On September 1, 2010, I woke up at six a.m., as usual, made coffee, and carried it out to the garage, where previous owners of the house we rented had built a little roofed-over patio with a concrete floor, just big enough for two plastic chairs. There were some broad-leafed shrubs and climbing vines growing from the dirt beyond the concrete, and these, combined with how the owner had painted the lower half of the garage wall teal and the upper half white, and the promise of idleness inherent in two plastic chairs sitting side by side in the shade, reminded me of Kenya, where I’d lived for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I called this spot Kenya, and I went there every morning with a cup of coffee and something to read. It was my favorite place in Minneapolis.
That morning, I hadn’t brought anything to read. It was my thirtieth birthday, and I planned just to sit and reflect, something I’m not very good at. After a few minutes, I thought about a book I hadn’t opened in ten years: What Work Is by Philip Levine. By the time I found it and brought it back to Kenya, I only had time to read a couple poems. I had to be at the moving company by 7:15, and it was a twenty-minute bike ride. The job was the reason I was reading the poems. I was feeling ashamed of being a mover.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
I’d forgotten the title poem was misleading; it was actually about what not working is, which made it even more appropriate that morning. Levine described standing in line for a job at a Ford plant in Detroit.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother
I won’t even get started on the subject of brothers, except to say I understand why Levine gets started on his, because for people like him and me, and maybe everyone who has a brother, when you want to demonstrate that something is deeply, deadly important to you, you probably need to bring your brother into the mix, to make it crystal clear that the thing you are talking about is at the heart of who you are. That’s what I was thinking, sitting in Kenya on the morning of my thirtieth birthday, how work is at the heart of who I am, which was strange, since if there had been one thing I’d systemically neglected for the first three decades of my life: it was the necessity of making a career for myself. I’d worked on and off since I was fifteen, when I inherited my neighbor’s lawn-mowing business, but I’d never defined myself by the work I did, or ever thought I would. This was why it had been so strange to discover that not working could define me so completely.
I’d been at the moving company for exactly one month. I was unemployed for three months before that, since graduating with my Master of Fine Arts degree at the beginning of May. Three months is not a long time to be unemployed, but three months is long enough to be unemployed. My job search lasted more than a year. I sent my first application, for an English faculty position at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, in November 2009, while I was still in grad school. I was hired for my current job, grant writer at a nonprofit, in January 2011. I applied for about seventy-five jobs in between, including English instructor, communications specialist, One Stop counselor, communications consultant, international development project specialist, communications assistant, news aggregator, volunteer specialist, assistant academic adviser, liberal arts advisor, sociology advisor, marketing associate, program assistant, mover, bike shop mechanic, assistant education specialist, crew leader, tutoring coordinator, public relations intern, youth program specialist, youth advocate, career services advisor, regional manager, summer food service program specialist, watershed educator, resource coordinator. A low point occurred on Nov. 17, 2010, when I found myself applying for an English teaching position at MCTC and realized it was the same job I had applied for exactly one year earlier.
Anyone who has been unwillingly unemployed for any length of time will tell you the experience is crushing. I was young; I had no debts, dependents, or pre-existing conditions. I had an emotionally and financially stable family I could turn to if I got truly desperate, and being unemployed was still the most psychologically destructive experience of my life. These were the days when the news was full of stories about people who’d been laid off in their fifties and sixties, who had children, mortgages, chronic medical issues, and had been unemployed for one year, two years, three. I thought about those people often. It was mind-boggling to think that the worst thing I’d ever experienced could be multiplied exponentially. It forced me to recognize I existed in a universe that encompassed so much more than the tiny sliver of my own experience, which itself could contain a shocking range of unhappiness.
And I’d brought it on myself. Three years earlier I’d been gainfully employed as a newspaper reporter in Alexandria, Virginia, a job I was very good at. But I wanted to be a novelist and was convinced journalism was constraining my potential. I shared a townhouse with a friend from Kenya, who was trying to find an entry-level teaching job. We would take long walks after I got home from work and talk about our lives. One evening, Ted told me he thought he’d like to become a school principal one day. I remember this conversation quite well because of the emotion it inspired in me: raging jealousy. I envied Ted for aspiring to something that seemed attainable. A few months later, our friend Chris moved into our basement with nothing but a mattress sitting directly on the carpet, a neat pile of clothes, a pair of roller blades, and a stack of books. Within a week or so, he found an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill and embarked on an era of his life in which he stocked shelves at Trader Joe’s from ten at night to six in the morning, worked forty unpaid hours a week at the Capitol, and hired himself out as a weekend mover on Craigslist.
