Office

When we were sixteen, my twin sister spent a summer working in the admissions office at a nearby college. I don’t remember what her job was, but I do remember that her boss spent all day playing solitaire on his computer. Every time my sister walked past his door, there he was, clicking away, trying to put those cards in order. He didn’t even attempt to hide it. My sister was shocked by this. He was the dean. He got up in the morning, showered, combed his hair, put on his business casual, drove to the office, and sat in his swivel chair playing solitaire from nine to five? She couldn’t believe it. I, however, was impressed.

Fudged Resume in a Difficult Economy

The economic woes our society has undergone over the last three years were crystallized for me in a single story. On March 17, a man who worked at a city office in Costa Mesa was called into work to receive a layoff notice at the city maintenance offices. Huy Pham, an employee of that department, was at home with a broken ankle and not supposed to work. Suspecting the news, he chose to skip the meeting and instead went to City Hall and jumped off the roof.

In one bold, rash move, he exhibited an impulsive behavior that has more frequently crossed my mind and, I’d bet, many others’ across the country as, if not a rational response to our failed economy, most certainly an act that is not altogether shocking.

In early 2007, I was laid off from a job I’d held for nearly nine years.  It was a job I loved and a job that fit me like a clichéd, crocheted, personalized and otherwise lovely glove.  I was a bookseller at an indie.

In January of 2008 I got a second job after having taken a few language classes, hacking away at writing stories and going through every last bit of money I had saved from selling books (read: not much).  This new job involved writing and editing for an international engineering and project management firm.  It paid as much in six months as I’d ever earned in the best full year of employment since I was in high school.  It was corporate, and apart from being bearable because of a good friend who worked there, was so painfully dull that I once drew blood from my inner thigh while pinching it to keep awake during one of those two-hour, thrice-weekly corporate meetings whose riveting information would, in a small business, be disseminated perfectly in a five-minute conversation so we could get the fuck back to work.

Eight months later, in October of 2008, I was laid off for the second time in eighteen months.  It was also only the second time in my life I’d lost a job not by my own choice.

Beginning in November 2008, I began collecting unemployment and diligently applying for any writing/editing jobs I could find. I scoured industry postings, Craigslist notices, searched on my own for firms or persons which were looking for people with my expertise and figured, naively, that within a reasonable amount of time, I’d be employed doing something with words.

I started applying for jobs that were even tangentially related to writing and editing, jobs which mentioned that a successful applicant must be able to communicate effectively with the written word or simply be able to speak well.

I peppered these applications with occasional ones for delivery drivers – from auto parts to paper products to legal documents. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years, unemployment ran out, and I became one of the 99ers (those people who are not properly reflected in the most disseminated unemployment statistic, the Department of Labor’s U-3 number.  Once you are done with unemployment benefits, you simply vanish and become a ghost to U-3. This U-3 number is just one of the six ‘Alternative measures of labor underutilization’, the most striking, and accurate, of which is the U-6, a number which stands as of April 2011 at a seasonally adjusted 15.9 percent.  Even this U-6 number may not reflect the actual amount of people who are suffering un- or under- employment.  It is, after all, a figure that the government publishes, even though they use the U-3 number – a number which never hit ten percent because it is a psychological barrier that no one in control of analyzing and and publishing these figures could withstand politically if they wanted to be reelected or reappointed.  And because the government does take ownership of these numbers, I am going to go out on a limb and say our truer number reflecting un- or under- employment has remained perilously close to twenty percent).

Over the last two and a half years, I’ve cobbled together shards of extra money by selling books online, purchasing curiosities at thrift stores and hawking them on craigslist or ebay, generously being able to fill my gas tank with my dad’s Sam’s club membership, receiving a hundred or two from him as I spend time at his office and use his computer to search for jobs and run errands for him and act as a boy Friday.  Once, even, I found a ten dollar bill in a pair of pants at the Goodwill.  I felt like a scratch ticket winner.

I don’t live month-to-month, or often even week-to-week. Sometimes I live day-to-day, choosing on certain weeks to live without: phone or power or gas or water for a couple of days so I can scrape together enough cash to restart these services and then be able to: go online to search for jobs, see inside my apartment without a lantern, cook on my stove or take a shower.

Though I have so far managed to keep myself hoveled and Ramened, I have gotten to the point where I expect that sometime soon in my life I will take residence in a homeless shelter or a friend’s couch for an extended period of time.

It is, to be blunt, a mentally taxing endeavor and depression triggerer to wake up each morning with the first thing on one’s mind if the day will win or I will eke out a small victory against the day. On the good days, the day and I run neck and neck, on the bad days the day dunks me repeatedly in the deep end where I have no footing and can barely gulp a wet breath.

I have fallen deeply in love with Saturdays and Sundays not because they afford me time to enjoy myself, but only because I know on those two days that if I have any of my previously mentioned utilities in tact on a Saturday morning, I’ll have it at least until Sunday night because municipalities and cities do not schedule shut offs for weekends. Thank fucking god.

A few weeks ago, I hit a benchmark which, as I’m writing this, surprises me still. I have sent off exactly 400 resumes.  Though a handful have been for regular jobs in a warehouse or for driving gigs, most have been to magazines, newspapers, websites, journals, companies, individuals, institutions and other entities which have advertised a need for writers or editors.

I have applied across the state, across the country, even, on a few occasions, overseas. I have applied for job postings as an assistant writer for people who believe their life stories are ultra-intriguing and as a ghostwriter for people who have ‘a novel in mind’ but just don’t know how to get it down on paper. I even threw my hat into the ring for a job that involved writing ‘juicy stories.’ Had someone advertised a need to write a suicide note for fear of being misinterpreted legally and their estate thrown into interminable probate, I’d have sent off samples of the dandiest last-ever words.

I have reformatted my resume a dozen times to reshape it into what I think a particular firm would find most enticing. I have, since about submission 150, even included in my cover letter a note that I am willing to take the job and work gratis for the first month if only to prove my worth, to offer them up a voluntary probationary period in which they can assess if we’re a good fit or not.

I know just how desperate that must seem to the resume screener but desperation tugs at my thoughts only during the moments of the day I’m awake.

I have received a few dozen automated replies that an entity has received my resume, thanking me and that they will contact me if I fit a need they have. Out of those 400 resumes I have received no job offers and exactly, get this, one response.

It was, needless to say, a note saying I wasn’t quite the candidate they were looking for and was personalized in that way credit card offers are personalized – with the salutation ‘Dear Mr. Mark Sutz.’

Apparently, the other 399 submissions I made have disappeared into the same black hole in which float millions of lonely, uncoupled socks or into the same 900 mile high virtual slushpile in which linger dozens of my stories that literary magazines conspire to not read.

None of these other 399 entities has found it within their abilities to even send out a rejection email or letter.

I know I am not the only person in this boat, but those 399 non-responses have served to both build up a thick, cynical hide and redefined demoralization for me. I feel a camaraderie with people that I never would have four or five years ago.

I took my regular employment for granted and have now been firmly, absolutely, depressingly humbled.

I suspect I share versions of these feelings with many tens of thousands of anonymous worker bees across the country and stare with a similar stunned face into the mirror at night as I brush my teeth and wonder if I am indeed an unwitting character in an unscripted, unaired, unfilmed, unending episode of The Twilight Zone being sent into the future by a maniacal, time-bending puppeteer spirit of Rod Serling whose hand has crossed time and space and multiple dimensions and lodged itself perfectly up my ass and animates me by fingering my bowels.

Remove the hand, Rod.  Please.

I have, as many others also have done, reassessed every single choice I’ve made in my life that is remotely related to education and work. I have come to the conclusion that, somehow, in my acquisition of a BA and a Master’s, I utterly missed the boat. I feel, like Silent Cal said, an ‘educated derelict.’

