Every Job I’ve Had: Park Ranger, Camp Counselor, and Cruise Ship Entertainment Host
by Dan Barker
National Park Service, May 2008 — November 2010:
I became an employee of the federal government pretty much by accident. I had meant to be searching for (do I even have to say unpaid?) summer internships in theatre production on my university’s career services site. At some point, though, I clicked through to a different search category and ended up perusing recreation and leisure jobs that actually paid money. Thusly, what would have been my eventually illustrious career as a high-powered Broadway producer ended before it had even begun.
The listed job for which I applied was entry-level interpretation and education at a national monument in New York Harbor, which means tour guide. I submitted a version of my resume that highlighted my high school experiences as a day camp counselor and star of spring musicals (to emphasize my crowd control and public speaking skills) and pared down my major from Dramatic Literature, Theatre History, and the Cinema to read just as Theatre History (to emphasize my historical skills). I submitted a cover letter that included anecdotes from my childhood in which my Great Aunt Mary, who worked for the Pentagon, cultivated an appreciation for national treasures by taking me to many of the DC-area memorials and museums just about every spring break from the age of four to 14.
My tales of youthful nationalism must have really tugged at the heartstrings of the hiring ranger, because she e-mailed me back the next day, and we set up a quick phone interview, at the end of which she offered me the job. Before I could show up for work (report for duty?), I had to submit to a federal background investigation, which included getting fingerprinted in a hot, crowded, windowless room at 1 Police Plaza as well as ensuring friends and family, who had received a short questionnaire about my residential/military/criminal history or lack thereof, that the Office of Personnel Management was a real federal agency and not a case of Orwellian overlords looking to lock me away. On our first day at the monument, the other new seasonal tour guides and I had to raise our right hands and swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This job lasted three, six-month public-access seasons. I received $15/hour and free government-issue hiking boots and Smokey Bear hat in exchange for walking around outside, telling people stories I had read, and firing a lot of muskets.
Third-Party Food Delivery Service/Environmental Health NPO, December 2010 — April 2011:
Living in New York and paying off student debt on a seasonal ranger’s salary was not sustainable. I spent all my money on rent and could not find a permanent job. Not only did I have to move back in with my mom, but I had to deal with the fact that it was the most cliche thing I could have done (I am a voice of my generation). I was broke and the last time I lived in Cleveland I was a child, so I had no idea what people even did for money in Cleveland besides perform heart surgery on Oprah or some Arab king. I resorted to job-hunting on Craigslist. In terms of reputation, Craig and his list did not disappoint. On this one website, I managed to find the two least pleasant things I’ve ever done for money, possibly because they were the only jobs I’d ever done for the sole purpose of getting paid (I know, I’ve got privilege spilling out of my ears).
To the Lake County franchise of a Seamless knockoff looking for a delivery driver, I sent an e-mail simply stating that I owned my own car and that I had “experience in several customer service positions.” The owner called me maybe an hour later, and, as he was also the dispatcher, sent me on my first order. The first time I met my boss/dispatcher in person was after a week of deliveries, and I had to go to his office to submit the take (which, weirdly was always in checks) and recoup my wages, which I think was just a percentage. A man of great mass, he sat on a comically small and decrepit swivel chair, dispatching his delivery fleet from his backyard tool shed. After paying for my own gas, I made about five dollars per hour. I hope that I would have quit this job purely out of self-respect anyway, but midway through my second week, I got an e-mail from one of the other 20 or so Craigslist job posters (not an offer, just an interview) and bid farewell to food service forever.
An environmental organization sought canvassers for an anti-coal campaign, and they asked me to come in for a training and field evaluation day. I figured this would be easy and satisfying, because who doesn’t like the environment? I know I do! I would still be going door-to-door, soliciting personal checks from complete strangers, but now, instead of handing those strangers bags of soggy food, I would be handing them bags of enthusiastic idealism! This coming from a dude who has spent a cumulative eight years in New York City staring straight into the eyes of sidewalk canvassers and loudly chanting, “No, no, no, no, no,” just on principle. These were clearly desperate times.
On training day, two seasoned canvassers shuttled me and three other penniless but privileged young adults to an upper-middle-class suburb on the west side of town in a Chevy Suburban (15 city/21 highway), which the two environmentalists alleged was donated to them by none other than Captain Planet’s dad, Ted Turner. I followed one of the coal-haters around for a few doors, and when she unleashed me onto the unsuspecting homeowners, I parroted her rap and encountered little enough resistance to earn the daily quota. In terms of quota, I spent the following two months scraping by, and after I took my percentage of donations, I earned maybe $50 a day. In an effort to improve my performance, I educated myself about all the issues related to coal-fired power plants and the history of the organization I represented under the assumption that the better-informed I sounded, the more money people would give me. All I learned was that I totally disagreed with all the principles I was helping to fund.
