I worked at the Center for Performing Arts in my hometown of Rhinebeck, New York for two summers. It’s now a big red barn, set off Route 308, that we pass on the way home from the train station, but that first summer, it was a big white tent. We were loosely interested in musical theater then, only because there was little else to do, and it was the thing that everyone else was doing, so the job was perfect. That summer, we put on an especially inspired performance of Bells Are Ringing. On closing night, Natalie Merchant was in the audience, and if you watch the performance, immortalized forever on an aging VHS in Sonia’s parent’s house, you can hear her whooping cheers over the earnest applause of our parents.
Officially, we were interns, hired with the express purpose of giving us something to do for the summer, and to also maybe get some insight on how to run a performing arts space. Really, we answered the phones, set aside reserved tickets and worked the concession stands. The first summer, we spent a lot of time lying about the office and eating ice cream. I’m not entirely sure how helpful we were, but it was exciting enough. For nerdy musical theater kids who didn’t know any better, it was a sweet gig.
The Billfold is proud to present an ongoing feature about First Jobs, primarily focused on what they paid then and for comparison’s sake what they pay now, but also everything about them from the hilarious to the terrible. Today’s subject: our very own Nicole Dieker and her parents.
Nicole Dieker: I did all kinds of babysitting, church organist-ing, and retail working jobs in high school and college, but my first “real” job as an adult was working as a telemarketer. I’ve told this story on The Billfold before. When I got the job in 2004, it paid $9 an hour plus commission, which averaged out to about $11 an hour. I suspect it pays much the same today. (Editor’s note: The average median income of a telemarketer in 2014 is $34,000/year, or just over $16/hour.)
It is hard to imagine the superhuman Geena Davis doing something as mundane as working in retail. After all, she is six feet tall, with skin like living marble and eyes of fire. And yet this goddess, like so many of us earthworms, began her career behind a cash register at middle-of-the-road women’s clothing store Ann Taylor. It is what happened next that shows her supremacy:
“One time there was a window display where the mannequins were sitting at a table eating plastic food,” Davis tells NPR. “There was one empty chair, and I kept looking at the window.” She asked her co-workers if she should go sit in the empty chair. They advised against it. But Davis sat in the chair anyway.
“Somebody saw me do that, and then he stopped to see what was now going to happen. But I just froze,” Davis says. “I didn’t know, but I had an uncanny ability to be still.” Eventually, a crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside the window display. She could hear the comments from the onlookers, who couldn’t tell if she was real or fake. “When I felt like their attention was drifting, I would move kind of like a robot,” she says. “But then somebody said, ‘Well, that’s not an electric mannequin because it’s not plugged in.’ “
So the next time she sat in a window display, she put a tiny wire down her leg. “Because it was really subtle, it really worked,” she says.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Gerard Depardieu is a little nutsy. After all, isn’t he the dude that was so outraged by the idea of paying taxes to his native France that he fled to Russia, and who claims to subsist on 14 bottles of wine a day? (Yes and yes.)
Well, according to Vanity Fair, he has written a memoir — sadly not yet available in English — in which he is candid about his days as a young grave-robbing, car-stealing, john-robbing thug:
In addition to stealing a car in his teen years—for which he went to prison—the actor claims that he also helped a man rob graves, digging up newly buried bodies and stealing jewelry and shoes from them. “At 20, the thug in me was alive and kicking,” he continues. Still working as a male escort, he writes, “I would rip some of [my clients] off. I would beat up some bloke and leave with all his money.”
It is precisely this hardened side of Depardieu that the actor says attracted Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom he now claims as a friend. “We could have both become hoodlums. . . . I think he immediately liked my hooligan side . . . the fact that I had occasionally been picked up off the pavement dead drunk.” Depardieu writes that his luck did not change in France until a gay theater talent spotter offered to pay for Depardieu to study drama.
Grave robbing can be a semi-noble pursuit: medical students used to have to sneak out to cemeteries at night to exhume bodies for research. It’s certainly one of the more challenging and unusual first jobs I can imagine. And in ineffable ways it probably prepares one well for being BFFs later on with one of the world’s most repellent plutocrats.
What did your first job pay? What does it pay now? Here are some of the many fascinating answers we’ve received, with more to come.
Fran: I graduated USC school of journalism in 1963 and got a job on a daily paper called the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune. It is still in existence in L.A. county. I was fully trained to write about everything from fires to sports. However it was the olden days and my job was on the Women’s Page. I earned $60 a week gross and lived at home to pay off my car. I spent an entire summer writing about brides and their veils of illusion. That was enough.
I took the civil service exam for L.A. county and became a social worker visiting seniors who received old age assistance. At least it was equal pay for equal work and I started at $369 per month, advancing to $389 per month by June 1964 when I got married. We were able to live on that salary as my husband was a medical student. I have no idea what these salaries might be today but I am sure journalists still don’t earn much. [Editor's note: The inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says $389 in 1974 money is $1,877 today.] I eventually used my journalism at a social worker three salary to recruit foster homes for child welfare services until I quit when Joey was born in 1968.
My first temporary non-babysitting job was while I was an undergraduate at McGill. In 1963, through the university employment office, I got a job putting an eyebrow pencil and a clear plastic eyebrow template into cellophane bags, placing a foldover label at the top, and stapling them shut. I was paid by the piece, and I don’t remember how much, but given the times, it could not have been more than a couple of cents per bag. I performed my duties in the empty basement of my employer’s brother’s shoe store. It was in the days before iPods or even Walkmen, so it was BORING. When the entire job was finished, I went into tutoring, which was a distinct improvement.
My first full-time job was in 1967 at the IBM Datacenter in Montreal, as a junior programmer. Even though I had had a full summer of training (by IBM), I was singularly mediocre. Nonetheless, I persisted, as the pay (beginning at $3,900 and reaching $4,100 per annum by the time I left a year later), and the benefits were far better than for other jobs I could have gotten at the time. As I recall, a job at a major bank as a management trainee paid probably $500-600 less, and a job with the Canadian government–probably in the frozen wastelands of Northern Quebec–paid about the same as the banks. I don’t know what my IBM job would pay nowadays, but I would think it would be at least 10 times what I was getting in 1967-68. BTW, as a woman, I was paid less than my equally feckless male counterparts.