This isn’t your typical bookish article. It’s not going to really talk about books at all. The subject matter though, is the holy grail of literary prowess. Waffle House and Walmart and women in colonial costumes. Trust me.
Recently, I was chatting with some friends and the story I was telling included an offhand reference to that time I worked at Waffle House. One friend stopped me and asked, “Wait, you worked at Waffle House?”
“I recommend you get those smothered, covered, and chunked.” I replied.
My friends knew about some of my prior jobs, but this was a new one and it prompted an entire conversation about my wayward employment record. Understand, no one was being judgmental about my rather speckled resume- they were genuinely curious about it and wanted to hear more.
As background, I did not go to college as a young adult. No beautifully framed MFA certificate from Columbia dons a wall in this house. Wait, let me honestly amend and extend this confession. I also didn’t graduate from high school. After a really rough few years that involved very little actual school attendance, at the age of 16 I asserted to my quite naturally shocked parents I was done. Finis. I was working a triple threat waitressing gig at a hotel downtown at the time. Mornings were spent serving platters of pancakes and mugs of coffee in the coffee shop portion. Evenings meant steaks and glasses of wine in the chop house. Late nights meant an even tighter and shorter skirt, and trays full of drinks in the cocktail bar. Between the three gigs I was doing okay enough financially to move in with a boyfriend and some friends and have one hell of a party for a few years.
Eventually the desire to leave my hometown and a thirst for adventure led me to join the US Coast Guard as a seaman. Over the next few years I was able to discover my natural sealegs, save some lives, and meet the man who I’d eventually marry. Not long after marrying, I ended my enlistment and took on the role of Chief Emotional Supporter, packed my bags, and began a 29 year journey following my husband around the country to a long list of Coast Guard units. We’d move every 2-4 years on average, often coast to coast, and along the way we collected an assortment of babies as one sometimes opts to do. I did actually end up going to college, earning my associates degree in a field I never actually worked in, and an accompanying certificate I’d thrown in at the last minute that actually did turn out to be useful.
Moving often meant changing jobs fairly frequently, but let me be honest here. I also changed jobs frequently because I have a moderate case of getboredfastitis. Throw in three kids that spanned eight years in age that needed some relative stability since their father was often deployed or on duty and Mama needs flexibility.
At times, when I’d have a very young baby, I’d stay home completely. I savored those special full-time homemaker days, but we also figured out fairly early on that we liked to pay our bills and clothe our children and take vacations and drag them to Jimmy Buffett concerts so it worked out that I had more working years than not, at least on a part-time basis.
After leaving the Coast Guard my first job was of course at a marina, because it just made sense. I quickly discovered that wasn’t going to work, as I found myself pregnant with my first child. I moved on to clean rooms at a lovely little mom and pop owned inn on Cape Cod. The owners were extremely kind and allowed me to bring my baby to work. He’d go room to room with me in his little bucket, nurse and play whenever he wanted, and we’d be finished by lunchtime. I don’t enjoy cleaning my own house, but it turned out I was good at cleaning other people’s shit up and so I supplemented my income by cleaning houses on base when people moved out. There was actually a lot of satisfaction in it- there’s something rewarding about seeing the product of your hard work in clean white walls and a freshly scrubbed oven. Here is a revelation: hard work can be satisfying, if the result is visual.
The hotel gig was great but the one flaw was on the Cape, hotels are seasonal. When that first winter hit I knew I needed to find something else to support my book habit and I happened upon an ad that was seeking a telemarketing manager at the local Electrolux store. I’d never telemarketed in my life, but I was suckered in by that manager title. At the ripe old age of 23, “manager” sure sounded like an exciting and powerful title. I got over that quickly by the way. Anyway, I went in for an interview. Apparently no one else showed up because they gave me the job. I went on to do that for the next few years. I hated cold calling, but I had other duties that weren’t so bad- and my boss gave us a $500 shampoo machine for free so I stuck it out. Wouldn’t you stick out a crappy telework job for a free $500 carpet shampooer?
Eventually, we transferred down to Southeast Texas where I started taking college classes. Alas, college classes don’t pay for movie tickets and new flannel that you worked really hard to distress and make look old (it was the mid 90s! Hello grunge!) so I reentered the workplace again. I tried Walmart at first, it was okay. Wait, I’m lying. It wasn’t okay. I left fast. Next up was waiting tables at Waffle House. Now, I know there’s a certain imagery of the clientele at a Waffle House, and I’m sure some people have very strong ideas about folks who work there but this is the truth. I enjoyed it! A lot! Employees would work the jukebox, playing our favorite playlists and enjoy lots of joking and bantering behind the counter. The customers were mostly great too.
Some were regulars, they’d show up every day. Some of them affected a certain curmudgeonly manner, but they were old softies at heart and we all knew it. Others were always full of smiles and kind things to say. I remember one regular, a nice bearded man named Steve who would walk down every day without fail to enjoy a cup of coffee- he’d leave his dog tied up outside the door where he could watch him and believe me, the dog never minded. Everyone who walked in would greet him and he’d excitedly wag his tail. One day, Steve and the dog failed to show up. We learned later in the day that they had been hit by a car. At his funeral, which was sparsely attended (not a shock, Steve was a pretty quiet guy), those of us who worked the morning shift headed over in our waffle house uniforms and sat respectfully in the back to say our goodbye to Steve. That’s the kind of people who work at Waffle House.