Given the choice to go back in time just around high school, I’d place in my path a person who was a tradesman of sorts and a very persuasive one: maybe a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, a taxidermist, a phlebotomist, a cryptologist, even a damn meteorologist, and I’d also give myself openmindedness enough to listen to that person and be taken on as an apprentice with him or her. I think I missed my ist somewhere along the way.

I suspect working with my hands would find me at least one more opportunity than moving bits of the alphabet around blank pages has found me.

I have thought greatly through my 400 blows about what the value of work is in our country, what the value of the worker is, what it means to negotiate a system which we have been told since we could speak is the greatest on the planet.

The only thing our country certainly owns as its unique brand is an ongoing lesson, perhaps even a type of indoctrination from early on, that rampant, unabashed capitalism is the only way out and the thing we all deserve.

There isn’t a kid in the country who doesn’t understand that if you buy a few lemons, some sugar, a stack of cups and a pitcher that you can’t double your money simply by laying out your cost per glass of lemonade on one side of a piece of paper and then doubling it on the other side then hawking it on the sidewalk on a hot summer day.

Making a profit is something that kids from Hawaii to Maine understand and are told is something uniquely, personally, rightfully American.

I do not disagree that it is a keen and necessary lesson, but it is not the only one.

A lesson they’re not told, one I wasn’t told by my father, a disciple of pure, unfettered Capitalism, is that behind this profit motive are dozens of other concerns, chiefly involving those profit-making things, human beings.

I won’t go into those dozens, but I’m pretty certain whoever is reading this might have been softened a bit to recognize a few of them by, if not personally experiencing the ride on our economic slide, at least knowing someone whom has been affected by it.

The sad thing is that even the dumbest, most selfish, fish-breathed, communicatively challenged bosses that exist (for me as recent as my penultimate superiors) understand how to eke out another point at the cost of a person.  To a degree, they’re as knowledgeable about the economy as Warren Buffett. Buy low, sell high.

Some of them should take an etiquette class and learn about responding to earnest inquiries for employment.

Come to think of it, that’s a job I’m well qualified for.  Hire me to write your rejection letters. At least those folks will know someone out there has heard them.

Are you an agoraphobe or self-diagnosed shut-in with an eye malady that requires daily, perhaps hourly, drops, have an inability to keep your eyelids open during delivery and have no close friends or family residing with you or willing to come to your residence and assist with your medical needs? Let me recite, in the comfort of your own house (or apartment or mobile home) and directly into your ear via whisper, my recently acquired, rare and heretofore secret incantation known to coax open the eyes of mummified Egyptian kings while I medicate the windows to your soul. Let’s keep your eyes in good shape. There’s TV to watch!

Do the brown, sticky corners of the inside of your refrigerator nauseate you, yet you soon have a dinner party planned and know that one of your guests (whom you simply must invite to show her you’re no chopped liver when it comes to picking out the finest in furnishings) will be an on-again, off-again frienemy who will look into your fridge during the party and launch, post-soiree, an ugly social media campaign mentioning your general slovenliness ? (It could go viral…ouch.) I’ll visit your kitchen as frequently as your cans of Tab explode or your bags of organic rocket in the lower, unseen sections of your refrigerator go unremembered for weeks (forgot the diet!) and turn into a gooey slime that inexplicably escapes the confines of the plastic and invades the nooks and crannies of your Sub-Zero. (I provide paper towels. Cloth towels available for an additional fee.)

Are you a pet lover and owner (of any domesticated species) who understands, knows, appreciates that these little critters are, like you, biological entities that must both consume food and excrete those often foul, bizarrely textured and altogether repulsive stools but find yourself rethinking your decision to be a pet owner during these frequently intradaily defecations and are considering giving little Max kitty or big Jasper dog to an adoptive facility? Keep your ‘lil pal. Call me, I’ll empty the litter box, pick up the stinky BMs and let you get about the business of owning a pet that exists only in a fantasy world. Your fantasy world. (Prices vary according to daily average weight and consistency of excretions.)

Does the sight of your own naked body, due to religious indoctrination or general laziness, cause you undue anxiety, bump up your blood pressure and make your workdays or weekends unpleasant reminders of the awful thing you saw in the mirror only hours before? Throw away your beta blockers and let me size up your head for a rare Chinese silk blindfold, embroidered with your initials (extra fee). I’ll familiarize myself with your toiletry and wardrobe, swathe your eyes in fine fabric, wash you and dress you without comment and ensure your naked body is seen by no one ever again except the undertaker and even then, for an additional fee, I provide a custom, coffin-ready, eternally blissful interment eyesilk so even your body’s last moments on earth can be dignified. (Daytime undressing and bed-ready preparation available for an additional fee. For an extra ten percent, I’ll graze your erogenous zones with both the backsides and palms of my hands.)

Have a new little one in the midst and fuck-if-you-didn’t realize exactly how toxic the vomit of a child is and just what a perfect catalyst this stinky puke can be for you to upchuck your own, recently enjoyed country club lunch of prawn salad and White Russian’s? I provide this service only to those who live within a two-minute drive and will give you an exclusive, customized ringtone on my smartphone so that the moment your influenza-addled bundle of joy begins the process of getting sick all over your freshly steam cleaned furniture, I’ll show up with a kit cobbled together from warzone medical supplies and stay with him or her until every last droplet of bilious fluid has stopped exiting your most precious one’s mouth. (Multiple sick children are welcome with fee-and-a-half rates PER child. Homemade, stomach soothing ginger ale made from my grandmother’s secret recipe provided gratis.)

Are you a man or woman who has heard, in casual conversation with persons you know are extraordinarily promiscuous and sexually experienced and kinky, odd sexual references that lightly moisten or slightly harden you? Have these delicious people mentioned rubbing g-spots or prostate tickling as a way to ensure you’re a fondly remembered lover of everyone you sleep with as these long-forgotten lovers recount their sexual exploits in their twilight, libido-challenged years? Do you wish you knew those tender, interior climax buttons and haven’t as much as heard of a dirty trombone or the pleasures of a taint massage? Give me your time (and money) and I’ll give you my finger. We’ll practice till you are the star of jack- or jill-off fantasies in college dorm rooms and hotel suites or the substitute mental member of coitus occurring between too-familiar lovers and you will (lifetime guarantee) virtually enable a bedspring straining orgasm that leaves the thinker thinking privately of you. And your finger. (Brush-up sessions available once a month for either a long, lazy lunch at a French restaurant of my choice or for an overnight stay at a resort of my preference. Me, overnight, you from eight until midnight.)

Cantankerous? Sour? Known to be a dick and proud of it? Been abandoned by all of your family and friends because of an attitude toward people that would make Charles Manson blush? I have been the cowering, self-critical, no-talkback recipient of infantile behavior from a wide range of flawed adults and have survived it all unscathed and with a particular knowledge of just how to placate the beast in people by absorbing a wide barrage of misguided, utterly misinformed personal, religious, ethnic, psychological, racial and sexual verbal assaults and leaving you, the ‘asshole,’ feeling propped up and, by all stripes of clinical pathological definitions of sociopathy, refreshed and ready to take on the next unsuspecting person who crosses your path. (I provide this service only with an additional direct payment to my psychotherapist for sessions covering treble the length of your abuse needs – one day for you, three days for me, etc.)

The above are my specialties, as I have at least a dozen employment experiences with each. References available upon request (redacted, of course, for confidentiality reasons). If any of these services interest you, please contact me via email and we’ll discuss terms and fees. Off-the-menu services available with non-refundable prepayment and a week’s notice so I can properly research the particularities of your wacky desires. Two week’s notice for any job involving extreme physical pain (so I can build up tolerance by self-inflicting). For anything under the sun, I’m your man.

