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The Working Life

Metroland writers reflect on labors of love, odd jobs, tough jobs, lonely jobs, and jobs that were not meant to be

 

Maid of August

For several summers dur ing my early 20s, I worked for a Saratoga socialite, a wealthy department-store heiress with a mansion on North Broadway, a box at the racetrack and invitations to all the season’s balls, galas and parties.

The job was never advertised. It was passed down from friend to friend, starting with Skidmore girls before me. We wore starchy white dresses that looked more like something nurses in the 1950s would wear than maids in the ’90s. One time my friend was taking the garbage out in this frumpy getup, and a group of guys in a car drove by and yelled “Slut!” We found this hysterical and laughed until we practically cried.

As summer jobs go, it wasn’t a bad one. Our pay was pretty good, under the table. Getting up early wasn’t required, as the first task involved bringing our employer (we’ll call her Ms. M) breakfast in bed, and she slept until noon. Ms. M would buzz down to the kitchen with breakfast instructions. She was a lifelong smoker with a love for late-night parties, and her voice was always gruff on the intercom. She never pronounced my name right, but liked to tell people her maid went to Vassar.

Ms. M only ever wanted one of two things to eat in the morning: soft-boiled eggs with toast or a can of chocolate meal-replacement shake. She was skinny as a stick, and had tight pants to fit into. The hardest part about breakfast was arranging all the china and silverware precisely to her satisfaction on the worn-out television tray. It took a diagram to remember how to do it. The second hardest thing was balancing the tray up a flight of steep stairs without spilling anything on the plush white carpets, which I once stained with an entire pot of coffee.

After she ate, bathed and dressed (she favored suits over dresses), Ms. M spent most of the day in her box at the racetrack, and then went out to dinner. So my friend and I, we usually worked in pairs, had hours alone in her three-story Georgian mansion, wallpapered in leopard-print and other jungle designs. We made the beds, washed and ironed sheets, dusted gaudy statues of lions and birds and vacuumed the real animal-skin rugs—mostly zebras although a giant open-mouthed lion guarded the main foyer. By late afternoon, we would help ourselves to gin and tonics from the bar while scooping out melon balls to wrap with prosciutto for when Ms. M returned from the track with guests.

By the end of the summer, we began the arduous task of packing up the expensive china, the Calder paintings, the animal statues and the roaring lion rug. Ms. M wouldn’t be caught dead in Saratoga outside August, and the contents of her house had to be shipped by moving van back to Palm Beach, Fla., where she wintered. You know racing season is starting and ending when you see these full-sized moving trucks lining the streets of Saratoga’s East Side. Many of the most beautiful houses are occupied for only a month of the year. We went through a lot of bubble wrap.

—Kirsten Ferguson

 

Slaughterhouse Rules

Killing, skinning and disemboweling hogs and cattle was not at the top of my list of potential first summer jobs when I was 16. In fact, it wasn’t even on my imaginary first-job list. Rock star was at the top, video-game/bookstore clerk in the top 10, fast-food clerk and farmer very close to the bottom. Slaughterhouse worker was so off my radar that it never even occurred to me.

I was a budding vegetarian, and the very idea of killing anything made me nauseous. I was a professed atheist at the time, but I was pretty sure taking the life of anything above a moth on the evolutionary scale would likely cost me my soul.

My mother presented the job to me as a cashier position at a private butcher shop. We had recently moved to the wilds of southern Albany County. I had no car, and the closest store was miles and miles away. The idea that my mother was able to use her connections to get me a job within walking distance of the house meant that I couldn’t dare reject it.

During my first day, the lanky, mustachioed owner (almost certainly Daniel Day Lewis’ inspiration for his role as Butcher Bill in Gangs of New York) was warm, but extremely intimidating. He never let on that I would soon be murdering things for their meat, but when only one customer actually needed to be cashed out on my first day, I realized I would likely find myself in the backroom. The room where all the squealing was coming from. The room from which the overwhelming salty smell of fresh blood emanated.

