I believe the truisms (“share,” be “fair,” be “aware of wonder,” and “don’t hit people,” to name a few), as noted in Robert L. Fulghum’s book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” to be spot-on advice on how to grow into a decent, content, and essentially happy human being.
Add to these, the scholarship that comes with those early working years. Those first jobs. They not only may help you pinpoint what you want, or don’t want, to do when you grow up, but if you pay attention, they are also ripe with opportunities that can grant you what we all need to be decent at, content with, and essentially happy with our career choices.
For me, I knew in third grade that I wanted to be a writer. But I worked my way towards today through more jobs than I can count.
So here’s my short list of the basics on working as a writer, and how I got them:
Low wage: Those of us who grew up in Asbury Park in the 1960s and 1970s spent summers working on the Boardwalk. I did it for 10 years, starting at 14 years old as a counter girl at The Miramar Grill in Convention Hall. This was my induction into hard work at low pay. But it was also my premier tutelage in how to make my pennies count and get more for my money. After work, I would glom on to the 16 and 17 year old employees that would sneak through the secret tunnel alongside the restaurant and got us into neighboring Convention Hall during Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin concerts for free.
Check your ego at the door: The next summer I moved across the hall and was Mr. Peanut at Planters Peanuts. I spent hours waving people in to the store with my unwieldy peanut head. Everyone who worked there started out this way, and if you were a cracker at being a peanut, you were eventually promoted to selling them inside the store.
Don’t cry when your editor yells at you: My three summers at the other end of the Boardwalk as a waitress at the Casino Coffee Shop is where I learned to be nice to people who weren’t nice to me. I would suck it up when the cook yelled that the food was getting cold, when the customers yelled that the food was cold, and when the boss yelled if I forgot to drip those three partially-used ketchup bottles into one at the end of the day.
Be honest: And it was also at the Casino Coffee Shop where I switched from concert-sneaker to concert-companion by treating the rock stars that performed at the Casino across the way, and regularly came in to eat, like rocks stars, so they would put me on their guest lists. (Leslie West, from Mountain, gave me a plastic, “World’s Best Waitress” trophy.)
Pay attention to details: After college, I moved down Ocean Avenue and worked as a waitress at Yvonne’s Rhapsody in Blue and Rendevous Lounge in Long Branch. Yvonne – owner, chanteuse, and drummer – would bang the drums set up in the corner of the dining room, and would throw her drumsticks into the crowd when she was done. Patrons that were upset with the near-miss-to-the-head would have been more unnerved had they known that the chef’s cigar ashes that would continuously bend towards, and then garnish the food, were accompanied by Yvonne’s fingers poking through every plate before it left the kitchen. I noticed that the clientel that hung out in the lounge under the restaurant had deeper pockets, and therefore tipped well. And there were no drums, no food, no Yvonne. I asked to work there, where I learned to chat up the mobsters that were regulars, like Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo, who took a liking to me, tipped up to 40 percent on his bills, and gave me an extra $20 bill if I would get him cigarettes from the machine.
Give people what they want, and deliver it reliably: I spent a summer as a bartender at a huge club – The Fountain Casino – where my constant attention in both mixing the drinks (a little extra booze), remembering what the regulars wanted (had it ready when they walked through the door), and smiling and winking at the inebriated, had them coming back for more, and made me more money in tips than I had made in any other job before that.
Work on deadline. Accept heaps of rejection. Be clear. And just say it already!: Short on length, but long on lessons learned – I sold encyclopedias door-to-door for one month in Hackensack. I had seconds to sell myself, and those books that nobody wanted. What began as a five-minute, carefully-chosen, beautiful, wordy spiel, turned into a one-minute, bordering-on-begging sales pitch, because people were slamming the door in my face.
Interviewing chops: I worked my way up to credit manager for a contractors supply company in my mid-20s. I spent the bulk of my day on the phone asking big wigs to pay us, please.
And sage instruction, no matter what:
Throw yourself out there, no matter your age, and do things that are really hard : I went back to school at 54 years old.
Learn how to move on when the best job in the world ends: My kids grew up.