I've never been particularly good a having a "traditional" job—a byproduct, perhaps, of a lenient upbringing, attendance at a magnet high school for the arts, my birth as an American, and then a variety of other luck and circumstance that has permitted me to be at times fickle, but more often or at least most simply stated: Unlikely to keep a job.
This is my first month as a real college professor. I walk around a campus in Los Angeles, where there is a significant stadium and various country-club level amenities, such as four different pools, immaculate lawns, various libraries. There is apparently so much money floating around for a population of mostly 18- to 22-year-olds that I find it staggering to calculate how this all works—what kind of jobs will they get?—and then I remember: This is a college, and the core point of attendance is for the young to learn, and I am among the adults charged with doing some of that teaching. I have learned some things. These are my experiences so far.
1. That Time I Dressed Up As Barney
The first job I can recall was the $20 a gas station in Miami gave me to dress up as Barney. It was hot and I'm pretty sure the owners took pity on me pretty quickly, as this employment occurred in south Florida, and I was standing not on some stage or otherwise climate-controlled room but on the side of a U.S. highway in subtropical heat in a giant purple fuzz-tomb. Perhaps my commitment to waving and jumping around was insufficient? I cannot now recall if the sale of fuel was improved or perhaps suffered as a result of my presence. At any rate, I donned the suit just once, and I can't imagine what happened to it. The job was a favor, I'm sure, to my mom, who had her oil changed by Robin and her husband whose name I can't recall for 25 years. At the time, I was probably 11 years old.
2. I Was a Busboy
When I was 14, I worked for several months—weeks maybe—as a busboy at the now-defunct Old Cutler Inn, a dark, wood-paneled restaurant and bar off Old Cutler Road, where my mom had during one hard year—her mother's death, her own long illness—spent some afternoons, a few blocks away from the brackish swamps that mark the historic Deering Estate's expanse beside Biscayne Bay. Again, I'm sure it was my mom's good word that earned me the gig. The cooks were all of Haitian descent, I believe, and taunted me and the other busboys with long kitchen knives and hard potatoes thrown harder. I wore Doc Martens and by the end my time there the shoes were so densely saturated with clam chowder, Caesar salad dressing, and iced tea that if we carved them up into leather steaks, a family of three might have been partially nourished, or at least repulsed by how richly the hide had become suffused.
3. I Was Also a Fisherman
After my sophomore year of college, at an institution of higher learning that obliged students to work on a ranch, I was pleased when a friend arranged a ride on a boat to Alaska. Upon arrival in Petersburg, a small town in the Southeast, I walked the docks, feeling manly, retreating to my rain-soaked tent at night, emerging again in the morning to beg for a spot as a deckhand. At last, a salmon boat took me on. Unfortunately, the captain was a maniac, with a short temper matched in severity only by his inability to find fish. As far as I could tell, all the other boats were filling up with money. We meanwhile would work 24 to 30 hours straight. Rather than shimmering masses of fresh, wild fish pulsing on our deck, I mainly recall hauling in net after net over the big hydraulic boom, which unloosed each time a sizzling wash of red jellyfish, stinging our eyes and driving us all crazy.
I was ready to kill someone, or perhaps myself, and the feeling among the crew seemed shared. All was made less fun and also dangerous by the constant yelling and taunting from the captain. It reached a peak one afternoon when we were in some picturesque cove and he was repairing the net with heavy twine or something and in disgust at what I suppose was my daydreaming—just then, I'm sure, some whale or bear was glistening in the sun, and I was probably pondering its beauty—when the captain threw his knife like a dagger, close to my foot, and the blade sunk into the wood with an audible "Thwang." The next time we stopped for fuel I got off. At a cannery, I learned how to sleep standing up and contracted a rash that made it impossible to tie my shoes.
4. I Discovered Journalism
Junior year, at which point my fanciful rural school obliged us to move on, and like many others I enrolled at a school back east, and confused by the ease and wealth of those around me—they, it wasn't hard to imagine, didn't worry too much about jobs, or maybe they did?—I lasted just one semester, told the dean I might not come back, and flew with a buddy to Bangkok, where I began working at the Cambodia Daily. I can recommend Phnom Penh as a place to become more confused than you might become at a tony East Coast college campus, because the poverty and difficulty there will feel important. After all, not only is this a post-genocidal country more or less reinventing itself, it was also where, for five months, I thought maybe I could play a role as a young journalist. Mostly I learned how to copyedit and use QuarkXPress, and when I did emerge to report a story, it became clear the Cambodian co-worker I stood beside knew more about life and death than I perhaps ever would. Overwhelmed, I returned to college. I was also chasing a woman back to America.
5. I Sold Some Books
Back at the East Coast school, I used my staggering resume as a fisherman and "foreign correspondent" to land a job at the seafood counter at Bread & Circus. Soon enough, I became unsustainably impatient with the cutting up of three-quarter pound swordfish steaks. By the time I got my next job, at a bookstore, I wasn't bragging so much about being a fisherman, and my contact with customers was limited. An overdraft on a bus ticket purchased during this era dogged me for years. In fact, that single mistake might be why my wife's credit score is still higher than mine.
