The Many Jobs of John Mayer

Being an artist is not always conducive to making a living...

Please list all of the jobs you’ve ever held, in the order of most favorite to least favorite.

That’s a toughie, since many a job has started off being great fun and then been overwhelmed by bureaucratic second-guessing and creativity by committee. There are probably some jobs that were both my most and least favorite. I’m glad word processors make it easy to shuffle things around. Let’s see:

Falcon Hacker

Lived in a tent for a summer working on reintroducing peregrine falcons into the Southeast, from which area they had been extirpated by egg collectors and DDT. The larger subspecies that had been native to our area, the duck hawk, is gone forever, but darned if we didn’t succeed in reintroducing the peregrine falcon to this part of the country. Might just be the most important job I ever had. So far. We lost one of our falcons, the one I’d named Colonel Mustard for his yellow leg band, hit by a car. But, as far as anyone knows, Miss Scarlet and Mrs. Peacock went on to become the matriarchs of the peregrines you can sometimes see on office buildings in downtown Knoxville. There were moments of near bliss doing this work; the only downsides were the loneliness and the weekly culture shock driving through Pigeon Forge on the way back to Knoxville for a shower and supplies.

Computer Software Content Artist, Animator, Be Smart Kids

A fun job drawing things, both realistic and cartoon, for early childhood enrichment program software for a firm in Greenville started by a front-line teacher, Donna Blevins. I liked them, they liked me. What was not to love? Unfortunately, this is the job I was working when my eye suddenly gave out due to, according to my retinologist, boxing trauma (really, it could have been any sort of trauma). They held the job for months and finally had to fill it. Two of our backers were Larry King and Ross Perot (remember him?). One especially satisfying moment involved confronting Ross Perot’s lawyer on a conference call with Ms. Blevins. At the urging of one of Ms. Blevins’ managers, about whom the less said the better, he was insisting that we discard weeks of work by the software staff involving characters that resembled Dr. Seuss characters (which was what had been requested of me). I was protesting that that was ridiculous, that no one can copyright a style. I’d made sure I hadn’t unwittingly drawn something similar to one of the lesser characters in some Dr. Seuss book by going through every one in the Knox County children’s library. Mr. Geisel (he wasn’t a real doctor; more like a homeopathic doctor, but far more valuable to humanity) had created a LOT of characters. Mr. Perot made a couple of visits to Greenville (made famous in the movie Almost Famous, with the line, “Greenville is so boring; anywhere else on earth you’d still be a virgin,” which, I believe should be made the town motto. Imagine the tourism campaign, “Ready to make your girlfriend your lover? Bring her to Greenville!”) You may recall, if you are old enough, his claims that he was being dogged by pajama-clad ninjas who had, among other things, ruined his daughter’s wedding. Ms. Blevins had a pretty good sense of humor, but she would not permit us to dress up like ninjas and drop from the roof and lurk in the landscaping of the school.

Theme Park Designer

This was one of those jobs I loved at first, when I thought that Big Jim Sidwell (his son was Little Jim) had started a theme park as opposed to other endeavors just because he was a fun-loving guy who wanted to make people happy. When I realized he actually was in it to turn a profit it started seeming less enjoyable. But it was great fun at first. I was the de facto architect. Pigeon Forge codes did not require an architect for buildings under 18 feet, so the sky was not my limit. There was a challenge when I designed an aerial Magic Carpet darkride which required a certain amount of height to get the effect. Big Jim solved that problem in, I think, a very clever manner: he excavated within the darkride structure, adding better than a story of height to the ride. The place was fun in the summer, hanging out with show business people of all sorts. I made a deal to create a second head for our juggler/ventriloquist in exchange for unicycle lessons. It’s harder than it looks. I had a vague goal of being the first person to cross the country on a unicycle, but I discovered someone had already done that, way back in the '30s. That juggler was David Fee, who now owns, or maybe just manages, the Comedy Barn. There was a second ventriloquist who roamed the grounds. I don’t remember her name, but her dummy’s name was Hank. She was a good ventriloquist, but had not felt the need to work humor into her act—she and her wooden partner simply engaging in small talk with our visitors and, mostly, each other. One night a party was held for the Magic World staff. Cruelly, Hank was invited but not his ventriloquist.

In the winter while we were building the Arabian Nights addition, Pigeon Forge was all but deserted, with the melancholy of a haunted fairground. Those were the good old days.

