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Personal Essays

Work Is a Four-Letter Word

After 15 months of unemployment, our writer lands a job—complete with benefits, direct deposit, and a modern workspace design. Time to shop for dumpy sweaters.

Photograph by jo-h

Many of my friends used the word “miraculous” when I told them I’d gotten a job, and I couldn’t help but note that the better the friend knew me, the more miraculous it seemed. Still, it was difficult to know to whom or what the miracle was to be credited. I had prayed to Yahweh, Jesus, pretty much anyone I could pretend was listening. A couple saints; the Universe. Other people prayed for me, lit candles, did yoga on my behalf, contributed to A.A.R.P. I lit incense and meditated until I released the desire to ever work again. I didn’t pray to Satan, but I did some temp work at law firms.

Whatever the demon or deity, I was, of course, grateful. But 15 months of unemployment does something to you, changes you. The obvious horrible thing about poverty, of course, is that you can’t buy things, but poverty also dices and shreds whatever self-esteem you might have left after losing your job and your apartment. I remember the weekend I had $3.48 in the bank and was hoping my food stamps would electronically replenish on Monday so I could eat, and recall wondering whether there was a state of the soul beyond humility.

Whatever ego was left was readily worn down by the dull drip of the job market. Fifteen months and hundreds of resumes; maybe three interviews; one very sad job fair. I thought I was overskilled; underskilled; perhaps had no skills at all. Or, in a kinder moment, that I had talent but not skills. Whatever I had, though, I seemed to be losing it. I was losing control of my life, and it was undergoing a dissolution about which I didn’t feel entirely Buddhist.

So the job came along in the nick of time, of course, though the phrase is meaningless here. Long-term unemployment causes time to warp. It stretches and gapes. It idles. Everything happens in the nick of time. So when I accepted the job and the office manager asked which Monday I wanted to start, “Monday” almost sounded quaint. But I picked a Monday, he said see you then, we hung up, and my first thought was:

“Oh no. Now I have to work.”

As will be pointed out, this actually isn’t laziness. It’s genetics. In my case, some Irish DNA in the family (my mother’s side; I don’t talk about it much) that allows me to perceive the shadows in life’s brightest lights. Only my grandmother could stare into the glowing face of an infant and give a spontaneous list of all the dead people who would never set eyes on it. So my next thought pattern was that maybe it was all a mistake; I thought maybe I didn’t have the job after all, that they had called the wrong person. Then I wondered if the whole thing had really even happened; whether I had even had the interview, had ever even seen the ad. Whether the office even existed; New York; me. And when I emailed my friends to let them know I’d gotten the job, all of a sudden I thought of all the dead people I couldn’t email.

Because I’m not lazy. I actually enjoy working, and although I was officially unemployed in 9-to-5, benefitty-type terms for more than a year, I managed to cobble together enough freelance to keep myself on the brink of poverty and occasional despair. Because I was always in such immediate need of money, when a project came in, I set myself on it as if the Protestant work ethic were a form of meth. This gave me a reputation for quick turnaround, and created totally unwarranted expectations among my freelance clients. Besides, I didn’t really like having a reputation for quick turnaround. It sounded slutty somehow.

You can tell when you’re out with another freelancer and about three, four in the afternoon, he seems to disconnect, get cranky. He’s jonesing. He wants to nap.

The great thing about freelance, of course, is the numerous freedoms it embraces, chief among them being the freedom to work in your underwear. This seems to be the one that everyone knows. I was talking on the phone to an uncle of mine who’s in a nursing home, and when I told him I was working freelance, he said, “Oh, the underwear people!” (Though now that I think of it, maybe he was talking about people at the home, some clique or something.) And I admit that I’ve worked in my underwear a few times, but I realized fairly early on into unemployment that it was probably good on several levels if I got dressed in the morning. (Or early afternoon.)

The real freedom of freelance, though, is the freedom to nap. I used it sparingly, never abused it. Though I know those who did. You can tell when you’re out with another freelancer and about three, four in the afternoon, he seems to disconnect, get cranky. He’s jonesing. He wants to nap. And I was never far from temptation: My desk is at the end of the bed, and just beyond my view of the computer screen are three very inviting pillows, purple/purpley-blue. As I said: three, four in the afternoon. One minute I was sitting there proofreading a financial report, thinking how adult I was, how mature, responsible, how quick my turnaround was, and the next I said, “Fuck it, I’m freelance!” and ran for the bed. If I was feeling particularly freelance, I would nap in my underwear. But I’m not overly concerned about losing rest once I’m back in the work force. I learned many office jobs ago how to decrease my heart rate and lower my body temperature at will, and effectively hibernate for small stretches at a time. Some coworkers said it just looked like I was really concentrating on the screen. Others said it looked like I was dead.

