The first job I ever had was at a local kennel called Pet-O-Tel, located on a lonely stretch of gravel road on the outskirts of Sterling, VA. You wouldn’t even know the place was there except for a wooden sign with the companies name written in faded red paint, the sign itself partially obscured by weeds and branches. It would have made a great location to film a remake of Psycho with an all dog cast. I was 15 at the time and needed a work permit to even apply for it. I wasn’t hard up for cash or eager to join the work force. I simply liked the idea of getting paid to play with animals all day and even better, I thought it would get me out of detention.
I got in trouble a lot my freshman year in high school due to a remedial math class I took (Tard Math as I so eloquently put it) It was my final class of the day, right after gym. Trying to refocus my brain on fractions after an hour of dodge ball was not in my ADD wheelhouse. Even worse, the class was filled with mouth-breathing mullet wearing hayseeds with even less ambition than me…MY demographic.
My sharp-tongued wit went over like Kathy Griffin performing at a GLAAD Convention (except with TWICE the AIDS jokes) and I was singled out by our teacher, an emaciated Wallace Shawn, as the head doucher and moved near his desk so I couldn’t disrupt my classmates as they tried to focus on huffing whip-its, passing around Penthouse magazine, and occasionally math.
That class became my gateway to after-school detention mainly because our teacher, for as clever as he was when it came to ‘countin’ them thar numbers’, had never met a committed class fuck-up like me. My new location put me directly in front of the wastebasket where I made it my day’s work to block any attempt from anyone in the class to toss away a crumpled piece of paper. I was like a white Dikembe Mutumbo. I’d swat paper back to where it came, followed by a finger wag and triumphant roar. I even kept a tally of my blocks - it was the only math I did all year. My classmates would draw up plays to try and score a bucket but I was tenacious. If I was in a good mood I’d grab the paper mid-flight, stand and do a tomahawk jam right before our teacher grabbed me by the collar of my Motley Crue shirt and pushed me out of the room. (when Paramount options this Tumblr I hope James Franco plays me)
Detention meant staying after school for an hour which wasn’t so bad considering all the best paper-football players were there and it was a chance to show off my skills. On a good day I’d emerge with a box of Nerds won at a makeshift paper football tournament. It’s also where I found out you could get out EARLY if you had an after-school job. I noticed a detention lifer who left after 20 minutes and he explained he got a part time job at the Pet-O-Tel where for minimum wage, $3.35 per hour back in '85, all he had to do was walk dogs, clean up after them, and let them rest their head on his lap while watching TV in the break room. Better yet, they were always hiring. I’m a softie for dogs, always have been and always will be, so here’s how I envisioned my afternoons until the end of the school year…
Dodgeball - Remedial Math Show With Matt Oswalt - PaperFootball - Puppies
I immediately got my skeptical parents to sign off on a work permit, required for anyone under 16. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they thought this job-thing was a scam I was pulling to spend the day out in the woods performing satanic rituals. I DID have a Hanover Fist poster on my bedroom wall, after all.
After getting the paperwork filled out I called Pet-O-Tel where I was basically hired over the phone even after I name-dropped the kid who told me about the job only to learn he’d been shit-canned for not showing up on his first day. I could sense in her voice they were desperate to fill the position. The woman, I can’t remember her name, was nothing short of pleasant as she described my numerous duties, but all I could picture was an image of myself skipping through a field of daisies carrying a basket of golden retriever puppies made of cinnamon. I was actually motivated, confirming my parents suspicions I was on drugs.
The next day my mom drove me over for a formal interview. I wore one of my dad’s ties and a dress shirt tucked into chinos my mom bought me at Britches Great Outdoors.
I met the owner, an even dowdier Kathy Bates look-a-like, and shook hands - two solid firm shakes, my long blown dried hair bobbing up and down, and we worked out my schedule. I’d start that Saturday morning. I probably could have shown up naked with a swastika tattooed on my dick and got hired, but as far as I was concerned it was my winning smile and professional demeanor that got me the job. I felt like a real adult after nailing my interview and that feeling grew as she showed me around. Until that point in my life my only jobs were mowing the lawn and standing guard outside our garage while my brother and his friends put on haunted houses for the neighborhood kids. But this was the real thing.
