One of the more unpleasant parts of meeting new people is explaining what I do – or don’t do – during the work week.  I have always dreaded being asked what I do for a living.  Saying “I am a writer” is too mortifying for words, and what’s more, in Los Angeles, I have to further explain that no, I’m not a screenwriter.  (Stage director, train engineer, doctor of philosophy – someday I’ll tell my children to never take a job that requires them to constantly say, “No, not that kind.”) 

No one knows what writers do – hell, I don’t even know what writers do.  In the last decade I have written corporate memos, software instruction manuals, trivia questions, travel guides, and crafting how-tos.  I’d call myself a hack, but I think hacks get paid better. So when someone asks me what I write I try to answer as vaguely as possible.  These days I mostly do “creative” writing, a phrase which puts listeners in mind of grade school essays written on that paper with the two solid lines and the dotted line in the middle, but when pressed I usually say that I write comedy and then immediately regret saying that.

Now that I work only part-time and stay home with my two children, I have to further explain that my job is to write comedy for free only some of the time.  If there’s anything that makes you sound lazier than that, I’d like to hear it.  The very worst part about working from home (besides the lack of free coffee) is that no one will ever believe you are actually working.  “Working from home” is treated as a polite euphemism for “sleeping all day,” when in fact trying to meet a deadline while locked in a house with a two-year-old and a three-month-old is like trying to pick your handcuff lock from the inside of a submerged steamer trunk. 

Judging from their comments, what people envy most about those who work from home is that they can “wear their pajamas all day,” a lifestyle boon we share with infants, in-patients, and, I suppose, professional pajama models. Personally I associate wearing pajamas past noon with times of great emotional or intestinal distress, and am more likely instead to put on something much too nice and then trump up some flimsy excuse for wearing it (Oil change? That calls for pearls!) but then maybe I’m just too spoiled from sleeping all day to appreciate the freedom that comes from dressing like your dog just died.

I used to work in a fancy office with elevators and cubicles and glass-walled conference rooms and people you see for years without ever saying hi to, and I felt very grand.  But often these jobs were in publishing or in technical writing, where the work required access to expensive printers and dual-monitor computer schemes, whereas now all my job requires is a laptop, an internet connection, and a total lack of human dignity.  Best of all, I had coworkers, people with whom and about whom to gossip, people you could eat lunch with and join for happy hour and invite to your home for a dinner party and watch mix awkwardly with your other friends. 

One might ask why I choose to work from home when I clearly miss the old days of fancy clothes and free Nature Valley granola bars.  The reason is simply that it costs more to pay for full-time daycare than I can earn as a writer, which anyone who has both read my writing and met my children will agree is totally fair – giving the world a 500-word musing on “What If Chaucer Wrote For Gawker?” simply does not equal the effort of cleaning 16 ounces of Greek yogurt out of my daughter’s hair.

Like many freelancers, I’ve combated the pajama-wearing blues by taking my laptop on the road.  These days I do most of my work from coffee shops.  Working at a coffee shop keeps me on my toes: I can’t afford to eat as many pastries as I would at home; I’m too afraid of random violence to sleep in public; and I feel like people notice if I go a long time without typing something.  Sometimes I’ll type something, lean back, and murmur approvingly, just like I used to do back in the old cubicle.  Occasionally I’ll laugh quietly to myself, shake my head in fond disbelief, and give a little shrug that says, “Can you believe the stuff she comes up with?”  The “she” in that sentence is me. 

Someday when my children are all grown up I’ll be back to water cooler gossip and structured waist bands.  After years of working from home, I can’t wait to jam the printer and chat in the break room, but I don’t know if I’m responsible enough anymore to be around all that free coffee.

He leaned in close.  Like they do in the movies.  He leaned in close and I could see his every pore, his every hair follicle.  He leaned in close and I didn’t move away.  He leaned in close and then, without preamble, he began to sing.

* * *

In the mornings, the mall is empty.  A ghost town of neon lights, discounted clothing and discarded dreams.  The tawdry trappings of late capitalism.  Some shit like that.

In the mornings, it’s just the mall walkers and the anorectic.

