by Patricia Walling
I do not have a career plan. In college I never worked towards a specific work market, instead choosing to focus on learning things I loved, as my father always told me “never let a career get in the way of your education.” I followed his advice faithfully, and I do not regret it for one minute. It does mean, however, that I have worked my fair share of odd jobs, mostly over the summer when I was still in school. I was a wedding photographer’s assistant at one time, an art camp counselor another. I had always hoped to work as a landscaping assistant for a company that focused on using local plants, because in my childhood I had transplanted tons of flowers, like lady’s slipper and starflowers, their roots nestled deep in the moss, from the old-growth forest surrounding my home into my own little garden. The opportunity never arose, though. It’s funny how jobs often just fortuitously arise, rather than being worked for, like a job in programming or in medical coding. It seems like most of my jobs were like that- connections that fell into place, a great deal of hearsay that led to a friend of a friend hiring you.
One job I got was not like that though. I believe it began as a community service project for a class in high school, but I honestly don’t even remember. I definitely recall not having any connections to anyone there, which might be the only job I’ve had that was like that. It was a volunteer job at a local homeless shelter downtown, but since it was the downtown of a small town it was rather quiet. They offered job counseling, some free meals and emergency housing, but I was assigned to be the one to sort the groceries that they had. Families would come in once a week or so, pick up a list we provided, and check off how many of each item they wanted before they handed it to me. Tuna was perhaps the most popular thing to ask for, and since it was expensive we rarely had enough.
I worked from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. I got to sip from the soup kitchen for my dinners, and I developed a strong taste for Progresso canned soups, as well as the tiny cans of pineapple juice a coworker shared with me. As customer service jobs go, it was surprisingly pleasing. You might expect a lot of rowdiness, and they did train me to handle the crazy and violent ones if they ever came in, but it never happened. People liked me and my smiling face, and I never felt afraid, although I did have to be stern sometimes with people who came in hoping for another five cans of tuna. The heaviest thing I ever had to lift were bags of flour, and I don’t even remember having to deal with a single irate customer.
Being a teenager, and it being in the last months of the school year, I often found myself indulging in personal creative projects during downtime. Many Wednesdays I recall that only a single Latina mother with her four children would come in, and the rest of the afternoon was given me to stock tuna cans, draw in my sketchbook and talk about getting jobs and being homeless with my supervisor. It’s unfortunate that I remember so little about those conversations: mostly what I recall is the open door, the light breeze, and the late afternoon sun, my sketches set aside as I chatted avidly with her. I’m sure the lessons she taught me were internalized though, and the lessons taught me by the wonderful people who did visit the grocer’s. In fact, I was so impressed by their tenacity for life, even in the face of such despair, that I planned for a long time to take the summer after my senior year of high school to live as a homeless person. However, I ended up deciding that that was probably unsafe for a pretty young thing like me- so I went abroad to a third world country instead and learned what that lifestyle was like, which can be oddly similar.
I still believe that there is a lot to be said for the jobs that don’t necessarily fall into a pattern. I’ll be the first to admit that I envy those people who know right off the bat what they want to do and where they want to go to do it. Yet the experiences and lessons I have gained from dipping my toe into all kinds of careers, from philanthropy to photography, have helped me to learn about all the different kinds of people it takes, and how I can be a better person as well.