The summer after I graduated college, I moved back to my hometown and scoured the local classifieds for a job. I found an ad for an “artist’s assistant.” This is perfect, I thought. It’ll be just like that episode of Dawson’s Creek where Dawson works for this grumpy old man who turns out to be a legendary filmmaker, and Dawson makes a documentary about him and learns all this wisdom about making movies. Then the old guy dies, but Dawson preserved his memory, so everything’s fine.
His name was Carl. He seemed surprised by my enthusiasm over the phone, noting that an interest in art wasn’t necessary. But it didn’t hurt, and by the way, he also needed some yard work done. So I offered to bring my brother Nick to help out.
When we showed up the next day, it became clear that most of the work Carl actually needed was yard work. He gave us a list of tasks to complete throughout the week. It was not what I’d signed up for, but the pay was good, so I didn’t complain. I was, however, still hopeful about his genius. I asked to see some of his paintings.
Carl painted enormous nudes (about 5×4 feet.) While there was the occasional black bodybuilder or generic white girl mashup with Drew Berrymore’s face (he collaged magazine clippings to create his “models”), most of the portraits were of the same man: Carl. He compulsively painted himself with a virile, body-builder physique and an enormous penis. Carl, keep in mind, was completely bald — so in the portraits, veiny and hairless and flesh-colored, he just looked like a giant penis. With a giant penis.
I wanted to look away but the paintings were everywhere, hundreds of them stacked against the walls of his house.
“For whatever reason I’m finding out there just isn’t a market for full-frontal male nudes in the art world.” Carl said. I shuttered, imagining his paintings displayed in some suburban sado-masochist’s torture basement.
Throughout the day, when Carl wasn’t looking, we took pictures on our phones. Each time I thought I’d seen the worst one, I’d find another. It was the grossest scavenger hunt in the world. We knew we wouldn’t be coming back the next day. This was too much.
The incident was so surreal that after telling the story to everyone I knew in the weeks that followed, I kinda forgot about it. But now and again there’s the occasional reminder of my stint as an artist’s assistant. A few months ago, someone I was dating came across a file on my desktop casually titled “Carl’s penis paintings”.
“What’s this?” He said, looking suspicious and confused.
“Go ahead, click on it,” I said. “PLEASE click on it!” — Art Director Hallie Bateman
I resisted joining the world of real work until my senior year of high school. A few disastrous attempts at selling concessions during high school games had soured me on food service — I’d come home one too many times smelling of nacho cheese and covered in stray cotton candy threads. So I applied for the only entry-level job in my entire hometown that didn’t involve food: an assistant at the public library.
Ostensibly, I was assigned to the special collections department, and each day I would organize the genealogy tables and catalog files, reshelve the large print books, and help patrons with basic questions when I could. In between genealogy and audiobooks was our library’s modest “business center,” with one computer terminal and a variety of newspaper listings and government forms.
Because our amateur genealogists and large print patrons generally knew their way around, I spent most of my time helping people at the business center. Sometimes it involved directing people the right forms so they could file for unemployment, or teaching people how to use the word processor to write their cover letter or resume. Other times it involved tracking down the missing “help wanted” sections of the local paper, which usually meant that someone had retreated to a distant corner of the reading room and hidden it in a New York Times, to read without fear of embarrassment. In these cases, I’d gently remind them to return it to the business center when they’d finished, as it really wasn’t supposed to leave the immediate area.
I grew to realize that, for many of these people, coming in to the library was an act of quiet desperation, an acknowledgment that they were nearing the end of their rope, and needed some extra help. And I think I was about the least threatening person in the library that could start them down that road. It wasn’t that the rest of the staff consisted of officious library matrons — far from it. But I think that when you’ve finally made the decision to swallow your pride, risk your dignity, and go into the library for help, it’s easier to look your helper in the eye when he’s a chubby, generally clueless fifteen-year-old with no real understanding of adult worries. For instance, no one ever cried or got angry in front of me.
Ten years later, when I moved to Seattle with no job, no real prospects, and no internet at the room I was renting, I turned to the library for help. I spent every day for nearly two months at my local branch, and while the job hunt is a lot more self-service these days, it’s still awkward to go sit at the fully-functional terminals over by the job boards instead of the ones that can only access the catalog. But, I told myself, I didn’t need to feel awkward being there. After all, I knew first-hand that libraries were supposed to be about more than just checking out books. And that made it easier to walk through those doors, day after day. — Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell
Never again will I accept a job point blank because I have been promised “theatre opportunities.” When I was 18 I took a job working my college’s alumni reunion as “flex crew” under this guise. Vague title, but I figured an acting gig is an acting gig. I thought I might be participating in a skit or playing improv games with kiddos. On my first day of work I was led to an ominous trunk in the office. I opened it to find a giant furry panther head. I picked it up. Ohmygod. I had unknowingly signed a contract to be the school mascot for the weekend. Ohmygod. It was over 90 degrees and I was about to greet cars in a black fur bag. Ohmygod. I’m a good employee, so, whatever, it happened. I sweated my brains out in the sun waving and dancing at alum as strangers in school spirit garb hugged me. To be honest, I ended up enjoying it. I mean, I looked like a complete idiot, but no one knew I was the idiot, so whatever. No big deal. Until I did a cartwheel and my head fell off, causing the chin strap to strangle my exposed red, sweaty face. The onlooking kids woulda screamed less if I had been a real panther. — Writer Alice Stanley
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I worked for an independent contractor who installed security systems — stuff like cameras, motion sensors, and glass-break detectors. Our big job that summer was to rig security cameras all over a giant megachurch in the suburbs of Denver.
