I call my Mom every day on my way to work. Some people say this makes me a good daughter. It doesn’t. I really rarely see her, considering she only lives about 25 minutes away. I work, I have the kid, I have social obligations, I work out. It’s a busy life and almost every free day, every other week when I don’t have the kid, is booked up weeks in advance. In many ways, it helps me to feel alive, like I’m really living my life and wringing out every bit of it when I have things to do, people who engage me, make me laugh, make me think. Then there are all the “have to” things that I push to evening when I can, to avoid interference with the work day. The dentist, the eye doctor, seeing specialists, going for physical therapy for my myriad injuries, and of course all the errands. Returning library books, buying food, taking something somewhere, picking something else up from somewhere.
Sometimes I feel like I’m so busy, I don’t even have time to go to work for 8 hours a day and do my job. It interferes with my life, I think, for real. The reality is that I have to go to the job or else none of the other things can happen, including feeding and clothing me and the kid.
I was thinking recently of how much more complex my working life is now. And I know many people work many, many more hours at their job than I do. Because of the nature of my job, I often am thinking about it and working on something related to it when I’m not there. I might drive somewhere and see something belonging to one of our clients and text my boss a picture, wondering if we need to write a story. Or I see another client has posted on social media about something new, and make a note to incorporate that into something I’m writing for work. Or my boss texts me to ask for clarification about an interview I did, and I have to pull up my notes and figure it out. It’s like an app or program always running in the background, and sometimes requires my attention even when I’m not sitting at my desk next to my liquid fuel machine (coffee), that helps drive my engine and hopefully make me a productive employee.
It’s so abstract. Sometimes I write things for work that I think are great, and my bosses don’t like what I’ve written. Or they do, but the client hates it. Sometimes I can’t write for shit and everything I produce sucks and somehow it gets approved and it’s on to the next thing. Rarely, I’m inspired and write something really great that everyone loves. More often, I churn through the work because there’s so much of it, there’s no time to linger and craft something wonderful, I just have to hit the word count and the deadline and try to make it decent. Then I leave and feel like I did shit work and vow to do better the next day, but there’s a client emergency and no time to think that day either. And then it’s another month, and another season, and soon a new year.
I was remembering with fondness the finite nature of the jobs I had in my early work life. The main problems with these jobs are the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute challenges of dealing with a fickle and sometimes angry public. Low pay – very low pay sometimes. Unpredictable hours. Long, long stretches of time on your feet, that make you feel too beat up to do anything but suck on a cheap beer and cram in some nachos after your shift ends. And no benefits, which is the main reason I got out of retail and restaurant work, as I was really sick and needed steady hours, needed to get off my feet, and needed health insurance coverage. Needed to be paid when I took time off, which was a lot.
But damn, the black and whiteness of it all. Sometimes I miss it. I’ve sold a lot of things. Women’s clothing, children’s clothing, watches, purses, jewelry, fine china, wedding registry gifts, luggage, linens, casual dinnerware, kitchen appliances and utensils, just for starters. And of course food, as a server. Lots and lots of food.
You want a blender? Ok. We have the blender, or we don’t. You want blue, red or white? We don’t have red, you want to order it? Ok, done. Your coupon doesn’t work – see the print on the back. Buy it or not, who cares. Customer is done, pays and leaves. Next. You want the Lenox cake server? Ok here you go. Done. Bye. You want this particular Skagen watch? We have it or we don’t. This is the price. Done. Bye.
I mean, sure, there was a certain amount of extra service you could give. If we didn’t have something, maybe you call another store to see if they have it. Or you offer to order it for them, and enter all the shit to get it sent to wherever they want. You had sales goals, you wanted to try to hit those. Or maybe you try to improve your check average by upselling, or have a contest with the other servers to see who can sell more of the special of the day. There was camaraderie though, on the front lines of dealing with the public. You’d go in “the back” and complain to a sympathetic co-worker. You’d take a smoke break behind the restaurant with a sous chef and bitch about the number and type of special orders at table 38. You’d help each other out and back each other up. I haven’t had that since I left the front lines of dealing with the public.
When I clocked out, I never thought a thing about those jobs. I didn’t read articles about how to sell more watches. I couldn’t control the fact that we had no customers for 4 hours so I didn’t hit my sales goal. And nothing was up for interpretation. I had the item and I sold it to you, or I didn’t. My work was my work. I opened the store charge cards, or I didn’t. Nobody said well, you may have opened 10 store charges, but HOW did you open them, and how did the conversations go with the customers? Did they like you? Did you like them? How could you like them more? Nobody gave a shit. If you opened 10, try to open 12 next month. If you did that, gold star. Maybe even a raise after a few months if you keep it up. Duties had boundaries. You couldn’t manufacture things that didn’t exist, you couldn’t magically make products appear that you didn’t have.
Everything is so fucking complicated now. All day at my job, everything I do is subject to interpretation, judgment, moods, whims. At night, so much of what I do with my son is honestly quite the same. How long can I keep my patience. What can I teach him here? Is there a way for me to bundle him learning something or a way for him to build his character with whatever we are doing? Sometimes I just give up and give him a fucking hot dog and some tater tots and call it done because I’m so drained. Other times I spend the rest of what’s left of my mental energy on trying to make him a better human, whether it’s in facilitating things so he can drill on math problems, encouraging him to read a book, having him help me with errands or chores and explaining why it’s important to learn to do these things for yourself. Showing him how the trees are suddenly bare, and taking a moment to pick him up and look outside at nature and be still for a moment.
Sometimes it’s all I can do, once he is tucked neatly into his little bed, to sit down and read a few pages of a book with a glass of wine. Or mindlessly catch up on my soap opera. If there’s anything left in the energy bucket, I do my physical therapy exercises or lift weights. But the app is buzzing all the time, wanting my attention, wondering if I’m thinking of the problems I have to solve at work through writing. Wondering if my work will be good enough the next day, or the day after.
It’s hard to believe I sometimes long for the days when I said things every day like, “Would you like to make that a loaded baked potato?” or “Kate Spade is excluded from all coupons, it’s on the back.” But it was so much simpler then.