Up, Up, and Away

by Shawn Presley

As we put together this issue of the Bulletin, with a story about alumni pursuing unusual careers, the editors reminisced about their own early jobs. I was no exception. I'm proud to say I once created and delivered balloon bouquets dressed as a clown. For an extra ten bucks, I'd dress up as Pee-wee Herman. I was convincing. The gig required less-than-subtle acting skills, but you needed nimble fingers to stretch, tug, and pull the colorful latex into submission. Ample amounts of string and a few ruffles were also part of the routine.

Although it was hard to appreciate it at the time, these early jobs had certain intangible benefits. Working in a fast food restaurant in high school and during college breaks taught me that I wanted a better life than breathing in the greasy, lard-laced fumes that swirled around vats of French fries. Sputtering grills lined with greasy burgers radiated too much heat for someone required to wear a polyester uniform.

The $3.35 I made an hour was no compensation for rude, ungrateful patrons, and the people who worked there full time to support their families were paid the same paltry wage I received (unless you had seniority and then you made, like, $3.65 an hour), and that was a wake-up call. My life lessons weren't on the level of Barbara Ehrenreich's, who went undercover as a minimum-wage worker to write the book Nickled and Dimed, but like her, I learned that "wages are too low and rent is too high" for the average minimum-wage worker. I didn't need an economics degree to figure that out, and when the going got tough in college, the thought of those French fries was a great motivator.

Waiting tables and tending bar in an upscale restaurant ranked somewhere between balloons and fast food. Waiting tables is much like a stage production, and when you forget the lines, you improvise. I recommended entrees I never tasted, described ingredients I could barely pronounce, and extolled the virtues of random wines. I once tried to explain to someone why the glass of cabernet I brought was white. "Oh, it's our new white cabernet," I explained, completely flustered at the end of a long, bleary-eyed shift. The customer merely rolled his eyes.

I often forgot to pick up the money after I left a customer's check. Many times I bumped into patrons wandering through the restaurant, check in hand, searching for someone-anyone-to take their credit card.

I wasn't a great server, but the experience helped me appreciate what a demanding job it is and how it takes a degree of talent and artistry to pull it off. Despite my lack of skill, I earned way more than minimum wage when I totaled up my tips at the end of a shift.

Balloon delivery was paradise in comparison to any of my odd jobs. I sang "Happy Birthday," read disparaging phrases scrawled on the "over the hill" bouquets, and made little kids smile and occasionally cry over the ruffled neck and polka dots that were part of my Bozo get-up. The most stressful part of the job was having a balloon burst on the way to drop off a bouquet. Big deal. There was never a bad time to suck a little helium. I enjoyed my squealing renditions of songs or chirping out vulgar phrases that sounded so much funnier a few octaves higher.

I'd certainly rather edit the magazine you're holding than deliver balloon bouquets, but it's nice to have a backup plan.

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