How to Become a Cartoonist in About 20 Jobs

by Carolita Johnson

“They’re for the man who has everything,” she said.

– Your first job is obviously babysitting, which you are forced into by your parents even though you yourself doubt the wisdom of making a teenager responsible for the lives of other people’s children, which is why you contrive to shorten the danger period (the time during which the children are awake and mobile) by turning all the clocks in the sittee’s house ahead by an hour or two upon parents’ departure. You rebuff attempts by one Long Island mother to enlist you in the service of selling her custom knitted “penie warmers.”

– Next, work in the local public library for one summer, where you discover there is life after Nancy Drew and where you discover the Existentialists. Quit this job for mental health reasons after a fainting episode resulting from a toxic mix of insufficiant air-conditioning, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and T.E. Lawrence’s (of Arabia) memoirs of his later military service under an assumed name.

– Last exactly one day at Filene’s Basement (which, it turns out, isn’t even in a basement) as a fitting room attendant, where nobody ever gives you the same amount of clothing back that they went in with, but you’re too scared of them to say a word.

– Try a custodial job at the local church, and last only until asked why you didn’t clean the toilets:

“Did you scrub the toilets?”

“I have to go home now.”

– A brief attempt to earn money as a cashier at the Gristedes supermarket over at the Miracle Mile turns out to be an exercise in futility, as every night you are missing quite a bit of cash and must pay out of pocket to make the difference.

– Dunkin Donuts is next, but you develop night terrors about being literally pushed around Dunkin Donuts by your creepy mustachioed boss, who has a habit of saying things like, “Look at that floor! You call that clean? or “Look at that coffee pot! You call that clean? Find enough things out about donut mass production to put you off donuts for life. Quit/get fired within two weeks. Be wailed at in despair by your mom: “You quit your job? You should never ever quit a job before finding a new one! That could be the last job you ever have.”

Truly disgusting.

– Scoff at mom (you can do this because you’re 18 and it’s the ‘80s), and get a plum job selling Belgian chocolate truffles at the Trump Tower within 24 hours. Eat a LOT of “damaged” truffles. Prank call creepy ex-boss during spare time till that gets old.

– Regretfully leave this chocolate heaven for a higher paying job down the block pretending evening gowns look great on severely reupholstered rich women with disturbing names like “D.D. Kupps” at Henri Bendel. Spend most of your salary on sushi lunches, which turn out to be the only things that make life worth living long enough to go back to work after lunch break.

– Hearing that waitresses make great cash and don’t have to wake up early in the morning, quit and get a job at the Maryland Crab House where they make you a hostess after noticing and remarking upon your skinny, muscle-free arms. Learn through this job that you have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to faces and names of strangers. Night terrors about finding the restaurant empty even though you’ve made dozens of patrons wait at the bar ensue.

– You wanted to be an English major but your parents made you go to art school for college, so you rebelled by taking fashion design, which you actually hate. Therefore, after being asked to model a few times by recent fashion school graduates, you run off to Europe after graduation to be a model!

(Backstage at your first runway modelling job ever, and you made fifty bucks! This is the life!)

Find out once you get there that you were part of an “ugly model” trend that ends before you can make more money out of it than if you’d stayed home and answered phones for minimum wage full time. Cut your losses, decide you need to go back to school and start from scratch.

This is me, trying to decide whether to quit or just ask “Ugly Models Agency” if they’ll take me on. (I don’t know who did this photo, of which this is a scan of a photocopy, but if he’s out there, I love it and would like a print.)

– While trying to come up with a scheme to get a university education for free, go to Madrid to work for a friend designing stuffed toys for free (when it turns out she can’t get you a work visa after all). In the end, the company pretty much pays you by sending you back to Paris for free.

Handmade prototypes for the toys I designed for the Sybilla Boutique in Tokyo.

– In exchange for a practically free garret with no bathroom, heat or hot water in Paris, you babysit a sweet little 98-year-old lady for four hours every Saturday while her caretaker takes the afternoon off. You routinely serve her lunch, chat philosophically with her about life in general for a while, then supposedly repair to her son’s old room to study while she naps. In this room you find a copy of the Marquis de Sade’s book with pages bearing the sexy bits glued mysteriously together here and there. After one Saturday, instead of studying, you discover her large bathroom and take to washing your hair and underwear in it very very quickly, wiping down the shower with paper towels to hide the truth of your activities. All very convenient till the sweet, philosophical old lady has a stroke. After that, Saturday afternoons are spent listening to her scream, “Call the doctor, I’m dying! I’m dying! Call an ambulance!” When you do call the doctor, he suggests you remind his patient that she is 98 years old, and is certainly dying, which, of course, you cannot bring yourself to do as she stares you down as if you were personally murdering her yourself while you explain there will be no ambulance. Even after you quit, you can still hear her screaming from the sidewalk on your way to class. You never get a chance to remind her how philosophical she used to be. (Last you hear, she was alive, and cranky.)

– While taking your studies up again for free in France (because you literally told the French government you were a Frenchman’s concubine) (a white lie), type up to 20,000 words a day at a translator’s office till you have carpal tunnel in both wrists. On the bright side, your boss is a personality carbon copy of Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers (his young daughter actually says “daddy!” when she sees Basil Fawlty on TV), and he always offers to make a soufflé or Hachis Parmentier (otherwise known as Shepherd’s Pie) for lunch when he needs extra hours. (Shepherd’s pie will get you everywhere.) Use one of your paid vacations to work as a hostess in a couple of restaurants in New York till you earn enough to buy a computer.

