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Story embryo: The Homeless Youth of the Silver Line

You can see a million miles tonight, but you can’t get very far. -Counting Crows

**

This is a story about a morning where I sacrificed nothing.

“Thank you so much for coming with me, honey.” Even at five in the morning, she’s bushy-tailed, light-hearted. She’s a morning person, my sweet buoyant Ashley.

“It’s nothing, honey. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Then I smiled and said, “You know, unless I had only got three hours of sleep last night.”

She stuffed clothes quickly into her bag. “That’s not funny. I was very disappointed that morning.”

“I know, honey.” I rubbed my dry eyes again, hoping to moisten the sandy sleep away.

“It’s amazing how many more clothes you can fit in a bag when you fold them,” she stated. I laughed, but only in the back of my mind so she wouldn’t hear. She said, still folded over her red rolling backpack, “You’d better start getting ready. Are you going to take a shower?”

I rubbed at my eyes again before answering, “No.” I looked at her then and said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too. Now come on!”

I pulled some jeans out of my dirty clothes pile and put them on. I put on the first green shirt I pulled out of my dresser, but it had some crusty white filth around the waist so I took it off even though it smelled clean and through it in the dirty clothes bin. The next green shirt was just fine.

She asked, “Will you bring the suitcase downstairs and call the dog up for me?” I nodded, and she leashed Kalli and left.

I stumbled around the house for the next minute trying to get everything in order: I pulled my passport and keys out of my work khakis in the dirty clothes bin and then went out to the living room to grab my wallet and iPod. I shoved everything roughly into their corresponding pockets and then went to the kitchen to grab a glass of water. The difference between the living room and kitchen in this 420 sq. ft. apartment is floor type: most of the apartment is hardwood–the norm in Boston–but the kitchen is cheap, thin linoleum. But no wall separates the room, and I scan the coffee table and small dining table in the living room from the kitchen counter where I’m drinking the water to make sure I haven’t left anything behind.

The door buzzes and I press the buttons that open the front door for Ashley. I walk out into the staircase and whistle down the four flights so that Kalli can hear me and will come up. I hear Ashley shooing her and shake my head: she should know by now that Kalli won’t come upstairs unless whoever walked her leaves. Kalli likes to be chased.

As Kalli starts to come up, Finny boldly sticks his nose over the threshold of our apartment’s door. The tiger cat is generally scared of me, especially when the front door is open, but last night and today he’s been especially bold about his intention to escape. When Kalli rounds the third floor landing, Finny bolts for the staircase up to the roof. He usually bolts downstairs, so I’m a little tickled by the change.

I reach for him, but he skitters further up and away from me. I mutter, “Come on, man, really?” and pursue him. When I reach for him, his claws dig into the thin rough carpet, so I scoop him forward a little bit to loosen him. I can feel his little heart through his ribs beating frantically, and he starts to turn this way and that, desperate to escape. The reaction is also strange for him, usually so calm even when he’s in trouble and scared, but I just shrug it off and set him down gently in our front hall, where he looks up at me as if he’s confused, perhaps having expected something worse.

“It’s okay, Finny,” I say before moving to the closet to grab my coat, which I unhook from its hangar and put on. The hangar is the one that came with the coat and itself stands out from the rest of the apartment: I bought it when I was working at Fidelity, when I was living high on the hog, and the polished wood and gold-plated wiring represents a financial status not otherwise shown in our impoverished home: a bed without a frame, books still in boxes because we can afford bookshelves, even our furniture which is not even from Ikea but rather from the Goodwill or found for free through Craigslist. The home is almost entirely patchworked, ghetto-rigged; the hangar is singular, hiding in the closet only to hold my coat.

Which itself is as singular. I feel awkward telling people about my financial situation when I’m wearing it, a black wool Calvin Klien three-quarters length coat with silk and cashmere lining. I bought it at Macy’s on a whim because I had the extra money and a maternal coworker had urged me. Now the lining in ripped at both places where the coat rests against my pants pockets and one place in the back, perhaps where I sat on it awkwardly once. I can’t dream of getting it relined anytime soon; I haven’t even looked into the cost.

“Aw, thanks, honey!” Ashley cooes when she sees me round the last landing with her suitcase. I walk down the last flight of stairs and answer, “No problem. How cold is it outside?”

“Not so bad,” she says.

“Should I put on my scarf and hat?”

“No, it’s not so bad,” she says again.

But when we walk outside it feels like it’s less than ten degrees, cold for December even in Boston, and I don’t get a block before I put on my silk scarf and hat, accessory purchases to the coat. We chitchat idly on our way to the Charles/MGH T station. Even when the train comes and we board, sitting next to each other, the talk is much the same: two weeks until we see each other again, and it’s too bad about her grandmother, and remember that time we walked all the way to Government Center instead of just getting on at MGH, and I’ll be fine and don’t worry about me. Ashley is a caregiver; she likes to dote.

