Sunday nibble #91: Odd jobs

Musing about three very odd jobs I had when I was just starting out.


I’ve appreciated the chance to take a sort of vacation this year with my Christmas Countdown list, which I hope you’re all enjoying. There are some nice little surprises and treats in there, and I hope to be adding this year’s Out of the Blue/Oxford charity single when it drops, which is usually around the 15th.

Meanwhile, I got to thinking about former occupations of mine, and how weird the early one were, so I thought I’d share. Here you go.


Three jobs of mine come to mind that were fairly unusual in that they involved learning skills that most people don’t have. One was when I was a teenager, but it was a very casual summer thing. The second one was in college and part of my campus work-study, although it did fit right in with my major. Finally, the third one was my first “real” office job after college.

The teenage one was working as an assistant to my next-door neighbor, who was an electrical contractor. It was just for a few weeks between summer school and fall, since I was fifteen and making the transition into high school.

Because, at the time, kids in California could get their learner’s permits at 15 and a half if they’d taken Drivers Ed and Drivers Training, and since I hit fifteen and a half in the August before I started high school, it was the perfect opportunity to take both of those classes in summer school, which put me ahead of the game because they were a lot harder to get into once regular school started.

I didn’t do the job for all that long with my neighbor, and he kept very irregular hours. Basically, as a contractor, he worked when he wanted to which mostly revolved around when it was the right time for him to install the next phase in a project. I think he only worked in new construction and not doing home repairs or anything like that.

My job was as a wire-puller, which is just what it sounds like. He would have to install the electrical wiring through (non-conductive aluminum) metal conduits, or sometimes PVC pipe, contained within the walls. Fortunately, since it was new construction, the drywall generally wasn’t up yet.

If he was going from the first to second floor, he’d drop the wire-pulling tool down that particular pipeline and tell me which cut-out to watch. Likewise, if he was running wire vertically, he’d snake the thing along. I’d secure the end of it while he fastened the wires to the other end.

It was essentially a long and semi-rigid braided wire device with two large O-shaped… things at each end. Don’t worry — none of the wires were live! When he was ready, he’d call out loudly, “Pull!” and it was then my job to slowly and gently reel in the fish, as it were, carefully bringing the wires from one floor or room to another.

I don’t think I ever had a workday with him that lasted more than three hours. He also encouraged drinking on the job, and it’s when I had my first beer — which I hated.

I didn’t work for him after I started high school, but he and his family were neighbors until after I moved out to college. Sadly, because he spent so much time in spaces full of fiberglass insulation and never wore any kind of protective mask, he died fairly young because of all the tiny glass fibers in his lungs. It wasn’t exactly mesothelioma, but close enough. His smoking habit didn’t help.

A loud, hot room

The second job, in college, was right up my alley — projectionist for our campus movie theatre, which did double-duty. By day and on Monday and Wednesday nights, it served as the lecture hall and screening room for our film students, and I had many a favorite class in that space.

On weekends and for other special occasions, it would host free movie nights of both classic films and very recent releases — my university had amazing industry connections. Well, at least until it actually came to getting us jobs after graduation! Finally, it would be host to the College’s annual student film festival and awards that came after.

I mainly worked the classes and Friday (non-premiere) movie nights and, since our school wasn’t exactly decked out in full-on digital technology (which didn’t exist yet), it was old school projectors that used carbon arcs to do their thing with physical film.

Oh, we could do either 35mm or 70mm, and I think possibly even 16mm for the student film shows, and for a lot of the recent studio movies, we would actually receive 70mm prints on large platters that were already spliced together to run vertically through the projector and be turned right-way round by optical trickery.

Of course, those platter printers were heavy as hell, and always required assistance to put into place — after all, they were more the weight of the whole feature film which, in 35 millimeter terms would take up eleven reels for two hours, the whole thing (reels but not cans) included clocking in at about 50 pounds.

Remember, though, that a 70mm fame is by definition larger, so it’s going to take up more physical length as well as weigh more. Factor in things like multi-track magnetic soundtrack as opposed to optical, and you’re adding at least a couple of grams per foot to the whole thing.

So the weight and possible awkwardness (not to mention the sheer disaster of dropping one which, thankfully, we never did) was a gigantic drawback. On the other hand, they had an enormous advantage.

No reel changes.

If you’ve seen Fight Club, then you know the drill. Before all movies were plattered for use in multiplexes — you can literally run the film physically from one theatre to another so you can show the same print at staggered times — and especially before digital made it completely unnecessary, a projectionist’s main function was to make sure to change reels at the right time.

And no, we didn’t frantically grab one reel off the projector and slap on the next. Rather, we had two projectors, which would start out with reels one and two in place. In order to time the reel changes, we had to watch the film like a hawk until we spotted the first of two marks referred to in the business as “cigarette burns.”

The first mark was our six-second warning — Reel change coming! The second mark was basically telling us “Do it now, dumbass.”

Having fired up the arc on the second projector already, at the first mark, we’d start to run the film, which would generally have a bout a six-second lead. Then, at the second, we’d open up projector two and close projector one for a smooth transition.