Unemployed and looking for an inexpensive way to not feel miserable and lonely? Richard Ford has edited a new anthology of short stories about work and class: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar. It features an array of established authors—Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, Junot Díaz, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, and more—but collecting a bunch of stories about work and slapping a light blue cover on it is nothing new. In 1999 Signet Classics published a similar compilation, The Haves and Have-Nots edited by Barbara Solomon, and in 2004 Random House published Labor Days—I think you can guess what those stories are about—edited by David Gates.

Signs

By Reno J. Romero

Humor

Into the Fire

By the time you’ve reached my age you’ve probably worked a few jobs in your time. I’ve had my share and started working at an early age. When I was in 7th grade my father was my employer (a mean fucker who didn’t tolerate showing up late to the job site or laziness) and gave me five bucks a week to pick up and bag our dogs’ shit. Three different size dogs. Three different size shits. It was a wholesome positive experience that had to be completed immediately upon waking up.

“Son, did you pick up the turds today?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ok. If I go outside I better not find stacks of dog crap peppering my backyard.”

Legs

Years later I worked for May Company in the domestics department. I knew nothing about sheets or shams or towels. But it was a gig and it gave me money to buy weed and Jack in the Box’s famous dog meat tacos. The woman that hired me was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my eighteen years of existence. I loved her with all my heart and wanted to marry her and give her multiple babies. To this day I can see her beauty strolling by. Light brown hair, green eyeballs, nice full lips. And the kicker: she always wore dresses. I love women in dresses. Did then. Do now.

Baby Ruth

I worked for Kmart for three months. My boss was a career slob and flaunted a giant bushy mustache. It was hideous. But he didn’t care what anyone thought about the melting Baby Ruth that rested on his lip. He was putting it out there like if it was the thing to do. I gave him my two-week notice when I realized the job sucked.

“This is great company to grow with,” Mr. Baby Ruth told me with raised eyebrows. “Are you sure you want to resign?”

“Very.”

Smell Like Roses

I also worked for Stater Bros. as a box boy. I worked with a checker named Danny who farted on purpose while checking out customers. His favorite victims were old people and teenagers. He’d look at me and smile when they came to his check stand. I knew what was coming and would already be laughing. It was on. He’d be scanning bread, milk, bacon, then: brrrrrr. I’d laugh so hard that tears would stream down my face. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard in my entire life. It was the foulest most hilarious thing I ever witnessed. Fucking Danny.

I Want Your Sex

I worked for JCPenney in the shoe department. I worked with this sultry brunette who was pure sex and nothing else. My first day on the job she climbed up on a ladder and gave me a peek at her girl bits and the bottom of her perfect ass. She was a scandalous she-devil and a man eater. Before I left the job we banged each other on the sandy banks of the Mojave River. There was another lady who worked with us that was missing a few teeth out of her grill. When she smiled she resembled a house with broken windows. She was fired for stealing some stringy lingerie. Which was weird because she was the last thing you’d want to see in a g-string.

Pigs

I worked in the restaurant business for many years. I worked every job from dishwasher to manager. All the jobs were unfulfilling, unmeaningful, shitty, and fully pathetic. I pissed away a lot of good years serving booze and burgers to thousands of starving assholes. I hated all of them and myself.

Give em’ the Ax

I once worked as a school teacher at a dysfunctional school full of dreadful kids who smoked cigarettes and weed, wrote on the walls, popped Ritalin, and hated life. I saw two teachers carried out of their classrooms due to nervous breakdowns. The whole staff wanted to wire the place with dynamite and blow it to hell. I still have nightmares of those little bastards tying me up and chopping me into little pieces.

“Ok, we stabbed Mrs. Blonde Bitch thirty-one times, stole all her jewelry, and littered her forehead with spit wads. She won’t be crying on Principal Dicklicker’s shoulder anymore. Ok, so what so we do with Mr. Romero?”

“Chop his Mesicun ass up!”

Signs

One job I’ve never had (but one that I oddly find interesting) is a sign holder. I doubt that sign holder is the technical job description. It’s probably something like advertising consultant or existential messenger. Anyhow, you’ve seen these people hanging around. They’re the ones that stand on sidewalks or street corners holding signs for businesses. I live close to a main drag that’s lined with these people hustling business. Pizza. Nail joints. Oil and lube. Jewelry. Furniture. Taxes.

Like with any job, I’ve noticed that some people seem to enjoy their jobs more than others. Some folks just stand there like zombies. They lazily sway the sign back and forth and frown at the passing cars. There’s this one guy who works for a local strip club that I’ve passed by dozens of times. You would think the dude would have some fire, flash, zeal, considering that he’s peddling pussy. You know? But no. He’s dead on his ass and just holds the sign still, sucks on his bottom lip, and stares off in the distance. He’s probably on dope.

Then there is this dude that works for a mattress company. He kicks ass. He gets down. He flips the sign high in the air and catches it. He spins and twirls the sign in an advertising blur. He points at cars and dances. Then he does this one trick where he straddles the sign and acts like it’s a motorcycle. Oh, yeah. He revs it up and then takes off. I’ve never seen anything like it. No one has. He’s the King! The King of the Sign Holders!

One day I had enough. I’d seen enough. I had to interview this guy. It was a must! I pulled in the parking lot and proposed my idea. I’d interview him, take his picture, and give him the fine stage that is The Nervous Breakdown. He’d answer great insightful questions. He’d shine. He’d ride his mattress sign off into the damn sunset. But no. No! The guy couldn’t string along a simple sentence. He was dull, uninspired, and half-dead. He was cross-eyed and smelled like lamb chops. I didn’t understand. I was mystified. Where did all that sign-flinging talent go? What happened to the motorcycle man? I was defeated. I had wonderful inquiring questions such as:

  1. Have you ever gotten laid from this gig?
  2. What kind of motorcycle is your sign?
  3. Do you go to parties and tell people what a bad fucker you are, that you’re The King of the Sign Holders?
  4. Have you ever considered giving lessons to potential sign holders?
  5. What do you think of Gene Simmons’ hair?

But it wasn’t to be. Like so many other things in my life. Like becoming a palm reader. Like kissing Anna Hernandez on her cherry-colored lips. But I’ll carry on. After all, summer is right around the bend and I have a handful of new books to devour.

 

Word

By Angela Tung

Appreciation

These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears. – William Shakespeare

The bird is the word. – The Trashmen

 

 

I love my job.

I love my job because it’s not my old job. At my old job, you were expected to dress, talk, and act a certain way. You were expected to be a team player.

1.

A small, framed sign is mounted to the office lunchroom wall. Decades ago, it was stamped from tin and painted red, and gold letters were spelled across its face:

Small personal items have from time to time mysteriously disappeared from the coatrooms, and it is suggested that all staff members take their gloves, purses, and like items with them to their desks for safekeeping.”

I was idly stirring an iced tea at a sunny table of the Chateau Marmont when the ever-debonair and deadly Iron Duke Haney said something important to me.

‘Listen to that sound in the background,’ he said. And over the quiet lull of tourists and minor celebrities talking (one smiling girl made her entrance to a group a couple of tables over saying ‘Sorry! I don’t want to be that actress who’s always late!’), beyond the pristine green of the garden, I could hear the quietly intrusive buzz of someone doing yard work.

‘You’ll always remember that,’ Duke said. ‘Once you pay attention to the little things going on around you they’re with you forever; when you think of this moment, you’ll think of that sound.’

There’s a moment in San Francisco that is indelibly inscribed on my memory; proof of Duke’s point.

I was walking up Market Street; I had to leave the US the following night. The late afternoon sun was slowly setting behind Sutro Tower and I could see three lines of shadow were scored across the clouds above. It took me a second to realise the shadows were being thrown onto the sky by the tower itself, and I stood on the sidewalk and watched the sky as people on their way to wherever it was they needed to go bustled past me, oblivious.


For no reason I could think of (my meeting Duke was still some months away), I thought You should remember this.

