Sunday, August 26, 2012

Our Weirdest Jobs!

When mystery-world creators delve into their past, astounding things wriggle up from the gardens of memory! I invited some of our crime colleagues to share their adventures.

Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

LARRY LIGHT: One summer in college, I worked in a chewing gum factory. My job was to manually lift cowpie-like hunks of semi-solid gum from a cart and put it into a hopper. Then it was split into long lines of gum so others manually cut it into plugs of the stuff for wrapping. I stank of sugar the entire summer. This was not a blessed state!

ALAFAIR BURKE: Between being a law professor, writing a book a year (ish), and hopefully being a dog walker again soon enough, I probably didn't need another job, but I went and found one anyway. One Saturday in June I spent a day as Guest Gelato Scooper for Mario Batali's Gelotto cart! Why would I want to scoop gelato, you ask? I frequently write at New York's Otto Pizzeria. I even have scenes from the Ellie Hatcher novels set there, starring Dennis the ( real ) bar manager. With the NEVER TELL book tour about to start, I knew I'd be away from New York for much of the summer and homesick. Spending a day in Washington Square Park, making people happy with gelato, seemed like a nice city memory!

KATE GALLISON: In high school I was baby-sitting for two kids when Grandma emerged from her bedroom and demanded that I lace up her corset.

JAMES SCOTT BELL: Being in charge of the fake food as a stagehand in a New York theater production of a Shaw play. It was my first paying theatrical gig since arriving in the city to become an actor. Even though I was backstage, I felt like had my foot in the door. The play had a big dinner scene, and after the curtain came down it was my job to rearrange all the fake food for the next night's performance. I felt a little like that guy who cleans up after the elephants at the circus. When asked why he didn't quit, he said, "What? And give up show business?"

J.T. ELLISON: My most unusual job was as a vet tech. You don't want to know what goes on behind the scenes at the vet! I lasted three days!

SHEILA YORK: When I was a sophomore in high school I was hired, along with some other girls, to pretend to be mannequins in a store window. We modelled fall fashions in August in Tennessee in a west-facing window without moving, with only one fan blowing on us from the narrow door into the store. (It could explain why I am to this day very unenthusiastic about shopping!)

CHRIS GRABENSTEIN: My first job ever! Selling sponges door to door. We were supposed to say that a portion of the proceeds went to help mentally handicapped children. The guy with the speech impediment was the top seller! I quit after two days!

KAYE BARLEY: After a divorce in my 20's, I was working as a secretary in Downtown Atlanta and not making much money. I decided I needed a part time job. A brand new Hilton Hotel had recently opened – quite the place! Nikolai's Roof, The Casablanca Lounge, designer shops – all quite upscale! With an international flair. I marched in, filled out a job application and was hired to work as a hostess in the Cafe de la Paix. My uniform looked like something out of the original Heidi movie – plaid pinafore, ruffled petticoat under a very short skirt. (and this was a French restaurant – what was with the plaid? Horrible!) One evening, when the gal who was supposed to take care of the "take out" window didn't show, I was put in her place. I want to tell you – the things some guys traveling on business have the nerve to say to a young twenty-something-year-old waitress are beyond the pale! I'm going to blame it on the drinks in the Casablanca Lounge! I didn't last through the evening! I have no idea who continued selling pastries through that take out window that evening, but it wasn't me! Not only was it very weird, it was very short!

CAMILLE MINICHINO: One of my first (signings) was at a local market. The manager, whom I knew, had always wanted to open a bookstore! Stuck with a deli/market, she was determined to at least host a book party, and it was very successful. She had coffee from a small shop next door, made cookies, stencilled guns on a bedsheet the color of my book cover and used it to cover the meat cases!

ANNETTE MEYERS: In the late 50's I was teaching high school English in New Jersey and living in the city. I had a boyfriend who worked for a car rental agency, ferrying cars out to La Guardia for the rental booth there and picking up others and driving them back into the city. Sometimes they were short of help, and they'd call on me and I filled in. I didn't know Queens and I was used to driving a VW. I just followed one of the workers out to the airport the first time in a big car, and then went back and forth all that summer. I stopped seeing the guy by the end of the summer!!

