appreciated the occasional human moments I got to witness during transactions there, like when an older man signing off on his fireplace purchase hopefully asked the salesman if he'd ever want to play golf together. But I had a lousy attitude from day one. Hours would go by without anyone coming in to shop for a fireplace, and I would sit behind the counter, staring glumly at the Wayne Brady-hosted "Let's Make a Deal" on the muted TV, and tell myself that my life was slipping away each minute I spent there.
In her recent memoir It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), Nora McInerny Purmort writes about how poet Mary Oliver's line "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" is less inspiring than panic-inducing. The words "one wild and precious life," so sweet and invigorating in the context of the poem's reverie about a day spent in nature, become a grim, terrifying mantra when you measure them against, say, your habits of idly scrolling through Instagram when you could be reading an edifying book or spending time with people. Nora writes that of course our lives are slipping away quickly and terribly, so we should stop worrying about how to use them and just start moving.
I felt every day at the fireplace store that my one wild and precious life was being irrevocably wasted. But I assumed that no outlet for my stunted preciousness was to be found among the fireplaces, so I didn't even attempt to make my time there count. I slouched around and pushed my lunch breaks longer than they were supposed to be. I would leave work and put on the Wu-Tang Clan as an antidote to the store's P!nk and Maroon 5-heavy playlist (I thought I was very cool. But also, it was a lot of P!nk and Maroon 5). After the rude welcome the manager had offered, I felt like I was daring him to fire me.
During this time, I began working on the side with an online magazine, Twin Cities Runoff. I attended my first editorial meeting at the editor-in-chief's apartment, nervous but eager to jump into this circle of smart, talented writers. As we all introduced ourselves, I admitted with a sigh that I worked at a fireplace store. "So...your career's really on fire!" one girl teased, flashing sarcastic jazz hands. "It sounds like your hearth's not in it," a guy piped up with a smirk. I shook my head and laughed, immediately dazzled by a group of people who were like me, who knew I didn't belong in that fireplace store.
I'm grateful that I was able to keep writing and editing through the lowest points of my early career, and that I eventually got paid to do so. But I regret now the way I behaved as if the fireplace store was beneath me. I'm torn between a "stick it to the man" attitude that bristles at the way people have to stay in awful jobs because they can't afford otherwise, and a belief that if you're as privileged as I am, a stint of being broke and experiencing miserable work is character-building. My character certainly wasn't built when I sneaked off to the bathroom to text during a shift, or when I stole my nametag, which the manager had asked me to return, as an impotent "fuck you" upon leaving the job.
More than five years later, I'm still figuring out how to use my time in a way that's kind and creative and outward-looking and joy-producing. The fireplace store was none of those things, but now I think that it wasn't the fireplaces' fault. I regret my assumption that a suburban temp job was so antithetical to a good and valuable life that it wasn't even worth it for me to try.