The bad news had arrived shortly after New Year’s… or rather, it hadn’t. For a month, I’d been working on reviews of porn sites (a profession which remains the greatest ice-breaker I’ve ever had). I’d been in regular contact with my boss in Scotland throughout, volunteering to do extra work when other writers didn’t come through with the goods, taking on smaller admin jobs that he needed to get done, working late on extra jobs that came down to the wire. And then, when I sent through my first invoice… nothing.

At first, I hadn’t worried. I figured, OK, It’s Christmas, it’s New Year’s, it’s the holiday season. Of course, the wheels are going to be turning a little slowly. But after a week went past and I’d heard nothing back, I became concerned. Emails, both to my supervisor and to company headquarters, went unanswered.  International phone calls to the head office got me to a barely-intelligible answering machine and no further.

Only two words kept my spirits high – signed contract.

But that was then.

After a couple of weeks had passed and no word had been forthcoming, I realised I’d been stooged.

Not to worry
, I thought. I’ve still got plenty of time to find another job and make enough money to fulfil the terms of my visa. After all, it’s not like there’s some worldwide economic collapse, or ‘Global Financial Crisis’ waiting in the wings!

I spent the next three months burning through my savings while I searched for a job in San Francisco. I checked the want ads on and offline every morning, afternoon, and night, determined to leave no stone unturned. I applied  as a research analyst at a boutique global marketing company (that interview, in which I was invited to take off my shoes, was a strange one). I applied as the communications manager of an umbrella group of emergency services websites. I applied to be a waiter, a bookshop assistant, a freelance editor, a parking attendant, a yogi’s PA. I went to cattle-call interviews where one guy was so exhausted from searching for work he fell asleep in the waiting room (he didn’t get the gig). I stood outside a bar that was advertising for about ten positions in a line of about three hundred people (it was the first ten minutes of their second interview session that day). I got up at five for the train ride out to a bakery miles away; the family business of a friend’s partner.

Fellow travelers and transients commiserated, all of us coming to grips with the collapse of our hopes and dreams, of our lives. ‘This is so fucked,’ another Australian, another writer, said to me. ‘This is so fucked. I can’t believe I have to go back home. I’ve already booked my ticket. What are you going to do?’

‘Keep looking,’ I said. ‘Something has to turn up. So… You got any leads?’

News came from Australia about entire departments getting retrenched, their 9-5 lifestyles king-hit by the economy, forcing them back into the market along with their co-workers. While I stood and spoke to my competition at bartending interviews, we swapped horror stories.

Did you hear about the bar job with one vacancy for two night’s work a week, where two hundred people turned up to interview?

Let me tell you about my friend with a PhD – he’s bussing at Red Lobster now.

Oh, man, I remember that Craigslist’s ad. Yeah, they took it down after half an hour because of the number of responses.

I ran on the treadmill at 24 Hour Fitness (not that I needed the exercise. There wasn’t a bar for miles that I hadn’t walked into with a copy of my resume) and watched the news reports about how Obama was going to fix everything with a click of his fingers. I wanted to believe that more than anyone who actually voted for him.

Eventually, I came to terms with the truth. It was time to go. I had to choose to do so rather than void my visa – conditional as it was on earning above a certain amount in a year – and risk being barred from ever returning.

Kayak.com and United Airlines took me back to Australia. Misery welled up in me as I selected my flight and hit ‘Confirm.’ There was no part of me of that said Yes, this is the right thing to do. Instead, I simply thought I fucking hate this.

And then it was time to say goodbye.

I’ve been blessed with a good memory, but even in the clarity of remembrance, certain moments stand out.

Walking down 18th and seeing a guy, crying, shaking his hands at the sky and screaming ‘Like every day of my goddamn life!’ to his wheelchair-bound friend, while dozens of tiny chocolate Easter Eggs flew out of his pockets and cascaded on the sidewalk. The sight seemed to only make him more distressed, and he started stamping them flat, deaf to condolences.

The three impeccably-dressed drag queens who stopped me in the Castro to say hello, and then cooed and squealed when Australian-tinged vowels fell from my mouth. As I said goodbye, I heard one of them call ‘Goodbye, Hugh Jack-maaaaan!’ and the other two burst into delighted laughter.

Sitting in a cafe in Haight-Ashbury while it was still cold and dark outside, a bunch of early-morning-shift cops our only company, waiting to catch the first bus home.

The political roller disco where Zoe warned me about Ron’s outfit, and I walked out of the taqueria to find all six foot four of him crammed into a skin-tight Julio Iglesias t-shirt and the shortest shorts I’ve seen outside of a Jessica Simpson video clip (the same outfit he was in later that night at the hospital emergency room, where we took another friend after she came down badly off her roller skates).

Opening the door one night to meet the guy one of my housemates had been having an affair with looking unimpressed, claiming that she’d stolen his car (he couldn’t tell the cops because then his wife would find out). He later described me to her as ‘the kind of guy who understood,’ whatever the hell that means.

A late-night, street-corner poetry slam with Laura from England. A burner party with Lexie from France where we snuck in rum to fill coconuts with, aided and abetted by Epiphany the ticket girl. Freezing cold with Sydney from Switzerland and Buffy the cosplay artiste (who’d won me over with her single-use catchphrase of ‘Not today, Mavis!’) while we tried flagging people down to donate money to starving children.

Obama’s inauguration, Christmas, New Year’s Eve.

The Golden Gate Bridge.

Clarion Alley.

The Mission. The Castro. Noe Valley. Japantown.

This was the place I’d flown 7, 416 miles to get to. This was listening to the Freestylers on the way to get my morning coffee at Urban Bread, and the Dandy Warhols on the way back. This was season 2 of 30 Rock, season 3 of Dexter, season 6 of The L Word.  This was The Wrestler, The Yes Man, He’s Just Not That Into You.

This was my house and my housemates, and the way Laurel and I had unthinkingly worked out our daily greeting of an almost-shouted, cheery hello followed by exasperated gasps of ‘Fuckin’ Laurel’, ‘Fuckin’ Simon’, and a long, drawn-out sigh. This was all the people I’d known for months and years over the internet that I was meeting for the first time. This was all the people I met in cafes, at the gym, at parties and bars. This was all of their stories, that I shared, however briefly, just as they shared mine.

This was home.

And finally, this was closing my eyes as the plane to Sydney lifted off from the runway at SFO into the darkness of the night and thinking What happens now?

Now that the “holiday season” (Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the release of Avatar) is finally behind us, I can say with finality that I never got around to visiting the Charmin public restrooms here in NYC. I certainly had my chances, but it just would have felt too strange for me to see the final results of the process that took place on November 5th.

Let me tell you about the events of that day. What I am about to share with you is a completely true, accurate report. I know this because I was the one shady-looking participant standing around with a little notebook, writing down every single ludicrous thing I heard and saw.

Every year around the holidays, Charmin—yes, the toilet paper company—sets up these really nice public bathrooms in Times Square. They exist to serve all the desperate shoppers who can’t find a place to pee when they’re running from Bloomie’s to the M&M Store. This year, for the first time ever, they decided to hire five people to be greeters at the bathroom and blog about the experience. When I told my mother about this on the phone, she was unimpressed. But then I added, “It pays $10,000.” That sealed the deal for getting parental encouragement.

In order to choose the lucky five, Charmin held an open audition. The online posting for the job had been sent my way by three different friends along with notes like “You gotta try out for this!” I should mention here that “toilet blogging” was my own derogatory moniker for the post. The official title Charmin had adopted was a lot more highfalutin: “Charmin Ambassador.”

Charmin’s description said that Ambassador candidates should “Have a resume on-hand, have an outgoing personality, exude enthusiasm, and possess social media savvy.” I felt that I had all of these, in spades. At the very least, I was certainly capable of printing out my resume. The ad continued: “Auditions will begin promptly at 10 a.m. on November 5. Interested applicants may line up at the New York Hilton starting at 8 a.m. Only the first 1,000 candidates in line will be guaranteed an audition.” Since I’m a complete idiot, I assumed barely anyone would show up. I even laughed at their delusional hope of attracting 1,000 people.

