Friday, July 15, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

like most everyone else, I worked a few jobs at college. As with my college relationships, it's probably best to move through these via a series of snapshots:

Job #6: Galley Slave

And here we finally come up against it: a job so awful and dull and almost completely lacking in event or interest that it defeats even my powers of exaggeration to make it compelling as a narrative (and that's saying quite a bit). I worked the breakfast shift at the main dining hall in the university student center for most of my freshman year of college. I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer before 10 AM (in college, you'd have to shunt that up to noon) so most of my tenure wearing the stupid hairnet and the green apron was a bit like sleep-walking.

Valuable life skills learned on the job:

--How to crack an egg with one hand.

--How to juggle plates.

--How to flip pancakes and omelets without landing them on a customer's head (this took some practice, I can tell you).

Scariest moment:

The day I fell into the trash compactor out on the loading dock. While it was running. It was NOT like the scene in Star Wars where our heroes have escaped Detention Block AA-23 and are stuck in garbage masher unit #3263827 with the dianoga pulling Luke under and the hatch all magnetically sealed (sorry, I geeked a little on the screen there). It was more like that scene in Ten Commandments where Moses' mom gets her dress caught in a moving pyramid block and some woman starts screaming "STOP THE STONE!" in a shrill and quintessentially effeminate voice. Except there was no woman screaming, there was just me, but I nailed the shrill and quintessentially effeminate voice perfectly. And in lieu of Charlton Heston showing up to cut me loose, I was rescued by the maintenance guy, a wreck of a man we all knew as "Bob Zero," who as a reward asked me to buy him a bottle of vodka at the liquor store down the street, and then cursed himself for saving my life when I told him I was only 17.

Oddest moment:

Any time I wandered into the dishwashing room, a steamy, mysterious place dominated by a large blue box. This was Vulcan, a state-of-the-art industrial dishwasher. It was bigger than my dorm room and had the unnerving ability to speak in a dead, monotone computer voice, a bit like a depressed Stephen Hawking, I suppose. Vulcan was attended to by not one but three kitchen workers who were all vertically challenged. Okay, they were midgets. Antisocial ones, at that. When I tried to speak to them, they regarded me coolly and wordlessly. I was a towering interloper in their steamy domain. They ignored me and bustled about, occasionally vanishing into the steam before emerging in some unlikely place: above me on some previously unseen catwalk, crawling out of the conveyor belt that led into Vulcan's steam-sanitizing mouth, or sometimes materializing right beside me with a glare and a stack of dishes. At intervals, Vulcan would make some booming pronouncement:




And then the little people would scurry, clambering about Vulcan to retrieve clean dishes or to feed it detergent (later, I was told a computer-science student had reprogrammed the voice chip so that when it ran out of detergent, Vulcan would imitate a popular video game of the time and start shouting "VULCAN NEEDS FOOD BADLY!"). Despite the way Vulcan's attendants tended to, um, look down on me, it was an oddly compelling place, like finding a back door into the Oz commissary.

It's sad how things fade with time. You'd like to think that every job has something valuable to teach you, but my days as a galley slave never left much of a mark on me. Even most of the valuable life skills I gained there have since atrophied. For instance, I am now forbidden from so much as attempting to juggle even one plate, and my omelet- and pancake-flipping abilities are appreciated only by the dog, for reasons that need not be elaborated here.

Ah, but I can still crack an egg with one hand.

And of course, I've learned to give man-eating trash compactors a wide berth.

Job #7: Writtting Couch

For nearly all of my college career, I was an on-call writing tutor for Student Services. On paper, the job looked good: $5 an hour to help other students sharpen their written command of the language.

But as soon as I started getting calls to meet with students, two problems became readily apparent:

1. I was one of about a hundred students in the on-call pool, which meant I got maybe one call every other week, if I was lucky. I averaged about $15 a month.
2. Because I had been stupid enough to list French as one of the languages I was studying (and therefore in which I was barely conversant) I was automatically put in a sub-pool of on-call tutors who were assigned specifically to work with foreign students, or what Student Services categorized as ESL students, which stood for "English as Second Language." In the case of my students, "second language" meant "just a second while I look up the word I want to say to you in my dictionary."

My first student was a woman from, as near as I could tell, Tokyo. Through an elaborate game of charades and pointing to words in her English-Japanese dictionary, I determined that she wanted me to write her organic chemistry paper for her, working from her notes, which were absolutely indecipherable. When a friend of hers--who spoke marginal English--happened by, I got him to translate for me and explain that there was no way I could help her. When he told her this, she got indignant, and began jabbering and poking me in the chest as though I had pulled some hateful trick on her.