Sitting in Kenya on my thirtieth birthday, I thought about the last time I’d seen Chris, just a few weeks earlier, when we both happened to be in Elgin, Illinois on the same weekend. It had been good to see him, great. But in the last three years he’d gone from stocking grocery shelves to influencing the passage of bills into law as the Legislative Director for a United States Congressman. Meanwhile, I’d gone from writing award-winning journalism to carrying boxes at a moving company.
Chris had chosen a path and built a career, an example I felt incapable of following. My ambitions were complicated by a multitude of factors: fear of failure and desire for security, the conviction that unless I achieved something professionally important accompanied by fame and recognition I’d be falling short of my potential, a lack of interest in making money (born of the privileged assumption that money would always be there, rather than the acceptance of real poverty and its consequences), a burning desire to engage with “the real” (roughly meaning in-the-world/face-to-face versus in-an-office /on a computer), and my just as profoundly burning desire to put my energy into something with little prospect of ever actually paying anything: writing. As a result I’d skipped like a stone across the waters of employment, from opportunity to opportunity, never allowing myself to settle into a career where I could commit and excel, yet never fully committing to writing, either. And so it had come to this. I was a thirty-year-old mover.
Even worse, I was proud of it. Pedaling home after my first day of training, I kept repeating the word work. It had felt whole and filling in my mouth, complete, like bread or Dad. We were only supposed to come in on mornings we were on the schedule, and even on those days, extras like me were usually sent home with no pay after dispatch was sure he didn’t need us. But I came in every morning for ten days straight. I wanted to stand out, impress the dispatcher, and get on a crew as soon as possible. I liked getting up at six, putting on my work clothes, and riding my bike down the Greenway in the cool morning, even if it was humiliating to come back an hour later, take my work clothes off, and get back in bed beside Liz. I was proud to be earning a living with my own labor. And on my thirtieth birthday, it was this pride I felt most ashamed of.
Poems in all four [parts] deal in some way with the lifestyles of lower middle class workers. Their vivid and often disturbing imagery seems to be an attempt to make the average reader stop taking for granted the horrible jobs that are the main component of these people’s lives. One gets the impression that many of these poems must have come from Levine’s own experience.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I reviewed What Work Is for a class called Intro to Writing Poetry taught by a grad student named Erika Meitner. My analysis focused on the “striking theme” of eating sandwiches:
The difficulty of the work they must perform is demonstrated by their need for solid sustenance. These passages perfectly show Levine’s masterful use of detail to reveal the lives of the lower classes to the reader. It is in these details that the reader truly confronts the simple pleasures and, more importantly, the intense hardships of a lifestyle that he or she has probably never experienced.
I was twenty years old when I wrote that, and this is what I knew of work: in the summer of my sixteenth year, I took a job for $5.25 an hour as a plumber’s assistant. I usually rode with a skinny Vietnam veteran who self-medicated with marijuana, ducked at car backfires, and, when feeling cheerful, leaned out the door of our work van and pretended to fire a door-mounted M-60 down into the rice paddies. I followed him into the slimy crawl spaces under the double-wides of Dinwiddie County, Virginia, and into the cool, sandy crawl-spaces beneath new construction in Prince George. I asked too many questions and wasn’t quick enough, but those men were fair to me. The foulest thing I’ve ever smelled or seen was a grease trap in the cafeteria at the Battlefield Swim Club (where I probably would have been a member if parishioners in the Episcopal Church where my dad was the rector hadn’t paid our dues at the CCP). But I never had to touch it; it was the plumber who pulled on the gloves and told me I wasn’t getting paid enough to scoop out a grease trap. Equal parts pride and humiliation, the summer at Smid’s Plumbing was my first taste of adulthood. I still have the measuring tape I bought after my first day on the job. I spent my last day mowing Roy Smid’s lawn and washing his boat. Over the next four years, I spent a summer making endless lists of legal deeds for a title insurance company, and another sweeping tennis courts and dragging softball infields for the University Rec Department. I swiped student IDs at Slaughter Gymnasium, and finally got a cushy job at the Athletic Ticket Office, where I sat at a window doing homework, occasionally selling a pack of Cavalier football tickets, helping myself to unlimited cans of soda, and earning the most I ever had, eight bucks an hour.
