In Which I Nearly Bagged the Bag Boy by Deb Jess

My entry onto the career ladder was unremarkable, except that if not for my best friend Cindy, I may never have climbed on at all. After an outgoing and talkative childhood, I decided to clam up somewhere around junior high. My shyness was such that if I needed to make any appointments via telephone, I actually had to write a script so I wouldn’t melt into a puddle of fear when speaking with another human being. The weird thing was that face-to-face, I was just fine.

Anyway, after much begging on my part and some disgust on hers, I finally convinced Cindy to call around to see who was hiring. And we eventually hit the jackpot. Or stumbled across a bonanza, rather. Yes, my first gig was hostessing in a Bonanza ‘steak house.’ And I use the term ‘steak house’ loosely. I was really nothing more than an unglorified salad bar replenisher (cubed ham, frozen peas, smashed hard-boiled eggs) in nylons and a disgusting brown polyester skirt. In college, I kept running into a kid I worked with at Bonanza, and our greeting was always: “Hey, bonanza!”

Six months later, I was hired by KB Toys at the mall. I still remember my first night on the job: you want me to … straighten? (What the f^%* is ‘straightening?’) I was too shy to ask what that even meant, so I just kind of wandered around neatening the shelves. When my shift ended and my new boss told me I did a great job, I figured out that I’d been straightening all night long. I worked at KB on a part-time basis from my junior year in high school through my senior year in college, so it must have been fun. I know it wasn’t the pay that kept me there, as I regularly received $12 weekly checks during the off-season.

After graduating from high school, I got a job at a cheese factory (hey, I live in Wisconsin. How could I not?) and quit after three weeks to be temporary live-in help for a great aunt I’d never met in Alabama. For the month of August in Alabama. My home caregiving tasks for 87 year-old Aunt Rae included chauffeuring her to doctor appointments, doing the weekly shopping (which included bulk purchase of Depends undergarments), cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetching her ice water and breadsticks at 3 in the morning, rubbing lotion onto her pleated and puffy ankles on a nightly basis, pulling her up out of chairs and NOT laughing when she pooted, and listening to stories of life in old Chicago. I remember being hit on by a bag boy at the Eufaula grocery store, feeling so lonely that I gave him my phone number, and meeting him for a ‘date’ at the local park. We stood about twenty feet from one another and avoided eye contact and kind of talked and shuffled around.

I also met my biological father for the first time during that trip (we went bass fishing and golfing together), which is another blog post entirely.

I held a variety of gigs in college, from babysitting to waitressing (I too presided over dozens of ketchup marriages) to teaching in a medium-security men’s prison. I’ve written about that experience before, and it was actually one of my favorite jobs. I also spent two summers as a cocktail waitress in a resort town, regularly walking several blocks from the bar to my parked car at 3:30 in the morning with hundreds of dollars stuffed in my pockets.

This was before I worked in the prison.

I’ve held my current grant writing position for nearly ten years, and it’s been rewarding, for the most part. I can’t say that I count fiction writing as a job, because it feels way too fun to be ‘work.’ But I suppose it is, because I do work at it. So when I look at it like that, it’s truly the best job I ever had. I feel so lucky to be able to say that! Thanks for sharing the ride with me so far.


Driving Sideways by Jess Riley

12 Replies to “In Which I Nearly Bagged the Bag Boy by Deb Jess”

  1. Wow, Jess – what an employment history! I bet any one of the jobs you’ve held could fill a blog post on their own.

    And yeah, writing is one of those ‘jobs’ that seems like too much fun to be a job (except when it’s not working and then it seems like the hardest job in the world). It’s even hard to think of it as just a job when it’s so steeped in emotions, dreams and a lifetime of heart’s desires. I mean really, I never dreamed as a child that someday I would work in a bank as an Executive Assistant (I can barely comprehend it now). That is not the stuff of childhood dreams. But to be a writer? To create a whole world of make-believe and have others (strangers, even) read it and pay you to do it? That’s the dream.

  2. Thanks for sharing all that, Jess. The mention of Bonanza brings back an immediate sensorial memory of… what was it… steak sauce, old dressing, cheap meat? (We used to go there when I was a kid.) And as Joanne said, I’d love to read a blog post about all of those jobs.

  3. A fellow KB alum (although my store still spelled in Kay Bee when I was there)! Nothing like Holiday Barbie and Tickle Me Elmo to bring out the absolute worst in humanity.

  4. Thanks for chiming in, everyone!

    Joanne, congrats on winning Jenny’s contest–and writing is so many different things that it really is hard to think of it in traditional ‘job’ terms…I feel so lucky to earn a paycheck for doing it. Never thought I’d be able to say that!!!
    Jenny: Aunt Rae was a feisty one! She’d get peeved if you giggled or teased her about her farts, which were loud and omnipresent.
    Gail, yeah: I never could figure out the draw of Bonanza. I remember also SMELLING like burned meat now…ugh!
    Katie, how hilarious that you worked at Kay-Bee, too! It was actually called Kay-Bee when I worked there, but I changed it to reflect the current spelling. I was there during the Tickle Me Elmo craze; we sold out and people kept calling to ask if we had them, and once I actually laughed at someone when they asked that question two days before Christmas. They were pretty ticked at me for that. And POGS!!! I’d almost forgotten. What the hell were they, anyway?
    Larramie: here’s the thing I took away from my cheeseworking gig–they slapped different labels on the SAME PRODUCT (crumbled blue cheese). I also spent a week in the cheddar shredding department, and my jeans (beneath my white lab coat) would regularly get coated with bits of orange cheese, particularly on the knees, because some part of the job required kneeling (it must have, or how else did it get there? Weird…) Anyway, my friends called me Cheese Knees for years afterward.

  5. Great post, Jess. I love your awkward date with the bagger and the job with the aunt in Alabama. And the hostessing and cocktail waitressing were all too familiar! (My waitressing years included both those things, as well as a heinous job called “expiditing”) With all the strange and interesting jobs we’ve had between us, we debs could probably fill a few month’s worth of posts!

  6. All I know about pogs is that anyone over 50 who came into the store and saw the $19.99 price tag went totally pale and said, “Those were FREE when I was a kid!” I guess back in the day you just stole them off the top of people’s milk bottles… which seems kind of rude.

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