Past the front desk we entered a renovated barn with a walkway down the middle. On each side were cages, about 80 per side, where each dog had its own cement room and clipboard with its name written down and any special instructions. Some of the dogs had a pillow or its favorite chew toy an owner left, but aside from that the place was spartan.
In front of each cage was a rope pulley and by yanking down it opened a small door at the back of the cage leading to an outdoor area. The job was simple, when a dog messed its cage you’d release it outside into its 'holding cage’ then take a hose and wash the waste into a sluice gate which ran out of the barn. You didn’t even need to pick up poo. Easy. The best part of the job was 'one-on-one’ time, which meant you got to take one of the larger dogs for a long walk. Behind the kennel was woods and a creek so you could let them off leash and scamper with them through the forest.
I figured I’d be running this place by the end of the month. I got a heavy-duty pair of work boots, gloves, and ironed my best pair of tough skin jeans. I even swiped a squeaky rubber frog toy from my dog Toby to make a good first impression with my canine friends. Toby went through squeak toys like Millennials go through IPhones.
During the rest of the week I didn’t act out in math class. I was a model student, quietly drawing Van Halen logos on my trapper-keeper and letting the dopes in the back of the class drive the teacher into early retirement.
8AM Saturday morning. A crisp fall day, frost on the ground as I bound up the steps to the Pet-O-Tel clutching my paper bag lunch ready for my first day at work. My mom made my lunch, staring with pride as she handed it to me, sensing this moment as an important step in my life.
My boss was all business as she ordered me to punch in and stow my sack lunch then briskly led me outside and all the way around the barn to a small clearing. I was stoked. The first hour of my first job I was gonna take a dog for a long walk in the woods. A Great Dane, perhaps an Irish Setter? During our tour I made a mental note of the dogs names and was hoping to impress her upon seeing which one waited. Then my world stopped.
We turned the corner of the barn and there sat a wheelbarrow. Inside the wheelbarrow was a fully grown and very dead German Shepherd. Leaning against the German Shepherd was a shovel. She told me to bury it then turned and walked away. Less than two minutes after filling out my W-2, punching in, and becoming an official tax paying employee of the State of Virginia, I was to earn my first hours $3.35 by burying a dog. There was not a shred of ambiguity with this task. I didn’t question my orders as there was nothing to question. I picked up the shovel and began digging into the hard earth.
Too much too soon, the horror I was tasked to perform too graphic for me to process. And what was I to do, say no? This isn’t a math teacher telling me to shut up or a parent pleading with me to cut off my bleached rat tail. This is an employer and she’s got me by the balls. This is no favor she’s asking. This is a job. I stared straight down at my work and cut through the dirt and rock. I didn’t once look at the dog.
An hour and four blisters later I felt the hole was deep enough. I paused and stared at the dog for the first time, hoping it would lift its head and scramble away, revealing this charade as some weird Pet-O-Tel initiation. But it was stone dead. Its glassy, unblinking eyes stared in the direction of the hole I dug like it was cautiously pondering where it would spend eternity.
I uncerimoniously lifted the wheelbarrow and the dog slid head first into the hole, landing at such an angle its spine snapped like a 2 X 4, the sound cutting grotesquely through the early morning quiet. For those who have not had the pleasure of listening to a German Shepherd literally break in half I hope you never do, as you will hear it over and over again in your nightmares for the rest of your life (cue NBC’s 'The More You Know’ theme)
I went from disgust to sadness to rage. Part of me wanted to slap the pale off Kathy Bates cheek for putting me through such a trial. But the other part of me knew this was just a job, not personal. Dogs die, and when they do you bury them. And surely this couldn’t be the bulk of my duties.
When you think of dog kennels you get images of these modern day spas with kale-infused puppy chow, doggie yoga with Gwyneth Paltrow, and in-cage video so you can watch your miniature Doberman lick its balls from your IPad. But in 1985 in a small town in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains it was a chain link fence, a hard floor, and the same generic food which, along with the stress of being away from their owners, was a perfect storm for diarrhea. And while changing the soiled newspaper in the rabbit cages (yup, they boarded rabbits, too) I was told the sluice gate hadn’t worked in years so I had to pick up after the dogs the old fashioned way.
