In life there are, often times, a set of constraints we are forced to deal with. These constraints can be of the genetic variety (curly hair), those set about by environment (accents or seasonal affected disorder), or those dealt out by the wicked hand of fate. Because of the third condition, where the majority of the population is sadly not born with the last name “Rockefeller” or “Vanderbilt” people have to suffer the indignity of working to make money. Sure, the idle rich have their pools, their country clubs, and their cabanas (with consistently attractive attendants) but the working class has more. They have work. Not an even trade by any means, but for those of us who must make a living, we can take solace in the fact that we will always have more to talk about. Yes, we the poor have accepted the luxury of doing things that, in general, we hate for money and, of course, for the sake of conversation. Whether it is covering the topics of finance, coworkers or the simple act of running out the clock, what we “do” defines who we “are” by way of what we “say.” Complaining, commiserating, celebrating, or cursing our careers is as much a full time job as the tasks we’re paid to perform. In the span of my life I to have had to earn my keep in a variety of methods, mostly utilizing the god given skills bestowed upon me: standing, sitting, and looking vaguely interesting. While I’ve never dug ditches or graves, and have managed to avoid shift work in all its forms my job(s) have given my life structure, discipline, and a limitless supply of disappointment for a very limited amount of money.
What I have been extremely lucky with in regards to my work–life is the people that are so affectionately referred to as coworkers. For the most part I have left every job in my life with more friends than I entered it with. These have not been pass each other in the mall and say hello type friends, these are the take a bullet for them, stand up at their wedding type friends. These are friends that have let me live with them, and have passed me water on the bathroom floor after I’ve over-indulged. While it can be said that life is hard and then you die it is true, more often than not, that work would suck if it weren’t for the people. As an adult human (as apposed to, say, a giraffe?) you spend the majority of your time at your job and in your bed. While the expression goes, something like: you should buy a good pair of shoes and a good mattress because you’ll be in either one or the other, it fails to mention anything about how to go about securing a good work environment. Chances are if you are working at any job you don’t have the type of “buy and sell people” money that would afford you the ability to surround yourself, at all times, with a group of yes-men. So you hope and pray that you re blessed with work friends you can get along with. Otherwise you’re screwed.
While I have been lucky to, most times, find myself surrounded with a people of great personal charm and character I have not always been so lucky. Sure, you can make do with a buffoon as a cubicle partner, because –hey- at least it’s a set of hairy ears to bounce an idea off of. But in my most frustrating job I had no such luck. I had to work with myself. Eight hours a day for six days a week I sat in a large, overly air-conditioned room and waited for tourists to somehow find an out-of-the-way, nondescript, grey building and ask for my services in explaining the local tourist attractions. Sure, on a good day, if the tourist had a highly evolved natural sense of direction, and could interpret signs with symbols elsewhere found only on the Rosetta stone, they came to solicit my advice. But those intrepid visitors were few and far between. Being a cushy summer job it kept me in movie rentals and submarine sandwiches, if not entirely mentally stimulated. But somewhere in the middle of the summer, roughly two months into my tenure at that oh holy hall of wonders, I lost my marbles. After a run of the entire series of Friends on DVD followed by Frasier, and every video available in any rental place in my small town I cracked. My mind couldn’t function on the low level of social interaction. It only made matters worse that I was living with my parents, in my old room, and the majority of my old friends had left town. I was the only person I knew well. So I took it upon myself to be my own source of entertainment. Maybe it was the summer heat, and I am sure I could blame it on the amount of time alone, something experienced by only feral children, but my judgment was compromised. Long conversations were held with myself in a type of short hand language only I could understand; therefore tt was only a matter of time before the camera made an appearance.
As a twenty-something at the forefront of the digital camera age, I was well versed in the act of photographing myself. I had mastered the art of the one handed self-portrait. With my arm extended I felt that I, and I alone, had the ability to capture, artfully, the truest representation of myself. Posting these photos on Facebook I had the ability to share how I felt and what I looked like with the entire groups of friends. For two months I had done nothing but take these types of pictures, then my motivation to one–up myself came and reared its ugly head (appearing at the most appealing angle.) In a state loneliness induced psychosis I documented a typical day of work. With the timing setting in place I took photographs to cover the experience a normal visitor would engage in upon visiting my place of work. Not only did I pose in various states of “pretend” work I posed with all matters of stuffed animals (as they were part of the centre’s attraction) With birds and ducks and with pretend phone calls I created a photo-diary of my typical day of work. In my own lonely way I had fun with my coworker that day. With great anticipation I posted those photos to share with others and, in a way, I had created my own inside joke for the workplace.