I’d passed Magic World many times in the years before I went to work there. Originally there was little to be seen passing by but a giant Styrofoam mountain with a very blue waterfall. I used to wonder who on Earth would stop on the way to the Smokies to see a little Styrofoam mountain. Lots of people, it turned out. The mountain was formed over the old caretaker’s cottage of the former Fort Weir, once a roadside zoo. If there had been a fire I believe the fumes would have wiped out the entire city of Pigeon Forge. Sigh. I heard a story from the other workers there about a Christmas parade in Gatlinburg where the Magic World float was created by spraying a small version of the Magic World mountain over one of the company’s pick-up trucks. The story had it that the craftsmen had not allowed for proper ventilation and that the carbon monoxide build-up had overcome the driver, and he’d crashed into the convertible ahead, causing Big Bird to leap out and storm back to the mobile mountain and begin cursing in a most un-Sesame Street manner.

We opened the new Arabian Nights attraction just in time for the Arab Oil Boycott, a drastic decline in tourism, and the country’s first wave of animosity toward Arabs. Big Jim had to pull in his horns, and I was laid off. But I made some friends there. Among them was Steve Bach, as far as I know the only person in the country ever to be convicted of attempting to shoplift a live, grown bear.

Commercial Sculptor

I and another sculptor Susan (don’t remember the last name) created licensed character sculptures that were cast as candles that, though flammable, were not intended to be burned. (Later I worked briefly for a lady who owned a different candle company who was trying to find a formula for completely non-flammable wax in order to placate Steven Spielberg in producing ET candles; he had just gone through a tragedy with his Twilight Zone movie and had visions of children self-immolating all over America. I was actually to have met Spielberg, but the candle lady and I had artistic differences over the number of wrinkles in ET’s ass and ended our association.) I got to do such characters as Batman and the Hulk and Wonder Woman and the Tom half of Tom and Jerry and many others. It’s possible I might have done the first 3D version of Fred Flintstone during that series' revival (it’s also possible I didn’t, but I’d not seen any others), which was a bit of a challenge as he had been drawn in a cubist style, so that his straight-on view didn’t seem to match up with his profile.

World’s Fair Exhibit Designer

Another job that was fun at first. I did a few freelance jobs for the World’s Fair proper, but I worked for several months for TVA in designing their exhibit, which someone had conceived putting on coal barges on the Tennessee River. Clever, except that three-fourths of their budget had been spent retrofitting the barges for the purpose, leaving little money for the actual exhibits. There were six of us on the design team, along with a consultant from Raleigh about whom the less said the better. I was in charge of six of TVA’s many areas of responsibility: flood control, reforestation, agriculture, wildlife, and a couple more.

Since we were not on the fairgrounds, we (alone of all the exhibits) were permitted animals. I’d thought first of an aviary, but we eventually settled on a river otter exhibit. TVA’s own craftspeople fabricated the curved Plexiglas tank, but it still cost the exhibit arm of TVA a bloody fortune. Also, the deck of the barge was only designed to support tons of coal and so had to be reinforced to support the weight of the tank. River otters were a big attraction, then, at zoos. At that time there had been no luck breeding otters in captivity. Otters captured as adults did not adapt well to captivity, so animals on exhibit needed to have been captured very young or to have been born in captivity. Needless to say, those were hard to come by, and were at a premium. With a lot of calling around (long before the Internet) I managed to come up with a pair for the bargain price of $700. Unfortunately, I was not to be around to see their installation. Since we had so little money for exhibits, we were always looking for additional funds. I had contacted a man from the USDA and he had offered to put up an additional $10,000 in order to have some input as to the ag exhibit. Unfortunately, he was turned over to our consultant (“A consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps the watch.” ~ Carl Ally) who was working out some sort of an arrangement with, as I recall, a group called Exhibitgroup/Atlanta. The $10,000 was to be spent on, essentially a sheet of plywood with graphics. I felt guilty for getting the gentleman from the USDA involved and politely suggested our design team might be able to come up with a more dynamic concept. I was fired within the hour.

After I’d left they’d revisited my areas and our management decided that $700 was an awful lot of money for two otters. So they called around and found some much less expensive ones, otters that had been captured as adults. After several nervous breakdowns, each time followed by trips to the Knoxville Zoo for R & R, they gave up and replaced them with some area turtles and snakes. The TVA exhibit had what was surely the world’s most expensive turtle bowl. After the fair, someone with the Discovery Center asked me about it and I contacted TVA to see if they could use it. It had just been cut up.

