behold the power of hmmm.

Just a collection of letters. Maybe just a word or two. A few random syllables in the right order can send you into paroxysms of joy, or put you on a tailspin into despair.

Some of the briefest phrases are life-changing, yet clichéd and trite enough to grace a Precious Moments figurine. Like “I do” or “I wuv you.” Others are predictable harbingers of doom, like “dude, watch this!” and “what the hell?” And some are precursors to something truly disgusting like “smell this” and “that was the dog.”

Sometimes just a monosyllabic murmur is enough to send you over the edge. Like a doctor saying “hmmm.”

In my defense, a doctor’s “hmmm” is far more dramatic when you’re in the stirrups and he’s staring at a part of you you’ve never even seen. A part of you that requires a speculum to communicate with the outside world.

The doctor’s “hmmm” was followed by a spate of other syllables, about “biopsies” and “possibilities” and “knowing by Tuesday at the latest.” Palliative phrases like “just to make sure” and “probably nothing” and “one in a hundred” were numerous, and welcome.

But really, nothing overpowers that “hmmm.”

my first real job.

A bit of a rant, thirty-two years too late.

In 1979, I got my first real job. I pulled a Christmas-break shift at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. This job even had a uniform. Well, a shirt at least. And official training. Some 20 of us, all in high school, listened to policies and procedures and the professionalism required of a San Diego Zoo representative.

Our supervisors were Leslie (heavily pregnant), and Gloria (going through a divorce). Even in our training, it was pretty obvious that the turbulent hormones and emotions were going to be an issue.

My assignment was the popcorn cart outside the petting zoo. In the first five minutes of Gloria’s tour I knew I was in trouble. First Gloria told me that the best positions were reserved for attractive people, and I was not one. But at least I wasn’t in the “sipper coop” where fruit-shaped bottles were filled with juice. Sipper coop was reserved for the ugly people. And my friend Ginny got that job.

We moved straight from these examples of humanity and tact into an explanation of all that was broken in the popcorn cart. The automatic grease delivery system was down, so here was a spatula and a 10-gallon can of popcorn grease. I’d have to lift this stuff over my head into a fiery hot popper, so I should beware of spatter. Oh, and the “butter” dispenser was filled with months-old rancid whatever, but I should use it anyway, because she didn’t want to order more. Did she mention my CO2 hadn’t been checked since summer? When I noticed flat sodas I’d have to call maintenance. Except I wasn’t allowed to leave the cart. For any reason. Ever. And you know, there was really no reason for me to have a key to the cart since I wouldn’t ever be leaving it.

I was glad for a strong and capacious bladder.

Each night leftover popcorn would have to be measured before it was discarded, and I would be charged for overages (each tub was more than my hourly wage). I would also be charged for any discrepancies in my cash drawer. And I would be charged for cleaning services if my cart wasn’t sparkling. And here was a dirty old washcloth to make that happen. Because dirty old washcloths are awesome for taking grease off of glass.

I was sixteen, and I was stupid, and I was so excited to be employed at the Wild Animal Park. I thought I could make this work.

Day 1: Two write-ups. One for a customer complaint about the rancid-tasting butter. Another for henceforth suggesting to customers that they avoid the butter. (Who the hell goes to the Wild Animal Park and makes a formal complaint about someone suggesting they avoid the butter?)

I was told my drawer was short, but I wasn’t allowed to count my own money, or even look at my total receipts. I just handed everything to the girl who locked the cart. So I worked five hours that day for free. And my hands and arms were peppered with grease burns.

I was sixteen, and I was stupid, and I was so excited to be employed at the Wild Animal Park. I thought I could make this work.

Day 2: Skipped a family reunion to go to work. And got two more write-ups. I avoided the rancidity issue by saying the butter machine was broken. My sodas went flat, but I wasn’t caught leaving to call maintenance. However, I was caught using napkins to clean my windows, and napkins were only for customers.

The monorail train broke that night, leaving tourists stranded on the track for hours. They finally got rescued after closing. I was cleaning my cart, and a blanket-wrapped, exhausted-looking couple asked if they could have popcorn. I gave them some for free. This was apparently not done. Another write-up, and Leslie docked my pay for both the popcorn and the napkins. I worked three hours that day for free. And my hands and arms were half-covered with grease burns. I resolved to wear a long-sleeve undershirt the next day.

I was sixteen, and I was stupid, and I was so excited to be employed at the Wild Animal Park. I thought I could make this work.

Day 3: Another write-up right out of the hatch, for not locking my cart the night before. Even though I’d never been given the key. I was clearly a problem employee. Gloria came to work beside me in a space meant for one. She pushed, she bumped, she shoved and she criticized. She complained about my greasy washcloth. She complained that I hadn’t used up all the rancid butter. She complained that I had grease stains on my official shirt. And what was this unofficial undershirt about? That would need to be removed immediately. And then she complained about how unappetizing my hands looked, with all those burns. Really, they were almost ugly enough to send me to the sipper coop.

I broke.

I was sixteen, and I was stupid, and I was so excited to be employed at the Wild Animal Park. But I finally realized I could not make this work.

I had to endure a final shouty meeting with Gloria and Leslie, where they enumerated my transgressions as I sobbed. Did I know they hadn’t wanted to hire me in the first place? Did I realize I was very nearly put in the sipper coop from the start? Was I prepared to return my official shirt then and there? And give them a dollar to have it dry-cleaned for the grease stains? And then Leslie uttered the eternal phrase: “You will never work in this town again.” Seriously. And in my naïve teenage wussiness I believed her.

So home I went, an abject failure in my undershirt with a Jackson Pollock painting of grease burns and less than $30 to show for three days of trial. And a small, mean hope that Leslie and Gloria would live miserably ever after.

I still love the San Diego Zoo. And the Wild Animal Park. But you couldn’t pay me to eat the popcorn.