6. Some Internship(s)
Concurrent with the bookstore job was an internship at a national magazine, when it was still in Boston, and where I thought it was a good idea to post an ad for an internship at my own magazine, which by then I was running with the woman, and which was then publishing its second issue. Unaware of how ridiculous I was, I took lunch breaks under a bridge down by the river, stepping over needles, feeling literary, eating soggy sandwiches by myself and watching the water go by. In all honesty, I might have worked at the magazine for the rest of my life, had an offer been extended. When our editor was killed in Iraq, however—a man I'd never actually met—we all attended the funeral and cried what I assure you were genuine if partially uninformed tears.
7. Teaching Far Away
We house-sat in Somerville, and during that hot spring my fiancée and I mapped out a life back in Southeast Asia. It would begin with an exploratory summer, when we spent at least one night in a malarial jungle. That adventure found me hospitalized back in America, just long enough to delay our Illinois wedding by five weeks. With rings to prove our commitment, we finally flew to Jakarta and settled into a house in the slums owned by an Islamic scholar. As Christmas approached, I felt the strange creep of fever and for several days I thrashed again in sheets, rain outside falling and rats cavorting in the ceiling above our bed. When I recovered, I wore my best shirt and least disgusting jeans to meet a Singaporean businessman at a hotel, where I agreed to teach English at a kindergarten favored by wealthy Chinese. A boy named Han tormented me. He'd stand on his chair and yell, throwing books and audibly farting. I was paid in cash—thick stacks of red, blue, and green Rupiah—and though it was not much, the total could cover our bed when I tossed it up in the air.
8. The Magazine World
Then I was taken on as an editor at a magazine in Jakarta that was not entirely unlike the Time magazine of the 1990s, in that it had a massive weekly circulation, covered news, and had money to spare even for me. I was paid reasonably well to rewrite—in a feverish race—the entire feature well of the English edition, which was translated rather roughly on I think Friday nights, and needed to be at the printer by something like Sunday morning. I said a final goodbye to Han and found a fine path through the slums to the office, where the secretary would often have grilled chicken and hot tea waiting. One night, I stepped on what turned out to be a dead dog. Another night, slightly lost, I happened into an oddly thick forest. Women lurked here and there, each one with a mirror nailed to a tree, and her toilet kit hanging from a string, awaiting the arrival of clients.
9. A Real Newspaper
The Indonesian newsweekly stopped replying to emails at about the same time I started working at The Village Voice. What a place in the mid-2000s! A roster of fifteen or more senior editors, a thick edition every week packed with ads, the fading but still recent luster of a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in Africa. As a reporter, I was on the floor of the Republican National Convention. I was calling up former arms dealers in Lebanon. Once again, I had that feeling I might stay somewhere forever.
Just as layoffs began rolling down from management, I got a call from a headhunter, querying on behalf of a glossy magazine. At first, I hung up. But she called back. At the new job, there was a ride on a private plane among other editors. There was a concert in the conference room with Courtney Love. But there was more often a lonely lunch of leftovers eaten in Midtown while reading the Paris Review or something equally melancholy.
11. Getting As Far Away As Possible
So we moved to Saudi Arabia, where my wife worked as a journalist and where I was obliged by pregnancy to make as much money as possible. In the lobby of Riyadh's first or maybe second real hotel—built in the 1980s, of material brought from Switzerland on trucks—the director of a creative agency twisted his prayer beads with massive sausage-shaped fingers and smoked cigarette after cigarette, eying me like a nice fish he maybe didn't want to eat. I told him I could either start a job the next day running a website for a state hospital—an actual job I can't now imagine even applying for, let alone paying for the birth of my daughter with—or I could be the editor of a travel magazine his company hoped to publish. For nearly a year, he paid me to sit at a computer, writing articles for a magazine that never came to be.
12. And Now Here I Am
During a half decade over there, I became a father, watched my wife undertake various dangerous trips, and then I became aghast when the danger came too close to for comfort. I taught senior citizens and wrote a bunch of stuff, including a book that helped me articulate just why a person might want to leave a life and start a new one.
Now here I am, with another job—a very good one, by some measures, which obliges me to do little most days other than stand in front of a crowd and tell a story about how we can and should try to be and do better—and yet it is a job I may or not keep for very long.
Which is to say: I've been around. I've done this and that. I'll likely do more. Does any of what I've shared add up to anything more than a list of personal information, a record of one man's unexceptional but perhaps colorful relationship with employment, and maybe most of all an invitation to judge and compare?
Perhaps there is little to do but shake your head and move on. I wouldn't blame you. Unless, in the accumulation of detail, in the way I've shared some but not all, in the facts and partial truths, there is a way to look forward, and maybe a better way to look back.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]