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Best of 2018: Underemployed and unashamed in America

If work made me poor as predictably as leisure, I might as well work less and be rich in time


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Lisa Wells
December 26, 2018 10:00PM (UTC)
This life story was originally published on Salon on June 22, 2018.

My first real job lasted just one day. I was hired to match articles of clothing to size-specific hangers at the discount home goods retailer Marshalls. For several hours, I worked in silence alongside a couple of older, exhausted seeming women in a concrete room at the back of the store. I had little to measure it against, but even I could tell ours was a bleak situation. I wanted to quit pretty much instantly, but I stuck out the shift.

When the manager found me at the end of the day she looked worried. “You’re only fourteen,” she said. Her tone was accusatory. Apparently she’d just done the math on my application.

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I nodded.

“You have to be fifteen to work here.”

She pushed a couple of twenties into my hand, probably from her own purse, and sent me away, to my enormous relief. I’d only been on the clock for a few hours, but they were sufficient to impart the sweet taste of unemployment, the thrill of confinement and escape.

My next job was a telemarketing gig for a local purveyor of auto glass. They didn’t mind that I was fourteen, so long as I could keep the comprehensively insured on the line. My script, performed about once per minute, went like so: Hello, this is Lisa Wells, calling to see if you have a cracked or chipped windshield you’d like repaired or replaced at little or no cost. I fail to recall the names of some men I once professed to love, but try as I might, I do not forget those lines. Mostly, people hung up on you, but every once in awhile some guy would say, skeptically, “Now hang on a minute, missy. Just what do you mean by ‘little or no cost’” and I’d punt him up to one of the closers. If the guy wound up buying a windshield, a little tick would be added next to my name on the whiteboard, and I’d get to keep my job that week.

My third job — also in the field of telephone harassment — was at a “public opinion research company.” This was during Clinton’s second term, and though the company’s stated aim was to conduct “unbiased” political surveys, every other question suggested that a liberal-designed totalitarian cabal was underway. Questions like, Considering that government should represent all of its citizens equally, do you think we should elect more Republicans for balance? Names and numbers flashed greenly on my computer screen, and I’d make my way down the list for hours, repeating the script, suffering the slings and arrows of furious respondents, while in the central office of the panopticon (I was frequently warned), a hidden manager monitored my calls.

It was around this time that I dropped out of high school, a nugget of biographical trivia that makes me a sort of exotic amongst educated liberals. And while it’s true that I mention it as a kind of boast, the thrust of the boast is not necessarily what you might assume. The cliché would be to locate the event on the parabola of a bootstrap narrative, evidence of hard won characterological reform, of my temerity and work ethic: She came from nothing, worked hard, her achievements mounted, she made it! And I’d endorse this tidy narrative if it weren’t a flagrant lie.

Dropping out of high school was not, in my view, an obstacle to overcome. It was a privilege, and an achievement in and of itself, one of the saner and more courageous things I’ve done. Far saner than showing up day after day to a grim carceral building for no clear reason besides “someone told me to” — and this was in the era before one risked life and limb to do so. Everyone warned me that dropping out would make things hard, but in fact it made things much easier. Pretty much anything is easier than showing up at the ungodly hour of 7:20 in the morning, five days a week, to sit under fluorescent lights for seven hours, learning very little pertaining to one’s actual life or interests. Telemarketing was a similar form of labor, but at least they paid me $7.75 an hour to parrot their script.

I have held many jobs over the years but determined early on that I’d work as little as possible to get by. I’ve been a waitress, bartender, barista, wilderness survival teacher, caretaker of adults with cancer, production assistant on commercials, “legal assistant” (a job for which I was not only unqualified but untrained) and one wet hot American summer: supervisor of camp counselors. I scrubbed toilets, wiped butts, sat with people as they wept, 86ed drunks, made campfires with kids, painstakingly duct-taped license plates to obscure the numbers and chatted with the newly imprisoned. It goes without saying that some jobs were more enjoyable than others, some were more meaningful, some more lucrative (these generally required more painful contortions), some elicited respect and others pity — but all of them incurred my resentment eventually, beginning the moment I realized I was not there, as I might have felt initially, to shoot the shit with co-workers and count up my ones but out of a need to meet a set of nonnegotiable material requirements imperative to my very survival.