When we get to South Station I point out the entry to the Silver Line buses and follow her towards them. The top of the stairs is slightly clouded, and when we get there the smell of burnt rubber offends us. The air is thick with white smoke. She coughs and I hold my scarf to my nose, but nothing avails us. As we move off to the left towards the SL1-Logan part of the station, the cloud dissipates quickly, and when we turn around we can see it in its entirety: a fifteen-foot obstructed sphere of nastiness. I shake my head to clear away the smell, and we cluster around her suitcase, hugging and kissing our goodbyes.

“Excuse me,” a young male voice calls out loudly enough that we know he’s talking to everyone on the platform. I turn my head to see a hooded youth in a thin red vest with a long sleeve shirt and pants. His red eyes and the gray hollows around them show that he’s tired, exhausted. “I was wondering if I could get a dollar from any of you so I could get a coat from the Goodwill. See, they handed out coats last night, but they ran out and I was one of a few that couldn’t get one. But they’re selling them, and I just need fifteen dollars, and I just need a coat. It’s so cold out there I can’t stand it; I can’t even leave the station.”

He had whiskers around his face, probably five days of growth. And he did look tired and cold. Ashley said that she didn’t have any cash on her, but I had two dollars that she had given me the day before in my wallet.

“I’m not going to get drugs,” he said. Nobody had responded, though a handful of the thirty or so people around watched him idly. “It’s just so cold, I just want a coat. And I’m so tired, I haven’t slept in days–”

I thought of Rich and how he couldn’t sleep when he had been homeless

“–and it’s just so cold. Just fifteen dollars and I can get a coat,” he mumbled. His voice began to crack, and his eyes turned even more red, and tears beaded inside them. He didn’t cry, though, and he regained his composure.

“Do you want to?” I asked Ashley.

“I don’t have any money,” she said. I pulled out the two dollars and gave them to her, and she gave them to him, and he thanked us briefly and quietly and moved along the crowd to see if there were any others who might give. We heard him mumble as he shuffled his feet, “It’s just so hard, and I’m so cold, and I need some help. It’s shit like this that makes me border-line suicidal,” at which point I saw fear flash through Ashley’s eyes, but I just held her close and pressed my cheek against her forehead. “I’m getting Section 8 housing on the twenty-eighth,” he continued, “but I can’t wait that long. I can’t wait that long. And it’s so cold.”

“It’s a good thing he’s getting Section 8,” Ashley said.

“But the twenty-eighth is so far away,” I answered.

“You’re not thinking of inviting him back to our place, are you?” she asked. We had done it before, once, with Rich, but I said “No, that’s just when Kiran’s coming in.”

About three minutes later the SL1 showed up and nobody had given him any more money. He grumbled about people with so much that couldn’t even give him a dollar to help him get a coat. “I can’t ask one person for fifteen dollars,” he said, “but I can ask fifteen for one. But I’m not even getting that,” he said, and he looked at me as I boarded the bus. “It’s one out of sixty, and always someone like you that gives me more than what I’m asking for. Thank you,” he said, and I nodded, boarded the bus, and left him there. He didn’t try to hussle me or get anything else from me, and I didn’t see where he went off to.

A young woman in a white half-coat, maybe in her early thirties, ran onto the bus after me. “Oh, was he begging for money?” she asked. I said yeah. “He should get a job. Everywhere is hiring.” I said yeah again and sat down with Ashley. The woman sat down across the aisle.

I told Ashley, “I almost gave my hat to a woman at Harvard yesterday.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Some homeless woman who was selling Spare Change. She looked so sad and cold. I wanted to give her my hat, but I couldn’t’ve replaced it.”

Ashley said, “I should’ve told him that I bought my coat at the Goodwill for fourteen dollars. That might’ve made him feel better.”

“Yes, it might have. You know, he’s the sort of character I should be searching out. He would’ve made a good article.”

“Yeah!” Ashley exclaimed, suddenly animated. “You could do like a collage of portraits of homeless people, like a years worth of people, where they go and what they do and why they’re there. That would be so interesting.”

“A similar article in The New Yorker back in the fifties helped launch them to national prominence,” I mentioned. “I can’t remember the name of the journalist, but he wrote about a homeless man named Joe Gould. And there was another at the turn of the century, I can’t remember that journalist’s name, either, who dressed himself up in rags and wrote about New York’s homeless population and how they get by.”

“Oh, so it’s not really new?” she asked, disappointed.

“Well, not sparkling new, but that doesn’t mean I can’t bring something to the table those authors didn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“In each of those cases, homelessness was treated as something novel; it was exoticized, like it’s a foreign state that nobody knows anything about. But that’s not really the case today, people just treat it so flippantly, with stereotypes, you know? I could address that.”

“Yeah, people just don’t think that without a family to catch them in hard times they could be there. I mean, just think if we didn’t have our parents, or at least if we didn’t have yours.”

“Yours wouldn’t let you slip into homelessness, either. They may not pay to keep you in Boston, but they wouldn’t let you fall so far,” I said.

