But I say "essentially" because I did actually have jobs here and there, but not enough to really cut the edge of poverty. The problem was that daycare for an infant was so expensive that I had to make over X amount to make being employed actually pay more than it cost. And in the recession of the early 1990s, after the Gulf War, that wasn't easy. Especially since most of that time we didn't have a car. But I made money where I could, usually via weekend jobs.
The first one was The Gamekeeper in Springfield Mall. I worked there for their Christmas season, and it was pretty cool. The work was hard because I was on my feet in a small store whih about 6 other employees and a lot of customers. Part of our job was to demo games, so I had to learn the weekly "top ten" which was a list I suspect was generated by corporate with no actual regard to any customer favorites. Most of them were board games, or things like "Jenga" or "Rubiks revenge." There was another game where toy had two small plastic pigs you tossed like dice, and how the pigs landed was part of the game (on the side, feet down, on back, humping each other, etc). But there were some odd things I recall from working there.
Our most expensive item was a self-playing chess set. Using a variety of magnets and motors, this machine would move chess pieces around with a noisy grinding sound. It even had a voice chip indicating moves. We actually sold one to a guy, despite the fact that about 10% of the moves wouldn't happen, and you had to pick up their computer pieces and put it in the correct place.
All the tarot decks were kept behind the register. This was because apparently there was some rumor that all gypsies or people who learned from gypsy lore were to "steal" their first deck. I am not sure why, but that was the rumor. I can't tell you if that was true or not, because they never got stolen in the locked plastic case behind our register. I only recall selling a handful of decks, mostly to teenagers.
We also sold the Parker Brothers Ouija Board. I have felt that someday I will write a piece in my fictional works about the sinister plot behind the maker of "Monopoly" and other board games ending up being the most popular distributor of this communicator of the spiritual world. But thatg will be later.
The tarot decks and Ouija boards were not hot Christmas sellers. The fact that tarot decks and Ouija boards were considered "games" was a little disconcerting. One exception was a guy who came in and wanted to buy all the boards. This spooky man with a goatee and pirate shirt took our stock of 10 boards, paid cash, and left. We talked about that guy for days. He came back when we got 5 more in, and bought all those, too. Then we got 20 more in, and didn't sell another one the rest of the time I worked there, which pissed off my boss.
We had some odd coworkers, too. One girl wore a cape to work. No reason, just that they were "fashionable." I worked behind the counter with a Hindu woman in a large silk sari who did our gift wrapping. She was really good at it, but didn't talk much, so we'd just leave anything on her table, and within a few minutes, she had wrapped it perfectly, even taking care of peeling the price sticker off and sticking it on the receipt. A few times we left random object on her table, and she's wrap those, too. She was like a machine. She also had a CD of "Gregorian Chants" which she'd listen to over and over on a boom box she brought from home.
Our boss drank a lot. He didn't come to work drunk per se, but he did admit that he was an alcoholic and didn't give a damn. "I had whiskey for breakfast," he'd say. "Only thing that dulls the pain of my job: whiskey and Wheaties." I think he was my age at the time, which was the mid 20s. Poor guy.
I recall they paid me some X amount an hour, and if I "made it" through Christmas, I'd be paid a retroactive bonus per hour worked. That was to prevent employees from quitting right before Christamas. Like it was $5/hr and then I got paid an extra 50 cents/hr on my last paycheck, which didn't come until mid January. See, "Christmas help" meant working after Christmas to deal with all the returns, exchanges, and cleanup of all the Christmas crap after New Years. I didn't mind, I needed the money badly. The boss wanted me to stay on as his assistant manager, but they didn't pay well enough to afford day care.
Another job I had was a part time job where I worked at an office. It was on the second floor of this generic office building in Herndon, and I think their name was CFA (Computerized Funding Associates? I think?). I worked a few days a week, usually in the afternoons, and it worked out because I could leave CR part time at a sitter and it didn't cost as much. I got refereed by a temp agency, as I recall, and after a ton of jobs where I went "no, I have no car, I can't take a job 30 miles away in the boondocks," this one came by.
This was a very small office with only about 6 employees. There was the owner, a guy named Bill Price, who was a slightly rotund, red-bearded man who seemed like he was everybody's pal. There was a secretary whose name I have forgotten with oversized glasses and a huge blond wig like Loni Anderson wore in WKRP. There was a mousy girl named Julie who did a lot of the typesetting work, and two other employees that escape me for the moment, but I think one of them was also a typesetter, and the other was a lawyer.
The company had a fairly good idea, and I think Mr. Price called it, "a charity aggregator." If a company wanted to donate money to charity, they could give it to us, and we'd take care of everything for a cut. We'd do the legal filing, prepare things for the company's tax auditors, and even print up booklets for stockholders showing who they supported. So a company could say, "We're a rock quarry and we do strip mining, so we want to donate 10% of our profit to reforestation groups." We'd find those groups, check them out, give them the company's money, and then report back to the company "you donated such and such to these groups, here's info for your tax people, and a booklet to give out when potential buyers want to know if you care about nature."
But there was a problem: Mr. Price wasn't making any money. I don't know why he wasn't turning a profit, since I saw some of the amount this guy had in his accounts, but I have always suspected he might have been stealing from the books.
Part of my job was to take the checks we got in, record them on the books, and they assemble them for a mass deposit. I am not sure why we got so many checks in, but twice a week, I'd process about 30-50 checks for various amounts ranging from $10 to several thousand. Most were from various companies with official ledger checks, but sometimes there were personal checks. And once in a while, a large personal check from Bill Price's personal bank account would come in. Sometimes I'd check back a few pages in the ledger, and find various checks had been erased or the amounts changed and the balance was recalculated. At first, I thought I had made a mistake, but nobody said anything, and so I started tracking my mistakes before I got yelled at. Quickly I found that some larger checks were being reduced, and in some cases, Bill's checks were erased altogether. Finally, I asked Bill about this and he assured me that it was "we needed to balance some things, and the checks ended up in the wrong sorting pile. That check, for instance, was supposed to go in another ledger. Don't worry, it's not your fault."
After that, checks stopped being crossed off or erased, though.
The last of the three and a half months I worked there, Bill was rarely in the office at all. One of the guys quit, and another was a temp who got reassigned to another job. So it was just me, Julie, Bill, and the secretary. Bill had started to use Lotus 1-2-3, and he taught me how to enter the checks in the electronic spreadsheet. This is when I noticed that the checks were declining in number, down to just about a dozen a week, and many times, the largest was Bill Price's personal checks.
The secretary confided in me one day that the company wasn't doing so well. She opened our daily mail, and there were several collection notices. By then, I was familiar with the green cards you had to sign for certified letters, and a lot of our mail had them. Julie didn't have a whole lot of work to do anymore, so she came in late every day. I still did back end work. but most of the time, it was just me and the secretary talking about life and other random stuff.
Then, my paycheck bounced. All our paychecks did, and Bill was very apologetic and paid from his personal account, and those cleared. Next pay period, Julie's paycheck bounced. Bill again paid her by personal check. The one day I came to work and the door was locked. A sign on the door stated that the landlord had evicted us for non payment.
My last paycheck never came. I never did know what happened, but I stopped showing up because Bill didn't answer his home phone.
I didn't get another real job until the job at Cargo. I worked a few times at Nancy's Button table when conventions were close by, because she paid rather well ($6-10/hr in unreported under the table cash!). I also wrote and sold my book, and a few cons paid for my food and hotel room while I toured with them. I also got paid for some spot contract jobs, like some web design and UNIX system maintenance. Many times I did work in exchange for education and experience (thanks to many who risked... being caught... at the University of Maryland to get me some work).