But now I would wear pants and show up on Monday. And the Monday after that and the Monday after that. (I think in the summer we can wear shorts.) I thought a lot about that first Monday. I calculated and recalculated my home-to-office travel time. The trick, as I figured it, isn’t just not being late; it’s also not being too early. I wanted to look prompt but not eager, efficient but not obsequious. It was my first day, and firsts are important.

 

Other than some freelance lawn mowing, my first job was as a busboy at a Big Boy’s in the Midwest. At first I thought it was great because you got tips and could eat hamburgers. But the tips weren’t all that good, and it didn’t take long for the hamburger thing to get old. And nothing in my upbringing had prepared me for bus trays. My parents had trained me to scrape my plate after dinner (small consolation when it had been such a horror to housebreak me), but my errant peas and bits of cold gristle were delicacies compared to the half-digested carnage I was forced to deal with four shifts a week. A Big Boy can be a handsome hamburger. It takes a good picture. It looks good on the menu. But in the bus tray it’s a disaster: soggy swabs of over-glutinous bun; random chunks of all-beef patty dripping in secret sauce; pickle slices in puddles of Diet Coke.

The office has very clean lines, so you can either play into that or play against it. So I’m thinking: dumpy sweaters.

After a few weeks at Big Boy’s the whole world seems to smell like old mayonnaise; and one night, on a long, late weekend shift, I freaked out and dropped a whole bus tray because a piece of lettuce had attached itself, leechlike, to my hand. (One of the cooks referred to it as a “hissy fit.”) At the end of the summer I told my parents I needed to quit the job because I didn’t want any distractions, I really wanted to buckle down and focus on school this year. (I can’t remember if I was going to be a freshman or a sophomore. I’d been telling them this every year since first grade.) Some things about the job were OK, though. All the other busboys hated the uniform, but I liked the jacket.

And the hat.

I also thought a lot about what to wear on the first day of my new job, and roughed out some general principles. I didn’t ask at the interview, but the place seemed to be a healthy half-step below business casual. The office has very clean lines (the cubicles look like private booths at a sushi bar), so you can either play into that—actually, a busboy jacket would look fabulous—or play against it. So I’m thinking: dumpy sweaters. Or semi-dumpy. I wore dumpy sweaters pretty much the whole time I was freelancing. Dumpy sweaters could be my bridge back into the traditional work force.

Dumpy sweaters and money.

I thought about having coworkers again. (Life was just all falling together: pants; people…) And I was looking forward to working around people again, but I wondered what I would say to them. Once I’ve been someplace long enough to gossip I’m fine, but those first few hours can be tough. I just don’t know what to talk about. But I need to remember: I did well in the interviews. Maybe I’ll just pretend every day’s another interview. But I can’t do that. Every time someone asks me a question, I can’t ask myself, “Should I lie?” But I don’t have to worry about something to talk about. I’m a proofreader. I can always just ask people how they feel about the tendency away from hyphenation.

But once I was actually there, though, I didn’t really care how they felt about hyphenation. I don’t know that I was listening. The whole first day I just kept thinking, “I’ve got a job. It’s going to be OK. I’ve got a job.” I’ve kept a stiff upper lip the past 15 months, but in my private moments, usually when I was moisturizing, I’d get a chill thinking about those articles in the Times about middle-aged workers and the fact that those of us who remember Cher when she actually looked the way she looks now might never work again. But Cher’s still working, and so am I. She’s making movies that prove Christina Aguilera can act, and I’m proofreading at an ad agency. Her name may be up in lights, but I’m the one who’ll make sure it’s spelled right.

So I get up Monday mornings now; I have my breakfast and get cleaned up. Shave. I pull on my semi-dumpy sweater, grab my book for the subway, I look in the mirror and tell myself this is the job where I’m really going to buckle down and focus. And I don’t know that I can claim to have control of my life. I know better than that.

But I can buy things.

Jeffrey Essmann’s work has been featured in the New York Times and on Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ. He is currently working on a book. More by Jeffrey Essmann