The Working Life

One of the great consolations of work must be its abbreviation of the world’s area.

~ That’s a speculation of the narrator from Joseph O’Neill’s worthy novel, Netherland.  The idea is that we devote ourselves to work when our personal lives unravel because minimizing our area of concern gives an illusion of control easily projected onto the greater canvas of our life.  But, of course, it doesn’t always happen this way.  For instance, personal life and work may both roll in simultaneous upheaval.  Or else the office environment may decay to such violent, primal chaos that we retreat to our personal lives for order and security.  And barring trouble in either arena, the delimited scope of the workplace is for many not so much a consolation as the chance to exercise a long-desired tyranny over others.

Work as consolation and work as power: both ideas seem equally absurd, though perhaps I might feel differently if I had any respect whatever for the kind of work I do or for the world of business in general.  But the circumstances of my employment have always been, finally, an indifferent issue to me, even an embarrassment – or at best a nine- or ten-hour daily distraction from life which I only grudgingly concede is necessary. 

My first job, aged sixteen, was bus-boy and dishwasher at an old bar and grill in the downtown of a small city in the blazing, agricultural San Joaquin Valley.  I was paid under the table.  My duties included mopping vomit off the floor of the men’s room and dollying around cases of beer in stacks that weighed more than I did.  One of our regular bar customers, an older Chinese man, once came in with a bloody nose and black eye – he’d been mugged in the alley outside; his assailant had made off with his wallet and two McDonald’s hamburgers wrapped in a paper bag.  Another customer once stopped me to ask about something he saw dangling from my sleeve. “Looks like a loose string or something.”  I glanced down and he chuckled, “Sorry, I guess it’s just your arm, kid.”

At university in the Pacific Northwest I worked a summer in our Records department – a job that sounds almost medieval now, since nothing was digitized and we spent all our time in a secured, windowless room where the paper transcripts of every student in the school’s hundred year history were kept, and official changes were made by white-out and typewriter.  After that I worked three years in the library where the highlights of my career included thumbing through old copies of the TLS and NYRB and refusing one evening to make photocopies for the bilious president of the university, since (as I told him) being his personal secretary didn’t fall within the scope of my duties.  He was in a rush, red-faced, irate – but I pointed him in the direction of the copy machines and then made him sign the charges (a dollar and change) so that we could bill his office appropriately.

After graduation I worked briefly for an industrial printing company where I off-loaded a cutter machine and drove monstrous stacks of paper around a warehouse.  Then came my years at the bookshop, which I’ve written of elsewhere.  And then a summer spent working the salmon season at a cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska – a rough job where I watched several others lose digits and limbs but happily managed to keep my own, and where every night I dreamt up mountains of fish flesh and empty cans (trabajo de la noche, one of my Mexican coworkers called it).

My entree into the corporate world occurred in ‘98 when I landed a job with Amazon.com.  I worked from home in Capitol Hill as well as downtown – in customer service, and for a while as a special order book buyer.  The bright spots of my time there, which ended when three hundred of us were laid off in the early stages of the dotcom crash, included the company’s Dionysian summer parties where I once managed to sink Jeff Bezos in a dunk tank, and the WTO riots in ‘99 which landed several of my coworkers (bystanders, mostly innocent) in jail without charges, and sent clouds of tear gas into the building – which then had to be evacuated.

After several months of unemployment following the lay off at Amazon, I took a job with Blue Shield in another tower in downtown Seattle.  There I worked most notably as a writer and editor of medical correspondence – funneling requests for coverage of unusual or expensive procedures to our medical review team and in turn translating their decisions (usually ‘No’) into English as comprehensible and sympathetic as possible.  Following 9/11, one of my coworkers, an Army Ranger and veteran of the Persian Gulf War who had just transitioned to the reserves and wanted out, was forced back into active duty to lead Special Forces missions in Afghanistan.  He once met Hamid Karzai in person and received governmental commendations, but his wife was sick of his absences and so took the kids and left him when the invasion of Iraq looked certain.  He was devastated: wed to the Army against his will when he would rather have been married to his wife.

Since moving back to California, I’ve worked for a medium-sized dotcom in Silicon Valley – in marketing communications.  I’m not sure how I got this job.  It’s not a bad job, really, and I’m thankful for the fact that it allows me to feed my children and put a roof over their heads.  Since I work in close contact with our executive team it also allows me a post from which to observe the world of those for whom business really is serious business.  I get to watch the petty political machinations, the ego-stroking, the back-stabbing and the personal victories of all the type-As and MBAs as they claw their way up the ladder toward affluence and a brand of prestige I never really thought to desire for myself. 

I know that I am not, at bottom, any better than they are – but I feel a different sort of species sometimes.  Where the circumscription of the workplace allows them scope in which to battle it out and establish petty kingdoms for themselves, seats from which to reach toward total empire and the demi-apotheosis of an executive title, for me it’s something tinted with melancholy and regret.  It’s not that I’m unconscious of the temptations in that direction – money chief among them.  But like my Ranger friend (lacking, I’m sure, his fortitude and courage), I just want out.  I fantasize daily about taking justified offense at some minor slight and quitting, or else of being laid off or fired: anything to get me out again into the imagined larger world of open possibility – a world I vaguely sense during the lunch hour or over the weekend, and which vanishes with the alarm every Monday morning.

My sense of these things is ill-defined, uncertain.  Most of the time I move numbly through my work week without questioning the necessity of it all in anything more than a dreamy, juvenile sort of way: the late adolescent discontentment of someone who should have outgrown it by now.  But I can’t shake the feeling that somehow this “abbreviation of the world’s area” which we find in the workplace is not so much a consolation as a curse.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Working Life

  1. “Where the circumscription of the workplace allows them scope in which to battle it out and establish petty kingdoms for themselves, seats from which to reach toward total empire and the demi-apotheosis of an executive title.”

    I spend the majority of my weekdays among similar achievers, who routinely have so much ambition that common courtesy is sneered at, sometimes literally. How tempting is it to go the way of Bartleby and prove the folly of such chrome-plated indifference? “Different species” indeed.

  2. elberry

    From the quality of your writing i’d thought you were a successful (ish) novelist or journalist who blogged anonymously. Now i see you’re one of that tribe of gifted writers who do crap jobs.

  3. Ian Woolcott

    Heh. See, Elberry, I always felt a sort of kindship with you. But perhaps we’ll both escape some day. At least you have your Italian exile to look forward to, and ex-pat status has generally been good for literary achievement.

  4. Meghan

    This strikes a chord with me. Though I probably more closely follow the path of the “type-As” and “MBAs” you refer to, I can’t honestly see myself being very satisfied long term in this world of corporate business regardless of how high I make it in its hierarchy. The politics, the backstabbing, and B.S. is not for me. I’m happy to work hard, but I’d much prefer to leave the rest for other people to deal with.

    I can much more easily see myself happily running a small bookshop/cafe or some such venture. Much lower key and surrounded by things I love — books and pain au chocolate! Of course… there’s the money issue. It’s hard to give up a good salary that is guaranteed to continue to grow. But then, how much is happiness worth? Is a corporate salary really enough to justify spending our days doing something that at best bores and at worst depresses and frustrates? On one hand, I know the answer is no, but in practice it is never so simple. For now, I’ll stay on the path I’m on in this corporate wasteland because I do not have the courage to take the leap and leave, but I’m not sure I can sustain this indefinitely. I need a plan of escape.

  5. Ian Woolcott

    “A plan of escape.” I like the sound of that. Hmmm…..

    And by the way, some of my best friends are Type-A’s and MBAs, so no offense intended.

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