My first job--not counting mowing lawns or having a paper route--was working in my parent’s liquor store. I was 10. My dad had a full time job at Lockheed so that meant it fell to my mom to run the place.
I hated restocking the shelves. I loved working the register—dealing with customers, handling the money.
My next job was at Carvel Ice Cream--the first franchise in California. I was a senior in high school. Pamela and I worked there together. We ate a lot of ice cream working there. By this time I was doing a lot of theater; I didn’t so much dream of being an actor when I grew up, I just was an actor and dedicated myself to it fully.
Next I worked at B. Dalton Bookseller. Mine was a book loving family so it was a good fit.
This led to more bookstore jobs. My first job in LA was at Samuel French Bookstore in Hollywood, selling scripts and mugs that said No Dogs or Actors Allowed. Working there was like being on a sitcom: the cranky screenwriter who worked in billing, the struggling actress who typed up invoices all day, the aging rock and roller who restocked the shelves, the stand up comedian who worked at the register. And, the never ending cast of shoppers—from the famous to the desperate-to-be-famous.
I learned the snark of the book clerk. We laughed at the naivete of the ingenue in search of the perfect monolog, we made fun of the delusional young writer looking for books on screenplays.
Service industry jobs can make you resent the people you serve. And, if you don’t do well with authority, well, it’s a narrow canyon—you hate the people you work for and you hate the people you serve. All that’s left I guess is to hope that you like the people you work with.
Camaraderie—that’s a great word. Comes from the word comrade; the root is Latin, camera, meaning chamber. The word comrade has negative connotations for many Americans, they associate it with communism. It’s one of the reasons unions are looked down upon—workers being organized scares people, it’s perceived as a threat. For being a nation built on ambition, we hold workers in low esteem. For a nation built on rebellion, we dislike protest.
So many workers are invisible—in factories and sweatshops, cleaning houses and emptying trash, driving trucks or buses or uber. The covid crisis has made us all much more aware of the folks who keep the country together--maintenance workers, hospital workers, transportation workers.
One of the reasons I stopped acting was the inconsistency of the work. I didn’t want to work in a law firm while going out on auditions. I didn’t want to learn how to do other things to support my life in the theater. I also resented auditioning and could often be difficult in situations where I felt the people in charge were less intelligent than I.
My vision was that I would start this organization that would employ me, using all of my skills and that it would provide me security. The real surprise of the past six months is that The Secret City is thriving. We just hired two more staff people and are in the midst of hiring a strategic consultant to help us grow into next year and beyond.
A lot of people think I work alone but The Secret City is a real honest to god not for profit organization. We’ve got executive meetings and financial reports and a ton of volunteers past and present making the organization move forward.
I wonder sometimes when I’m talking about membership and donations, if folks think that this money just comes to me but it doesn’t. There’s a ton of overhead, payroll, insurance, accountants, unemployment. Our general manager handles the books and I’m paid a salary. I’m very grateful to do this work I love and get a salary. Next year we’re going to start a retirement fund for Secret City employees.
There’s a common refrain in many art circles it has to do with European countries and how artists are supported there—dancers get a government stipend, painters get studio subsidies, there’s support for artists, acknowledgement that what they do is important to the well being of the nation. For a nation known for its creativity and self-expression, we don’t really respect artists.
So many people are out of work right now. Artists in particular. On this Labor Day, if you’re able, I encourage you to buy something from an artist you know. An album or a print or a piece of jewelry or a piece of pottery or a chapbook. Venmo $20 to someone you know who works behind the scenes. Pay for the content you’re enjoying right now. Let’s not just celebrate artists, let’s pay them.