February 12, 2009 News » Cover Story

Shit jobs 

Indy writers and editors look back on the work that made us what we are today

For the record, the dictionary definition of "shit job" is as follows:

Function: noun

Etymology: Anglo-French, toyl merde

Date: 14th century

1: (Archaic) Incomprehensible struggle, battle or laborious effort

2: Long, strenuous, fatiguing, tedious, pointless, vile and/or just plain shitty labor

Amazingly, it's taken just eight years of corporate downsizing and mass layoffs to give the shit job its newest definition: economic opportunity.

Younger readers may be surprised to know that, back around the turn of the century, many people believed that with time and effort their stations in life could actually be improved. Granted, it was a much simper, more nave time, a world in which job security, five-day work weeks, solvent retirement accounts and occasional labor union sightings all were possible, even prevalent.

And yet there's somehow a strange comfort in knowing that, even if political regime change does bring about real-world change, the shit job will still be with us in all its glory, just as long as there are chicken coops and public toilets and fast-food emporiums.

It's in this spirit that we present our editors and writers' nearly repressed memories of their absolutely worst jobs, the kind of employment that ideally makes all subsequent endeavors shine by comparison.

Sure, it's all a bit of a downer, but look at the bright side: Many of these jobs may still be available.

Chicken shit handler

As a sixth-grader already thinking of journalism for a career (no kidding), I reacted with anything but excitement when my father decided to add two large chicken houses, each 200 yards long, to the family farm operation. It meant housing more than 20,000 laying hens for about a year at a time, before they would lose productivity and then head for processing to become, well, chicken-noodle soup.

Gathering the eggs on occasion was actually fun, especially when we'd find double-yolk eggs that made for a tasty breakfast. But after our first batch of hens wore out and had to be replaced, the next duty wasn't so pleasant. Underneath the long houses the birds were elevated in large wire cages about four feet above the ground were endless mountains of chicken shit. And it all had to be removed, as quickly as possible, before the next hens arrived.

The job was simply to shovel out the feces, usually up to two feet deep and often liquefied at the top into a sea of disgusting, black goop filled with maggots.

Unfortunately, my gag reflex always has been highly sensitive. So, for days on end, the routine went like this: Shovel until you gag or throw up (usually the latter), take a short break to breathe some fresher, humid, 95-degree Arkansas air, then go back and shovel more until vomiting again. At lunch, we weren't exactly hungry: Just drink some water, perhaps a soft drink, then get back to it.

It always amazed me how others in the crew would never lose their cookies. Nothing seemed to bother them, even when the maggots were thicker than usual. For me, the lack of tolerance never faded. I've never puked so many times in my life, even though after a while it obviously turned into dry heaves.

The best part was that to the best of my recollection, the job was done within two weeks and then the new hens came. But after living through that ordeal twice, I decided to be proactive and make other "commitments" paper route, church camps, sports and school programs, anything that for some reason always seemed to be happening whenever those chicken houses needed cleaning.

And it never was fun gathering eggs anymore, either. RR

Pillow-bear salesman

A bad job can make you feel worse about yourself. A really bad job should make you feel worse about humanity. I found my worst job through the classifieds (the analog version of Craigslist) and lasted exactly half a day.

It all began with me driving to what looked like a former tool-and-die shop near a former Toxic Avenger location shoot in Rutherford, N.J. Upon arrival, I was told I would be selling products door-to-door. Those products were white velvet pillows that turned into teddy bears. That wasn't the worst part of it.

The shit-storm came courtesy of the salesman I was "apprenticing" with on my first day out. When he was thrown out of barbershops and beauty salons, he liked to sell his wares at go-go bars, Jersey's sad stepsister of the strip club. At these establishments, made famous by Tony Soprano and the Bada Bing, women of questionable naturalization dance on a platform behind the bar in bikinis and eventually come around to the patrons to ask for private dances or to "go upstairs."

Keep in mind, these are women who (a) can't make the cut at a strip club; (b) are sometimes "brought in" from places like Russia and Guatemala; and (c) are often drinking as they go. The salesman said that I might witness a specialty of the house, called the "bowling ball grip," but thankfully I never did.

Dancers with visible bruises bought bears for their kids; guys who looked like Mickey Rourke's character from The Wrestler bought bears for the dancers; and the bartenders all wanted a cut of the take for just letting us in. These were people who looked as if they hadn't seen the sun in days as they joylessly went about their business.