I had forgotten about a sizable group in New York: the unemployed. Arriving at 8:25 put me at #182 in the line, which was a harrowing sight that snaked along the outside wall of the hotel. In addition, it turned out to be (how grand!) the first truly cold fall morning of my three months in New York. While I and the other 184 losers stood shivering, peppy assistants with headsets ran around handing out yellow sign-in sheets, to which they stapled Polaroid snapshots they took of each person.

I examined the form and found pretty standard questions about my profession (none), my age (young), and my agent. Wait, they were asking me for the name of my agent? I didn’t have one.

I quickly learned that most of the people in line were not bright-eyed journalism students, but out-of-work actors. In fact, Charmin had hired a casting director to run the auditions. Some people were even practicing lines from plays. I was out of my element.

“Don’t worry, lots of people here are amateurs!” a cute casting assistant told me after I expressed concern. “Yeah, I’ll bet that guy doesn’t have an agent,” I quipped, pointing to an old man leaning on a cane. I found it somehow mortifying that a person over forty was trying out to be a toilet blogger. This man looked about seventy. Sporting a giant silver beard and a trucker hat that said BEAST on it, he looked like he could have been the drummer for ZZ Top. When a cameraman rushed down the line to get reaction shots and people waved or whooped, the old man shouted at the camera, of all things, “Good to see you!” which seemed to me a bizarre choice.

Everywhere around me were more people to ridicule. The girl directly in front of me had brought along a small ukulele, and was singing a song she had written about toilet paper. “My favorite thing about the go,” she crooned, “is I get that time for me!” I should add here that the online job description instructed that applicants come prepared to explain, “Why you love the go.”

Still, I wasn’t really thinking of the audition in those terms because I assumed that they really meant, “Tell us why using a public bathroom could be a good experience and how you would make it one as our greeter,” and not, “Tell us why you love urinating or evacuating your bowels.” Of course, to my horror, a good number of people in line had prepared serious answers to that very question.

Meanwhile, a girl in line behind me had forgotten to bring a resume and was now writing one by hand, using a crayon. This was my competition—people who seemed to have walked off the set of Glee.

And boy, people were excited. A chubby, likable guy who must have been around 25 had informed everyone that he was a comedian, and from then on I took everything he said to be a shtick. He especially hammed it up as he told us about the time he took his grandmother to the Charmin restrooms a couple years ago. “Have you guys actually seen them? They’re unbelievable! My grandma said it was more fun than Disney World!” Oh, god.

We learned from our yellow info sheets, which were decorated with that adorable Charmin grizzly bear character at the top (you know, the one who adorably wipes his ass on tree trunks in the commercials), that this job would run from November 23rd to December 31st (so that’s $10,000 for 5 weeks of work) and would require 40 hours a week, including weekends. In truth, I knew as soon as I saw this detail that logistically I could not take this job, were they to offer it to me. For my graduate program I had class all day on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. Even if I worked all day on weekends I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fulfill the 40 hours. Still, I stayed. ‘Go big or go home,’ right?

We were finally allowed to come out of the freezing cold and go into the building at 10:15, but not before I had managed to successfully offend everyone in my near vicinity by announcing, “Why would actors want to try out for this?!” The answer, as many were all too happy to tell me, was money.

Once inside the giant reception room, I came into contact with a host of other misfits who seemed to think it was still Halloween. One woman had dressed in a toilet paper gown. A tall, bald guy had written ‘CHARMIN’ on his skull with a Sharpie pen.

We all sat down in plush hotel conference chairs and began to chatter amongst ourselves. The young woman who sat beside me had brought along an illustration she had done. The drawing depicted a stick version of her, standing in a room before a panel of judges. They were all holding up signs that read ‘9.5’ or ’10.’ I strongly wished that the Charmin judges would not be wooed by unsolicited artistic gifts. When this same girl looked up from her drawing, which she had been examining proudly, she asked me what I could possibly be doing with my iPhone. It had been glued to my hand for quite some time. “I’m tweeting the shit out of this,” I said. And I was.

Another good-looking casting assistant entered the room after forty minutes and finally announced, “We will begin calling numbers shortly. You will head upstairs in groups of ten. Once it’s your individual turn you will enter the room and have no more than 90 seconds to tell the casting people why you should be the Charmin Ambassador!”

After this warning terrified everyone, I witnessed several “routines” in the works, including the same comedian from outside practicing what he called “my TP rap,” a gorgeous Italian girl practicing a dance routine that looked like she had lifted it from Grease, and two siblings juggling toilet paper rolls. Their plan was to audition as a pair.

I found myself extremely fucking annoyed. I felt pretty sure that a woman using the Charmin bathrooms would not want a greeter to get all up in her face, playing ukulele to herald her toilet trip. The innocent visitor would want a warm, normal “hello” with no tiresome shenanigans.

I had a grand plan to say exactly this, to tell the casting director in honest terms that I would make the perfect greeter because I was the common man (in my Timberland boots and un-tucked flannel shirt) and that I had come with no gimmick, no song and dance, just my friendly demeanor and marketable blogging skills.

I grossly misjudged myself, and the event. By 3pm, almost 700 people had shown up. I had sat in the waiting room for nearly five hours, and had consumed two Clif Bars and a Turkey sandwich.

At last the time came for #182. After an elevator ride of pregnant silence with the other nine people in my group, I stepped into the room and a man behind a table, flanked by two women on either side, called across the vast space between us, “Hello. Please stand directly in that circle, directly under that spotlight.” It couldn’t have felt more unnatural. He pressed record on a camera and said, “Ninety seconds, and, go.”

I did not ‘freeze,’ exactly. I said what I had planned to say, but the entire speech was painfully artificial. I found myself making these strange exaggerated hand motions. I could feel that I was giving little forced laughs after each statement—ha!—and that my face was twitching with fake smiles.

I watched all of this as though through a window. It was abundantly clear after only ten seconds that it was not going well, but I kept digging myself into a deeper hole. “Welp, ya know,” I yammered, “I saw a lot of these other people out there [motioning with my thumb like a cartoon character] practicing elaborate songs and dances, and lemme just say I just think that’s kind of fake. See, I’m [pointing to myself the way one might while saying ‘this guy!’] just a down-to-earth, friendly dude. I’m a real people-person [oh no, not that] and I know how people would want to be greeted.”

It was a train wreck. I had heard before my turn that if you were chosen for a callback audition, you would find out on the spot. The man would hand you a blue slip. After I finished speaking, I said with whatever desperate energy I had left, “So that’s it; I’m your guy!” The director looked up from the camera and said sweetly, “It was nice to meet you.” I walked out.

I had spent that day ridiculing the most outlandish freaks there, but they were probably the ones to receive callbacks. Part of me—the bitter asshole part—is still sore that Charmin apparently did not want the outgoing, social media savvy everyman they clamored for, but actually was looking for ebullient, over-the-top clowns.

But that’s not a fair conclusion. Mostly I’m just humbled. I could feel a little silly for wasting a whole day, sure. But the experience was worth it, if only for this mildly entertaining story at parties. I left with a new awareness of my performance limitations. Oh, and I have that coupon they gave everyone for a free 10-pack of Charmin toilet paper. Maybe I’ll mail it to my mother.

Before I moved to Madrid, I engaged in a series of heated discussions about where I should work after failing miserably at a number of low-paying jobs (My father, a professor of Chinese History, even resorted to utilizing the ancient hexagrams of the I-Ching in an attempt to new-age me into employment), I ended up applying for work at Bookstop, a large bookstore, coffee shop and hipster hang-out in the Montrose area of Houston. I had to wear a nametag, a sure sign you are about to embark on a shitty occupation.

