That’s me, in the picture, or me in my old alter ego, Philip D. Bag. Philip D. was the brainchild of some private contractor working for some Connecticut state environmental agency. This would have been sometime in summer 2007. This was after I’d come home from a fun but ultimately directionless couple years living in Chicago. I was going on Craigslist every day looking for odd jobs while I applied for more “serious” stuff on Monster.com or whatever. I found this gig on Craigslist. It seemed like it would be amusing, but it kind of blew.
The suit had this frame made out of PVC piping which kept the character rigid and gave Philip D. his characteristic rectangle shape. It weighed, I think, like 45 pounds. They’d make me go to events like state fairs, such the Big E in Massachusetts, or the boat race you see here. The costume was unbelievably hot, especially because of the tights you had to wear both on top and bottom to keep the limbs looking appropriately cartoon black. I’d go to these things and it would be like 90 degrees out and I would want to fall over. To make matters worse, because of the heat, you had to swap out with another person every two hours. So I’d pull that thing on after somebody had been baking in the July sun, and the smell would just be awful and it would stick with you all day long. I learned that everybody secretly hates mascot characters or else expresses their affection through abuse. The kids would just beat on you, I mean they’d come up to take a picture or give you a hug and they’d just start wailing on you. The teenagers were worse, though. They delighted in walking by and tripping you, which was easy because the suit had like zero visibility. Or else they’d throw shit at you. I can’t really blame them. I mean, the suit literally said “D Bag” on the back.
Still, it was some money, although not a lot, particularly because there just weren’t a lot of hours available. And real-world perspective always helps: everything about that job was cush, compared to the average day of some Mexican migrant worker picking fruit in California or an undocumented maid at some hotel who can’t complain about anything for fear of deportation. The thing is that you’ve got to be simultaneously aware of how good you’ve got it while being honest about your personal experience of what’s worthwhile employment. Otherwise labor issues just become this race to the bottom where people can say, “hey, worker, you’re not a shipbreaker in Bangladesh, so quit your complaining.” In any event: I had it pretty good, then, and I recognize my privileges in a way that those who only use privilege theory as a tool for inter-liberal combat never can. I just have it better, now.
Before that I had a job for awhile in the local public school system that I had gone through when I grew up. My younger brother clued me in to it. They had started this long-term substitute thing which paid you $100 a day. For awhile there I thought that was as much money as I’d ever need to make. At first I started out being a sub at the local middle school and high school. Your day to day life satisfaction as a sub was pretty much 100% determined by how the kids that day decided to act. You could teach a class one day and they’d be charming and funny, and the next day they’d just be terrible. So it was a toss up. Not a bad gig, by any means, though. I did pick up a lot of residual sadness at the middle school, although whether it was that of the students or just memories of my own from the past was unclear. I quite enjoyed high school– mine was one of those rare ones, I guess, that didn’t have cliques or popularity hierarchies, and the older we got the better we all treated each other– but middle school was the pit of despair, for me. Even in the classes that seemed to function there was just this sense of sadness that hung over everything.
Anyway, at some point they moved me over to one of the local elementary schools. They needed a long-term replacement for a paraprofessional for this program for kids with severe emotional disturbance. She had hurt herself, I think, restraining one of the kids. I ended up being there like a year and a half. The program was mostly a segregated population, but it was housed in a regular school, and some of the kids were mainstreamed in with the rest. I have long wanted to write about that experience but I have never been able to make my emotions from that time coherent enough to do so. There were women who had worked there for 30 years, enough time to see several generations from the same family come through that system. I pretty much burnt myself out, emotionally, over 18 months. I’ll always be incredibly impressed by their patience and their dark humor, making very little, trying to help these kids to learn and to keep them out of the state mental system, which was the only next step.
You had to restrain them, sometimes. The admittedly Orwellian term of art was “therapeutic hold.” There was a padded room with a window on it where kids could go in and get out their anger, pound on the walls. Sometimes it wasn’t enough and the ambulance would have to come. Later on, when I would talk about those days, some people would express disgust that any kind of physical restraint or isolation was used at all, calling it barbaric, or whatever. But you can’t understand how hard it could be just helping them get through the day without hurting themselves or their peers. One time I was working with this kid on division and he couldn’t get it, and he got frustrated, and without warning he took his heavy, fake-gold G Unit medallion and walloped me in the face with it, gave me a real shiner. That wasn’t that big of a deal. But when the choice was between letting a kid throw his desk at another, or holding that kid back for awhile, it wasn’t much of a choice.