My assumption proved correct. The butcher led me into the back room. I had already nearly vomited when I’d seen the pig carcasses dangling from hooks, the cows’ heads stripped of flesh—their eyes still intact—propped up on steel barrels full of hot, steaming organs. The workers grinned, waiting for my visceral reaction to the site of a hog—throat recently slashed, thrashing back and forth—whining like a banshee as its blood splashed and pooled and finally ran down a drain.

I wanted to punch someone. I wanted to scream that they were all ignorant trash. I wanted to save every animal in the place. But I was trapped. I had already eaten meat of my own will, and worn leather, and now I was going to earn the guilt I felt as a wannabe vegetarian. As quickly as it had come, the anger faded into numb resignation. Someone handed me a bag. “Here,” said a worker with a ponytail, chuckling as he handed me the pig’s still-beating heart. I put it in the bag.

At the end of the day, I walked home caked in blood. I watched the diluted blood pool at the bottom of the shower, picking congealed blobs of the stuff out of my long black hair. I promised myself I wouldn’t return.

But I found myself there the next day and was given a new task.

After the carcasses of freshly killed hogs were lifted by chain from a vat of hot water, I would scrape off all their hair. It was like touching, well, a lightly boiled dead dog. I worried that the hogs would wake, half dead, and bite and thrash. They twitched as I scraped the hair onto the floor; if they were cooked too long, the skin would come off, too.

On the following day I learned to skin the hide from a cow: “Don’t cut the leather,” I was told. I wasn’t very good at it. My hand shook as I skinned, afraid of the dead thing below me, and I punctured the hide. It went on for weeks, with me hoping my knife would slip, that I’d injure myself and be unable to continue.

But I returned to complete increasingly grisly tasks. The boss even offered me a chance to slaughter an animal—an honor I refused.

One day a particularly large cow was pushed through the slaughter gate. It had to be tazered to force it to squeeze itself through. It thrashed about, unlike the other animals that had just slumped down and died. It took three or four shots to the head before it collapsed with grieved sigh. When he cut the cow open at last, the butcher reached his hands inside the mass of guts and pulled out sacks: baby cows. “No wonder it put up such a fight,” someone said.

I went home for the weekend. My friend and I made macaroni and cheese for dinner. I asked him for a knife and in some odd sort of serendipity he handed me a carving knife, blade first. I grabbed it without looking and nearly chopped off the tip of my left pointer finger. A doctor in the emergency room reattached it with stitches. It took time to heal—enough time that summer was over and I went back to school knowing with absolute certainty there was one job I would never do again.

—David King

 

Lost in the Archives

Despite my often obstinate refusal to admit defeat, I have grown comfortable enough with failure to admit, in retrospect, that I was damned awful at more than one of the random employment endeavors undertaken in my young life.

I belatedly apologize to the year’s worth of diners who received, at best, disappointing service at Oliver’s Tavern. I’ve done penance for the birthday party that finally opened their own celebratory champagne after cringing at their cocktail waitress’ hopeless attempt to wrestle the bottle into submission between her knees. And for the dropped TVs likely purchased from Service Merchandise (my 17-year-old frame just wasn’t built for warehouse work). For marine gasoline carelessly sloshed over freshly oiled teak, for garbling docking reservations. And, yes, for mildly electrocuting my supervisor during a fish population study.

But my ultimate poor-job apology is owed to the patrons of the Bailey-Howe Library Department of Special Collections, Rare Books and Vermont State Archives.

I was just a clerk, there to shelve the constant influx of new materials and, on the rare occasions that someone appeared at the circulation desk with a call number scrawled on a request slip, to efficiently retrieve the desired volume.

The Department of Special Collections houses hundreds of thousands of books, photographs, maps, pamphlets, birth, death and legislative records. I don’t even remember how I finagled the job, some sort of university work-study program I think. I’m sure I impressed in the interview with my keen understanding of cataloging systems. I was, after all, raised by a librarian.