Is it a dance if the dancer doesn't really move? Is it entertainment if the audience stares 1,000 yards through the performers, and vice-versa? Everything about that place said no.

Instead of taking a lunch break, I asked to be driven back to the office. I wouldn't return. Being a copy editor and pushing commas around until 2 a.m. seemed downright cheery by comparison. JN

Satan's paralegal

Throughout high school and college, I worked my fair share of not-entirely-desirable employment: stocking shelves, plowing streets, monitoring an outdoor skating rink (where I briefly caught fire), cleaning toilets and, best of all, telephone soliciting on behalf of Hoxie's Great American Circus.

But, for me, the worst job of the lot came my way after graduation, when I went to work for the corporate lawfirm from hell.

The lion's share of the firm's work was defending asbestos companies against the widows of construction workers who'd succumbed to mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. The remaining clientele included IUD manufacturers who were responsible for countless birth defects, and the pharmaceutical company that brought us DES, a drug that prevented premature deliveries while also causing cancer.

On the plus side, the company hired paralegals with surprisingly minimal qualifications. A bachelor's degree was all it took, although a senior-partner connection (nephew, sister-in-law, neighbor's kid) also helped. Somehow, two ne'er-do-well friends of mine made the grade. They, in turn, brought me into the fold.

From the beginning, it was obvious that something was terribly wrong, and it wasn't just the firm's devotion to the corporate spawn of Satan. The first clue came after I asked what exactly I was supposed to do. I was led to a small airport hangar's worth of case files and advised to pull files at random and summarize any depositions or interrogatories found within. Upon further inquiry, I was told that it really didn't matter what any of us did, just as long as, at day's end, we faithfully billed our hours to the cases of our choosing.

Even though this was before the dot-com crash, it occurred to me that this was not a winning business model.

Still, there were victories along the way. The one I remember most vividly centered around an asbestos widow who filed her case weeks after the statute of limitations had run out. The judge was hearing a motion to extend her deadline, allowing her to seek compensation. The firm was especially concerned with this case due to its potentially precedent-setting nature.

One rainy afternoon, the judge decided against the widow. In celebration, the firm brought all employees together for champagne and oysters on the half-shell. The head paralegal climbed up on her desk and whooped with joy when the formal announcement was made.

I'd been at the company some four months when everything began to make sense. I remember stepping into the men's room for the communal 8:59 tie-straightening ritual, whereupon my friend Brian told me we were all being laid off. The largest of the asbestos manufacturer clients, a company called Johns-Manville, was declaring bankruptcy. Needless to say, the firm's upper echelon must have known for months that this was in the works, which explains why the rest of us were doing no productive work whatsoever.

And so ended my legal career. Later that week, I landed a job in a record store and began to feel human again.

But there have been flashbacks. Throughout his presidency, George W. Bush would repeatedly single out asbestos claims in his condemnation of what he liked to call "junk lawsuits." It turns out that, back in 1998, Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney brought onboard a subsidiary called Dresser Industries. In the process, Halliburton inherited some 300,000 asbestos claims. As the litigation cut into Halliburton's war profits, Bush continued to make speeches decrying the proliferation of "frivolous asbestos suits."

Like Johns-Manville, Dresser Industries would eventually file for bankruptcy. But Bush was conspicuously silent on the subject of frivolous corporate bankruptcies.

And really, there was nothing frivolous about any of it. BF

Roast beef martyr

I grew up in a frugal family, and thus have always admired a person who watches their pennies. So when the greasy and pimply manager at my new employer a once-popular, now-defunct roast beef sandwich place could quote the cost of every menu item, I simply marveled at his business acumen.

As I dished up fries, salads, Cokes and thinly sliced meats on toasted buns, he muttered, "Fifty-nine cents, $1.12, 29 cents, $1.01." Hmmm ... a charming little habit, I assumed, filled with the blissful navet of adolescence.

A day later, the charm wore off.

A co-worker dropped an unwrapped straw while filling the dispenser. "There goes .7 cents," he barked.

A customer asked for ketchup, and I handed her a few packets. "Those are .9 cents. One's enough," he warned me.

When the fryer kicked up a greasy cloud of steam, I grabbed a napkin and stepped into the backroom to stifle a sneeze. He yanked me aside, saying, "Another 4 cents. Get yourself a god-damned handkerchief."

