Take This Job & Love It

This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of the Monthly. The editor wrote the introduction.
By Eve Kushner

The U.S. celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September, with barbecues and long, slow drives on crowded freeways.

Most of us have forgotten—if we ever knew—that labor was once celebrated here on May 1. That’s still the case in Europe, where the occasion originated as International Workers’ Day, or May Day, to commemorate the (often violent) struggle for the eight-hour workday.

Some self-employed workers like to keep weird hours. Some don’t want a boss breathing down their necks. But these free agents just like doing their own thing: odd jobs that most of us can’t (or won’t) do.

But why May 1? The timing has pagan roots. In old Europe, people traditionally put up a maypole made from tree boughs to welcome the arrival of summer. In some villages, May Day was a chance for rollicking in the woods, a sort of bacchanalian celebration of fertility.

Americans have scrubbed the pagan and political symbolism from May Day, but the rest of the world still celebrates labor on May 1 with rallies and speeches, celebrations and demonstration—and sometimes even riots—as an expression of workers’ commitment to social change.

The struggle for the eight-hour day may no longer be a bloody street battle, as it was in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May of 1886, but the quest for meaningful work is ongoing. To help celebrate the creativity we all bring to our jobs—odd or otherwise—Berkeley writer Eve Kushner sniffed out some of the East Bay’s most unusual careers—work the rest of us might find scary, exhausting, or just plain gross. Each profile teaches us something: how enterprising people find their professional niche, no matter how esoteric.

Happy May Day. Take a break and enjoy these worker profiles.

Somebody’s Gotta Do It

At some time in your life you’ve probably felt flattered to hear that you’d be good at some career—teaching, perhaps, or acting. Now suppose someone said you’d be great at giving enemas. Then what would you say?

Sharon Jacobs said the same thing: “Never, ever, ever.”

But when two more people suggested she look into colonics, she decided, what the heck, she’d give it a try. Now, three years into her colon hydrotherapy career, Jacobs, 47, says she knows why she was put on this planet: “There are things that we come here to do, and I think I came here to do this work.”

It’s hard to imagine that, until 1993, Jacobs worked the 9-to-5 grind as the facilities manager for a large law firm in Oakland. A short, gentle woman with an enormous smile and kind eyes, Jacobs now rejects “corporate America” in general and Western medicine in particular.

Jacobs possesses the one crucial qualification for the practice of colon hydrotherapy: “I’m not squeamish about waste matter.”

Jacobs possesses the one crucial qualification for the practice of colon hydrotherapy: “I’m not squeamish about waste matter,” she says. When her mother suffered a massive stroke in 1993, Jacobs and her dad decided to take care of Jacobs’s mother at home. Ten years adds up to a lot of bedpans.

A friend suggested that this caretaking experience might be preparing Jacobs for something, and Jacobs hoped at first that this something would be a baby of her own. She never did have a child; instead, she says she thinks of her clients as her babies. She coos over patients as if they were infants: “Your first colonic and you did so well!”

She knows from experience what internal cleansing feels like. She gets colonics monthly, except in the fall, when she does a 40-day juice fast and has three colonics a week. She enjoyed her first cleansing experience five years ago, during a 42-day juice fast. “I felt wonderful,” she recalls, “really at peace and strong and calm and healthy. I said, ‘I want to help people feel like this.’” So she trained for two months with the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapists and got her certification.

Colon hydrotherapy works by removing bodily waste and eliminating toxins that can cause disease, Jacobs says. There is evidence that humans were performing colonics as long as 3,500 years ago. (Ancient drawings depict Egyptians lying head downstream in rivers with hollow poles strategically inserted upstream.) Western doctors turned away from the method in the 1960s but in the past few years the practice has seen a resurgence, embraced by celebrities like Madonna and Janet Jackson.

Jacobs says “anyone can administer a colonic from the standpoint of the mechanics.” But a good colon hydrotherapist knows how to connect with clients emotionally. She says physical and emotional release go hand in hand. During a “productive” session, a client may cry or laugh.

“My regular clients tell me they come to me more for the psychotherapy than the colonics,” Jacobs says. “That’s OK. At one time I thought I wanted to be a psychologist.”

