My First Seven Jobs

There’s a meme going around on Facebook: list your first seven jobs. Here are mine. With some commentary.

First seven jobs:

  1. Not exactly a job, but my sisters and I sold coffee and doughnuts to customers waiting to buy gas on one of those epic lines of the Carter era (ca. 1978?) The line stretched from the gas station at the corner of King Street and Bedford Road, all the way down Elm Street, and up and around Ridgewood Terrace, to the corner of Ridgewood Terrace and King Street, caddy corner from our driveway.
  1. Newspaper route. Colossal failure. Lasted only a few days. Too active. A scary dog named Caesar, which my sisters and I always heard as “Seize her.”
  1. Babysitting. Lots of it. More my lazy speed. There was TV. And I loved kids.
  1. Lickety Split. Worked as a short-order cook. My co-workers included Matt Park, one of my best friends, behind the ice cream counter, and several cheerleaders, one of whom sometimes talked to me. I got my right-hand index finger sliced off (just a tiny bit) in a meat slicer. I had to stop working and actually got workers’ comp for six weeks or so. My introduction to stitches and the welfare state.
  1. Research assistant for Richard Garwin at IBM’s Watson Research Center (I had gotten a scholarship from IBM, where my dad worked, and part of the scholarship included summer jobs there). Garwin was one of the leading scientists opposing SDI, aka Star Wars. My introduction to anti-nuclear activism, though Garwin wasn’t so much an activist as an uber-wonky scientific expert who argued that Star Wars was destabilizing and expensive and could be easily overcome with fairly cheap countermeasures. I loved my co-workers. All we did was gossip about Garwin and complain about the food. That job launched me on my first letter to the editor. To The New Republic, actually, back in the heyday of Marty Peretz, Hendrik Hertzberg, and Michael Kinsley. All told, not a bad gig.
  1. IBM’s America’s Group. The summer after Garwin, I worked in international communications, dealing with IBM’s Latin America and Canada divisions. I often say being department chair is the second-worst job of my life. Working at IBM that summer was the worst. My introduction to the quiet desperation of corporate life. Most people there didn’t seem to be doing much of anything except wasting time and marking the days till retirement. Everything you wrote needed to get “clearance”—as if we were in the most ultra-high-security branch of the NSA. Made me realize I could never, ever work in the “business world.”
  1. Waiter, Friendly’s. My sister Emily got me the job. Eventually, my sisters Gaby and Jessica worked there, too (or did Jessica predate all of us?) Anyway, another bust of a job, though I did enjoy hustling there. Something about the pace and the turnover was exhilarating (though no one ever worked as fast as Emily). There was enough animosity between the grill staff, many of whom were Latinos, and the long-term waitstaff (older white women) versus the manager (a doofus who defined the meaning of white male privilege, even at the ranks of middle management) to keep me going for months. And it did.



  1. Jack Goodman August 9, 2016 at 9:37 am | #

    Corey, I think I bought one of those doughnuts. They were terrible. I like what your are doing now much better.

    • Corey Robin August 9, 2016 at 11:30 am | #

      Thanks, Jack! That gave me the biggest laugh of my day. So far at least.

  2. Eric Apar August 9, 2016 at 9:47 am | #

    I realized a long time ago that I could never be happy spending half my life wading through the bureaucracy and the nothingness of the “business world.” And yet, I drifted into that world, almost unconsciously.

    The weird thing is, I feel guilty and inadequate over my incapacity to grin and bear it. Everyone else seems to get by, albeit with permanent low-level frustration, broken up by episodes of extreme anxiety and existential funk. So why can’t I?

    I may just have a weak constitution (this, I think, is the most likely explanation), but I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t something insidious, something original sin-ish, beneath those feelings of guilt and anxiety. What does it say about an economic system when it makes its inhabitants feel guilty and inadequate because they don’t like what’s on offer?

  3. John Maher August 9, 2016 at 9:54 am | #

    you may be spending too much time exploring memes on Facebook. not the most fruitful use of your considerable gifts

    • Zach Braff August 9, 2016 at 11:25 am | #

      Lol, I really liked it

  4. xenon2 August 9, 2016 at 9:57 am | #

    The gasoline crisis occurred in 1973-1974.
    More precisely, it lasted from October 1973
    to March 1974.Oil was $3 per barrel.I believe
    Nixon was president, but I’m not sure.

    the 2nd oil crisis happened during Carter’s
    presidency.The high cost of gas, led to the
    import of compact cars and, ultimately, led
    to bankruptcy of Detroit.Trade Agreements
    helped the process.

    Interesting to note, that this first oil crisis
    began as OPEC’s response to the US aid
    To Israel.

    How times have changed.

  5. Roquentin August 9, 2016 at 1:13 pm | #

    Re: #6

    The business world informs much of my political outlook. People who say the private sector is always more efficient haven’t spent much time inside a corporation. If they did the ideological blinders must have made them too myopic to see what is in front of their faces.