The cheap streak carried over to the food. Salads were to have just two tiny tomatoes, fries got one shake of salt (really), and the huge gray loaves of roast beef were sliced as thin as paper and piled into deceptively tall stacks.

Still, hoping that bigger profits might one day translate into bigger paychecks, I toiled away, deep-frying, slicing and serving for months. My best friend on the job, who'd been promoted to lead cashier, had almost reached her first-year anniversary of employment and the big guy was promising a raise. She told me we'd celebrate when she got it.

On the day he finally, begrudgingly, added it to her check, she ripped it open, anxious to see what all her labor had earned. Five cents an hour. "That's $2.00 a week before taxes," she noted. Not even enough to buy a meal in that dump.

But the crowning moment came weeks later, when a co-worker was slicing beef. As the loaf of meat grew smaller and the pile of slices bigger, he was told to remove the plate that held the meat into the machine and use his hand to hold it there for the last few slices.

You know what's next ... with that last slice of beef, the blade shaved a neat little layer of skin off his finger, essentially removing a fingerprint. Blood flowed, panic ensued, and the manager ordered me to sift through the bloody meat to remove any body parts, hoping to salvage the remaining slices.

As my friend headed to the car to drive to the hospital (sans insurance, of course), Mr. Miserly shouted out, "Don't let the blood ruin your uniform!" My co-worker never returned.

And neither did I. JT

Porn-arcade stooge

No matter what you've read so far, this entry is the nadir of worst summer jobs. You see, every night, without fail, I cleaned the sperm off video screens while working the graveyard shift at a place called Adult World. I had a squeegee; a mop; industrial-strength solvents; and military-issue, elbow-length vulcanized-rubber gloves, and at 4 every morning, I would kick everyone out of the store and make my lonely pilgrimage, starting at Booth 1 and working my way to the dreaded Booth 16, the one in the far corner.

Booth 16 was Adult World's own li'l Sodom and Gomorrah, a 4-by-4-foot glossy black wonderland where any sin of the flesh that one might be tempted to do to one's self in a semipublic sperm-caked broom closet could be tasted. I would find spent condoms stuck to the flickering screen like deflated balloons from a party long over, dildos and vibrators still squirming around on the slick linoleum like worms after a rain. Other bodily fluids appeared, but mostly it was sperm, building up in the nooks and crannies, becoming so thick that the coin slots would have to be regularly scraped to allow the quarters access. That was the essence of Booth 16.

But one night, my routine didn't go as planned. After kicking everyone out, I shouted down the hall of booths that we were closing for an hour for cleanup, per usual. As the parade of homo erecti zipped up and filed out, I locked the door from the inside and presumed myself to be alone until I heard the sound of change being dropped into the slots.

There, in Booth 16, was a man who resembled a gigantic and crazed Mike Tyson, stripped of every stitch of clothing, socks included, going to town on himself while leering at me, knowing there were only the two of us in the whole place, and damn if I wasn't a 145-pound punk-rock college student. An English major at that. Instantly, I became Don Knotts. And he knew it. And I knew that he knew.

"You need to get your clothes on and get the fuck out of here right now!" I said as intensely as a skinny guy holding a trash bag of used jizzrags could. He turned and beamed at me, knowing he had the, um, upper hand in the situation, whacking away with the worriless effort of a man on a leisurely Sunday-morning stroll.

I went back into the store and paced around, trying to come up with a reasonable solution that wouldn't end in some scenario that's mostly associated with weak men showering in a federal penitentiary. A minute or two passed, and I was still in panic mode, when he came out from the darkness, fixing his tie and tucking in his shirt. Now he looked sheepish, a fallen satyr, wordlessly asking to be let out. I obliged and considered a final cautionary salvo, but, on second thought, I held my tongue, relocked the door and marched back to Booth 16.

Yet, all good things must come to an end. One night on my shift, while I was doing homework, the local police swooped down. The head flatfoot was old-school; he muttered "vice" out of the corner of his mouth while flipping his badge open, just like Lee Marvin would have. He had a fedora and cigarettes. Told me I was in big trouble. Distribution of obscene materials. He was closing the place down.

I called the major domo at 3 a.m. and breathlessly told him that I had just been given a ticket and that the cops were pulling everyone out of the booths and arresting some people and ...

