In chronological order:
Picking dirt off Grace Ferguson’s doormat. Our next-door neighbor in Duluth was an elderly woman who was lovable only in the most abstract sense. Our family nonetheless somehow managed to befriend her, and she took special interest in our welfare as kids. When my sisters decided to wear snowsuits outside in the summer—just for fun—Grace was deeply disturbed and yelled at them that they’d get sick for sure. One day she told my friend Nathan and me that she would pay us if we picked the dirt off her doormat by hand—because apparently that’s how it was done before vacuum cleaners, when children really knew how to work. She paid us one penny each.
Caddying. This was my first real-world job, and one of my worst. Starting caddies needed to get up at a ludicrous hour to get down to the Town & Country Club and get their name on a list; golfers who didn’t pick favorite caddies (typically the more-experienced, better-paid “A” caddies) were given “B” caddies pulled off the list in order of arrival. It sometimes took hours—unpaid hours, might I add—to be called up. Your job was then to anticipate your golfer’s every want and need for the next 18 holes, carrying his bag—since the golfers didn’t carry their own bags, they didn’t care if the straps were like fishing line—and watching where his ball went, and ideally predicting which club he’d need. For all this, you got a lordly $12. I only caddied about five rounds. The last straw was when my guy charged through the woods, bloodying his arm on branches, then took my damp towel (caddies had to carry damp towels at all times), wiped his blood onto it, and handed it back to me. I decided I’d rather be shit on by infants than by middle-aged men, and I started baby-sitting instead.
Playing Tetris. Well, technically I was being paid to watch the kids—but one night, they were already asleep when I got there, and I was essentially paid $20 to sit and play Tetris for four hours. Nice work if you can get it.
Washing my dad’s records. My father has an extensive collection of records, dating back to the 1950s. At some point when I was a teenager he bought a big tabletop device designed to clean records; he paid me on an hourly basis to clean his entire collection. I filled the device’s tank with expensive cleaning fluid, then pushed a pump button to saturate a cleaning brush with fluid. I then placed the record on the device’s turntable and gave it a few spins. Repeat for side B. After it was clean, I inserted each record into a special acid-free protective sleeve Dad had purchased at the same specialty stereo store. I doubt he’s played many of those records since, but they’re all still there in his study, shining like the day they were born.
Holding a political sign. I was recruited from my high school to be a political operative—and by “political operative,” I mean “a kid who stood on the median of some suburban street and held a sign for rush-hour traffic to see.” It was cold, it was dirty, and then my dad yelled at me because the candidate was a Republican. But I did get paid.
Standing at an outdoor mall and saying, “Welcome to the Disney Store! Welcome. Hi. Welcome to the Disney Store. Hi, welcome!” See my earlier post for all the dirty details on this job.
Working as a sociological research assistant. A sociological research job at Harvard sounds all fancy and smarty-pants, but what it actually entails can be very strange. For my first research assisting job, I was handed a dozen binders full of lists of faculty members at universities around the world from 1900 to 2000; my job was to count them (translating their titles when the universities were situated in non-English-speaking countries) and create a giant spreadsheet to keep track of it all. (That project ultimately became this book.) For a later project, I had to randomly sample faculty members in various disciplines from colleges and universities across the country. How did that go? Imagine you’re an overworked receptionist at the Decatur campus of DeVry University, and you pick up the phone and some guy who says he’s calling from Harvard asks you to tell him the names of everyone who’s teaching electrical engineering this quarter. Thankfully, I was paid for this.
Writing Sociology for Dummies. One day in 2009, I was talking with my friend Felix, a grad school classmate who now teaches at Madison. “You’ll never guess who called me,” he said. “The Dummies people! They want me to write Sociology for Dummies! Ha ha!” I laughed. “Ha ha! That’s funny! Send them my way! Ha ha!” He laughed too. “Okay, sure! Ha ha!” Ha ha ha ha…ha?
Singing an original song about sociology, accompanying myself on ukulele. This trick earned me a tie for first place in a campus talent contest at the college where I teach; the prize was a $25 gift card to SuperAmerica. I really enjoyed knowing that for a few days, I was driving around on gas I’d earned by the sweat of my ukulele.
Acting in a commercial for dog medication. Despite my publicly avowed dislike for dogs, my friend Dave Hannigan thought I would be perfect to co-star with his brother’s girlfriend as half of a happy dog-loving couple. We walked around Central Park in Woodbury for an hour yesterday morning, smiling at each other and visibly delighting in the robust health of our canine companions. When Dave handed me a couple of twenties, I thought, wow, what a strange way to make money.