It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs.

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Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

The worst job I ever had was my very first job. It was working at a buffet restaurant in Denver, Colorado, called The Royal Fork. It was a restaurant with the concept that was years ahead of its time — more like a food court, but all part of one restaurant — The Royal Fork consisted of four or five cafeteria’s around the perimeter — one Chinese, one Mexican, one American-style, etc., and then a large center area for many tables.

I was 15 years old, and lied when interviewed, knowing that the legal working age was 16. I was then constantly terrified to be found out, and somehow “reported to the authorities.” Honestly, what was the worse thing they could do? Deport me back to Minsk? I had a green card, so I’m not sure what I was really afraid would happen.

My job wasn’t complicated. I was supposed to bus the table, taking away dirty dishes and glasses. It was a not a job for a germophobic hypochondriac in the making. Everything I was handling was dirty with people’s germs and runny, goopy and crusty and stinky. But the part I hated wasn’t even that. And it wasn’t that the place was always kind of dark and gloomy — I don’t think it had any windows, so there was no natural sunlight.

It was the intrusion — to approach a table where people were eating and grabbing the used dishes felt like I was rudely interrupting their dining experience. My throat tightened, I avoided eye contact, tried to be as furtive and unobtrusive as possible. And it never got better, evening after evening, I was the bad-mannered interloper at family suppers.

I think I lasted about three months. Then I was fired for spending too much time in the bathroom to avoid work. I walked home that day, holding my hat in hand because it was way too warm to wear it. There was snow on the ground, but the sun was out and moving made me warm. I felt nothing but relief. I remember feeling happy that I never have to go to that disgusting place ever again. The only thing that worried me a little was that my parents would be disappointed with me. But they were pretty cool about it.

The best job I ever had was when I was going to Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) for my Master’s degree. When I saw the flyer for it, I immediately grabbed it off the bulletin board, then went around the rest of the building ripping others and taking them with me, so that no one else would apply. I didn’t want anyone else to compete with me, because I really needed the money.

I already had my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, and now I was going for a Master’s in English with an Emphasis on Education. My parents paid for the first semester, but, of course, I knew I had to get a job, because I did not want to rack up college debt. I had an apartment; I had a car and my parents weren’t made of money. The flyer stated that the job would pay for graduate tuition plus a salary, which sounded too good to be true. And, the position was working for the publication department, writing articles for recruitment and alumni magazines as well as creating brochures for all the disciplines and schools on campus.

I had an interview with a woman from the English Department, who was sort of square, but had a warm, friendly face. When, by the end of the interview, she noticed that I was sitting on the edge of my chair, leaning forward a little dangerously, she laughed and said, “Relax, Elena, relax. We want you here.” And just like that, I got the job.

The best thing about the job wasn’t the position, although, please, don’t get me wrong — I wrote articles, interviewed people, and loved all my professors, even the ones I didn’t particularly like. The best thing about the job was my boss, Diane O. Sides.

A tall, trim woman, Diane was a fairly rare bird — she was a strong woman who never came off as a bitch. And there was something positive about her, something deep and honest — she taught me about communication, not just the things I was writing, but also talking with coworkers and friends. Diane was always approachable, and I always knew she had my back.

The second-best thing was the secretary of the department, Kathleen Butler. When I first met her, she was newly married, about a year, and by the time I graduated three years later, she had two little kids. (If you remember a TV show from the early 90s called Designing Women, Kathleen was a lot like the character Charlene, played by Jean Smart) Kathleen was amazing, funny and supremely competent, Southern (she was born in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, the same place Brad Pitt is from and so is the fictional Charlene) and kind and sweet.

And the last thing I will mention about my best job ever was the fact that it was in a gorgeous old brick mansion with dark woods and ornate windows, built at the turn of the (previous) century. The old house was at the edge of the campus and was surrounded by magnolia and gingko trees, and I had my own tiny office on the second floor with two windows in what probably used to be a maid’s or a child’s quarters. Tenured professors in the English department had cubicles in the basement of the Graul English building — in the basement with no windows!

What about you? What was the worst job you ever had? What was the best?

Written by

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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