Quirkiness & Kevlar!

Alicia BessetteMy first job out of college, I was the publications assistant (or, as a coworker joked, the “pub ass”) at Chemical Heritage Foundation, a non-profit for preserving and promoting the history of chemistry. If it involved E.I. Du Pont or Antoine Lavoisier, Marie Curie or Stephanie Kwolek, CHF’s historians, curators, and science education experts were all over it.

I most looked forward to Wednesdays, Brown Bag Lecture days, when various visiting scholars presented their research in the conference room. My assignment was to take notes and write little reports for the quarterly magazine, Chemical Heritage.

I remember one scholar whose specialty was the history of asthma. She outlined different theories as to its cause, everything from cockroaches to backyard swimming pools. I also remember a fascinating art historian who knew more than I thought possible about Renaissance-era Dutch paintings depicting medical procedures — or what passed as medical procedures in those days.

Sometimes the Brown Bag Lectures were highly technical, especially for this right-brained twenty-one year old, and I admit I nodded off to the drone of the overhead projector (remember those?), my belly full of PB&J, on a few occasions.

A charming CHF tradition happened every Tuesday afternoon at three: Tea & Cookies, a half-hour of noshing and polite conversation, inclusive of all CHF staff — top executives, lowly “asses” like myself, and everyone in between. During Tea & Cookies I learned much more about behind-the-scenes duties of different staffers, from the marketer of traveling educational displays, to the head image librarian (if you needed an aerial nighttime photograph of a Monsanto plant, or a historical satirical newspaper cartoon of Louis Pasteur, Marjorie was your go-to girl).

I owe CHF a thank-you, because it corrected my erroneous belief that the sciences were over here, and the humanities were way, way over there, and these two knowledge-spheres never overlapped. Not only did I overcome my fear of chemistry (the bane of my existence throughout high school), but I developed an appreciation for the humanitarian side of science. A world that was previously shut off to me opened up, and I occupied a place within it. I’ll never transform fungi into penicillin, but with some concerted effort, I can write about the process reasonably well.

What’s the quirkiest workplace you’ve ever called “the office”? Or the most confidence-boosting job you’ve had?

~ Alicia Bessette

12 Replies to “Quirkiness & Kevlar!”

  1. During undergrad summers I worked as a flat roofer. It was an arduous, hot, semi-dangerous, bad-for-your-health, tar-y, sunburned, and generally filthy way to make $8 an hour, but there were times when it felt right. Coffee breaks have never been so appreciated since I quit roofing. And standing on a roof at the end of a day, seeing what you have accomplished, being able to put your hand on it… The other roofers called me ‘college boy’ and at the end of each summer they would affectionately say “Don’t come back. We don’t ever want to see you on a roof again.” I’m not sure that any of my colleagues since have ever so openly rooted for me to advance the way the roofers did.

  2. Two summers ago, my sister was in a graduate program at Temple with a guy who owned a restaurant at 12th and Locust in Philly – right in the heart of the “Gayborhood.” I met him at a party and he offered to take me on as a server for the summer, with no prior experience. Like any first time serving gig I had my share of mistakes, including botched orders, forgetting about my tables when it got busy, etc., but luckily, because I was the new dashing young “straight boy,” I was a big hit with a lot of the regular clientele (particularly guys in their 30s and 40s). My greatest moment of validation came in mid-July when my manager told me someone had posted a “missed connection” about me on Craigslist. It was something about a thirty-something male seeking male, wondering who the new waiter with the blue eyes was, and it concluded with, “if you happen across this, you’ll know who I am.” And I did know exactly who he was – a guy who would come in regularly for lunch every Saturday and order grilled cheese with bacon and fries, and always leave me a $10 tip on a $15 check. Not a bad looking guy either, but unfortunately for him, I had a girlfriend. That was very much the story of my summer – it was an interesting experience, and I admit, flattering at times, to get hit on. As a male, it’s not something that normally happens with such aggression unless you hang out in a gay community, and I remember my first feeling of actual alarm when I realized, “This must be what it’s like ALL THE TIME when you’re a girl.” I came out out of that summer with much increased self-esteem, better people skills, and an ability to wait tables. But even more importantly, I think I came out of it with an increased awareness about homosexuality/gender, and how the lines between gay/straight and male/female are not as black and white as many perceive them to be.