SUNNY FRAZIER: As a confidential secretary with an undercover narcotics unit. They stuck me out in a double-wide trailer in a nectarine orchard with 10 alpha males! No real supervision as we were so far away from headquarters. Every day was full of hijinks and I had to sometimes treat the men like they were kindergarteners. They were proud of me and used to say, "Only one member on the team is a military vet and college graduate — and that's our secretary!" I spent eleven years with them, the longest any woman has ever lasted! It gave me lots of great material for my Christy Bristol Astrology mystery novels. I don't ever have to come up with plots — I lived them!

Gabe Kaplan
DENNIS PALUMBO: Trying to break into show business as a writer, way back in my early 20's. While I was writing spec TV scripts, I earned extra money selling jokes to stand-up comics. I would hang around the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, pitching jokes to stand-ups after the acts were finished. Tough gig, let me tell you! One time I was trying to sell some one-liners to an older Vegas comic, and he asked me to meet him in his gym's steam room. So there I was, surrounded by old guys in towels, all sweating our brains out, and I'm trying to read jokes to him from a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, the steam is making the ink run on the paper… Next time, I'm on the road with Gabe Kaplan, at that time the star of Welcome Back, Kotter, and I'm writing jokes for his act. Our deal was, I got paid for every joke that got a laugh. So, we're in the New York City Playboy Club lounge, at 4 A.M. and he's just done a set, which included some of my new jokes. So we sit in the back, arguing about each joke in terms of whether it got a laugh or a chuckle. If it got a laugh, he paid me. If a chuckle, no. Our debate lasted half an hour, ending with us canvassing the few patrons sober enough to speak coherently, asking if they thought a particular joke was funny! Soon afterwards, I was employed as a writer, then screenwriter, and didn't have to peddle jokes to comics anymore. Now long retired from show biz, I'm a licensed psychotherapist, and mystery author! Still, I have fond memories of that early time!!!

DOUG LYLE: If ever I had any doubts about going to college, and I never did, those would have evaporated on a very hot July day in Huntsville, Alabama. I had a summer job at a lumber yard, a good way to make some money and get in shape for the next football season. Loading dry wall all day will do that.But on this day, a very strong black guy I worked with called Mr. Golden and I were dispatched in a flat bed truck to unload roofing tiles from a box car over at the rail yards. Forty pallets on those old asphalt tiles. No problem! We had a fork lift on the truck and it was a simple matter of lifting the pallets, removing them from the box car, and settling them in the long bed of the truck. Piece of cake! Not so fast… The box car had a sliding door that ran on metal rails at its top and bottom. The bottom rail prevented the fork lift from entering the car - it was slung too low. So we had to do it by hand. Each pallet had ten squares, each square three bundles, and each bundle weighed 67 pounds! So we had 1200 bundles to off load. Did I mention it was July? The outside temperature was 95, the humidity the same, and inside the box car it was 140 if it was anything! We took turns being in the car. Lifting a bundle and tossing it out the door, where the other guy would catch it and stack it on an empty pallet. Took us five hours! No food, no water, we were way out on the far reaches of the rail yard. Took two days to recover from this little adventure. Never again!!!!

LOIS WINSTON: My weirdest job wasn't at all weird back in the day, but by today's standards??? If I said I once had a job spec'ing type, I doubt many people now would know what I was talking about. Typesetters have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Everything from magazine ads to book text to the words on a bag of Cheetos is done in no time with a few computer keystrokes. However, back before computers, figuring out how big to make the font to fit within a text block was tedious work that involved (shudder) math. And being a totally right-brained person, math and I didn't exactly get along. Make an error, and it cost in both dollars and time, not a good thing when each job was on a tight budget and an even tighter deadline. Great for inducing panic attacks, though getting fired was a huge relief!

THELMA STRAW: Ever wonder what nuns wear under those voluminous robes? For sure, not Victoria's Secret! One fall, while enrolled in one of the colleges in Oxford, England, I ran out of money to pay my room and board at the hostel run by the Anglican nuns there. They graciously offered me a trade - doing their laundry for lodging. In an open shed in the middle of their huge cabbage garden, daily I stirred over an open fire a huge cauldron filled with a weird assortment of bloomers, female tops, long black cotton stockings and some sort of Elizabethan petticoats (from a Mother Goose fairy tale) in a steamy brew of the nuns' homemade soap. Not Ivory! I then hung them on a line over the rows of cabbages, often wondering if I got the garments really clean! The icing on the cake was that at mealtime the ladies served their boarders cabbage — thrice per diem! Cabbage mush, cabbage cereal, cabbage bread, cabbage pudding! Nowadays I rarely meet a cabbage dish I'll eat!

