Talk Show 10: with Brock Clarke, Elizabeth Gaffney, Felicia Sullivan, and Jen Trynin
Brock Clarke is the author of four books of fiction, most recently the novel An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.
In addition to working in a dentist’s office, Elizabeth Gaffney has bussed tables, made funnel cakes, sold t-shirts, served all-you-can-eat crabs and beer to tourists, edited at the literary magazines The Paris Review and A Public Space, translated three books from German and written a novel called Metropolis. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, a neurologist, and her two-year-old daughter, an aspiring zookeeper.
Felicia C. Sullivan is the author of the memoir The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. A frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, she is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best American Essays notable. Her work has appeared in Swink, Post Road, Mississippi Review, and Pindeldyboz and in the anthologies Homewrecker: An Atlas of Illicit Loves and Money Changes Everything, among others. Sullivan was the recipient of the 2005 Tin House memoir fellowship, and in 2001, she founded the critically acclaimed literary journal Small Spiral Notebook. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
After earning her degree in creative writing from Oberlin College, Jen Trynin embarked on a career in Rock and/or Roll, releasing two records on Warner Bros (“Cockamamie” and “Gun Shy Trigger Happy”) which culminated in a near collision with full-on Rock Super Stardom. After the aforementioned near collision, Jen returned to writing prose and played in the rock band, Loveless. Jen’s first book, Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, is a memoir based on her experiences in the music business.
––What was the worst job you ever had?
Clarke: The worst job I ever had was working at a fiberglass plant, where I sanded fiberglass shells and then loaded them onto trucks and then itched and itched and itched and then did it all over again.
Gaffney: I worked cleaning instruments at a dentist’s office in Munich, right around the time that the Wall came down in Germany. I had to wear a little white coat, so I looked like a hygienist or something, but I was just a foreign graduate student who couldn’t find a better job. My main duties were sterilizing the instruments and cleaning the equipment in the office and a little filing. The instruments were repulsive—coated with little bits of plaque and scum. I had to put them in an antiseptic bath, scrub them, rinse them, and then run them through a giant dental dishwasher. The worst were the sharp blades they called curettes. They were like tiny scythes, and they always had shreds of flesh dangling them. They were so sharp they would slice right through my gloves and my skin in an instant if I wasn’t careful. But come to think of it, the grossest thing may have been cleaning out the molds for the dentures. The impressions of the patients’ original teeth were made in a red rubbery material held in a form that fit the patient’s jaw. After the dentures were made, the forms would be dropped into some sort of solvent, so there was this huge tub of viscous red chemicals that seemed like it would be perfect for use on the set of a slasher movie I had to fish around in there to find the molds, and them scrub them out.
Sullivan: Two years ago I worked for six months as an Associate Editor at a children’s publishing house. I was thrilled with the opportunity—who wouldn’t want stuffed Strawberry Shortcakes in their cubicle? Glitter pens and a carpet printed with empowering mantras! However, all of my excitement overshadowed the fact that I was about to work for an anorexic, obsessive-compulsive control freak who managed to alienate her whole department to the point that they moved her to another floor.
She had many phobias—subways, submarines, or any means of underground transportation. She also feared sudden noises, blue ink and food. Since I had a background in finance, I was used to unhinged people; however, her behavior was borderline insane. I feel victim to her passive-aggressive tirades, sudden mood swings, her snide remarks about my lunch, and ultimately the theft of my ideas and work (after she had ridiculed my ideas in front of my coworkers). I still have nightmares about the possibility of running into her.
