29 Jobs and a Million Lies by Jenn Topper
It was when I was 12 years old and showed up on the first day of school wearing padlocks on the belt loops of my jeans, black eyeshadow and a Clash t-shirt when I learned I wouldn’t be making friends as easily as I had hoped. So when it took 29 jobs before I turned 30 to learn that it was my own warped outlook that had been getting me into trouble, I wasn’t afraid of writing 29 Jobs and a Million Lies. It is the gut-wrenching, self-deprecating account of how ambition to stand out was wiped out by clumsy choices, immaturity and self-defeating righteousness. Energized to prove to the doubters that I could succeed despite the unorthodox approach, this litany of boneheaded decisions portrays how I painfully hurled heart and soul into a long trail of draining pursuits, failing so often that success was invisible. 29 Jobs is a post-GenX novel, except it’s true.
Read Chapter 1 of 29 Jobs and a Million Lies below
The summer of 1991 commenced my foray in the film industry in New York. In fact, in retrospect, majoring in film in college was silly, but I will make that an unofficial sidebar in this book because it will, once again, prove my parents correct when they told me that changing my major from political science to film studies was stupid. Although I should admit that one of the internships proved valuable as it led to a real job after I graduated….at $250 a week, it barely counts as a real job; but I showed up there every day for a year and a half and got a payroll check from that. Stupid, like I said.
I grew up in a middle class suburb of New York in a great house with great folks. My mom, although she didn’t have full time jobs as I grew up, was always busy running around doing something.
“Mom, I’m really sick. I don’t want to go to school today,” I’d say to her.
“Ok, then, but I won’t be here,” she would say and return to my bedroom with a thermos filled with apple juice, some toast and cough medicine, before heading out to Bloomingdale’s for the day. Or my mother would substitute teach, or work at the travel agency or the real estate office.
She was always late picking my little brother or me up from school activities, parties, whatever. Kind of a spaz, but awesome in her own rebel way. Mom never ‘played the game’ and marches to her own drumbeat.
My dad was one of those cradle-to-gravers, devoting 38 years of his life to IBM—the big blue. He was a rebel, though, I could tell early on. I think that although he retired very successful from the company, he spent many years telling people to fuck off in his own way. He took few risks career-wise though, having grown up lucky to have heat and food in his immigrant mother’s basement apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I could say that my dad’s work ethic and values permeated my approach to life, but I think that what resonated more with me was his ability to play the game and still maintain his own agenda. He spent years avoiding the consistent moving encouraged to young executives at the company, foregoing title and status for stability and security for us. The payoff was a 3 year stint at the Paris office when I was about to enter high school, so our whole family moved to Paris. We would often sit around the dinner table and pontificate about what it would be like to live in Paris, or other exotic cities.
“We would eat out every night,” my mom would say.
“We would vacation as often as possible,” my dad would say.
And one day, the best conversation happened.
“You know all those times we talked about moving to Paris?” Dad asked us. “Well, we’re going!”
And the eating out every night and the vacations as much as possible actually happened for three straight years.
I spent my formative years hanging out at the Louvre, in the Latin Quarter at the bars and cafes, and ran around on the weekends on the trains, having late-night parties under the Eiffel Tower and in the parks around the city, and the American Embassy (friends whose parents had access to th U.S. Embassy PX enabled me to eat Twinkies year-round, and not just on home-leaves back to the U.S.).
I was glad to have moved out of La-La-Land suburbia. I may have been the only 13 year old girl to be happy to get the hell out of her surroundings. See, I had no friends. I was a strange kid, I guess. Kind of a screwed up little suburb, and I didn’t fit in so well to the form and structure expected of these kids, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I left nothing behind in New Rochelle, New York, except for a life that a certain section of well-off society already had carved out for me, provided I would conform and not ask any questions.