In positions that involved more people and less paid personal time my work life has seen a lot of ups and more that a few downs. As a person with little to no direction in life, I fell consistently into positions in which I had to give them. In the industry known as customer service, in jobs as varied as attendants and associates; it was my job to provide instruction to those seeking it. Whether giving advice to bored housewives on which exorbitantly priced pillow would piss their frustrated husbands off most; or pointing out stores no more than ten feet away to confused mall walkers, the jobs I’ve held have given me endless headaches and paychecks to far between. In the line of work so often called ‘retail’, you can’t swing a stick without hitting a fuming (for no reason) customer or a bat-shit crazy mental hospital escapee. Stores and shopping centers are the great equalizers, allowing those with a justified reason to be there and those without to piss me off equally. In a certain imported furniture store my days were spent entertaining looky-loos as they repeatedly asked me questions both insane and mundane.
“How much is this wicker basket?” they’d ask, to which the answer was always:
“Really?” They’d counter, “And this one?”
And so on, and so on…
While I was never good at my job, I had the unique ability to persuade people to buy things that they couldn’t afford. This is different from being good at sales. In sales you convince people to buy things they can afford if they cut back on other spending. What I was good at was convincing people that they wanted to buy things that were so out of the price range they’d have to eat no food and sell a kidney to afford them. Numerous times I would go through the hassle of ringing up charges into the mid-quadruple digits, filling out delivery forms, and ordering information one day, to have it all returned the next. Monday I would be praised for selling a huge quantity of furniture and décor, gaining a brief reprieve where my slouchy-ness and un-eager attitude was tolerated by management. Then on Tuesday everything would be returned and I’d be back to hiding from my managers behind various floral arrangements. When that ability wore thin, and all effort exerted in my job hinged upon the snacks available in the break room, I, with little persuasion for the power-that-be for me to stay, decided to vacate my post for greener pastures. The expression when one door closes another opens knows not how similar entry level jobs are. Out of one door, and in through another, jobs in sales and customer service are so close together they don’t warrant a threshold. Like the door between train cars, I jumped from one to the other. Leaving behind the privileged folks that frequented the out of the way, big-box location, to join a mall in the centre of the city was equal to shifting from the lion’s cage and the freak-show car on a circus train: vastly different worlds with vastly different dangers.
I was excited to enter this position. As an attendant at the information booth, much like my first gig, I would be answering questions asked of me, by visitors. Because it was in a busy shopping centre, unlike my first go around, it would actually attract people. It was less time alone, less time spent hiding, and more time spent sitting. After a year on a “sales floor” a term that is exactly as comfortable as it sounds, my feet and shin bones were excited to be able to spend my days being paid to sit in a wheely chair. As glad as I was to be on four wheels for the entirety of my day, I was unprepared to be where I was: mainly, in a pen in the middle of a mall, a proverbial sitting duck at the mercy of those walking past. Yes, I got to talk to customers who were of a normal capacity, and watch all sorts of attractive people go about their business (they never came to talk to me directly) but I was also required to speak to those who were, to put it mildly- out of their fucking minds. Mall patrons in a downtown centre tend to be one of two things: business people killing time on their lunch break, or the insane. People would go walking in this succession: business suit, business suit, business suit, crazy hobo with a live crow on his shoulder. Which one would catch your eye? Yes, I saw a lot of suits in need of tailoring, but it was the live bird that sparked my interest, every time, without fail. Why would someone bring a live bird into a mall, you ask? The possibilities are endless. Shopping for beak liniments at the pharmacy perhaps? Looking for a trench coat in the darkest ‘raven’ black and having the bird come along as a type of moving color swatch? All possible. But is it in your best interest to do so? No. Because not only did I have to put down my book and do something, but because birds are gross. Calling security to report a man with a live bird has it’s own pleasures to, don’t get me wrong. I loved having conversations that went something like this:
Me (phoning Security): “Hi, I’d just thought I’d let you know there is a guy here with a live crow on his shoulder.”
