Wednesday, September 05, 2012


My first job was working for a toy store during a Christmas season when I was 12. The store was near our home in a northern suburb of Atlanta.  In addition to wrapping presents, I put bikes together out of the box and performed various assembling chores as needed.  I don't recall my salary, but do remember that I used it to buy copies of digest magazines like Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  I was crazy for scifi and read everything I could find, from Asimov to Bradbury.  I think the money also enabled me to buy a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun.

Memories of early work are inspired by the variety of jobs I've done in the past month which will (when I get paid) earn me nearly the equivalent of $1,000 in Thai baht, a princely sum.  In addition to my regular job of teaching English to mostly monks two days a week, I edited a book of essays written by Thai English teachers and a conference paper for another professor, and I spent one day as a model on a stock photos shoot along with a gang of kids, some younger men and women and a couple of grey hairs like me (oh, and there was also a dog in the pictures).  A few years ago on the advice of a friend I signed up with a talent agency.  Although I turned down a film or two that required too much time and travel, I did a job with the same photographer a year ago that was fun and paid actual cash for my looks.  Others on the roster had gotten walk-on parts on "Hangover II" and other Hollywood films shot in Bangkok.  And last but not least, last weekend, I participated in an "English Camp" for 4th year Humanities studies, some of whom could speak a little English but most could not.  This enjoyable two-day job brought a a handsome remuneration and two excellent free lunches. While my survival income is courtesy of U.S. Social Security, the additional funds come in handy and tell me that my working days are not yet over. This expat's not ready for full retirement!

I've had a lot of jobs and even careers in my life.  My father suffered through the Great Depression and saw work as something sacred since he knew what life could be like without it.  Loyalty to an employer was important for him and he changed jobs rarely.  Working in the factory for Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass in Toledo, Ohio, he lost three fingers when his hand was crushed in a machine.  The company put him to work as a salesman for its Plaskon division in the south selling plastics and chemical products including glue for plywood. He stayed at that job throughout my childhood until, when Plaskon was sold, he moved into lumber products, a job that took the family to California.

My second job was sweeping the floor of a record store in the suburb of Los Angeles where I went to junior high school.  I played the clarinet and sax in the band, and browsing in the stacks between sweeps introduced me to the world of jazz (the rhythm and blues records I preferred were not sold at respectable outlets in our all white community).  I also watered yards for neighbors on vacation, and mowed their lawns. I tried delivering newspapers but getting up before dawn was not then my style as it is now. During those years, and while in high school, I worked at a succession of menial jobs, sweeping floors and washing dishes, before graduating to flipping burgers and, finally, selling men's clothes one Christmas season.  My long-term plan was to become a famous band leader (like Stan Kenton) or an actor in movies (I auditioned for the role of Benny Goodman's son in his biopic), so the thought of any less exalted career was anathema.

This all changed when my jazz combo, that had been playing for student parties after football games, won a talent contest at my high school.  We defeated a group that included Bobby Hutcherson, today a legendary jazz vibraphonist, but only because there were more white parents in the audience applauding.  Our prize was an appearance on a radio show put together by two teachers.  This grew for me into a regular spot as a record reviewer and, when the teachers bought a weekly page in the local newspaper for a teen section, I became the music columnist.  My mentor at the paper was a grizzled veteran reporter who wrote a jazz column and collected hundreds of records for free from music companies.  Together we formed a jazz club for teenagers that met on Sunday afternoons to listen to famous jazz performers like Chico Hamilton and Red Norvo.  One night he took me in his convertible with the top down to the all jazz station KNOB on Signal Hill in Long Beach where he was the midnight DJ.  On the seat beside us was his copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road which had just been published.  My path was set.

Dropping out of Berkeley after a few unsuccessful semesters, I got a job as a copy boy on the Pasadena Star-News which grew into a position as a city desk reporter and arts reviewer, with a weekly column that allowed me to accumulate free tickets and records.  Writing took me many places: to Newark, NJ, as a reporter for UPI, to New York where I wrote for Radio-TV Daily, a trade paper, and to London where I wrote about American TV programs seen in England for TV World. I freelanced articles on music to Sing Out! and the Los Angeles Free Press. Just as I'd given up my earlier ambition to be a musician, it became clear to me that I was not going to make it as an author.  So I switched first to entertainment public relations in Hollywood and then to strictly music PR with Atlantic Records, Fantasy Records in Berkeley and MCA Records in  Universal City.  As a rock and roll flack in the 1970s, I courted writers for interviews and good reviews and dispensed free tickets and records.  While it was an exciting time, I covered over the sleaze factor with booze and illegal substances.

After escaping to northern California from the clutches of incipient addiction, I wrote for a weekly free classified advertising paper, set type and laid out the pages.  When I learned of a position available at Guitar Player Magazine, I applied for it and was hired to paste up the issues for the printer.  Over a four-year period, I advanced to art director, circulation director and then associate publisher.  Taking my publishing skills to the east coast, I worked in circulation for Billboard's non-music magazines and then as general manager of Theater Crafts where I supervised the business side of the magazine that had started by Rodale Press to promote plays about vegetables written by the owner editor of Organic Gardening.   Returning to California, I saw that I'd run out of options in publishing, and after a year on unemployment, I reinvented myself once again and got a job maintaining the alumni database at the University of California.  The next step was to reenroll in school where I remained as a student for the next 17 years.

After finally receiving a doctorate in U.S. environmental history, I taught a few classes before deciding that I didn't really like the privileged and spoiled students in my classes who exhibited very little intellectual curiosity.  So I retired from the fray and traveled the world.  Who knew that I would once again become a teacher in Thailand, inventing classes I'd never taught before in the hopes that I could help my students, who truly loved learning English, to improve their abilities.  And now it looks like my horizons might be expanding, that I might discover more work as a model and as an editor of English manuscripts.  The world is my oyster! (or at least this corner of Thailand).


Rachel said...

Loved hearing about your job history! I also have a good mix of jobs behind me. Being an expat only makes the mix continue ;)

Justin said...

great post! I also teach in Thailand. Could you text me or post here the info of your talent agent? 080.791.9874 Thanks!