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Wearing a Mattress and Other First Jobs

Memoir need a boost? Remember those first jobs!

While driving the other day, I spied a young woman on the sidewalk wearing a mattress. Yes. Champagne gold. Quilted. Her body language suggested she was not keen on this: Her head drooped along with sign, which probably advertised the mattress store. Even my own sons worked bizarre gigs, one dressed as a taco, the other as a crash dummy.

When I’ve asked my students to write about first jobs, invariably they write about “funny hats” and food service. Waiting on tables provided a consistent theme, especially being stiffed on tips. One young woman wrote about scooping ice cream that dripped down her arms and legs into her sneakers. Another, a server at a seafood chain, remembered having to scrub stinky, slimy fish tubs when business was slow. Ah, those first jobs that lured us with a promise of financial independence – along with indignities like silly hats, the ultimate fashion faux pas.

Perhaps most of us sidle into our first jobs by babysitting children we know. I did little of this because I lived way out in the country and had no neighbors. While friends in the city earned 25 cents an hour (and a whopping 50 cents after midnight), I stayed home and read library books.

After my first year of college, however, I jumped into a summer job as a live-in nanny, or “mother’s helper,” in Connecticut. How hard could it be? Pay? $35 a week. Here I could wear what I wished, but due to high humidity in my stuffy attic quarters, the unmentionables I washed at night rarely dried by morning. Most of that summer I wore damp undies.

My three charges, ages 3, 6, and 9, catapulted me into one-step-ahead-of-the-posse childcare. For example, the 6-year-old set his crayons on fire. The 3-year-old crawled into his Grandpa’s Cadillac, released the hand brake, and crashed into another vehicle. Mercifully, this happened during “family time” when I was not on duty. Still. When I supervised 14 kiddos during a house party -- was this fair? -- the same little rascal bit me. His mother lightly laughed it off. “I hope you’ve had your rabies shot…”

That summer could not end soon enough.

At age 20, I took a break from college and found my first grown-up job. READ full-time, paid with benefits. Pay, by the way, was $290/month. Before deductions. With an (accurate) speed of only 29 words-per-minute, I landed a position as clerk typist in the Harvard University Purchasing Department, about 25 strong. All day I typed purchase orders on a sea green metal machine fitted with all caps so we didn’t need to shift and could, supposedly, type faster.

We typed the purchase orders for almost all materials requisitioned by the various departments: scientific equipment, buildings and grounds materials, furniture, carpet, books, even a racing scull, apes, and sunglasses for mice for some experiments. We were not entrusted, however, with requisitions for radio isotopes. The top secretary managed those. And toilet tissue was ordered by the boxcar using a gizmo that read punch cards.

Our boss, very forward thinking for 1968, allowed women to wear pants! Perhaps this was a hedge against the scanty mini-skirts of the era. Nonetheless, I appreciated the extra warmth of leg coverings during the frigid walk from my apartment and while waiting for a bus.

My first real job taught me about diversity. My colleagues hailed from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Jamaica. Even my new best friend, Greek, had an international boyfriend, her “hot, buttered Swede.” (They celebrate 52 years this summer.)

This colorful companionship enlivened an otherwise boring job in one of the world’s least boring places, Harvard Square, where each day brought a surprise. A glimpse of Leonard Bernstein. Or William F. Buckley, Jr. A guy in a gorilla suit wearing a sandwich board. Hare Krishna folks in ocher robes chanting and tinkling finger cymbals. Women who had burned their bras – and strutted around, proud. A bomb scare. And the pageantry of Harvard Commencement as dignitaries and academics crossed Mass Ave in their fluttering black and crimson regalia.

Eventually, I returned to college and found jobs more aligned with my learning. Yet, I look back fondly on those dull jobs that taught me essential life skills, for along with learning the value of the almighty dollar, I learned discipline, endurance, and humility. I learned to manage money and forge friendships that still endure. Perhaps most importantly, my undemanding jobs gave my mind room to explore and honed my powers of observation. I wrote copious journals. Without a funny hat or a mattress suit, I was laying the foundation for a writing career. ###

Invitation/Your Turn

  • Write about your first jobs. What life lessons did you learn?

Photo credits:

Coins by Josh Apel on Unsplash

Typewriter by Julia Kamm in Unsplash

Writer by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

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