How thankless jobs impacted my writing

Everyone has stories of thankless jobs they’ve had at some point.  I’ve held several in my formative years. I worked 12 hour night shifts the first summer I could drive, cleaned houses in college, and worked security for a major corporation.   Each of them taught me something I know contributes to the way I see the world, and how that viewpoint impacts my writing.

Shoes salesman—Montgomery Ward (4 years)

Of all my bad jobs, this one was my favorite.  A gaggle of teens, none of us legal voting age, ran the entire store.  Any customer who walked through the aisles was sure to see high school relationship drama, hear profanity oozing through the back wall of the loading dock, and smell the cigarettes wafting from the break room into the baby department.  I made a lot of friends, met my first serious girlfriend, and still keep in touch with some of the rank and file of the now forgotten company.

I primarily worked in the shoe department, basically an errand boy to fetch the right sizes for the display models.  My personal policy was to never touch a customer’s feet, and despite a few disagreements on that policy, I held firm on it.  The Al Bundy comparisons came daily and I perfected a polite laugh in response.

It was my first job working for a large company. I learned not to get attached, as managers come and go with the season.  I learned that poor employees will do a lot for tiny incentives (we got $3 for every person we convinced to sign up for a Wards charge card).  I also learned that if you want an employee to have pride in their job, there has to be some stake in the company.  Sure we were teenagers, but we weren’t idiots.  If we came in at 5am on Black Friday and worked liked dogs through the holidays, we were paid exactly the same as those quiet Sunday afternoons in summer.  We punched the time clock to bookend every shift, but during those work hours we did as much as possible to work the system.  No lunch break was ever less than 1 hour, no small break less than 30 minutes.  Once I went to a movie on my lunch just to see if I could.  And I did (Scream was just released and the girl from the juniors dept. wanted to see it and I wanted to look cool).  And I didn’t get fired or reprimanded.  And I learned when you’re a small part in a big machine, you can break and no one notices. 

In writing, that makes for a great setting and even better characters to put in it.  These are all around us and everyone can relate to them.  Paying attention to these worlds has always resurfaced in my work.

Waiter—A local “upscale casual” restaurant (6 weeks)

This was the worst job I ever had, and the only one I ever quit because I didn’t like it. Also, the one I learned the most from.

When I run the world I will invoke a law that I’ve had in mind since this job.  Prior to any teen earning their driver’s license, they will have to wait tables for 6 weeks.  There is absolutely nothing that can simulate important lessons like:

1.       You should make a good impression on everyone you meet

2.       You will be blamed for things out of your control, and how you handle it will impact your pay

3.       Some people are jerks and they sleep just fine at night knowing it

I was actually pretty good at this job, just didn’t like the place.  The boss was a yeller, firmly believing that was how you motivate people (he also felt he coined the phrase “upscale casual”).  The other servers were nice, we didn’t totally click though.  Most of the customers were very pleasant and I liked talking to them. 

Every day there would be one though… one customer that soaked in the power of being served and felt zero remorse for what came out of their mouth.  I remember a group that complained to the manager about me and got everything for free.  A lady behind them overheard them say they didn’t have enough for the movie after dinner, so their solution was to make up complaints for free dinner (she told me after they left).  Some people liked to leave notes about how stupid I was for serving bad coffee, or that the soup wasn’t seasoned properly.  When you serve food you didn’t prepare, you’re still the face they blame.

Simple life lesson—life isn’t fair. No job taught me this more.  As a writer, there are so many opportunities to put your characters in similar situations.  The customers waltz in and out of your table and during that time as their server they can laugh, fight, kiss, and yell.  As a waiter, you are an observer to so many intimate moments that people choose to publicly share.  That’s where characters are born; when you observe a person’s intimate moments in life. The majority of people respect a waiter/waitress as a person, but those that see you as a servant…they never leave you.  Those jerks in life make great jerks in stories.  I suggest you change their names, but keep every other detail.

Dock loader—Houghton-Mifflin Textbook Company (8 weeks)

The summer after my sophomore year in college I landed a job at a textbook warehouse.  At this point it was the most mindless job I’d held.  We punched in and out on the minute, took exactly 15 for a break, and lunch truck arrived exactly at 12:05.

At first I had the entry level position of filling orders.  I would get the printout order from a school, the books would come down an assembly line, and I would stack boxes of math books on a pallet until it was time to wrap it in cellophane and signal a forklift operator to haul it on a truck.   

Somehow I worked my way up from filling orders, to walkie rider operator. Forklifts needed a special license to run, but not walkie riders.  If you’ve never seen one, they’re basically motorized pallet movers you ride on.  The Y chromosome took over after a week of watching.  Any chance to ride indoors on a motorized vehicle… I was taking it and risking the consequences.  I spent as much of my day as possible riding around the warehouse floor looking for anything that may or may not have needed moving, anything to keep me off the assembly line.  I took tight corners, honked excessively and waved at everyone I rode past on my old assembly line as I loaded trucks and rearranged pallets.

I was always a textbook rule follower--oldest child, catholic school kid rule follower.  I had no business spending the month of July leaving my assignment on the assembly line to truck around the boxes, but it was one of the first times I remember thinking, “why not me?”  As far as giant leaps into rebellion, I admit there won’t be a song written about it one day, but it still is a moment where I didn’t think about the consequences before acting. 

In terms of writing, nothing great will end up on the page if you think about the negative consequences.  Ever.  It’s an easy trap to fall into, but the work suffers from it.  If you feel like taking a risk with writing, what’s the worst that will happen? 

A little of the “why not me” goes a long way in creative realms.

Adam SchmittComment