I THOUGHT FOR LABOR DAY, I’d take a trip back through the jobs I’ve held and some of the memories around those jobs. I picked up on the idea from a post I read at LFT.
I love Alfredo’s post because he talks about his Mexicano roots, and the time period, and for the Cesar Chavezness of the whole thing. I think of my own familia, who worked in the fields not so long ago.
My own story of work and jobs held and what it meant to my life is much less rooted in family, in solidarity, or in the things that make his post particularly inspiring. My own post is more solitary and threaded throughout with far more individualist thought. That’s very much how I saw things in that time. And for the most part,labor was to me, a dirty word.
Perhaps that in and of itself is a comment on the changing nature of culture, traditions, Mexicanidad vs. US Individualism. We come here rooted in family and labor and these notions of unions and solidarity—it is not too far a journey (fall?) to find yourself on that slippery ladder of US Suckcess, where a zero sum game and harsh divisions means someone must win and someone must lose. And that you are running the gauntlet all alone.
I’d say this post is also laid out in an unusual format. It reads as a cross between a collection of journal notes, a life story, and a list. It might frustrate at moments if a reader needs to know outside details or wonders how point A led to point F, but in the interest of keeping the lens focused, it is a narrative—complete with thought and emotion and life events—but all as related to work and the jobs I held and the place I was at (or not) in terms of what my true calling might be….
Despite its linear march and general movement from labor to white collarish work, I don’t mean to suggest a path of rags to riches. Mostly because I’m broke.
potwasher at frost valley • 14 yrs old
I was still in high school, working when school wasn’t on. Part-time job. Had to get working papers to do this. I was paid minimum wage which was probably about $3.25. This was a big lodge in the woods. The pots were so huge that in order to scrub out the bottoms, I had to lean all the way in. I could’ve easily hid inside one. My skin got so soft and bloated from that ugly gray dishwater that I looked dead, like a dead boy’s hands, I smelled like stale, food-flecked, cold, soapy water.
laborer for private landowner • 15
I was out of my parent’s house for the first time, and living with a friend whom I went to high school with. It was very, very hard work. Tearing down drywall, hauling buckets of concrete chips, pitchforking wet hay from the bottom of an empty swimming pool into a truckbed, etc. I had no regular ride home and once I had to walk the thirteen miles. I hated that job so much, so much, so very much. I hated it all day long. I had to actually dig ditches and I was very miserable about that!
One day I broke the shovel I was using. I was digging a ditch for a long line of cable to be buried, and had come up against a tree root as strong as steel. The root stretched directly across where I was to dig. I thought that if I broke the shovel, I wouldn’t have to do that horrible, boring, hard work anymore. I levered the shovel under the root, leaned down on the shovel—letting all my weight fall on it, and the handle creaked. I bounced on it, and finally, it snapped. I went and showed it to the owner, who just pointed me to the shed, where there were three or four more shovels just like it. If my life story were a movie…that shot would represent a whole lot at the time.
It was shortly after this that I left high school. My principal had come up to me and put his arm—sarcastically—around my shoulders. He said “You know, you’re almost 16. We don’t have to keep you here anymore.” But I was way ahead of him. I had planned to leave for a while, already. and I did. I marched into the guidance counselor’s office on my sixteenth birthday and announced that I was quitting high school. And I did.
CAFO laborer • 16
I was living with someone I barely knew in a town eight miles from my parent’s house. I got a job at a dairy farm nearby to pay my share of the rent.
The Coops were my domain. They were not filled with people, but instead with chickens. And one other person: me. They are filled with a literal cacaphony of sound, a tumbling, battered, always scrambling, overlapping, clattering, clashing of animal vocalization and shuffling and clawing on cages. They are thick with the suffocating stench of urine and chickenshit, for under the floor are massive vats of it filled by the chickens simply defecating and urinating through the “floor” of their coops’ wiry bottoms, and into the openings in the floor beneath them. These rectangular openings in the floor stretched the length of the aisles, of course.
Again, walking end to end of one coop took you 1/5th of a mile. Walking back to the other end via the next aisle over took you another 1/5 mile. So walking the entirety of one coop was about a mile. And I oversaw a few coops. And walked them all day/evening. When I found eggs stuck and piled up somewhere, I fixed them, When the belt got flipped over, I fixed it. When I found a chicken dead in its coop (which happens all day because of the heat and the conditions and the number of chickens), I reached in and pulled it out and dropped it on the floor there. When the chicken was dead from pushing out an egg so big it ripped out its intestines, I had to pull all that out of the coop. I had gloves on, and sometimes it dries around the wire and it gets tough to do. Especially with all the chickens in the vicinity screaming at you and flapping about.
That passage (and a gruesome and detailed story) in more detail here.
physical therapy helper
My job was to wheel the sick and sometimes healing people in the hospital from their rooms to the physical therapy area, or back for the most part. It wasn’t all that hard, but it was uncomfortable for me. I was young, I had no skills for social graces, and I didn’t have a lot of understanding of what these people were going through. To be honest, I mostly had a huge feeling of shame when I saw people this way, people who could not even wheel themselves to the tiny, sterile room where they would go through whatever they went through in that room where I would leave them. I didn’t understand the feeling that rose in me so unpleasantly, nor did I have the depth to question it much more than I did. Sometimes the people I wheeled smiled at me, sometimes they ignored me, sometimes they grunted. I wanted to run from them all. I wanted to run from that horrible-smelling, horrible-feeling, lonely, ultra-white building.
…It was a dark, spacious room, the hospital stockroom. I was left alone to put inventory stickers on multiple items, and was summarily bored to tears all day. This was the beginning in a long list of jobs where I would entertain myself with an inner monologue to try and make my job more intellectually stimulating than it ever could be.
