Over the years I have held well over a hundred jobs, and gradually came to very much enjoy job interviews, as the prospect of rejection grew less intimidating.
I think I first stopped being terribly intimidated in New Mexico at age thirty-three, when I was required to show proof at the unemployment office that I had applied for work in at least three places every week, in order to obtain tiny unemployment benefits of $32.00/week. (The benefits were hardly worth the effort, but I continued to bother spending a day each week walking around fulfilling the requirements, primarily because I knew my getting benefits irritated my mean, crooked former-boss.) It was benign summertime, and the rest of the week I was busily writing in a campground where the rent was $25.00/week; I had absolutely no desire for the interruptions caused by the nuisance of employment. To make certain I wouldn’t accidentally get a job, I applied for work at the oddest places, and adopted an attitude of curiosity where it didn’t matter that it became immediately obvious I wasn’t qualified for the job; I asked questions because I was interested in learning about a job I couldn’t do. I became more like a reporter than an applicant, and for some reason most (but not all) interviewers liked the tables being turned, and being the one interviewed, and we’d sit for half an hour “chewing the fat” over coffee. They seemed surprised a shabby drifter was so articulate, (and I liked the free coffee.)
But when I was young and terribly shy it was a completely different matter. Looking for work was a humiliation and a hell.
It wasn’t so bad when I ran my own little landscaping business in the wealthy suburb I grew up in. I walked up and down streets putting a file-card-sized advertisement in mail boxes, with big lettering that inquired, “Spring Cleaning? Need Muscle?” and then had details and a phone number in small lettering. Then I sat back to wait for others to call me. Rather than like asking others to dance it was more like the phone rang and others asked me to dance. (In my list of jobs-I’ve-had I don’t know whether to count this business as being one job, or twenty-five; rich and interesting people asked me to help with all sorts of interesting tasks, but that is a tale for another time.)
It was quite a different thing when I looked through a newspaper’s classified ads for the help-wanted ads, and had to go fill out an application. Then it was like asking a girl for a dance, and I was never very bold in that respect. In some ways it could be worse, like asking a girl to dance when you didn’t know how to dance, and she’d be required to teach you.
(As an aside, during my first date with my wife we attended a Cajun barbecue with Cajun music, and were both surprised to see people begin dancing in a way I supposed was Cajun. I said I didn’t know how to dance, and she said she didn’t know how to dance, and then we decided to invent our own dance and danced joyously for ninety minutes straight. I knew then I had found someone special. However I was thirty-seven when that happened.)
At age twenty-one I was gruesomely uncomfortable when it came to job interviews and “selling myself” in any way, shape or form. “Tooting your own horn” seemed somehow immodest, even rude. But in January, 1975, I was flat broke, which is a state good at pushing a man past his self-imposed limits.
My mother knew something was up when she came downstairs and found me plunked at her dining-room table, sneering distastefully at the small local paper, which was opened to the help-wanted section. She was, as she put it, “all gussied up”, which meant she was dressed up in tweed to go to some sort of cocktail party; fragrant with subtle perfume; tall; her short, dark hair perfectly styled with gray wings at her temples, and wearing dangling tear-shaped earrings of green jade. She radiated an aura of pleased serenity, but the moment she summed up my situation her serenity became creased by concern. The fact I apparently needed a job suggested there was a problem, and she did not like her children to have problems, especially when she was about to go out to a party.
She veered carefully away from the topic of my prospects, and instead inquired if I would sprinkle some salt on the icy front walk before my stepfather came home. I was glad to escape the dismal want-ads, so I got up to do it, aware he’d be home any minute.
It was just getting dark as he pulled up to the side of the street, even as I sprinkled the salt, which I decided made me look good, as he didn’t often see me working. He smiled at me as he gingerly got out of his Saab, an elderly man with only a fringe of grey hair left, but with his baldness hidden beneath a checked, deer-slayer hat like the one Sherlock Holmes wore. I thought the hat looked silly, but never told him so because he so obviously enjoyed wearing it.
