|Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, Itís Off To Work I Go
|by Thom Fowler
The writerís day job has to be respectable. A cafť or a bookstore - places where people meet to think and reflect and talk and peruse. Those are the kind of places, like bars, that tolerate diversity in oneís employment background. A job where you arenít hired solely to be an automaton, one that demands personality. In spite of the low-wages and under-used counter-top tip jars, cafťs and bookstores (outside of Starbucks and Barnes and Noble) support idiosyncratic individuals. I donít feel like Iím taking a job away from a teenager by seeking employment in one of those two venerable institutions.
I have heard, ďWhy donít you just get a job, call a temp agency or something,Ē more than the once necessary. ďTemp agencies only hire docile girls who will do anything you tell them. If you quit because you donít like the job, you get blacklisted from further employment,Ē I reply. Iíve been down the temp agency road before. You get treated like crap by everybody and because you are a temp, you are expected to arrive earlier, leave later and get more done in a shorter time than anyone. Normal human foibles turn into ďwrite-upsĒ and the whole job experience turns into an experiment in infantilization. And if you quit or ask for a new job because you donít think humiliation is in the job description, BLACKLISTED!
Thackery worked for the Post Office and Kafka wrote in secret, hoping his work would be destroyed and plenty of writers have written in the cracks of their day jobs to be published at the right time while boot-strapping themselves into a life as a full-time writer. In spite of the cautious attitudes of many writers more practical and sensible than myself, I think there should be some romance, a little risk, some flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants to the struggling writers life.
Being in the midst of bootstrapping doesnít help when you know people who are successful writers. ďHurry up and finish your novel and donít forget youíll have to sell yourself to agents, editors, publishing houses and perhaps, even the Devil.Ē A struggling writer sounds like LOSER with capital L in the orbit of those whose picture winks from the inside flap of a dust jacket in a thousand different bookstores. If I survive my writerís life, I should count that mere survival as success enough.
I knew this guy once who Iíve since lost track of who used to live in a brownstone in Harlem off 125th street. Not the 125th Street up the road from Columbia where none of the undergrads ever venture. The125th street on the other side of Morningside Park. The 125th street of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison. The 125th street of basement Vodun temples, rows of brick stairs leading up to boarded up houses converted from single-family units into apartment buildings, filled with 80 year old stained glass, worn hardwood floors and the architectural flourishes of a once fashionable and prosperous neighborhood.
My friend was a self-styled modern Beat who worked as a pedi-cab operator in Central Park to pony up the rent that he shared with his Columbia undergrad girlfriend from the white, upper-middle class, professional suburb of Danville Ė a bedroom of San Francisco.
It was mostly the allowance she got from her parents that kept him housed. He wrote poetry and short stories and struck up a lengthy correspondence with the executor of William Burroughsís estate and occasionally exchanged letters with Diane DiPrima. He even wore a wide-brimmed fedora and a tattered wool blazer.
The times Iíd stay with him, the days would disappear into sleep. At night, weíd put an Ella Fitzgerald album with 40 years worth of scratches on the wood-grain turntable and let her croon until the small hours of the morning. Sitting on the worn Afghanistan wool rug that was sooty with the constant snowfall of cigarette, pot and incense ashes, we would chose a theme like the city, hope, the moment, or love and write poems. When I think of the atmosphere we evoked, it feels as if these things happened decades ago, but it was only a few years, and several versions of my life, ago. Getting to New York was a financial feat for me so weíd rely on his tips or his girlfriends generosity to buy cheap red wine from the Bodega around the corner. The cashier sat in a bulletproof plastic shield.
In the morning, weíd return to the bodega for a breakfast of egg and bagel and the infamous 40 cent cup of Manhattan coffee in the unmistakable blue and white Grecian paper coffee cup with the words THANK YOU embossed in gold. Whoever owns that paper cup company must make a fortune. The man behind the deli counter would scoop two heaping teaspoons of sugar into the cup, pour in the coffee and top it off with milk, pop the lid on and slide it over before returning his attention to the portable television on the counter.
Manhattan never disappoints. Just when we were lost in our hallucination, weíd see Janeane Garofalo at a cafť or Kiefer Sutherland in the East Village and weíd be snapped out of our thrift-store reverie and back into the present world of The Simpsons and MTv.
I have been looking for a day job and I have discovered that there is an assumption that if you have a decade of professional experience behind you that you should be fairly well-off, at least own a home, perhaps have children. Unless you are me, and you have chosen la vie bohŤme to nurture your creativity and maintain your sanity. If I were to even think about working 40 hours a week for slightly more than minimum wage (the kind of job I assume I could just walk into), Iíd still have no money to get by AND Iíd have no time to write.
