I was seventeen, it was the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade. Stupidly, I’d promised my parents I’d get a job. Not a career, just something to get me out of the house for the summer. Inexperienced and painfully timid, I bucked up and took the first step of searching the local job bank. They had an ancient, wall-mounted computer terminal where you could search employer-posted job descriptions on a sterile green-on-black screen. I flipped through the offerings. All of the main categories — Admin, Food service, Retail — filled me with visions of dread and tedium, so I clicked on the last one: Other.
There was one job:
Assistant Reptile Handler
Description: Handle reptiles for birthday party and classroom shows.
Qualifications: Able-bodied. No experience necessary.
Wage: $30 per 3-hour show.
What attracted me most was the extravagant pay. At the time, minimum wage was $5.40 per hour, and if I was doing my math right this was almost double that. I would be rich.
I wasn’t sure exactly what the job entailed, but for some reason I pictured it to be very easy. I imagined myself sitting around at a birthday party, with a friendly snake draped across my shoulders, eating cake and looking cool.
I called. The man was very friendly, and told me to come by that Saturday so he could show me the ropes. There was no interview.
Nothing To Worry About
The fact that I’d be carrying around snakes and probably some other mystery reptiles didn’t strike me as anything to worry about. I had held a boa constrictor once when my science classroom had been visited by a similar (perhaps competing) Reptile Man. I got to hold Buddha the boa constrictor. It wasn’t too bad. I know I looked cool.
Reptile Man had told me to come by an hour early to get used to the reptiles. The front door was completely boarded up so I crept around to the back and knocked. He called me in from inside.
The rear ‘foyer,’ which appeared to be of his own construction, was dark. As I walked in, the wall of caged rats on my left leaped into a screeching frenzy, as if they thought I might be there to free them. I told myself it didn’t bother me. It was just a normal everyday rat-wall, and it would soon become part of my regular workplace ambiance.
I pushed through the next door and found myself in the aftermath of a ransacking of some sort. What was once a living room was now a sea of magazines, CDs and packaging. Reptile Man sprung up from somewhere and shook my hand.
He was a small-framed, goateed man, clad in biker black with an Ozzy Osborne t-shirt, and I immediately recognized him as the same Reptile Man that had come to my school. He was terrifically friendly, and loved his animals. Aside from the magazine-sea I was standing in, cages and aquariums appeared to fill the rest of the house.
I held a few snakes and helped him move a few crates and aquariums around. He told me to come back Tuesday, and we’d take a few reptiles to a drop-in center to show some kids.
We loaded up the Reptile-mobile (a white, windowless van) with cooler-sized kennels, each containing a cold-blooded, fanged animal.
He sat up front and told me my job was to crouch (not sit) in the seatless back of the van between the kennels. Their lids were not locked because RM worried that they would stress themselves out by head-butting the inside of the lids. My task was to monitor the kennels for snakes poking their heads out, and kindly coax them back in. I said “No problem,” and we were off.
Being tropical animals, the pythons and boas preferred that the van be heated to a good 90 degrees or so. I was already pouring sweat when I spied Jacob the albino python attempting to escape.
I told him to stop, and he didn’t hear me, so I tried to aim his head back into the kennel. But he was having none of it, intent on going to sit up front with RM in the empty passenger seat.
As I was trying to reason with him, I was startled by another snake touching the small of my back. Buddha the boa constrictor had escaped too. I managed to get them both in again, but of course nothing was stopping them from slithering out repeatedly until we arrived. And they did.
The classroom itself was where the real fun started. Emptied of desks for the summer, it was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with 10 year-olds. It too was simmering at 90 degrees.
Reptile Man dropped the six-foot, 30-pound Buddha on my shoulders and sent me to show the kids. So I wandered into the swarm, and the kids started freaking out. Some kids were crying and running away, as others pushed their way towards me, as hyper as Boston terriers, anxious to pet him.
I was already gushing with sweat and starting to hallucinate from the heat, when Buddha decided he didn’t want to see the kids at all, choosing instead to escape into my shirt collar. His tail spiraled tightly around my thigh, and his head popped out somewhere behind me, sending more kids screaming and running. I pretended it was all normal to Buddha’s mischief while I recited mostly incorrect facts about boa constrictors.
Feeling a trifle overworked, I hobbled back to get RM’s help. He switched Buddha for a fist-sized lizard, who shared the snake’s burning desire to continually escape wherever they happen to be, only he was faster. Somehow three hours passed in this manner.
When we got back we unloaded the animals, and washed what seemed to be random objects in his house: spare window panes, buckets, serving spoons. I graciously resigned sometime later that day, and Reptile Man paid me $30 for the five and a half hours it took to help him put on a three-hour show.
What I learned:
- Know what you are committing to when it comes to work. Get a written job description.
- Don’t be afraid to ditch a line of work if you don’t enjoy it.
- The white vans you see driving around do indeed have weird stuff going on inside.