On my recent visit to the UK, several people asked me what it was I did to earn a living. I’m not sure why there’s so much interest in my day job. Perhaps I don’t look like someone who could hold a job at all. Or perhaps I dress in such a peculiar fashion that people wonder if I’ve run off to join the circus. Or perhaps I just seem unemployed and dangerously likely to ask to borrow money. In any case, every time I took off my hat in London, passersby tossed coins into it, which seems to suggest something was a bit off.
Well, I’m going to explain this once and for all, starting with what I did before my present job. (Sorry you asked?)
I dropped out of high school in my sophomore year, and also elected to leave home (if a hard kick in the butt can be described as electing to leave). Naturally, any number of stupid jobs followed. I did a lot of farm labor--which is respectable enough--but my special gifts unerringly led me to the dumbest possible jobs in the entire agricultural sector.
For example, I was for a time a Chicken-Catcher at a large egg ranch. Yep, the job is exactly what it sounds like—I ran around and grabbed chickens that had escaped from their cages. As it turns out, chickens don't really care to be grabbed; though I suppose it's a safer career than, say, Rat-Grabber, or Cat-Grabber. If you keep hold of their feet you can carry up to five chickens at once for brief periods, although if they start to flap you look like an angel from a very low-budget fantasy movie.
At another gig, I moved flat-laid irrigation sprinklers, which involved unhooking 20-foot sections of pipe in the areas that had been watered, and then, with a partner, sinking calf-deep into the mud as we carried it over and reconnected it on the next dry land. The whole process looked a lot like films of Hitler's retreat from Russia, and left your shoes weighing in at about 12 pounds each. (Doesn’t it seem like there’d be a better way to do this? As it turns out, there is, and was, but it involves an advanced contraption called "the wheel.")
Best of all, I was night watchman at a mushroom farm outside Salem, Oregon, spending evenings wandering through giant heated warehouses filled with stacked trays of steaming cow manure, checking the temperature and humidity. Every time you came through, the mushrooms would be noticibly, creepily, bigger. I knew mushrooms could appear overnight, but having them get larger by the hour was unsettling.
My supervisor at the mushroom farm had been in night work at the site for at least thirty years and was proud, by god, of the fact that he hadn’t seen the sunshine since the Korean War. He looked like you might expect, too, pale, squinty, and fragile, with a wispy little ciliated mustache. There were invariably half-filled baskets of mushrooms sitting around, and I was invited to take them home. (Pamela and I ate a lot of broiled mushrooms for a while there. Believe me: even a hobbit would get tired of them after a bit.)
I also worked on a dock in Alaska offloading slimy halibut, each the size of a modest dining table. According to my calculations, halibut are ten percent slime by weight, so a four-hundred-pound flounder could provide at least forty pounds of slime. (Had to throw away my clothes when I quit that one). I washed dishes, hoed weeds, sowed seeds, and, for one memorable day before some bozo in a skidder lowered a log onto my leg, set choke for a fly-by-night timber operation. (If you don't know what setting choke is...well, you probably don't care.) And, oh, yeah—I was actually an encounter-group facilitator at the Redlands Free Clinic, wherein my main skill was to be able to stay awake for 24 hours at a stretch and hug people while they cried. (Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, that was probably the job I was best suited for. I can stay awake, and hugging doesn't require any great precision or training.)
Oh, I almost forgot—I and a friend were for a very brief time the world’s most unsuccessful drug dealers. By unsuccessful, I mean that by the time we were done, we owed money. It turns out we were better consumers than salespeople. (Hey, gimme a break. I was 16.)
Now, all this was quite amusing, but too much of the amusement was at my expense, so at some point I weaseled my way into college from whence I stumbled into my present so-called career. And this leads us, in the next post, to a singularly uninteresting story...