My sister’s getting married in October and on Saturday we visited a nearby bridal shop to watch her try on dresses. It’s actually more fun than I thought, watching a would-be bride try on dresses ranging from over-the-top cupcake-like monstrosities to sleek, elegant lace creations. But while I enjoyed oohing and ahing at all my sister’s wedding dress options, what intrigued me most about the whole wedding dress shopping experience was my sister’s wedding dress consultant, who I’ll call Doris because she has that kind of name.
From the moment we met Doris, it was very clear that she’s a no-nonsense, all business kind of lady. She knew exactly what kind of dress would look good on my sister and wasn’t afraid to make her opinions clear. For example: ‘Cause she’s so petite – I don’t say short, I say petite – any dress with sleeves or any kind of neck is gonna swallow her up like this (Doris slouches down dramatically) and make ‘er look like a midget, while something strapless is gonna open ‘er right up. All this said in a rather harsh southern accent (who would have known such a thing exists?) with hints of a life of heavy smoking and hard living. Doris’ bleached blond permed hair was teased up to poodle-like proportions and tied up in a high ponytail better suited for a much younger woman circa 1985. She wore gold glasses and about 10 different rings on her arthritic, old-lady fingers. Her skin had that perma-tan, leathery look, complete with deep wrinkles and impressive jowls, but her blue eyes were lively and sharp in a I don’t take nobody’s bullshit/I ain’t got time for that kind of way.
In the 90 minutes that followed, I did some horribly stereotypical imagining. I gathered that at some time, Doris must have done some pretty hard living but by this point, she’d probably put all that behind her by accepting Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Nonetheless , I imagined Doris was the kind of lady who smoked cigarettes and drank beer in her younger years and is inexplicably devoted to her second or third husband, who probably has a name like Bob or Randy and spends most of his time in front of the TV drinking Bud Light and asking Doris what time dinner’s going to be ready. And in my imaginings, I could see Doris yelling at him quite a lot, telling him to get his fat ass off the coach and do something or else (but in her heart knowing Bob/Randy is the only old fart for her). Doris is probably among the last of her kind; a country-hold out in the ever-expanding western suburbs, a resident of the ‘burbs before they were the ‘burbs, back when the western suburbs were made up of farms, rolling hills, and brick ramblers on large plots of land. In fact, I imagined that Doris (in my mind a moderate hoarder) lives in one of these old 1950’s ramblers, the grand kids’ toys scattered about the front yard and maybe an old rusty bike with pink streamers (belonging to a now-grown granddaughter) leaning against a considerably sagging, once-stately porch. There was a lot of time between fittings for me to think about Doris’ life.
But even though it seems like I have an uncanny, somewhat creepy interest in Doris’ make-believe life, what really peaked my interest is that Doris has been a wedding dress consultant for 20 years. Twenty years! For some reason, it had never occurred to me that someone might make a career out of wedding dress consulting, at least not in the D.C area, where a skilled, white-collared labor force is the name of the game. And that got me thinking about other jobs I generally think of “stepping stone jobs,” jobs you might do for a while when you’re in high school or college, between jobs or have hit hard times and need a way to pay the bills. Actually, I like the way my friend Rasha said it…I feel like these jobs are viewed by society as stepping stone jobs, just a way to get by till you get a better job. So I turned to Gmail and Facebook and asked people what other jobs might be considered “stepping stones” and came up with the following: Camp counselor, fast food worker, lifeguard, nanny, babysitter, ice cream scooper, amusement park ticket collector, pizza delivery person, grocery store bagger, hostess, coffee shop barista, retail store worker, coaching little kids, waitressing for a catering company, waitressing in general, mowing lawns for neighbors, pool boy, working at the movie theater. I’ve had lots of stepping-stone jobs; when I was 16, I worked as a cashier at Giant, followed by a stint as the lingerie girl at Kohl’s, an Old Navy dressing room attendant, college “security guard” and a daycare floater teacher, all of which I saw as temporary stepping stones to something bigger and better. So long as I did my time in high school and college, I wouldn’t have to work a job like that forever.
Except, of course, this kind of thinking is completely elitist and narrow because there are people who do these kinds of jobs as careers. Millions of people across the U.S make their livings as waiters, retail workers, fast food workers. Maybe a wedding dress consultant isn’t that clear cut of an example because it’s not necessarily the kind of thing you’d do in high school or college (if Say Yes to the Dress taught me anything, it’s that wedding dress consultants are prim and proper Southern debutant types), but it’s also not the kind of job I imagined someone making a career out of. Anyway, I’m not really sure what my thoughts are about this or what I’m trying to say, maybe just that you rarely hear people say I want to a waitress when I grow up, I want to work in a movie theater until I retire, I want to fold men’s apparel all day long. But I was thinking that the whole idea of people making a career out of these jobs society tends to see as stepping-stone jobs would make for an interesting This American Life Episode. I know about the career lawyer, politician, non-profit worker, therapist, teacher, police officer, IT worker, banker, consultant, etc, but what about the career waiter? Women’s apparel sales person? Pizza delivery person? Lifeguard? Is there something touching, beautiful and meaningful in that kind of choice or is that just me romanticizing something that shouldn’t be romanticized? Either way, I’d love to hear about the life and times of a career lifeguard or career nanny. And not just the stories of people who got their by accident or by circumstance; I’d also want to hear about people who truly love and enjoy jobs that we as a society tend to view as temporary, in-between type gigs. I guess I hear so much about these fancy, high-paying, high-tech jobs that I sometimes forget there are Dorises too, and that’s probably a problem. Anyway, maybe I’ll write more about this later. Maybe my fantasy trip across America can include interviews and in-depth profiles of people working “stepping stone” jobs.