My stepfather was 28 years older than my mother. His friends had told him that marrying her would either extend his life or kill him, and initially we kids did our best to kill him, and he actually did have a heart attack within the first six months of adopting six troubled children.
Immediately after the marriage I’d done my best to be polite, but when the old man accidentally offended me I began to refer to him as “the fossil” behind his back. I deemed him an old fool, and even a home-wrecker, for I preferred being a struggling family on the verge of having to move out of a wealthy suburb, to being mere used baggage bought by an old coot who wanted a trophy wife. But then things changed. Somewhat amazingly I began to feel like a trophy stepchild.
He had been a Harvard Law School Professor, and fit the mold: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” He would speak with long pauses, as if he was a very learnéd man and all the world breathlessly awaited his thoughtful opinions. He seemed quite blissfully unaware that the mannerisms he felt were charming were in fact dreadfully dull.
During our first dinners together as a family I attempted to bat my eyes politely as he took forever to say even the most inconsequential things, “I think…..I would like….some mustard.” My ten-year-old and eight-year-old younger brother and sister would have none of it, and would interject silly things into the old man’s pauses, completing his sentences for him: “I think….I would like….to tap dance?” Then they would dissolve into helpless laughter. My stepfather initially was infuriated by the affronts to his dignity, but his manner of punishing them was to rise in wrath and stalk silently away from the table, which made my younger siblings only laugh all the more helplessly, as my mother regarded them with horror. I hated dinnertime. But after six months, and especially after his heart attack, I began to notice something. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the old man dropped the long pauses.
The late 1960’s was a tumultuous time, with disrespect of elders in fashion. My two elder brothers were away at college, and both dropped out to join a commune two thousand miles away. My older sister had a scandalous relationship with a married, older man and got thrown out of our house, which I thought a bit hypocritical of my mother, considering she too was living with an older man. At age fifteen I decided to tell my mother what she was doing wrong, and was rewarded with a slap across my face I likely deserved.
In retrospect my stepfather seems slightly mad to have walked into such a buzz-saw at retirement age. Having been a stepfather myself, I now have a better understanding of the problems stepfathers face, but at the time I had no mercy. I loved my father, felt my mother should have stood by her man, and saw my stepfather as an interloper.
My father had been a famous surgeon who had at least five major trauma’s simultaneously occur in his life, not the least of which was the fact the woman he’d had six children with didn’t love him any more, (and perhaps had never loved him), which led him to begin raving and drinking too much. But the specific trauma that intellectually hit me hardest was the simple fact he couldn’t do what he once had done. He’d been an amazing surgeon, able to suture the ends of severed arteries back together with twenty tiny stitches and tie the knots with one hand. No other surgeon could do what he could do, enabling him to make what, in modern terms, was roughly a half million to a million dollars a year. But then, (in the same manner that even Babe Ruth reached an age when no team wanted him), my father hit the wall at age forty-four.
This contributed greatly to my desire to become a writer. I wanted to find a vocation I’d never be too old to do.
My stepfather went through a similar crisis, which for obvious reasons I watched with interest, (if not compassion). When he hit age seventy Harvard College retired him. He was as mentally sharp as ever, but it was simply the college’s policy in 1970: When you hit seventy you were out the door; no discussion.
I was somewhat incredulous that he should be hurt or angry, and puzzled that he became as crabby as he became. In my eyes getting a job was more likely to make me crabby. He had a fine pension and plenty of money saved and could just kick back and laze as happily as a clam, but instead he was miserable. Was it possible a man could want to work?
Then something nice surprised him midst his bitterness. Three of his former students had formed a law office in Portland, Maine, and they came to him and very humbly inquired if he might be so good as to consider helping them out by becoming the law office’s senior advisor. I have never seen an old man stop being crabby so fast. He seemed to feel like a man granted a reprieve on the gallows, and accepted the job as a very great blessing, and seemed to never forget he was blessed, gently twinkling like morning stars in the afterglow of glory.