Eventually, I convinced Student Services to take me out of their ESL pool and pair with me native speakers. Although it must be said that many of these students had no more grasp of their mother tongue than the ESL crowd.

My all-time favorite tutoring student was Deerick, a rotund and jovial man whose great good humor was infectious. Tutoring him--which I did every week for several months late in my college career--was a pleasure. He was courteous and punctual for his sessions. And if he was going to be late or miss a session, he would call or even sometimes leave a note on my door--touchingly addressed to "MM, My Writing Couch."

When I would offer comments on his papers or his notes for papers, he always listened with avid interest, and often punctuated our sessions with complimentary outbursts along the lines of "Man, you ought to teach this shit. I'm serious!" or "I'm learning more in an hour with you than in five years of English classes!" Which made me feel good, at least until we'd meet the next week and I would see that he had pretty much ignored every piece of writing advice I had given him, and had instead gone on to make errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation heretofore unknown in my experience.

For example, one day, when we met at my apartment, I began to notice after several sessions of what seemed like progress that Deerick's papers were suddenly displaying a surprising number of spelling errors. At first I simply noted them on the paper, figuring he'd correct them in his next draft. But in his next draft, the errors were still there.

"Deerick," I asked finally. "Are you having a problem with your typewriter? Are the keys sticking or something?"

"No, why?"

"Well, you have repeated letters in a lot of words here. For example, there's only two 'l's in 'killers.'"

From upstairs, I suddenly heard the faint snort of my roommate's girlfriend, who just happened to be visiting that day. She was normally a quiet woman who only emitted noise in moments of pure disgust or high humor. As soon as I heard her snort, I had to struggle to suppress a laugh myself.

"Oh, that!" said Deerick. "Yeah, that's right."

I paused, waiting for him to elaborate, but he simply smiled with his usual good humor and stared back at me. My humor was slowly turning to consternation.

"What's right? You mean you're adding extra letters to words deliberately?"

"Yeah!" he cried. "It's my style, see?"

I shook my head. "Noooo..."

He stabbed a finger at me. "Yeah, like that. If I was to write what you just said, it'd be, like, 'No' but with some extra 'o's. I just added extra letters to other words, you know, for emphasis."

Hence the sentence:

"If I was in charrrrge of the penil system, I would makkkkke it so killllers would DDDDIIIIEEE in the eeelecticcc chairrr."

At the time I was just appalled that someone could make it through five years of college with these kinds of notions.

But now, I don’t know. Maybeeee Deeerrrickk was ontoo sommmethinggg...

Job #8: Security Agent

This is one of the few jobs I actually wrote about when I was in college, and the story is reprinted below--lumps and all--for your amusement. It was the kind of job where I had hours and hours (and hours and hours) of free time to read and write. After reading this, I'm sure you won't be at all surprised to learn that one of my constant companions on this job was an omnibus edition of Raymond Chandler stories.

There are nine million stories in the naked city. Here at the university, though, we keep our clothes on. Makes it easier to conceal weapons, and hard liquor, and drugs. None of which, by the way, is allowed in residence halls. I should know, because when it gets cold, you need a man in an orange vest. That's me. I'm a Resident Security Agent (RSA). This is my story.

It was late Friday night. Like most Friday nights, I was at RSA dispatch. I signed in and grabbed a cup of joe when the dispatcher stopped me. His face was hard and lined, like a tombstone. Mine.

"MM, you gotta do Smith Hall."

I finally got the call. They were sending me to the majors. Smith Hall! The name struck me like a bullet, twisting and spiraling into my guts. Fate had it out for me; living on the edge was never so hard. I grabbed the sign-in file for this case, thinking it might well spell the end for one tired old RSA.

The dispatcher briefed the rest--most of them raw recruits--but glanced my way occasionally, shaking his head. His words were lost in a sudden haze of fatigue and foreboding, and something else--fear. Yeah, maybe I was scared. Maybe this was the end. But if it was, I'd go out like a man, dammit, like an RSA.

As I shuffled across the campus, the night was cold, colder than the muzzle of a .38 kissing your forehead. I shuddered and pulled my orange vest tighter around my trench coat.

Smith Hall on a Friday night! I opened the sign-in file and sat down at the front entrance, a solitary soldier in an endless war. This was the kind of job where, when the heat came down, brother, you really earned your money...$3.35 an hour.

Then they started coming in. Not all at once, just in twos and threes. These were the residents, not really evil, just misguided. They were coming back from the only pleasure they knew, the only release they had from their studious lives. Each one stopped at my desk; each one knew the drill as IDs came forward. It was a simple game, like putting a peg in a hole--just fit the face with the picture.