    Watching how such an organization functions has been a fascinating study in social psychology. The pettiness, the vanity, the excuses people fabricate to justify their privileged positions within an organization, all of it something I’ll never forget so long as I live. I think it’s a large part of what attracted me to a more structural outlook on politics. Most of the surface level ideology is just window dressing, and over the years I’ve developed a large amount of cynicism and suspicion towards it.

    Re: #7

    There always has been and always will be animosity between the front of house and back of house staff in a restaurant. George Orwell’s “Down And Out In Paris And London,” written in the 1920s describes this dynamic in the French restaurant he worked in very well. It never, ever changes. I always worked in the kitchen. The racial component of hiring Latinos too work for cash under the table is just the icing on the cake. They do the worst work for the least money. I got an eyeful of that good and early in my life, before I even really understood something was wrong.

  6. jonnybutter August 9, 2016 at 1:24 pm | #

    What I find interesting about looking back on my years of – especially crappy – jobs is the times doing them helped me to being to grasp the concept of commodification, and the horror of wage labor. One of them was similar to a great scene in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’.

    I am a pianist. Someone somehow finagled me an audition with a local (Chicago) big shot band leader. This was sometime in mid 1970s. The guy, oozing reluctance and impatience, met me in some kind of theatre or rehearsal space, and made it clear he was very busy and that he’s agreed to hear me only because of pressure -a friend of a friend (or whatever it was). I sat down at the crap spinet piano. We decided I would play a Stevie Wonder song. Before the last note of the severely abreviated version had stopped reverberating, he made a dismissive noise and said, ‘Look, nobody gives a shit about your little counterpoint shit. Goodbye’. I don’t think I had even done anything particularly elaborate, but it was still far too musical for me to earn a place in Industrial Music Supply, at least with him, so that was that.

    I won’t spoil the movie scene, but if you’ve seen the movie, you will know what I’m talking about.

    • Roquentin August 9, 2016 at 1:43 pm | #

      If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that people have their minds made up about whether or not they’ll hire you before you even get in the room. You can only persuade someone of something he or she is already on the verge of accepting (actually, I stole that line from Lacan…heh). You have shockingly little influence on the person who is making the decision. At best it’s an 80/20 split or something in that vicinity.

      • jonnybutter August 9, 2016 at 9:22 pm | #

        I may have misremembered this guy. He might have said that ‘no one gives a flying fuck’, or ‘no one gives a rat’s ass’, or ‘no one gives a fucking shit about your fucking little counterpoint’. Something like that.

        The point isn’t really about getting the job or not – thank god I didn’t get it, actually (although I had plenty of others almost as humiliating). It’s about uncomfortable ideas trying to smack me in the face – in this case, that ‘the market’ not only doesn’t care about, but can even hostile to, excellence. It was a little bewildering to my teenaged self.

        The guy was not really right, btw. If you can get used to crap, you can get used to excellence too. But *he* definitely didn’t care. Probably a majority of American ‘professional’ bandleaders (when there was such a thing) didn’t care about music. As The King put it: ‘I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.’

        • LFC August 11, 2016 at 11:30 am | #

          I don’t go to the movies much, esp. not these days, but I did happen to see ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. I recall the scene you’re referring to, but not the details of the dialogue. Had mixed feelings about the movie; not a *huge* fan of the Coen brothers, though I can see their obvious talents. A movie like ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, also theirs if I recall, had a very good soundtrack but of course different sort of music, plus the movie was not about musicians, of course.

  7. jonnybutter August 11, 2016 at 6:24 pm | #

    Hey LFC, FWIW I liked the music to ‘O Brother’ – I think it was the last CD I ever bought (and possibly will buy)! I liked its version of ‘I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow’ a lot.

    The scene I’m thinking of is of course the one in which Davis travels – harrowingly – from NYC to Chicago to audition for Mr Show Me (can’t remember character’s name, perfectly played by F. M. Abraham). After Davis’ touching performance, the Brothers play one of their typical tricks of shattered hollywood expectations: camera lands and stays on a shot of Abraham’s almost preternaturally wizened face, and we wait……Eventually he speaks. I think his exact line was ‘I don’t hear a lot of money there’.

    Yeah, I like some Coen Bros. movies more than others. Did like ‘Inside’. Also liked ‘A Serious Man’.

    • LFC August 11, 2016 at 10:37 pm | #

      Yes, now that you’ve reminded me of the scene and the key line from the F. Murray Abraham character, I do remember it. Thanks.

      I still occasionally (very occasionally) buy CDs, b/c I’m technologically backward in certain ways and have never bought a piece of music or a track online via iTunes, Google Play or anything like that. Though I might one of these days.

  8. jonnybutter August 13, 2016 at 3:09 am | #

    I had to look up the character’s name, bc the Coens generally choose names carefully. It was ‘Bud Grossman’. ‘Grossman’ meaning ‘big man’ (‘grosse’), but also ‘gross’ in our modern, teenaged meanings of the word, in this case, vulgar.

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