My grandfather owned, raised and raced horses for much of his life. My family was sort of worried about my directionless motion that took me out of high school and had started me upon a path of low-paying, low-prestige jobs. My family was pretty poor, anyway (except for my grandfather), but everyone thought I would do well. All the accolades I had received since I was a tot, you know, everyone knew I was Bound for Great Things. When I began to have trouble as a teen, my future didn’t look so secure.
Some in my family thought this would be the perfect entry-level for a jockey career. I was small, lithe, and bound to remain small throughout my life. If I did well, there was little doubt that my grandfather—a well-known name among horse people—could get me the right connections. I was a licensed horse groom at 16, and quickly found that these beasts absolutely terrified me. My imagination was far too nimble to handle their starey eyes, their snorting and whinnying, their writhing and taut musculature, their gargantuan cocks, their awesome height and sharp hooves. I didn’t last long at this job at all, sadly. I knew others had hopes for me, and I hated to let them down. I was back to not knowing what i would do with my life.
mcdonald’s • 16
I was out of my parent’s house by now, and living fifteen miles away in a different town, with two other guys who worked at Mcdonald’s. From work, we lifted most of the food we kept in our apartment. Mcdonald’s all day, Mcdonald’s all night. 40s of Olde E after dinner, trying to keep up with the big boys who would carry me to bed when I got too drunk. A boring, demeaning, dirty job. Wearing ugly polyester, stuffing your face with greasy, junky food. Wiping up after rude and callous customers. It was at this job where I first experienced sex. Well, not at the job….
My manager invited me over one night and proceeded to seduce me. I had no complaints…was only disappointed when, after the weekend, she dropped me off at home—and wanted no more from me. She was 20, after all, and not “in love” or anything like that.
GA stockboy/scope assembly
I was living in some welfare housing development with a girl I met at a crisis center. I was 17, and my best friend was a schizophrene who lived next door. I worked two jobs. One was the midnight shift at Great American, a supermarket. I was a stockboy, and worked with two or three other people. I was very bored at this job, and still have scraps of paper from my breaks, where i would doodle and write ideas for songs or stories.
It is a different thing entirely, working these types of jobs once you have quit high school and removed yourself from the idea that there is something greater in store for you; that you are working just to make “extra” cash. It is an entirely different mindset. This is your life. This is how you support yourself. There is no cool crowd of friends in homeroom, there is no last day of school before summer vacation, there is no cool label of clothing for the month, there are no excited talks of college—which looms like a bright moon on the horizon. There is only the daily drudgery of your job, the dead-end hours at the end of the day, the small and desperate hope for the weekend. There is the impossibility of saving up, as every dollar from your minimum-wage job goes just to supporting yourself. There is the feeling that life is over, and the grand dreams handed down by the adult world were nothing but a big, fat lie.
I was exhausted all the time. I was seventeen and out on my own and working two jobs. My life was unfulfilling, boring, low-paid, and filled with not much but long hours of work. I had no time to myself. Or little time. On days off—when they were possible—I would take long walks with my tape recorder and talk to myself. My idea of fun was smoking a joint when I got home from one job and writing in my journal. There wasn’t time for anything else before I had to go to bed, so that i could work my other job. The other job was a boring job where I would sit in a small room with about six other people and assemble these little objects called “scopes.” They had little slides inside, pictures of guests at the hotel, smiling, on their way to the game room, holding hands in a bright flash of light. You hold the scopes up to the light and see a tiny world inside. You looked in them for a moment to make sure the picture was fitted right and then you snapped the keychain part together and tossed them in a huge box. The little happy people in their frozen worlds; you in a poorly-lit and cramped room, being paid minimum wage, breathing dust, dead tired…only wanting to go home and sleep. However, I did work with some interesting people and still recall some pretty eye-opening conversations.
The same thing, over and over. taking money, giving change. Working behind a convenience store counter. Shifting your weight when your feet hurt too much. Standing all day. Learning what it was like to be in retail. I never treated a cashier badly again, after having this job. You may dismiss them, and for you it is one brief encounter. But to the cashier, it is the same scene over and over and over again. Rude people, accusations that you short-changed them, being blamed for any store policy the customer doesn’t like…
landscaping • 18
I was working for the community college. I had been out of school for two years, and was not happy with the jobs I was finding. Everyone said I needed to go to school to get a Good Job. So I thought I might try that. Maybe college was better than high school. Lord, how I had loathed high school. A cliquey, nasty, superficial place not interested in truly educating—only in teaching you to memorize. Only teaching you the world’s lies. I had felt oppressed and misunderstood there; I resented that these people who taught me were not above petty vendettas, adultery, alcoholism and self-motivated cruelty. I had lost belief in the system and its appointed guardians.
But admittedly, college was better. I was no longer treated as a misfit or a troublemaker. I felt challenged by the courses, not utterly bored. I didn’t know, really, what I wanted to “be,” but I figured that since everyone had told me my entire life that i was an “artist,” then that’s what I should get paid for. So i majored in Commercial Art.
This didn’t last. What I realized was that a “Commercial Artist” is, essentially, an artist who creates in such a way that the things that make creating the most fun are removed and replaced by a monetary motivator. I switched to Photography. Of course, I soon realized that the same things applied to Photography, and I was truly lost. Learn how to make fake bubbles in coffee with soap? Study how to present liquor in magazine ads? This is not art. And if the world of Art was not for me…then what was?
I had long hair, I was a neo-hippie and an anachronism to such an extent that a senior photo major used me for one of the months of his calender assignment, which featured different genres of students. I remember the photo; I had been disappointed by it. My hair didn’t fall the way I wanted, my face didn’t look right. I had been shot with a 8X10 camera and the detail was amazing. The lighting was uninteresting, but I didn’t know that then. What I didn’t like was my blank, lost look. And the glimpses of ethnicity I saw peeking out. I didn’t think of it that way. But this was early in grappling with the poisons of internal colonization. The clearly shot photo presented me with myself and the confusion I was harboring.