Security: “A live crow? Like a bird?
Me: “Yes. On his shoulder.”
Security: “Well, what did he look like?”
Me: “Well he had a live bird on his shoulder….”
While I thought that partaking in a one man ornithological parade would set someone apart in a crowd, Security often felt different. Being the type of person to act first and think later, they were constantly receiving calls from me about people I never got a good look at, or saw which way they went. In a panicked tone I’d buzz their line and relay shreds of information that Angela Landsbury would have a hard time putting together. Was I their least favorite person? Probably. Justifiably so? Yes.
Birds of a feather were simply not the most surprising of circumstances that occurred just outside my booth. It was those that flocked together that occupied most of my time. Being a in a place were it is very possible to be alone and lonely I was the confidant of all those with finger ailments and skin conditions; desperate for an ear to listen. I heard tales of love gone wrong, rent past due, and unhelpful store people. I heard curses and I heard slang and I was asked repeated for change to use the pay phone. Alone and in groups of two, loiterers, apparently thinking they were doing me a favor by keeping me company, would hand around for hours. Leaning against the counter, leaving behind tacky fingerprints, these people felt a kinship with me I didn’t return. Compensating for my disinterest they’d try and trick me into a conversation about the whether only to veer off course and discuss what they really wanted to talk about, mainly, how they once discovered their brothers decomposing corpse. Utilizing these verbal traps, I received more than one case of conversational whiplash. I became hyper vigilant, knowing a question regard a bus schedule could easily diverge into a rant about the high price of pay phones, and how the government was stealing from them. I became a mute with an angry disposition. But these confessions were not the only conversations I had. Sitting and dispensing directions is not the most glamorous of jobs, but apparently, it suited me well. Behind a booth, I apparently transform into the object of many people’s desires. On the street people pay me no mind, which is the way I like it, but pay me minimum wage to say in one spot for a set number of hours and watch me transform from caterpillar to butterfly. More than a few times was I asked what I was doing later, and more than once did interested and unkempt transsexuals leave contact information on my desk, forcing me to remove it with two pens and a gallon on hand sanitizer. Apparently my opposite enthusiasm for my job translated in general interest in the type of people that would ask a complete stranger to spend more time with them. Worried about how I came across I asked my friends and coworkers if I was the type of person that gives off the “if you’re dirty, then I’m flirty” vibe. Did I look like someone that would accept a poorly scrawled invitation to “hook up” later? To placate me, and probably just to get me to shut up, each and everyone told me that it wasn’t me, it was them. People, like lions, would circle prey that couldn’t escape. In a booth, where my job was to be friendly to people, I was the under-paid gazelle forced to give demented lions the layout of the Serengeti. Suffice to say, as soon as I could afford it, I left that place and only look back when I occasionally need to visit The Gap.
Jobs, careers, and places of employment all are a means to an end. Maybe some people draw some sort of reason to live, or good vibrations from the work they perform, but most people are in it for the money. Doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs may do things for the better good, but they are also being well paid. While I have never been any of those things (especially the well paid part) I haven’t necessarily performed my duties for the better good. I’ve performed them for rent money. In matters of personal finance I haven’t always, admittedly, been the most vigilant. A time or two (ie. frequently; or monthly) I have let matters of commerce get away from me. Buying sweaters and movie tickets has caused me to be, a time or two, short at the end of the month. Not all my reasons are selfish but neither are they wholly altruistic. As a young non-professional trying to scrape my way into the arts I, obviously don’t earn a lot of money. I earn, on average the same as a person did in 1964 (minus inflation) but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to share the (limited) wealth. The term generous to a fault is, in my case, better expressed as generous to my detriment. Because I hate talking about it, and because I never want to appear “cheap” or, even worse, “poor” I am constantly the one picking up the check, buying the movie tickets, giving the big gift, and as a result making myself one of those two things in the process. Is my lack of self-confidence the reason I get myself into these predicaments? Sure, but therapy is an expense I can’t swing, so I instead of getting to the heart of the matter I find myself with a week left in the month, and negative $6.00 in my bank account and a newfound resolve: make more money.
