My mom gave her last warning somewhere between Big Knob Road and Brews Tavern, at about eight in the morning, with the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack twanging in the background.
“No gagging,” she said, driving up a tall hill flanked by cornfields. “Cowboys don’t gag.”
I was on my way to a racehorse training facility in North Brighton, Pennsylvania — about 45 minutes northwest of Oakland — to work a morning shift cleaning horse stables for the farm’s owner, Bob Inman, who posted the job on Craigslist a few days before.
I’d never touched a horse in my life, I already had a part-time gig and I had no intentions of breaking in at the ground level of horse training. With student loans mounting and no time to commit to another job, I wanted to see how easy it was for a college kid to make a quick, safe buck on the internet.
Craigslist: that classified advertisements website where you can purchase a used car, look for a summer sublet, scalp concert tickets or even post an ad in the “missed connections” section, where you can let a stranger know you’re his or her secret admirer in the hopes that person will stumble across your message.
The site is loosely moderated, however, making it an easy target for scammers, frauds and criminal activity. In January, The Washington Post reported that 101 killings have been traced back to Craigslist — ranging from a Tulsa, Oklahoma-area post where the author began, “i was wanting to thank Tulsa for letting me have my first kill,” to a robbery-gone-wrong in Indiana that left a middle-aged couple dead.
So before I scrolled through the “gigs” Craigslist page for quick, one-time paid jobs, I needed to find someone who had experience doing manual labor for total strangers.
Jeff Neal, author of a financial blog called “Jason Coupon King,” wrote a post earlier this year called “How I Earned Over $600 Hustling Craigslist ‘Gigs,” in which he described earning $655 for 35 hours of work — more than $18 an hour — by taking on various Craigslist gigs, like modeling “as an ‘average looking’ dude for some guy’s t-shirt company.” So I called him.
Neal, who works full-time as a project manager for an industrial painting contracting firm, said all the job etiquette basics apply to Craigslist careers: steady eye contact, firm handshake, know the dress code. Figure out how much money you’ll make up front, and make sure to communicate well with your employer to avoid getting stiffed. Despite having one awkward run-in with a chain-smoking, over-caffeinated boss who asked him to memorize 100 mailboxes in two weeks to deliver newspapers, Neal said his experiences were mostly positive and he never felt unsafe at work.
A Temple University alum, he didn’t hesitate when asked whether or not Craigslist gigs are a good financial move for students.
“I wish I thought of this when I was at Temple, when I was in Philly, like living out there,” Neal said, adding that in urban environments, “it just seemed to me that there were more people moving, there’s more people that need stuff done.”
So began my job hunt. After ignoring the roughly 30 percent of gigs with thinly masked sexual motives — foot models are in demand right now — I finally made contact with an employer who hired me to demolish a kitchen on Meyran Street. He fired me a few seconds later when I told him I was a reporter. “I have enough trouble from my kids,” he grunted before hanging up.
After sifting through several more listings, including one for a “paranormal investigator,” I came across a post with the header, “Horse Stable Help.” $10 an hour. Horse experience preferred. After calling the number listed on the ad and explaining my story, I was hired.
Walking into Bob Inman’s barn is like that scene in “Silence of the Lambs” when Jodie Foster’s character visits the prison for the first time, only to be greeted with psychotic criminals leaning out of their cells and taunting her. Only in my case it was 15 or so 1,000-pound horses snorting and nodding their heads at me. “You a city boy?” Inman joked when he saw me flinching.
Inman, a rotund, neighborly man with a headset always clipped to his ear, explained that he ran a racehorse training facility at the farm, and a state-of-the-art one at that. Think of him like the trainer of a professional sports team — Inman medicates the horses when they get sick, feeds them the animal equivalent of protein powder when they’re malnourished, puts healing cream on sore muscles and even takes them for swims in his on-site pool to take pressure off their joints.
Before I started working, we took two horses to his Eurociser — basically a treadmill for horses, which uses rotating panels to bump them into jogging in circles around a carousel — and talked about my competition for the Craigslist job.
There were three callers, including me. When Inman asked the first why he no longer worked at his last job, the man answered, “I didn’t show up for work.” Answers like that still surprise the farmer, who also uses Craigslist’s gigs page to find workers for his other business, Inman Enterprises, which cuts grass for vacant lots owned by banks.
“It doesn’t even click in their mind that ain’t gonna be good,” Inman said.
Later on, Inman lets me lead the friendliest horse, Rosie, to and from the Eurociser. As we walk, he tells me he was a calf roping champion at my age, and that he met his wife Betty — who still works with the horses and could “kick my ass” — at age 14. He used to ride his bike a mile down the road to see her, having lived on the farm since he was little.
After watching a horse swim and meeting Inman’s pygmy goat, Coco, it was time for me to work. Inman’s part-time farmhand, Ashley, led Victory in Motion — who was fresh off a big win at Mountaineer Racetrack — out of his stall so I could clean it. Ashley scanned the floor, her eyes widened and she said, “They literally gave you the worst stall.”
Lucky me. Pretending it was dirt, I raked Victory’s poop into a wheelbarrow, which I would later dump outside, then pour sawdust for the horse to roll around on when he came back.
The work wasn’t difficult or hard to find — I could see how Neal pulled off 10 of these kinds of gigs in a month, especially after hearing what Inman said about the average Craigslist applicant. But would I make a second job picking up one-offs on Craigslist? Inman knew the answer as soon as he saw my face emerge from the stall.
“One thing we can all agree on?” Inman said, masking a grin as I heaved the poo-filled wheelbarrow out of the stable. “It is a sh*tty job.”