In her new book, Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Downmarket Dilettante, Ayun Halliday recalls a Sesame Street gig she scored early in her Chicago theater career. “Is it OK if I take a picture, Bert?” shouted a diaper-bag-toting mommy at the suburban department store. Practically blind inside her giant Muppet head, Halliday struggled to control her claustrophobia while screwing up the courage to clutch the squirming, shrieking infant through the thick yellow gloves that engulfed her hands. “As the horrifying possibility of the baby torquing itself loose in my grip seemed more and more likely, its mother fumbled with her Instamatic,” Halliday writes. When the mom snapped the photo, then frowned and asked whether the flash had worked, Halliday “davened frantically, praying that no one in the crowd would dare contradict Bert.”

Halliday blames no one but herself for the trauma she endured inside a Muppet’s cranium. In the mid-80s, while studying theater at Northwestern, she cherished romantic notions of boho poverty. The only acting students who didn’t dream of garrets were in fraternities and sororities, she says. But she “was floating around in my gauzy hippie skirts and yak-hair sweaters, idolizing Janis Joplin and Zelda Fitzgerald.”

After she graduated in 1987, the job market bit Halliday in the rear. “I had no illusions that I’d make it as a commercial actor, but I did think that perhaps I could make a go of it doing Shakespeare and Chekhov in repertory theaters,” she writes. “The only thing is, that’s hard work, matey. If you’re fortunate enough to get cast, you have to be willing to drop everything and move to Des Moines or someplace for three months. Knowing I’d never be able to bring myself to separate from my friends and my books and my cat and my favorite coffeehouse, etc, etc, I didn’t even audition.” Instead she turned to off-Loop theater, and in 1988 she joined the cast of the Neo-Futurists’ show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. She went on to write and perform a number of autobiographical one-woman shows, among them Farang, inspired by her ultra-low-budget backpacking trips through Southeast Asia.

But though fringe theater gave Halliday pleasure, the day jobs she took to make rent ranged from crazy-making (slinging cocktails for weekend schnapps warriors at a bar called Clubland) to bone-meltingly boring (a stint as an artist’s model taught her just how dull nudity can be). What’s worse, she says, she was humiliatingly bad at almost all of them. When she decided she wanted a real career, she followed the example of a fellow theater major and . . . went to massage school.

Then in the early 90s Halliday and her husband, fellow Neo-Futurist Greg Kotis, shipped off to the bright, frighteningly expensive lights of New York City. They struggled at first–especially after having the first of their two children. But in 2001 Kotis scored an unexpected success with Urinetown, the Tony-Award-winning musical he wrote with Mark Hollman, and the wolf was driven far enough from the door to let Halliday, who’d started a humorous zine about mommydom called the East Village Inky, stay home with the kids and write full-time.

In the last three years Halliday’s turned out an Inky-inspired book of parenting comedy, The Big Rumpus: A Mother’s Tale From the Trenches (Seal Press), and drawn on her overseas adventures to write the scatological travelogue No Touch Monkey! Now she’s mined her lackluster career history for Job Hopper, just out from Seal. A longtime reader of zines like Dishwasher and Temp Slave!, Halliday knows she isn’t breaking new ground. But her book is unpretentious–no Nickel and Dimed moralizing here–and at times unhinged, filled with lines like “He seemed to be pushing toward trilingualism with some sort of gibberish, perhaps a dialectical variation of nanny-nanny-boo-boo,” from the chapter on her one day as a substitute teacher at a grade school on the far west side.

Now that she’s been released from the grind of a day job, like many an artist who’s reflecting at leisure, she finds her former hand-to-mouth life worthy of nostalgia. Sure, those jobs were horrible, but they were packed with comic fodder–and the perks of the Chicago fringe-theater life are hard to deny. When she was running with the off-Loop crowd, Halliday told me, she “would know at least 30 other guests at any given party. Good lord, what I wouldn’t give to attend one of those parties in one of those big apartments tonight!”

Despite spots where Halliday seems to be laughing through grinding teeth, the book gives the impression that she has a healthy sense of perspective: “Dollars to doughnuts, the non-English-speaking ladies who toiled in hairnets and quilted jackets in the chicken processing plant next to the massage school I attended couldn’t have ‘switched their majors,'” she writes. “When someone like me says her day jobs are humiliating, boring, exhausting, bogus . . . well, it’s all relative, isn’t it?”

Ayun Halliday

When: Sat 4/6, 4 PM

Where: Quimby’s, 1854 W. North

Info: 773-342-0910

When: Sunday 4/17, 4:30 PM

Where: Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark

Info: 773-769-9299

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.