Every year millions of people are taken advantage of by get rich quick schemes. Fortunately for me I am immune to them as they often have some sort of “buy in” fee, and by the time I need to get rich quick, I have absolutely no money. Therefore my schemes typically involve applying for jobs I haven’t a hope of obtaining and sending poems into The New Yorker. Both are evidence of my far flinging imagination but they provide comfort on the “saltine” days where I can afford to eat only a limited amount of crackers. When those don’t pan out as well as I hoped, I turn my attention to other sources. Mainly of the magical variety.
While travelling in Nova Scotia, an act I could hardly afford in itself, I found myself wandering into a small little bookstore to do some shopping. The store was quaint and quiet and held a variety of books on subjects ranging from crystal therapy to the supernatural. As evidenced of my perilous financial state I found myself drawn to a section of the store promising a solution to all my worries. By buying an overpriced satchel of specially selected stones I could ease my financial burden. Seven stones for luck and prosperity was, I thought, a sign from on high that all I had to do to improve my bank balance was to hold this bag of stones close to me. Sure $17 for bag of rocks sounds like a bad transaction for someone with hardly more than that in the bank, but it would soon pay me back in spades. Holding the bag tightly while I walked from the store, I could practically hear the sounds of checks being deposited. It was as if there was an invisible heap of cash headed my way and these rocks were the key to making it visible. I was overjoyed. I had a plane ticket home, an unfulfilling job, had to somehow afford to buy food for myself, and my car had recently been totaled off when the road collapsed beneath it, I was due some good luck. For a week I slept and drank and ate with that velvet bag. It came with me wherever I went, in the pocket of my coat, in the case of my pillow, and in my carry on luggage. After a brief period where I saw no signs of a reversal of fortune heading my way I considered taking the bag with me into the shower. I could use them as hard, tiny loofas. A warm stone massage perhaps? Anything. Desperate times call for, and a lot of times, cause desperate measures and these were my magic beans. I had traded my hard earned dollars (negotiable) for a hope of getting something I wanted even more. Something I couldn’t buy. Did it work? I’m not sure. I have been richer and poorer than I’ve ever been since I got to those seven stones, and if you look under my pillow you’ll still find them. Proof that I’m a dreamer? Or that I’m dumber than a bag of rocks?
As it stands my work life, as it has been for around six years, is in a state of transition. In a way of carving out a rough niche for myself, I’ve switched things up as fast and as frequently as a resume re-write will allow. Now as I begin to see myself heading in a particular direction all the supposed perks have dropped off. Gone are the nice people to work with, and here, for now, are pretentious people who talk about me behind my back. The steady paycheck is a dot in my rearview mirror as cruise towards the city of casual-part time. My current underemployment came to me in, yet another, hour of desperation, but proved to me a mirage instead of an oasis. There is no real source of nourishment, no money, no one to talk to, and photography is prohibited. Sometimes a job comes along and takes you where you want to go, and this is what I thought I had. It was a stepping-stone, a building block, more than a means to an end. But, for me anyways, it is just another rock, a roadblock more than anything, and the means are so menial my new strategy for financial solvency revolves around relying on the kindness of strangers. But where do I go from here? The wisdom of the wise would suggest the only available direction is up.
Our working lives have the ability to dominate our time, our conversations, and our computer screens. As pervasive as poison gas the jobs we perform can infiltrate all aspects of our day. What we talk about with loved ones, mostly the people we do not love at work, says a lot about who we are. What do millionaires say to one another at dinner or at coffee? Do they bitch about ascot chaffing or direct flights to St. Bart’s? I don’t know. Their lives must be so fragile, their conversations so forced without the omnipresence of what they “do.” The working class has more to talk about, and lets face it, more to do. Then there are the perks. We get money for the services we provide and it maybe isn’t all that much, but money is what makes the world go round. While Mastercard has reminded us that life’s moments are priceless, our employers have gone ahead and put a price on our heads. Does this upset me? It wouldn’t if my number wasn’t so low. In the course of my career I’ve done my best at doing as little as possible, and while it can be said that that might be what is holding me back, I can say that not only has it done so, it has given me a lot to talk about. Whether it is in jobs that revolve around helping others, or just simply helping myself, what I’ve done has put me where I am.