January 25, 2010

The Red-Headed League - My Version

Do you remember the Sherlock Holmes story The Red-Headed League? Pawn-broker Jabez Wilson was the ginger-haired rube. His assistant Vincent Spaulding, needed him out of the way (to dig a tunnel into the bank next door) and came up with the most amazing scheme.

Spaulding had shown his carrot-topped boss a want-ad in the newspaper offering work and the staggering sum of four pounds a week to red-headed men only and urged him to apply. Curiosity piqued, Wilson had waited in a long line of fellow red-heads He was the only applicant hired because none of the other applicants had hair to match Wilson's fiery red locks. For several lonely weeks all Wilson did was transcribe the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He had acquired knowledge about Abbots and Archery and Armour and Architecture and had hoped to move on to the Bs when he encountered a sign: "THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE IS DISSOLVED."

I have my own story to tell. In 2002 my son was 8 and I need to find work. I’d hemmed and hawed. Not trained in any specific field, I’d created lists upon lists of what I’d like to do with my life.

I typed in two words to an employment search engine: Travel. Writing. And found a hit right away. An online travel encyclopedia was training and hiring writers for their website. I spoke to a fellow on the phone, whom I thought was some young dotcom kind of firebrand, and he wanted to interview me at his home office. After much deliberation with my husband, we figured I was safe enough to go for the interview.

So I headed up into north Toronto, where seriously there was more snow. I rang the bell of a tasteful house on a quiet street and was greeted by a man about 60 who seriously resembled Groucho Marx.

He ushered me into his basement where the long thin room was lined with books and 5 computer stations. I also noted a fake nose and glasses among his mementos – I wasn’t the only one who had noticed the resemblance.

“Jim” asked me some questions about travel; where had I been and what style of travel did I prefer. Then he asked me to complete a test that he himself had created on the computer. There were questions like “name 3 European Museums other than the Louvre”, “name 3 world-famous waterfalls other than Niagara” “what are three sites worth visiting in London." He had me rephrase two travel articles and reduce them into one. The test was over an hour long. Apparently, I did very well and he hired me on the spot. Training was to start the following week.

The next Monday found me sitting in Jim’s basement on a plastic patio chair along with 2 other trainees. One looked normal, but he was a real “the dog ate my homework” kind of guy, and the other, - pale, bearded with the shoulder of his sweater held together with a diaper pin. Despite being in his 30s he started every conversation “When I was in hospital as a kid…”

Apart from familiarizing ourselves his database, training consisted of Jim sitting with a collection of picture books on his lap, showing us useful things. “This is Gothic architecture. It’s known for its pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses.” “This is a Mayan pyramid, this is an Egyptian pyramid.” And so on.

After writing another test about useful things and database code, we could carry on at home independently. For $8.00 an hour (it eventually went up to 10) and the comfort (?) of never having to leave my own home, I described, with the help of maps and national tourism websites, every city, town, village, neighbourhood, point of interest and tourist attraction in:

The Dominican Republic
Buenos Aires
French Guiana
St Bart’s
South Africa
the Turks and Caicos

Again we were called in for training with the whole crew. There were IT people. Graphics people who dealt with maps and the 60,000 travel slides Jim had. And 3 other “writers”. Another test. I aced it. Top of the class.

Then crisis. To make ends meet the company had to take on a different kind of job. A Japanese manufacturer of in-car GPS wanted the latitude and longitude and a description of every point of interest in the US.

I found and plotted every roadside attraction in the small towns and big cities of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, DC, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, both Virginias, and Utah.

Over the course of 11 months I learned about the sulfurous gas lakes of Dominica, the European charm of Buenos Aires, the serene monastery hotels in Antigua, Guatemala. I learned about the banana industry in Honduras, the three distinct ethnic groups in Singapore and how to find my way around Kitty Hawk, N.C. and Devil's Island. Then there was the penis museum in Húsavík, Iceland, the glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Sundance Festival in in Utah.

Heck, I even played the soundtrack to the Civil War as I plotted my way around Harper’s Ferry and Sharpsburg.

I had saved enough money for a trip. After 3 weeks away, I came back and waited for my next assignment. Tick, tick, tick.

Then came the call. They had to make cuts. People didn’t want to subscribe to the site’s wealth of encyclopedic travel knowledge any more. They didn’t take ads in those days and due to the management at the time, going into debt was a no-no. I was the last in and the first out.

Despite the paltry wage it was the perfect job for me. I remember it fondly.

The website still exists although it has changed drastically and is far less user friendly. New management. My work is still there if you can find it. www.planetware.com


Poetikat said...

Wow! Nice work if you can get it. You really impress me with your wealth of knowledge, CP. Remind me never to go up against you on Jeopardy!when the category is "Geography" (or anything remotely related to it).

I once answered an ad to be a video description-writer for the blind. I had worked with a blind student for a year and felt it would help. Anyway, it seemed like the perfect job, initially, but it quickly got very tedious, even though I was able to work from home. The company was in Toronto and as far as I know they're still doing the same work.

I tried to write description for one of those Canadian Postal ads (it was a prison scene) and also for the film, "Going My Way".
I haven't been able to watch the film since. I guess it was all too restrictive. It was fun to be writing, but I had very little freedom of expression.

I love how you referenced "The Red-Headed League". I'm a big fan of the SH series - especially Brett's version.

Kate Hanley said...

What a fascinating job! I don't think I ever would have signed up for a job like that, I'm too careful. Sounds like it was a perfect job for you. Too cool

dogimo said...

C. Pup, what a great story (Doyle's of course, but I meant yours!). I'm not surprised you were top of the class. Your work on this site alone is like an encyclopedia of the deeply, whimsically informative. I know I've observed this before, but I wish you could have written some of my college texts - I'd have learned more and enjoyed it better!

I am abashed to admit that when I first came here and started reading around, I was thinking to myself: "tut-tut! This is all wonderful material, but what nerve, not to give proper attribution to the authors of these articles!"

A thousand pardons for my initial mistake. It soon sank in, what was actually up.

Giulia said...

Marvellous. I wish I could leave a clever comment but too foggy-headed. I loved reading this, though.


Rouchswalwe said...

Now that's what I call armchair travelling!

Diane said...

very cool job! and you do sound well-suited. So tell me the spots to see on the Amalfi Coast?

The Clever Pup said...

Er...Diane, unfortunately, Italy was one of the countries I didn't get to know.