9 Skills On My Shadow Resume

Spray painting a bike tour route through Manhattan during the 2003 black out.

For every resume/LinkedIn profile, there is a shadow resume: The jobs, moments and other kinds of unmentionable work experiences that really taught you how to throw down--but that are too uncomfortable and out of narrative to put on an actual resume. We all have them, and maybe someday LinkedIn will add a premium onyx feature, where you can share your shadowy stories with your contacts. Until then, there are blogs.

Here are nine of my shadow skills; I've got lots more. What are yours?


9. Scrubbing toilets & bussing tables. In college, I cleaned my classmates' bathrooms, and worked counter and table service at a very popular Chicago bakery over a summer. The latter was minimum wage, and the former barely over. There is a skill to this work, as with almost all work. Thankfully, I arrived at college knowing how to scrub toilets and grout with a swiftness. The bakery work, however, was totally new and very high stakes; we handled massive wedding cakes, and ran through a very high volume of luxury baked goods on top of a packed lunch service. Still, no one trained me at this bakery, and in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I made every non-black coffee order as either an Americano or an Espresso. I also put doilies under sticky buns 😬.  I was soon put in charge of training all the new workers, including my boss, simply because everyone else kept leaving.

What I learned: Work is never fair; you get what you invest in as an employer; don't tip people with casino chips--seriously, don't do this.

8. Spray painting NYC streets. When I lived in New York City in my early 20s, one of the main parts of my job at a local nonprofit was organizing a fundraiser/bike tour across 100 miles and four boroughs of the city. This was a low budget production, so come late August/early September, we depended on volunteers to spray paint the route onto the streets so our riders didn't get lost. Of course, we didn't have a lot of volunteers willing to do this work, believe it or not. So, I did it. My new boyfriend at the time blocked traffic for me--to the extent it was willing to be blocked, largely not--and I double checked for cops, shook the can and got low. It was inevitably the hottest time of the year, and still we spent hours inhaling car exhaust and paint fumes, getting the job done. (Reader: I married him.)

What I learned: A lot of NYCers want to know if they, too, can spray paint the street; you just have to get in there sometimes; team work, baby.

7. "Lawyering." In case you're wondering, it was legal to spray paint the street with water-solvent spray. Here, though, we get into murkier territory. During one of the summers I was home from college, my father had his second hip surgery. Before he retired a few years ago, my father was a lawyer with his own one-man legal aid-ish firm. So one would presume that he'd have arranged his calendar to make sure all his court appearances were covered by other lawyers in his absence. But one would be wrong. Instead, much to my discomfort, my father called me to his hospital bed to ask me to cover a routine motion in court for him. No, I was not a lawyer, or even in law school, but he swore he had no other options and the client needed help; there was no time. What could I do? Long story short, I dressed up, studied the file, went downtown and, terrified out of my mind, went to court. The judge quickly realized that I was not a lawyer and ripped me and my family a new one, fully deserved, but much to my shock, ultimately allowed the preceding to continue. I should end the story here because the moral should be, don't do this. However, let me add that lest you think I also lost this case for the client ... you know what, friends? I won the damn motion. 

What I learned: Fake it till you make it; set boundaries; don't take your father's calls; stay out of court.

6. Hauling unwieldy objects. One of my unique loves in this life is figuring out how to carry odd things by foot or bike, like projector screens and Christmas trees plus a kid; I own a lot of straps. In college, I delivered birthday treats by foot, which meant carrying staticky balloons, thorny roses and heavy cakes around campus. Note: People lose their absolute minds over the site of someone carrying balloons. At my NYC job, I regularly transported rolled up bus shelter posters under my arm and over the handlebar of my bike, from Brooklyn to the Bronx; like a polyester jousting stick. I could go on, but my point is that whenever I finished doing these physical feats, I felt like I could punch a lion (though of course, why would anyone want to punch a lion? Don't punch a lion). I realize this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and we all have different boundaries, but I love MacGyvering problems; I love inventing workarounds; it keeps you honest and keeps you creative. Wanna scale a system? Know its most basic components in your bones, and bring straps.

What I learned: Sometimes the best way to do something is just to do it; creative solutions still rely on systems thinking; pack bandaids.

5. Travel writing in Romania. I spent the summer of 2000 traveling around Romania for a couple of months, nominally researching and writing the Romania section of Let's Go: Eastern Europe. Except, I was terrible. On my first full day on the job, I got stuck in a courtyard in Constanta, surrounded by wild dogs. By the second month, I was eating so poorly and infrequently that I had stopped needing the toilet (wow, TMI). And by the time I finally escaped the country, I was covered in a stress rash. Romania was great/beautiful/friendly/fascinating and this is no shade to Voronet blue or the home of (maybe?) the world's largest one-piece carpet. I just wasn't ready. I will never forget the experience, particularly the part where I woke up in a hostel with roaches crawling on me, but I will also be the first to admit that I contributed little to nothing to the book update, my actual job.