World’s Fair Security Guard

In need of a job after losing my position on the TVA World’s Fair Exhibit Design Team, I managed to get a job on the graveyard shift there. This job wasn’t all that enjoyable, for the most part. The graveyard shift, for one thing, is rather debilitating. And I was always given what was surely the worst post, number 22, the Stroh Haus. It was my job to stand at a swing-arm barricade and tell rowdy drunks leaving the beer hall that they could not go back out the convenient way they’d come in, passing beneath the Western Avenue Viaduct (still identified, then, by bronze plaques, as the Asylum Avenue Viaduct) onto Grand where their cars were parked, but, since our warehouses were now open and we could not risk the theft of any Sunsphere paper weights, they must go the long, long way around, by way of Clinch. To make matters worse, our security guard uniforms had not come in, so I had nothing as my badge of authority but a World’s Fair souvenir cap, available for about a dollar from vendors, and a walkie-talkie to which I learned the very first night there would be no response. There was not a single weekend at that post when I did not have a physical confrontation. The rest of the night was grinding boredom till the gates were opened the following morning. I was there for about another hour, and the fun part was in directing visitors to various attractions. I’d always add, “Be sure to see the TVA exhibit; I helped design it.” I’m sure very few believed me, and I found it amusing for that reason.

Art Director, Knoxville News Sentinel

Another Fun-at-First job. I really hadn’t expected to be hired, since I had no management experience, but wanted to keep my interviewing chops sharp. The nice lady at the cosmetics counter at Miller’s helped me to find a pancake make-up to cover the black eye I happened to have at the time. It had been so long since I’d shown my portfolio that, swear to God, when I opened it a moth had flown out, just like in the headings I’d done for Penny Pincher sales at Miller’s when I was layout artist there, with the moth flying out of the Scotsman’s change purse. (I’d done a variation, exactly the same except that I’d substituted an Hassidic Jew for the Scotsman; for some reason the latter ethnic stereotype was found offensive [as, of course, I knew it would be].) Things started off pretty well, but we were doing only the advertising art, which is, as you can imagine, not usually very much fun. Then an artist left the editorial department and I saw my chance, and began campaigning for the chance to do editorial art, the fun stuff. I thought the artists in my department would love me for it. Somehow, they seemed to focus on the extra work part.

I had no idea how to act managerial when I started there, so I opted for wearing a suit every day—not my normal attire—and simply looking managerial. That was enough to fool them for three years.

Animator, the Department of Energy

This was a one-shot job, but it took several weeks. A friend recruited me for a contract he’d won, even though I knew nothing about animation. He gave me a Walter Foster book on How to be an animator, then going for about a dollar, and that was enough. It was really a great guide. Each second of animation, for film, requires 12 frames (doubled up). You can have up to seven layers (sometimes you can cheat and add another one), and each layer required a different shade of the same color, all painted on the back of the cel after the black ink lines. Sometimes there would be more than one cel for various frames if only one part of a body was in motion. Keeping track of all the parts and all the proper colors for each layer was a nightmare bookkeeping chore, and one that, I’m sure, nobody misses. Flash animation has reduced the animator’s workload, but it cannot replace the artist entirely. Flash can make an object roll, but it can’t make it spin. So there is still plenty of work for animators. In Korea.

Art Director, Trent Advertising/Absolute Advertising

Not too much fun when it was Trent, mostly car ads and trying to convince people that one new car dealer was actually cheaper than another, but more fun when, for reasons I’ll not go into, Trent was reincarnated as Absolute. We were closely associated with WKNF Magic 94 radio (magic has played a big part in my work history), the only radio station in town with its own art department. I got to do a few voiceovers for the radio station, got to do some of my impressions. And we had a wider range of clients and got to be more creative, including adding my animation skills to our offerings.

Furniture Trucker

I found the job rather pleasant since it mostly involved short hauls, watching the beautiful East Tennessee countryside roll by with my assistant Mike, who had been the truck driver before a section of high shelving had fallen through with him at the warehouse, causing a shattered and pretty useless hand. After he’d recovered, he’d been taken on as my helper, at a reduced salary, since, plainly, he couldn’t do the same job any more. Though I enjoyed the driving I deplored the practices of the rodent for whom I worked. But legal concerns prevent my saying more.