“Jenn, what’s up with that weird t-shirt you’re wearing?” I would hear all the time, when I wore torn or hand-painted t-shirts. “Why are you wearing locks on your pants? What’s wrong with you?” I would hear from the insecure pack of wolves masquerading as 8th grade girls. My own fault, I suppose, for inviting comments because I guess I just didn’t want to fit in. It does seem weird though, in retrospect, to have worn locks on the belt loops of my Lee jeans.
So once we moved away, I learned early to have a detached identity. I had to learn to adapt on-the-fly, whenever and wherever necessary. If I had any trepidation about climbing mountains in the south of France with a bunch of kids who didn’t speak one common language, or about being comfortable surrounded by sketchy, swarthy, dirty men on crowded metros in Paris, I would have been in way big trouble. Maybe it was this attribute of jumping right into things without worrying about long term consequences that has characterized the pattern of jetting from job to job seeking; or, well, I still don’t know what I’ve been seeking…
Or maybe it was the notion that since my upbringing provided so many means of satisfaction—derived only from hard work and a bit of struggle—that anything in the world could be mine. Knowing I can accomplish anything is empowering; yet it is terrifyingly intimidating because I set such lofty goals and high expectations for myself and for the world around me. That’s where the intrepid notion of satisfaction can become destructive instead of, well, satisfying.
Summer of 1991, Internships
After I moved back to the States and decided to go to Indiana for college, I had already begun to pretend that I was in control of my destiny evidenced by the ease of changing paths by changing majors. I learned that after a couple of unpaid jobs working as a coffee-fetcher and cable-carrier on instructional videos, changing my major had nothing to do with reality outside my pretend universe. Neither position was obtained by working hard, or by the coursework I chose, and being recognized out of these merits was irrelevant. It was through friends of my parents. The first internship was working as a, uh, well, there’s no job description for an intern working on the set of instructional video production. Lifting boxes, moving cables, taking shit, holding stuff, standing around, waiting mostly, and usually getting yelled at. The most exciting part of this experience was that the video was about caulking. No, really, I fully learned how to caulk. I am a caulking master now, I can caulk up and down, and I have the experience to prove it…and it was on my resume for years.
“Hey, whatever your name is, bring the box of whaddyacallits over to the grip and get the thing from him for me,” was one request I specifically remember receiving.
“Um, which one–” I would ask hesitantly, as I stared at an entire trailer full of boxes overflowing with whaddyacallits.
“Are you stupid? That one over there,” was the response I got from a bent-over, fat, mean guy who didn’t point anywhere.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m an idiot. And I’m blind, while we’re at it. So kindly instruct me on what it is you really need” I said back to him, without the nervous laughter that at least would have buffered the situation.
This instructional video was the first thing I could put on my resume as “work” experience. Stupid, GOD THIS WAS SO STUPID; though I don’t know at what point I realized how stupid it was–then, or now. Who on earth would possibly care? How naive was I to think that anyone could possibly care that I moved boxes during the filming of a caulking video? I’ll tell you who: all those people who took those film classes with me, who went home to their Indiana towns that summer and didn’t work in the industry for experience. Instead, they made money waiting tables at Western Sizzler, enough to buy a car and be able to drive around Bloomington. But I had it set: no money and no car, but I had industry experience.
[Sidebar: I did own a car. My parents bought me a 1985 Buick LeSabre to drive to my waitressing job in between internships, it was awesome. They’re so cool. For my birthday, I even got a tape deck installed. That was July 24. Less than 3 weeks later, when my mom, my grandmother and I started to drive out to Indiana for school, the fucking thing blew up at Exit 48 on Route 80 in New Jersey, in front of the Einstein Moomjy carpet showroom. Everything got burned, the smell was disgusting. I lost my clothes, my music (which in 1990 was ALL vinyl), and whatever irrelevant crap a 19-year old takes to college. So I didn’t have another car until I was 25. I was making more money at 18 waitressing in the summer to pay for the car than I did at 25 working at whatever dumb job I had then.]