When I wasn’t taking courses, I was working work-study in landscaping. I got to know the full-time landscaper/maintainence workers at the college, and this only strengthened what would become a kinship with blue-collar workers. People who have made their way toiling. Like my family had before me.
I was lonely at school. I would be on my knees on the grounds, pulling weeds, running my internal dialogue—making up my stories, movie-scenes, improvising lyric…watching students on the green, or in the parking lot. Wondering why I was never a part of those crowds. The poetry teacher said I was “rude” and I started ignoring her and her dry observations about brilliant poets and began writing short stories while in class.
Shortly after, I impregnated my girlfriend (not at this school). I was 18 and she was 21. I stopped making the 40-minute drive to the school, found a job in a factory. I never officially withdrew from college…just let my grades dim and flicker off, curling into a row of charred Fs….
Back to the Real World of daily time clock.
I landed a job that required me to wear a hairnet. I was a “material handler” or “Floorboy” and was paid $7.15 an hour. This was pretty good pay. The job was extremely boring, of course. I would stack boxes on pallets and wrap plastic around them and move them with pallet jacks to other areas of the factory. That’s pretty much it. These types of jobs would make me feel insane after a while. My mind was far too busy for me to be happy there. I would live inside my head, singing, talking, visualizing, dreaming.
Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.
The job at the factory did not last. I felt like a failure because of that at the time. There was no way I could have been happy at those jobs, let alone with my life. Not then. I got a job riding (passenger) in Mack trucks to distant locations and unloading rolls of sod (farmed grass cut into strips and rolled up) from the truck, and laying it down. I remember I used to get so hot, I would fill my baseball cap with ice cubes and let the ice water drip and run down my neck and body while I worked. I was a tiny guy working with big, muscular laborers. I weighed about 105 pounds, at 5′ 6″. Now, i weigh 150 and have muscle to my small frame. Back then, however—and for a long time—I looked like someone whom the wind could pick up and carry away. But i was wiry and determined not to be the Tiny Guy Who Couldn’t Carry His Weight. I worked very hard to keep up. I remember one day I stabbed myself with a fresh blade (we used carpet knives as part of our job) and just wrapped up the wound with duct tape. When my boss told me to take the pants off in the van and clean out the wound, I told him I couldn’t look at it, because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to work anymore. So I finished the day, and went home to get in the shower. That wound bled for hours. It needed stitches, but I didnt feel like going to the hospital, that whole ordeal.
Sod is grown in black, fine soil. It gets everywhere. You are coated in it. You blow it out of your nose for days…constantly, if you work full time. Those showers were so amazing. Washing the day from your skin. I remember the feeling that I was entitled to do any damn thing I wanted to after work. I was working a Man’s Job. I was in a small, white-trash town with a tattooed, sexy, big-breasted, big-fisted Polish girl. These jobs were the way to gain respect in those parts. I would sit on the train tracks with Eddie and drink beers. I hated beer. And i hated my job. Eddie was okay. He laughed at me when I used the word “animosity” once. He had never heard of it. He liked it a lot. Everytime he saw me after that, he’d mention the word and laugh, approvingly.
The guy who owned this company was named “Jack.” Jack was a cowboy. Cowboy boots, loud talk, no real sensitivity to speak of. And he would bark his orders at everyone. That’s just the way it was. Of course, I was the way I was, too. And that meant that one day, I confronted him—I, at 18, skinny as a twig and half as tall as him—confronted this man who drove a Mack truck and owned his own business and wore pointy boots. I had to. I just said to him at one point, “You know, I am not your son. And I am not your dog. Don’t talk to me that way.” And he was shocked. He stammered and apologized. Told me he didn’t mean anything. That that was just the way he spoke.
A reprise as my famous dishwasher role. I began to notice what prodigious amounts of food people waste. Because I would have to scrape it into the trash when the busboy brought in the trays. Leftover rolls, soaked in spinach juice, smeared mashed potatoes with a cigarette butt stamped out in the middle. Torn-up sugar packets littering the plate, sticking to drying maple syrup, french toast—I would scrape it into the hole and rack it. Begin the process of washing, rinsing, feeding the dish machine. My own little assembly line. I didn’t really talk to anyone too much. And no one took notice of me. Just another Mexican boy (or did they see me as white?) in the kitchen. I was dreaming of big things, though…I had my guitar at home and was beginning to write songs. I had a new baby boy and a family I was trying to support. I hated my job and imagined one day I might have one I didn’t dread every morning. But really, it was all I had ever known.
I was trying very hard to keep work. My son was a month old, and I needed to be responsible. We had help from Section 8 (housing assistance), and it came in handy. We had a trailer in a trailer park and felt pretty good about it. My 73 chevy was not working most of the time, so I had to walk a few miles to work. It was Winter. Once I got a ride with two girls who stopped to pick me up—they said—because I had a “nice butt.” You know. Those were the 80s, and my jeans fit as 80s jeans did. Don’t remind me too much.
I got a cold, and this long walk became very difficult after a while. It was shortly after that that she and I broke up, finally. My butt couldn’t keep us together, clearly. Our fights had grown worse and worse until we essentially fought more than we got along. I fixed up my car enough to run and left it to her. Moved back to my mother’s for a bit.
part-time radio DJ
I was pretty excited by this job. It was one of my favorites, ever. And the first that actually involved creativity to any degree. I had, in that twisty windy way life brings you people you never expect to meet, met a person who was a regular voice on the radio in a small radio station. He came to be impressed by my speaking ability and offered me a shot at being a part-time DJ. Now granted, this was at a small, a.m., country radio station—but it was not hauling dirt, or bricks, or hay, or concrete. It was not pushing some heavy object from one place to another. It required more than muscular effort. And that greatly excited me. I got my FCC license (which I still have, as it does not expire unless revoked—as in Howard Stern’s case) which is required if you are to broadcast (on terrestrial radio). I learned how to read the AP feed, how to read news, and what the station’s format was. I learned how to smile when you talk so that listeners can hear the enthusiasm in your voice. I learned how to spin records, cue them, fade them. I learned what a “false” and a “cold” stop is. And ultimately, I was let go. I didn’t “fit in” with the feel of the station. But, hell. I don’t blame them. They were all middle-aged, beer-bellied country music fans. I was a fly in the ointment given that context. But i was a happy fly for a while. And it was a valuable experience and mostly a reminder that I didnt need to be stuck doing labor if I didn’t want.