– When your wrists become too painful to continue typing, quit and work for a few weeks at a fancy boutique that caters to movie stars, where the high point of your entire employed life is the day the package of returned clothing comes back from Tom Cruise’s hotel room and you open a box of returned cufflinks to discover, nestled in the velvet along with the cufflinks, one gray hair and a few flakes of dandruff (you’ve had enough cases of dandruff to know — it happens to the best of us). Spend every waking moment imagining scenarios ranging from the magical to the truly sordid about how they could have come to be there, until the loss of your work visa on a technicality drops you back into reality.

One of the most exquisitely poetic moments in my employed life, I think.

– Simultaneously, the folks at Jean-Paul Gaultier that have been lucratively employing you for a few weeks every fashion season for the last ten years also suddenly realize you don’t have the right kind of working visa. The jig is up. Resort once more to (this time, illegal) fancy restaurant hostessing, easily done by telling interviewers that you are a high-class ex-model and showing up for interviews wearing high heels, miniskirts, and plenty of makeup, then slipping back into Birkenstocks and glasses as soon as they’re stuck with you. Have Roman Polanski punish you for this when he changes his baby’s diaper in the dining room, then walks to your podium holding out the sodden diaper, handing it to you with one word: “Here.” Be delighted to find out you were yelled at on the phone by the amazing Tim Burton, who, because of his bad cell phone connection you mistook for a Mr. Fingerton. (I totally forgive him.) The high point of this job is when a well-dressed Saudi Arabian lady slides a 500 franc bill into your bra after you get her a table she thinks she did not deserve somehow.

You are soon fired for lacking valid working papers, and incidentally, because you’re not being paid to be a wise-ass.

– Go back to New York and get a job working for a photographer friend who is dating a super-bosomy Victoria’s Secret model. Your job is to manage his home studio, and, it seems, his sock collection, which must be arranged in a special cubbyhole. Also, when on duty, his love life. For example, girlfriend comes back from work and changes into a bunny costume, which you must look at: “Carolita! Regarde! I’m a bunny! Regarde-moi!” Then listen to her disparage her boyfriend’s job. “I work — what he does isn’t work. I work.” On other occasions, while your friend is traveling in Chengdu, it is seemingly your duty to live in his place solely to answer his phone at 3 a.m. to place conference calls between him and the GF in LA when one of them hangs up on the other while they are fighting long-distance. On the upside, she keeps a huge tub of very expensive breast-enhancing cream in their bathroom, which you slather on after every bath you take. As you can see for yourself, it worked.

– Get fired from that job after fighting about a package of the photographer’s fashion-forward underwear you neglected to return to Wet Seal in exchange for a different size on time. Manage another photographer’s studio and life for next to nothing again until you discover that you only have a limited reserve of time-organizational skills and you’ve just used them all up on a fashion photographer. When you express your homesickness for France because you have no friends in NY except the ones who are visiting from France, he tells you, “Of course you have no friends, Carolita. This is New York. In New York, there’s only the people you work with. They’re your friends: I’m your friend.” Get so depressed about this that you end up with $15,000 of credit card debt from consoling yourself with shopping and eating sushi (still works like a charm) for lunch and dinner nearly every day.

For a while, I resorted to whimsy and made this little green Kewpie doll my little imaginary studio managers friend. (B&W test polaroid possibly by Max Vadukul or one of his assistants, and modified by me. Color polaroid by me.)

– But because the office tekkie is so unreliable that you have to watch everything he does so you can do it again when he’s not available, you have learned enough about computers and networks from this last job to fake your way to a job testing model database software in France. They love you there and you love them back. They let you bring your dog to work and never complain when you’re late. They demand that you leave at 5 p.m. on the dot, provide all benefits, including four weeks of paid vacation. You’re actually really good at it. You think, “Now, this is finally a job I like. It’s just like playing battleship all day long. It’s so easy that I can start drawing and writing after work.” You make yourself a large desk out of scrap wood for your computer and drawing needs. Get plenty of paper, ink, paint, a printer. Everything you need. Discover that the only thing you can do after work is make dinner, watch The Simpsons and Ally McBeal in French, walk the dog, then fall asleep wondering what to wear the next day. Just like everyone else with a full-time job working for someone other than yourself.

– Go back to New York determined to get into illustration, and get persuaded to assist a stylist friend for six months on Italian Vogue photo shoots instead. Start feeling oddly ugly, fat, and short. Get fired just in time for your own good when friend realizes she’s keeping you from your drawing and writing while you mismanage her Avedon shoots. She’s done you a favor, but you don’t realize it while you couch-surf for a while, because now you’re broke. On the other hand, you’re also tall and thin again, without having grown or lost a pound. Laugh that off and get back to brass tacks. Or, pencils, as the case may be.

– Ask a friend at The New Yorker to show you an illustrator’s portfolio so you can get an idea of what one ought to look like before attempting one yourself. Be introduced to a cartoonist she was supposed to play pool with that evening, and get persuaded to take him out yourself. Take a fancy to this cartoonist and use the ancient “I have some drawings I’d like you to look at,” excuse to try to get in his pants and at least have a love life while you try to figure out the rest of your life. Cartoonist actually takes you seriously, looks at your terrible drawings, suggests different art materials, and also that you might try cartooning. He offers to show your stuff to his editor at The New Yorker, but you figure he’s just saying that to sweeten the deal, which is cute because he really doesn’t have to: pants off would’ve been enough. Play along with this ruse and start doing cartoons because drawing ten cartoons a week isn’t going to kill you, is it? It might even help. Within six weeks, you find out he wasn’t just being nice: you’ve sold your first cartoon.

We had a lot in common but I knew he was for me when he asked me what my favorite pencil hardness was.

Previously: Scala Coeli.

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.