Eventually, a friend convinced me to join her over at Blockbuster so I left Waffle House and moved on to telling people to be kind and rewind. At Blockbuster I had first access to all the new releases. As a movie lover, this was paradise! It was a pretty laid back position, even in the heyday of movie rentals, and there was plenty of downtime to gossip and joke with fellow staff.
Future travels would take us to multiple cities in Virginia (multiple times), Honolulu (twice), Charleston SC, and a tiny village in Alaska. In each, I found work. I’m not writing a novella here, so I’m going to just give my readers a list:
- Bowling alley bartender. This entailed basically opening bottles of beer and handing them over. If you ever want to be a bartender but don’t want to have to actually work, let me recommend a bowling alley that only serves beer.
- Dry Cleaners. I mostly sat on a stool behind a counter and read paperback books. Once in awhile someone would interrupt me and drop off a pile of shirts. I must have read thousands of books when I worked at this place!
- First paid writing gigs. Somehow I tapped into the old Suite 101 entity back in the earlier days of the ‘net and they paid a pittance for lifestyle articles. I specialized in military life. This then led to a small column in the local newspaper that was devoted to military families in the area. Please understand, I don’t actually like writing about military families. My jam has always been fiction. But it was pretty neat to see my name on a byline and the small checks they paid no doubt paid for some of our Goo Goo Dolls and Wallflowers tickets (We are still in the 90s here folks.)
- The commissary. I was a grocery cashier and look, this is a strange admission, but I sort of enjoyed it other than the fact my feet hurt like hell by the end of the day. This is a lot like cleaning hotel rooms- it’s rewarding to actually see the result of your work instantaneously. Watching those cart loads shrink as items were quickly scanned and moved aside was pleasing somehow.
- Substitute teacher. Who in the hell would put a high school drop out with a potty mouth and questionable taste in music, in charge of a classroom? Well, I won’t out them but I found them! I wasn’t too bad at it either, by that point my kids were old enough I’d proven I could keep a child alive much longer than a plant, so I had that going for me.
- University cooperative satellite office- assistant. This was actually a really cool gig, we lived in rural Alaska and it felt like my work efforts really improved people’s lives, in some cases they may have even helped save them as I ran several maritime safety programs.
- Army Public Health secretary. My first time working for Army, I loved being surrounded by soldiers who were mostly friendly and eager to converse. The office mission was also something I loved- we were helping soldiers recover from TB, handing out condoms to keep the love clean, and ensuring everyone got their jab in time for flu season. That’s meaningful work, even if I didn’t see the results immediately.
- National Park Service- interpretive park ranger. For the first time since the Coast Guard, I geared up in a real uniform. I’d lead huge packs around our battlefields and recite a speech about the historical significance of each spot. I’d never tried public speaking before, but I learned I was surprisingly good at it. Seriously. I’m all over Yelp and Tripadvisor by people who’d attended my tours, some of them leaving in tears over the stories I’d told. Stories. Books. Wow… I’m seeing a connection here.
- Colonial ghost tour guide. This is where things get wonky folks. Yes, I wore an entire colonial woman costume and walked the streets of Colonial Williamsburg leading groups from one haunted home to another, under the pale moonlight. For the record- I don’t actually believe in ghosts.
- Theme park VIP and roller coaster tour host. If things got wonky with the Colonial woman get up, they flat out exploded into zaniness with this job. I was paid to give people behind the scenes tours and to ride roller coasters with them. Read that again. I. Was. Paid. To. Ride. Roller. Coasters. Why oh why did I ever quit? Oh yeah… money. It turns out you don’t make a huge salary riding roller coasters.
- Military Finance Office, admin assistant. It paid better than riding roller coasters but it was nowhere near as fun. I don’t really know what else to say about this one, it’s too fresh.
- Full time author. You knew this one was coming, didn’t you?
So here’s the lessonish bit. Every single job I held, from scrubbing toilets, to slinging beer, to ordering office supplies- has contributed to my current job. I would not be the writer I am today if I hadn’t had those experiences, if I hadn’t worked with a wide diverse field of human beings who came from every background imaginable. From each work environment, I extracted some nugget of truth, some deeper understanding of the people who inhabit the same world as me. All of those experiences add up to the grand sum of: One Author.
I feel no shame over my blue collar background or my late educational blooming. I don’t take any particular pride over the fact I now only clean up after my own shit, or that I sit on the customer side of the waffle house counter these days. I didn’t accomplish anything particularly great by moving on- instead what I did was continue the journey and find new experiences to fill the gaps.
I’ve never had a career. I’ve had a series of jobs that fed and cultivated my craft. I’ll die having never had a real career. I’m a-okay with that. I’ll always have a rich tapestry of memories and real life characters to draw from though as I create my stories.