Saturday, September 15, 2007

So what if I earned only $4/hour? The poverty was worth it.

Yesterday I mentioned that I once had one of the greatest jobs ever and so now I owe you all some details.

During my second year of college, I worked as a summer guide at Monticello. For those of you not familiar, Monticello was the home of Thomas Jefferson -- third president of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, and founder of the University of Virginia.

In short, my job was to talk all day, which I think we can all agree is a talent I have in abundance.

Even now, 18 years later, I can still remember bits and pieces of my tour and will even occasionally dream I'm back there, wearing my size 6 Laura Ashley dresses, a string of pearls around my still-unlined neck, and a bow in my long hair. This was 1989 people,so no cracks about my appearance.

Oh, and I still had a somewhat thick southern accent:

"Welcome to the home of Thomas Jefferson. Mah name is Miss McDonald and it is mah pleasure to be your guide today. Now if y'all will just step inside with me, we'll begin y'all's tour..."

I am not exaggerating this one bit.

(One of the reasons I changed my last name when I got married was because of the stupid, stupid, stupid jokes visitors made all that summer. Because I had obviously made it through the first 20 years of my life and had NEVER been asked if my father owned a farm or if I was the heiress to McDonald's. Dumb asses, all of them. But I smiled and laughed as though I was just tickled pink at their humor and that I'd never been asked those questions about eleventy jillion times that summer alone.)

During the height of the summer, the house would be packed with people and I'd stay on my feet much of the day and would give eight tours in as many hours. We'd have to move people along quickly without them feeling hurried -- especially after they'd stood in line for upwards of an hour in the summer heat -- which was pretty tricky to do, but I managed most of the time.

There were some memorable tours.

One time I led bikers from from New York City through the house. They arrived just before closing time and I was the next guide in the rotation. In fact, I was one of only a few employees left in the house. Imagine a group of burly men wearing a whole lot of leather, with a whole lot of facial hair, and more tattoos than Angelina Jolie, but far less attractive. So help me, one guy had a tiny dead-and-stuffed mouse hanging on a chain attached to his leather vest. In spite of all appearances, this was a group of informed visitors. They had ridden their hogs hundreds of miles to worship at the altar of all things Jeffersonian and many of them had studied in anticipation of this visit. They asked intelligent questions and were respectful, and it was a wonderful tour.

On another day, as I was standing on the front porch of the house, I gestured with my hands as I was speaking and managed to hit a bee in mid-air and got stung. I kept going and, when we walked inside, asked another guide to bring me some ice for swelling. I went through the entire tour with ice on my hand, never once mentioning it, and just generally acting as though it hadn't happened. I got a loud round of applause at the end for my apparent bravery. It was just a bee, people, not a rattlesnake bite.

Celebrities came through the house too and we would offer them private tours if they asked. Robin Williams came, but slipped in almost anonymously and without any fanfare, and it wasn't until afterward that we heard he'd been there. Shirley MacLaine came when she was heavily into her phase of reincarnation -- or maybe she's still in it, I wouldn't know. She spent an entire day in the guides' research library going through documents because she JUST KNEW she had been a Jefferson in a previous life -- probably either Mr. Jefferson's wife Martha or his daughter, also Martha. Yeah right Shirley.

Occasionally I'd get one of those amateur historians who would try to show how much smarter he was than me and how much more he knew than I did. (And it was almost always a middle-aged white guy.) I'd listen with an outward show of respect to whatever bullshit he was spouting off. When he'd pause for a breath, I'd say, "That's an interesting idea that guests used to arrive at Monticello in a boat. Let me ask another guide to bring us a couple of reference books and we'll look that up." Then a guide would bring me the book I'd need and we'd flip to the relevant section to discover -- gasp -- that, actually, Virginia has never flooded so mightily as to need boats to reach the top of the fucking mountain.

I promise I never cussed in front of the visitors, but I was sorely tempted many times. And there were clearly some people who dearly needed to have their asses kicked.

Monticello is an old house with a rich past, so some people would ask if I'd ever seen ghosts in the house. No, I never did, but I did have one extremely cool experience on the 4th of July, which is the biggest day of the year at the house. Not only did Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, he died 50 years later on that exact day, which was news that electrified our little nation. (John Adams, our second president and one of the signers of the Declaration, also died that very day, just five or six hours later.) As it happens, I was standing in Mr. Jefferson's room -- the location of his death -- at the very moment he died and remarked on the timing. A moment of reverent silence ensued. So help me, also at that very moment, Mr. Jefferson's great-great-great-great-great-grandson, who was the spitting image of his ancestor, poked his head into the room at that very moment. One woman yelled and nearly fainted. It was great.

Working at Monticello didn't pay much (see the title of this entry) but there were some fun perks. We could take friends and family on behind-the-scenes tours, which I did many times. On the 4th of July, we stood on the portico outside and watched the fireworks in the town at the bottom of the mountain.

I ended up giving about 350 tours that summer and then went back to school. I worked at Monticello again the next summer, but only part-time because I was also taking classes. I thought briefly about working there full-time after graduation, but would have earned only about $9,000/year, which was below the poverty level even back in 1991.

And that, my friends, was one of the great jobs evah, evah, evah.


Linda and her Surroundings said...

Sure beats my working in an old people's home part time when I was 14 (they were so nice, but soooo old to a 14 year old).

MizMell said...

Sounds marvelous... but then again, I'm a Virginian and I think we are just born with an appreciation for all things Jefferson.

TX Poppet said...

My worst question working as an museum roleplayer: "What do you do when it's that time of the month?" Having to in character take the women aside from the men and explain how to sew a c.1775 menstrual pad and belt (did you know they were made with wool batting and sand?) and assure the ladies that women in "olden days" did not go to bed for a week.

Flutterby said...

It's only *just a bee* if you're not allergic to them, lol. I would have been waving bye from the back of the ambulance.

Lori Anderson Designs said...

Yay, I was one of the ones that got a "behind the scenes tour", and I have a photo of you and I standing in front of Monticello with your tongue sticking out. Ha!

Lisa said...

Wow what a great experience that muast have been, sometimes the best jobs aren't the best paid - like being a mother!

Aims said...

As an aside, I hear you re: the McDonald thing. No, we DON'T eat McDonald's every night. No, my father's name is Bruce. No, he doesn't have a farm either, but let me assure you, I'm laughing very hard.
Although funnily enough, when I got to Scotland and said I was a McDonald, no-one believed me, probably because they must get a whole lot of McImposters in the hope they'll get a free shot of whiskey (I didn't).