About the time I finished cleaning my 50th cage I realized the Pet-O-Tel and the best paper-football player detention had ever seen was not a good fit. What clinched it was after working up the nerve to inquire about burying that dog she explained they took run-off from the local animal shelter and while they did their best to find them homes most went unadopted and eventally died of old age or cancer. She even motioned to a few old dogs near the far end of the barn who she described as 'next in line’. It dawned on me I was not only caretaker but also the town dog gravedigger. Not one life lesson in all the Judy Blume books I read had prepared me for this.
The only other person working there (and I use the term ‘working’ loosely) was a dough faced 30-year old zilch named Ben who made the dildos in my remedial math class look like Rhodes Scholars. I wasn’t sure if he was my boss’s son, lover, or just a guy who needed a front porch to sit for eight hours while he spat tobacco juice all over his boots, but he offered nothing in ways of assistance or camaraderie. For all I knew he was the one who killed that German Shepherd out of pure boredom. He became another in my long list of reasons for wanting to get the fuck out of there.
As for 'one-on-one’ time? I never got to run through the forest with a dog while Skid Row’s ‘Youth Gone Wild’ blasted on my walkman. I was too busy drowning in dog shit. And what made this worse was I KNEW some dogs wanted to go for a walk. They’d stare at me through their cages, ears perked up, almost begging me to take them out for a few hours. All I could do was meet their sad eyes with my own. I can still see some of them pawing at their chew toys as I passed, trying to time it to somehow get my attention. Awful.
I spent the last few hours of my shift figuring out a way to coax a blind mutt, whom I’m sure I’d be digging a hole for soon, to exit its doggie door so I could clean the vomit it was lying in and also to tell me boss I wouldn’t be returning…EVER! In the end I did what most 15 year old punks do, chickened out, told her I’d see her tomorrow bright and early, and when I got home begged my parents to get me out of this mess.
Actually, the first thing I did when I got home was take a long shower and scrub the stench of feces and death off then hug my faithful cocker spaniel for an hour. Until that point in my life I had never experienced death and Toby’s kisses felt like drinking from the Holy Grail, my sad heart once again filled with the sweet nectar of life.
I told my parents the job sucked, wasn’t at all what I thought it would be, and couldn’t possibly return the next day. I focused on the shit and left out the death, already filing it away into the deep caverns of my mind, a bad habit I have whenever I don’t want to deal with something.
I wasn’t 100% certain about the process of quitting a job, was hoping it involved me just not showing up, but my parents explained I had to do the honorable thing and call.
So the next morning at eight I called my boss and could immediately tell by the tone in her voice she knew I was quitting. I suspect she’s dealt with a lot of flakes like me. She asked if I was giving two weeks notice.
“OK, no two week notice.“ Then she added, “I won’t be able to give you a recommendation on any further employment. Goodbye.” And she hung up the phone.
That last part stuck with me, always has, and to this day whenever I get passed over for a job I have this gut feeling it’s my old boss at the Pet-O-Tel blackballing me.
“Sorry Mr. Oswalt, your dubious work history and anxiety over burying dogs makes me think you won’t fit in with the Wizards of Waverly Place writing staff.”
The residual pain from this experience was something that needed to be exorcised and math class was the perfect stage. I quickly reclaiming my title as class douche and moved on from my trash can bit to a makeshift rubber band operated staple gun that would have made Gallagher proud.
I became a detention lifer that year but it was OK as by now I understood the system and quickly landed another job. I got lucky with my high school jobs after the 'Pet-O-Tel incident’, as I’ve come to call it. I worked at a golf course and almost drowned when I flipped a cart while attempting to jump a creek on a bet, then became an usher at a local movie theater where I felt up a girl during Who Framed Roger Rabbit and smoked my first joint.
I was back in Virginia recently and drove out to the Pet-O-Tel knowing full well it closed many years ago. I tried to find the spot where I buried the German Shepherd but the entire area is now a suburb filled with homes and mini malls. I often wonder if its remains were bulldozed or it got lucky and wasn’t disturbed, forever resting in some unknowing families backyard. I hope so, because if it did that means the squeaky frog toy I placed between its paws is still there. I forgot to mention, before I buried it I gently places the frog I had taken from my own dog with it so it had something to chase around in the afterlife. It’s taken me a long time but I’m now able to locate the deep caverns in my mind where I hid this memory and I’m glad, because when I see that German Shepherd it’s not lifeless in a wheelbarrow, but happily tearing through the forest where I’m always ready to join it for some one-on-one time.