Art Grunt, Cameraman, Scoonover and Associates

My first job doing computer art. When I realized that my art skills had become obsolete I took an hour course at UT on computers—I think it involved WordPerfect—but the instructor had to leave early, so I only really got 30 minutes. I had a lead on an art job with Scoonover and Associates and showed up able to honestly claim some computer experience. In actuality, of course, most of the computer stuff I did there I learned on the job. Some interesting assignments.

Cameraman, Whittle Communitcations

I believe that I was Whittle’s first cameraman, back when it first was formed as Approach 13-30. I also did a little layout and design, but mostly I was their cameraman, working with UT’s copy camera, and known to all as Stat-King John. I’m afraid I didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity, thinking it was just a summer lark for a few college kids, sort of like staging a show in somebody’s barn. Little did I know they were to become a major publishing conglomerate.

Spider Porn Artist

Not really a long-term job, but I include it because it is slightly amusing to speak of. I was drawing the genitalia of spiders supplied by Dr. Susan Reichert, one of the world’s foremost arachnologists, by peering through a microscope. It seems that some spiders are so similar they can only be distinguished by variations in their genitalia. All very precise and scholarly, but I like to tell people that, though the market for spider porn is small, its devotees are willing to pay big bucks.

Mail Man

Twice; liked it the first time, as a summer substitute. Cruising around the city with no one looking over your shoulder. And for that gig I didn’t have to sort my own mail. Not so enjoyable the second time, years later, as my newly impaired vision interfered with sorting the mail, causing me to get on the road an hour after every body else. Didn’t make it past the trial period.

Health Club Manager

An okay job, at, probably, Knoxville’s first health club, the Continental. I got to work out between my chores. I used to do dumbbell bench presses, since that eliminated the need for a spotter. People would sometimes inquire about that, and I’d explain I was doing a split routine; left side one day, right side the next. One of my patrons was Cormac McCarthy, but I rather doubt he will remember me.

Bellman/Doorman

A rough job, especially as we were never allowed to sit down but had to, instead, remain at parade rest on the unyielding brick floors of Hyatt House. But it paid well, and I met many famous people, spent a few minutes with Mick Jagger in his room, had long talks with Robert Ryan who was there for several days with Jeff Bridges, Rod Steiger and others. He was in mourning for his wife. The best money I made till I became News-Sentinel Art Director, which was comparable.

Department Store Layout, Fashion and Product Artist

I walked right into this job fresh out of college, and so didn’t learn for a while how hard art jobs are to find. I did mostly layout, which is really the most creative of the art jobs, but not one I found very satisfying. I’d rather have done fashion art, but was seldom permitted. Layout is a matter of dividing the page up according to which department is allocating the most money to the ad. There is a design element, to be sure, but we were not encouraged to get too flamboyant. I found this job more oppressive each year, and a chance at a job doing theme park design seemed a dream come true. I did make some good friends here, though, including power lifter Bob Simpson, literally one of the strongest men in the world in his day (an article about him was titled “The World’s Strongest Tennessean”), he was probably the last fashion artist anywhere to portray men as strong and rugged. Buyers seldom quarreled with his artistic decisions.

Toilet Trucker

For Gray-Hodges. Not as much fun as furniture trucker; short trips around Knox County to construction sites meant more loading and unloading of often heavy, sticky stuff like soil pipe. It seemed every house in those days had a split foyer, which meant carrying heavy loads like bathtubs up a bouncing improvised gangplank, sometimes just some two-by-fours laid side by side. My great fear was that I’d fall through down to the foundation and be killed by a falling toilet and that the minister would be unable to deliver my eulogy without snickering. Not a great job, but bliss compared to the brickyard job before it.

Corn Husker

Perhaps the job I was born for. Even though I usually score in the bottom 10 percentile in manual dexterity, somehow I was good at this, qualifying for the over-12,000 ear bonus almost every night, keeping the conveyor belt full almost single-handedly. Jobs were so scarce I had to go all the way to Illinois for this one, going to work for the Jolly Green Giant, living in the labor barracks with some of the roughest, most desperate men outside the nation’s prisons. There were some knifings and other ugly incidents. I didn’t meet a single elf or sprout. But it was something of an adventure, and I finally found something I was good at. One night that mean-assed bunch lay awake in their bunks and, of all things, began telling each other ghost stories, for all the world like a kids‘ summer camp.