After that 18 months or so, I was pretty much unable to handle the emotional investment. The city gave me a good excuse to get out; they cut the long-term sub program, which would have meant a bump down to $65/day. That’s a lot more than a lot of people make. But it was time for me to go, anyway.
There were earlier jobs. In Chicago I worked for a dog walking company. I thought it would be a good gig, and there were a lot of sweet pups, but all in all it really was a bad job. You got paid by the dog walked. I’d show up in the morning and they’d give you a schedule of walks with addresses. This was pre-GPS days, at least for me, and I didn’t know the near-Loop areas where most of the clients lived. The central problem, though, was that the owners simply didn’t care when the schedule was impossible. They once insisted that I go from walking a dog right near the United Center to walking a dog in Edgewater to walking a dog in Old Town, all within an hour. In Chicago weekday traffic. I pointed out to them, many times, that the schedules they were giving me just weren’t possible, and they would just say, “It’s your job to figure that out.” A lot of the people wanted the walks done at a specific time and if you couldn’t make it, they’d call and complain. I tried to make that a means of entry into another attempt at the “this schedule is physically impossible” conversation, but no dice. I felt bad about quitting but with gas up near $5 a gallon back then I was pocketing very little money anyway. I did really develop my city driving and parallel parking skills though.
Concurrently to the dog walking job, I worked as a lifeguard at the Irving Park YMCA. The staff was pretty cool there and lifeguarding, while boring, is a good gig. In some cases a great gig. From high school through my early 20s I spent my summers working for my hometown Park & Rec department, guarding at the local pool or lake. It was really idyllic, kind of like what a lifeguarding job is like in the movies. You’d only go up on chair for a half hour at a time, and we usual had like 12 life guards on duty at once, so you’d work maybe an hour out of an 8 hour shift. Plus that was what the insurance company dictated so if anybody complained the city couldn’t do anything about it. That gig was just lying in the sun, goofing around, flirting with other lifeguards, partying at night. I still miss it. Anyway a YMCA gig isn’t nearly as good but it’s mostly just looking at water for money. At one point though I stupidly went to work with a fever and in the heat of the pool I passed out and conked my head and had to go to the hospital for a concussion. They were pretty good about paying the initial bills but like always with the hospital there were new bills ages later, and those I couldn’t get paid for, and they followed me around for years.
I dropped the dog walking job, but I didn’t have enough lifeguarding hours, so I asked for more work at the Y. I ended up painting racquetball courts and pools for them, along with a lot of other miscellaneous maintenance. I’d have this big, long-handled paint roller and I’d lift it way over my head and paint the ceilings, and I was pretty sucky at it. I’d drizzle all of this paint onto the floor (or into the pool) and it would get all over me. The upside of that was that when I would ride the El home after I could playact as some tough blue collar guy; everybody would see me covered in paint and assume I was some sort of craftsman instead of a dweeb who got some pity work out of the facilities manager.
After I came home to Connecticut, I had a job for awhile at the warehouse for a novelty goods website called Prank Place. Sold dog poop and Hilary Clinton voodoo dolls and stuff. I was a seasonal Christmas employee; the owner told me that he broke even 46 weeks out of the year and made all his income during the Christmas shopping season. It was a good job, actually a really good job. The owner of the company was generous and kind, even bought us lunch every day, if you can believe it. The pay wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible, I think something like $12.25/hour, maybe a little more. We had a few duties. You’d go around the warehouse and find these novelty items in the morning, based on the orders, and then you’d pack them up into a UPS or USPS package. It was kind of hilarious: someone would come on over the monitor, “We need Wiener Cleaner! We need three units of Wiener Cleaner soap!” At the end of the day we’d load them up onto pallets, wrap the pallets in plastic, and then we’d take turns driving a van with them down to the post office or UPS. Sometimes we’d get these big crates from the China, same size and shape as the trailer of a 16-wheeler. The kind that go straight from the factory to a slow boat across the Pacific to getting hauled across country. We’d crack them open and we’d go in and start an assembly line of guys, hauling out boxes. The crates would have been sealed for literally over a month, and they smelled awful inside. But with a lot of guys working the unpacking didn’t take that long, and you could goof around and joke while you worked. That was a pretty sweet job. But it was only seasonal so it ended pretty quickly.