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The truth is, I was, and remain, a more or less lazy person. I am more lazy in that I’ve found it almost impossible to summon energy for anything I don’t want to do and less lazy in that it turns out I’m a fairly productive writer — but only because I enjoy the work. The fact that I’m a writer at all is thanks, in no small part, to all my slacking hours. Writing is a job that requires large quantities of idle time and, paradoxically, near constant effort.

To an outside observer, writing looks like a whole lot of nothing, as the activities of the writer — thinking, describing, communicating, etc. — are notoriously difficult to depict for the benefit of an audience (I submit, as evidence, every movie about a writer ever made). In real life, I am rarely found pacing the cage of a decrepit walk-up, chewing a pen with consternation, tearing my hair or lobbing my failed attempts at the wall. I do, on occasion, wad up spent yellow pages torn from a legal pad, but only after they’ve served me (impotent ideas are for crossing out and rarely require the sacrifice of an entire page).

I should say, I’m a full-time writer not because I’ve “made it” in any financial sense and not because I bravely chose to make the leap without the parachute of a secondary income. I’m a full-time writer because I’ve failed to land the only other job I enjoyed and planned for (university professor), and because the person I live with happens to have one of those jobs I couldn’t get and for more than a year has paid my half of our mortgage. This signals nothing more than his means and willingness to share, and yet, I suspect in some social situations his virtue is unfairly conferred on me. By that I mean, I am treated more respectfully now that I am a bona fide freeloader cohabitating with a tenured professor than I was as a single, minimum wage worker — a fact that infuriates the former me, even as I presently exploit it.

To endorse the attractive lie that I have earned, fair and square, whatever success I enjoy, would be to serve as a spokeswoman for a pyramid scheme. I’m no political theorist, but it seems pretty obvious that in hierarchical economic structures such as ours, any rise toward the top necessarily depends on the abjection of those at the bottom. On a more personal note, endorsing the lie would be an insult to my friends, many of whom continue to wait tables, wash dishes or cashier at Safeway. Several of the brightest and most gifted among us couldn’t even hang on to those jobs. They became addicts, or went to jail, or overdosed, or killed themselves. What put them in the ground, and me in command of the classroom of a university I wouldn’t have gained admission to, cannot be boiled down to hard work. Work may have had something to do with it, but no more than luck, or health, or relative psychological stability, or race, or having been born on the west coast of the United States in 1982 and a whole lot of other factors — including the gracious attention of other artists who did not demand monetary remuneration I was in no position to provide (AKA art’s endangered gift economy).

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Being a writer is a dream job, except when you’re hard up. When you’re not writing, the dream quickly becomes a nightmare, the world drains of color and you find yourself complaining to your cohabitant, “All I do is consume. I keep shoving food in my face but nothing of value comes out.” Maybe you make the fatal mistake of looking back at the work you’ve already produced, completed work slated for publication, and discover your gold has unspun in the night into dingy straw, a bunch of blah blah destined to be scattered to the winds of a highly distractible polis. That life is meaningless, that you are (as you’d long suspected) a waste of space — these are givens. And yet, it is often in that low down place that the hand of the muse reaches, to hoist you blazingly out. A few thousand words later and you’re a believer again! The world has purpose, and you’ve earned yourself another day inside it! Writing is a lot like gambling or religion in that way. It yields the same unpredictable reward schema of a Black Jack table or a moody God — opiates of the masses, only slightly less addictive than actual opiates.

So we come at last to the problem of evil: for how can it be that a gift bestowed by God is produced in the Devil’s own workshop?

Growing up, I’d always heard it said, “Idle hands are the Devil’s play thing.” In googling around for the correct phrasing, I came across an essay titled “In Praise of Idleness,” published in Harper’s Magazine exactly 50 years before I was born. Its author, the logician Bertrand Russell, had not only beat me to my snappy title but to many of my own points, and by a span of more than 85 years. (In his day, the phrase was more melodic, “Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.”) Russell observed that “a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work,” and he cleverly divided human labor into two categories, the first; “altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter” and the second: “telling other people to do so.”

