And so picking up where we left off, where do you even start when you graduate with a degree in chemistry? I didn’t know either but first I wanted to get married. Paul and I had met while working at Whole Foods and had fallen for each other very hard. After a year and a half of dating, Paul and I co-decided we would get married. I was hellbent on having my hard-earned degree state my maiden name so the agreement was that I would marry him the very next day after I graduated. There was one other requirement that he had to meet: he’d been a bonafide rock star in a very well-known band for over a decade and hadn’t filed or paid a lick of taxes on that money. I absolutely insisted that he at least file with the IRS for all those years. We’d figure out a way to pay for it eventually but the point was I didn’t want my good name all mixed up in his bullshit-bad-decisions. Period. No way.
We eloped at the courthouse and took off to Spain a day or so later for a few glorious weeks. We had very little money so we hopped trains, stayed in hostels and took only one small backpack each. I was a pro at this lifestyle after living in Europe and essentially backpacking the whole continent just a couple of years prior. When we returned I was pregnant (whoops) and I knew I needed a “real job” with my fancy new degree. Not really knowing where to start the process, I interviewed with a scientific laboratory temp agency. After a rigorous interview process they accepted me and I was sent on my very first assignment: Frito Lay.
The Cheese Puff Lab was next to the Rold Gold Pretzel Lab and down the hall from the Cheeto Lab. I was issued a white lab coat, a security badge and with that I reported to work each day around 7am or so. The drive was horrendous with over an hour of driving and multiple stops on the old school toll road to deposit quarters. Something in me learned early on that this would not be sustainable.
Our important assignment was working with cheese puffs made with olestra. What’s olestra, you young'uns may be wondering? It was a fat free oil that was all the rage in the 90s but it was only fat free though because your body literally couldn’t absorb it so it would come out as an oily, anal discharge. Right. So there we were, working with the olestra-cooked cheese puffs. A team of British scientists were in town working downstairs in the manufacturing plant. They would tweak the dyes in the cheese puff machine ever so slightly yielding cheese puffs that were varying lengths, curvatures and thicknesses. The chemical properties of olestra made the act of manufacturing the products slightly more difficult to match the lightness of “regular” cheese puffs. With each iteration of these cheese puffs, a numerically labeled garbage bag stuffed full of puffs would come up from the manufacturing plant via a dumbwaiter into my lab.
I’d receive a bag from the chute and begin my processes. Newly manufactured puffs look and feel like packing peanuts. They haven’t been baked yet nor have they been cheesed and our data sets always came from raw puffs. First moisture readings. I’d take ten puffs out of one of the numbered garbage bags and place them one by one into a little moisture reading machine. I’d record the number of the first puff and continue on the rest of my samples. Then I’d take another sample of ten puffs out of the same bag and do curvature readings. I’d place the puff on a chart and determine what the circumference of the puff would be if it were to expand into a circle. I’d record the numbers. Then I’d do the crunch testing. I’d take a ten piece sample from the garbage bag and head down the hall to another lab. I’d place the puff onto a landing pad apparatus and punch a key on the computer attached to it and a probe would descend and crunch through the raw puff yielding a graph of how crunchy that puff was. I’d record the data and do the rest of the samples. I processed dozens and dozens of numbered garbage bags of cheese puffs in this manner.
Then we’d bake each sample, cheese them, label them and get them ready for shipping for taste testing. In Spain. These were Cheese Puffs made with olestra for the Spanish market so the cheese was a little sharper to match the European palette. Wow, right? This is food science, people.
But it wasn’t all bad. Working in the Frito Lay headquarters was actually quite cool. The corporate art collection was totally inspiring and I spent most of my free time wandering the halls looking at the paintings, photographs and mixed media pieces that lined those walls as “investments” for the company. The cafeteria was really delicious and the campus itself was very nice. The actual job though? It sucked. I did this for exactly three weeks before walking into my supervisor's office and announced I was leaving. That this job was not for me. I didn’t know what was next for me but this wasn’t it. No way. Between the drive, the boring nature of the work and my morning sickness, forget it. I turned in my badge and lab coat and never looked back.
When I returned to the temp agency, I asked if there was something else I could do. Anything, I said, just not food science. With that I was sent to interview at a breast implant manufacturing plant. Uh, ok.
I showed up to a very nondescript manufacturing plant building and waited in a little room with a fake green plant in the corner. I was ushered into the facility with a hair net and face mask. We passed through the main hallway to look through glass into the labs where the breast implants are actually made. They’re sterile spaces so the scientists were dressed in full length white suits and using their own breathing apparatus. Eyes wide with amazement, I wondered if I'd get to wear a space suit. Next we looked into the “line” where conveyor belts whizzed around with various sizes of breast implants, packaging and other related items.
Finally we entered what would be my lab. It was a quality control laboratory. My job would be to, about once per hour, go into the line and grab a random, freshly packaged breast implant. I’d do some testing on the packaging itself, ensuring that it was in fact sterile. Then I’d take the breast implant out of the package and place it in a laboratory hood. (They look kind of like a big oven with a vertical opening door in case you’re curious.) My job would be to place the breast implant on the platform inside and close the front of the hood and then press a button. A plate would descend and apply pressure to the breast implant until it exploded. I’d record the pressure number, clean up the mess and do it all again. But here was the catch. This titty-smashing job offer was for the 11pm to 7am shift! OMG, I declined on the spot and just walked out. This isn’t why I studied chemistry. Goodbye, people!
Woefully ill with morning sickness, I struggled for a few weeks to do much of anything. Paul got a call from a friend asking if he knew someone because she had a friend who was looking for a new receptionist for a hair salon. But it wasn’t just any ole hair salon. It’s where The Who’s Who of Whoville got their hair cut. Very famous, very wealthy, very influential clientele and did I want to interview? Absolutely I did and soon enough it was my new job.
I took appointments, confirmed appointments, cleaned up after the colorist, helped get people settled and of course took their money. I balanced the checkbook and did all the inventory of coloring supplies. I met so many interesting (and crazy wealthy) people while there. It was a totally old school operation and the salon didn’t even have a computer. Everything was done by hand, which was interesting. The other neat thing about it was that the owners absolutely loved my black and white prints that I’d been printing. I had a darkroom at home in my laundry room after all and would print when I had the energy. They invited me to hang several of my photographs in the salon and over time I would get quite a bit of positive feedback from these super rich people. My only downfall here was that I refused to sell them at the time. Weird, right? Something to do with self-esteem.
Anyway, as my due date drew nearer and nearer the panic began to set in. How would I possibly continue to work after I had this baby? I’d been receiving prenatal care at the Birth Center and I’d gotten quite close to my midwife, CB. I’d shared with her some of my fears and concerns. She knew a lot about me by the time I went into labor.
Our daughter Eva was born in late February and the agreement with the salon was that I’d take six weeks off but at my 10-day postpartum visit, CB looked me in the eyes and said “I want you to leave that hair salon job and come work for me. You can bring your baby to work.” I burst into tears and said yes, yes, yes, I didn’t even care what it paid. Turns out it would be HALF of what the salon paid me but I didn’t care. I could be with my new baby all the time. And still work. Hallelujah! The year was 1999.
Periodic updates and observations from Aurah in the Field.