LINCOLN SQUARE — You don't want to compare crappy jobs with Andrew Edwards.
Over the last five years, Edwards has ridden a Segway through gang territory, been busted by Homeland Security, collected "suggested donations" at street fairs, impersonated Super Mario and cold-called more people than he cares to remember.
In other words, he's been taking whatever work he could find while searching for a full-time job in the midst of a major economic downturn.
"The situation was always just trying to survive," said Edwards, a 31-year-old West Town resident, who collected his experiences in the book "Working Through the Great Recession," which he'll read from Wednesday at the Book Cellar.
Perpetual temporary employment wasn't the life Edwards envisioned for himself when he graduated from the University of Iowa in 2005 with an accounting degree. The Des Moines native quickly landed a job with a real estate accounting firm in Chicago and his path seemed set until he got the itch to travel.
"I didn't dislike that job. It was more the routine — go in Monday through Friday, get 13 to 14 days off a year," he said.
Inspired by the quote "If not now, when?" Edwards, an outdoorsy, athletic guy who'd long competed on the Ultimate Frisbee circuit, decided to quit his job and made plans in 2008 to volunteer for three months with a sea turtle conservancy outfit in Costa Rica. The program ran from September to December, and while Edwards was out of the country, the U.S. economy tanked.
He returned to a nonexistent job market.
"At that point, there was absolutely nothing," he said, and his odyssey into the world of random jobs commenced.
It started on a high note, with Edwards hired on as a seasonal payroll accountant at Glacier National Park in Montana.
"I tell everyone I meet to go there," said Edwards, who took full advantage of the opportunity to backpack through the wilderness.
When the park closed for the winter, Edwards found himself right back where he started — in need of a job and money.
While applying for full-time positions in Des Moines and Chicago, he paid the bills with a string of gigs that were the very definition of "odd job," like the phone survey that had him asking parents about their children's vaccinations.
"That was a really brutal survey to get people to participate in," he said, summing up a typical day as "click, click, click, getting yelled at."
That lasted for seven months.
During another stretch he sorted mail on the night shift and knocked on doors for the U.S. Census. An "insane" tennis fan, he volunteered three years running at the Sony Ericcson tournament in Florida.
"You're not supposed to even talk to the players. We were volunteers, but you could still get fired," Edwards said.
One job — a research study on childhood obesity — had him traveling across the country to places like Pennsylvania Amish Country, New York City and California's redwood coast.
"It was pretty sweet," Edwards said.
Another gig had him sneaking into high-rises to make note of the buildings' tenants and vacancies, information rival real estate brokers could use to steal clients. Edwards played the "I got off on the wrong floor" card one too many times when the elevator stopped at a Homeland Security office.
And then there were the marketing promotions, many discovered via Craigslist: flash mobs (hence the Super Mario costume), product samplings — just take the Coke Zero, people — and one memorable gig that had him zipping around Chicago's West Side on a Segway while handing out fliers announcing a shuttle bus service to Wal-Mart.
"None of these jobs are sustainable," Edwards said.
Though the perks included a huge amount of freedom and variety — "I got to know people from all over the world, and I made a lot of friends" — the negatives far outweighed the positives.
"I think about people my age who went the traditional route. They're being promoted to really good positions," said Edwards. "I've had a lot of crazy experiences, but in terms of discernible skills ..."
Several times he made it to the final round of candidates for an accounting post but never landed the job, perhaps in part, he thinks, due to his lengthy resume of short-term gigs.
"Some thought it was cool, but a lot, they don't," he said. "I got this question a lot, 'How do I know you're not going to quit?' I tried to explain that I commit to things, I don't back out." (See: seven months of telephone survey.)
Whenever the dreaded "What do you do?" question came up in conversation with new acquaintances, Edwards frequently deflected it with humor and eventually settled on saying, "I'm a writer," which was true once he started working on the book in 2012.
In late 2013, Edwards finally landed a full-time position with the Fruit Guys, a company that provides locally sourced produce to companies, schools and individuals.
While he's often wondered what his life would be like if he had stayed with his original accounting firm, Edwards said he has no regrets.
"Would I do it again? Yes, I would without a doubt."