Summer Camp, June 2011 — present
Cleveland was not working out. I turned 25 while I was there, a quarter of a fucking century, and I started having panic attacks in that span of time between going to bed and falling asleep. A fellow former park ranger sent me a Facebook message about how angsty my status updates had been around then, and she included a link to the staff application for the summer camp where she had been a bunk counselor the previous summer. She said to mention that we knew each other, because if she had any social capital in this world, it was with the directors of this camp. I filled out an application, which asked about my experience with camps, the woods, swimming, children, stress, performing arts, power tools, and inventing sports. I had three phone interviews with the two staff directors and one of the camp co-directors. I don’t remember anything we talked about except an anecdote about tricking my grandfather into going to bed, because he has vascular dementia and wouldn’t go to bed before phoning someone at his workplace that didn’t exist anymore. I started calling him myself in the evening and pretended to be this probably dead person, and he would go to bed and forget the whole thing in the morning. I guess they liked that, because kids often need tricked into going to bed or doing whatever you want them to do, and I lived in a cabin full of 12 year olds for the following three summers. I will return this summer as director of all waterfront-related fun times.
Carnival Cruise Lines, January 2012 — May 2013
After my first summer at camp, I knew I wanted to keep going back, so I needed to find something to do in the meantime that both paid the bills and offered at least a fraction of the fulfillment I enjoyed at camp. I stumbled upon coolworks.com, a website that advertises temporary and seasonal jobs in interesting locations. Postings on this site include everything from wilderness survival guide to zip line technician to line cook at a fancy restaurant on a private ranch. The listing that caught my eye was Youth Coordinator for Disney Cruise Lines, because, hey, it’s probably just like camp, but in the Caribbean Sea, plus maybe I’ll get to fulfill my childhood dream of feeling up Princess Jasmine. I e-mailed my resume to a third-party recruiting firm and landed a phone interview. The first question was my citizenship status, the second question was my availability, and the third question was whether I had any visible tattoos. I have a half-sleeve that ends at my elbow. According to the Disney Look Book, this is unacceptable:
“The Disney Look is a classic look that is clean, natural, polished and professional, and avoids ‘cutting edge’ trends or extreme styles, including intentional body alteration or modification for the purpose of achieving a visible, physical effect that disfigures, deforms or similarly detracts from a professional image.”
Luckily, though, the recruiter also placed people at Carnival Cruise Lines, and after a cattle call in Toronto where about 30 other candidates and I played Balderdash in front of the Carnival hiring manager, I was offered a position as an Entertainment Host on the Carnival Legend. After befriending several youth counselors on that ship, I was relieved not to have been offered the position at Disney. Turns out their job is not like camp. Turns out it is mostly cleaning up after seasick toddlers and/or attempting to prevent teenagers from sneaking into the lifeboats to bang each other. Instead I got to Electric Slide all over the Lido deck and open for late-night acts in the comedy club in exchange for $1500/month plus commission from bingo card sales, and free food, shelter, and medical treatment. But then my girlfriend got fired, and I missed culture, so I quit.
Park Slope parents of two, September 2013 — February 2014:
What I really want to do is write movies and make them with my talented friends, so I moved back to New York, because this is where the highest concentration of my professional network resides. Without a plan, I drove to New York from Cleveland in my grandfather’s Camry, which he cannot drive anymore. At a gas station in the middle of Pennsylvania, I saw that a friend posted on Facebook that he had an extra room for a month, and voila, I had a place to stay. I went out for a celebratory night on the town with a former fellow camp counselor. Under several influences we enjoyed that delightful autumn evening, he suggested I replace him as babysitter to a pair of brothers in Park Slope, because he had found a big-boy job at the UN. He introduced the father and me via e-mail. Under no influences, I interviewed with the whole family in their living room, and voila, I had a part-time job to keep my head above water and lots of free time to read and write and re-energize old friendships with film people. They paid me about a thousand dollars a month to play kickball with their kids and stand by during their fastidious completion of homework. I slept on an impossibly gracious couple’s couch for three of these months, and spent all my cruise ship savings on rent for the other three of these months. I was broke again, but not ready to give up on New York.
National Park Service, March 2014 — present:
Surprise ending: I’m a National Park Ranger all over again! A guy who got hired as a seasonal the same year as me is now in charge of staffing at the monument in the harbor. We have remained friends since then, attended the same university, party very hard together sometimes with our other federally employed friends, and I’m pretty sure we are eskimo brothers. He recommended I replace the coordinator of student outreach activities, whose seasonal appointment ended in March. I still get paid $15/hour, which is, like, $4 in 2008 dollars. It’s cool, though, because it’s not quite peak season yet, and I spend quite a lot of time in the office secretly writing the screenplay for an historical drama. I like to think of it as a government subsidized artist residency. I’ll be sure to thank you, taxpayers, in my Oscar acceptance speech.
Dan Barker is a storyteller living in Manhattan.
Photo: Paul Carroll