These lines recalled to mind a certain rebel blurt, delivered by cinema’s 1989 proto-slacker, Lloyd Dobler, who informs the father of his overachieving girlfriend, I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that. My instant identification with Dobler (as opposed to the female object of his ardor, Diane Court) was a matter having less to do with gender and sexual orientation and more to do with agency. In general, identification with the male lead was a supply chain issue; you could either be passive or active, you could either lean your longing on an elbow, locked in a pretty little cameo, or you could pop the collar on your trench coat and go woo the beloved in your Chevy Malibu. I too desired to be the protagonist of my own movie, to stand in the sun clean-jerking a boombox. In the case of Lloyd Dobler, there was the added resonance of idleness as political stance, for I too loathed the “occupation” of production and consumption, that hamster wheel attempt to outrun death. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life.”

Shortly after dropping out of high school, I ran into a former classmate on the city bus. We began to squabble over something petty, I can’t remember what — maybe I lectured him about the evils of meat eating, maybe his pants were produced via sweatshop labor. In any case, he eventually made his way to the stock insult. I was a “loser” doomed to flip burgers at McDonald's for the rest of my life. He was wrong — at least about the burgers. Instead, I spent the next 15 years making 20 oz, extra-hot, nonfat lattes with six pumps of sugar free vanilla and no foam for an array of pitiful adults on their morning commutes to the jobs they hated. (A drink’s level of complication is, I soon learned, exactly commensurate to the customer’s feeling of powerlessness — an understanding that in no way diminished my antipathy toward them.) As for my former classmate, he graduated from high school and later went on to shoot smack and scam video poker machines for a living.

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Though I wouldn’t describe either of our eventual professions as “legitimate,” neither would I claim they were any less legitimate than, say, trading imaginary currency all day, or surgically inserting mounds of solid silicone into celebrity buttocks, or communicating the brand of a concept ice cream shop to greater Brooklyn. I mean, beyond the basic professions one learns about in picture books — butcher, baker, candlestick maker what does any of it really matter? Having a job freed me somewhat from my mother’s poverty, but I never viewed it as anything more than a pragmatic necessity. Work is not virtuous in and of itself. In fact, we have the relentless industry of the upstanding to thank, in part, for bringing our planet and all its inhabitants to the brink of destruction. And what few forms of virtuous work remain tend not to be profitable. These are no-brainers, and yet, nearly a century after Russell’s critique, many of us continue to conflate accumulated wealth with goodness.

In the house I grew up in, payday was a holy event, a twice-monthly countdown to the resurrection promising a period of feast, followed by a week or more of rolling the couch cushions in search of loose change, but fortunately for me, neither state was confused with one’s personal worth (at least not within the bubble of home; the playground was another story). Rather, flush and broke were a single condition, weight and counter-weight. That was the trick of our locomotion, like one of those old railroad pump-cars. And while it occurred to me that other people could experience stability by other means, I’d never imagined it for myself. You’d think those early experiences would later inspire caution, foresight, methodical saving — but they seemed to have the opposite effect on me. Because my single mother was always working, and always at the end of her cash, I failed to make the key connection between work and earning. If work made you poor as predictably as leisure, I reasoned, you might as well work as little as possible and make yourself rich in time.

To wit, for eight glorious months in the early aughts, I collected $150 a week in unemployment. I was 21 years old, had no dependents, and for the fortuitous sum of $150 a month, I rented a sort of glass-closet in a communal house (I guess it was an atrium?) with room enough for a bed. I rigged a wooden dowel to two loops of jute and hung it from the ceiling, and that’s where I kept my clothes. I had no car, no phone, no oil to heat the house, but I had books, and cigarettes, and friends, and I was filthy rich with time.

I doubt if I could handle living that way anymore, but I’m very glad I did, and not because it “built character” or “tested my mettle” or any of the other poverty platitudes. I suspect this is true of most Americans, but I’ll speak for my former demographic: poor and working class kids are not typically encouraged to cultivate a life of the mind, and this is especially true of girls. And so, if the world would not indulge my idle musing, I’d indulge myself. I’d give myself the gift of leisure, even if the world said I couldn’t afford it. I was telling myself that my time was valuable, that the life of my mind mattered, whether or not the external world chose to endorse that affirmation, let alone reward it. So long as I was willing to bear the attendant discomforts, my time was mine to utilize or waste as I pleased.


Lisa Wells

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