Sundry’s entry today made me think of the year I worked at the Burke Museum, my first year of social work school. Knowing what I know now, I ought to have tried to get a job that would pay for some of my tuition, but even though I already had quite a bit of debt from undergrad I didn’t think about that too much. I wanted an easy job where I could study and I’d always wanted to work at a museum, and there was a bus right from the basement room I was renting, and it was close to school, and there I was.
The job I’d left to go to social work school wasn’t that hard, as it mainly involved my talking about my very recent college experience with nervous, highly privileged high school students. I traveled a lot and had a company credit card and wasn’t home very much. I had very romantic ideas about what social work was and I thought that since I’d majored in psychology and done a little work with a local Big Sisters agency then I’d be fine and graduate with a degree that would allow me to have other not-very-hard jobs…and now that I think about it, that’s what has happened. It just took much longer than I imagined it would in the summer of 1999 when I’d moved up here all by myself, very scared and excited, and finally found a place and applied for my financial aid and got my little work-study job. I sort of liked being a student again. I was cold a lot of the time and I spent a lot of time reading huge binders full of social work theory and practice articles but I honestly thought I was doing the right thing and trying to make the world a better place by trying to become a social worker.
Working up at the museum’s front desk taking peoples’ money (I knew, briefly, how to work a cash register but I was always nervous making change) was the more social aspect of that job because I always worked with someone else and I could always talk to the girls working the gift shop where I bought all my Christmas presents that year because I got a discount. I had to clean the display cases twice a day and in doing so I learned quite a bit about Pacific Rim cultural artifacts and gems and fossilized whale skeletons. My favorite parts of working the front desk were making the closing announcement over the sound system (“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. The Burke Museum and gift shop will be closing in fifteen minutes. The museum and gift shop will be closing in fifteen minutes.”) and the rare times when I got to use a claw-shaped implement to retrieve pencils or clipboards or Beanie Babies that kids would drop in the exhibits. And one time, totally illegally, I got to ride up to the huge ceiling on a cherry picker and change a lightbulb. That was pretty fun, but I didn’t get a lot of homework done, and that was, ostensibly, why I had that kind of job and not something more demanding and social-worky.
But the back office of the museum was good for that. Occasionally I’d answer the phone : “Burke Museum, this is Chiara, may I help you?” or sort some mail or check my email, but mostly I read my homework and wrote visitor badges for people who came to see the ornithologists or paleontologists or the cultural history experts. When I was first working there I had to mediate in a dispute between a tiny Native woman and a huge Viking-looking guy who wore, I’m not even kidding, a Hammer Of Thor, around his neck. They were there because of all the disputes concerning Kennewick Man, which had been uncovered pretty recently and was being housed in the museum. When I made out the Native woman’s visitor’s badge she looked at me very sternly and said “I’m an American Aboriginal. You’re the visitor!” Well, there was no arguing with that so I made myself a badge too and wore it the rest of the day while she fumed in the crappy “reception” area and waited for the anthropologists and archaeologists to come and listen to her complaints. And now that I’m thinking about it, I also one time had to take a message from someone who’d seen an “artist’s rendering” in the paper of what Kennewick Man may have looked like six thousand years ago. She was calling with the urgent information that Kennewick Man was, in fact, Tibetan. Her lama was Tibetan, you see, and he looked just like the picture in the paper! I left a message for the head archaeologist that said “Kennewick Man is Tibetan and related to lama. Pls call back at earliest convenience.”
But that kind of stuff, while mildly entertaining, didn’t happen often enough to give me much respite from the pounds of reading I had to slog through every time I worked the back office. The thing that made it all worth it for me, to which I looked forward to all afternoon, was the arrival each evening of the Spider Guy.
Apparently he is some sort of spider go-to man for Pacific Northwest spiders, especially those in Washington State. I never talked to him much but I heard all this crazy stuff about his office at the museum, how it was covered with, yes, cobwebs, and thousands and thousands of spider specimens, live and pickled. I also heard that he was a completely self-taught (and self-funded, for the most part) expert that was sort of only nominally on staff at the Burke since he didn’t have a PhD. I’m not really sure how much of that is true, though. I do know he never came into the museum before dark. And that he wore large glasses that magnified his eyes to a fairly entertaining degree. And that he sort of moved like a spider, too, in that he would stand completely still when he walked in the door, and then would sort of dart quickly up to the desk, and then would hang out there for a while before scuttling away, his arms full of more spider booty.
Because I haven’t mentioned yet what my role in the Spider Guy’s work was. My small, solemn contribution was to collect the spider donations people would bring in to the museum. People did this all the time, and not just with spiders, either. It’s the states only natural history museum and so people brought weird stuff in all the time. Most of it was dead birds that flew into windows or whatever that people would bring in for the ornithology students to practice taxidermy on, but folks would also bring in weird rocks or flowers or other things that didn’t seem normal to them. Mostly the curators would come up from their offices when I called them to let them know they had an identification or a donation, and they’d either take it back to the freezer or politely let the donor know that, like, dude, that’s a daisy or something, and then go back to work. I would show the crestfallen donor the door and go back to my reading.
The spider situation was much the same except that most of the spiders people brought in were alive and in hastily slapped together jars. I’d get these panicked calls like “Hello? Okay, I was cleaning out the attic and THIS GIGANTIC SPIDER JUMPED OUT OF MOM’S OLD OVERCOAT and I’ve never seen one like it before BECAUSE IT IS SO HUGE and so I got it into a jar and I’m calling you from my car and bringing it over right now BECAUSE IT’S GOING TO EAT MY CHILDREN.” I’d give them directions and wait for them to bring it in, all pale and sweaty and shaking. It was almost always a giant house spider. (thanks for the link, Sundry!), which, Spider Guy later informed me, is not native to Washington State at all and is really rather a boring spider, as spiders go. I’d give the spider a couple of drops of water and maybe a leaf to hide under and set it near the desk until it was almost time to close and Spider guy came in for the evening. Occasionally I’d have several jars and he’d always look them over and roll his eyes when they all turned out to be the same plain old boring brown house spider. He always took them with him to his office…which I never did see…and I don’t know what he did with them there.
That was all just about five years ago, hard to believe how much has changed since then. It’s probably the most interesting office job I’ve ever had because, you know, I did like the piddly little museum and all the scientists and curators who worked there, and I liked the afternoons where there was no one much around and I just zoned out, wiping down the glass cases (“How did this get on there?”) and watching the videos over and over and looking at the old costumes, the old pictures, the old bones. I liked to think about the new life I was trying to live in Seattle and about school and all the big ideas I had about everything. I even liked the enigmatic Spider Guy and his glass jars full of boring brown spiders. I haven’t been back to that museum since I worked there because there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want to just be a visitor there, having learned a few of its secrets.