I was put under the tutelage of a 21-year-old assistant-manager named Travis. Travis was completely bald, bitter about it, and determined to make manager “before the summer was out.” A large portion of the managerial promotion process hinged on your ability to tutor the new kids, the cashiers, the foot soldiers—in other words, the kids who didn’t care—myself and a black kid from Atlanta named Greg. My first day at work proved a relatively accurate augur of what was to come. I dutifully showed up 15 minutes before Bookstop opened (it is crucial to make a good impression on your first day of work—then you can shit the proverbial bed and it takes longer for people to notice, as people tend to hold to first impressions as a condemned inmate at San Quentin might hold his/her breath once the cyanide gas starts filtering through the vents. There’s no such thing as hopelessness!). Greg had been given the same advice, as I encountered him smoking a blunt in the parking lot on my way to the store, a converted old movie theater.

“Hey, man,” Greg chortled through thick smoke.

“Hi,” I said.

“You have a name tag—are you working here, too?”

“Yeah, it’s my first day,” I said.

“Me, too. You want to hit this bitch?”

“I shouldn’t. It’s our first day. Okay.”

“My nigga!” he said, as I took a substantial drag off of the blunt. I felt pretty proud to be called a nigga and thought about how desperately white people long to be liked by black people. It’s almost an epidemic. Anyone who says differently is lying, or mostly lying. Even white supremacists. Have you heard any white supremacist rappers? I have. The content is nauseating, but their flow is undoubtedly referential, probably to Boogie Down Productions if not Public Enemy. They just flipped the script.

Greg and I were ushered around the store by Travis. He explained something about ISBN numbers and their utility, then droned on about his self-published sci-fi novel that, once he became manager, he could insinuate into the aisles of Bookstop.

“Your book have robots in it, Travis,” asked Greg, laconically, stonedly.

“There are androids, yes,” Travis responded proudly.

“Robots can eat a dick,” offered Greg, foolishly.

“I wouldn’t expect either of you two to even remotely begin to understand the complex time/space signatures in my book and I’ll have you know, Greg, Tyler, that I can make your life extremely difficult here if you aren’t cooperative.”

“That’s bullshit, bitch,” said Greg, accurately. Greg nor I had any allegiance to the Bookstop and were both fairly intent on getting fired or quitting as soon as we had put in the requisite time to convince the parents-that-be we were responsible. Travis often tried to make our lives miserable, but it’s hard to find us when I’ve locked myself in the service elevator with a margarita and a crossword puzzle book and Greg is in his car, balling the coffee shop barrista.

James had been a friend of mine since high school and a frequent visitor to Bookstop. His stepmom had just opened an upscale jewelry and accoutrement salon down the street from the bookstore, and in her store was a margarita machine for the upscale browser (I always thought this was a good idea; I’ll buy almost anything when I’m drunk). James would help out around his stepmom’s store for a bit, then shuttle a thermos full of margarita over to me at Bookstop. We’d chat a bit, decide on evening plans, then he’d retreat back to the store as I would grab a stack of Tom Robbins and adjourn to my perch in the freight elevator. The arrangement usually worked fine, as both Greg and I would cover for each other.

Inevitably, Greg was caught balling the barrista and fired, something that put a damper on my afternoons with crossword puzzles and a half-gallon of frozen margaritas. And while with Greg’s departure the efficiency of the Bookstop machine received an unprecedented spike in productivity, my patience for the working life—at least the working at Bookstop life—ebbed dramatically.

When he wasn’t helping out at his stepmom’s store, James had the luxury of doing nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. He was a BBQing machine. Every day by his parent’s pool, he’d throw heaps of flesh on the grill and he and a menagerie of other summer loafers would drink beer, play guitars, eat heartily and laze around the pool until everyone passed out or didn’t. It was a kind of life I’ve always aspired to, and felt I was missing a wonderful opportunity to idle around in the prime of my youth, like somebody out of Fitzgerald or at least somebody not wandering drunk around a bookstore all day.

I began, as has been the case with most if not all of my ill-fated employment endeavors to fall ill, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays—prime BBQing time.

“Uh, hi Travis. It’s Tyler. Look, I don’t know what I have. I’ve been throwing up all morning and I’ve got a fever and my head hurts and there’s a chance I may have spinal meningitis and so I’m going to stay home today.”

“Spinal meningitis? Are you going to the doctor?”

“No, I think I’m just going to try to ride it out.”

“That’s a terrible idea. You sound fine.”

“Are you saying I’m not sick?”

“Maybe. Are you not?”

“Of course I am.”

“Tyler, do you like your job?”

“Yes. I mean why? Is that some kind of threat?”

“It’s not a threat.”

“Good Christ, Travis, I feel like you’re giving me a hard time. How many times have I called in sick? It’s not like it happens all the time.”

“You’ve called in sick four times in the last two weeks. You get sick on weekends, it seems to me.”

“Well, damnit Travis. I can’t work in an environment where there’s this kind of lack of trust. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“I’m not. So are you quitting?” I thought for a moment how I would storm back into work, not giving Travis the pleasure of being done with me. I would make it to assistant manager by the end of the summer and then overtake the bald, wretched, wanton Travis as manager, overseeing his daily routine and making his life a living hell for the rest of his days at the Bookstop.

“Yeah, I think I’m quitting,” I said, knowing the aforementioned scenario was untenable and devoid of BBQ and good times. I hung up the phone, euphoric, then headed over to James’ house. Of course, I foresaw trouble in paradise, as my parents would be completely averse to the trajectory I’d chosen for myself this summer.

So, I woke up every morning at 7:30, put on my work clothes: tie, nametag, khakis and Oxford button-down and left for work. However, in this instance, work was located five blocks away at James house, where upon arrival, I’d go back to sleep on his family’s sofa until around 1:00 or 2:00, when the BBQ preparations would begin. This arrangement proved infinitely more suitable and I decided that if times ever got really tough, I could make a living by a pool, eating BBQ. I wasn’t sure from where my income would stem, but the dream must come first. The reality will inevitably fall into place, somehow.

I enjoyed travel, as anybody who never travels says they enjoy travel, but the idea of going abroad again never really drifted through my transom. The summer coming to a close, Bookstop out of the picture and a couple of parents eager to see their son do something, I found myself at an Irish pub, Kennealy’s, with James.

James and I have, since early in our friendship, been convinced that we should be famous actors. Not just actors—famous actors. Every week, James and I would sit in the brackish pub, he drinking Guinness, I drinking whiskey, and discuss how colossally talented, funny, good looking and charming we were and how it was a real shame we hadn’t yet been discovered by Hollywood. We were somewhat in awe of the fact that some director/producer had yet to approach us, telling us how talented, funny, good looking and charming we both were and wouldn’t we like to star opposite Charlize Theron in the next summer blockbuster?

“I think we should probably move to LA,” I said.

“That’s a cliché. Houston is as good a place as any for us. Patience, Tyler.”

“It’s not happening for us here, dude.”

“It just takes patience. Look, did you know Matthew McConaughey met Linklater in a bar and next thing you know—BANG—he’s in Dazed and Confused.”

“Did you know Brad Pitt used to dress up like a chicken and sit in the middle of the street—Hollywood Boulevard, I think. He got discovered that way. Same with Liz Taylor,” I added.

“She dressed up like a chicken?” James asked.

“No, well, I don’t think so—maybe they found her at a mall.”

“I’m better looking than Liam Neeson,” I ventured.

“People say I look like Sean Penn.”

“You do, a little,” I lied. “You’re like Sean Penn if you were a forward for the Celtics.”

“Is it because I have a big nose?”

“Not just that. You have screen presence,” I offered, with no basis in reality.

“Thanks, man. You mean that?”

“I totally mean that.”

“Maybe we should take acting classes.”

“That’s bullshit. I think you either have it or you don’t. Brother we have it.”

“I know we do, but we need a foot in the door.” James could be so negative sometimes.

