I am grateful for: my first job

This is not me in costume, but it's another of the Clown Connection posse dressed a lot like what I wore.

Many of my high school friends had their first jobs doing fairly typical stuff: retail, food service, clerical office work.

Not me.

My first job involved helium balloons, deely bobbers and a rainbow wig. Under the clown name Sparkle, I ran games at children’s birthday parties and delivered balloons for special events — what we in the industry called a balloonagram.

How does a 16-year-old girl take up as a clown?

Remember that it was the 1980s in a General Motors town so there wasn’t really room to be picky if you had zero job experience beyond babysitting.

I just naively circled any classified ad that sounded like a high school girl could do it. I don’t remember the Clown Connection‘s ad — I seem to recall they asked that you call, rather than send an application — but somehow I ended up driving to Clown Connection headquarters.

John and I were mimes one year for Halloween and he was astonished at how quickly I could cover my face in clown white makeup. Just another life skill gained from my time at the Clown Connection.

When I pulled up and the address was a private home down a winding, wooded drive, I probably should have left.*

Then I really should have left when I rang the doorbell, the door opened briefly, and SLAM! came back in my face. That was part of the interview, to see how I handled bad treatment, so my soon-to-be boss could feel comfortable putting me in front of a room full of sugared-up 7-year-olds.

Obviously I didn’t leave. I took the job for about a year, and even recruited two other friends to become clowns with me.

Doing balloonagrams and kids’ birthday parties as a clown was a fantastic first job because:

  • Did I mention I’m not a great singer? Doing a balloonagram meant walking in, typically to a busy restaurant or office, handing the recipient some balloons then singing a little song. People would gather around to witness the spectacle, and there I was, a capella, singing my little clown heart out. Public speaking is nothing after singing to a hushed crowd at one of the most popular restaurants in my hometown, knowing I can’t sing. I learned it didn’t matter, because it was about the showmanship and about making the event be about the person being honored, not about me.
  • Some kids are afraid of clowns. This was news to me, the day I arrived at a little boy’s birthday party and he ran screaming into his bedroom. I quickly cooked up a plan with his parents — I would play games with the guests while they talked their son off the ledge, then I’d herd the kids inside for cake once he was calmed down. This was not Plan A, but working with big groups of excited kids, I got pretty good at Plans B, C, D and E.
  • The nicer the house, the worse the tip. I learned a lot about money when I watched the customers who were obviously wealthiest waiting for their five cents in change, while customers in parts of town my dad didn’t even want me in would generously thank me for my time with fat tips.
  • Clowns don’t work 9-5. I worked when we got jobs. I learned to be flexible if I wanted to make money and I learned the hustle it takes to be an entrepreneur like my bosses.

* Yeah, I know — 16-year-old girl on her own, long before cell phones, goes to the remote home of some guy she’s never met … if all teenagers died of the bad life choices we made, the human race would die off.

What about you? What did you learn at your first job?

I’d like to kick off an occasional series on my blog about first jobs, so if you’d like to share, tell me:

  • Your name
  • What you do now
  • What was your first job?
  • When and where was that?
  • What did you do?
  • What did you like best about it?
  • What did you like least about it?
  • What did you learn on that first job that you’re using today?
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Categories: career

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6 replies

  1. Excellent but looking around the office I have to disagree with one point – •Clowns don’t work 9-5. – some do… some do.

    My first job was hardly as exciting – working cashier at a drug store. I started during the holiday rush and had dreams all night that I was ringing up an infinite line of customers. One guy I remember in particular made me ring up his purchases multiple times because he needed different receipts. This meant redoing the order every time – before price scanners. My boss was amazed that I didn’t go crazy and/or quit after that. But all said it wasn’t a bad job, got to work with some interesting people and it wasn’t McDonalds. And of course working with the public is a good skill to develop.

  2. Sparkle, I love ya. Great post. The fact that you were a clown never fails to amuse me. Like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

  3. Terrific post. I’ll play!

    * Your name — Mary Jean
    * What you do now — Freelance writer and editor/mom
    * What was your first job? Busgirl at Merichka’s restaurant
    * When and where was that? 1985ish, Crest Hill, Illinois, about two blocks away from my house
    * What did you do? Cleared off tables and occasionally washed dishes
    * What did you like best about it? Meeting up again with a friend I hadn’t seen since about sixth grade. She was a busgirl too. We had a total, total blast at that crappy job, constantly cracking jokes and laughing our asses off as we wheeled the bus trays around the crowded dining rooms on Friday and Saturday nights. She also turned out to be the first person I ever knew to be gay, which opened my eyes in ways that they needed to be opened at that time. One night when we were drinking beers in her backyard after work, she broke down in tears because the girl she liked suddenly wouldn’t speak to her anymore. It struck me that I had sobbed in exactly the same way when my boyfriend dumped me a few months before. I like to think that no one can be anti-gay if they’ve ever watched a friend of theirs sobbing over a heartbreak. The work itself was not so thrilling — I had nothing to do with food preparation, which I might have liked — but I liked getting to know people outside of my small high school world. I liked having something to do on Friday and Saturday nights. I liked getting a paycheck and having responsibility. I liked going down to the basement to get ice.
    * What did you like least about it? Dishwashing duty. The dishwasher stood in this sort of pit with shelves all around where the busboys and gals dumped their bins of dirty dishes. You had to put all the plates and glasses and silverware on this conveyor-belt thing that carried them through the dishwasher. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, the dishes would pile up fast and furious, and it would smell pretty awful in that pit. I hated being pinned in one space for a whole shift. It was much more fun to run around the dining room and then, between tables, hang out at the wait station drinking free diet Cokes or eating packets of oyster crackers.
    * What did you learn on that first job that you’re using today? Seriously, I learned to wear rubber gloves when washing dishes. My first dishwashing shift I didn’t, and it was awful. I didn’t make that mistake again. And I learned a lot from the people. For me and a lot of the younger folks, of course, this job was just a brief stop. For a lot of older women waiting tables, this was their life. Some of them had a good outlook, but many of them were pretty bitter. I heard a lot about wrecked marriages, alcoholism, no-good husbands, debts, dropping out of school … and I knew I didn’t want my life to turn out like that if I could help it.

    I earned $3.35 an hour, minimum wage at the time, and gave up all my Friday and Saturday nights for about eight months. This restaurant has been around for about 70 years — it’s one of those institutions that so many towns have — and I took Lou there for dinner on New Year’s eve in 1999. He had one of their famous poorboy sandwiches drenched in “garlic butterine,” and it almost made him sick. His memory of ringing in the millennium with friends in Chicago is laced with garlicky burps.

  4. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post – awesome idea and execution Colleen!

    Here’s mine:
    •Your name
    •What you do now – Co-founder/Program Director at Keith Ferrazzi’s Relationship Masters Academy
    •What was your first job? for the syndicated family advice columnist Marguerite Kelly
    •When and where was that? I was 15 in Washington, DC
    •What did you do? filing, transcribing, rebuilding columns after lovingly scanning them into her ancient computer
    •What did you like best about it? Marguerite. Amazing woman, very inspirational to me. Plus she was a former New Orleans deb, and her office had a fainting couch. She impressed me by calling the fridge “the icebox” and telling me stories of the great south. She’d cook up a steak for lunch and make me sardines and carrots on toast.
    •What did you like least about it? filing and most of the other actual work. 🙂
    •What did you learn on that first job that you’re using today – Many of Marguerite’s tips about writing and research still bubble up; also, Marguerite’s was an advice column, so interaction with fans and a fan community was a part of my very first job – and is again today.

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