"But...but I accidentally flushed my ID down the toilet at the bar. I really live here! Honest!" she said.

I tackled the urge to laugh before it could score a touchdown. The excuses might be different, but the bottom line was the same: no ID. No ID meant no residence hall dot and no dot meant no entry. This broad was definitely trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

The girl returned my cool stare, pouting. She thought a minute--I could see the smoke wisping up from her ears--then she said, "Look, I'll open my mailbox..."

"Save your nail polish, sweetheart," I said, shaking my head. "I don't want letters from your aunt Barbara, I want your ID."

"Maybe I can give you something else," she said in a sultry voice. She fluttered her eyelashes, made her intention plain.

"Can it sister! I know all the dodges!" I said, narrowing my eyes. She was a looker, sure, but I knew from experience that looks could kill. Besides, I had a job to do. After a while, she put on the same act for the next dumb slob who staggered in. The poor stiff who signed her in didn't know her, didn't care. She walked past me, free as a bird, and thumbed her nose at me. I shook my head. Sure, I could have let her walk, but then I'd have to let everyone walk: residents, non-residents, axe murderers, neo-Nazis. The day I did that would be the day I retire, the day every RSA quits. Didn't that dame know I was doing this for her own good?

Such was the bread and butter of my work, for the first three hours. After three, though, I knew that things would get tough. And after four, svelte blondes who flushed their IDs would be the least of my problems.

Case in point: two guys walked in with a case of beer.

"You 21?" I asked.

"Naw," said one of them, then pointed to his partner. "But that's okay--he is!"

"Yeah. He's, guest. Yeah, that's it!" the other agreed.

"Sorry boys," I said, "no can do. You both gotta be legal or the beer stays out." As I say this, I tense, smelling trouble like stink from a sewer.

"Hey man, you can't do that!" one of them said. I started to stand up and he pushed me back down. He was big, real big. An example of science gone awry--part animal, part mineral, part vegetable. Sure, he was an SOB, but I was an RSA.

"You're messing with the wrong man, tough guy," I said. To show him I meant business, I reached inside my coat. His partner turned white, but the big man called my hand.

"You're bluffing!"

"Wanna bet?" Then, I pulled out my piece: a silver-plated, six-inch, automatic Papermate. "Consider yourself written up!"

The tough guy dropped his beer. I thought about picking it up.

The sun was rising over the city now. The vermin were back in their holes. Smith Hall still stood.

"MM!" the morning dispatcher exclaimed as I walked in. I looked at her and smiled roughly. She was a cute kid, this one. What was she doing in this line of work?

"Girl's gotta make a living somehow," she said, snapping her gum. "Rough night at Smith?"

"Nothin' I couldn't handle. But you know something?" I asked her as she looked at me, wide-eyed and innocent, like a deer frozen in the headlights of an 18-wheeler. "Those residents have got to remember to carry their IDs, get their residence hall dots, and be of age to bring in beer. Otherwise, the security of this crazy university won't amount to a hill of beans." I started to walk out the door.

"Where ya goin'?" she called.

"Got things to do, people to see. It's a tough old world out there, for me."

"But it doesn't have to be a lonely one. You can call me." I stopped and looked at her. "Sure, just whistle," she said. "You know how to do that, don'cha?"

"Just put my lips together and blow?" I asked. She nodded. "You crazy kid." I smiled and walked out into the ugly dawn.

Considering that the most challenging aspect of that job was staying awake from midnight to 8 AM (and occasionally calling campus security when someone declined to show their ID, what was known in the trade as a "run-by"), I'd say I was pretty successful at making the job more interesting than it really was.

Little did I know I'd be doing the same thing on a much more ambitious scale 20 years later.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

If only my line of work could be made into that kind of adventure ( they did try, they made my job into Matrix - The Movie).

the slave galley bit was really funny. :)
I wonder if any of those vulcan tenants are in the the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie?

Great post Couch!
Oh, God -- was I really audible from downstairs when I cracked up at Deerick's creative spelling exploits? I must have thought I would be safe from detection since I was upstairs...

Still, that's nothing to the time I had to suppress outright guffaws at some comments made about the raising of a canopy for a backyard wedding reception we both attended. I practically choked at that one...
Oh, sure, we all laughed at Deerick then—little did we know he was preparing for a career as a million-selling pop songwriter (e.g. Xtina's "Dirrty," Nelly's "Hot In Herre," TMBG's "S-E-X-X-Y" among many others)...
P.S. to Rana: Well, the erection is the most exciting part...
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