newspapers-folded-color-When I turned sixteen I received two cards: my Social Security Card and a Press Card. Both gave me an adult rush but the bigger thrill was the Press Card, bringing up visions of breaking though police lines, barreling to unfolding disasters and gaining entrance to all kinds of juicy, forbidden scenes. Along with that card, I was hired for my first freelance gig — writing a weekly column for a local newspaper. That column consisted of write-ups about special events and the notable activities of residents in a ritzy hilltop section of our suburban town. For this high school student, the icing on the cake was seeing my byline — my name in commercial print — for the first time.

For my column (actually double columns) I was paid by the word. This was not a good enticement for learning how to write lean, streamlined copy. It was however, a good way to learn about nuance – how far I could go to make as much badly needed money as I could, without going so far my word embroidery got out of hand or got me fired.

Various groups and organizations from my targeted section of town mailed event information directly to the newspaper, but I also had to seek out news and telephone people to inquire if they knew of any social gatherings, travel plans or entertaining neighborhood hoopla suitable for my column.  To me this was pretty much in the same league as cold calling, except instead of trying to sell strangers something, I was trying entice to them into coughing up some kind of info that would eventually profit me. And not being a cool, cold caller type, the process was downright painful for me.

With people usually in a rush to get rid of this pesky teenager annoying them on the phone, I often came up empty-handed, so I was thankful one day to finally contact a woman who was in no rush at all, who in fact seemed delighted to speak with me. Not only that, but she had some good tidbits on locals that I could definitely use. As I took notes, I heard ice cubes clinking in her glass. The next week when I spoke to her I heard the ice cubes again. And again the following week. Her voice had just enough of a slur to tell me she wasn’t sipping iced tea. She was always at home when I called, always extremely pleasant, always a good source of local information and never without her drink. Before her, I had some depressing moments and doubts about whether I’d be able to scare up enough news on the phone. But I had persevered and been saved by this angel and her tinkling glass.

As a freelancer, my working space was our family kitchen, the only room in our house with a phone. This hung on the wall beside our stove. With no near bye chair, all phones calls were made standing up and the only place to spread out papers and take notes was a little counter space in front of the canisters. The kitchen was the busiest room in the house, and because of all the traffic, the loudest. So I learned to move fast when the coast was relatively clear and quiet  — to jump on the phone and get some business in before the next onslaught of hungry family members.  Even still, thanks to the kitchen’s back door there was always some degree of traipsing back and forth. The lesson I learned from that was how to focus, no matter the distractions popping up in the background.

This lesson turned out to be a valuable aid for some of the three ring circuses where I put in work time further down the line.

What helpful lessons did you take away from your first jobs?

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