freelance artist • 21
So at this point, I was living with the girl who inspired the song on my third (self-produced) album about a girl who works at the corner store. We were both living upstairs at her mother’s house and temporarily I paid my way by doing whatever artwork her mother needed. It was usually gifts for friends’ birthdays or the like. She had a live-in artist. I felt good about this. I was given a lot of creative room to paint things the way I saw them, and felt I wasn’t just taking without giving. It was a short-term arrangement and I knew it…but the ability to pay my way with my natural talents…it was…lovely. And I really can’t think of a better word.
Definitely one of the very worst jobs I’ve ever had. A huge empty-feeling warehouse with a conveyor belt that spanned its vast interior. Your job was, basically, to put gloves on and go through garbage as it came down the belt. You picked out bottles, slid them down this chute, separated cans and slid them down another. Junk you just let go by. The place stunk so badly…garbage juice on your hands. All day. It was very nasty. And guess what? There wasn’t even a sink to wash your hands in. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. I began to reminisce about school. But it was a faraway, impossible dream. Like so many others that flowed—like garbage down a chute—through my mind.
Before this job, I was terrified of heights, stereotypically so. I still remember the first day on the roof, clinging to the chimney with one hand while trying to tear the flashing away from the brick with the other. I couldn’t pull too hard because if the metal suddenly tore loose (as I needed it to), I would go flying off the roof. Yet, I had to tear hard because it was dawn, and the tar that held the flashing on was cold and stiff. And there was frost on the roof to top it off. Did I mention this was my very first day and that I was scared of heights?
This was when I began to truly appreciate the callous, tough humor that ran through the hard-working man’s world. The kind of sensibility that led the other roofers to remind every new worker of the Immutable Law of Roofing: “If you fall, you’re fired! Before you hit the ground!” and laugh as they turned their backs, leaving you to figure it out. It was a world where a weakling, a loafer, or a fear-stricken crew member was a serious liability. And would cost everyone money. And that was not tolerated. It was a sink or swim world. You woke at 3:45 am, and best be sitting on your stoop at 4:30 so when the truck swung by nobody had to wait for you. You were on the roof when light first hit the sky. When peoples’ roofs were open, you had to use every bit of available daylight. At dawn there would still be frost on the roof so you had to be careful not to slip. For this reason, the hammer you carried had a long, curving backend to it. If you slipped and started sliding down the roof, you were supposed to swing that hammer with everything you had and punch a hole in the roof to stop your fall. (Or else you were fired.) I got my very own Estwing. This was when my fascination with hammers was reawakened. The initial interest began when I was eight and used to play one of my first albums over and over in my room, Abbey Road.
Dog food factory. My job was to push a broom and walk the big empty aisles looking for mice or spills of dog food. I was taught how to set and retrieve rat traps. Men on forklifts zipped around the dim interior and the air smelled like the gas that these machines burned for fuel. Sometimes the men would give me rides from one part of the warehouse to another as it was so huge. I would hold on tight to the cab of the forklift and stand on the fork, or the side of the vehicle.
I did my work faithfully but like so many jobs, found myself in a world of fantasy more than anything else. Monolithic ceilings, dark corners and aisles, towering stacks of dog food on pallets. I would push my wide broom across the smooth concrete floors, dipping in and out of the pools of light and pockets of shadow. It was quiet, and nobody really kept track of me. It was truly surreal. I would get lost for hours, duck behind the towers of dog food in the dark and edge along the wall of the warehouse, finding parts that seemed unexplored. I would find a stack of cereal (Ralston-Purina makes cereal, too) and bust it open, stuffing my face with puffed corn. My imagination would run wild in these dark pathways which held more echoes than life. Always, I was imagining, rehearsing, talking, visualizing, dreaming, monologuing.
I quit the job at noon one day. I walked into the supervisor’s office and very kindly told him I couldn’t stay another moment. The job was “suffocating my spirit.” He didn’t really know what to say to that.
office cleaner • 22
I was the guy who came after you left your nine-to-five, to clean your offices. To wander, alone through dim and softly-humming cubicle-smattered offices. I would bring my vacuum cleaner and my rags and spray and make sure your desks were clean; make sure that the floor had not one speck of paper on it, make sure that your garbage was fitted with a fresh bag and that the stinking coffee you dumped all over the can was washed off. I was the one who peeled your hardened gum from under the desk or off the bottom of the garbage cans. I was also the one who went through your drawers to keep my mind from atrophying. I would look at your family pictures and your papers from work, I would wonder what kind of person sat in that chair. It was a lonely, somewhat creepy job—to be in a place alone that felt so absent of life, yet so populated with the trappings of activity and commerce.
I lost this job by calling out sick one day and saying i was “mentally unwell” for the day and couldn’t possibly come in. Maybe they knew I was lying. It was one of the best times of my life, that I can remember. Well. Aside from the crappy job.
I got a job with a contractor. He was only a year or so older than me but had his own company. He was a happy fella and I liked him. Most of the time. He was a white kid who grew up real poor and swore he would not be poor when he was an adult. He ran from that memory of poverty like it chased him full time. He seemed like a pretty white-bread kind of fellow, and yet a bit spunky. A Dennis the Menace sort of chap. No matter what, you had to admire his ambition. Except when he was your boss. Sometimes I wondered how he could have his own business, while I couldn’t even keep an office-cleaning job. But I knew the answer, too.