Although in theory they’d come every eleven minutes or so, directors and editors would try to time them so that they happened at the end of a scene — for example, a shot of a car driving away, a landscape with no dialogue or action, whatever.

The idea was to give some leeway, so that if the transition came a couple of seconds early or late, it should be unnoticeable. The starting shot on the next reel would generally be similarly static, like an establishing shot of a location. And if the director and editor were really good, they’d also try to have these transition moments be as quiet as possible.

As soon as the switch was made, it was time to run off the rest of the footage on the reel one projector, remove that reel and pop it in the can, then take out reel 3, place it on the holding arm, thread the film in and let the projector snake it through its innards until it latched through the gate and came out the other end, where you’d snag it and lock the end into the take-up reel, adjusting the whole thing until this reel was at the starting spot you wanted for when the next cigarette burn popped up.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Okay, it wasn’t the most ideal way to watch movies, which is why I tended to not sign up for the Friday shifts that had the latest blockbuster for free. (Or maybe it was five bucks, I don’t remember.) Still, it became a sort of ballet, since I was basically live action quality control for the audience experience.

Did I mention that projection booths are fucking hot? Because they are. For one thing, those damn carbon arc lamps operate at 6500°F (3600°C). Not quite as hot as the surface of the Sun (9941°F/5505°C) but close enough.

It was like working in the boiler room of a steam-powered ocean liner or something, and there was many a night, especially in summer, when I was sorely tempted to just lock the doors and work nude so that I didn’t have to go home in clothes carrying an extra three gallons of sweat.

That, and the noise. Those projectors are loud, which is why the booths are so well insulated for sound. Which is also what makes them so damn hot. Seal in the noise, seal in the heat. What a combo!

Let’s get small!

Job number three, which I described as my first real office job, was for the Directors Guild of America-Producer Pension and Health & Welfare plans — say that three times fast — which was the entity that handled all of the aforementioned for members of the union. We were physically distanced from the union headquarters itself by law, and it was certainly a very button-downed job to start with.

I came in as the assistant to the woman who was the Microfiche department. Her name was Katherine, and she was wonderful to work for, and it was a job that, again, involved film, sort of.

The union had been founded in the 1930s, but they really didn’t manage to get things like pensions, health insurance, and residuals rolling until the 1960s. We didn’t handle residuals — that was the DGA proper’s job except for calculating whether pension and welfare percentages had been paid on them. But we handled the other two, better known as retirement and health insurance, and you can bet that both of those involved a shit-ton of documents, paperwork, forms, contracts, deal memos, and what not, all of which went into a physical file for each member.

Some of the older members, by the time they got to retirement, had files that were as thick as a Criterion Collection box set and, at some point in the late 70s or so, they started having to ship that stuff out to be stored at a company still known as Iron Mountain, which provided document storage, as well as shredding, if necessary.

But, of course, these documents could not be shredded, because they were the proof of what any particular member would be owed at retirement, as well as what health benefits they were entitled to per their latest collective bargaining agreement.

Then, somewhere in the 80s somebody there got smart, latched onto the technology of microfiche. It was hardly new at the time, and had several predecessors in microfilm and the spy technology of microdots, but the idea was simple.

Take a picture of something big, like a newspaper page or a piece of paper in letter or legal size, then use optics to shrink it down to where it’s tiny but can still be legibly read with the right lenses.

If you’ve ever been to a library’s newspaper archives or done genealogy research at any of the Mormon Family History Centers, then you know microfilm. Those places generally use film on a real just under an inch and a half thick, but microfiche goes much smaller.

And so, at some point long before I started there, they started doing the pre-digital version of digitizing paper documents. The real joke is that all existing microfiches and microfilms will still be readable long after how to decipher every last digital form has been lost or forgotten.

Why? You only need a light source and the right lens to read it. Hell, this technology was originally conceived and demonstrated in the 19th century.

But I do digress…

They had managed to film a ton of old records in order to preserve them as well as being able to finally shred the originals, but, obviously, the amount of paperwork shot up dramatically due to various factors that impacted film and TV in the 80s and beyond.

So it became my job to cut the actual negatives that my boss generated by shooting microfiche for them, adding an index header to the plastic sleeve I put each line of negatives into, and then using that to create a number of film positive copies.

Our department kept those sleeves forever, as well as one copy. The others went to our Insurance benefits people, our retirement people, our accounting/audit people (including collections), our Executive Director’s Assistant (holding them for the Board of Directors), the union itself, and, for some reason, our own HR department.

Now, this job didn’t last all that long for two reasons. One was that after a year and a half, I managed to get internally promoted big-time and was suddenly a supervisor in the collections department with my own staff and shit. The other was that microfiche was suddenly out as all of our records now went to live on a mainframe computer and all of the data migrated from paper to electrons.

I do know that somehow all the info from all those microfiches wound up in the database but, again, as data, not image files, although I have no idea how they pulled off that trick.

All I knew was that I didn’t have to deal with sticking those damn negatives into those damn sleeves anymore and that it was much easier to tap a few keys to find info rather than thumbing through a physical index or, worse, using that one microfiche to find out which other microfiche that data you wanted was on.

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