I would accidentally but routinely drill through the bottoms of cups while mixing milk shakes and often confuse our labelless toppings.
“This is not Butterfinger. This is Heath Bar,” was a common complaint lodged against me. I would dutifully make another and place the offending ice cream in the mistakes freezer. We were not allowed to eat the mistakes. The price of each mistake was subtracted from our paychecks. Almost always, I led the team in mistakes made and dollars docked.
Later on as a smarmy English major, I would describe the experience as Kafkaesque. Nevertheless, it was my first job and I wanted to be good at it. However, the more I tried to improve, the clearer my deficiencies became.
I attempted to make up for my lack of natural talent in the service industry by consuming a tremendous amount of ice cream. I popped brownie bites like they were breath mints and would swing by on my days off to take advantage of my pitiably modest employee discount. As a result, my face broke out. My appearance took on a fleshy softness. At the pool, I became an expert at ripping my shirt off and sprinting to the water, lest anyone see my nascent doughy form.
My favorite part was closing down the shop. We took turns who could play music over the stereo while we scrubbed down the counters and tile floors. When it was my turn, I would carefully select a CD I was sure no one had heard, but everyone would like. It was my fantasy to play Sunny Day Real Estate or Superchunk and have all my coworkers discover their new favorite band. This, of course, never happened.
One night near the end of summer, I was closing up and put on some music. I was sweeping outside when the assistant manager, a cretinous frat boy in puka shells, asked me what was playing.
“It’s The Get Up Kids!” I excitedly reported. “They’re from Lawrence! This is their first album!”
He stood in the doorway and looked at me.
“They suck.” he announced and turned off the outdoor lighting.
The room was a sparsely decorated government office on the upper floors of the federal building in downtown St. Louis. There were no windows and there was ersatz wood paneling that was either in the process of being installed or removed. Presiding over the group of future sailors, airmen, marines, and soldiers, was a shambolic and harried civilian administrator. She looked up from shuffling her stack of papers only to take muster and check the clock on the wall.
“He’s late,” she muttered.
After a few more minutes of waiting, she flung open the door, exasperated.
“You!” she shouted. “Come give the oath to these recruits.”
“Me? I don’t know it.” a voice responded.
“Don’t know it? Of course you do! I can’t do it. Only an officer can and you’re the only officer here right now. The guy that was supposed to do it blew me off!”
There were more muted whispers back and forth and eventually, a short bespectacled Army lieutenant walked in, squeaking in his dull black boots.
“Uh everyone stand up” he instructed tepidly. Since we were already standing, we looked at one another, confused.
“I mean stand at attention.” Excited to execute our first order, everyone clicked heels together, pulled shoulder blades back, and focused eyes a thousand yards ahead.
The oath itself was less enthusiastic. It took awhile to get through. It turned out Lieutenant Squeaky Boots wasn’t trying to get out of administering the oath. He truly didn’t know it. For a few long minutes, he looked at us looking at him, panicked and pleading. He started a few times, but then he would stop and frown.
“No, that’s not it…”
Someone eventually produced a recruit handbook and he haltingly made his way through. When we finished, the Lieutenant was visibly relieved. He wiped off his sweaty face, took a deep breath, and quickly made his exit.
“Welcome to the military!” he sang as he left. We could hear him squeak all the way down the hall.
I spent six months writing voice over scripts for animated educational videos after getting out of the Navy. The name of the game was volume. We, the writers, would take a subject, perform cursory research, write a 500 word script peppered with cute jokes and a witty intro, send it off and start another. Each writer was responsible for ten scripts a day. History and Science could be pretty interesting. Math was the worst.
Despite the need to be writing almost nonstop for nine hours a day, it was a fun room (though technically, it wasn’t a room, but rather an alcove in the office’s main thoroughfare where they set up a few computers).
Still, we found time to make dumb jokes and there was an ongoing competition of who could work in the most ridiculous reference. By the time our project was shuttered, the collective favorite was a video about pollination. “So remember, pollination is just like the Rihanna song,” the video says, “‘Bees better have my honey!’”
One day a friend emailed me wanting to know if I knew any copywriters looking for a job.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in a conference room at Paradowski Creative. I was nervous, so my instinct was to fall back on Navy decorum ingrained from my seven years of service. I managed not to call anyone sir, but my posture was exemplary.
I spent half an hour talking with Brad Hauck, VP of Creative Strategy, about everything except advertising. Eventually I showed him some of my writing samples and a few of the finished educational videos I worked on. He graciously looked at my work, studying it thoughtfully.
“Have you ever written an ad?” He asked.
“No.” I admitted.
The truth of it hung in the air for a moment. We spoke politely a little longer, but I left feeling like I had blown it.
Later that week, I was asked back for another interview. I was incredulous. Even more unbelievable, they offered me a job. After a year of telling people I was a copywriter, I now had the business cards to prove it.
After my first day at Paradowski, I walked into the bedroom where my girlfriend was folding clothes. I fell on the bed and closed my eyes.
I was thinking about all the crappy jobs I was always bad at. I was thinking about every time a boss told me they were reducing staff or it just wasn’t working out. I thought of all the birthdays I spent deployed and how I missed my both my sisters’ weddings because I was at sea.
“How did it go?” she asked.
I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. “This is going to sound weird,” I started. “But I think this is what I was meant to do.”
She rolled her eyes and I don’t blame her. I’m always saying stuff like that.
The thing is, two years later, even on the most challenging day, it’s still true. I love this job. Whatever made me wrong for everything else, somehow made me right for this. It took me more than a decade to discover all the things I didn’t want to do, but this—this feels like home to me.