Jobs like this I would get in trouble, eventually, because I could not just “slap on” a coat of paint. I got too caught up in fine detail and motor movement. My employer would be like “Just slap it on! You’re taking too long! It’s not the Mona Lisa!” but…I have only one way of doing something; I can only do my best. And my best requires concentration and attention to detail. I don’t make the best housepainter. I get lost in the whorls, the swirls, the streaks, the curves, I grease on delicate vanilla valleys between trim and the wall, attend private showings behind the baseboard….
I was taught a skill: paperhanging. I called this time “WorkCamp.” I lived in Bethlehem, PA for the sole purpose of working on a building in that town that was being constructed. I worked with a crew of men. We all lived in this apartment, and that’s the only reason we lived there. It was paid for by our boss. We worked seven days a week, for ten – fourteen hours a day. I was paid $60 a room (that I wallpapered in the hotel) I finished per day. If I could finish two rooms in one day (I couldn’t), I could make $120 a day. But even making $420 a week was amazing to me. Granted, all I did was work.
There were crews of teams who came in, one after the other. First, the framers, then the electricians and plumbers, then the drywall guys. Next, the carpet and furniture people. Next, we came in and put up wallpaper. After us, the painters and whoever else. It was seriously high-pressure. The guys I worked and lived with drank on their nights off. I didn’t feel like hanging in that scene. Instead, I’d spend time with my tape recorder, and the tape journal i have kept since i was 18, speaking into the mic.
I missed my girlfriend. Was both lonely and bored in that town. Met some artists next door. Hung out one night. My concept of having a lot in common with all artists took a huge hit.
Spent some money in the town’s tattoo shop.
Working off the books doing various landscaping tasks: running a weedwhacker (the kind with a harness and handles for both hands shaped like a big U; the kind you use gasoline and oil for), clearing out wood into a truck, mowing, random labor. Me and my friend billy lived for the weekends, essentially. We would chill and often would co-write stories, one of us at the typewriter (Yes, I said typewriter), and the other one pacing around the room waiting our turn to steer the chapter. It was great fun. Our tradition was to light candles, drink heineken and smoke lots of herb, adlib aloud, bounce ideas, run with it. That was a good time but the job was just killing time. My boss, of course, paid me as little as he could without me leaving in absolute indignation. It was not a comfortable wage.
video clerk/salesman • 25
Here, I got to put a tie on and rent videos and sell TVs and stereos to poor people on “Payaway,” which meant they would pay 300% of the price over a period of time so that they could have their large screen TV in their trailer. This was an early time in my life where I felt an odd sense of having escaped, even if only slightly or temporarily, a fate wherein I still interacted with those who had not. And yet…not being part of any solution for them. It started me thinking, though the thought would take another ten years to form itself fully, complete with the answer.
I also had to call people up when they couldn’t pay for what they had been told was so easy a payment, ultimately. The phone duties, yeah. I had to answer the phone and say silly things like “Thank you for calling ———, where we always have a special deal! Ask me about our new summer stereo inventory! How can I help you?”
I kept this job for a year, which was quite a good length of time, but it was fun some of the time, so I could deal with it a little longer. it paid me $5.25 to start, and i think i left making $5.75.
I found the work through my friend, who had walked up to some guys on a roof and inquired if they needed any help. It was a grueling job, as I already knew. Roofing was a job where you froze in the cold months, you baked and burned in the hot months, you carried lumber on your back up a ladder to the roof, or a roll of feltpaper (60 – 110 pounds) over one shoulder, while you climbed the rickety ladder two stories to the roof. This was a job where you carried a tiny can of raid in your toolbelt so when that hive of bees erupted from the lumber you were tearing up, you didn’t have to run, screaming, off the edge of the roof and get yourself…fired. Roofing was, maybe, some of the hardest work i’ve done. It paid me $8 an hour, off the books. It also got me in crazy shape and gave me a certain swagger when the whistle blew. I was a roofer, yo. I work from dawn to dusk every day. I was deep brown and toned and come nightfall, I was entitled to do whatever I needed to do to relax. That’s practically the Roofer Credo. The last part, at least.
I had come a long way from being afraid of heights.
Did i dream of other work? Did I still keep my mind busy with imaginings of a finer occupation? I don’t remember. I think by now, I had given up on that. I went home and played my guitar, recording my first and second albums on my little four-track. Woke up at five am and got ready for work, every morning turned on Bleach by Nirvana as a soundtrack to my morning ritual. I was living in an empty barn’s top floor, above my friend’s living space. There was no insulation, no plumbing and a long, orange extension cord that snaked through the room and brought electricity from downstairs.
Quite a job. Working five pm to five am, a cabbie’s shift. The job was alternately boring, exciting, dangerous, informative.I was the chaffeur to last minute decisions, to broken marraiges, to drug runs, to wild nights out, to midnight journeys. I listened to dull people chatter away, to drunk people rant, to crackheads spark up, to crazy people and their creepy four a.m. questions. My coworkers would at times be robbed or stabbed and I wondered when it would be my turn. I would sit and draw cartoons about myself or my coworkers in those 3 a.m. fare-less moments when I was parked by the curb, engine running. I learned to fall asleep at the drop of a hat and wake the second I heard my number called on the radio. (Also useful on the Subway train, you’ll find!) Once, I decided I couldn’t bear cigarettes anymore (I had recently quit), and I started my practice of telling people they couldn’t smoke in my cab. It was, after all, against the law. But…people didn’t like that law and felt perfectly comfortable flouting it. Once, I told the owner’s friend—who owned a bar or two in the area—that he could not smoke in the cab and he flipped out. The owner called me on the radio and asked what i was doing.
“It’s illegal to smoke in a cab and I don’t want to breathe it in.” I said.
“Well…you can’t just kick everyone out who wants to smoke!” he replied.
“I guess that’s what we’ll have to see about.” I said.
