Observations and arguments.

Archive for Jobs

Jobs I Have Held: Water Conservation Advocate

Well perhaps advocate is an overstatement. Representative? Mouthpiece?

The local water agency had a table at the annual county fair, to encourage visitors to conserve. Because they wanted cheap labor, they sought out high school students. Because they wanted articulate cheap labor that knew how to wear ties in hot weather, they recruited from my high school’s award-winning speech and debate club.

This was the same summer I worked at the movie theater, and the days I had to work both jobs were both exhausting and to my young mind lucrative.

We handed out flyers and a free kit* for conserving water in your toilet. There were always two of us, on a rotating schedule, so from day to day you’d be working with another friend, either the morning-afternoon or the afternoon-evening shift. There were others, not from my high school, who worked the table, but the staffing was rigged pretty well.

The primary “attraction” in the booth was an electric-powered shower simulator. Sitting on the table it looked like a vertically-oriented fish tank, split into two chambers. In each half was a shower head, one conventional, the other a low-flow water-conserving model. Flip the switch, and you can see in ten seconds the radical difference in the amount of water in use with each shower head.

We were told to encourage anyone who had actually stopped for the demonstration to place their hand under the low-flow shower head, to feel that the water pressure, was indeed, adequate for taking a comfortable shower.

What the designers of this particular device failed to do was to cover the chamber containing the conventional shower head.

So without fail, everyone who stuck in their hand to feel the low-flow pressure also placed their hand under the water-wasting shower, and stated “I like that one better.”

No matter what level of rhetorical brilliance we displayed, we could not prevent people from testing the water pressure in both chambers.

Because by design the device was intended to communicate a comparison between the two shower heads. Covering both chambers might have been effective, restricting the demonstration to the topic of how much water is used. But then a visitor might connect it to memories of poor water pressure at an ex-boyfriend’s apartment and dismiss any thought of “low-flow.” So the ability to feel the water pressure does seem important.

I do believe it would have been possible to have covered the conventional shower head without sowing too much distrust. The high school smartasses could have taken it from there.

But of course how many people stop at a water conservation table at the annual county fair?

We got paid for hanging out. Shooting the shit, in ties, in the waning days of summer before our senior year.

Not a bad job after all.

*A plastic baggie with a twist tie. Fill the baggie with water, close it with the twist tie, place it in your toilet tank. How we got away with calling it a “kit” escaped me, even then.

Jobs I Have Held: Assistant Manager

For the first week on my first paying job, I wasn’t assistant manager.

I took the standard entry-level job at the local movie twoplex. Sweeping, ushering, concessions, window washing. I was sixteen, the summer before my senior year in high school. My parents weren’t pushing me to get a job, but I wanted the extra walking around money that a part-time minimum wage job would afford.

Within a day or two, the senior assistant manager had somehow identified that I was different than my peers. I don’t believe I had time to demonstrate anything in the way of competence above and beyond anyone else, so I’m not sure what criteria he applied. Perhaps it was enough that I didn’t smell like weed.

In any event, I was promoted almost immediately to a spot in the box office. There was no bump in salary–I was sixteen after all–but during the quiet times I could remain at the window and read a book instead of having to clean, and that was plenty good enough for me.

By the end of my first week the mumbling manager had taken notice of the fact that in my few days in the box office I hadn’t embezzled cash from the till, plus in the nightly reports of ticket sales I was able to successfully enter numbers into columns and add them, with the aid of a device called a calculator.

I was duly promoted to management.

Still, no increase in my hourly wage, but the additional hours that came with opening up in the morning or closing up at night meant my paycheck did grow a bit–although not as much as it should have. With the added responsibilities I began to work forty-one, forty-two, up to fifty hours a week. The mumbling manager claimed that as a sixteen year old I could get into trouble for reporting more than forty hours a week, so he doctored my timesheets to redistribute my time to weeks in which I worked fewer days.

Allowing him to avoid overtime costs.