“You can only be so talented. Then you need luck,” I said, optimistically.

“Are we just unlucky?”

“Yeah, I mean I guess so, so far.”

“Did you apply for grad schools again?”

“No,” I lied again, having been rejected by everywhere. “Let’s go abroad.”

“Fuck off! Are you serious?”

“Yeah, to Madrid. I know the city.” I spent a year abroad as an undergraduate in Madrid. The junior year thing. I didn’t know the city—that too was a lie. Once I ate a meter of albondigas sandwiches at the Subway by Retiro Park, though. Albondigas means “meatballs” in Spanish. It was, and is, my favorite Spanish word. “Plus, Almodovar is there. We should go. You know I met him once”

“Is he Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown?”

“Yep. He hit on me in a club.”

“How do you say ‘boner’ in Spanish,” James asked.

“Vergadura.”

“You gave Almodovar a vergadura.”

“Maybe.”

“What’s bienvenidos? I saw that on a welcome mat. Does that mean ‘welcome?’”

“That’s also boner.”

“I’m bullish on this idea, T. What about Bookstop?”

Dr. C, the owner of Bookstop, called me and asked me to come in. Travis hadn’t told him I’d quit. I felt bad. I didn’t want to have to deal with Dr. C. I liked Dr. C, and I felt terribly guilty for not tendering my resignation to his face. And fuck you, Travis. Happy fuckday to you. I hate awkward situations, especially when they involve speaking with people I’ve let down. I thought drugs would make it easier. After age 22 or so, it’s embarrassing to admit doing acid. But, I admit.

After staring at an issue of the inexplicably pink Financial Times for what seemed a minor eternity, Dr. C. ushered me into his office. Now, I’ve never “seen” anything on drugs, like some people have claimed. I’ve never seen the Led Zeppelin blimp carrying a banner that read, “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” or a swimming pool full of Draculas or the face of Heinrich Himmler in a pepperoni pizza. But Dr. C was undulating, changing form, then his features would scramble back into place. It was as if he were an image conjured up like a human Etch-a-Sketch, then shaken, then drawn anew. It didn’t help that Dr. C. had a missing eye and would occasionally, like on this occasion, refuse to wear his eye-patch. I liked him for this “fuck you” to all the staring half-wits, the insensitive cavepeople who would incessantly gaze into his oozing socket. But now, no good. Once you’ve made up your mind not to look at something, you’re tanked. And I admit.

I’m no good with “psychedelic” drugs like mushrooms and acid and that kind of stuff. I hate when people I’m around are on them and I hate to be on them. I’ve always thought of myself as someone hanging from a pretty thin thread, and all this psychedelia bilge tugs at that thread like an angry cat. I also find myself on the tail end of these “trips” sitting on a toilet somewhere trying to crap out my soul. But for some reason I have taken a lot of them. And I took a lot of them before I walked into Dr. C’s office wearing a “cape” fashioned out of a large trash bag, then started blabbering and eventually weeping about United Fruit, neocolonialism and all the trouble that “my opportunist cocksucker ancestors” had inflicted on Latin America.

“Tyler, United Fruit went out of business in the 1970s.”

“But think of all the damage they did, Dr. C, man. Think of Rigoberta Menchu!”

“That wasn’t United Fruit. I think that was a civil war in Guatemala. And what is that thing you’re wearing? Is that a trash bag?”

“It’s more of a cloak, actually. Look, I know you’re probably thinking you want to peel the skin off my face because you went through it all there in Guatemala, you know.”

“What are you talking about, Tyler? Are you okay? You look sweaty. Did you want to come in here just to talk about United Fruit. If you did, that’s fine, it’s just…”

“Oh, man. You’re from Mexico, aren’t you? Jesus Christ! I just want to say that I’m sorry. I don’t think that, you know, Guatemala and Mexico is the same thing. Cultural identity is so very, very important, especially in a growing global community. I know there are a lot of people here who think that way…I like the word “globe,” you know the way it sounds when it comes out of your mouth and then goes into the air. Do you know the song “Dark Globe,” by Syd Barett?”

“Syd who? Tyler, are you doing okay?”

“Not so great, Dr. C,” I managed to drool out, conscious that I was now on drugs, aware that I was on drugs and aware that people usually get paranoid when they’re aware they’re on drugs and that this feeling will never ever ever go away and I’m insane forever.

“What’s the problem,” he asked in his avuncular way. I had always liked Dr. C and I wanted to choose my words carefully, not insult him, not insult the institution of Bookstop.

“I’m in a pretty fucked-up dance here, Dr. C as in cottage cheese. That’s two c’s, isn’t it?

“Excuse me?” Dr. C asked, naturally.

“I meant what?”

“What?”

“Tyler, are you okay?”

“I need to get out of here.”

“Out of my office?”

“Out of everything. I want to withdraw.”

“Well, Tyler, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the problem?”

“I just don’t fit in here?”

“Here at Bookstop?”

“Yeah, I guess. And my own skin. It feels tight.”

“Is that a metaphor?” he asked. Dr. C. loved metaphors. He had a PhD in English and used to teach at an impressive university. But, he found that he liked books more than he liked people, so he bought a bookstore. Made sense to me.

“I’m afraid not.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Tyler. You know you can always come back.”

“Thank you, Dr. C.”

“Tyler, take care of yourself.”

“I’ll try.”

I left work and headed back to my apartment where I had every intention of lying in a ball, drinking whiskey and listening to George Jones. I opened the door to 211 and was greeted by my roommate Tod, some of his friends, Lance Berkman, all-star first baseman for the Houston Astros, and his roommate Dave, who was standing in his underwear strumming a bass plugged into an unplugged amplifier. We all lived in the same apartment complex.

“Whoa. Dave. Nice bass guitar.“

It’s not a bass guitar—it’s a space guitar.” Dave gave me the drugs, earlier.

“Nice.”

“So nice,” Dave said, strumming his incomprehensible melody.

Dave and Lance made an interesting pair. Lance, for all I know, never did drugs (although not afraid to partake of my whiskey from time to time), was a good Christian boy and could hit a baseball farther than anyone I’ve ever seen, or at least anyone who I’ve ever been in a room on acid with. Dave, on the other hand, was enamored with Frank Zappa and any psychedelic concoction he could get his hands on. But they were often together and were, from all I could tell, extraordinarily good friends. Lance was sitting on our sofa, dipping Copenhagen and Dave stopped playing the space guitar for a moment and asked, “What’s up, man?”

“I’m dropping out.”

“Me too, dude!”

“No, I mean I’m dropping out of America.”

“Nice.”

“Why?” asked Lance Berkman.

“My skin is tight. Does it feel better to hit a home run right-handed or left-handed?”

“Right handed. Look, I’ve got to get going, y’all,” Lance said a little urgently. “Tyler, we’ll see you around, right?”

“Yeah, you’ll se me around.” Lance left the room, Tod and his guys had set up shop in the common room, reading the sheet music to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Dave remained strumming his space guitar, alone in his own mostly nude world. I grabbed the bottle of whiskey, went to my room, curled up in a ball and listened to George Jones for the next four hours until I was finally overcome with sleep.

the walkmen

I fucking love the Walkmen.

Do you know the Walkmen?

If you don’t, you should. I would embed a video clip for their greatest (or anyway best-known) song, “The Rat,” if I knew how. Brad, how do I do this? I’m a technical moron, and undoubtedly a moron in other ways, as the following will demonstrate.

This past February, at this year’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, many of the overheard conversations did not involve the usual topics—Where’s the best place in the city to score a discount bottle of Booker’s bourbon?Do you know anyone who brought a bag of weed?Let’s get drunk/stoned, sit in a circle in someone’s hotel room and read some poetry/fiction/creative nonfiction, then seduce our former Russian Lit/Forms/Creative Writing Pedagogy professor.