Except at the title insurance company and the ticket office, I worked with men, usually white, usually redneck. They were rough around the edges and good at what they did, though not always hardworking. I got along with them and liked some better than others, but our lives intersected only at work. The stories they told about baby mamas, boats, and dirt bikes all belonged to a world I’d lived in proximity to all my life but couldn’t relate to. They could do things to car engines that I knew I never could. They owned Ford Mustangs, or aspired to. They didn’t possess the old-fashioned stoicism of the men in Levine’s poems, but they did have something in common with those men, something I didn’t fully appreciate until my thirtieth birthday: they experienced the complicated link between work and shame.
When you are unemployed, work, any work, feels like dignity. But as soon as you find a job, the story gets more complicated. There was a guy at the moving company named Barry. He was a braggart. He presented himself as an equal with the clients. On an unload at a mansion on Lake Minnetonka, Barry told us he was going to offer to build a dock for no fee except that he be able to keep his boat there all summer. Barry had been a contractor, then a trucker, running wine from Arizona in his own rig, which he’d lost in the recession when a client stiffed him $15,000. He could list connections all over the region. He claimed to have an in with the Russian mob. But he’d been a mover with the company ten years ago, and now he was a mover again. There is no shame in working, and a considerable amount of pride compared to not working, but when you specify working for X, it gets complicated.
“I work for K-Mart, I get a cent,” Charles Hanshaw told me. “I work for Food Lion, I get a quarter.” He was a forty-eight-year-old homeless man. I was still a reporter, writing about the cost of housing around D.C., where almost half the homeless adults in shelter held a job. Hanshaw had been a successful retail manager, but had a habit of quitting because he felt exploited. “If I’m going to get, as we call it, ‘pimped,’ I’m going to pimp myself,” he explained. “I’m not going to let you pimp me.” Like many of the homeless men I talked to, he proudly defined himself by his willingness to work, but this pride was constantly undercut by the work he could find. The bottom line, for men like Charles Hanshaw, was that they would never end up “in the woods” with the campers, men who rejected work for a life of freedom.
March is a hard month for the men who hold up cardboard signs at intersections. Many panhandlers have mental health issues, and maybe some are making a rational economic decision versus working minimum wage, but the choice to beg is a choice I can’t understand. I’m pretty good at putting myself in someone else’s shoes, but when I consider the physical rigor of being out in all weather and the psychological toll begging must take, I can’t imagine deciding to do it. Charles Hanshaw was a harder worker than me, and he understood the value of a job better than I ever will, but I knew exactly what he meant when he said, “A man wants to be a man by working.”
Every day billions of people wake up and head to work. We do it for money, of course, but the money only comes every two weeks. In the meantime, we show up sick, hung-over, pregnant. We fulfill our quotas, get along with our co-workers, seek promotion and greater responsibility. We injure our backs and our wrists. We lift bureaus full of clothes and stare for hours at columns of numbers. We respond politely to rude customers, pull on latex gloves and scoop handfuls of rancid grease, get on our knees and scrub shit. We roll the lint off our cardigans and pass condolence notes from cube to cube. Work is the embrace of suffering. And if you disagree with that characterization, I submit your objection as evidence of the triumph of the human spirit.
I couldn’t linger in Kenya on the morning of my thirtieth birthday. I read a few poems, finished my coffee, ate a bowl of cereal, and rode to work. They put me on a five-man job. The note on the data sheet read: Divorce situation. Small baby grand. Moving into house half the size. A fit old man met us in the driveway of an extra-large McMansion. He was the client’s stepfather, up from Florida with her mother. The client herself barely spoke; she walked from room to room looking lost. She had a boy about twelve and a girl maybe fifteen. The unload was a normal house, nice enough, but it seemed dark, dingy, and impossibly small compared to the former place. We had to fill the garage with boxes. The client walked the dog around the yard and talked on the phone with her ex about lawyers and deadlines. The boy wandered around with a stunned expression. The grandfather was the most engaged, but he conceded he had no idea where anything should go. I was carrying a bedside table, and the boy helpfully told me, “That’s Rachel’s.” The grandmother said, “Put it in the garage,” and the boy said, “But it’s Rachel’s” and the stress must have finally got to the grandfather because he practically shouted, “There’s NO ROOM for it in Rachel’s room.” The boy recoiled. I watched him get it: life would never be the same.