P.S. Please share with us your own weird or odd experiences in our comment section!

Thelma Straw


  1. Thanks for this post, Thelma.

    You might say I had the weird experience of wearing those odd pieces of underwear for 18 years as a nun -- a key component was a corset. Young people may have to look up that word!

  2. T, you know my weirdest job from my post last week. I loved these stories. Now I KNOW I was not alone dreaming of authorship while I worked at crazy jobs. Something is in the air, I think, that three of us thought independently of writing about the same subject. Maybe its the heat. A lot of people seems to have had hot jobs. May we all now have hot books!

  3. Many thanks to our talented Blogmeister Kate Gallison for providing apt photos and to Alafair for her real life picture of her gelato job! tjs

  4. It was the summer between high school and college. I got a job with the White Tower restaurant chain, working in Midtown Manhattan. I showed up early Saturday morning in the uniform of white shirt, black bow-tie and black trousers. In the first hour, I was having trouble supplying spoons to customers contemporaneously with their coffee; in the second, while trying to open a can of tomato soup (tomato soup for breakfast?? Well, it was red and wet, anyhow), I dumped it on my shirt front; in my third and final hour, I took the dollar tip from the counter and put it in my pocket rather than the common tip jar--temporarily, while trying to gain ground with the spoons and coffee cups. A waitress witnessed my crime. My food service career was over. Just as well: I didn't have the hands for the job.

  5. The tomato soup thief??? This is very funny! I can see the image vividly!!! Good laugh for Monday A.M. tjs

  6. In the fall of 1964, I was the "artist" in a nightclub act called "Judette the Nudette." All I had to do was sketch a nude model in front of an audience of drunks, then give the drawings away after each set. DIdn't matter how good the pictures were. Nobody was paying any attention to me anyway!

  7. I managed to avoid food service until I was forty and had to volunteer for the Little League concession stand. After spraying nacho cheese all over the other volunteers, I was upgraded (or downgraded) to cashier. It turned out I'm great at talking little kids into buying candy and spending their parents' change. Who knew that experience would come in handy selling books later in life?

  8. I've had lots of "interesting jobs" but one that stands out is when I was the only woman on a national sales team for a company called Thomas & Betts. They were a major electrical products manufacturer and were introducing a state-of-the-art product for electrical, data and telephone connections in open office areas. I beat out 125 people for the job, all of whom had electrical engineering degrees. As for me, I didn't know an amp from an ohm, but I learned enough to sound like I was degreed. Just don't ask me anything too technical.

    I was an interior designer who had been in the field for years and knew what the design community looked for when specifying. I did seminars for every kind of potential client from architectural firms to Fortune 500 companies like Xerox and Hughes. I also had to know how to teach people to install it on the floor under carpet tiles, but never had to do that as we had our own engineer who handled that part.

    Everything was going fine until the day I had an installation at a bank in Glendale CA and got a call that morning that our engineer was down with the flu. I would have to teach all of the electrical contractor's men how to install the VersaTrack flat cable.

    So I put on jeans and boots and went out to the construction site, hoping I could pull it off. The minute I walked in,the job foreman gave a wolf whistle and said, "Look, they even sent a pretty girl to entertain us." Well, as about ten tough-looking guys stared at me, I knew I had to gain control.

    I countered with a sexy look, and said, "Why, that's absolutely right. Look, why don't you ask your guys to get down on the floor so we can get started?"

    Amid wisecracks, lewd remarks and more, the guys got down on their hands and knees. Then I smiled sweetly and said, "Okay, you're in position now for me to teach you how to install this shit."

    They all laughed, with the foreman laughing loudest of all. He became my buddy and did whatever I asked him to and a $40,000 job got installed.

