I was torn over how far back to go to dredge up a first job story. I wasn’t sure if my first job ever was what was called for, or my first real post-college job (working as a publicist for a US Senator), about which I have all sorts of great dish but alas, that probably needs to be kept to myself to avoid potential scandals at this late date. Along the way I have those other compelling firsts, such as the first time I worked on-camera for a television news station while in college. My audition reel does include that first ghastly interview with me interrogating a giant Easter Bunny delivering Bunny-grams. Luckily that’s hidden away in a box somewhere, safe from prying eyes.
I guess I’ll take the mandate at its face value, and tell you about my first-ever job: working as an orthodontic assistant for my father. Yes, my ever so glamorous job in which I got to don a Star Trek look-alike mustard-colored polyester front-zip wide-lapeled short-sleeved ugliest-piece-of-clothing-ever-manufactured top (designed with one thing in mind: so the wearer could conveniently wash out saliva and cement and the occasional splotch of blood). Seriously, it looked a lot like that, only uglier. With it I wore stretchy white nurses pants and very hip, happenin’ platform white nurses shoes (it was the 70’s, after all, and they looked remarkably like these, minus the miniature goldfish tank in the heel) which I had to polish daily (those things scuffed with every step I took).
In hindsight, I wonder why I ever chose to work this gig. First of all, I hate Lite Rock, universal music of choice in dentist/orthodontist offices across the land. I still cringe anytime I hear Little River Band singing about the Lonesome Loser, having heard it so many times in that office. Plus I had zero interest in a career in orthodontia. I had no plans on remaining in my hometown, where I would have had to live if I chose to take over my father’s practice. I had even less interest in anything polyester. And the idea of working for my dad? Not high on my list, either. I guess I wanted cash and this was the quickest path to payment, plus I could beg off from work if something more pressing came along.
I began working for him in junior high school. I was all of 12 years old (back then the training was hands-on, and didn’t require licenses and other formalities). I learned by just diving into grimy teen and pre-teen mouths and hoping for the best (with professional oversight of course!). There weren’t quite the sanitation precautions taken today: no face masks, no rubber gloves. We did have this antiseptic soap my dad called “Jungle Juice” with which he threatened the kids who never brushed their teeth—telling them they’d get a good gargle with the red soap if they didn’t start brushing.
Between patients of course I scrubbed my hands with a vengeance. Sadly, the patients didn’t always reciprocate such cleanliness with their mouths. There were plenty of times when I was hunkered over a patient that food flung from my their teeth to my face as I tugged on their bands. I regularly came down with strep throat and all sorts of ailments from being exposed to their germs.
I don’t recall a lot of the details of that job. I do remember that as I got older, I swooned over cute guys my own age who were patients. But once you’ve toiled away in someone’s mouth with a scaler and a set of pliers, somehow the romance of it all seems to wither away, even if the guy really is good-looking. I remember the groovy kelly green carpet in my dad’s office, the hoards of kids lined up in the hallway, it was so busy. The walls filled with cases of white Plaster-of-Paris models of before- and after- teeth. A semi-circular row of brightly-colored reclining dental chairs. Large baby blue-colored X-ray machines that probably zapped me with far too much radiation. A sheen of plaster dust in our miniscule “break” room. The perpetual noxious scent of developing chemicals from x-ray processing. Lots of tools, fun little gadgets and brackets and rubber bands and such. Probably would have been more intriguing to someone with a fondness for Legos than me.
Nevertheless I got good at my job. I’d sit down with each patient before my dad saw them, checking for loose bands by tugging on each band and bracket. Loose bands were the bane of our existence, as we had to take the time to replace them, and it slowed down the day to a crawl and the waiting room backed up into the hallway. I got to take records of patients, including bite wings and panorexes and those nasty impressions we had to shove into the poor kids’ mouths like so much wallpaper paste. I worked my way up to fitting bands and removing braces (always a happy day). My one real crisis was the day a family who had once been patients returned from living for a few years in Italy. Having never once seen a dentist or orthodontist while gone. I’ll never forget the boy, Stefano, whose teeth I got to check. As I went through the cursory band check for loose bands and I tugged on each metal ring (remember back then braces were the shiny silver bands like railroad tracks on the teeth), I got to his front tooth, gave a good solid tug, and not only did his band pop off, but so did half of his tooth! I about died, thinking I destroyed the kid’s tooth. Luckily I found out that it had been a cap or something and it wasn’t my fault. But it sort of turned me off checking for loose bands after that!
Is this starting to make that job you had frying french fries at McDonald’s look pretty tempting? I will say it’s a shame I didn’t stick with it if only to have been able to save vast sums of money on orthodontia for my own kids. But definitely not worth all of those years of torturous Lite Rock to which I’d have to have been exposed.
Something useful did come from those many years at that first job (which I continued to work even during summer breaks from college). I realized that I definitely did not indeed yearn for a ready-made career as an orthodontist. Lackluster math skills aside, I just knew it wasn’t the thing I wanted to do with the rest of my life. By then I’d discovered writing, and that, I knew, was something I enjoyed and could see doing, in one form or another, forever. And I’d never have to worry about stranger’s food ricocheting into my face again.