“But not everyone has that safety net,” she said.

“No, not everyone. Not most,” I answered.

“It’s good he got Section 8 housing,” she reiterated. “And then you could use the proceeds from the writing to go to like Wal-mart or something and buy coats in bulk, because the big charities can take care of food banks and stuff but obviously at least someone needs some help to get a coat.”

“That probably not the best way to go about it, but I like the idea,” I said. Then we quieted down since the bus had reached the airport, and we listened to the speaker list off the airlines at Terminal A and then Terminal B stop 1, where we got off. I walked her into the airport.

“Did you hear what that woman said to me, when she got on the bus?” I asked.

“No, what did she say?”

“That if he was homeless he should just get a job. ‘Everyone is hiring,'” I mocked.

“Yeah, that’s why you’re struggling to get a job,” Ashley scoffed. “God, that’s something my sister would’ve said.” She shook her head as we boarded the up escalator to the US Airways ticket counters.

“I would’ve given him the coat off my back if I could’ve afforded to replace it,” I said.

“I know, honey. I could see it in the way you watched him.” She put her hand on my shoulder.

“And that’s the extent of my generosity: I’ll give as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me. God, what a dick I am.”

“No, honey,” she cooed. “We just don’t have anything to give.”

So here I was at the airport with my girlfriend early in the morning to say goodbye, having given two dollars so that a young out-of-luck man who happened to cross my path could buy a coat, critical of myself. The story needs work, like what problems my parents had bailed me out of and how recently and the job change I was going through at the time, from an overnight concierge position to a cashier position at The Coop, where I’d work later that day for the third 9-hour shift in a row my third day on the job. But still, it’s a start.

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Criticism, Humanistic, Writing

A Relationship in Presents, Part Six: The debt

No format yet because my ‘net connection is really crappy. I still wanted to get the post up, though.

Mixed reviews about the megabus. Cheap tickets, leg room are good. Crappy customer service, poor website design, and nonfunctioning internet connection are bad. More to come.

Email me if you’re in NYC and want to meet up for coffee/drinks this weekend or if you want to attend Sadi’s book launch! 🙂

**

We enter the restaurant. A hostess grabs our attention, leads us to a nearby booth. Dark wood surrounds us. Small chandeliers light the open rooms well enough.

She tries to look into my eyes as I slide into the same bench as her, but she can’t look deeply enough. I rest my feet on the empty bench across the table. My head rolls towards her, and she looks away. The fingers of both her hands click idly against the table.

I’ve looked forward to my birthday dinner for a few weeks. Charley’s is one of my favorite haunts. Their coke tastes so good that mixing in rum almost damages it, so I don’t. After an awkward moment, the waitress brings by a full uncut dome of bread. My left lip lifts in a smile as she sets the basket on the table.

I had brought Sarah here for the first time years ago. She had noticed confusion coloring my face and asked me what was wrong. “How are we supposed to eat it?” I had asked. She picked up the whole dome and wrenched off a bite with her teeth in answer.

Now I pick it up and tear it into quarters, careful not to smoosh it. I set a piece on her plate and one on mine. Sarah picks at the insides, leaving behind hollow crusts. I butter and eat it all.

I pinch her thigh through her sweatpants, and we laugh. She says, “You owe me over seven hundred dollars.” My hand drops to my side and my smile fades. I wonder if the amount will be more after tonight since I’m supposed to be the one who pays when we go out. I mutter an affirmation and wonder how I’m going to manage paying her back.

The waitress comes by, and I order our usual meals, mine a au poivre hamburger and her the angel hair primavera.  I had ordered the au poivre so long ago just to find out what twenty-five cents worth of browned onions tasted like, and I haven’t faltered since.

I say, “I’ll get a job soon, after school settles down. Just give me a few months.” But I haven’t worked, or even looked for work, since February. I put myself back past broke, back into maxed-out credit card debt, to participate in this relationship, but I can only handle so many Boston nights, so many trips to Seattle and Vegas and now, apparently, to Texas and DC soon, soon.

She sighs. Her hand falls on mine, resting on the bench between us. She says that’s fine. The money she wants me to pay back isn’t even hers, is her father’s, who has two planes and nine cars and bought a new house so that he could rip down and rebuild his old one. It’s hard for me to imagine that he wants those few hundred dollars back, but maybe he does. Maybe it’s Sarah’s way of coaxing me off of the computer and back into the real world. Maybe she just doesn’t like the idea of me living off of her father like she does.

“I didn’t get you a present this year,” she says. Her tone is flat, perhaps unconcerned with my reaction, perhaps hyperconcerned. Even after four years of dating, seven years of friendship, it’s hard for me to tell.

I reply that it’s fine. There’s the vacations we’re taking together, Steve’s upcoming wedding, and so on. Something fundamental has changed, but I don’t think about it. Even while we’re sitting here eating, my mind is on things other than Sarah; what job I’m going to try and find, my new responsibilities as a guild officer in my video game, whether or not I’ll sleep on the couch tonight. I haven’t slept in Sarah’s bed in months.