Jacobs charges $75 an hour, which helps pay the mortgage on her Oakland house. Work at her business, Health Unlimited, fluctuates—during the hectic spring and fall seasons she works 11-hour days.

Life has brought her to an unexpected career, but the choice feels right, Jacobs says. “I don’t think I’d be the colon hydrotherapist I am if I’d come into the work sooner. I came at a time in my life that was right.”

The Shoe Fits

Gary Rosenberg traces his affinity for manual labor to his childhood in Manhattan and a building super named Danny. “In a building of 5,000 people, he was the most important guy,” Rosenberg says. “When something went wrong, they called Danny the handyman.”

But, of course, “handyman” is not what parents want to hear when they ask their kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” So Rosenberg endured years of blue-ribbon schooling and white-collar drudgery before he could finally get his hands dirty.

Rosenberg graduated from Stanford with a degree in drama, and made his parents proud by landing a position in the private client group at Robertson Stephens investment bank in San Francisco. A year later, in 1994, his division was shut down. That’s when he made his move, embarking on the long path to his dream job: standing among piles of manure with a horse hoof gripped between his thighs.

Headless horsewoman.
Credit: Treve Johnson
Headless horsewoman.

Rosenberg, 39, is a farrier, a word derived from the Latin for “iron.” But it’s working with animals, not metals, that attracted him to the work. He prefers their company to that of people.

After losing his banking job he decided that he’d rather work with his hands. He started a home-repair business in and around Berkeley, fixing everything from locks to sinks. He started out at $16.50 an hour and now charges $75.

In 2000, Rosenberg went with a friend to the stables near Tilden Park and watched a farrier shoe a horse. He realized then that farriery could be lucrative, self-scheduled, and done anywhere in the world. A week later he was studying with accomplished farriers around the Bay Area, eventually serving a longer apprenticeship under a farrier in Shandon, near Paso Robles.

Bending his powerful upper body over the hoof of a recalcitrant customer in the same stable near Tilden Park where he first got hooked on farriery, Rosenberg sweats in a steady stream that flows off his bald head and slides down his nose onto the hay-strewn floor. Cutting himself with a tool, he ignores the blood that flows from his hand. He calms the horse by feeding him carrot after carrot and teasing him gently: “Yes, it’s hard being you.”

Rosenberg talks a lot to horses. He speaks “horse,” imitating their snorts and brays. “It’s more body language than anything else,” he says. “A lot of people think I’m crazy, but I can work with horses that other people can’t.”

He charges $125 for the hour or so it takes to change a horse’s four shoes. He tends to about 30 horses regularly, traveling between Martinez, Walnut Creek, Danville, Livermore, and Brentwood. Between farriery and his fix-it work, he’s made enough to buy a couple of rental units in Berkeley. This success has not overwhelmed his parents. They were never happier, he says, than when he wore a tie and worked in an office. But Rosenberg has never been happier than now, spending time outdoors and making money on “my own merits, as opposed to someone else’s labor.”

“The guy who ran the elevator when I was a kid was an Italian-émigré war veteran who had a steel plate in his head, had no use of one arm, and walked with a limp,” Rosenberg says. “I used to struggle with, why is it that he’s running the elevator for me? I love being able to look inside and revel in the satisfaction of what I can do with my hands and how I can contribute. I feel like a very lucky person.”

The Key to Happiness

If you associate harpsichords with powdered wigs and 17th-century parlors, you’d be hard-pressed to place John Phillips in that civilized picture. There’s far less refinement in the actual making of a harpsichord. Phillips curses and groans as he bends a freshly steamed plank and clamps it into place in the curved form that shapes the instrument’s concave side.

With his large frame, Phillips is built for the physically demanding aspect of his job. But the moment he stops swearing and starts talking, it is apparent that he’s not all brawn. In fact, he is so soft-spoken that it’s difficult to hear him over the hammering of an employee in his West Berkeley workshop. Coupled with his heft, Phillips’s sharp mind and eclectic knowledge make him something of a prototype for the profession of harpsichord making.