Since the place was already built, we had to figure out how to run our new wires through the existing infrastructure. Mostly that meant using walls and ceilings like you would in any old building, but the megachurch gave us one advantage over other structures: it had a giant, two-tiered, stadium-like theater in the middle. We weren’t putting any cameras in the theater itself, but the space above its ceiling was one massive, continuous, cavern-like space. Once we got wires into it, we could then take them to any other part of the building.
I loved going up there. It was dark and gloomy, and the odd building materials gave the whole place a sci-fi vibe. I had to walk across thin metal beams and hold onto wires fixed to the roof because the actual ceiling material couldn’t support my weight. Occasionally I’d be able to see down into the theater and remind myself that I was probably 60 feet up, which only made my excursions more exciting. I got to use a flashlight to see around, and I spent a lot of time daydreaming about how a flashlight-based videogame could work. (Mine was cooler than Alan Wake.)
Since we came in on the weekdays, most of the time the church was sparsely populated, and the theater was never in use. But one time I showed up to work to find the place crowded. I asked my boss what was going on, and I learned two things: one, a funeral for two police officers killed in the line of duty was being held in the theater, and two, I needed to go up above the theater to troubleshoot some wires while the funeral was going on.
As I crept along in the dark, trying to minimize my noise and feeling slightly guilty for enjoying the adventure of it all, my mind drifted, and I wondered how I could turn this situation into a solid game mechanic. I pictured the hero prowling around an ancient cavern with a torch, furtively picking the lock of a truly epic treasure chest, careful not to wake a sleeping dragon below. — Editor Nick Martens
I spent the summer before sophomore year of high school working spotlight on a play called Beehive! It was an all-female, entirely plot-free run through the hits of the 60s. It was named after the classic hairdo.
I had nothing else to do that summer, and was convinced to join the crew by a friend. Any delusions I had about the glamour of show business were dispatched immediately. The pay was atrocious — crew was contract, and I made $300 over Beehive!’s three month run. I would arrive early, clean the stage from the previous night’s show, and then sit silently on a stool behind the audience and aim my oversized flashlight at the actresses. It was mindless, but the director assured me it was critical to the show.
The worst part of the job was the other stagehands’ quiet sense of superiority. They lived show business, spoke to me with the cool remove of retired Broadway stars. They would never say “Macbeth” near the theater.
They were all under 15.
I don’t fault them for their snobbery. If I had stuck around to work the next show, I would have scrambled for anything that made my decision seem sane. There’s a secret club of people who throw their lives to the theater for no money, but that makes them better than other people? I’m in.
Of course, by the end of the summer I realized that I was not in. School began and I stopped thinking about the theater altogether, though sometimes I still sung to myself as I walked between classes.
“You make me feel like a natural woman.” — Contributing Writer Ben Bateman
In high school, I worked for my wrestling coach, whose full time occupation was running a landscaping business. At the time, I was too small to really do anything but pull weeds. So I would wake up at the crack of dawn, meet my coach at his house, and he’d drop me off at a property his company managed, which was almost always a parking lot at a strip mall. There were two other kids from the wrestling team, but since they were bigger, my coach would take them along to do more exciting landscape work (whatever that was) while I was stuck tugging at the roots of plants by myself. On a few rare occasions when my coach would take me along with him, he had me move rocks from one end of some property to the other. I’m not sure what this accomplished, and in hindsight, I think he had me do this for his own amusement.
One day while I was weeding, I came across a patch of poison ivy. I didn’t realize what it was until it was too late. I must’ve rubbed my eyes afterward, because by the end of the day, my face was covered with poison ivy, as well as my arms and part of my legs. (Apparently I am very allergic to it.) I was out for a week and a half to recover, and I spent at least three of those days with my eyes swollen shut. When I came back, it was only another week or two before the coach’s wife, who managed all the accounting for the business, realized it wasn’t economically feasible to have three largely worthless high school kids on the payroll. Coach told me he was letting me go, because I was the smallest, and suddenly I realized that being little could actually work to my advantage. — Editor Kevin Nguyen
Illustration by Yael Levy