I try Charley’s apple pie with cheese because I saw it in Thank You for Smoking and have wondered how it tasted ever since. Sarah and I walk home hand in hand. When we get there, she turns on the TV and grumbles about her how laptop’s power cord is broken. I settle under my laptop for the night and don my headset.

Around two in the morning, she asks me whether I’m going to come down tonight. I take off my headset and ask her to repeat herself. Then I say soon, which we both know means no. She goes downstairs to sleep. Around two in the afternoon, when she usually wakes up on her off days, my eyes close. I just manage to put my laptop on the ground before I’m asleep, swallowed up in couch cushions.

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Presents, Writing

1:34 AM Ramblings

I’m an editor—I’ve freelanced for years—but I’ve often supplemented my freelance income with another gig. Why? Because freelancing works like real estate: huge surges of business connected by deep lulls. The surges often match my attempts to market myself, but hey, guess what: a full-time grad student, part-time worker, part-time editor doesn’t have much time or inclination to market himself. Time and money are both limited. When school starts up again this fall, I won’t have all the time on my hands that I had to start this blog, and what then will I do to find freelance work, then when I need it most but also lack the time to market myself?

Supplementary jobs have entered my mental horizon. I really don’t mind Starbucks as a job, except for the people who take it very seriously and always manage, against what seems my good judgment, to get in positions of power. Starbucks is the job I would prefer over many others if I have to work a structured job at all. The obvious: low hassle, low responsibility, the people (customers and coworkers) are friendly and don’t expect much; you get tips, and you get paid above minimum wage. But there’s always waiting tables, which shares any of these qualities except the low hassle, which you trade for a gigantic upgrade in pay. ($11/hr after tips to, I dunno, $16/hr if you’re at a place even nearly worth its tables). So why do I prefer Starbucks?

People. I enjoy people, despite whatever contrary opinions these blog posts may have given you. Or, more than people, I enjoy conversation; rich, deep conversation that doesn’t have a purpose, point, or motivation. During my tens and my lunches I go sit out in the lobby instead of in the back, and on more than one occasion my shift has had to come find me because I got so sidetracked that I forgot my break was over. Sometimes the store is dead (hence, the break) and it doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten in the grand scheme of things; sometimes the person is one of those who is very serious about their work and feels that a speech is necessary to make me toe the line [y’know, that’s one of the weirdest phrases, a stereophone cliche where both images work]. Well, it’s a free country, and speech is a free as it comes, but there’s a point where investment is almost guaranteed not to match return; sometimes business maxims apply to social settings.

More than that, I enjoy having a home outside of home where I can get free coffee, free food, and time for homework without distraction, am in fact encouraged to do this work because I already work there and because the other people around make me feel connected to the human network in a way that I normally don’t. Further, I do continue to shop with Starbucks even while I don’t work there (a fact escalated by fewer and fewer nearby cafes that aren’t Starbuckses), which means I know which products I like and that I can enjoy them in peace. When school starts back up, Starbucks would condone my writing/blogging, which will conduce with my courses in a way editing never would. There’s not enough time in the world for us to pursue all of the things we find interest in, and in the interest of calibrating my life to maximum pleasure and retaining of information, Starbucks is the better choice.

Not that I’m going back to Starbucks—Ashley has specifically asked me not to—but these are the thoughts that go through my head when I consider my need for supplemental income. Therefore, don’t take this post personally; I’m not sharing it with you so that you’ll pity my situation. Consider it art, in your own way.

On those notes (of income and art), today, August 7, is my birthday. Reading this blog, you’ve learned plenty about me, my work, and my literary vision and aspirations. Now act on that compulsion you feel to click the button and buy me a cup of coffee or even a beer! ☺

**

I’m exhausted. I’m tired, I’m broke, I’m sad. I’m in love, I’m loved.

I’m happy.

I’ve run out of cash and I don’t know how to fix it. Get a job; I don’t want to settle for a job.

We talk about finances, Ashley and I. My face droops. She can’t stand it; puts her hand against my cheek and asks me to go in the other room. She’s not serious. She can’t stand the idea of me being sad, can’t bear to look on my face, its non-frown.

I gave my father a hard time once, when he got laid off and cried in front of his church fellows. I didn’t give him a hard time for crying; rather for praying.

My relationship with Ashley is the greatest proof of providence I’ve ever seen. Our lives fell together seamlessly without complaint; though money is tight, it’s never not enough.

This month it might not be enough.

I took her to New York for a weekend at the beginning of June. She hates that I regret the decision. It inspired her, made her decide that New York was her future independent of our future, of my future. I know now that New York is my future, too. That trip solidified the suspicions, or Sade had, and I took the trip to make sure.

The church leader asked me if he could lay hands on me. My father had taken me on the men’s retreat; I had seen him cry in earnest. My father looked away when the pastor put his hand on my shoulder, asking again. I didn’t want to be rude, and I had hope.

