What I want is the income that really comes in of itself, while all you have to do is just to blossom and exist and sit on chairs.
– Robert Louis Stevenson, letter to Henry James
My friend Mark, home for the holidays a few years after college, told his mother I had started a new job. She brightened and offered her congratulations whenever he saw me again, then looked thoughtful for a moment as if recalling an old address, and asked, “How many jobs has Dave had?”
It’s a good question. No one really knows.
I used to think that if I had every job in the world, even briefly, I’d know at least something about everyone alive. What they feel like in the morning, what they do with their days. Of course, only someone who hadn’t had many jobs would think that more of them was a good idea. Looking for work is pure stress: inflating what you’ve done, can do, can’t wait to do, and then the Alpine learning curve of those first few weeks, peering over your shoulder for the Fraud Police. But the idea still appeals.
My father worked for the same company his whole life. He finished college, interviewed, chose General Electric — he met my mother when he came to dinner after an interview with my grandfather — and retired from the company almost forty years later. Generous Electric, we used to call it. I have no way of knowing if he ever meant that ironically, but he worked hard, seemed content and never complained, at least within my oblivious teen hearing. I get the feeling fewer people did, back then.
I wish I could ask my dad what he got out of work, what surprised and disappointed and bored and scared him. Whether he made people laugh during meetings. (That one I’d bet on.) Because nobody has a career like that now. Just one worker in a hundred stays with an employer for forty years. Dad changed jobs within GE, got promoted, changed cities even, but he never moved to another company, much less another profession. I’m told the average worker today keeps a job for 4½ years before jumping ship, often to an entirely different line of work. For millennials, born between the early 80s and the early oughts — between the time I graduated from college and my first job lasting longer than college — the span is barely half that. Surveys say 90% of this cohort expect to stay in a job less than three years. Which makes what, fifteen jobs before they retire? Twenty?
It’s mostly a myth, as it happens, these modern dot-com hordes loyal only to their Twitter accounts. (Where’s that fedora when you need it? Where’s the company picnic?) Turns out it’s not about the age we’re in but the age they’re in. People in their twenties did exactly the same thing in the 90s, and the 80s.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’ve got them beat.
The question for those of us born without silver spoons and stock options can only be What do I want from a job? Pride, money, status? For me it can’t be the last two, unless I’m operating some subconscious Opposite Day algorithm, because there hasn’t been a whole lot of that. Scaling younger, I’m given to understand that 88% of Gen Y-ers want jobs with a “positive culture,” whatever that looks like. Eighty-six percent want their workplace to be “interesting.”
Mine have been that, anyway. Probably every job is, if by interesting you mean slightly bizarre, and especially if you wander toward the edges, which I seem to do without really trying. In the workplace, weirdness walks with me. I once knocked myself out in an auto parts warehouse. I was fired from a resume service. As the desk clerk for a family motel one summer during college, I was presented one evening, by a man who’d checked in a few minutes earlier, with a large cardboard box he’d found under the bed which had housed until recently a colorful blow-up doll featuring “three fully functional orifices.” I have no idea what my face might have looked like, staring at the box on the counter. Its former occupant gazed past us in mild astonishment, her mouth a perfect O.
Even in first jobs, which typically don’t offer much freedom or creativity, you can’t help but learn something. At fourteen I was making $2 an hour at Gershon’s Deli, too young for a work permit and stuck downstairs in the kitchen, off the books. I was surrounded by older Jewish and Italian women, all stocky and all seemingly grandmothers, though they were probably younger than I am now. My favorite, Gina, used to call out “It’s you and me against the world, honey” as she clattered down from the dining room cradling pots and pans. One hectic day I called back “The world’s winning” and got a laugh from the room that I remember all these years later. Like everybody who’s ever been fourteen I wanted to be accepted for what I wasn’t, an adult, and I took this as a promising early return.
One afternoon as I stood wreathed in steam, scrubbing pots I could have swum in while the ladies prepared salads or chopped great hunks of meat off carcasses on tables behind me, the conversation turned for some reason to Paul Newman. There was a chorus of appreciative sounds appropriate to a sudden view of a pastry cart, and Gina said in a different voice than I was used to from her (or anyone), “He can put his shoes under my bed any time.” The others giggled and shushed, pointing with their heads toward the presumably virginal dishwasher. I both did and didn’t know what they were talking about, a condition I still find myself in pretty frequently.
