----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ The Fabulous Adventures of Astera: Writer/Actress for Hire: My Many Jobs, Part One

The Fabulous Adventures of Astera: Writer/Actress for Hire

Meet Astera (aka: me), a star in her own mind. Our plucky little heroine has embarked on not one but two difficult, low-paying career paths: writing and acting. Witness the menial jobs! The unreasonable demands! The quirky friends and family! And the glimmer of success just ahead! Through it all, Astera maintains her core beliefs: 1) She is destined to be fabulous 2) Everything is more fun with a cocktail.

Monday, November 29, 2004

My Many Jobs, Part One

I've never had much luck with my jobs, and I've had a lot of them. It's because I haven't stayed on the straight and narrow career path. After earning my master's degree in journalism from Northwestern university, I fled the cold, cold winters to come back to my native California. The problem was, I specialized in magazine journalism, and there aren't exactly a lot of magazines in California. I really should have gone to New York, but I didn't think I could handle another winter where snow was a fact of everyday life, not a curiosity to be visited on weekends that suited.

Anyway, I felt lucky to get my very first journalism job. I was the associate editor at Customer Service Automation, at the offices in Malibu! Did it matter that I had no idea what "customer service automation" meant? Apparently not. Neither did most of the staff. Which was two other people. This was a trade magazine, meaning it went out to a very specialized, targeted audience of the 27 people who did know what "customer service automation" meant. This was a launch publication! I was getting in on the ground floor! It was going to be fabulously exciting! Until...it wasn't. I found myself attending a trade show in San Francisco that was all about call center operations. Call centers are the hell you wind up in when you call a company's 800 number. You know the ones...you have to navigate a maze of voicemail options, delivered in a relentlessly cheery female voice, until you wind up jamming your thumb into the "0" button, praying you'll get a live person. I think our magazine was basically supposed to be about how to make call centers even more efficient, which is code for making them more adept at avoiding live contact with their customers. It costs money to staff those centers, so the more they could foist off on the automated voice, the better. But I am a little fuzzy on the details, as I got a horrible case of strep throat while at the trade show and ended up missing most of the informational seminars. Bummer.

As it turned out, the audience of 27 wasn't enough to sustain our publication, so it got folded into an existing title (Business Automation) and I got moved over to another magazine, Field Force Automation. Are you sensing a theme here? I was writing about BlackBerries and Palm Pilots before they really caught fire with the masses. Of course, I didn't appreciate it at the time. I thought it was quite boring and geeky. So, when I got an interview to be an assistant at Bragman, Nyman, Cafarelli, a well-known entertainment public relations firm, I jumped at the opportunity. They hired me almost immediately, claiming that they really needed someone with my writing skills. But in the interview, the starting salary we discussed was much lower than I was making at the magazine, and when I got my offer letter, it was lower still. Confused, I called up the woman who had interviewed me. She snapped that that's what the salary would be, no negotiations. And when I ventured to ask if it would be all right for me to take a vacation that I had been planning for a year, she said, "You know, you haven't even been hired yet. Maybe you should wait until that happens." Well, I had the offer letter in my hand. She was confused about who I was, and once that got clarified, she was sweet as sugar. But I had seen her nasty side, and it should have given me pause. Still, I started the job. And I lasted a week. Apparently, when the account executive told me that they really valued my writing skills, they meant the writing skills that I would be using to fill out lunch orders and FedEx forms. I realized that I hated being an assistant and that I did not want to spend my days faxing and filling in for the receptionist. Thus, I quit.

But not to worry! I had a plan. Before I started at the PR firm, purely by chance, I got called to be an extra on that critically-acclaimed but short-lived series, Freaks & Geeks. If you've ever been an extra, you know that extra work is not terribly exciting. You mostly sit around and wait, and then they herd you into the background of a group shot, where you are instructed not to actually talk or look at the camera. But I was picked to be a featured extra! I got to sit at a table with a few other girls--we were supposed to be the popular ones--and one of the leads, a "geek" glanced over with a lovesick expression. I was to glare back at him. Unfortunately, the show was cancelled before my episode ever aired.

The point is this: I loved acting when I was younger, and I still did, but I had given it up because it wasn't practical and wouldn't pay the bills. Why did everyone fail to mention that the same was true of journalism? Since I had recently divested myself of two jobs, and since I had little else to do, I thought the time was right for me to become an actress! All I needed were headshots and a few classes, right?

Oh, sweet, naive Astera! Headshots, classes, several thousand dollars in savings and a dependable job with a lenient time-off policy: that's what I needed. But I was determined to make do. I found a class and charged it to my credit card. Then I found a series of low-paying jobs. At one point, I held three jobs at once. I would tutor a Russian woman in English in the morning (I think she may have been a mail-order bride), I would write copy for a Web site that some guy was running out of his home in the afternoon, and at night, I would put on my ugly white see-through shorts and my far-too-big white polo shirt and answer the phones at Sports Club/LA, one of the swankiest, most upscale fitness establishments on the Westside. Funnily enough, that was the job that lasted the longest. I made just $7.75 an hour, but I did get to use the gym during off-peak hours. And stars worked out there! Dyan Cannon came in frequently...perhaps a little too frequently. Her body was stringy and bony, but her face was as taut and glossy as a patent-leather pump. (And yes, Dyan Cannon did count as a star. This was at the height of Ally McBeal.) Mark Whalburg came in to pump iron, and Shaq played pick-up on the regulation-sized basketball court. But nicest of all was Hank Azaria. He always made a point of saying hello to the receptionists. And the trainers at the gym were so much fun! They took me out on the town, Hollywood-style. There were limos, exclusive clubs, private parties, champagne.

The problem was, despite my many jobs--I also worked briefly as a restaurant hostess and a telemarketer (the shame!)--I was spending more than I was making. Not too hard, since I was making about $250 a week. I had to pay rent on my Brentwood apartment (I did have a roommate, thankfully), pay for health insurance, car insurance, utilities, food, cocktails. I was soon, as the commercials say, "drowning in a sea of debt." I ended up--oh, the shame!--having to move back home to my parents' house in Northern California. There, I worked mainly as a temp and a substitute teacher in an effort to pay down my massive credit card bills. And I was very dutiful about it, for six whole months. But when the opportunity came for me to move back to L.A., I took it in a heartbeat. More on that later.


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