What I do remember is that I was, quite possibly, the worst clerk the Bailey-Howe Library Department of Special Collections had ever seen. Unleashing me with a call number into the cavernous stacks of rare books was akin to getting a peanut by sending an alcoholic out on a pub crawl and hoping he’d bring you one back.

On one turn into a dusty corner I found the deckle-edged, cloth-bound Journals of Lewis and Clark from eighteen-ought-something. Almost five thousand pages of expeditions that saw our country through virgin eyes. One section brimmed with NASA studies, another with delightfully kitsch ’50s tobacco literature. A whole aisle held the bound transcripts of presidential impeachment trials.

If I rolled my cart in with six volumes to put up on the shelves, I took down seven. I spent the bulk of each shift hunched on the colorful wheeled tripod of a library stool, or tucked into a nook between shelves, trying desperately to digest what I could from the pile of unbearably alluring books and pamphlets I was hording. My ears prickled at the sounds of footfalls and I’d snap back to the illusion of shelving.

So, if you ever handed me a request slip, and waited, and waited. And waited. I’m sorry. I owe you an hour. Maybe more. I was lost in Narnia.

—Kathryn Geurin

 

Union Blue

Successful people often give credit to their parents for instilling in them, at a young age, a solid work ethic—an early grounding in the miseries of labor, which, they say, is good for the spirit and serves as useful training for the challenges and degradations awaiting them in professional life. It’s the kind of powerful myth that sustains the hard-working folks that I grew up with out in Protestant country, folks who have faith in a God who despises the lazy and rewards the early riser.

I remember my mom telling me that I was a lucky kid, getting up before dawn to build fence or roof a barn day after day, weekend after weekend, summer vacation after summer vacation. “You’ll never go hungry,” she would say. And that’s true. I’ve never gone hungry. And if I needed to, I could build a house by myself, from the studs and concrete, to the plumbing, sheetrock and roof.

When I was little, still in the single digits, our 20-acre field had been overtaken by bull thistles, an aggressive weed with thick hairy spines, sharp-edged leaves and a blossom of pretty, purple-blue, needle-sharp pricklies that will pierce skin and latch on. In one spring, an entire field can be overrun by thistles. By the end of summer, they’ll grow child-height.

And that summer, it was my job to rid the pasture of this nuisance. Every morning, before dawn, I trudged into the field in long-sleeved shirts and jeans and leather gloves, with a pair of scissors and a bucket for the heads, and a squirt bottle filled with salt water for the stems (it’s a particular task to kill a thistle). It was an urgent matter that the thistles not spread, so there was no rest for me until the job was done. No swimming pool. No sleepovers. No Nintendo. Day after day after day for weeks.

I had heard on the streets that the workers’ terms for laboring could be negotiated with management, so one night after work I wrote out a contract. It laid out, what I believed, were very reasonable terms: no more than 40 hours a week of work, no work on the weekends, no work before 8 AM, and an allowance (my mom didn’t believe in allowances). And here’s what I learned from my first attempt at negotiations: Management doesn’t care. Reasoned, sensible requests are dismissed by management, aka mom, as trite or juvenile or unnecessary in the face of the greater good—as defined by your boss.

My mom wouldn’t sign the contract, but she did put it on the refrigerator. And I resorted to more drastic measures.

So now, years later, what I can thank my moms for, what I did learn—other than that laziness is its own reward—is an early respect for the labor movement. My very personal realization that the rights of the worker aren’t just given, but they must be won by blood. Or tantrums.

—Chet Hardin

 

I, Um, Write

Much of my social life takes place in non-church settings, so it used to be that when people asked what work I did, I’d respond, “I’m a Lutheran pastor.” By and large the reaction would be shock, fascination or veiled disappointment that somebody as smart as I am could have fallen for the Judeo-Christian mythology.

I never liked that moment of having to explain that I wasn’t that kind of Christian.