I’m having the Monday coffee with CP and SK. SK has only a dollar in cash and asks if I can get the rest of his drink.

“Sure,” I say. I pull out a twenty dollar bill. I don’t have anything smaller.

“I’m on the twenty dollar diet,” I say. “I only pay with twenties.” It’s supposed to be a joke but I have no idea where I’m going with it until I notice that CP also has a twenty out and ready.

“See? CP’s doing the same thing. It’s rough out there. We have to burn the small bills just to keep warm.”

I have found that it’s difficult for people to be rude to you when you’re dressed as a 5’4” hot dog.

Desperate for cash like so many others in this crap economy, I took a seasonal job this fall working as a cashier at iParty, a party supply store that sells costumes by the truckload during Halloween season. One afternoon in early October, I walked into the store looking for a costume and left with a job. The assistant manager looked over my application, saw my degrees and my years of teaching and writing experience, and said, “Yeah, you’re way overqualified. You’ll start on Thursday.”

Yes, I was overqualified. And yes, I hoped that the manager wouldn’t actually call my references, thus informing these respected individuals that I was putting my master’s degree to use as an iParty cashier.

But the thing is, I love Halloween. Love it. I love dressing in costume, I love Halloween decorations, and I love seeing other people and animals in costumes: babies, adults, dogs. Perhaps it’s the escapism from reality that I enjoy, or perhaps it’s just that I get to be a kid again and make a justified ass of myself in public, but I love walking around as a cloaked witch or a giant fairy and just tooling down the sidewalk like it’s nothing. Back home in Minnesota, only children walk around dressed up for All Hallows Eve. Here in Salem, though, tens of thousands of tourists march through the city in tens of thousands of costumes during each October’s Haunted Happenings celebration. The city even holds a pet costume contest—in the morning for cats, and in the afternoon for dogs, so as to avoid a furry bloodbath on the Common.

So that’s why I took a job that severely underpaid me: I could dress every day in a different costume and walk around showing other people cool costumes. It’d be like playtime, like I wasn’t even working.

Laura as a 5'4" hot dog.

During my five weeks’ employment at iParty, I indulged in a prolonged Halloween celebration and dressed at work as an angel, a witch, a cowgirl, a Greek goddess, a hot dog, a giant chicken, a Saturday Night Live Spartan cheerleader, the Cat in the Hat, Tinky Winky, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (complete with a stuffed Toto in a basket), the Scarecrow, Captain America, and Snow White.

Customers loved it. They joked with me. They laughed at my costumes. I flexed my foam muscles as Captain America and they giggled at my foolishness. When I rang their purchases and asked them, as instructed by my boss, “Would you like to donate a dollar to Boston Medical today to help kids in need?” they smiled congenially and said, “Oh, sure,” and, “Absolutely.”

The parents especially loved me. They told their children, “Look, honey: it’s Dorothy. Isn’t she pretty?” or, “See, baby, she’s an angel. She must have been very good today.” The kids dug me, too. They peeked over the countertop at me and smiled shyly when I asked them what they were going to be for Halloween. One toddler toddled up to me when I was in my velvet witch costume and started petting my dress. “You’re soft,” she said, and her mother, embarrassed, collected the little girl from my side of the counter.

But that was all while I was in costume. The glory days were soon to end.

Nov. 3: my last day at work.

When I walked into the store that Monday, I found that the weekend crew had gutted the place. The shelves and lowboys in the large aisle just inside the door were empty. The Halloween makeup and costumes had been put away or re-shelved in a smaller aisle to make room for Christmas décor. The glow-in-the-dark fangs, the false boobs, the trick-or-treat buckets, the sickles and swords, the naughty nurse kits, the Chuckey masks—all of it had been put away. Banished until next fall.

This devil can't afford to wear Prada.

The reason I had taken the job in the first place was gone. No more costumes = no more fun. Now it was just an $8-an-hour job bagging paper goods and shower favors for people who were too busy or self-important to hang up their cell phones during checkout.

That last morning, I donned my purple iParty t-shirt and pinned the yellow “Laura” nametag over my left breast. I felt nude. I had always been in costume at this job, so without an alter identity, I was out of place. Devoid of personality.

On my way to the cash registers from the back room, I took a police hat off the shelf and slid it down over my ponytail. It was only a halfhearted gesture, though; fifteen minutes later, I took the hat off and put it over my register’s broken credit card machine. I would live out my last day at iParty costumeless.

Not long after I let go of my costumed identity, a blonde-haired woman with a doo-rag, cloth purse, and flowy cotton skirt stepped up to the check-out counter. She looked like a hippy, so I (mistakenly) assumed she’d be friendly. I was straightening out the front displays, so I had to walk around the middle bank of registers to get to my register in Aisle One.

I gestured to the check-out counter closest to the front door. “I can help you over here if you’re all set.”

The woman rolled her eyes, annoyed that she had to walk further to pay for her paper plates. She pushed her cart over to me, a scowl set firmly in her jaw. Only slightly miffed by her rudeness, I smiled at the woman and revised my first impression: she’s not a hippy at all, but a yuppie “slumming it” in a doo-rag on her day off. I, in my purple iParty t-shirt, am apparently beneath her.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” I asked, still smiling.

She looked back at me like I was a spiteful spouse, taunting her with Round Two of an argument. She held my eyes but didn’t respond. She said nothing.

Now I was irritated.

“Your total today is $22.47.”

The woman sighed and raised an eyebrow. Were the plates too expensive? Was she bothered that she had to flip through her wallet for her credit card? Did my breath smell?

I took her Visa, slipped it through the computer, and snapped the receipt off before it stopped printing. I handed her her bag.

“And here’s your receipt,” I said. “Have a great day.”

She scowled at me one final time, took her purchases without any thanks or mutual well-wishes for my day, and stalked off through the front door, leaving her cart right in front of my register where it was blocking the next customer. Right there in front of me. It’s like when your dog craps on the carpet while looking you in the face.

When the other customers left, I stomped over to my shift manager, Tricia.

“No costume!” I said. “That’s why she was rude to me.”

Tricia looked up from her paperwork.

“This woman was totally just rude to me for no reason, and do you know why? It’s because I wasn’t wearing a costume!”

I knew my theory was right. I recounted to Tricia the yuppie/hippy woman’s scowls, her refusals to respond, and her crap-on-my-carpet final gesture of abandoning her cart in front of me, when the cart corral was only eight feet away.

“And do you know what?” I asked, not leaving Tricia time to answer. “That never happened to me once when I was in costume. Not once. I saw customers be rude to every single other cashier around me who wasn’t dressed up—even to Georgine” (who has the kindest grandmotherly demeanor and smile). “But no one was rude to me when I was dressed up. But now? I’m crap to them.”

“Jerks,” I added.

The good old days of being a giant chicken and the Cat in the Hat were gone. I was a lowly plebian again. Another cog in the service industry.

I finished out my shift halfheartedly, my ego slightly bruised, then turned in my purple t-shirt and nametag and punched out for the last time.

“You know,” I said later to a friend, still mulling over the woman’s rudeness, “I think we’d all be a lot nicer to each other if we walked around in costumes all the time. It’s like, who can be a jerk to a giant bunny?”

Many truths about human behavior elude me, but of this I am fairly certain.

Tinky Winky evoked the most laughs from co-workers.

Don your own costume and try it out. Go about your daily activities dressed as a hot dog or bumblebee, and just see how much levity you bring to the room, and how much kindness flows out from neighbors and strangers. Maybe it’s just a little dose of what we need during this tanking economy and the post-Christmas bleakness of winter.

And if you ever make your way to Salem and see a full-grown woman walking around as Super Woman when it’s not even Halloween, it just might be me. And you’ll probably see everyone around me laughing and smiling and sharing their nachos with strangers. Or finding homes for orphaned puppies. Or ending homelessness.

One can at least hope that a giant wiener could accomplish so much.