  9. These are great stories. I'd love to hear about the ways that they affected the writers' work!

  10. This is the weirdest job offer I ever had. Some years ago I was living in LA (San Fernando Valley) and between jobs, so I signed up with a temp agency to keep money coming in. The agency asked me if I was willing to take temp jobs with the local adult film studios. I wouldn't see any filming, just stay in the office to do clerical work and answer phones. I turned down the opportunity and the agency was okay with that. I wonder how many temps said yes to those jobs!

  11. I spent a summer taking photos of sorority girls. One photo was picked up by national press -- elected president of Girls State (Kansas). I got a shot of mother greeting daughter.

    Fun - but didn't get me any place.

  12. I have had many jobs and don't particularly think of any as weird. I was a teacher for more than 25 years but I suppose the most unusual job was when I was the assistant manager of the paint department in a Sears store for three years. It was a very masculine atmosphere but I was determined to do the job well, including carrying 6 gallons of paint at a time for big, hunky good ole boy customers.

  13. I guess I'd have to say my weirdest job was working for a lingerie store. You can't believe how many women walk in and "flash" you so you can see what kind of bra or panties they want. The oddest thing for me, though, was when men came in the store and wanted women's bras and/or panties (no offense to any man who likes to wear women's clothing). Measuring people for a proper bra fit was quite an experience, too, but that's another story.

    Sometimes it was really difficult to keep a straight face.

  14. I am simply in stitches from laughing so much at all these hilarious tales!!!!!! Thank you - I wish you each the very best of success in your own writing projects! To the question as to how these weird jobs affected your writing - anybody want to volunteer??? Thelma

  15. I'm not sure I would have been a mystery writer if I hadn't worked in law enforcement and had first hand experience with some of the criminal elements. My books are based on real cases. Can't make this stuff up.

  16. My weirdest job as not so much the job itself, but the title. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college I worked for an intermediary publishing house. I stood in a large warehouse at a table filled with paperback books. I removed the covers from these books, tossed the books and sent the covers to the mail room where they were shipped off to the original publisher. My job title was officially "stripper". It looked kind of funny on my resume.

  17. An interesting assortment. But, Sunny, I'll bet if you poll the Posse we could come up with an even wilder offering. John Daniel's would have to be near the top.

  18. Hi, folks, I see a book in this!!! Hope someone will have the courage to do it - it would make the NYT bestseller list!!! Thelma

  19. You do it, Thelma. Expand your question just a bit and ask as many, many writers. Not just mystery writers. You can edit it. This is is a PERFECT project for you. Look at the response you got from this!!!

  20. I've had two very strange jobs in my life. While in the military I was assigned to do patrol on the docks, no ships were docked to a typhoon coming in. I was to patrol the docks. I asked for a life jacket. The other was lost transcription investigator. I spent the day searching for medical transcriptions for the various hospital in Denver. I didn't matter how much education a doctor had, if he or she was techincally challenged (on computers) or how much teaching I spent with them, they still sent the docs somewhere in the ether every time. When I found them it saved them a fine.

  21. Timothy J. Desmond [also one of Sunny's posse]
    This may be late, because my first attempt failed from the stupid smartphone...
    In the spring of my first year of art college, I took a job at a record store on Broadway near 41st in Oakland, CA. I was looking forward to learning there plus selling albums for the owner. The second day at work the store owner, Gene, took me to his home in the low hills of nearby Piedmont. It was a nice place, not a mansion. He wanted me to sand, by hand, his rain gutter and fascia board all around the roof perimeter to prep for painting. He later gave me a vibrating sander, but that wasn’t a help on the gutter. The he left. One day after he left, his 14-ish age daughter was home and she came out with a cigarette and smoked while watching me. She invited me to lunch with her. Her hair was bobbed short and this was before the Dorothy Hamel look. I declined. She then insisted that I see her secret place. It was a small attic space above the garage. We both climbed up there, and visited a while and shared my smokes. “You know that my dad is crazy,” she said. I nodded. “Were all a little crazy,” I said. “When you are done sanding, he’ll have you paint a primer coat. Then he’ll have you sand the primer coat,” she said. I was a little afraid of her. I finished sanding in four days. Then Gene wanted the primer coat. She was right. I had lunch with both of them one day. I never met the wife and mother. I never sold any records at Gene’s store.

  22. Now I do believe there is a profound thriller in here somewhere!!! tjs