If I had only opened my eyes to see that some of the choices I had made were pointless and stupid, I might be a very successful and sane individual now. But then I wouldn’t have any good stories to tell years down the road.
My parents’ friend owned a successful industrial video production company. He was a nice guy, kind of gruff, but funny as hell. I didn’t know him very well, but he was a NY Knicks fan and with that, I trusted him. His daughter was the same age as my brother and they went to school together, so I think that was the connection. You see, the community in which I grew up was a wealthy, predominantly Jewish New York City suburb. I was probably expected to, a) marry a rich lawyer; b) go to law school, myself; c) not ever run around on the set of various film and TV sets schlepping heavy boxes and pretending to be a screenwriter.
The shooting for this particular video was on location somewhere in suburbia. I made sure to network. I networked with the cameraman, the producer, and even the talent. Ha, talent, I could caulk WAY better than actors. Although, one guy made it to commercials; he did some Hoover vacuum cleaner commercials and a few others throughout the past several years. I hope, at least, he lived up to his own expectations. As production wound to a close, I needed to fill up the rest of my summer with more substantial industry work. I knew I needed to get my foot in the door. I could schmooze with the best, as I learned this skill would do me absolutely NO good in my relatively short future in the film business.
The segue here is that I successfully networked my way in the door by hooking myself up as an assistant editor, logging hundreds of hours of videotape shot by a documentary film company. No, actually, that’s not true. What really happened is that my parent’s friend who got me the internship on the caulking video knew a wealthy, artsy-fartsy couple on the lower east side who went to Louisiana and hoped to make a movie about Zydeco with their video camera. They shot hundreds of hours of video of backwater Cajun people who didn’t speak English, jabbering on about this cultural phenomenon right here in our own country. The couple actually thought that it was French that they were speaking, and that all they needed to do was get someone who could translate. Yeah, ok, I grew up in Paris, but this was no French that I knew they were speaking.
My task was to write down each scene according to the timecode on the bottom of the screen, on a bunch of editing equipment that I didn’t know how to work. To make matters worse, they thought that because I could speak French, that I could somehow translate. I had the patience of a fly, and I just thought that it was gibberish from a bunch of freaks in Louisisana meant to confuse us Yankees. I spent two months pretending to know what the hell I was doing, filling dozens of yellow legal pads full of handwritten, illegible notes about my ridiculous interpretation of a language and content that I had no clue about.
But I tried not to feel bad because I wasn’t being paid anyway.
Those heavy summer days in the the loft space in Chinatown were interesting, though. It was in right smack in the middle of filthy and stinking and crowded Grand Street. But for me, it was like a movie set, because I didn’t know anyone who really lived in a loft. This was a full-on industrial style loft space, complete with pipes across the 20 foot-high, rotted, peeling, tin ceilings, squeaky hardwood floors, huge windows caked with grime and covered with iron bars. The elevator was not people-friendly, but otherwise fun to use and extremely noisy and slow, and big enough to haul up an elephant. The rest of the building housed what seemed to me to be sweat-shops, but I dared not mention my thoughts on that matter.
That ended in kind of a fizzle, don’t know what ever happened to that video, and I certainly hope that they didn’t use my translation and logging for any remotely significant purpose. I can’t even remember how the engagement ended, that’s how unexciting it turned out to be. Onward.
I wonder how the world functions with so many totally useless and directionless endeavors out there. I mean, really, as much as I fully support the expression of art and the importance of caulking and Zydeco, why pretend that my role in these efforts was even vaguely relevant? I can understand if I was 12 years old, fine; you’re still learning about the world, and people. But at 20? I refuse to discharge myself from the responsibility of realizing that that summer was a complete wash for all parties involved in my life; and an exercise in complete futility as far as gaining valuable experience goes. But there were plenty of grown-ups around who could have easily eliminated the prospect that I somehow thought could be a useful addition to my ostensibly growing experience in the professional realm of the film industry. Lies, all lies!