  3. Oh the jobs I’ve had! I was sent to the philippines for a publishing
    job and was required to schmooze with my boss and a
    client at a whorehouse. After waiting for them to get drunk, I took a taxi back to my hotel and turned on the tv where the Addams Famly movie was on. It was a soul cleansing night in the roomr epeating lines to a movie that had the words damn censored out because the people of the Philippines could not handle the vulgarity. Apparently.

    Perhaps not surprisngly many of my stories and novels-to-be will involve my work experiences. Thy don’t all involve prostitutes though.

  4. What a cool place! I would have loved those brown bag lunches, and the tea. I’m fascinated by science, actually, I just don’t think I’m very good at “doing” science.

    My quirkiest workplace was the telemarketing job I blogged about at the Ball last year. But it was quirky in an unpleasant way.

    Every newsroom I’ve ever worked in (counting jobs, internships and the college paper, that makes…five) counts as the quirkiest place. Newspaper people are weird. In a good way. Mostly.

  5. Wow, the comments have been as interesting as the post!

    My quirkiest job was for an agency that transitioned libraries from Dewey Decimal to Library of Congress. They’d send a bunch of us temps out in a van, and we’d sticker over all the old call numbers. It was odd and kind of fun.

  6. Hmm… quirkiest job? But this one wasn’t in a good way: the pizza place where the owner’s son snorted coke in the bathroom and picked fights with customers. This led to us waitresses getting stiffed on lots of tips.

  7. I’ve never met anyone who has had more jobs than me. If you have, I’d love to hear about them.

    I’ve worked as a dishwasher, gardener, gas station attendant, factory worker, house painter, sign painter, fast-food cook, prep cook, sauté chef, stock boy, clothing salesman, flooring salesman, tourist information attendant, bar-back, bartender, busboy, waiter, surf instructor, restaurant manager, ski-shop manager, surf-shop manager, lifeguard, bodyguard, doorman, bellman, chauffeur, ski-tour guide, saltwater fishing guide, clothing designer, corporate vice president, and an artist. Currently I’m teaching High School English (scary, huh?).

    Jack of all trades, master of none. Quirkiest was the tourist infomation attendant in Waikiki. I gave out free cases of pineapples to tourist who attended meetings on time shares. It was a crazy time.

  8. Well . . . I was living in L.A. And, a friend of mine, Monica, worked for a company who product demonstrated, The Silver Solution. The Silver Solution would clean silver and gold plus re-silverplate old (or new) sterling plus copper, brass, zinc and bronze items. I demonstrated in only the BEST of stores – Rodeo Drive, Wilshire Boulevard, etc. The public was encouraged to bring in items for demonstration. I had family heirlooms to be re-silverplated. I held my breath many a time; but, the stuff actually worked!!

    One of my weekends was spent in Carmel at a high end store. A lady stopped by the booth on that Sunday to tell me that my product didn’t work. They always do that when there’s a lot of customers around:-) Anyway, I ask her for the item that she had brought. It was a very ornate brass necklace. I began the demonstration, and it was working beautifully. I was carrying on my sales patter as I silverplated her necklace. In the midst of my conversation, I stopped. I said to her, “Did you want your necklace silverplated?” “No,” she answered, “I just wanted to clean it.” I began to laugh. She admitted that it was her fault because she hadn’t seen the demo on Saturday and bought the product anyway. Oh, well . . . it could be removed with a very fine steel wool, so no harm, no foul.

    I stopped working for The Silver Solution when they stopped paying. But, that’s another story.

  9. My first job out of school was at a Head Start in DC. It was pretty rough;
    HIV, crack babies and on and on. My greatest hope was for a stair step child. She was one of six children right in a row. In the end she was my super star. She is ninteen years old now. I wonder what she is doing. I hope she made it throught the DC public school system and came out the back side just fine. I suppose this is wishful thinking on my part. The funny thing is, this job started me on a path to teaching yoga to children and to Head Start, I will be indebted.

  10. I’ve been working as a teacher for more than 30 years now which is quirky enough but as a student I remember us working on farmers’ fields harvesting potatoes or cucumbers. This was really I strange experience for most of us.
    And I had a holiday job in a big metal plant where I was responsible for about 5 computer navigated milling machines. This was a very dirty job and I always remember the smell of it when I pass the place where the building was.
    I must admit that I learned a lot about life in all of these jobs.

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