Twice in the past couple of months interviewers have asked me what was my most unusual job. I wondered about this. Was it a coincidence? Is a person's most unusual job supposed to have something to do with what kind of writer she is?
I know that people like Jack London and John Steinbeck did unusual things—like work in a cannery or run a fish hatchery. Would these interviewers think more of me if I had had such a job? After I gave them my sincere answer I wondered if I had made a big mistake. Biographers of famous writers often brag about how their subjects had worked at all sorts of non-writerly occupations.
Perhaps those interviewers would have been more impressed if I had told them about the summer I spent calculating the square footage of oddly-shaped parcels of real estate or the time I worked as a receptionist at the Manhattan Shirt factory. Perhaps, since people who write about literary lives seem to groove on the messier working-class jobs, my best literary bet would have been the summer I sweated it out manufacturing plastic ice cream containers. Being a genuine working-class person, I was always very happy to hear that slaving in a factory was a way of building up one's fiction-writing chops. But I didn't do it for that purpose. I was working my way through college, and those jobs paid best of all the choices I had.
Anyway, it's too late to change my answer now. The first interviewer surprised me with the question, so I blurted out the story that follows. He seemed to like it. He certainly smiled and nodded a great deal. When the second interviewer asked the same question, spurred on my tale’s warm reception from the first guy, I told the same story again. Here it is:
My most unusual job was as a Magician's Assistant. The magician went to the same church as my family. The spring I turned sixteen, he came to our house one Saturday afternoon and found me weeding my grandmother's garden. He wanted to talk to my mother about a job for me for the coming summer. I figured it would be as a babysitter. I had quite an impressive local reputation in that field. But no. He was impressed with my tiny stature. I am 5’ 2” and 102 pounds in the photos you see here. (Please no cracks about my current weight status!) Magicians’ assistants have to be able to fit into very small spaces. He didn’t want me to take care of his kids. He wanted to saw me in half.
He did. And he put me into a box, shoved swords into it from every angle, and when he opened it, he had made me disappear. He also turned me into the mind reader in the show because I was the only one of three of us who could memorize the meanings of the various clues he called from the audience.
It was a fun job, except for the part where I was forced to stand statuesquely in a strapless evening gown with my arms extended while he pulled a score of pigeons (he called them doves!) from his hat and his sleeves. He put the birds on my bare arms, ten on each. I can still feel their creepy little feet on my skin.
We rehearsed on Saturdays. We did our dress rehearsal for the neighbors at the parish hall that following May, and when summer came, we repaired to a theater in Asbury Park every Thursday afternoon. There we did three shows a day on weekends. He paid me $1 an hour for rehearsals and my time on stage, and provided my room and board. When we could, my fellow assistant and I went to beach and read books.
Many years later, I saw a Woody Allen movie about a magician who put a woman in a sword box. In the film, the background music was “In a Persian Market.” That was exactly the music my magician played when I went into the sword box. Even today, whenever I hear it, I think of sitting there with my folded legs under the false floor and my torso and head behind the mirrors, waiting for the audience to stop oohing and ahhing, and for him to open the top so I could leap to freedom.