"Don't worry," he said. "We'll get everything taken care of."

Fast-forward to one year later. I'm sitting on the stand in a courtroom, and the assistant district attorney is asking me to describe what he's holding in his hand.

I do have to admit it was pretty cool to have the judge ask me to repeat what I'd just said and to reply, "A Squirmy Rooter, your honor."

Eventually, the state won the case, and Adult World had to modify the video booths so the clerk could see what was going on at all times. No more "chimp slapping." No more "man milking." No more "meat processing." No more mess.

Kids nowadays ... they have it so easy. DY

Compound cleaner

It was around the time that I began picking up armful after armful of dirty bidet clothes that I first truly understood that you should be careful what you say.

My big mouth had come into play about six months before, during a winter when my college dorm room was kept at a steady 95 degrees due to some idiot maintenance guy thereby leaving my roommate, Nola, and I two choices: cook like Christmas turkeys indoors, or freeze like flagpoles outside.

"We should move to Hawaii," I said, patting the sweat from my face.

"Sure," she said.

She meant it. When we landed on Maui the next summer, we had about $300 to spend or approximately enough to buy a gallon of milk. About a week and a half into "our new life" we were clean out of cash, and our stomachs were temperamental after being fed nothing but the coconuts and passion fruits I robbed from the trees in people's yards. Nola and I got around by hitchhiking, which is how we met what appeared to be a very nice lady looking for a couple of housecleaners.

The woman's home was in ruins. It looked as if no household chores had been performed in at least three months. Every dish in the house was dirty. I pulled a slimy, mysterious object out of a glass filled with oily water, and stared at it for a few seconds before I realized I was holding a drowned mouse, its body covered in mold.

The woman and her hubby also had about 30 loads of laundry, including about five loads of dirty bidet clothes. We drug the whole lot to the laundromat and filled every machine.

When we were finished, the woman asked if we wanted to spend the night. Having nowhere else to go, other than the beach, we agreed. Then the woman's clearly intoxicated husband arrived and began bragging to us that he was some sort of local leader of the National Rifle Association. This, right after he had locked us into his house more like his compound with a half-dozen deadbolts, some of which couldn't even be opened from the inside without a key. He then proceeded to show us his guns. His gagillion guns.

The next morning, in spite of the locks and the bars on the windows, Nola somehow escaped and headed to another day job she'd found. I stayed at the house and waited for the couple to pay me. At 3, they arose to greet the afternoon and, within minutes, got into a fight, the husband screaming and throwing things around the house. I sat on my bag, thinking of only one thing: the guns. Oh god, the guns.

Finally, someone else arrived at the door. The man let his friend, a younger guy, in, and seemed to forget he was ever mad. He paid me, and the young guy offered to drive me downtown. Of course, I agreed. On the way there, he yammered on about how both the man and woman had been wonderful people until they got hooked on meth.

Ted Haggard, I think there's a lesson for you in this. JAS

Chucky fryer

Every winter, I think about working at East Gloucester Variety. That's when my hands crack, bleed and turn a bit yellowish, the by-product of having used oven cleaner without gloves.

That, however, is not what I remember most fondly about this summer job. Neither are the zits that I carried around for three months, little pus-filled children borne of the unholy marriage of 18-year-old hormones and boiling vegetable oil. Nor dispensing scratch tickets to gambling addicts.

What sticks with me is fielding an altogether simple question.

Backstory: The store's owner was named Charles, better known as Chuck, and he had business savvy. We had no KFC in my Massachusetts town, and as far as I know, no one who produced mass quantities of fried drumsticks, thighs and breasts, never mind hot wings. (For shame!)

So to set himself apart from the other nine-dozen convenience stores within five miles, Chuck bought two pressure-cookers and a breader, and found a chicken supplier. And he came up with what my dickhead friends considered the greatest business slogan they'd ever heard.

"Can Chucky fry chicken?

"You bet he can!"

I'm well aware that none of the above equates with shoveling chicken shit or doing virtually anything at a go-go bar. I got paid under the table, and worked for an altogether good guy.

But it's like this: I'm an introvert by nature. I never enjoyed being behind the register, aforementioned acne on display, having to be gracious as a runner would pull a steamy, moist dollar bill out of his tube sock to pay for a Gatorade. Splashing this slogan across the front of the store invited a whole new type of suffering, one that I, literally, seemed to be asking for.