I didn’t like dealing with the subtle assumptions people make about clergy. (I have a friend who, when dating, would say that she worked in human services in order not to convey the immediate impression that her job required celibacy.)

But now, in the two and a half years since I’ve left active parish ministry, when people ask what work I do, I don’t know what to say.

Because however socially awkward it might have been to tell people I was a Lutheran pastor, it feels still more socially awkward to say “I’m a writer. But, ah, no, I don’t have any books out.”

So when people ask me what I do, I try to let the moment pass.

I am disciplined and hard-working when it comes to writing. I have been able to complete a long-neglected novel, a memoir about leaving ministry, a bunch of short stories. And I’m working on something new. But here’s my publishing record: fiction and non-fiction in eight literary journals. Journals you haven’t heard of, three of them online. And my maiden voyage to find an agent feels like a rocky one so far, though I am pressing on.

The truth is, I love the work. I do. I don’t even mind the grunt part of it: the cover letters, the query letters, the ritual run to the DIY machine at the post office, tracking submissions, rejections and the (rarer) acceptances.

I’m extremely grateful for the support that has allowed me this invaluable gifts of time. And I have hope that I will find representation and will publish (even teach!).

But there is a another truth, as well: In a world where we are identified by the visibility of what we do, this is lonely work. No longer visible as a parish pastor, I am largely invisible as a writer.

Although maybe it’s that very invisibility that keeps me self-disciplined: the drive to have a recognized identity so that when people ask what work I do, I won’t be afraid to tell them.

—Jo Page

 

Me? I’m Just a Lawn Mower

All in all, a cemetery is a very agreeable workplace.

A cemetery is peaceful. There’s no one to bug you. Contrary to horror-film mythology, the dead don’t rise from the graves, and ghosts don’t haunt the headstones. If the boneyard’s old enough, no one ever visits, either. And, barring an epidemic, there’s only one busy time per year: Memorial Day weekend, when the American Legion places flags on veterans’ graves. The grass, however, always grows. This is the area of expertise where my once-special talents were employed.

For half of my life, my only useful skill was operating a lawn mower. Beginning at around age 12, I cut grass every summer through junior high, high school and college. I operated everything from a lousy Black & Decker electric mower to a succession of Briggs and Stratton-powered push mowers, to an industrial-grade riding mower for maintaining a manufacturing company’s far-flung grounds. It was useful work.

But best of all was the summer I cut grass in one of the handful of cemeteries that serve my small Southern Tier hometown. With regard to the work, it’s just like mowing a regular lawn, only with a lot of granite blocks to maneuver the machine around. And there are no people at all.

While I did have a boss who also operated a machine, this was—is—a big cemetery. It’s not like we were working adjacent machines on a factory floor.

It remains a place that seems exactly as old as its 19th-century vintage would suggest. While there have been newer additions to the property—people are still dying to get in, ha ha—the oldest sections are old. Tall trees block the sun. The grounds are uneven, as most of the “residents” (and their wooden containers) have returned to nature. And the monuments are, well, monumental.

In this place rest the prosperous founding fathers—and mothers, and children—of the village. These were sturdy Protestant worthies who had plenty of dough. Iron railings, which are probably still a bitch to mow around, enclose generations in elaborate family plots; these plots have family names that survive only, but proudly, on village streets.

So much history is, well, contemplative. With the noise of the mowing machine to block immediate distractions, and the repetitive nature of the work, a lawnmower man has plenty of time to think, ruminate, daydream. Hours pass quickly in this kind of work.

Why on Earth did I ever give it up?

—Shawn Stone

 

There Are No Accidents

Ages ago, when I lived in Seattle, I answered an ad for a cleaning service. The owner wanted me to sign a waiver saying that I was responsible for the deductible on her insurance policy should I break any of the pricey figurines in her client’s homes while dusting them.