We go on dates. Our financial irresponsibility lies in going on dates. About once every other week, we drop about twenty dollars on not making a meal at home or maybe a bottle of wine to make my cooking seem more legitimate. My peers are broke, too, working those college jobs at pizza shops and bookstores. Why don’t I just get one of those?

I want a job at a call center. I’ve never worked at one before, but I have friends that do. They complain about all their free time. That’s what I need; a job that will pay me to write, to blog, to edit. I need supplement.

I’ve worked at Starbucks four times now, three months a piece four different times. Once as a teenager in Frisco’s Super Target where we couldn’t accept tips and yet we did, hiding the makeshift cup behind the counter when the store manager came by. Twice after college, once in Plano before the disagreement with my parents and then again when I lived at Steve’s. Once again in Boston, when I had decided to move out of Sarah’s place. Starbucks isn’t the bottom of the rung, that’s for sure. But my pride won’t let me crawl back, not for a fifth turn.

The hands felt alien through my clothing, like cotton was touching me, my shirt pressing against me, clinging against me. They prayed. They asked me what I wanted from God. I said to know; I wanted to know, to have the gift of faith. They prayed.

Fidelity paid me once to sit around. I was with Sarah, sad and lonely and bored. They paid me over thirty dollars an hour to just sit there with a smile on my face, maybe five hours of work a week. I couldn’t do it then; I complained, loudly. What weak part of me wants to do it now?

I’ve branched out through Twitter, found viewers, fans, colleagues. Some of them might have work I could take, could get. Maybe if I marketed myself as an editor with all my experience, I could cash in on the network. But I’d rather have readers; I’d rather get started as a writer, as my own writer, a writer of my own work and nobody else’s. I have no interest in journalism or in ghostwriting. I have no interest in selling what is most intensely and personally mine.

I have the time now, during the summer, for a fulltime position. I started the blog instead. I’m busy all day now, checking, marketing, writing; I’m consumed. I’m not really employed, not gainfully employed. I can’t, this month, contribute equally to the household.

My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash plays, Louis Armstrong & Billie Holiday. Ashley laughs from the sink while I work, I edit, I check. I’ll have to work all weekend to meet this already missed deadline. Ashley laughs, and so do I. I’m so in love; she smiles away the doldrums. Still, I’m sad; a worthless feeling permeates, settles inside my skin. I can feel it in the back of my shoulders; I can feel it weighing down my torso, bending my spine.

We can’t make rent if I don’t contribute. Ashley has been behind before, and I’ve covered her. She’s covered me as well. That’s what living together is, a give and take here and there. But she can’t cover me this month.

I cried. Their prayers turned into chants, into spells that swarmed my head. For days I would talk about the miracle, the surety and gift of faith. It would fade, and Mani would hate me for it. No, not hate; he’d mourn my religion, resent the loss of passion in a friend so dependably constant. I’d cry again as despair settled back into place, back into the home it had never left.

I want to give her everything she wants. I want to love her like she should be loved. I want to contribute, to avoid leeching off something so young, so tender, so savory sweet. I love her, but I can’t provide, not now.

Though I have the time now, I can’t really get a job. In two months, I’ll be out of time, a full-time student. I tell myself to suck it up and get that damn dayjob, but I won’t, I haven’t yet. The consideration is starting to filter through my pride, but it hasn’t won yet. I love her, I want to, I’m stubborn.

I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m lazy and exhausted. I’m demoralized. I’m the most hopeful I’ve ever been.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Writing

Manager, a character sketch

I read this piece at Emerson’s Graduate Reading Series in Spring 2009, and the audience received it well. Enjoy!

**

Give anger a body, a well-crafted superbly sculpted male, screaming and tense. … In the moments where the veneer of pursuit wears thin, when the film and crust of years of wasted life begin to dry and crack from overuse and abuse, humans revolt, find their lack of faith and their faith’s lack of substance disgusting. Too scared to recognize their dilemma, too overwhelmed to reasonably place blame, they rage. … They will define themselves in terms of their distraction in order to again pull their mind away from their pain. When I craft them, they light themselves afire and scream to heaven, “See? I have virtue, too! I give off my own light, and it is beautiful!” The pain distracts them from the fact that their light is fueled by their skin, the energy is borrowed from a system that is not their creation nor was ever under their control.

**

Underappreciated. Unappreciated. I had so much energy at the start of this job, this step forward in my life, this salaried position, this point in the American dream. I had so much hate when I was younger, half my lifetime ago; is that the key to it all? Lazily, I watch the walls, my chin resting in the crook of my left arm. Or I watch the internet, same position, trolling websites. People online are so cruel; it makes me laugh. I can’t match their cruelty. I rarely even have the energy to respond. That’s why I’m a troll: I watch and crawl and envy. If I ever do decide to try and join in, the ridicule is so brash that I can’t possibly continue to care or to follow through.

