Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

I’m nothing but a sojourner here, having to work for my bread. I don’t want any hand-outs, just a little taste of sugar when the sun goes down, followed by a good night’s sleep. In the morning I’ll resume my slog on the pilgrim’s way, heading through the ashen hills and burnt-out valleys to god knows where. Effin blue skies. I’ve read all those books about how the journey is the thing, not the destination, and how the fully lived human life is always in the process of becoming, not being. I get it, I think I know what Ithaca means, although I make a pretty lousy Ulysses. I try to live in the present but memory and desire keep intruding. In the end what keeps me going is hunger and thirst and sexual arousal. I’m working to get some of what the sirens are pitching.

It’s been a while. I started working when I was in my mid-teens, spending two summers as a volunteer counselor in the Headstart Program. I don’t know if the do-gooders are still around or the program went out the window along with the rest of the Great Society. Maybe it’s been privatized like garbage collection and prisons. We took these kids and did what we could in the six hours we had them -- feeding them milk and orange juice, trying to impart some social skills, teaching them to read and follow rules when playing games -- only to watch them go back to their broken homes and backslide into their passive, angry, unformed selves. Progress was slow, but by the end of the summer, we thought we’d broken through to a couple of them: stunted Rodney who clutched a red plastic handbag and bawled when anyone touched him, wearing the same dungarees and brown shirt every day, Margaret, tall and spindly with her terrible allergies and dirty hair, and Isaac who could draw for hours, silently sitting with his nose practically on top of the paper, chewing his lip, dozens of crayons scattered about. Who knows if we saved these kids from their likely fates -- it’s doubtful -- but at least they got thirty hours a week’s worth of attention for a couple of months. Lots of kids don’t even get that.

After the kids went home, the volunteers and paid staff would sit around in the cafeteria and talk through the day’s events, trying to formulate a strategy for the next day. Rodney seems to get along with Marshall and Brenda, so let's have the three of them start on the blocks together. There wasn’t a lot of theory. The guiding principles were good intentions, patience, and an ability to improvise. It was like the church-sponsored summer camp out in Wading River I’d attended in my ninth year. Organized but loose. You could be alone for a while and no one would bother you as long as you eventually joined in the planned activities. The supervisors knew how to hold back and wait for the little ones to get comfortable. Most humans are joiners.

I’ve laid blacktop, slung burgers, spent endless hours on my feet working retail, first in the gourmet department at Fortunoffs in Westbury, then in a succession of bookstores, I’ve loaded trucks in Secaucus, played organ in church, written teacher’s guides and ghosted a series of architectural guidebooks, managed bookstores, managed home-office buyers, sold books and managed sales reps, marketed books, and thought about becoming a priest. Father T. almost convinced me that I had the calling but he was talking to a introverted boy drawn to the poetics of it, the language and the rites. God was nothing but a big silence at the center of my experience.

With every job came the satisfaction of a paycheck, no matter how small. Another week’s worth of food, gas, rent, maybe half a dozen roses every once in a while, cheap wine. I didn’t mind living on scratch, keeping milk outside the window so it stayed cold. I can’t remember half the shite I did, but I do remember the people, the trapped articulate ones and the quiet grateful ones who could barely describe their dreams. Grown men whose answer to loneliness was putting in more hours, or hard drinking, or analyzing scripture. Lovely and bright young women more competent than the men they reported to, looking for someone healthy and steady enough to make a family with. They were funny -- they had to be, otherwise they’d have to acknowledge how pathetic it all was, running after promotions, jockeying for position, currying favor with the boss, gossiping in the parking lot, their backs to the plant, smoking. They hung together, tighter than the union boys. Those guys didn’t give a damn about anyone but themselves.

I’ve punched the time-card late and sweated through the day, worrying about getting caught. I’ve been the good Nazi who caught someone coming in late and docked them. I’ve been the sucker who came up with a good idea and had my boss take it without giving me credit. I’ve been the boss who stole ideas from my direct reports and never looked back. Work is not democratic, work is not Christian. You can stay awake at work or sleepwalk through it. All that matters is that effin check. The bottom line and what it buys you.

Nowadays there’s not enough work to go around, so people have got to amuse themselves some other way. That’s okay, poot, but how are they gonna afford to live? Who the hell wants to move to Florida? You hear it all the time up here. I can’t afford to heat this effin place. I can’t afford the commute. I’m effin tired. Not me -- I’m working again, still in the process of becoming someone, I guess. Work may not cure everything, but it helps you forget what you're missing. I couldn’t make the journey without it.

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