The waiver was long and wordy, rambling on in new-agey lingo about choices. Though that piece of paper is long recycled, here is a fictionalized rendition of her thoughts:

“First of all, there are no accidents. This means that divinity was involved in your filling out this application. If you don’t believe that fate led you to this place and time, then please put the pen down, hand the secretary this piece of paper you’ve wasted, and tenderly open the door. Best of luck to you on your next step, whatever random, uncharted and impossible-to-predict step that might be, even if you choose to walk in front of a Mack truck.

“If, however, you choose to continue filling out this application, and we recommend that you do, in a slightly bullying but also friendly fashion, please remember that there really are no accidents, that anything you do to harm us, however slight, will really harm us. Although we are a corporation, we can sense your distaste for us, and if you harbor even the mildest resentment toward selling your time, we will notice, and the universe will notice, and the mistakes that happen because of this are your mistakes, not ours. What if we lose a hard drive after you sneer at a computer? What if you walk too hard on our carpeting and wear it out? You are responsible!

“Fortunately, we have insurance against this sort of generalized malevolence raging inside our employees. This insurance carries a deductible, equivalent to two weeks of your pay, which is, we figure, a manageable amount, especially since when you have to live without your paycheck we will provide a ration of bread (stale) and milk (warmed, not quite soured). This ration will include doggy bags you can take home for your supper, or, in the instance of those who have families to support (remember, no accidents in terms of dependents, either!), giant doggy bags of old bread and aging milk so no one will starve while you learn your lesson.

“You see, because there are no accidents, we believe that you should do unto others as others would do unto you. We will treat you with suspicion and doubt until such time as you can freely give yourself, all of yourself, and not the fraction that isn’t thinking about a certain iPhone auction on eBay or whether you should start Twittering on bathroom breaks, or if you deserve a candy bar. Until you can give yourself to the company in the mode of mid-century job devotionals, consider us paranoid.

“Once you surrender, your days at work will be almost orgasmic. You will want us as much as we want you, and work will become so satisfying that you will only go home on weekends, preferring to doze between projects on a cot beside your desk.

“If you can imagine our shared future, please tell us every single thing about yourself. What titillating rituals get you out the door in the morning? Do you want your neighbor more than your spouse?

“In the end we will all benefit from this atmosphere of mutual disclosure. We will give and give and give, and the world will get fuller and fuller like an overripe cantaloupe waiting to burst upon the kitchen counter. Until then, every day will be a delight of swells, beginning with campfire songs at breakfast, reinforcement lectures at lunch, and naps mid-afternoon. The shuttle will haul you home on Fridays and you’ll ignore your friends and relations all weekend, sleeping and dreaming of us.”

—Amy Halloran

 

I Was Mr. Edwards, Briefly

“Hello, this is Mr. Edwards from the Riteway Basement Waterproofing Company. If you’re experiencing water or dampness in your basement . . .”

That’s where the my memory of the spiel ends.

I was Mr. Edwards. So was any other man working the phone banks in a small office in suburban Philadelphia in 1973. The women making calls, were, unsurprisingly, Mrs. Edwards. For many years I remembered the entire opening pitch, the stuff you’d say before the callee could get a word in edgewise and at which time our scripts could provide the follow-up answer. In the early ’70s, this sort of bothersome call was not as common (or automated) as it has become, and being hung up on was rather rare. When I recently tried to tap back into this mantra, I discovered part of it was now missing and presumably gone forever.

I was attending—barely—Temple University. It was my second halfhearted attempt at college, and I was working this part-time job in the evenings several nights a week. The only remaining records I have to indicate the general time period are the little pocket notebooks I kept (as I had been doing all through high school). I’d put a title on the front of the filled notebook and toss it in a box. The notebook covering this era was titled “Project JJ.” This project was laid directly over my work responsibilities. Using street directories, my job was to telephone homeowners and inquire about the condition of their basements. Through a brief conversation it was then possible to determine that a particular neighborhood may have been beset by water in the cellar; subsequent calls to other houses in those specific areas could yield more needy, leak-inundated dwellers. These were cold calls; if someone indeed was having problems with water or dampness, we’d fill out a small form and a follow-up call would be made by someone more fully versed in these matters. I was simply in the front line of telephone-anchored foot soldiers, tromping call-by-call across the Pennsylvania and Delaware suburban hillsides in search of customers.