I still maintained my tape journal and rambled to myself in the cab. I definitely dreamed of another job at this time. I know because I’ve listened to the tape. I felt stuck. I was in a small town and there were no jobs in any interesting fields…and i didn’t know how to get them, even when there were. I always defaulted to labor jobs; to jobs where nobody cared what you wore, if you had tattoos, or a college degree. For the hack job, I had to get a chaffeur’s license and promise the mayor of the town—in person—that I would keep an eye out for where the crack dens were. (That was a surreal meeting.) I had always sort of dreamed of the job and was happy to have finally achieved it.
The question was, what next?
Just another hard job moving dirt and stone around.
I felt I was idling. No, slipping backward. My girlfriend Annie left me for some new cat she was interested in at her job. I was feeling pretty down.
I decided to consolidate my defaulted student loans, get my shit together and head back to school.
This job had a different feel, as I was back in school. Once again, it was easier to take a crummy job cuz I knew it was temporary.
Still, pretty soon I got into a conflict with a manager, who insisted on smoking cigarettes in the backroom because he was too lazy to walk into the parking lot. He clouded up the backroom and after i quit smoking cigarettes, breathing in smoke in a closed-in room caused my sinuses to immediately close up. My body is very sensitive, like this. I am subject to hives, heartburn, rashes—all when i get too stressed out or push myself hard. It is something I deal with. My body and mind and heart have always been this way—sensitive, resonant, reactionary, easily set alight.
Another way I caught it at work was because I had been assigned to draw up those little paper signs that tell you that the paper clips were on sale. Of course, I grabbed all the markers and made an art project out of it. While I sat and lovingly drew curves and shadows and tried to simulate the company’s logos (years and years before I ever laid eyes on a Trader Joes here in Oregon where they hire full time artists for this very purpose), I told myself I was getting paid to draw. Smiled to myself. Got reprimanded for taking too long. Too much attention to detail, you see.
public health inspector • 27
The first job I had that required a college degree. The only real time I felt what it is to be working for The Government.
First job to pay me anything like $11+/hr.
I was in heaven. No numbing out the mind while you sweated and carried lumber or rock or shingle or dirt (later I would reminisce over these jobs and how calming they are to the spirit). No stupid apron or polyester pants. No funny hat. I got to drive my car from site to site, set my own schedule and CARRY A CLIPBOARD. Whoa. I actually interviewed for this job. That was a first. Of course, I had a few points going for me in that interview. My mother worked her way from nursing student to director of public health over the course of my life, so she was well-known and well-liked in the county. And this job would be working for the DOH (dept of health), who worked hand in hand with public health nursing.
I was unsupervised all day. I was trusted with legal forms. I was competent, but these types of conditions at my workplace where…unprecedented.
I visited hotels, bungalow colonies, swimming pools, restaurants. I checked for violations of fire code and health code. My write-ups became legal letters sent to the establishment, carrying the full weight of NY health code and enforceable law.
It was sort of surreal. I walked the grounds. I didn’t know I’d be followed. I carried my clipboard around and anywhere I looked, people looked. Where I walked, they followed. When i peered at a spot of peeling paint, the owner would immediately radio his laborers to run up and fix it. If I stopped too long and hovered over some furniture that was possibly blocking a fire exit, there were two guys there a moment later to clear it away. I was offered food and homemade candies and pastries. Of course I knew that nobody necessarily liked me; they feared my red pen.
I would inspect the joint, make proper marks on my clipboard and then say goodbye. Drive to my next visit…but on the way, I would stop at my girlfriend’s, have lunch, whatever. This was one of the best jobs i ever had. I truly loved it. After a decade of jobs where you were pushed around, criticized by cro-magnons, disrespected, distrusted, and paid peanuts, I was my own boss. At least once I left the office.
I worked for the state, so I left the office around nine-thirty. Or ten. Or ten-thirty. Government workers don’t rush, you see. They don’t have to.
substance abuse counselor
I began as an intern, while still in school. In my junior college, I wasn’t sure what i wanted to major in. I had a year of photography and art behind me but i was scared to study art, now. I felt like I wouldn’t be thrilled by it due to the commercial nature…and i feared it was a frivolous pursuit. I was back in school to secure myself a career and I felt i should be more practical. Sometimes I do this. Mistake something that is eternal within me—in this case, my need to make art—as trappings. But life will remind you, no fear.
Anyway, I decided on Pre-Med/Psychology. I would follow my natural talent at understanding human nature, and I would get into a position wher e I could help. I would utilize my skills at communication and my natural empathetic bent. I would also earn some real money. I would be a psychiatrist. It was a Great Plan.
I studied Science for a while, which remains a great love of mine to this day. (Science, Psychology and Philosophy are a trifecta in the pursuit of truth, all searching for something beneath the surface appearance; all involved in seeking the heart of the matter, distilling essence behind symbol). I studied Pyschology, too. I mapped out a degree path that would begin with my AAS in Substance Abuse Counseling, after which I could work in the field and then move on to Med School.
I did receive my AAS in Applied Science; in Substance Abuse Counseling. I worked a few internships and fastened upon a group of adolescents, whom I formed quite a strong rapport with. But then, I understood them. I did not invalidate them or condescend to them. I agreed with much of their observations: that this world is fucked up, that the schools are, and that their parents—more often than not—were, too. It was all true. And they were used to hearing that they were the problem. They were just a reaction to a lot of problems.
I spoke to them on a practical level. they were being treated for behavioral problems and/or substance abuse issues. I did not moralize. I gave it to them in a very practical frame. They needed a guide to extricate themselves from the deepening chaos. They just needed a practical guidebook out. I told them, essentially, “Hey, I know. You are actually right. But know if you do A, then most likely, B will happen. That’s the way this world, and how life is. All the while you can think on what’s Right and what’s Wrong, figure it out. But don’t ignore the lay of the land.” etc.
The director was so pleased with me and my progress with them that by the end of my internship, she hired me on a part-time basis. She gave me my own caseload. Later, she offered me an Associate Director position. My own company vehicle. Right out of school.