The anorectic comes to sell her jewelry at the Cash4Gold kiosk.  She always wears sweats.  Navy sweatpants, a pink sweatshirt and a down vest.  She is freezing.  And somehow, even under the sweatpants, I can see the outlines of her knobby, fat-free bones.  She can’t work anymore.  She hasn’t eaten in three decades and she’s living off discarded rings and bracelets.

* * *

The mall has a rigid caste system and we kiosk denizens are at the bottom.  It’s the lack of walls, I think.

* * *

We wear name tags.  All of us.  On lanyards around our necks.  We wear name tags and yet, somehow, this renders us even more invisible.  Disposable.

* * *

I took this job because it was the only one I could get.  Selling calendars at a kiosk in a suburban mall for $7.25/hour.

I work across from a Claire’s.  A hop, skip and a Hot Topic away from the food court.

My mother refers to me as “the Calendar girl.”  She thinks this is incredibly clever.

I should, of course, be grateful.  Grateful that I have a job at all.  Grateful that I’m able to live- rent-free- in my parents’ house.  Grateful that I have food and clothing and a roof over my head.

“Try,” I say to myself, “for a little gratitude.  Pack up your pity party and remember that you are lucky, lucky, lucky.”

Mine is not an American Tragedy of Dreiserian proportions.  I know that.  Mine is not even on the same scale as an Us Weekly cover story.   Tragedies generally take place on Russian Steppes.  They don’t usually involve Jonas Brothers calendars.  But this is my life and I’ll cry if I want to.

* * *

A woman I know from synagogue stopped by the kiosk the other day.  “This is what you’re doing with your Vassar degree?” she asked.

* * *

I ran into a friend from college last week.  She was home on October break, doing a little shopping with her mother.  We embraced.  We exchanged news.  I kept her talking because I didn’t want to be left alone, four hours to go until closing time.

She’s graduating soon.  In December.

I scared her.

My life frightened her.

“It’ll be different for you,” I promised.  “I make poor life choices.”

* * *

My manager, Scott, is a pathological liar.  Among other things, he’s told me that he was in a counter-narcotics group in the military” and that his ex-army buddies want him to join them as a “hired mercenary.”  By his own statements, he’s been a manager at a Big Lots and at Naturalizer, a truck driver, a fireman, a wannabe policeman.  He saved a Labrador from a dog-fighting ring.  He’s written two mystery novels.  “Sometimes,” he told me, “when I was writing my book, I just couldn’t believe how good it was.  I blew myself away.”  Scott thinks that convicted felons should be conscripted into the military instead of confined to prison.  “And if they die,” he said, “no big deal.”

Scott is small and thin.  He has the slim-hipped figure of a young Audrey Hepburn.

Scott says that his roommate Helene has the hots for him.  He says that he can’t tell her about his girlfriend because she’ll go all “Fatal Attraction” on his ass.

I met Helene.  She wears turtlenecks and corduroy jumpers.

The other day, Scott came back from the bank and told me he’d witnessed an armed robbery.  “I chased the guy down,” he said, “and I got a good part of his license number.”

Scott is 42 and he makes $10/hour.  He spends his time worrying about Units per Transaction and plan-o-grams.  He spends his time making up self-aggrandizing stories to impress his bored young coworkers.

I read his novel, Honor and Deception.  It was awful and I was relieved.  I’m ashamed to say that I took some pleasure in that.  But maybe he’ll have the last laugh.  I imagine that, one day, I’ll be Scott, my crappy unpublished novel rotting in some drawer, the butt of my coworker’s joke.

* * *

“Day-by-Day Calendar Company, this is Marni speaking-“

Without fail, Scott answers the phone.  “Hello, Marni Speaking.”

It wasn’t funny the first time.

* * *

Julian works at the Cash4Gold kiosk and he is too young for me.  We have nothing in common.  He doesn’t read unless forced.  He’s 19 and he just graduated from high school.  He’s Dominican and Puerto Rican and he’s beautiful.  He talks to me sometimes and I try my best to keep him entertained though I wish he’d leave me to my New Yorker.

He invites me to go running with him.  He’s either attracted to me or subtly trying to tell me I’m fat.

“Tell me your life story,” he said.  “Twenty seconds.”  I pictured it as a movie pitch: ” ‘Girl, Interrupted’ meets ‘Annie Hall’  with a dash of ‘Ordinary People.'”  But I knew he wouldn’t get the references.  So instead I listed only the facts.  “And now you work here!” he finished, laughing.  “And now I work here,” I repeated.