"Can Chucky fry chicken?"

The question just sat there, in enormous red text against a yellow background, begging people to ask. And ask they did. Even the cute girl I liked at the time, she asked. More than once.

Had the fried-chicken operation required me to wear a paper hat and now that I think about it, maybe the health department would argue that it should've I might've given up. But I fought back.

"Uh, people seem to like it."

"He's back there in the cooler, if you want to open the door and ask him."

Or, if I was feeling especially empowered, I wouldn't say a word. Not a word! I'd just smile, tongs in hand, waiting for the order. And as the customer wondered if I could really just stay silent, I'd think to myself:

You bet I can! KW

Shit stirrer

So there I was, working at Greenleaf Hut in the backcountry near the top of New Hampshire's Franconia Ridge.

It was autumn, so the leaves were turning a vibrant red and daytime highs were mellowing into the crisp 60s and 70s. Crowds, which numbered in the thousands on summer weekends, were starting to thin, and nightly guests at the hut, for whom we cooked and cleaned, were also tailing off.

Sounds idyllic, right?

Well, almost. One byproduct of all the hiking traffic at the Appalachian Mountain Club's backcountry huts is the great volume of poop they leave behind. The environmentally friendly thing to do with it involves a high-tech composting toilet. (You may have seen similar versions hiking to Barr Camp on the side of Pikes Peak.)

As a member of the Greenleaf Hut crew, it was part of my job every two or three weeks to do my part to maintain several of these low-impact beauties. This involved opening a door behind the hut that no AMC guest ever intentionally passed though and donning the rubber apron and gloves that were hanging from a peg just inside. (Some co-workers supplemented this equipment with plastic safety goggles and surgical masks.)

Thus dressed, the next step was to open latches on the vaults below the toilets, checking that no butts were framed in the circular openings above (the bathrooms were closed, but you never know) before stirring gingerly with a rake to help the mixture of crap and toilet paper decompose. If all went well, this could be done in a couple minutes, with the rake, apron and gloves returned to their rightful places and the happy prospect of not having to repeat the same job for several weeks.

Of course, it didn't always go well. Sometimes, tenacious pieces of ... let's say dirt ... would cling to the rake.

Not wanting to put the rake away dirty, I remember at least once having to tap the rake on the edge of the vault to clear away some debris. I started gently, but the stuff proved tenacious, and I remember a sudden pang of regret as a sharp rap of the rake sent a small, mysterious nugget hurtling through the darkness toward me.

I think it missed me, though. AL

Culture editor

Sure, write for a living sounds like a plan. Homework for life. Nice idea. Now just look at us: 100,000-plus readers to please. Not to mention a boss so domineering he should've applied to be the silverback gorilla at the zoo. And don't get me started on that Routon fella ...

Grievances? Well, first, there's the whole food thing: Who the hell wants to be paid to go out and eat? And those awful, pre-release books and CDs samplin' all the goods before Johnny Public. The occasional photo pass to a concert come on! That's crap.

Who wants to work in an office where you can wear jeans, stubble, frayed concert T-shirts and show up late with little repercussion? Where are the old-school perks I've read about, like fast company cars, bottomless expense accounts and tacky, monogrammed Polos? And booze ... where's the hooch, Weiss?

I mean, gosh, come in here five days a week like every other office monkey out there and pound away, ham-fisted, at my keyboard spinnin' gold you think I'd get some respect. Or a parking spot out back. Or the dignity of an office with windows.

And competing in a market with a formidable adversary like the Gazette? The pressure against which I must numb myself nightly ...

Never mind the arts community, always clamoring for coverage, then wanting to be rewarded for their macaroni art. Sucks to that.

This "journalism" gig is a sham. Readers don't have the attention span to get past 75 words anyway. They don't care when I've gone to great effort to look up a big word in the online thesaurus or interviewed a legitimate source for a story. They never get it when I'm punny or make some erudite allusion to an obscure work of literature. They only giggle at the lowbrow jokes, specifically dick jokes.

Fortunately, I have a lot of good dick jokes. MS

Contributors: Bill Forman, Anthony Lane, Jason Notte, Ralph Routon, Matthew Schniper, J. Adrian Stanley, Jill Thomas, Kirk Woundy and Dennis Yudt. Compiled by Bill Forman.


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