I turned it down. And left counseling.
Diverted and rewrote my school plans.
I couldn’t bear it, you see. I cared too much, in the end. I saw so many of these kids, caught up in the system…where nobody understood or believed them. Where their homes were hell and school punished them for crying out. I saw the pain in their eyes. These young girls, boys. Their parents couldn’t hear them, couldn’t love them enough, and only pushed them further away. I remember one girl, I’ll call her Rosa. She was in trouble with law and with school and home. She was furious at life. She was tired of taking it. She had punched a boy in the head and popped his eardrum. She was ready to do it again. And if you knew her and her story….you might just cheer her on. But to the school and the law, she was a menace. And yet all I could tell her was to try and remain practical. Take practical steps. Remember practical consequences. Talk to her. Hear her out. And watch the system swallow her entirely, in time. The PhD at the clinic might change her meds…but she’d not escape her injustices.
I felt impotent, and useless. And as if I were being tied to a rack to watch the world burn. Nothing was going to change for them…it didn’t on the whole. Or I couldn’t bear to watch them fall any more. Either way, this was not the place for me, soaking up pain and sorrow and fury all day, every day. I was too sensitive to it….
And then I remembered the reason I’ve been made this way. I remembered—I am an artist.
There was something I was supposed to be doing.
film projectionist • 29
In New York City. At NYU.
I had transferred to a four-year school. My life was changing…was being changed. By me. I felt very accomplished. I had worked hard at my junior college, was on the President’s list, was Phi Betta Kappa, National Merit Scholar, President of two clubs, a speaker at the Freshman orientation, a peer tutor, received a grant for an essay, scored solid 4.0s every semester. I had, in fact, Kicked the Ass.
It had been a while since I had worked with a pitchfork, or a shovel, or a wheelbarrow. Academia ushers you into a corridor of jobs that are available to students. So it had been a while since I had sweated into a paper filter mask, breathing in sawdust and asbestos, or dead chickens. Now I was at a prestigious art school; the creme de la creme. Shoot! I was a film student in NYC at NYU. I could hardly believe it. I felt it was due to my decisions to change. To get out of the rut where I had been living in a small room at my mothers in the valley of upstate New York, distraught over my girlfriend leaving me, and with a broken truck that had only been given to me anyway. I felt I was in the big city because I had made effort, made decisions. Somehow I had come to believe that I had the power to affect my own destiny.
Being a film projectionist was a fun job. I was back in the dim control booth, spinning the reels of film, changing over from projector A to projecter B, when I saw the “cigarette burns” in the upper right corner of the frame. I was cueing tapes for students to refer to when they made their thesis speech in front of the class. I watched through one-way glass, listened on my headphones. I soaked up Visconte, Fellini, Godard, all the classics. I wrote letters to a cute girl in my basic production class, rewound film, goofed off, drew. It was a great time. I felt I was on my way up; I was part of something growing, of hope, of ambition. Those old jobs I held and hated felt like a million years away. At the same time, they felt as if they were right behind me, and I never forgot them. I mixed with rich kids. They usually looked as soft and spoiled as month-old cream cheese. I felt a fondness for the Latino/a janitors, pushing around cans, picking up after all these young privileged kids every day; invisible. I made it a point to speak to them, to say hi, to say thank you. That used to be my job.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about the change in roles.
A small room. very small. a big closet. And a huge machine I sat at. It easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and probably a couple hundred thousand. It was for putting film on, to zip through it, to inspect it for tears and other damage. It looked like something out of a Science Fiction flick. It had sensors and arms and pads and lamps.
I worked for the Cinema Studies department, and went methodically through the 16mm collection, fixing torn sprockets, ripped frames. It was fragile and often rare film I was handling. I would go to work, close myself in this room and zone out. I had no problem with this job. I was rounding out my film education. I was not only studying theory, I was making film, writing it, acting in it, editing it, and learning how to project and inspect and repair it. I was glad I needed to work while I went to school, when originally I vaguely resented that others didn’t have to. But in the end, I was getting the larger film education.
dub room controller
Another dim control room. I learned to use patch bays and multiple decks, etc. rounding out the media education. After all the jobs I’d held, stuff like this was cake. Pure pleasure.
video floor tech help
I was working behind the counter on the video floor. Helping students with their AVID machines. Giving basic editing theory mini-lessons, or troubleshooting software issues. Checking them in and out of rooms, checking equipment in and out. Playing on the computer when nobody needed help. It hardly felt like work. But, again, once you’ve spent your days inhaling chickenshit odor so strong it thickens the air in your mouth, what does seem like work?
sound floor tech help
Same as above, but on the sound floor. Mixing boards, patch cables, DAT, Nagra. Drawing on the wood counter of the help desk. Doodling images and lettering. There was art all over the place back then. I think, since then, they’ve redone the counters, cleaned it up. But the walls and counters themselves used to be tattooed. The surreal experience of working in such conditions, with such responsibilities continued.
film production TA
Now that I had a year or so of film school under my belt, I became a Teaching Assistant in beginning film production. I worked with the teacher in the classroom; I helped the students in the editing room; I helped them shooting in the field; I acted in some of their films, I projected their film projects. It was great fun. I felt natural at teaching. I have patience with those trying to learn, I like helping them understand and gain new skills, I feel I was successful at communicating the knowledge I had gained.
It was very satisfying. And of course, I was amazed that I was being pretty well-paid to do something so…fun.
In film school, I concentrated on Cinematography. Before I was done with school, I submitted my reel to an independent production for a 30-minute film. I was very happy when the director chose my reel. We began work on his film. It was low paying, as it was an independent feature, and I was not even done with school. But it was the most amazing job I had ever had. Shooting film in New York City. Need I say more? Don’t get me wrong…it is very trying, very grueling. There is a world of pressure on you and you are bringing some hard-won skills to bear under less than ideal conditions, almost always. And if it looks wrong on the screen, or you waste film/tape/time/money in that—it’s your fault. Period. You are the director of your area. There is the Director, the Director of Photography (me), the Art Director… all at the top of their areas. Which means responsibility.