I think it was my older sister who first understood that the old man deserved appreciation, which was a bit surprising, as she’d become a fiery feminist. She made me walk on eggs, for fear I’d offend her. I didn’t think she’d put up with anyone over thirty. Yet when she visited she took to greeting the old man with demonstrative hugs. He most definitely was not a man prone to hugging, but he seemed to like hers, especially during the days when he was unemployed and crabby.
I myself didn’t hug the man. I’d tried it one time, the first breakfast after we became a new family. I came downstairs and gave him a hug as he sat at the table reading the paper, and he gruffly stated, “Don’t feel you have to do that ever again.” I recoiled, and it was only after four years, (when involved in some sort of “express your inner feelings” pop-psychology), that I confessed I’d been hurt, and he apologized, saying he only intended to free me from feeling I had to display any sort of artificial affection. At the time I took him at his word, and stayed away from him.
I didn’t approve of my younger sibling’s irreverence at the dinner table, and tried to frown at them, although they were so funny I sometimes couldn’t manage it. For my part I politely discussed weather and sports with my stepfather and then excused myself; I left the table as swiftly as I possibly could. I assumed he didn’t care for me. At age sixteen I ran away from home for a week as a sort of grandiose gesture, and was a bit taken aback that he never really noticed, because my mother never told him; he just assumed I was off visiting friends.
Only gradually did we become interested in each other. I think the first common ground we discovered involved a love of puns. Then, because my mother had a large dictionary on an ornate stand by the dining-room table, we shared an interest in the derivation of words. The closest I ever came to being so bold as to argue with the man involved words. One time I ventured I didn’t approve of the word “niggardly”, and he protested the word had nothing to do with race, so we looked the word up. Usually he was correct and I was not, but, on the rare occasions I knew something he didn’t, he always behaved appreciative rather than offended. That surprised me.
Then, as I became a hippy and began hitchhiking around the country, he actually supported my adventures rather than attempting to prevent them. The police tended to investigate smooth-cheeked hitchhikers, to see if they were runaways, and I was able to show them a permission-slip from my stepfather that I carried in my wallet. (I don’t think it was the illegible handwriting that impressed the officers, as much as it was the fact the stationary read, “Harvard Law School”, at the top.)
Though I hitchhiked because I was restless, and the suburbs were sterile and bored the hell out of me, I always pretended I was doing it “for a school project” or “for an English paper.” This caused a bit of a problem when no such papers were forthcoming. However I did produce one paper, a “senior project”, which drew a strange response from the old man.
What I did was to overcome my shyness and interview every member of my senior class I could get to talk with me, during lunch in the cafeteria. I asked them to describe what cliques they had belonged to, going back as far as they could remember. Then I wrote a paper with the title “The Evolution Of Cliques In A Suburban High School” which I got in trouble for, (because I handed the same paper in to both my English and Social Studies teachers, blithely unaware such redundancy might present a problem). The paper contained a fair amount of sarcasm, and was vain, for it described hippy poets as the “most highly evolved” clique, and my stepfather was completely enchanted by it. He took it in to Harvard and showed it to all his friends, even making extra copies of the badly typed document. We never talked together about the paper, but I could see the man was delighted. I found the experience strange, for I didn’t tend to think of myself as being delightful, at age seventeen.
When I was eighteen one of my older brothers “borrowed” a rich man’s yacht and we sailed it south, intending to load it with marijuana in Jamaica and get rich quick. We made it as far as Nassau before the Law caught up with us. We deserved jail, but my stepfather fought for us, and he got us off with a slap on the wrist, though it cost him a pretty penny. Sometimes having a stepfather who is a boring professor of law isn’t all bad.
Now I was twenty-one and had known the old man for seven years, and not only had I failed to kill him, but against my own will I found myself liking him a lot.