Work isn’t much different. I used to care, young and hopeful and dreamily wet-eyed. My parents were so proud, and so was I. The gap between graduation and employment had seemed like torture, so gratuitously long. I had dreams of walking up to the suits, those people in charge, and convincing them with merely my passion that I was the one for the job. Interviews, though, are so much more difficult than dreams. I went through plenty of them before an offer was made, and when one was, I jumped at it. I was ravenous for work; the desire to prove myself had so much weight, more even than the desire to separate myself from my parent’s pocketbook. What happened to it? I can’t even be bothered to recall; that was years ago, so very long ago.

Exercise used to help. After a long day of mind-numbing work, for no position I have ever filled has required much thought, I’d rush off to the gym. The weights I lifted felt so much more like an accomplishment than almost finishing my inbox, only to watch the work pile up again right in my face. No matter how fast I typed, how efficiently I stampeded through and pushed forward, the mail just kept flying in. Weights were different. One hundred and fifty pounds; one eighty; two hundred: Look at the increase! Look at the progress!

The energy it generated was only mechanical in nature, and the more I exercised the more I wanted to exercise until eventually I couldn’t give it anymore time. I was running, weightlifting, sweating. My body worked until I didn’t really control it anymore, not scheduling my workout around work but working around my workout. But God I looked beautiful! The women I picked up at the gym or out at the bar with friends were nearly as beautiful as me, almost identical in mindset. I wish it could have lasted.

Inexplicably, I lost interest. A void appeared in my schedule, which for all of my late-twenties had been so tight, and it’s not like I was bored for an hour and then had something else to do; I had nothing to do. That’s when my internet trolling began, but my decline in interest at work was already well established. My youthful zeal had spurred me to produce high-quality content on-time and ahead of schedule, but I hadn’t learned how to balance a salaried position and the demands of life: finding a place to live, buying and cleaning clothes, my exercise and social routine, etc. My production came in bursts, mostly when life was calm, and life has a tendency to work in waves, calm only between trough and crest. Slave drivers, my bosses wanted to get out of me all the time what I gave them at my most prolific. I suppose that’s where the burnout began. I fought, trying to reason with them, imploring their sympathy as my apartment lease ran out, as my friends got married or divorced, as life presented many and various obstacles. I shouldn’t have expected their pity, and I certainly didn’t get it.

The hours at work became longer as I tried to make my productivity consistent, stretching like a rubberband where the tension is never released. The exercise compensated for the unfulfilled desire of punching my bosses in the face. Eventually I began to hope that they would fire me, end my necessity to try to please them. I could slouch, then, and complain about the injustice of my termination. Everyone would listen, I fantasized. Everyone would buy it. Instead, I received a promotion. Now I had underlings to produce for me, and it was my responsibility as manager to make them produce. The employees looked so much like I had at first: hopeful and ambitious. I would have quit if I had known at the time that their career paths would have been exactly like mine, if I had known it was my face they would picture punching during their workouts.  I did not quit, however; I watched the drones crawl towards their futures.

Sometimes I see myself in my employees, or maybe I recognize the way they understand me. I know their feelings; I can see them through the salty whites of their eyes. I anticipate the pitiful shaking of my fearful employees, the way their irises contract under pressure. Their legs tremble under their pleated slacks, and they worry too much about whether I can see their shaking, too much over their individual humiliation, to truly listen. The young seem to harbor a perpetual and almost preternatural inability to focus. But that’s alright; my reprimands ceased to help them be better employees shortly after I gained the authority to give them. Tears well in their eyes, washing away the old, bitter salt which deposits anew when they dry. My underlings guarantee their lack of salience with a pool of saline. But no, they’ll not cry, not in front of me; Employees never transgress professionalism openly.

And here I am. I can’t distract myself from my employees’ fates without the truth of my own progression breaking my concentration and ruining the numb experience of it all. At home, I can’t pick a show to watch, and when I do settle I pay it little attention or far too much. I’ve stopped sleeping well. I get little to nothing out of it, the six to eight hours dwindling away regardless of their productivity. My dreams haunt me.

In one, I am a teenager again, screaming at my parents, blaming them for my future. I reach out to beat my father who assures me that I cannot know what the future holds, yelling savagely back at him exactly what my life is like, tears streaming down my face. My fists won’t hit him; my screams reach deaf ears. I punch and punch and punch, and he laughs at me and my claims of clairvoyance. My mother looks at me sympathetically, but she assures me that if that’s what life has in store for me, I should be glad for it. I could strangle her, but my hands won’t touch her. I grab and grab, but they always miss. I wake up sweating and furious, but the effects are always gone by the end of my morning shower.

Another has me as some gargantuan glutton. I feast on my underlings, their succulent fingers first. I throw the rest to a disposal, which grinds the leftovers and does away with them. I wake with my stomach in knots, and I often wretch. If anything does come up, I’m glad to see bile only.

These nightmares torment me much more thoroughly than my hopeful dreams of employment filled my youth. I rarely go a night without soaking the bed in my sweat. I rarely wake without disgusted chills so severe I nearly lose my feet in the morning on the way to the shower.

