Jul 28, 2014
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The Way We Work: Best and Worst Jobs

What was the worst job you ever had? The best? Share your stories with us for Labor Day.

The Way We Work: Best and Worst Jobs

We've all had them—dreary starter jobs, scut work, drudgery. Jobs that we hated and couldn't wait to escape.

I've had some bad ones. In no particular order, here are the five worst from my résumé:

1. When you're young and have no experience, you'll take any kind of job you can get no matter how miserable. One summer during my 19th year, I was hired as a laborer to dig in-ground swimming pools. Most of the hole was dug by heavy equipment, but the final shaping was done by shovel. Did I mention it was the summer? It was brutally hard manual labor. I think I lasted almost two days before walking away.

2. , my first job out of EMT school was working for an ambulance service in Memphis that had a contract with the city for corpse removal. Between emergency calls and taking people home from the hospital, we were required to pick up victims of murders, suicides, drownings, fires and car crashes. Enough said about that.

3. While a nursing student in Memphis, for a few months I worked as a technician at a state psychiatric hospital. The conditions at the hospital were terrible, and the job was depressing. After a couple of months, I couldn't take it any more and left.

4. Another job I had when I was very young was working as a Wells Fargo security guard. The only thing about it that was good was the hours, which didn't interfere with college. The bad thing about the job was also the hours—long, boring nights fighting to keep awake. One of my assignments was the night shift at a lumber mill that produced hardwood flooring. The place was filthy with explosive sawdust, and I was certain I'd be killed on the job. I survived the assignment, but a couple of years later the lumber mill burned to the ground in a massive conflagration.

5. I once worked for an editor who insisted on having stories given to him printed double-spaced on paper. He was an analog holdout in a digital era. My boss made corrections and edits in pencil and handed the copy back, then insisted on reviewing the story again with his revisions incoporated. Over and over again, sometimes eight or ten drafts, until the text was flawless and error-free. There are sticklers, and then there are those like this boss with a Rain Man-like capacity for the most infinitesmal details. He never missed a typo or punctuation error. What's more, he could remember word-for-word phrasing that had been used three or four drafts ago—among dozens of stories he edited every day. He was a terribly difficult boss, but he taught me the level of attention required to make something perfect.

And then there are jobs that I loved:

1. During my teens, I worked at a delicatessan owned by my aunt and uncle. Although it was only a summer experience, I loved that job. I learned how to make saurkraut and dill pickles in huge barrels. There is something beautiful about sandwiches—bread, meat, cheese and condiments. Straightforward and uncomplicated. There was no wondering whether I was doing any good. Does the result look like a sandwich? Job done. Life was simple then.

2. Drawing blood, believe it or not, was a very satisfying experience. It turns out that I have a hidden talent with needle and syringe, an ability to dependably draw blood painlessly on even the most difficult patients, such as children and the elderly. It was very gratifying to know that I could perform something critical when it was most important, and ease a patient's discomfort and fear during a moment of crisis. In my prime, I was very, very good at it.

3. One summer when I was 16 years old, I worked at a summer camp in the Catskills of lower New York State. I was an administrative aide, running the camp store and recreation hall. Because the camp was on private property, I was allowed to drive the camp's two vintage mid-1950s pickup trucks, even though I didn't have a drivers' license. The trucks were four-speed stick shifts with a starter button on the floor that you pressed with your foot. They were bouncy, rattling rustbuckets that looked like something out of Grapes of Wrath. I learned how to drive—and use a stick shift—in the hilly woods of the Catskills. And like your first love, you never forget that.

4. I worked for a custom publisher in Washington that sent me to medical conferences all over the U.S. and Europe. It was a lot of work, but I got all-expense paid trips to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, Orlando, Chicago, New York, Copenhagen, Munich, Amsterdam and elsewhere. Sometimes two or three conferences a month. It was tiring, but fun. And then the client pulled the plug on the project. Sigh.

5. Patch is probably the most fun I've had in my life—making a difference in my community by covering local news, facilitating a discussion of issues that afffect all of us, meeting people and making connections with my neighbors, using the latest technology and social networking to do old-school journalism. It doesn't get much better than that.

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