Not counting lawnmower and paperboy, that was my first paid job, the pebble before the avalanche. Taking on work, though, is only the first step if your goal is to hold an infinite number of jobs. It’s essential to either (a) quit early and often or (b) get fired a lot. The first I tended to do after eleven months or so, long enough to sink into debt but before raises or benefits might kick in. The other was less predictable.
I realize it sounds like a bad joke, but I did manage to get fired from a resume company. Professional Resume & Writing Service — no word of which applied to my brief time there — was lodged in a nondescript high-rise cubbyhole in Richmond, where I’d washed up after college without many prospects. I think I must have answered an ad. As sole employee on the premises I had no interest in drumming up business, but I did spend a lot of time copying things on the excellent office equipment to send to friends (me and free Xeroxing have always made an unhealthy combination) while crafting increasingly spiffy resumes for myself on heavy paper with zippy fonts. Quite a few copies of these, unfortunately, were on hand when the company rep who’d hired me showed up to fire me, for the excellent reason that I’d done nothing for their bottom line, never mind my own.
I also refused to write, though that was the only part of the job I liked and could actually do. (I never said this would make sense.) Early in my tenure at PRWS I made the acquaintance of a large, scruffy, possibly demented man who spent his days writing blitheringly reactionary letters to the local paper. I was an avid reader of that section and had contributed some myself, leaning toward the opposite side of every issue, so I’d been reading his for years, shaking my head at the breakfast table. Apparently he’d paid my predecessor to write them, because one morning he filled the doorway, head tilted to assess the new occupant, and sat heavily, scanning the corners as though logging security cameras or escape routes. He told me he wanted to continue the arrangement, but his opinions were so vile I had to say I wouldn’t be carrying on the tradition. I was tempted to do it anyway and make a few dollars (my name wouldn’t be attached, and his prose standards weren’t high), but I couldn’t. He listened in that cramped office, silent in his stained overcoat, as I ran out of non-insulting ways to say no. When my voice tapered off he gave me a disgusted look and lumbered out.
Even in seemingly normal jobs I’ve always sensed some admixture of absurdity. It’s possible I gravitate toward strangeness (news that my wife and close friends will not receive kindly), but sometimes, I’ll admit, I bring it on myself. At the group house I lived in one summer, waiting tables at a resort in the Poconos, I reached for the black rubber bath stopper one night and without my glasses took a long second, after my hand closed on the lump, to realize it was a bat, one of hundreds living under the eaves of our ramshackle house. That moment was weird enough (the bat was alive and not pleased), and I would give a lot for a video of it, or audio of whatever noises emerged from me. Granted, though, it was my choice to release the unfortunate creature into the teen disco that evening, where a mini-Dracula flashing among mirror balls and strobe lights engendered a memorably high-decibel, drink-flinging panic.
Hijinks aside, I’ve felt that kind of oddity lurking everywhere, and surely it isn’t just me. Spend your days intersecting with H. sapiens and you’re going to meet up with strangeness. “Surreal,” after all, doesn’t mean unreal. It means moreso, over and above. Absurdity is just reality close up.
Sometimes it starts even before the job does. I spent nearly a year at an outfit near Washington that used to have the contract for processing U.S. patents. A misprint or smudge in the ad I answered made me think it paid a decent wage (to my holey-jeans way of thinking), whereas the actual amount was below $10,000, which even back then, even for me, was ludicrous. That I accepted the job anyway is a testament to something, I’m not sure I want to know what. Inertia maybe, or a lifelong proclivity to drift toward situations and people just a few degrees off plumb (as my engineer father might have thought, but would never have said).
The ad probably read “Technical Editor” or some other elevating euphemism, but I spent my days marking thousands of tiny codes on long, dry documents and diverting the attentions of my very gay, very interested supervisor. The first of these duties was brain-scrapingly boring. Einstein put in time as a “technical assistant” at the Bern patent office during his annus mirabilis of 1905, and it left his mind free to roam our universe and invent others. I can’t say I was quite that productive.