Mostly, I hate them. My waking hours are filled with dreams where my nightmares are books. They line the wall behind my desk, elegant proof of my technical proficiency and industrial wherewithal. I unconsciously imagine myself ripping them to shreds. I burn them. If only they’d be destroyed so easily! I hate them. I can’t be rid of them!

What is it I’ve done differently than everyone else that makes me deserve these things? I’m just a man, and I’ve done all the things that are expected of me! But no, I’m not just a man: I’m me, and I’ve lived my life and done my actions, but I’m just a manager among managers. I’ve never heard other people complain of such horrible visions! Why must they plague me? Why? Why me?

I’ve never complained of them. What would people say if I confided? See a shrink, who has a mind for such things. But my war isn’t with myself, but with my dreams! If they’d just leave, I’d have nothing to be angry about!

Ugh, but I can’t stand it anymore! I can’t empty my mind! I can’t live my life! What is this that I can’t avoid? Why can’t I ignore it? I hate it all! I hate it!

I’m too good to be so tormented. I work my job. I pay my way. I have friends. I’m a debt to no one! Why, then, do I feel so twisted and so alone? Why do these haunting thoughts make me see myself so wicked? I’m not wicked! I’m not evil! I don’t force corruption on anyone! I’m a consumer! I’m a worker! I’m what a man should be!

I’m fucking disgusting. But I don’t hate myself. I love myself, unappreciated as I am in this world. If I were appreciated, I wouldn’t dream these horrible dreams. My employees should respect and thank me for the effort I spend on them! I should be proud of the life I lead! I should love my proud parents and be happy that they are pleased for me, but I hate, hate, HATE, HATE these fucking dreams! If only I could sleep.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Fiction, Writing

Youth in the workplace

An issue that’s close to home was revisited by my girlfriend Ashley the other day. We’ve both worked in offices where our youth made us stand out from the rest of the work force. It reminds me of one of my favorite analogies of the workplace: A corporation is like a tree full of monkeys: the monkeys at the top look down and see a bunch smiling faces, and the monkeys on the bottom look up and see a bunch of assholes. What the analogy doesn’t say is that monkeys are known to throw feces at each other, and in my experience, the whole treeful will aim for the lowest monkey most of the time.

Pressures run high in small business environments, especially new offices under seasoned overhead and low-budget not-for-profits. Directors feel the need to cut corners in order to make the book as black as possible, and one of the easiest corners to cut is to hire a novice to fill an insubstantial role. At first, the young and bushy-tailed worker looks for all the world like an anime schoolgirl who just had all her dreams fulfilled: wide and wet eyed, and jubilant.

One error continually recurs in all-to-common for us young-professionals situation: the pressure stored up in the older coworkers suddenly has a pinhole through which it finds release, and no one has the time or initiative to provide protection for the weakest link in the team.

Take Ashley’s situation, for example. One week she’s sick and isn’t in the office; the next week she’s in Florida. Her boss has agreed heartily to both absences, having been aware far in advance of the trip to Florida and nearly commanding that Ashley stay home when she was sick. During her absence, one of her coworkers places a piece of inter-departmental mail on a shelf above Ashley’s desk with no note specifying what type of mail it is or what department it needs to go to. Upon Ashley’s return, the coworker asks why the mail hadn’t been delivered yet and berates Ashley for not being vigilant about her workplace.

It could’ve ended there, but Ashley complained about her coworker’s rudeness to her boss. At first, her boss presented a mail-drop solution that the coworker could’ve used to specify that her parcel was inter-office mail without having had to speak to Ashley directly. No communication took place with the coworker to reach a better communication solution.

That also could’ve been the end of the situation. But Ashley’s boss has a lot on her plate this week and so is also under pressure. Later in the week, long after the situation had been at least partly resolved, Ashley’s boss pulled her into the office and told her that complaining about how a coworker treats you is unprofessional. She also went on to talk about how Ashley was obviously “losing enthusiasm for her job” and that she hoped and knew that one day soon the duties of an administrative assistant would just “click” (as if an administrative assistant’s responsibilities are so heavy that they’re not just a matter of training).

Take into account that Ashley’s boss made no specific complaints about Ashley’s work, schedule, or attitude. When Ashley asked for a specific criticism so that she could make an effort to improve her boss’s opinion of her, her boss said that she didn’t have any specific complaints.

Now let’s make a move I’ve made before and compare workplace politics to relationships. If a guy or girl you’re dating and comes up to you saying, “Things just aren’t working out. It’s not really anything specific, I’m just not into it,” what’s your response? Fucking bullshit! Why? Because if there is no specific complaint, then there’s no complaint at all. The person is just hurting you; you know it, they know it. The symptoms of using obviously poor communications to wound are undeniable.