Already proving myself to be a less-than-stellar employee, I was finding ways to make this job my own conceptual playground. I was so replaceable than I couldn’t even use my own name on the phone. I needed to find some way to personalize my time spent there. As it turned out, this personalization didn’t erode my focus or time at all—in fact, it may have made me more attentive. By the second night of working there, I had noticed how frequently the initials “JJ” showed up after any given last name in the directory. My “Project JJ” was relatively straightforward: to write them down. I was surprised at how often it occurred, far more than any other combination I encountered.

I didn’t keep the job for more than a couple of months. The train ride followed by a transfer to the bus, combined with the fact that I’d ended my university enrollment, brought on the need for more substantial employment. This came in the form of a most unexpected job at a men’s clothing store in downtown Philadelphia, called Mr. V.I.P., not far from where the Mike Douglas show was taped.

But that’s another story.

—David Greenberger

 

Mad Man

I thought I was going to get a job in creative. Because I thought I was all about creative.

I had wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to go about becoming a writer. The university career-counseling center wasn’t much help with that, but it did have lots of information on banking and marketing and advertising. I decided that advertising would be a pretty good fit with my urge to create.

I pictured myself hanging out with my creative team in a spacious, comfortable, stylishly decorated room on the creative floor of a Madison Avenue ad agency. Sofas, large round work tables, oversized sketch pads, framed awards on the wall, and of course, a minibar.

Then one of my interviewers, fixated on my economics degree, suggested that I didn’t look so much “creative” as I did “media planning.” Another interviewer must have agreed, because soon I was offered a job in the media planning department at the big Manhattan ad agency Young & Rubicam.

And so my first foray into the grown-up work world was about flow charts and cost-per-thousand and Best Food Day in daily newspapers. I didn’t really understand what I was doing; my boss would change the media buy on my brand, Chef Boyardee, from week to week and I would revise the flow charts. I would take calls from sales reps. I don’t remember what those conversations were like because, again, I didn’t really understand what I was doing. One guy, a balding, round-bellied, cigar-chomping 50-ish rep from some media company took me to lunch and talked my ear off about god-knows-what. Maybe he assumed that in a couple of years I would know what I was doing and would be a decision maker. In sales, it’s all about relationships. As if to drive that point home, he offered me a date with his daughter. I’m not kidding.

For the most part, my five months there were a blur. I put on a suit in the morning and took the Lexington Avenue subway to work. I sat in my cubicle and performed tasks that were essentially mindless; sometimes I just daydreamed. We had two hours for lunch so that the really important employees could have really important two-hour client lunches. I would buy a sandwich at the company cafeteria and enjoy my two-hour lunch with a good book on the steps of the New York Public Library. Had I stayed into the summer, I would have had Friday afternoons off so that I could beat the traffic getting to my time share in the Hamptons. Except that they didn’t pay me nearly enough to own a time share.

On day, on a whim, I got up from my desk in Cublicle World on the 15th floor and took the elevator to one of the floors I knew to be designated “creative.” I strolled nervously down the hallways—which were adorned with much more interesting and avant-garde artwork than anything on 15—and glanced into offices to see what the people working there looked like. I came upon what appeared to be a large brainstorming room that looked surprisingly like what I had envisioned, with sofas, work tables, sketch pads (I didn’t notice a minibar). But I didn’t stay long—I felt out-of-place in my drab gray suit, like someone who would never be called in to sit on one of those sofas. Like someone wearing his economics degree around his neck. Or maybe just a stamp on his head, in big bold letters, “NOT CREATIVE.”

—Stephen Leon

 


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