When I was seventeen, I decided that I needed to work somewhere ‘non-theatrical.’ Perhaps this was my halfhearted attempt at having that oft-referred-to backup plan in case my career in theatre took a nosedive, or perhaps I just wanted to see things in broad daylight, instead of 02 Amber. Whatever the reason, I marched myself to the nearest mall and thirty minutes later found work as a makeup artist at a struggling portrait studio.
Okay, okay. I realize that a makeup artist at a photography chain is still not completely normal, but it was the closest my teenage self could get to a ‘real job’ while keeping some means of what I thought was creative expression. It was early March and my first assignment was to pick up our Easter Bunny from mall security. The studio was advertising Easter photos with a real bunny, but all animals entering the mall had to be check by security first. So I got my little employee ID badge and trotted off towards the customer service office, full of self-importance and anticipation over meeting the bunny.
The security guard didn’t even look up from his newspaper when I gave my prepared speech about who I was and what business I was attending to. He finished reading his article, drained his cup of coffee and then casually reached under his desk, withdrawing an empty carrier. “You’ll have to gimme a minute,” he said, hiking up his belt and waddling to the back door. “The rest of the gang is takin’ pitchers of yer rabbit out back.”
As I waited in the smoke-filled office, I thought it sweet, if not a waste of tax-payer dollars, that members of the local police squad were soft-hearted enough to want their photo with a cute little white Easter bunny. The guard soon returned and, with a sardonic smile, handed me the now-occupied carrier. “Hope you like him.”
The little bundle, who I had already named Mr. Cadbury, was barely visible through the holes in the carrier, but I knew that the two of us would become fast friends. I arrived back at the store, carrying my package with pride, beaming with the knowledge that I had completed my first task without mishap. I gathered the rest of the staff around me, faced the door of the carrier toward my eager audience and opened it. The crowd gasped in delight.
“Holy crap, he looks like Fidel Castro,” announced my boss.
He really did. Mr. Cadbury was a rich tan color – around the shade of coffee ice cream – with black, furry-caterpillar-style markings over each eye and under his little pink nose. The eyebrows gave him a scowling appearance, accented by the fact that his ears, also black, were maybe two inches shorter than they should have been. Throw in a cigar and a missile and I don’t think anyone could have seen the difference.
My boss assigned the other makeup artist to my first appointment and told me to get on the phones with the bunny-man and demand a more photogenic rabbit. Talking to seasonal animal pimps about a rabbit’s questionable facial hair was not exactly what I had in mind when I set out to get a normal job. Nevertheless, I attacked my task with vigor, merely to find out that Mr. Cadbury was the only bunny in the region who was willing to work for less than $400 a week during peak modeling season. It should have come as no surprise to hear that our little dictator got less work than his monochromatic friends. We were stuck with him.
The only people interested in having their photo taken with the hairy communist were the security guards. We had a difficult enough time convincing parents that the eyebrows and mustache could be removed in post-editing, but when word got around that Mr. Castro-bury couldn’t see a camera flash without urinating, it became nearly impossible to book Easter portraits. Nobody wants to be pissed on by a fascist rabbit.
Since we weren’t busy, I spent most of my hours there tending to Mr. Castrobury. I fed and watered him, took him for walks around the studio, made him practice his smile for the camera and cut up newspaper for his carrier – he seemed to prefer articles on foreign affairs, but it was hard to tell. Because taking care of a rabbit is about as time consuming as singing Little Bunny Foo Foo, I had plenty of time to get to know everyone else at the studio.
Our boss had three phone numbers, each with its specific use. One was to her mobile home where she lived with her husband and six children, another was her boyfriend’s apartment, and the third was her emergency cell phone that we were permitted to call only if her husband or boyfriend tried to contact her at work when she was absent. Once, I accidentally phoned her trailer and got her husband when I should have called her boyfriend. The next day, she docked my commission.
My co-workers were a SitCom writer’s dream. There was Sylve, the pregnant hair stylist who spent all day, every day, reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting and drinking soy milk. I don’t think I ever saw her do one bit of work, or hear her say anything but “I can’t do that; I’m pregnant.” Then there was the gay man who had a sex change operation during my second week and changed his name from Harvey to Andrea. Andrea fell in love with her female nurse from the clinic, consequently becoming a lesbian and remaining homosexual. I have often wondered if that meant that Andrea’s girlfriend was straight or gay, although I guess it hardly matters.
Camille was my favorite. She was a stunningly beautiful black woman from Canada who was so afraid of other black people that she would hide behind the counter when they came into the studio. Her explanation was simple; she’d never met any black people in Canada. There was another 17-year-old who worked the part time shift opposite mine, but he was arrested for dealing drugs in the parking lot. To round out the cast, we had two photographers; one looked and sounded just like Joe Pesce, while the other one wore an eye patch and went by the name of ‘Moo.’ I never did figure out how he took such good pictures with just one eye.
Business was dreadfully slow. I applied makeup for maybe twenty people the entire month of March. After the drug arrest and an incident where Camille refused service to an African-American customer on the grounds that she looked ‘suspicious,’ I began spending most of my time in the front window with Mr. Castrobury, trying to distance myself from the rampant weirdness of the staff. One day I tried dressing him in a pair of black-rimmed glasses with the hopes that I could make him look like Groucho Marx, but it didn’t boost sales the way I thought it would.
The week after Easter, I overheard my boss telling the lesbian man that she would have to lay off at least one of her part-time employees because of low revenue. That same day, she gave me instructions to pack up Mr. Castrobury’s things and take him back to the security office, where he would be picked up by his owner-slash-agent. I took my time that day with cleaning his carrier, making sure he had interesting reading material for the trip home, filling his water bottle and feeding him lettuce leaves, treasuring our last moments together. I walked him down to the security office, and then walked right out the mall doors and across the street, without so much as a glance back.
Part of me felt a little tinge of regret, of sadness even. I had this overwhelming sense that I had failed at something so simple, that I was a quitter. Then I realized that if “normal” meant sitting around all day doing nothing but listening to my co-workers gossip and convincing customers that the Easter Bunny had nothing to do with foreign labor camps, then I had had my fill of it. I only worked there for six weeks, but it was one of the most valuable lessons of my life. Trust me; the real world is stranger than fiction.