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