He had become very careful and methodical in his old age, to avoid falling or losing things. He stretched little ice-grips over his boots, and followed a three-step process when leaving his Saab to make certain he did not forget his briefcase, keys, or to turn his headlights off. Even though I had salted the front walk, he took all the care of a man on a tightrope, gingerly walking to the front steps, and then, after entering the house, went through a similar process, reminding me of Mr. Rogers in the way he always hung up his coat and deerslayer hat in an identical manner. He was particularly slow and deliberate when hanging up his car keys on a particular hook. Then I shadowed him to the dining room table, where he would open his briefcase and remove the Portland Press Herald and the New York Times. He was well aware of my tendency to lurk like a vulture, and handed me the papers with a smile.
He was also slow and deliberate with his questioning (though he had dropped the long pauses,) and was very observant. As a lawyer, he knew how to cross examine, and despite his caution he’d learned to think quickly on his feet. A lot seemed to happen in his silences, at times giving me the sense he was psychic.
On this occasion he must have noted I didn’t reach for the Times, and instead for the Press Herald, and noticed that rather than opening to the weather map I opened the paper to the “Help Wanted” page. He also may have noted the town newspaper was already open to “Help Wanted”, on the table. He looked interested, and inquired, “Any work?”
I pretended to find the situation humorous. “Well, there are three jobs in the local paper. I can pretend to be a mechanic at the cannery, or pretend to be a cook at the diner, or pretend to be an expert at veneering the decks of yachts, at the marina. The trick would be to get at least one paycheck, before they fired me.”
My stepfather didn’t say anything, but he did give me a slightly unnerving, very penetrating glance with his very blue eyes, before my mother came bustling in and said it was time to go.
Then abruptly the house was gruesomely silent. A sterility I knew all too well was pressing in from the black windows, as I faced a Friday night alone. I swiftly glanced through the help-wanted ads in the Press Herald, not expecting to find anything and having my expectations confirmed. Then I began to pace around my parent’s house, trying to find something to think about, to escape my despair.
Sometimes escapism is too obvious. I could click through all the shows on the T.V., and nothing would grab me. I could glance over the spines of all the books in the ceiling-to-floor wall of books in the living-room, and every author would be dull. I could go to the piano and try to lose myself in a song, bellowing at the top of my lungs because no one was home, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. All the symbols of wealth in the plush home were sucked dry of value, and became empty trinkets. There was no escaping a poverty that came creeping in from black windows like ghouls, so I put on my jacket, hat and gloves and went out to walk in it. Something about walking in the darkness was soothing to my soul (and it wasn’t because, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”).
The soothing was a bit of a mystery to me, and still remains a mystery, when I see a young man striding along a highway when I’m out driving after dark. I’m sure the police are curious as well, but when they pull over to ask a young vagrant what he’s doing or where he’s going, I doubt they get a good answer. (The best answer is “going for a walk”, because then you don’t have to explain). However the real answer is, I have decided, something which involves levels of our being beneath the superficial skim we call our intellect or our “our rational”. Even in the pitch dark we are “communing with nature”.
I found hiking-in-the-dark annoyed psychologists, for they were like the officer questioning the vagrant, and always wanted to know exactly what I was communing, demanding specifics when there were no words. (Also perhaps they were annoyed because when I went for a walk I didn’t have to pay them to be healed). But what (or who) the healing involved was always a mystery. In a sense it was like talking-in-tongues, words that sounded like babbling but were the super-conscious speaking to the subconscious, without granting the conscious mind permission to eavesdrop. Or that’s the best I can do to explain the inexplicable. The simply fact is: After-dark hiking made me feel better without any excuse for feeling better.
One psychologist explained that I “burned up excessive hormones through physical activity”, and I’ll allow that, if it makes him feel less insecure, but he was never in my head in that darkness.