There was no room in any of the bedrooms. The kids all had queen beds that utterly filled them. We must have wheeled out a hundred moving boxes, all labeled in the same neat, feminine handwriting, when I finally grabbed a box that said, Mom’s room and realized the fifteen-year-old sister had labeled them all. I’d already been thinking about my parents’ divorce, and when I thought about that girl labeling the boxes, and saw the dog who looked so much like our old dog lying dejected on a wicker couch, I wanted to go find a place to cry. But we were on the clock, five men each at fifty bucks an hour, and we liked the old man and his wife, and the two kids, so we were busting ass for them. I wanted to say something, like “It gets better,” but I knew it wouldn’t for a long time. We left the family with a garage full of boxes and a basement full of furniture. The good news was we fit the leather couch and baby grand into their new living room. They tipped us forty each. It was a good birthday.
I passed a series of milestones at the moving company. After ninety days, you could take a test and start driving a truck. I knew I wouldn’t be at the company that long, so I never thought much about it. Then guys starting asking me when I was going to take the test, and then I was driving a truck. Not long after, the Taggart brothers picked me up to be the third man on their crew. We were the most polite crew in the company. I didn’t get sent home without work anymore. Guys started talking about moving in winter, but I knew I’d find another job before then. Then it was too cold to sit in Kenya, then it snowed. I bought a studded tire and started wearing goggles, mittens, snow pants, and boots on my ride to work. The difficulty of the work we performed was demonstrated by our need for solid sustenance. We stopped at Holiday or Super America before every load. I realized eating two or three gas station donuts every morning was lousy for my long-term health, so I switched to buying pints of whole milk and hard-boiled eggs sealed in plastic. I kept packets of salt and pepper in my backpack.
I picked up a second job, getting up at 5:30 to spend two hours indexing news stories for a daily environmental newsblast. The mornings are my most clear-headed and hopeful time, but now I spent them inside the internet frantically completing an index of preset Google searches. I used chat programs called Trillian and Adium. My mind felt extruded into an effortless spaghetti of stimuli. But I was happy to have a better line on my resume than Mover, and I avoided the thought that I’d quit a job writing the kinds of stories I was now proud to be indexing.
One day, through a stunningly random incident of LinkedIn networking, I was offered a job as a grant writer. When I told dispatch the next morning, he erased my name from the board. Once you put in your notice, your work went to someone else. As I went around the room that final morning, I realized how many guys had actually been kind to me at one point or another. Even the real dicks seemed sad to say goodbye. I didn’t want to say much about my new job, where I’d make double their pay to sit at a desk, so I made a joke of it. “Believe it or not, I’m a better writer than I am a mover,” I told the Buckner boys. Neither one had ever hesitated to let me know what a shitty mover I was, but they’d always been good-natured about it. Now they laughed. Underlying all the goodbyes was a sense of wistfulness. Everyone wanted out. And eventually everyone would have to find a way out. It wasn’t the kind of work you could do forever.
I promised I’d stop by, maybe even pick up some hours in the summer. But of course I never did. So when I see the company trucks around town, I still think about my last morning. I wasn’t expecting any of those guys, except maybe the Taggarts, to care that I was leaving or show me any more regard than they had on my first day, when I was just one more fucking new guy, except smaller and with glasses. But as I said my goodbyes, I realized that wasn’t how they saw me anymore. They saw me as the guy who could manage his anger, who never lost it on another mover or cursed out a client, who just stared back at you when you called him Rick Moranis, who never grabbed a piece of chowder when a piece of base was sitting there, who would always take the heavy end and never tried to shift the weight onto the other dude, who was always willing to learn something.
When I said goodbye to Dell, he wrapped me up in a bear hug. Dell was a large man with a shaved head and bushy beard. He’d intimidated the shit out of me on our first move together. I’d been at the company two weeks, and the day before, my two coworkers had spent ten hours telling me, “You suck at life.” I was pretty beaten down. So when Dell saw me struggling to pry the metal clips off a vault door, then patiently taught me a trick that made it easy, I felt more heartened than I had in weeks. That same day, I was in the cab with Dell’s partner Mike, a taciturn older guy who didn’t have a kind word for anyone. We were talking about the August heat. “You came in the toughest month,” Mike said. “That’s gut check time.”
At first I planned to end it here, like this: Mike didn’t know how right he was. The phrase has a ring to it without stealing the final emphasis from Mike’s words, and it pulls the essay together nicely. But it isn’t true. When I consider what I finally figured out about Dell and Mike and most of the other men I worked with in my life—how all of them must have understood so much more about me than I will ever know of them—I realize Mike knew exactly what those words would mean to me, how right they were and would continue to be.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.