Harpsichord by John Phillips, decoration by Janine Johnson.
Harpsichord by John Phillips, decoration by Janine Johnson.

Phillips describes his job as “trying to re-create instruments that would have been familiar to musicians from a long time ago”—namely, the 16th through 18th centuries. That requires an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from the hydroscopic properties of wood to music history to math.

Fascinated by the harpischord and loving the sound of it, Phillips started John Phillips Harpsichords in 1975, after finishing a master’s in musicology at U.C. Santa Cruz. “In the ’70s, it was very fashionable for people with education to do something with their hands,” he explains. “It was the ultimate act of rebellion. Your parents have just spent all this money sending you to college and what do you do? You go into the woods and make weird musical instruments.”

But first Phillips went to Europe. He traveled to museums in Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, England, and Scotland to study the few harpsichords that have survived from the 17th and 18th centuries, then came back and figured out how to replicate them. “I just sat and thought about them for a while,” he recalls, “and came up with a putative scheme” for how the original builders designed their instruments. Rather than drawing blueprints, they would have started with a single module, such as the width of the keyboard, and then used the proportions to extrapolate the design for the entire instrument.

Building harpsichords in the modern era, Phillips has some advantages over his predecessors. But sometimes he ends up using anachronistic methods, as when customers request bird quills instead of plastic for the plectrums, the picks in a harpsichord that pluck the strings (a piano has hammers that strike the strings). Phillips has collected bushels and bushels of soiled feathers from beneath vulture roosts in Briones Park.

Specializing in a musical instrument that fell out of fashion several hundred years ago (when musical styles changed and people decided they preferred the dramatic, high-contrast sounds only a piano can make), Phillips admits he’s a bit out of step. There are only about 100 harpsichord makers in the world, but he says he likes this “rarefied” aspect. “Why do what everybody else does?”

Phillips owns a home in north Berkeley with his physicist wife, but his profession has required sacrifices. “I’ve accepted a standard of living quite different from the middle-class one I grew up with,” he says.

It is Phillips’s clients who have money—he charges $30,000 for each of his custom-built harpsichords—and patience: Phillips has a four-year waiting list. He and his one full-time employee, Janine Johnson, make just three harpsichords a year. He does all the casework, she builds the keyboards and lids and decorates the instruments. Still, he has a clientele eager to buy his well-regarded instruments. His first commission came from a professional harpsichordist. Aside from doctors and computer scientists, Phillips’s customers also include institutions, such as churches, universities, and music institutes.

Phillips is selective about whom he builds for. How does he reject customers with $30,000 in hand? “There’s a wonderful word in the English language called ‘no.’” He uses the word freely with affluent nonmusicians who only want a showpiece. “I’d rather not make instruments that are going to go in somebody’s house and sit,” he says. “I’d rather work for musicians.”

Clothes Make the Woman

There are many kinds of humiliation, but there is a special kind reserved for those who sell their clothing at the consignment store. Standing patiently at the counter, they wait with growing dread as the buyer inspects their wardrobe, forces a smile, and says, “I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.”

Karen Gaines has made it her business never to experience this humiliation. In the past three years, she has consigned several thousand items at Rockridge Rags. She also works with three Buffalo Exchanges, four Crossroads outlets, and stores from Walnut Creek to San Francisco. She knows what each shop wants to buy and she rarely misses her target.

Gaines, 43, is a “fashion broker.” Consigning clothes is how she makes her living.

Until three years ago, she worked as the scheduler for a high-profile Bay Area politician (whom she won’t name). Equipped with a B.A. in international relations from the American University in Paris, she had landed her dream job. But “I just couldn’t juggle it with parenting,” says the single mother of a 12-year-old girl.

Now only two things seem to register on Gaines’s radar—her kid and her new career. Gaines began selling clothes seven years ago, when her father died and she consigned the contents of his closet. She realized, “Hey, you can walk in with 10 articles of clothing and walk out with $50, $60, $80.”

So she started buying at thrift stores in Hayward, San Leandro, and Vallejo—places where used clothing is, well, used clothing—and selling in trendier neighborhoods where the same stuff is admired as “vintage.” Her hobby soon grew into a passion. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” she says. “Every day I’m out searching for clothes. It’s new and exciting, because I don’t know what I’m going to find.”