Scribbling away at the desks around me were a dozen short stories in the making, including a seven-foot Ichabod Crane in glasses who’d been writing a book about water for as long as he’d been there, which was longer than anyone else could remember; short, squat German Hana, with a frightening glower and a voice like a Dispose-all; and the boss, a small wiry man, an avid runner, given to darting out of his office and hurtling down the stairwells where I sometimes took exercise and sanity breaks. Hana called him die garnele, which is the only reason I know the German for shrimp.
The people on the page were if anything more fascinating, although (or because) I only had the inventors’ names and dreams to go on. I started a file of off-the-wall patents and names, and as these were notarized documents there isn’t a nickname among them, everything legal and above board. Bodo Futterer remains a favorite. A handful were the sort of grade-school snickerbait I’m too mature to repeat here (Harry Wong, Timber Dick, Beat Bohner), and others registered dubious parental brainstorms: the brothers LeRoy Dry Ginn and LeRoyce Sloe Ginn, for instance, or co-applicants with the first names Even and Odd. I had just enough empathy to wonder how William J. Weirdo fared in high school, and enough sense of history to be delighted by inventors Dorian Gray, Isaac Newton and Robert E. Lee marching across my desk. All of which strains credibility sufficiently that there’s no reason not to add that Lee’s patent was for a Solar Space Vehicle, and Mr. Newton was represented by Smart & Biggar, Attorneys.
The gentlemen of Monty Python missed their chance, I thought, with Frankieboy Ponzo, Alastair Kenyon Bodycomb, and the glorious Le Grand Gerard Van Uitert. Some others are just unclassifiable, notably Bozo Pondunavac, another favorite, and Kate Goes In Center (resident of Loveland, Colorado), and the sublime Shalaby Wahba Shalaby. I spent half a day memorizing Nana Akua Achampong Affram Sarfo-Kantanka so I could reel it off to my roommates without stopping for breath.
The patents themselves were what you might expect from your fellow earthlings: a mix of the dreary, ingenious, puerile, hopelessly dense, and straight-up bonkers. I read recently that 95% of U.S. patent applications are approved, which makes a lot of sense because god in heaven, what would the rejection stack look like? Many paradigm-shifting ideas are conceived, it would seem, in the bathroom. I had a patent for a contraption to let women stand up to pee, another to let men do so quietly (the Silent Stool Urinal, avoiding the dreaded “waterfall noise”) as well as anti-splash, anti-stain and anti-leak devices. Also a method for making jewelry out of animal dung. Bighorn sheep is especially prized, apparently, for its “attractive grain pattern.” One day brought some very realistic fake dog shit (“synthetic stool”), a prototype of which was included in the envelope. The text carried no hint that this was intended for pranks — though I can report that it achieved that objective nicely — so its true purpose was never clear. On another afternoon I studied drawings of a complicated rig meant to catch real dog shit straight out of the dog.
Sometimes I tossed a patent back on the stack for someone else to deal with. I didn’t get far, for example, with one purporting to be an “Ageing Indicator.” It seemed to me then, as it does now, that we have enough of those. I didn’t spend much time with the Ooze-It doll, which, when squeezed, “simulates bleeding due to injuries,” or with two patents for anti-rape devices. Both involved a vaginally inserted apparatus along the lines of a mousetrap, and their initial paragraphs offered two phrases — “harpoon-tipped” and “solidly impaled” — which have not left me since. But I did read with great relish of the multiple uses of a Pen Gun, and I cherish a page of shoe designs that would make people think (enemy spies, I assume) that you were walking in the opposite direction. Judging by the diagrams I couldn’t imagine standing upright in any of them, much less escaping from the NKVD, but espionage must breed a hardy soul and foot.
Why I take a job is often mysterious; why one takes me is usually moreso. Hiring is dicey, of course, as anyone in a supervisory role can tell you. Some of today’s finest fiction is found typed up in resumes and recited straight-faced in interviews. Who hasn’t hired a promising candidate who turns almost instantly into a blueprint for Wrong Person For The Job? Statistically, across eastern North America in the late 20th century, that candidate tended to be me.