And usually you were working too hard to stop and let your mind imagine and fantasize. You didn’t need to. Finally you could plug in all that energy and creativity. But then, when I got a break or a moment, I would look out over the crew…and at myself riding with the director…or slip sideways in my mind on opening night, when the film finally screened at the Film Forum—and wonder how the kid who quit high school on his 16th birthday and dug ditches got to be a filmmaker in one of the most amazing cities in the world. Wow. Yeah, it was a pretty heady time.
I shot a couple films after this, and they were all great fun.
(video) assistant editor
A brief stint I picked up when seeking freelance work after school. Digitize clips, prepare the media for the editor. Freelance. Paid $20 – $25/hr. sit in a nice-smelling room all day, play with expensive machinery, eat lunch, nap on the couch. Talk on the phone.
A job I interviewed for. I started as an intern, working for $8/hr. I left as a supervisor/editor, getting paid $15/hr. This was after i graduated NYU, and had Film/TV degree. Finally, a job where my love of language and my love of teaching were both utilized. I couldn’t believe I was working this job and was very happy about it. I began to learn the high-pressure nature of jobs in Manhattan. The job lasted five months or so, before the company (a website branch of an advertising company) restructured and laid some of us off. My boss was so upset that he had to lay me off. He was a cool surfer cat from California who loved Sushi and told me “you have the integrity of ten men” with tears in his eyes. I actually ended up comforting him! As I was getting fired! What a smooth operator. I was very upset, and hated to lose that job. Less than a month later, my girlfriend and I—the girl i had written love notes to three years ago as I sat in the projection booth—broke up. A week after that, the World Trade Center was destroyed by two airplane suicide bombings.
I didn’t even try for another job. I just felt baffled by fate. Too much at once. No girl, no apartment, no job. And the sudden war and change of climate in my country and city convinced me that all had shifted into some unreal state where nothing I did mattered anyway. I turned again to art. I began to put energy into my music. It suddenly occurred to me that I had not worked on my music the entire time I had been with this girl; that I had put it aside for some reason. And that it was very important that I rededicate myself to it. So I introduced my music to the online world and began to gain a little self-confidence in presenting my work to people in large numbers. The responses I got online were so positive and passionate that I truly began to believe in my work.
I went on the road. To find myself, to find the country, to feel out what had just happened to the world and what it meant in my life.
Whilst on the road, and in these towns, I had applied for various jobs—Assistant Manager at a small town supermarket, Gas Station Attendant, Cashier—but found a strange thing had happened. I was now “overqualified.” Here I was, in some small town (except for my stay in Hollywood, Florida), applying for some crummy job with a degree in Film/TV, and from NYU! Coming from a job that had paid me far more than these people were prepared to pay. Nobody would hire me. I just wanted to pull in some cash from some obscure job, keep my head low, lay in a pretty girl’s bed, play my guitar, dream myself back to healed. I couldn’t find work.
Years later, I found work again as an Assistant Camera on a 35mm production in Brooklyn. A “fight-club meets goodfellas” type of flick. Underground boxing in Brooklyn, funded by the Russian mob. I was 2nd AC, and I gave it my all. I often worked 17 hour days, ’cause that’s what was called for. I was back from the dead, I was back in New York. I told Herm, “There is a certain kind of person who makes it here. and if you are not that kind of person, you become that kind of person. And if you cannot, then you will not make it.” I knew, because not long after September of 2001, I had slid away from New York and riding that bus upstate, I cried. Watching the Statue of Liberty get smaller. For 18 minutes I cried, not caring who saw me that day.
graphic artist • 35
I had a system down for applying, and I would do it like clockwork. Finally, I got a bite. And then got an interview from a large crowd of applicants (100+). And sat through a group interview with four others at once, and finally scored the job from the final fifteen left at the end. I was being paid for Photoshop and Dreamweaver work! What I had spent much of the last two years doing, learning better. .
The job, I realized very soon, was not a viable one. I had issues with the subject matter we were dealing with. I had issues with the ultra-Right views that my boss felt compelled to have blasting from three televisions throughout the place. I had issues with the pay. I had issues with the way he couldn’t help but speak to me. I had to keep the job if I was to make my rent. But I applied and applied looking to get out. Meanwhile, my body began to react, with stomach issues, to being forced to stay at a job that was “suffocating my spirit”—something I didn’t normally force myself to do.
editor/designer • (publishing house)
Yet another job, amazingly, where I was being paid for my intellectual ability; my creative talents. Where I was being paid to do something I actually enjoyed. Sometimes while working at the publishing house, I would feel like a fraud; as if they would suddenly discover I should be out in the grass, or hauling stuff out of the basement, or on the roof, instead of sitting in a comfy swivel chair at a desk in front of a new Mac, reading and writing for salary.
MTV street team
self-employed writer/videographer/artist • Now
I am paid to blog, as well as to write essays or produce videos online for various sites. This dovetails nicely with my own art business. I can do both from home. I’ve built up my computer situation and am equipped to produce media of all kinds from my small studio space. I am fighting to stay solvent right now, to stay afloat and things are pretty shaky. Then again, they’ve been for a year or more. And if I end up taking on a labor (or other) job on the side, I won’t mind. Things are different now than when I was 17 or 18 or 21. I don’t live with the desperation every day that I may never escape my lot. Then again, I don’t hold on to my “success” or position as tightly or reverently as I did as a student at NYU. I don’t equate job quite so much with worth anymore, just with situation and ability at the moment. Overall, I don’t see it as some linear and Western push away from Lowliness and toward Greatness. Though it’s easy to when you grow up poor or doing without, always feeling you are to be one of those who can’t have the good things in life.
I’m glad for whatever reason, I’ve moved outside of that view. Thinking about life that way is just too much work.