Second is the fact that Ashley’s boss is a social worker with over twenty years experience under her belt. I’ve met the woman: she knows how to talk. Talking is her job, and you can be sure if only by her years of professional experience that she knows that in order to properly communicate to fix a problem, specifics need to be mentioned and addressed. If she’s aware of that, why doesn’t she mention specifics when Ashley asks for them? Simple: they don’t exist. Ashley’s boss is using an unprotected workplace peon to relieve her stress.

It’s not uncommon, and one of the main reasons corporations employ human resources, aside from taking the responsibility of paperwork away from people whose jobs lay in other areas, is to handle poor office communications, to act as mediators in disagreements in order to make a workplace more amenable. A harsh reality comes sharply into focus for a young employee at this point: you’re easily replaced, and HR doesn’t give a fuck about you.

When in a directly parallel situation, I complained to my boss about the way a coworker was treating me. My coworker was in her early thirties and in charge of a large data-entry project worth a lot of money to the company. I, on the other hand, was a young copyeditor who had foolishly drained my workpool and, when eagerly looking to help around the office, had been placed on the data-entry project as my coworkers’s working subordinate. Therefore, my boss told me to can it and get back to work; it’s unprofessional to complain about mistreatment in the workplace.

I knuckled under this coworker for months. She made me and several others on the data entry project cry through her sheer abuse, and yet nothing could be done to get around it. The business was small and had no real HR program, and my only real boss told me to suck it up. When I asked my parents for advice, they told me to look for a new job and in the meantime suck it up. So I did. I sucked good and hard until I was purple in the face, until the sound of her boot heels thumping down the thinly-carpeted wood floor gave me heartburn.

In the meantime, my coworker complained to my boss about me, about my work ethic, about how slowly I worked and how many errors I inputted into her system. I had no defense against these complaints when my boss pulled me into her office to talk about it. Then my boss had me sign a sheet of paper that told me if my coworker’s opinion of my work didn’t improve in thirty days, she would fire me. I asked my parents what to do again, and my father told me to take notes about the amount of work I was doing versus the other employees and the harsh and unprofessional feedback my coworker was giving to me and others. I took notes.

After two weeks my boss pulled me in to tell me that my coworker’s opinion of me hadn’t improved and that she was preparing to fire me. This time I fought; I pulled in all of my notes about my hours, my productivity, my coworker’s rudeness. My sense of injustice had become so inflamed that I was sure my boss would finally move me to a different project, would finally confront my coworker about her inhumanity. Lolz: doesn’t that prove how young I was then?

My boss told me to go back to my desk and to prepare myself for what was coming in two weeks. I did, thanking my fucking lucky stars that they would finally fire me and force me to move on. Like Strong Bad says, “Oh, that’s it! I am so totally not going to quit this job but complain about it a little bit more!”

The off-site seasoned overhead found it prudent to fire my boss in the midst of all this and hire a replacement in a less-powerful role. My coworker immediately complained to this new boss about me, putting me again on thin ice. However, the paper stating that my old boss was going to fire me got magically lost in the sudden turnover. My new boss pulled me into her office and asked me about my coworker’s complaints. I told her that they were totally untrue and that I had documentation showing that my her were unfounded. My boss laughed at the documentation and had no interest in seeing it, of course. Still, Mom and Dad, it would’ve been a good idea if the dynamic hadn’t stunk so thoroughly of abuse.

I told my new boss that I would prove myself if she would just put me on a different project, which she did. The move didn’t improve my situation with that coworker at all, but it did make my job measurably better. When I completed my work on the new project, my boss took me under her wing to help her organize all of my old boss’s notes and to database freelance editors’ resumes and even contact some. I almost began to like that job again.

One day after she had been there about three months, my new boss pulled me into her office at the end of a workday to tell me the following: “I know that your coworker’s complaints about you are unfounded. I’ve been watching you like a hawk ever since I got here, and you’ve worked like a dog on that other project and for me. But now you’re doing the work of an administrative assistant, not a copyeditor, and we’re paying you to be a copyeditor. We’ve decided to terminate your position: I have to let you go.”

And that was that. It didn’t matter that I had thwarted my coworker’s complaints about my work ethic; it didn’t matter that I was so efficient at my job that they couldn’t keep me in work. All that mattered was that I was young and dispensable. After months of suffering under that coworker and months of reproving myself to the office, it ended.

I see in Ashley’s position exactly what I saw in mine, a young professional with no umbrella to protect him(/her) from the abuse of stressed out coworkers. Sometimes (Is it just sometimes? Usually?) people will shit on you if they can get away with it. They think it makes them feel better; you can’t do anything to get even (except maybe set their lawn on fire).

So to all the older coworkers and bosses out there who pick on the young worker in the office because you can, this post is a big fuck you. To all the workers who are considering taking a job where they know that their coworkers will be older than them but still think that age shouldn’t be an issue, it is; don’t take that job. To every young worker who is now in the position and suddenly realizing that there is no protection for themselves from this shitstorm, you have two choices: knuckle under and deal with it, or stand up for yourself. Either way, it’s likely you’ll be fired, and best to leave with your head high than covered in corporate-monkey feces.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Workplace