As just one example, I spent an improbable three months with an automotive firm in Roanoke, Virginia, where my job was to drive around in a truck loading and unloading car parts. Among my qualifications for every other job on the planet: we had just moved to Roanoke so I didn’t know the city at all, much less its backstreets and warehouse districts, where I would spend the rest of my seventeenth summer backing up and turning around; and I have the world’s worst sense of direction, so my period of residence in a city is immaterial in any case to my ability to navigate it. In Europe years ago I would exit a museum or pub and my friends would simply wait for me to walk one direction, then turn the opposite way, confident they were headed straight for the hotel or train station. I was infallible.
My truck was also straight-shift, which I didn’t know how to use. I’d driven a truck, but only around my great aunt’s Arkansas ranch one summer, at a glacial pace with sullen black cows for pedestrians and wire fence-lines as the only right of way. These were strung at impossible distances across board-flat fields of thistle and chickweed, so a blind man couldn’t have grazed a fence in daylight, and yes, I did.
Finally, I knew nothing about cars, inside or out. I’ve rectified that somewhat since, but at the time I couldn’t tell a solenoid from an asteroid. I doubt I mentioned any of this, but there was no concealing it either. Within hours it must have become clear that I was tragically ill-suited for the position, yet my employers kept me on. I’ve always wondered why. I can only imagine it was for entertainment value, which must have exceeded the replacement cost of the truck parts I ruined. Returning one evening after my usual eight hours spent profoundly lost, I misjudged the concrete entrance chute and scraped the truck along its full length. They didn’t mention it or dock my pay. In a pop-up rainstorm one day I fishtailed through a sudden pond in the street and clipped a phone pole, surgically removing a tail light. It was never spoken of. The first arrivals at the shop each morning must have checked the truck to settle bets on which quadrant had suffered most the previous day.
And yet: they let me drive a forklift. Maybe OSHA regulations were different back then. They called it a “tow motor,” a local variant which I heard as “toe motor,” visualizing — correctly, as it turned out — those long iron tines kicking and blundering about, upending piles of boxes, as I pulled knobby levers mostly at random.
The strangest moment, though, was one they never knew about. At least I think they didn’t. I don’t recall it often; strictly speaking I don’t remember it at all, having been unconscious at the time. But it strikes me as the cherry on a summer-long sundae of stupid.
I’d been loaned for the day to another warehouse, perhaps one lacking in entertainment options, and was working alone in the cavernous humming space, bent over searching the floor hopelessly for oil filters with a specific serial number. Finally locating a stack, I grabbed an armload, took two accelerating steps toward my cart, and heard the most interesting sound. I had just enough time to reflect that it resembled my souvenir Cooperstown bat swung at a watermelon, and the world was no more.
I came to with a view of a far-off foreign ceiling, sprawled like a police artist’s chalk drawing half covered in oil filters. It developed that a short span of I-beam had for some reason been lowered onto iron poles like a miniature triumphal arch, possibly to accommodate a long-forgotten duct or pipe, and my forehead had caught its thin edge dead center. If you’re in a hurry you can get up some good momentum in a couple of steps, and I might as well have walked into a Joe Frazier cross. I don’t know how long I lay there: three minutes, thirty. No one came looking. The blow did no real damage, although in telling the story over the years I’ve heard more than once that this might explain a few things.
I don’t want everyone else’s job any more, but I do like to ask people what they do. Whether it’s a formal interview or just chatting on the elevator (I’m that guy), I always ask people if they like their work, what the best and worst parts are, and especially “What do people think you do?” An economist told me people always assume he makes a killing in the stock market. “If I knew the secret to that,” he said, “don’t they think I’d use it?” I rode along with some cops one night, and they told me everyone thinks their life is one big TV chase and shootout. I know a lot of lawyers, but none who make dramatic Atticus Finch speeches or pull last-second evidence out of their briefcases, prompting bedlam in the courtroom.
That question brings interesting answers because we’re misunderstood, all of us, and no one’s life — teacher, trumpeter, architect — goes the way we think it will. Je sens mon couer et je connais les hommes, Rousseau said. I feel my heart and I know all men. It’s an admirable sentiment, and one I want to believe, but I don’t think I do. Do we ever really get inside each other’s lives? Our own are baffling enough. Still, it seems worth trying, if only to open our eyes and lessen our loneliness.