There definitely was a physical component, especially as the walking became striding (which hippies called “trucking”). I’d become caught up in the rhythm, the way feet sounded scuffing over the tar, the way the streetlight pools came and went and bobbed up and down as I strode, the way my striding shadow shortened and then lengthened. Then out of the rhythm would come lyrics, and sometimes the melody of a song. Often it was an old song, for example I might find myself humming a song that came to me when walking home from my girlfriend’s, (back when I had a girlfriend), the evening before I set sail as an outlaw with my brother, when I was well aware I might die at sea.
The night is cricket’s velvet.
My cigarette is glowing.
A police car whispers by.
I have no way of knowing
Will my baby cry
When she finds me going
The world is swimming softly.
The cool night air I’m drinking
Brings me softly down
From my happy thinking.
I cannot turn around
Though the happiness is shrinking
The streetlight pools are nodding.
The steady pavement’s flowing
Surges as my march is on.
Can she see I’m knowing
This could be my ending song?
Oh am I really going
Going going gone?
Other times the song would be a new song, and I was always a bit mystified where they came from. Not that I worried about such things. Instead merely I enjoyed the sensation. I now blush a little to think how unselfconsciously absorbed in my own emotions I became, and wonder what people sleeping with their window open thought, as a crooning crazy-man approached on the street outside, and then faded away. But I myself became wonderfully carefree, sort of drunk without alcohol, and within a bubble where I felt most like myself, and free of the person I had to pretend to be when applying for some job I really didn’t want to do.
On this particular occasion it slowly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do before daybreak; there were no offices accepting job-applications after dark, and therefore it was a waste of energy to worry. It then occurred to me that, if I couldn’t find a job, perhaps I could join the clam-diggers I saw slogging out over the mudflats from the window of my shack, as the tide went out. In the bitter winds of January it looked like a miserable job, and I had noticed there were fewer and fewer of them as the weather grew colder and colder, but as I paced in the darkness I found the idea strangely appealing. It would be a job with no boss. But they didn’t dig clams in the dark, so it was no use starting right away.
Eventually I found my way along the waterfront to my shack on the dock down below my parent’s house, but it was bitter cold inside. The fire had gone out in the pot bellied stove, and I’d neglected to get firewood or split kindling. That was another problem to deal with in the morning, but in the meantime I decided to grab my notebook and to head up the hill to my parent’s warm abode, and to jot down a poem that had come into my head as I walked, and eventually to sleep in their warm basement.
When my parents returned from their cocktail party they found me scribbling and smoking at their dining-room table, as if I’d never left. I was feeling much better, for my poem pleased me, and also I had decided I had a job. I’d be a clam-digger. My mother didn’t ask about my poem or job, but rather to please clean up all the newspapers on the table, so I did it, after clipping the weather-map from the Times. As I did I idly inquired if the party was fun. They both seemed a little flushed, and I suspected they’d had more than one cocktail.
My mother rhapsodized about some client of my stepfather’s she had met who had opened a place that made sails, in Portland. My mother could be quite dazzling at a party, but she was equally charm-able, and I gathered the businessman had charmed her.
Listening more carefully I learned she had absorbed details of the sail-making business like a sponge, and could even become righteously indignant about people who had caused the businessman a problem and to require a lawyer. Apparently there was some government grant aimed at enticing businesses to Portland, to lower the high unemployment rate, but some disgruntled employee had tattled about some “i” the businessman forgot to dot or some “t” he neglected to cross, in order to qualify for the government grant. The man found American employees very ungrateful for the work he had brought to their city, and it was then my ears perked up. I immediately assumed the man must be from some foreign place that had Queen Elisabeth on their stamps, and must speak with one of several British accents that my mother could never resist, (even if they weren’t the King’s English). Sure enough, when I inquired I discovered the businessman was an Aussie.
For the most part my stepfather had remained silent, merely nodding and smiling as my mother chattered in her musical voice, but suddenly he turned to me and I realized he hadn’t forgotten me, even at a cocktail party. His face grew serious and he said two dreadful words. “He’s hiring.”
I sat back, a bit stunned. Me? A sail-maker?
Oh well, I hadn’t really wanted to dig clams in January, anyway.