Julian says that he has a 60% shot of making the NFL.  Julian says that he was asked to model for Calvin Klein.  Julian says that he has two million dollars.  “My godfather left it to me,” he added.  “I just can’t get access to it right now.”

Julian says it would take hours, days even, to tell his life story.

Julian and Scott are liars.  But maybe we all are.  Even me.

* * *

Ariane has yellow and black teeth.  She smells of cigarettes and perfume. She’s nearly thirty though she says that everyone thinks she looks much younger. She’s had some trouble with law.  “Parking violations,” she says with a sigh.  “Those fines add up.”  She says, “I wouldn’t go back to Dunkin’ Donuts now even if they paid me a million dollars.”

I lent Ariane $90 and I don’t think I’m ever going to get it back.

Scott thinks she’s stealing.  “Maybe it’s a mathematical error,” I said hopefully.

I drove Ariane home.  She doesn’t have a car anymore.  She lost her car and her license in 2004.  “I had a little bit of a drinking problem,” she told me.  “I got a DUI.  And then I took the fall for my little brother in this drug thing.”

Ariane lost custody of her kids, too.  They live with her ex-husband’s parents now and she and her boyfriend rent a room in a rundown house on Maryland Avenue.

The electricity went out for three days this week.  $150 worth of food got ruined.  And they have bug problems and the house is overcrowded and she’s behind on rent.  Also, Ariane’s paycheck hasn’t come yet.  And could she maybe borrow some more money from me?  “I hate to ask,” she added.

I said, “sure, no problem” and went to the ATM.  I knew it was probably a bad idea but I did it anyway.  Because she needed it more than me.

Ariane told me that her older brother died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  She doesn’t believe that he committed suicide though.

When my friend Jill called from London the other day, I told her about the money.  She laughed and said it sounded like maybe? possibly? Ariane was a drug addict.

Today she left early for the third time this week.  She didn’t feel well and I said go ahead and go.  It’s okay.  When I counted the till at the end of the night, $40 was missing.  “Did you leave her alone?” Scott asked.  I had, actually.  I’d gone on my half hour break and left her alone with the register and the keys and the cash.  “Maybe I added wrong,” I said.

I don’t want to be the reason Ariane gets fired.

People have sad lives.  They have dead brothers and drug habits and kids that don’t live with them anymore.  And I can’t help but think, “there but for the grace of G-d…”

* * *

I’d like to think that I lent Ariane that money because I’m a kind person.  But I’m not sure that’s it.

I wonder if I lent her the money in some misguided attempt to assuage my class guilt.  I wonder if my generosity wasn’t just another form of condescension.

* * *

Whilst manning a kiosk alone at 9:15 on a Tuesday night, it is hard to believe that I’m anything more than this job.  That I’ll ever be anything more than I appear to be: the girl who sells calendars at the mall.

* * *

People have sad lives.  I repeat this to myself late at night.  It has the ring of truth to it.  People have sad lives and it’s a wonder that any of us have the energy to try for something better.

* * *

He was in his eighties maybe.  Plaid shirt, cowboy hat.  He was looking at the baseball calendars and I came up behind him, ready with my opener.

“Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

The man turned and smiled at me.

“Do you like baseball?” I asked.

“You should sell music here,” he said.

I pointed to the store across the way.  FYE.  A record store.

“Oh,” he responded.  “Do you like Glenn Miller?”

I said I did, yes, but I like Benny Goodman even better.

He leaned in close.  Like they do in the movies.  He leaned in close and I could see his every pore, his every hair follicle.  He leaned in close and I didn’t move away.  He leaned in close and then, without preamble, he began to sing.

He began with a few bars of “Goodnight My Love.”  “I was thinking of my wife,” he told me.  And then he sang “At Last.”  He had a sweet, tuneless voice that made my chest ache.

He told me how to play the harmonica and how to clean dirt off of cassette tapes.  He’d just started in on “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” when his son came to take him away.

“Sorry,” said the son, giving me a conspiratorial look.

I didn’t return it, gazing instead at his father.  “It was wonderful meeting you,” I told him.  I held his eyes for as long as I could and then he left, leaving me alone with wet eyes and a broken heart.