My first job was as a grocery bagger. I could also run the registrar, but I never did. I was too fast at bagging them groceries. I would just do it. One thing after the other and I would just move. I was surprised when they said we get a lunch break. There was something about people wanting me to do stuff for them, and me doing it, that never got old. It still weighs on me. For good and bad, when I was seventeen, I became addicted to saving babies from fires, addicted to this ideal of being the best, maybe the only, guy who could do a particular job. That would take it’s toll on me later, when I was older and tired and less full of whatever young boys are full of. I moved around that company, from pushing carts into the store to being a basic floor-assistant. When I quit, I didn’t feel too bad about it. I was young. Money came and went back then.
I moved and got a job at a grocery store. For a week I was on the registrar and then I was moved to the produce department and that’s where I stayed for over ten years. If I’d known then I would be stuck there, I probably would have gotten the job anyway. It was horrible work, though. Physically demanded because of the boxes you had to lift, the pallets you had to pull. The constant movement. You very rarely stayed still. You were in motion from when you clocked in at 6am until you clocked out at 3pm or 4pm or 5pm or whenever you were done. I once worked 22 hours straight, which is actually not uncommon. There was never enough people to do the job, and yet the job had to get done. How many pellets of milk did I stock? How many dirty cooling cases did I clean? How many rotten watermelons did my hands go through? That was when I slowly realized that people knew I would do the work, and they would simply not work because they knew I would do it. The long, tiring hours. And I kept doing it. The only motivation I had was that I was working my way through college, and I wouldn’t be there forever.
Once, an assistant manager came up to me after I gave my two weeks.
“You won’t quit,” he said. “You’ll be back.”
I wonder if he thinks about what he said to me? I wonder if he knows how absolutely wrong he was.
When I got my Teaching Assistantship, I felt it. I’m not sure if you’ll understand this. It’s, well, when you are doing house work, and you are screwing in a screw into a wall. Sometimes the screw feels like it is out of sync, like it just won’t work its way into the wall. And then, finally, you get it in just right and the screw screws into the wall and there it is, firm and right. When I was in front of a class for the first time, I felt that. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, even though I didn’t want to do it, or didn’t know I wanted to do it. That sense of responsibility, that sense that I had something important to do, the students could use that. I could take the weight of the students and let them rely on me. If I failed, I failed them. And I couldn’t fail them. They were doing exactly what I always wanted to do. They were working their way through college just like I worked my way through college.
That’s what forces you to do a good job, I think. Not wanting to screw up because, if you do, the bricks all fall down and someone gets hurt.
There were odd jobs, of course. That time I put stuff on Ebay for the Comic book shop. That time I worked as a merchandiser, putting “for sale” tags on crappy printers at Wal-mart. And who could forget the time I worked at a medical call center, trying to get people to opt in for medical trials of prescription drugs.
“Would you or your wife be interested in trying this new drug? Is should help with the chemotherapy side-effects.”
“My wife’s dead,” the man on the other end said. “I told you guys that last week.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t you have a conscious?” he asked. “Don’t you have any sense of responsibility?”
I apologized again and quit three minutes later.
You’re going to be old one day. And all the time you slave at a job that is destroying your soul, you are going to want back. You are going to regret it.
There was the move to Maryland and the adjunct teaching job. There was me questioning if I wanted to do this all my life, if this was the life I really wanted. There was me understanding that I needed something to help the ends to meet. There was the bookstore.
“Can I help you?” I would say behind the customer service desk.
“I’m looking for a book,” they would say back.
“Do you know the author? The title?”
“I know it has a bird on it,” they would say. “Can you just, I don’t know, Google it?”
They would do this. All day long, they would do this. And I would find the books for them. Because I had to. They needed those books. Even when they said it was too expensive, even when they said they only needed it for school, even when it was a book about the rape and pillage of the country by the liberal fools in Washington, I would find those books. Because they were depending on me to find it. And I couldn’t let them down.
Then there was the doubting, the hoping, the praying and then the crossing of fingers. I’ve worked many jobs. We all have. We have to, right? The work defines us. What better way to see how a person really is than by seeing how they act at a place they truly do not want to be. I’m no angel. I’ve done things and said things at jobs that I’m not proud of. And I’ve wasted the money I’ve earned. I’ve wasted an unheard of amount of time. But I’ve also learned a lot. There are pieces of me at those past jobs, the buildings, those people. I am more than what I was before. It is very hard for me to complain about my life, now. It is almost damn-near impossible.
Still, there is a part of me that needs improving, fixing, resolving. There is a perfect word for it somewhere. I want to be Superman, even when I know in my heart there is no such thing as Superman.
“You can’t save every baby,” a friend told me, once.
“Well,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “We’ll see, won’t we?”