Gaines also frequents yard sales, flea markets, and auctions. She checks newspapers for estate sales and hits thrift shops on “dollar days.” She lugs as many as 25 items at a time to consignment stores, making sure to arrive during the restricted consignment hours. At night she washes, irons, and mends.

The stores she does business with work two ways. Used-clothing stores like Crossroads, Buffalo Exchange, Mars, and Wasteland accept any amount of clothing and pay 35 to 40 percent of the label price up front. Consignment shops like Rockridge Rags take only 25 pieces at a time and pay 50 percent of the sale price once a garment sells.

She earns 35 to 50 percent on every item she sells, pocketing $30 here, $70 there, enough if she manages carefully to cover car payments, rent on her north Oakland apartment, and travel expenses. Occasionally she makes a mistake. She still kicks herself for a Jessica McClintock wedding gown she bought that, though beautiful, was stained and took an inordinately long time to sell. When it comes to her own wardrobe,

Gaines is always thinking trends. Even while relaxing with a magazine or a movie, she studies the clothing. On recent trips with her daughter to Paris, Milan, Santa Fe, and Salt Lake City (for the Sundance Film Festival), she bought clothes by the trunkload.

“Pretty much everywhere I go, I can thrift while I’m there,” she says. Although buying 40 pairs of used shoes in Milan did make it difficult to repack for the flight home.

Fashion brokers are an eclectic bunch, Gaines says. She’s trolled the racks alongside a Polish concentration-camp survivor, Japanese and Salvadoran visitors buying clothes to resell back home, drug addicts working to buy their next fix, and homeless people who take and sell clothes from the “free box” at People’s Park.

Gaines earns far less than she might at a conventional job, pulling in $1,200 to $3,500 a month, but she has no regrets. “I’m totally unconventional,” she says cheerfully, “so this works for me!”

The Old Man and the Sky

What color is your parachute? Kirk Osgood doesn’t really care what color his is, as long as it gets him to earth without getting him killed.

At Adventure Center Skydiving at the Hollister Airport, Osgood, a trim man of 58, introduces himself as the oldest skydiver ever. With his shoulder-length scraggly gray hair and mustache, he certainly looks the part. But a mischievous grin follows many of Osgood’s statements, as when this skydiving instructor boasts that he has no fears.

Credit: Adventure Center Skydiving

“Why would I fear anything?” he says. “There’s nothing for me to fear, so I don’t.” Death is inevitable, he shrugs. Why fear the inevitable? At least his family believes him—he says his wife, children, and grandchildren are all perfectly confident he’ll come home each day in one piece.

If he doesn’t, well, he’s lived his share of life already. Osgood was born in Independence, Missouri (whence his folksy diction), dropped out of high school (he found it dull), and attended George Mason University without a high school diploma. “Nobody ever asked me,” he says, adding that “they had to let me graduate, because I had a 3.8 grade-point average.” Then came law school at George Mason; a stint as a cop in Fairfax County, Virginia; three years working on the Alaska Pipeline; and a real estate career in Monterey.

Osgood first jumped out of a plane in 1980, in Antioch, and immediately took to skydiving. “It’s intense and almost unbelievable, the speeds that you’re going,” he says. Besides, he loves doing “what land-bound creatures are not supposed to be able to do.” In 1981, he got his instructor’s credential and he’s taught the sport ever since, logging nearly 8,000 jumps—and getting paid minimally, he complains. Asked how much he makes, all he’ll say is, “I get by.”

But clearly Osgood is not in this for the money. He typically exits the plane at 15,000 to 18,000 feet, well above the realm of most birds. After a minute-long 120-mph free fall, he opens his chute and sails for five minutes (sometimes in the airspace of bald eagles, hawks, or falcons) before touching down. “You learn to fly your body,” he says. “It’s rudimentary, but it’s flight.”