That scenario is not an option.
My work life has been the basic problem all along. I always thought that having a corporate career would totally compromise my ideals and yet, it seemed like the only feasible direction for survival. I use stark words like ďsurvivalĒ because that is really what your job is about. Unless you have no need to generate an income, money = food and this is never more apparent then when you donít have any cash.
I mean, Iím not looking for a job because Iíve been recently laid off like the countless thousands with more at stake than me. Iíve kept myself out of the work force for several years now to write (because being a writer, I have learned, is not a real job) but as I get older and can afford to be less reckless (although God forbid if I have to hang it up altogether and settle down), I need a minimal amount of monthly income. I have made living off of next to nothing an art form. Poverty has a tendency to breed provinciality. With no money, you canít buy books, see plays, go to concerts, take trips, have a brunch party, pay rent, buy gasoline or eat. My stock in trade is being au courant and Iím begging my way into relevance.
Luckily Iím a journalist. I can trade a published book review for the latest hot title, an entertainment feature for a free movie, an interview for a plus-one at a comedy event. Iím even more fortunate than some journos because I have an established gig as a society/celebrity columnist. While not The New York Post, MoviePoopShoot.com has respectable numbers and the kind of name cachet important to Hollywood publicists. Iím the poor as dirt, unfashionable distant cousin who gets invited to the wedding by default. Iím also the one that takes home some leftovers out of sheer necessity.
No, Iím not unemployed, Iím self-employed. As a freelancer, my fortunes depends on advertising revenue, a strong economy and lots of people spending lots of money, the right connections and a good idea. Being able to get the story is only part of it. Having someone to sell it to is what is going to pay the bills.
Employers just canít get their head around the idea that I donít report to anyone. You would think that would be an asset. I think they are called ďself-starters.Ē Instead, they have no way of finding out how you work. If you are looking for a low-wage job, obviously you arenít very good at what you do. And sadly, thatís the truth. I am currently not very successful at my new chosen profession. But that doesnít mean I have never been successful at anything. I wasted my twenties going to school, which I soon discovered never had to end, and when I finally put the brakes on an out of control academic life, I discovered I was a different person and wanted different things. Shit!
What I didnít know then, but know now, is that Iím really good at school. The only real skill I have is being able to filter information and tell stories Ė thus mid-wifing the meaning making process.
I am intentionally applying for jobs Iím overqualified for because it means Iím more than qualified. I can easily do the job. Hire me and Iíll start tomorrow. Being qualified or not has nothing to do with getting a day job. You have to be perceived by the hiring manager as being inferior to them, else there is no way they can treat you like an underling. If they know that somewhere else out there in the world, you have presence or authority you can expect a rejection letter with, ďYou donít have the experience we are looking for.Ē Which means, ďYou are far too experienced for this job, and you should be ashamed of yourself for even attempting to take a job away from someone who can do little else.Ē
Have you read the news lately? Six percent unemployment is a lot of overqualified people suddenly competing for minimum-wage head-above-water jobs instead of lucrative clients and contracts to feed their families and pay their mortgages.
And shame on me for trying to take that away from people who need employment more than I do. I donít have children or a mortgage. Iím undeserving on so many accounts. Couch-surfing in brownstones in Harlem and writing poems about the City while living off someone elseís tips at least restores my dignity and lets me avoid having to interface with the gatekeepers of solvency.
I do not assimilate well into an office culture that asks me to adopt a costume or a value system that supports conformity and mediocrity, downplays passion and individuality and puts a comfortable blanket over every-day life.
The subtle message I keep getting while scouring around for a day job is that Iím supposed to pretend like thatís what I want.
I love reading about all those authors who would peck away days while their wives or husbands worked. Michael Chabonís lovely wife was so supportive. Jonathon Franzenís wife was such a blessing. Or the 26 year old Wunderkinds like Daniel Mason, whoís best-selling first novel, called THE PIANO TUNER was written as an aside during his first year of med school. Or JT LeRoy whose shot in the arm came out of his therapy. Iím sure his therapist must have been neighbors with an agent. They all make me feel like Iíve squandered my deal with the Devil. I was tricked. I want a refund. Maybe I should stop looking for a job and just look for a sugar daddy.