But while I grumbled at times, the exploitation felt minor compared to the thrill of being able to run the projectors (this was not long after qualified projectionists were kicked out of the industry and replaced with unskilled sixteen year olds such as myself).

I didn’t actually need to manage employees, but the title did give me the opportunity to delegate the task of replacing the letters on the marquee sign when we had a movie changeover. I did the task once, and was so terrified I never went up there again. It was a precious, teenage kind of scared, but in retrospect, the fact that there was no safety harness was probably an OSHA violation. At the very least it was a reckless and stupid cost saving measure.

The other practice that I found bothersome was the mumbling manager’s directive to pop popcorn just once a week in one large batch. We scooped it into bags and kept it in the closet, taking it out and pouring it into the warming bin only during movies, so that customers wouldn’t see you doing it.

Even on the day that we were popping popcorn, we were directed not to give the new stuff to the customers.

That always seemed rude to me.

Also: hot dogs. If you must eat them, do avoid the chopped onions and pickle relish.

Is all I’m saying.

Setting a pattern that would recur in later jobs, I never really took advantage of my position or the keys I had to the building. Something about my Catholic education and upbringing–not the fear of guilt or hell, this was post-Vatican II Californian Catholicism, after all. No, this was entirely about behaving nicely and obeying the rules.

My single transgression (if you could call it that) was letting four of my friends in for a “Rambothon”–multiple sequential showings of Rambo: First Blood, Part II. Three of them bailed after the second screening. One, David S., made it through four times before finally giving up.

(I will note, for the sake of the historical record, that David S. was indeed the individual described in Leigh Weimers’ column in the San Jose Mercury News, who on opening day of Rambo: First Blood, Part II some weeks earlier had been ejected from the Town & Country theater for wielding a plastic weapon. What Weimers perhaps didn’t know was that there were at least twenty boys in the company of David S., all fresh from their last morning of final exams at the local Jesuit college preparatory, all similarly armed with toy guns–the kind capable of firing small plastic projectiles. Of course, most of us were able to conceal our weapons in our clothes and backpacks. David S., carrying a plastic automatic rifle, had no such option.)

Of course, the main benefit of working at any movie theater (something I didn’t know about when applying for the job) was the call-in. I could call any theater in town and ask to place myself plus a guest on the secret “call-in” list for any movie of my choosing (anything that wasn’t an opening or weekend night blockbuster). When calling or when showing up, there was no identification or verification process to confirm that I was who I said I was, or that I worked at the theater I had claimed. Just give my name, and I got in.

A friend of mine continued to call in for free movies long after he’d stopped working at movie theaters.

Me, the uptight Catholic boy, I never did.

Dear Mr. President

Back in 2002, Gabe Hudson helped edit a series of letters to the President over on McSweeneys, as an extension of his own book Dear Mr. President.

I submitted the following letter for consideration, but it didn’t make the cut.


Dear Mr. President:

I am not a perfectionist (though perhaps I used to be a bit of one), but I do like to bring my best effort to the task at hand. I think: why do something half-assed when there’s an opportunity to do better? This attitude brought me success in school, and early in my career, as I demonstrated intelligence, aptitude, and a willingness to go the extra mile.

Then one day I got new boss who, I was told, would be a “better manager” than my previous boss. All of a sudden it no longer mattered how I did the work, only whether it was done or not done. It appeared that he was incapable of assessing (or, at the very least, unwilling to assess) the quality of work being done by myself or my team. I received the same level of recognition whether the work was outstanding or weak or even embarrassingly inept. As long as he could consider the work “completed”, either on or ahead of schedule, I got a smile and a slap on the back. When I tried to raise questions about complex, interrelating issues, he would always turn my query around into an either-or question, which when I begrudgingly replied he would tell me that I had answered my own question, when really I had only answered *his* question, which wasn’t really applicable at all to the issues that I was raising, but he was done speaking to me anyhow.