Most of Osgood’s lessons are tandems with new skydivers. On the ground, he straps his body to a student’s in four places (hips and shoulders) and then coaches the client through a jump, explaining the procedures for exiting the plane (step out, don’t jump) and positioning the body, et cetera, all the way to the ground. If clients balk, he tells them that in 23 years, he’s never had any serious injuries. “It isn’t as complicated and dangerous as people think it is,” he says. “It looks wild and crazy, but the truth is we have set procedures we go through for every jump.”

“When you jump from an airplane the very first time, there’s something different about you all the rest of your life.”

Once the plane reaches the jump spot, if a student freezes and decides not to go, the crew won’t force a terrified first-timer out the door. “However, we will try to talk them into it,” Osgood says. He must be persuasive. Even off the job, he’s evangelical about skydiving: “It changes people’s lives. When you jump from an airplane the very first time, there’s something different about you all the rest of your life, because you’ve done something that most of the people who have ever lived on earth have never done.”

Eating Her Words

Most artists struggle to find a voice. Thessaly Lerner has developed about 20. Her high-pitched, girlish vocalizations emanate from dozens of electronic educational toys manufactured by LeapFrog Enterprises in Emeryville, where she’s a freelance character voice actor.

“I have a huge range,” Lerner says of her voice. “Sometimes I do 30 characters an hour.” She’s played a sink, a giraffe, a hippopotamus, and every letter of the alphabet.

First, says Lerner, 29, she ascertains her character’s species, gender, age, and color. Then she can create a voice. Playfully varying her pitch and elongating words for emphasis, she explains that “a bluuue mouse is different than a peeenk mouse! Or a mouse with eyelashes—tooootally different than a mouse with a baseball cap!” Demonstrating the soprano pitch of an eyelashed mouse, Lerner could easily shatter glass in surrounding windows. Even in her normal speech, she often sounds squeaky. When she answers the phone, people usually ask to speak to her mother.

Even in her normal speech, Lerner sounds squeaky. When she answers the phone, people usually ask to speak to her mother.

Everything about Lerner is kinetic, from her unruly curls to the way she shifts from side to side and gesticulates during a conversation. She never tires of talking, delivering words at a relentless pace, whether she’s listing her heroes (Saturday Night Live alumni like Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray) or gushing about children’s books, Fisher-Price finger toys, and lunchboxes, all of which she collects. Surprisingly down to earth, she repeatedly returns to practical topics like money.

Lerner sees her voice-over job as a way to support her theater endeavors, pay the bills, and swing the rent on her apartment in the Castro. She earns $150 to $200 an hour at LeapFrog (she could have charged $350 during the dot-com boom, had she caught that wave). Unfortunately, the work isn’t dependable: “You make a couple thousand dollars, then you don’t have a job for six months.”

In February, she took her energy to the stage in her one-woman show, Champion! at La Val’s Subterranean Theater in Berkeley, playing 10 characters. “My favorite thing to do is to be onstage,” she says. “I love to make people laugh.”

Born to “hippie artists” (a belly-dancing mother and a candlemaking father), Lerner grew up in Mill Valley. Her first acting experience came when she was six and attended Wavy Gravy’s Circus Performing Arts Camp in Mendocino County. Lerner got a BFA in acting from Emerson College in Boston. Later, while working in San Francisco as a singing waitress at Max’s Opera Café, she took a class at VoiceMedia, a voice-over school on the edge of North Beach where she now teaches. She got her gig at LeapFrog two years ago, after submitting a tape (as did hundreds of other voice talents in the Bay Area) and auditioning several times.

Stage acting remains her true passion—she directs children’s plays and does improv murder-mystery theater with the Berkeley company Murder on the Menu. And she dreams big, hoping to take Champion! to New York City, land a spot on SNL, and have her own comedy show on Comedy Central. She has appeared on one episode of Nash Bridges and in a nationally broadcast Kaiser Permanente commercial, where she pretended to give birth (doing a lot of uninhibited screaming in the process).

A college acting teacher once told her that her high voice would prevent her getting anywhere in acting. But she’s found a way to make the best of what she’s got: a voice that’s ideal for cartoons, video games, and toys. “I feel lucky that I can make a living doing what I love.”

Eve Kushner is a Berkeley freelancer. Her profiles appear frequently in the San Francisco Chronicle.