Trynin: It was the summer of my senior year of high school, 80’s New Jersey. I was the only assistant to this guy, Phil, who, to the best of my retrospective knowledge, did two things: chiefly—and this is what I “assisted” in—Phil was a central conduit between New Jersey-area rock clubs and the myriad of local newspapers concerning the clubs’ weekly gig listings. The second thing he did was less clear, but entailed much phone talking which elicited the kind of loud laughing that resulted in much spittle on the clunky old phone receiver—spittle that I was later responsible for wiping clean. He had a big belly that strained his stained buttondowns, dark New Jersey-coifed hair, and a heavy way of breathing what was surely his sour breath. I had my own office which was simply the maintenance closet in the small hallway that led to Phil’s main office. In the closet was a small square table, a phone, Phil’s Rolodex, and a dull metal rod that spanned the length of the “room“ up by the ceiling. My main responsibilities were keeping his Rolodex organized, answering the phone, and pursuing the delinquent rock clubs to get us their listings ON TIME! Mostly, I sat there, staring at the windowless walls, thinking about pizza, sex, or getting wasted—sometimes concurrently.
Clarke: Really the only reason anyone ever seeks out that kind of job: I needed the
Gaffney: I didn’t have working papers, and so it was really hard for me to find a job. I only had just enough money to pay my rent and school fees, and I needed to earn money for food if I didn’t want to go into credit card debt. That year, I ate a lot of thin leek and potato soup that I made with my equally broke German roommates and lost a good bit of weight. I started out looking for waitressing jobs, and then for some reason my dream job was to be a bakery salesgirl. I guess because I was hungry, I wanted to work around food, but also, I had done restaurant and food service work in the US, summer jobs during high school and college. I tried to get work teaching English, too, but again, no one would hire me, so I started looking in the classified section of the paper. At the time, I was having some tooth pain, and since I couldn’t afford to go to a dentist, this job at a dentist’s office caught my eye. It was right near my apartment, and I was hoping maybe it would be a way to get my cavity filled.
Sullivan: I had left a comfortable job as a project manager to complete my memoir which I had just sold to Algonquin Books. Inevitably, my financial cushion disappeared and I became desperate for employment. The job was promising because it combined two things I valued: books and the ability to pay my rent.
Trynin: Right up against my aforementioned worst job was my best job: assistant in a recording studio, a job I began at the beginning of my senior year, which, at seventeen, was about the coolest thing known to man. Not only did I work there during the school year, but I somehow convinced my silly high school to allow me to do my Independent Study Project (my ISP) at the studio, which translated into my final three months of high school taking place in a dark carpeted room with lots of smoking, various drugs, and older guys in tight pants and lip gloss. I got my worst job through the owner of this recording studio, who was Phil’s friend.
––Anything remarkable about the application/interview?
Clarke: I don’t remember there being any. It’s as though I woke up one day, covered with fiberglass dust and fiberglass pitch and realized that I worked in a fiberglass plant.
Gaffney: I remember feeling horrified at the interview, not really believing I was going to do this job. The receptionist was the dentist’s wife. She was sickly sweet but at the same time very rigid and uptight. I decided to think of myself as a sort of a spy, and that I would learn something essential about Germanness from watching them. The whole thing was trippy, like I was a fly on the wall, not really there but watching my own experiences. I found that living abroad was often like that. Everything was surreal because I was living my life in German without being fully bilingual. I never knew exactly what I or anyone else was saying. It must be what it’s like to be a young child who is just acquiring her first language. Till I could really communicate, the world just sort of seemed to happen to me, with varying degrees of my own participation. And as a result, I learned German fast.
Sullivan: It’s remarkable that I didn’t flee the interview when I heard that three people had resigned from the position within eight months. Or the fact that over lunch the current Associate Editor delivered this piece of sage advice: “Don’t do it. Don’t take the job.” Rent and the possibility of being homeless clouds judgment.
Trynin: There was no interview for my worst job. I walked in with the recording studio guy, and Phil just looked me up, then down, then up again, shrugged, and said, “So this is her?”
Clarke: Only the stories that came out of it afterward.
Gaffney: I had to clean the spots of tooth decay and feck off the big equipment with orange oil on cotton balls. I don’t know what they used that rather than something more fiercely antiseptic, but it smelled really good. Also, one time the hygienist dropped the box of silver caps, and I spent a very zen, quiet day sorting hundreds and hundreds of tiny hollow silver teeth by size and putting them back into the correct compartments in their box. Clink clink clink. That was pleasant, in a way.