Having seen how it was processed, it was many months before I would eat canned corn again.

Package Collector

The most menial of jobs, pushing a cart from department to department doing what my job description implied, years before I went to work there as an artist.

Dish Washer

Not the worst of jobs, rather meditative. But, even though it was an upscale restaurant, when I’d seen what goes on behind the scenes, it was many months before I would eat restaurant food again. It may give those who encourage a green lifestyle to know that little of the food you leave on your plate goes to waste. Ending smoking in restaurants has made that more true than ever.

Porcelain Sign Letterer

Sitting at a drafting table a few dozen feet from the kilns where the porcelain signs are baking. Hot and tedious.

Paper Boy

I carried, at various times, for both the Sentinel and the Journal. I had the longest paper route in Knoxville in terms of customers, route 1040 (my manager was Mr. Caudill). It was a semi-rural route, so it was even longer than that implies. It wouldn’t have been too bad a job if only the customers had all been honest and considerate. I don’t know if any actual boys, that is, younger than legal working age, still carry papers. But I can tell you there are always a few creeps who see no need to pay you, on time or at all. If you simply quit carrying their paper they’ll call and complain and the route manager will bring them their papers, which comes out of the paper boy’s (and girl’s, later) meager profits. I carried on a long campaign of vengeance against one such low-life. But then, one day, I learned he’d moved, how far into my campaign I don’t know. That’s why you should never take the law into your own hands.

Bag Boy

The job for which I secured my first Social Security card. High stress, hard work, low pay at the Kroger on Clinton Highway. I used to have dreams of endless conveyor belts of groceries coming toward me. We were still expected to routinely carry groceries to customers' cars in those days. There were signs up urging them not to tip, claiming that we were well-paid. We weren’t.

Brick Yard

Hard labor hauling wheelbarrows full of blazing hot bricks, just baked at around 2000°, or actually up on the kilns, clearing away the deformed bricks and, occasionally, glancing at the bricks baking about twenty feet away, with nothing in between. We were not given thermal gloves but plain old rubber work gloves, which, after about three bricks, were nearly as not as the bricks were and had to be ripped from your hands to cool. Our wrists were covered with blisters. One day they brought in three pairs of thermal gloves, and there was a near riot for them. I managed to come up with a pair.

There were a couple of women, apparently desperate for work, who were working alongside the men. I tried not to watch them grimace and repeatedly rip off their gloves to relieve their pain. Finally some aberrant altruistic impulse got the better of me and I simply said, “Here,” and traded gloves with one of the women. When I came back she was wearing the rubber gloves again, once more grimacing in pain. “What... what happened to the... thermal gloves?”

“Oh, they were too clumsy, so I gave them to some guy.” As soon as I found the job at Gray-Hodge I was out of there, with very little notice.

Computer Software Content Artist, Animator, TLC

I often remarked while at TLC that if anyone at the brickyard had ever walked up to me and said, “'Some day you’ll work in an air-conditioned office, sitting on your butt, and you will hate that job more than this one,' I’d have thought him crazy. Yet here I am.” I learned about how salaried computer technicians were treated like peripherals. Things weren’t too bad till I foolishly mentioned I could do animation. I did a demo, and our managers decided we could purloin the Reader Rabbit animation gig from the Fremont office. But we were to have three artists on that project, whereas they had 18. “You know,” I told our supervisor after some calculations, “we’re going to be doing about 30,000 drawings for this.” But he had faith in us. Seven-day work weeks became the norm, broken by the occasional 30 hour workday, no exaggeration. People began to balk and, ultimately, most of us were replaced by H-1B workers, which was as clear an example of mixed emotions as I can recall.

Plainly, I can’t hold a job. But many of those jobs were summer employment, part of working my way through school. And art jobs are notoriously short-lived. I’m absolutely certain that my new field will be a far better match to my skills and interests. It would be foolish not to take advantage of this forum, so, if anyone knows of an opening in the Knoxville area, I have my RN license, I’m strong and tirelessly hard-working and “smart as paint,” as Long John Silver used to say. Not that I have anything in common with pirates.

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Comments » 1

adheur writes:

Hey, John--
I remember Ken telling me you'd gotten your RN licensing awhile back. Glad to see you're still doing artwork!

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