What I learned: It's okay to admit when something isn't a good fit; Eat; Romanian postal workers will rage tape your fancy American envelope no matter how much you insist it doesn't need tape; Eat brown bread.

4. Getting shaken down by the mob. Let me preface this by saying that I grew up in Chicago so I should have known better. Nonetheless, when I was working in NYC and got a call from the waste disposal vendor I had contracted with to pick up garbage after a big event, and the man on the phone insisted that we owed the outfit an outrageous amount on top of what we’d already paid, I pushed back. Naively and insistently pushed back. The extra charge, after all, was clearly BS; I mean, it was. Thankfully, a wiser colleague pointed out that the contract was with a mob-controlled private sanitation company. (Why we were contracting with a mob-controlled sanitation company? There's a lot to unpack there.) So, when the gentleman called back a second time to demand the money. Yup, I let him know the check was in the mail.

What I learned: Know when to pick your battles; there are contracts, and there are contracts; your vendors can break your business, literally.

3. Private tutoring & online essay editing. One of the jobs I did both during and after college was editing people's high school, college and graduate school essays through a website that some friends started and ran. My role was to turn around both an edited essay and detailed comments to the client that would transform their essay on The Bluest Eye from a hot mess clinging to a bare chicken bone, into a Michelin starred feast--within 24 hours. Similarly, I was hired by a Manhattan company to tutor a very wealthy high schooler on writing history essays very early in my career. Needless to say, the question was always ... do I just write the essay myself? The subtext of these businesses was yes, but my answer was no. Unfortunately, you can't edit something that doesn't exist. No content equals no essay, and there was often very little content to massage. So, what do you do? Decades later, I still edit like a cat hearing a wet food can crack open at dinnertime--nothing like piece work on the clock to teach you hustle. And I'm still very, very good at teasing meaning out of a whisper of intention. Words are power, and mind reading is next level power.

What I learned: It's always good to make the people who pay you feel like they've done the work; teach your kids how to write, please, for the love of god; there is absolutely nothing new for your high schooler to say about The Bluest Eye, but it's good for them to try anyway. 

2. Surviving public meetings. A large part of my professional career has been spent working in transportation advocacy, and as part of that, attending public meetings about proposed street improvement projects. If you've never been to a local community meeting and watch Parks & Rec, this may sound homey and maybe kind of charming. Quirky, even. How fun! In reality, I cannot underscore how violent your average public meeting can be. Occasionally fisticuffs, but always menacing rhetoric and intimidation tactics, thinly disguised. The deepest violence is usually buried under a veneer of white politeness and shined shoes, but occasionally people just say what they mean and sh*t gets real. Case in point, a meeting on Staten Island about a proposal for traffic calming measures around schools where a lot of people were getting hit. Five minutes into his welcoming remarks, the City Councilman who organized the meeting got into an open cussing match with a woman in the audience: "Fuck you!" "No, fuck you, lady!" Etc. It was ... something. No one laid hands, thankfully, but it got damn close. I was the guest speaker.

What I learned: Public meetings are designed to prop up the status quo, at any cost; all decisions come down to personalities in a room, and some people have personality; wear low heels in case you need to run.

1. Prepping for the postal service exam. When I first moved to New York City in late August 2001, I had no job and was feeling dreamy after leaving my job as a consultant. To save money, I often walked from my room in Bed Stuy to the upper end of Manhattan for meetings and entertainment. I loved to walk and wander and explore, and somewhere around 39th and 5th, I got really excited about the idea of becoming a postal worker who delivered mail to offices in Midtown. The stories! The voyeurism! (Indeed, the job I actually ended up taking shortly thereafter was on the same floor as a phone sex operation 👀.) So, I looked into a career in postal work and signed up for a prep course to take the all important postal exam; it was like an SAT prep class, but for such a different kind of life, I figured. Then planes flew into the World Trade Center and offices started receiving Anthrax through the mail. I took another job. To this day, though, I still feel a little dreamy about being a postal worker in a place where you’re on foot and could spend all day listening to podcasts, or in Denmark on those enormous cargo trikes (and the pastries). It keeps us young and rich at heart to wonder and imagine, and not to take ourselves too seriously. But it keeps us alive and in health insurance to live in reality.

What I learned: Some jobs will kill you; you can listen to too many podcasts; it's good to admit when you're wrong and change course.

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