My dad sat at a workbench in a concrete basement room for thirty-five years. He provided for family—a house, Catholic school for four kids, enough food, a family vacation for two weeks every year. It was saintly work, laboring under that fluorescent lamp, fixing cash registers.
It’s work I can’t do. I’m not a regular job kind of guy or wasn’t anyway. The idea of staring down the barrel of thirty years of the same routines, people, place drove me out of my mind. No matter what kind of work I did, I generally was a strong starter. My employers admired my work ethic and no-nonsense way of using my skill. A consummate professional, I labored long hours, was courteous to my fellow employees, and good with customers.
The problem is that after six months or so, I figured the job out and the challenge disappeared. Once that was gone, I was miserable.
For instance, one time I found myself sitting at a desk at a local publisher, editing books. At first, the job pushed the edges of my skill and ability, as a writer and thinker. I learned the tedious and often political intricacies of dealing with agents, my fellow editors, and agents. It was an exciting time.
Then, my boss quit. He headed an imprint of the large publisher we worked for. We put together books with words and chapters. I wasn’t excited about the material, mostly motivational and how-to books on golf and business. But there was enough thinking involved to keep me at it. When my boss quit, the publisher dissolved the imprint and put me with the larger book group. We produced those little, greeting-card-like books you find at the register in bookstores.
There was only so many fables of love, animal stories, and cutesy, cuddly stuff I could put up with. I had previously worked at a newspaper. It was a challenge every day. Investigative work. The editor pushed me to excellence in journalism. The ways in which I had to work around government and corporate bureaucracies and public relations people thrilled me. Sure, we had to produce fluff on occasion, but there was so little of it that I didn’t mind.
But now at the publisher, I was forced to sales meetings to pump books I had no interest in. I didn’t feel a dedication to the work or the authors, though I supported and promoted my books with a great deal of enthusiasm. After all, I had taken on the work and I don’t do anything halfway.
Did the job have worth? It certainly did for the person who believed those gift books made people’s lives easier. I never felt that. I always had the feeling I was serving up more pop-culture pablum that made people’s lives worse. The stuff on my desk didn’t advance the culture. It didn’t make people think or transport them in transcendental ways toward new understanding and person insight. It was garbage and I was the garbage man.
That’s not to disparage sanitation engineers. As a matter of fact, I see that job as something physical, corporeal, that, after a long day, a person could derive some satisfaction from. After all, you help people keep their houses and yards clean. You clean a city, put things in order. And it’s an important job. All we have to do is think of a world where men and women did not pick up the trash we generate in our homes to understand just how vital that service is.
I quit the publisher after three years. It was a job where I could imagine a long career. Everything was set for me to sit at that desk for thirty years, retire with a fat 401k, and enough money every month to pay a mortgage, buy food, recreate, and set a little aside. I was in hell.
I began to understand just what my father was complaining about all those years he fixed cash registers. Not a happy man, he did what was he thought he needed to do. He wasn’t willing to put the family at risk and move to another job. In fact, the idea of moving or being fired frightened him so much that when the company began to move to computer cash registers, he felt threatened.
But he kept at it. He stayed there and learned computer circuitry. He was able, after a while, to work on the most complex electronic devices. He understood, without the benefit of a college education, just how computers worked. He never learned the software side of the business. He was more adept at hardware. And there he stayed.
As I said, we wanted for nothing. We had to cut corners and scrimp. We didn’t have new clothes to wear to school every year. We wore hand me downs. I never had a new bicycle. Toys and bikes and clothes were hand me downs. But we never starved. We always had a family vacation.
I felt a sense of failure at the publisher. I had given up newspaper work, it seems, at the right time. The internet made all kinds of inroads that put paper publishers on the ropes. Book publishing, however, kept going. Even in an age where most bookstores have gone the way of the Studebaker, U.S. publishers produce more books than ever.
My book editing job would have been a great one had I been able to stay at it. I liked the idea of editing books, but I hated the material I had to deal with. I disliked my fellow editors gushing over chickens riding motorcycles and ants telling stories of love. Books with a total of 400 words drove me to distraction.
As much as I wanted to so the saintly work my dad did, I couldn’t and had to move on. Fortunately, things worked out for me. I went back to school, earned a Ph.D., and started what has become a long career in teaching.
But part-time teaching, selling my own books, and doing workshops doesn’t earn the money we need as we see a kid entering college in a year. It doesn’t get new carpet in the house, new vanities for the bathroom, new countertops in the kitchen, new flooring for the kitchen and baths. We won’t be able to build the room in the basement or get the inside of the house painted professionally unless I find something that earns me something greater than the income I can cobble together from the bits of work I do now.
Only now, I find myself 56 going on 57. Age and a Ph.D. are significant obstacles to overcome in the job market. Despite glowing reports of an economy that will take any worker people can throw at it, most of the jobs out there earn less going full time than I make now. People don’t take teaching experience—the management of 140 students, the construction and delivery of course material, the administrative work it takes to teach classes—very seriously.
I have been literally looking for a job for years. I apply to three to five positions a week. Nothing. Age and education, while companies laud such attributes, don’t make the cut in the job market. The employers who will accept me offer Glengarry Glen Ross sales jobs, mostly in life insurance.
In the end, I will take any job that I just don’t hate. In a position like that, I can be like my father, except I won’t complain. I will recognize my labor as the saintly work it is. No manager or company owner will find a more loyal partisan than me. They may look the world over but they won’t be able to discover anyone who can do the job better than me. My only caveat to this job is that it has to pay enough. But I can imagine now working for the next ten or twelve years at the same desk. A job for me now would be purely practical—house renovations, college tuition, retirement funds.
But I’m not finding them. I thinking, as a matter of fact, going into business for myself, doing what I’m good at and something I can see myself doing well into old age. I don’t know, at the moment, how many proofreaders, book doctors, manuscript development experts the world needs. But I have a feeling I’m about to find out.