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What I Learned From My Stint in the Traveling Reptile Show

If you are a newsletter subscriber, you know that I recently wrote about Raptitude being the best blog on the Internet, and said that David Cain is the best writer on the web.  When people ask me why I blog, I usually say “Because I meet people like David Cain.”  I submit this wonderful guest post as proof of everything I’ve said about him so far.

What I Learned From My Stint in the Traveling Reptile Show

by David Cain


David Cain

Josh recently polled his readers asking what was their worst job ever. I’m proud to say mine was spectacularly bad, and makes for a good story.

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.

Millionaire training

Millionaire training

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.

Serpentine Saturday

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.

Terrible Tuesday

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.

David Cain is the author of Raptitude.com, a blog for helping people to enjoy being human. Come by and discover the gentle art of sanity amidst humanity. Reptile shows are no longer being offered.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Craig August 31, 2009, 6:06 am

    “I told him to stop, and he didn’t hear me…”

    I nearly spit coffee out onto my computer after the visualization!

    Awesome story, thanks for sharing, David.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 31, 2009, 8:53 am

      Craig, that made me laugh, too. Very subtle and easy to skip. Good on David.

  • Jay Schryer August 31, 2009, 6:13 am

    This is a great story! It totally beats my Summer keeping the books at the local baseball field!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 31, 2009, 8:53 am

      Jay, that’s keeping the books, not cooking the books, right?:)

  • David Cain August 31, 2009, 7:06 am

    Snakes are pretty gentle but just can’t follow instructions.

  • Casey August 31, 2009, 7:18 am

    Should have told them you were tired of these mother-!@#$%*& on that mother-!@#$%^& van!

    (Sorry I couldn’t resist)

    Good point though, more than once I’ve fallen into the same trap of quick and easy turns into long and hellish. Good article!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 31, 2009, 8:52 am

      Casey, I wondered who would be first to use that line:) I’d like to hear more about “quick and easy” turning into “long and hellish.”

  • David Cain August 31, 2009, 10:44 am

    Jay — The worst part was that this was my introduction to the working world. It sucked but it was worthwhile for the story it produced.

  • David Cain August 31, 2009, 10:45 am

    Casey — I really debated making a snakes on a plane reference, but it seemed too forced. When I scanned the photo I called it “snakes on a cain.jpg”

  • lori August 31, 2009, 10:51 am

    This is just great, Josh and David! I love great story telling, and this story is top notch. 😛

    Awesome foreshadowing event:
    “He was a small-framed, goateed man, clad in biker black with an Ozzy Osborne t-shirt,…”

    I had a feeling what was coming; I’m on the edge of my seat!

    Awesome plot point:
    “As I was trying to reason with him, I was startled by another snake touching the small of my back.”

    It just keeps getting better! Why is David trying to reason with a reptile?? (ha)

    Thanks for providing my Monday morning entertainment and for confirming something I’ve always thought to be true:
    “The white vans you see driving around do indeed have weird stuff going on inside.”


  • David Cain August 31, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Thanks Lori. Good stories tell themselves. I don’t have a lot of great stories, but this one’s always good for a laugh. I consider reptilian zoology to be the first of many career areas I would eventually try.

  • Jessica Marie August 31, 2009, 1:53 pm

    Excellent story. I am not a fan of snakes so it sounds like a hellish job indeed.

  • Casey August 31, 2009, 1:57 pm

    Ha ha, what can I say? I go for the cheap shots! 🙂

    Josh, I seriously feel like Homer Simpson sometimes when I look back on the debacles I’ve fallen into.

    I once agreed to a neighbor clean their swimming pool (since I owned a buisness doing that at the time). The thing was so junked up (contained dead mice and turtles) that it took me about 6 hours to clean it up. Wish I hadn’t agreed to the price before i started.

    Worst part was it was a neighbor so I couldn’t just leave and not answer their phone calls… They knew my mom! (Yes I was living at home, I was 17)

  • We Fly Spitfires August 31, 2009, 3:45 pm

    I read this article on the toilet at working this morning using my iPhone and it really cheered me up and made my Monday brighter! Thanks 🙂

  • David Cain August 31, 2009, 4:35 pm

    Spitfires: Haha! Spreading joy into the hidden corners of the world, that’s great. Glad my awful experience could be put to good use.

  • Annabel Candy August 31, 2009, 7:40 pm

    Brilliant, makes mine seem pleasant. I worked in the kitchen on a kibbutz in Israel. It was a massive canteen catering for 1000s of people. It was hot, steamy and I got burnt plus all the people hated me and blamed me the schnitzels weren’t cooked right. I didn’t last long.

    Got transferred to lychee picking. I had to start at 4am and deal with the other workers from Lebanon throwing lychees at me. They were only trying to be friendly but they couldn’t speak english so this was how they got my attention. A well thrown lychee aimed at the forehead can be quite painful though.

    Definitely agree with “Don’t be afraid to ditch a line of work if you don’t enjoy it.” I ran away to the Sinai and spent a summer weaving friendship bands on the beach instead. Much more fun:)

  • Leah August 31, 2009, 8:01 pm

    Unbelievable– how can anyone top that?

  • Matthew Dryden September 1, 2009, 4:03 am

    @Leah: Two words: fast food.

    I’ve always wondered about those white vans – thanks for confirming my suspicions.

  • David Cain September 1, 2009, 7:50 am

    Annabel, I’d love to hear more about those jobs, they sound like good stories. Sometimes that’s the only compensation we get for them.

    Josh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lychee

  • Annabel Candy September 2, 2009, 4:18 am

    Thank heavens for Wikipedia, thanks David. Josh, I think you need to add lychee to your sexy foods list and try one asap. That’s a little challenge for you:)

  • Erin September 2, 2009, 3:37 pm

    Wonderful story. First jobs are fastinating and funny. You are still entertaining people. Thank goodness you have an interesting past to draw upon.

  • shelly jo September 21, 2011, 7:35 am

    Very well written, it would make an excellent radio story!