When you go apply for a low-wage, low-skill job, and you are a highly skilled person with an actual salary history, the person you are asking to hire you is one of those sturdy, resolute people (probably a Taurus or a Capricorn) who has found a way to make a decent living, in spite of not having prepared for any kind of a career. Else they are the ones who were waylaid on their way to their chosen profession (probably a Virgo or an Aries). I imagine there are countless thousands of college graduates who have found out the hard way that ďgo to college and get a good jobĒ isnít a rule, itís a sales gimmick.
Iím probably just bitter because right now Iím the loser. Iím on a ground-ward dip on the wheel of fortune and the shackles that hold me there are loosening enough so that I may be ejected from the whole thing entirely and miss a ride back up.
I may be ill-suited to the demands of public service or private industry. I can, however, make espresso, and work a cash register and engage in friendly banter with strangers. A few practical skills can really make a difference in oneís economic well-being. Hollywood is like, salvation, for someone like me. When I left Los Angeles, two completely unrelated people said to me, ďSo youíre giving up?Ē
That stung. Like I was letting go of the dream just when I needed to hold on to it the hardest. As if the whole of my existence depended on me staying in the game.
ďWhat? No, Iím regrouping. I may be back again before too long.Ē More than anything, I was just homesick.
When you tell people you are looking for a day job they invariably think you think you are better than them - mere work-a-day folk. It also means to them that you donít really care about where you are. That perhaps you havenít reached the end of your road. That you have that most precious of commodities, hope, tucked firmly under your belt.
Where I live a lot of bored, rich housewives take day jobs to keep themselves off the Percodin so when you apply in one of their shops for your day job they are appalled that you are asking for work so you can survive. It offends their sensibility to hire someone who actually needs a job. It throws off the whole aesthetic.
I wonder if my joblessness is punishment for not giving a little wink to the man and carrying on business as usual. Or maybe Iím just a loser. This whole game is giving me a serious run for money. And I know everything is really okay because Iím still breathing, and Iím writing this, and you are reading it, but Iím in a black mood. Good thing I stocked up on food. If I canít pay my bills, I can at least eat.
It may actually be the economy. The ranks of the long-term unemployed are growing. There was no job growth in the last quarter, in fact jobs are being lost at the rate of about 106,000 per month across all industry sectors reported The Economic Policy Institute. Its good to keep an eye on the big picture.
Retail has been hard hit because of a decrease in consumer demand (translated: everybodyís broke and maxed out) but economic vitality can vary from region to region as it can from industry to industry. If I wanted to get downright scientific, I could probably find the city, neighborhood and industry sector that would maximize my ability to find that day job. The local independent bookstore didnít call me back. Iím pretty sure the frozen yoghurt shop is still hiring. My relocation budget is negligible.
If nobody shops, there is little incentive to run expensive ad campaigns. The very same ad campaigns that feed the magazines that feed could be feeding me.
Itís a vicious cycle, this whole market economy thing. Iím torn though. Less consumption means less industrial waste and pollution which is good in the long-term for the environment. But less consumption also means less demand, which means less production, which means fewer jobs Ö and with all these people and more on the way every day, few jobs means more unemployed people until it balloons out to crisis proportions and the US is Venezuela Redux. A war may be a good idea to create mass casualities, defer young workers from entering the job market and turn our market economy into a planned economy. And if we can keep this war going indefinitely we can look forward to ďdouble-plus good news from the front. Our forces have won a glorious victory.Ē Iíve been reading WHY ORWELL MATTERS by Christoper Hitchens. This essay is my personal DOWN AND OUT IN LONDON AND PARIS.
Maybe its time to return all those phone calls. I know its December and three weeks to Christmas, but does that mean I couldnít have a paycheck by the first of the year?
I should stop asking the big questions. How much is enough? Is the point of life really to work a 40 hour work week, pop pills to balance my moods and disease my body with a woefully unhealthy national diet? While looking for my elusive day-job, I have to keep asking myself, ďWhat do I really need?Ē I know Iíd like an apartment in Manhattan, a pied-a-terre in Paris, a bungalow on Kauai, a room in London and Los Angeles, but what do I really need every day.
I need to be surrounded by celebrities, wearing designer clothes and driving a beamer to my house in either the Hollywood Hills or Malibu. Iím not fussy. I should be seducing New York and Beverly Hills, courting the gossip rags, making small talk with television producers and publicists, and just be generally FABULOUS! Instead, Iím hiding out in the woods, just close enough to a real city to keep me from losing perspective until I come to senses, get a gas mask, and head back to the Los Angeles basin. Iím looking forward to Sundance. It will be tonic.
I now know how Dana Plato felt, standing behind the cash register at that video store.
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originally posted: 12/10/02 21:52:01
last updated: 01/03/04 16:51:49