My worst job ever seems like it took place a lifetime ago, particularly from my middle-aged suburban perch in the Northeast. But every once in a while, I recall my short-lived Hollywood career.
And it makes me shudder.
"I need you to drive to my house and get my meeting shoes," my boss huffed, barely glancing at me. "These won't work at all," she muttered, looking down at her high heels, which looked perfectly fine to me.
Then again, I wasn't exactly a fashion maven back then—I was wearing clogs.
My boss gave me her address, and I left the studio lot. When I'd taken the internship at the film production company to fulfill my remaining college credits, I'd thought it would be at least a little bit glamorous. I'd imagined discovering great screenplays, learning from seasoned producers and maybe even attending film premieres. And mostly, I thought that by immersing myself in the film industry, my own creativity might eventually find a profitable home.
Instead, I was braving L.A traffic to fetch someone's special "meeting shoes."
There were fun parts of the job, to be sure: driving the golf cart to the commissary to pick up Caesar salads and cigarettes for my boss; hearing the voice of the occasional familiar actor from my back room in the office; knowing that our work neighbors included the staff of DreamWorks.
But as the days ticked on in my three-month internship, each one as sunny and blue-skied as the last, it became abundantly clear that I just wasn't cut out for life in "the business."
Most of my time was spent making so many copies of screenplays that the smell of Xerox toner filled my sinuses. Once, the producer slinked by me as I was collating copies.
"Oh, hi," she said breezily, in a tone that made me feel like an afterthought. It occurred to me that, though I'd been there for more than a month, and though there were only four of us in the office, she hadn't bothered to learn my name.
While I'd heard how health conscious people in L.A. were, the producer and another woman in the office smoked cigarettes—inside. The fact that I was allergic to cigarette smoke turned out to be the least of my problems.
I was approaching a crossroads. After I completed my internship, I could stay in L.A. and attempt to work my way up the ladder into some sort of paid position. Or I could head back north, where there were seasons, and find a job that wouldn't give me lung cancer.
My decision became obvious one late fall day when the office manager asked me to listen in on a phone call between my producer and an important studio executive. I was to take notes to capture any important information, since they were both driving as they spoke.
"I tried calling you the other day," a man's voice said.
"Oh, you did?" my producer said. I twirled around in my chair, hoping I wasn't breathing too loudly.
"Yeah, didn't you get my message?" he asked.
"No, no. Oh, God. We have this really sad intern," she drawled. "She can't get anything right."
As they both chuckled, heat flooded my body, spilling from my face down into my chest. My hand continued to jot down notes during the rest of the conversation, but I felt like I was having an outer body experience.
How dare she, I thought. The bitch probably still doesn't know my name. I was angry, but mostly, I felt humiliated. I bit down on my lip, willing myself not to cry.
The next day, I told the producer's assistant Emily what had happened. Emily was the one who'd hired me, and she was a bright presence in the office. Friendly and down to earth, she didn't seem to require special meeting shoes.
"I just—I can't believe she'd say that when she knew I was on the phone," I said. "Nobody's ever treated me like that."
Her eyes widened, and a sympathetic look swept across her face.
"She's been … different since the Oscar," she said. My eyes flicked to the framed poster celebrating the recent Academy Award winning blockbuster my boss had produced. "I'm really sorry that happened."
"But I have to say that's kind of the way it is in this business," she continued. "In fact, it actually can be much worse in other offices. You can't take it personally."
I nodded, knowing that she was right.
"I hate to say it, but there are a lot of people who'd love to be in your position," she said.
I knew I was easily replaceable. After all, it doesn't take a genius to make copies and go on cigarette runs.
I stayed on for another month to fulfill my college credits. On my last day, Emily thanked me. The producer was out at meetings that day. I wondered if she'd notice I was gone, and who would fill my seat.
Deep down, I'd known that a thick skin was required to get anywhere in the film industry. But it took a firsthand experience with an uncaring boss to realize how paper-thin my own flesh was. If toughening up meant feeling invisible and disposable, I wasn't interested.