Oh, how I hated that boss. I believed that he was an idiot, that he was eroding the company’s fortunes by putting out bad product, and that before long he would be fired. I concocted fantasies of getting a job and then hiring my old company, only to cancel the contract at the last moment saying, “See, I am firing your company because it puts out inferior work, and this witless, overpaid fool is to blame.”

Then one day I was standing in a Kinko’s and picked up a book that they were selling about management techniques, and learned that employees who care about the quality of their work are a business liability (rather than an asset). That they slow down schedules by asking too many questions, or by inserting extra steps to “assure quality.” That they take up too much of their managers’ time with their detailed memos and their emergency meetings and their insistence that you consult some other department that actually might know the answer to the question being asked.

I was crushed. Here I thought I’d been contributing all along to the company’s business goals, by working to make the product better. But in fact according to this book being sold in a Kinko’s I was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In time I did quit that job, but there was no satisfaction in having quit, and after I left everyone (especially my boss) was relieved.

In my jobs since then, I have slowly been learning how not to care about the quality of my work, but it’s difficult.

During your campaign, Mr. President, I learned that as governor of Texas you would be presented with 20-page reports compiled by really smart people who cared about all of the issues, but that you wouldn’t read them, instead asking the author to summarize the report and to boil it down to an either-or proposition. These aides of yours, I read, then tried to deliver shorter reports, 12 pages, or 5 pages, or even 1, hoping that you might read a single page document outlining the complex web of variables associated with any major policy decision. But no, even then you didn’t read the memos. You were just like my old boss.

Some of those horrid talk show hosts and reactionary liberal-types began tossing out accusations that you were illiterate, but they didn’t understand like I do.

You’re not stupid, you’re just a successful manager! You’ve learned, perhaps better than anyone, how to hold the reins tightly on those earnest, overly intellectual wonks and do-gooders who threaten to bring government to a standstill with their questions and their analyses and their insistence on talking about details or “implications” or decisions you made a week ago. You see the bigger picture, or rather you see that the big picture is a distraction from the real work of sparing yourself and your closest advisors from having to sit through an hour-long meeting because how boring is that.

I fear, Mr. President, that you may not realize, that even though you keep the work environment “collegial”, with your winking and handshaking and all the funny nicknames, that these aides of yours, the ones who would rather be writing the 20-page report instead of asking you to answer “yes” or “no” to a single question, that secretly, deep down, they may hate you.

So fucking much.


Chris Ereneta
San Francisco, CA


Poring back through nearly two decades of small and odd jobs, creative works, and other Experience leaves me wondering how in the holy @#$% I’ve managed to carve out anything resembling a career.

The answer to which I mostly know, i.e.:

a familiar cliche of talent, hard work, and dumb luck.

What I don’t know is how to distill the sum of these disparate activities in my past into a coherent enough form to communicate that I’m qualified to do what I know I’m capable of. But for which I’ve not previously been given the approval stamp of an appropriate job title.

And since the position I’m seeking is actually one of those difficult-to-describe jobs that would, in essence, be created for my particular set of contributing qualities, the fact that I’ve established a career at all is perhaps my greatest hurdle.

As a compatriot asserted this afternoon at lunch, my problem is that I have a skill.

More significantly, it’s a skill that has an easily definable job description, a position that exists at any number of companies and organizations. And it’s one that I practice with a high degree of reliability here at Langley.

So the question of the resumé has everything to do with whether I can successfully reframe my current activities at Langley–those that go beyond my official job description–with the decisionmakers, such that they create a new position based upon the value that I uniquely bring (and have already demonstrated) to the organization, or whether I need to start elsewhere, with a resumé that omits or obscures my career path to date.

Based upon the prose of the preceding paragraph it seems clear that the discussion must begin internally, until someone in the decisionmaking chain shuts it down.

Because of course as much as I might like a change in careers at this juncture, I’ve got JD jumping ship from her six-year job and the house and The Boy for which to provide. So no matter where I jump to, there had better be a salary and benefits on which I can securely land.