There were others. When I was 19 I worked in an apple orchard, the Pick Your Own section. I’d sit in this little trailer on these gorgeous Connecticut fall days, picking at a guitar I was just learning to play then, waiting for families to come pick apples. Weekends were crazy but most weekdays I could easily go an hour without getting a customer. One day they didn’t have any work for me in the orchard so they stuck me in back in the bakery, where I feebly tried to assemble apple pies while the Mexican workers around me sped through the work with great speed and accuracy. I’d make a complete hash of doing the crust right and one of them would get this kind of sympathetically skeptical look and grab it from me and fix it. I’m sure I made more money than they did and probably produced a third of the pies. I did get to eat a lot of apple pie filling though.
I could go on. Craigslist provided a lot of one-day or short-term gigs. Helping people move was highly variable. You usually got like $20/hour which was great, but the work could be backbreaking. What really made a difference was how cool the homeowner was; sometimes they gave lots of breaks and free pizza. Sometimes they never stopped complaining about the pace. You just never knew going in. I worked for a lady one day, she had a little boutique farm like there are a lot of in New England, and all I did was sit outside and carve pumpkins, separating out the seeds so she could roast them and sell them. It was cold and the glop smelled terrible and it only paid like $7/hour. Cut myself pretty bad with the knife too. She was a sweet lady though and she threw in a $5 scratch off ticket with my cash. (Almost always I got paid in cash.)
I did a bunch of chipping off paint or simple demo work. I remember one job in West Hartford, this guy, immigrant from India, he had bought a house and was trying to flip it, and he had hired this guy George who had a lot of experience. George would do the actual skilled labor stuff, I would paint or tear down wallpaper or whatever. But George was always late or just wouldn’t show, and the house flipper had that thing that recent immigrants sometimes have where he would swear every other word, trying to fit in, I suppose. So he’d be like, “where the fuck is goddamn George?” He’d constantly hint that he’d much rather just pay me for the work he was having George do, but I’d have to tell him that I just didn’t have anything like the skills he needed. That guy paid in money orders he got at 7-11. The maintenance style work, I just always worried that I’d get hurt and they’re be no way to get compensated.
Once, I had a gig at the convention center, helping corporate employees build bicycles for charity as part of a “team building” exercise. The permanent convention center employees kept laughing at me and I can’t blame them. I didn’t know what I was doing. I worked for the Princeton Review, teaching the SATs and GRE, for a long time. The money was good and my boss was cool. Some of the kids were sweet. Some of them were the living definition of rich kid entitlement. I’ll never forget driving to a tutoring session at a house in Wilton and pulling up, in my ratty Wrangler, next to two gleaming Rolls Royces. But the kid was actually sweet. With Princeton Review at the time you could pick up side cash grading their practice SAT essays, for $1 a pop. (Same rate the graders of the real SAT were getting, at the time.) You had to move really briskly to make it worthwhile, and it was mind-numbingly boring, but you could squeeze out $18-$20/hour if you really tried. You can do the math on how much time that means the average essay got. Again: it’s the same thing with the real SAT.
I don’t know, really, what the point of all this is. It’s certainly not to burnish my “down to earth” credentials. I’m not and have never been blue collar. I mean, clearly, this isn’t The Grapes of Wrath, you know what I’m saying? I guess my point is just to lay out what I’ve experienced, and what work has meant for me, and to remember my current blessings and to value them. Because this is better, so much better, what I’m doing now. The point also is that things change, and you can roll with the changes. At least if you enjoy the privileges I enjoy, like being a non-threatening white male and receiving the benefits that accrue to such people. (Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t white men who suffer, or who labor under the burden of bad luck and oppression. There are, though this opinion has become unspeakable in many places online. I’m just not one of them.) I guess I’m just saying that, with no kids to worry about and the luck to enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed, I can decide what to do when this step ends, whether that means the kind of life I want or not. And I can look at it all and realize that I can deal with whatever comes, and I wish everyone were as lucky at me.
(If you would like to complain about the extreme length of this post, please print out a letter and place it in a package containing a self addressed stamped envelope, then throw the packaged into the ocean.)