Odd Jobs: What Someone Could Have Told Me

By Abigail R. Gehring

My odd job years started early. I think I was five when I first began "working" at Don's Dog House. The school bus would drop me off outside the white box on wheels with a red roof and a wooden hotdog nailed to the side. My dad was the "Hot Dog Man" of Wilmington, Vermont, and I was his apprentice.

My first position was "Soda Girl," which entailed diving headfirst into a large plastic trashcan to retrieve the cold cans. I stood on my tiptoes and draped my head and arms over the rim of the barrel, feeling the coolness meet the blood that rushed into my cheeks. Once or twice my feet came off the ground and I almost landed stuck upside down with only my shins and pink sneakers waving like flags above me. It was dark in the soda barrel, too, since my body blocked most of the light. Often Dad had long since given the customer his hotdogs and change before I emerged, out of breath and clutching a Mountain Dew like it was an Oscar award. I earned many a ten-cent tip that way. "Startin' her out early, huh?" a customer would quip to Dad, sliding a dime across the windowsill. "Don't spend it all in one place."

Dad was starting me out early, not prepping me for a career in hot dog slinging, but for the many other eclectic jobs I would later discover. During college I cleaned dorm bathrooms, I tutored writing, I swam and bathed a ninety-year-old man with Alzheimer's. After I graduated I moved to New York and served hors d'oeuvres at weddings, I gave adolescent girls henna tattoos up and down their arms. I dressed up like a toy soldier and once like Cinderella and painted stars or butterflies or balloons on kids' cheeks. I was a promo girl for Beck's beer and a "guinea pig" for a scientific study on eye sight. I wasn't rich, but I had enough to live, and more importantly I had the freedom to make my own schedule and to do what I loved (writing) on the side.

When I began to doubt the worth of my work, I'd remember how proud I was of Dad, the Hot Dog Man. True, his Master's in horticulture wasn't earning him a living, but it never occurred to me that his education was a waste, just that it was one step in his career journey (and we certainly reaped the benefits from our home garden). Still, as more and more friends accepted secure, well-paying jobs, or enrolled in high-caliber graduate programs, I wondered if I was making a mockery of all the hours I spent studying for my summa cum laude diploma.

I wish someone had told me before I left the college campus that I shouldn't despair. Of course, I couldn't have expected a career counselor to prophesy that soon I would write a book about those odd job experiences, and it would make me a published author. But someone might have said that it was okay not to have a nine-to-five office job lined up before I donned my cap and gown. They might have mentioned that sometimes the shortest path to reaching a career goal is not the most direct one.

Here are a few other things I wished I had learned from my trips to the career center:

  1. Discovering your purpose is a lifetime process, not something you need to know before you graduate, or even when you take your first job. I knew I wanted to write, but I didn't know exactly what I wanted to write, or how I would get anyone else to read whatever it was. These are things I am still discovering, and the progress I have made is due, in large part, to my varied experiences in all sorts of jobs along the way.
  2. Freelancing can give you the freedom to try a variety of careers, short term. If you're not entirely sure what you want to do, odd jobs provide a chance to try a many vocations, sans commitment. Temp agencies generally offer short-term office positions in everything from fashion to finances.
  3. There are plenty of ways to make money outside of a 9-5 office job. If you aren't ready to commit to a full-time job doing something you're not crazy about, you don't have to resign to a life of poverty. Look for a need, and then figure out how to fill it. Does an elderly neighbor need rides to the store? Does that shop need a better window display? Are there dogs desperate for exercise? Many a successful entrepreneur has been born from noticing a need and meeting it.

Now I work full-time at a book publisher and as a freelance writer. I love my work, and it's nice to have health insurance and a predictable pay check. But would it be so bad if I were still modeling for art classes, house sitting, and dressing up like an elf at Christmastime? I think not. Every job taught me something new; I could take time off when I wanted; and I made time to do the things I loved most. There are a lot of folks who would quit their high-paying office jobs in a second for such an opportunity.

Abigail R. Gehring is the author of Odd Jobs: 101 Ways to Make an Extra Buck (Skyhorse Publishing, May 2007). A 2004 graduate of Gordon College, Massachusetts, she is now a full-time book editor and freelance writer in Manhattan. She can be reached at abigail.gehring@gmail.com