My PhD in Survival

I have a PhD in survival, a decade of work experience you won’t read about on my CV. You’ll see why. My first job was as a babysitter when I was 11 making 50 cents an hour. Then for 35 cents an hour plus tips, I was a carhop at the Big E Drive-In in New Lenox, Illinois. I was 15. Then when I was 18, I got a job at the Walgreens on Michigan Avenue in Chicago scooping ice cream at the lunch counter until the manager transferred me to Robin Hood’s, a business lunch restaurant in the Loop with mostly male customers where I was an underage cocktail waitress in a Robin Hood dress with high heels and a matching Robin Hood hat with a feather. The job ended with a bad kissing experience — old lips like a pair of earthworms — and I just couldn’t go back. 

After that I did a little women’s wear retail in a ritzy Gold Coast boutique until I saw a sign for a manicurist in a barbershop, which was a great gig until the owner invited me to give blowjobs in the backroom and split the money with him. Then I got a job scooping ice cream at Denny’s in Rogers Park, a few blocks from my first apartment before I upgraded to waitress at a deep-dish pizzeria. A year later in 1974, I went to Europe with a girlfriend. In Rome I taught English to Italian students, and I gave blood twice because I really needed the money. Then I got a job as an au pair for a few months teaching the children English, but I had to leave because the mom was having a nervous breakdown, her kids liked me better than her, she was pregnant, and the dad was hitting on me.

My next job was as an au pair in New York City, which I didn’t mind until the mom told me to stop holding her baby when it cried. She said I was spoiling her newborn by coddling it. I was supposed to just let the baby cry. Couldn’t do it. So, back to waitressing in Midtown at a place where we had to bang wooden spoons on soup pots to scare the rats off the countertops in the kitchen. There were no cooks in the kitchen because all the food was frozen and had to be heated up in the oven by the wait staff. After a while the rats weren’t afraid of me, and I learned to just ignore them. 

Then I got a job at the Spaghetti Factory, a disco tourist attraction on the Upper East Side, in the same square as the Plaza and the Pierre luxury hotels, which made me feel like it was a step up. But I had to wear a polka-dot mini dress with matching ruffled undies and pantyhose with super high heels. The restaurant manager checked me for chipped nail polish and runned stockings before I was allowed out on the floor, and I was required to dance with customers if they asked me. I got fired after I saw him in the kitchen stealing.

I was in New York City because I wanted to be an actress, so between waitressing gigs, I was auditioning. I joined a comedy improv group that did skits on public access TV, but all the other players were guys, and my role was usually to be dumb, or dumb and slutty. So, I quit. Then I got a part in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at a theater in the Village, but it paid nothing and conflicted with my waitressing schedule, so I couldn’t do it. Finally, I got a great job at a sports bar in Midtown where advertising executives, sportscasters, athletes, and agents did their deals over Rob Roys and Harvey Wallbangers. I was the hat check girl, also coat check, standing in a closet by the front door helping men shed their outerwear in exchange for tips. I brought telephones to VIP tables, served cigarettes on little silver trays, and seriously considered a career as a call girl.

The problem with working in an office in the 1970s was how stupid and boring most of the work was, women had to take a typing test, and the pay was lousy. Waitressing was much better money, but no career track. So, for two years in New York City, I supported myself waitressing while I auditioned and rented my own apartment in an elevator building on a nice street in Brooklyn Heights for $295 a month, until finally, in 1976 I took a job managing a rock band and moved to Boston. That’s a decade of work experience that doesn’t appear on my CV, but it’s how I got my PhD in survival.

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6 thoughts on “My PhD in Survival

  1. Quite the CV, Billie! I had similar jobs, starting with babysitting at age 11 (35 cents an hour, bumped to 50 cents if the time went past midnight). Onn my own at 16. after running away and being sent to a Girls Home. Worked in retail (hated selling clothing, loved selling music) and a hospital kitchen job, then some janitorial, cooking gigs (24 hour truck stop, private club, and daycare center), then several waitressing gigs, from pancake house to upscale pizza parlor to a ritzy creperie in Toronto, where I made the most money with the least amount of work. I was also a utility bill deliverer and sold fish I caught and filleted door-to-door in Northern California. Unlike you, I didn’t get hit on by lecherous men (not much, anyway) and never had to quit a job for that reason. I enjoyed aspects of every job (except cleaning gas stations and vet clinics!) and sometimes dream that I’m working in a cozy little café, cooking and serving the locals. If I ever find that café, I’ll apply on the spot!

  2. You are awesome!! And you are a survivor. Most of us gals from that era are survivors. The things we put up with are what gave us mettle. Granted it was wrong on so many levels, but it taught us a lot. It was survival back then. I honestly feel like the new generation can’t handle anything! Tough times, hard times are what make us strong. They, unfortunately, have not had that so where that leads nobody knows…..

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lisa. New generations may not know the sum of their experience until it’s in the rearview mirror. I certainly wasn’t thinking about my history while it was happening.

  3. NOt sure what a CV is but love the list of jobs. One of my fav stories is about a woman who was doing a stand up routine. It was called something like My 99th Job. Like you she’d hit all job buttons imaginable. At the end of her monologue she said: ‘No one is just a waitress, or just a band teller, or just a dog walker…scratch the surface of anyone you meet and they’ll tell you a story that will break your heart.’ Then she’d dance.

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