Sullivan: A weekly paycheck and the easy commute.
Trynin: Phil had lots of porno magazines under his sagging couch and he often left for hours at a time, during which I did, well, nothing to speak of.
––What was the first sign that things were going south?
Clarke: Well, the first sign was that no one wore protective masks. No one, not even the bosses. The second sign was that everyone except me smoked cigarettes while they worked, which might explain why no one wore protective masks. The third sign was that we had a half hour for lunch and the guys spent their half hour chugging beer in the parking lot and then stumbled back in and climbed right into the ovens where they baked and rolled the fiberglass, or picked up the saws which they used to cut the fiberglass. There was a guy there with one arm, although I don’t think he’d lost it on the job.
Gaffney: I would say it started pretty far south, but there was one particular day when it went Antarctic. The hygienist and the receptionist and the dentist were arguing more than usual that day. I sort of think the hygienist, who was very dishy, had been having an affair with the dentist, but I can’t swear to that. Anyway, one day she quit right in the middle of a root canal. The patient was subjected to some very unprofessional invective shooting back and forth across her body, which I could hear from the next room, and then, the hygienist just threw down her coat and stomped out. What was even worse for the patient was that they called me in from my usual drudgery, scrubbing off the instruments, to fill in for her. The dentist thrust that sucking thing into my hand, the one that keeps the water and saliva from pooling in your mouth. Suction! he commanded, but it kept getting suck to the back of her throat like a leech and making her gag. It’s not easy, what they do, dentists. I give them that. But this dentist was a real jackass. I guess he wanted the patient, who by the way was a nun in a black habit, to think that I was properly trained to be there, because he kept shouting at me, asking me what the hell was wrong with me, and didn’t I know what I was doing. Clearly not.
Sullivan: Two incidents should have warned me to get out of dodge:
1. As I was eating a small cup of butternut squash soup and a roll, my boss eyed my lunch with disdain and said, “You eat a lot of food.”
2. The former editor left a notepad of her ideas about launching a new series of books based on a doll de jour, which was immediately rejected by my boss. Three months into the job in an “idea” meeting, my boss brought up the idea of launching a series based on these dolls and acted as if the idea was her own.
Trynin: There was never a sign of anything going north.
Clarke: One day, two of us were sent to do inventory at a building a mile or so away from the main building. We drove to the building, but instead of doing inventory, we smoked pot. And when we were done smoking pot, the other guy went back to work, but I didn’t.
Gaffney: That night I asked the receptionist if there was any chance I could get a check up and a cavity filled for free, because I didn’t want to work there another second longer if I wasn’t going to get a major dental-work payoff. She seemed incredulous and suggested that if I didn’t have insurance, I could maybe get a 5% discount. I never went back. In the end, I think it must have been a sinus infection that had been bothering me, because it went away without my ever going to see a dentist. From that job, I moved up to being a cleaning lady at a bead shop, which was better, because I worked at night when they were closed and could play Led Zeppelin really loud while I was vacuuming. Eventually they fired me, for disturbing the neighbors, but by that time my German had gotten good, and I found a job translating German computer manuals into English.
Sullivan: After I had learned (via email) that my boss had stolen a presentation I had drafted—ideas of how the publisher could market themselves online, new concepts for a book series—and presented the ideas as her own, and then had the nerve to inquire that I deliver her an execution plan, I gave my two weeks’ notice. Over the course of the next few days, I was terrorized with passive aggressive emails, clipped orders and her leaning over my shoulder issuing criticism over word choices. After a week of this, I left her my passcard and walked out the door.
Trynin: My employment came to a sudden end just after Phil said into the phone, “Yeah man, I know. But my luck’s about to change, my friend. I got a new girl comin’ in next week, and this one’s a fuckin’ peach. This one’s like, you know, stacked, really stacked, like—“ and this is when Phil looked up and saw me standing in his doorway.
Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.