Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Bud Smith. His new memoir, Work, is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

This is Bud’s second time on the program. He first appeared in Episode 373, on July 29, 2015.

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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.

We’re in the midst of the latest in a series of Work-Life Balance eruptions, from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” to Sheryl Sandberg’s admonition that women need to Lean In, to Marissa Mayer’s recent diktat that everyone needs to “get back to work,” no more of this “phoning it in.”

Will we see real progress this time?

muldoonWilliam Muldoon was built like a Greek God. In an era that saw women afraid to reveal even their ankles beneath a long skirt, the “Solid Man” wasn’t afraid to show a little skin. Even as far back as the 1880’s, at the dawn of professionalism in sports, wrestlers already needed gimmicks to sell bouts to the masses. Muldoon, for his part, was leading the way. He was a gifted wrestler but a better salesman. His gimmick was dressing as a Roman gladiator. Before bouts he was photographed in a loincloth and sandals, often naked from the waist up. He was a man who knew gimmicks, and with the gladiator getup, he was taking iconography to the next level.  Donald Mrozek, author of Sport and American Mentality, 1880-1910, thinks Muldoon was onto something that resonated with his audience. Muldoon’s costumes suggested that he was something more than a mere man. His sculpted body was the proof:

Fudged Resume in a Difficult Economy

My people come from what is often referred to by banks as LDC’s (least developed countries), little brown tropical countries, drenched with religious fanatics, stalks of sugar like magic wands picked for five cents an hour sold for 3.00 a box. My people come from generational recycled 40 oz. bottles of beer and shit and cigarettes smoked backwards (the lit end in your mouth), and cassava, and ube, pickled chicken fetus’, and piss, and mah jong, gambling (lots of gambling) and child sex workers, boys and girls. Untold numbers of pretty pretty boys.  My people are light bulb eaters, bed-of-nail-walkers, fire-eaters, every day is a circus in their jungles, alive with naked intent.  By the time we got here we would be happy at any swap meet, all of us hollowed out like empty mango shells. My people rested naked sandwiches on the arms of chairs, and always had an open saucer with half melted butter, a block of Velveeta cheese in the freezer, an open rice cooker.  Every kitchen with brown and white diamond checkered floors lined with ants, and every top drawer with little boxes of broken chalk to try to fight the ants and roaches, my people have big rubber fly swatters, and eat with their teeth floating in glasses of water at the dinner table.  My people live their lives tending to things. And if you told them the city was cruel with budget cuts they would scoff at you and your American budget cuts.  They lived half their lives in city dumps.  Here the trash bins behind restaurants are caged and locked to keep homeless out.  “Why do they lock it up?” we ask.  “So the homeless don’t eat the trash.”  “Oh.”

But it still makes no sense.  Is food-trash only for throwing away? My people drink coffee for dinner.  Kills the appetite.  Little empty bellies always round.

So that’s why the first time I saw someone stand at a podium, fist in air, microphone against mouth chanting “Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede!” And then there were claps that were slow to start with spaces in between like the clap that a kid makes when he’s teasing another kid.  The clap of humiliation but it gained speed faster faster faster until the whole crowd was lifted up by this clap and my heart was catching up with the clap. I felt it clanging against my chest.  I felt my nipples hard against my shirt. I felt my hands tight.  I wasn’t a person I was part of this big giant super fast heartbeat.  And everything in the vehicle formerly known as my body screamed “SIGN ME UP! SIGN ME UP MOTHERFUCKERS!”  And so it began.

The day I was hired as a union organizer I was handed a small stapled booklet that read ‘Axioms for Organizers’.  These axioms were slung in homes across the Coachella Valley as Fred Ross Jr. worked with Cesar Chavez on the farmworkers campaign and were eventually put into a little DIY booklet and handed to organizers on their first day.  My favorite is every organizer is a social arsonist, you have to set the minds and hearts of your members on fire.  In that same way I think of writers as social arsonists.

I’ve learned there are two reasons people read: 1) to escape and 2) to connect.  I picture thousands of people reaching for books with their best intentions reaching for books and laying on benches, in beds, on couches, shoved against walls, curled on concrete all reading with one hope in mind; to connect to the antagonist and further their understanding of the human spirit.  Even though it’s fun to use terms like social arsonist I think that I am now occupying one of the less sexy spaces. The spaces between. It’s what happens after you occupy Wall Street after the chanting and the microphone. It’s what happens while your quietly working on your first novel. It’s like going home after partying all week and thinking, Who turned out the lights?

My job today is to get new and occasional voters to commit to voting regularly in their local elections.  No that’s not as fun as wearing a sign or pitching a tent or screaming into a bullhorn or getting arrested or doing anything facebook-status-change-worthy but it’s what I believe is necessary for real systemic change.  I’ve read recently “Behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.”

I would say the same is true for novels.  That behind every great novel is a writer doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.  To me the spaces between while writing the novel, whether it be the spaces between feedback or the spaces between a submission response, or the spaces between sitting before the page, can be desperate like being a teenager in foster care wishing keep me keep me keep me. It’s the novel afraid it will slip between your fingers, off of your hard drive, beside the others in the wastebasket on your desktop, tucked somewhere between law school and your afterschool tutoring volunteer gig. First the tugging at your brain and heart, then the shame then the daunting weight of guilt that turns the whole thing into an afterthought.  That is the dull screeching around your heart when you are living in the spaces between.  Come with me and brave them.

 

1. The Visionary Stage.

The idea is brilliant; so brilliant, in fact, that it is best described as a “vision.” No one has thought to combine these elements/metal components/animal JPEGs before. The world is laughably behind. This vision will overtake the critics and investors, necessitating that cash be shipped to you via truck freight.

 

2. The Gritty-Eyed Stage.

Month four: you’re still springing out of bed in the mornings, but it’s mainly because your back is knotted with stress. You landed that big commission in Australia, but now you’re working weird hours and none of your traditionally employed friends understands why when you laugh, it sounds like you’re crying. It’s thrilling to be able to earn money for your vision, except that the currency exchange rates are killing you a little more each month. Also, the word “month” in Australia translates to “60 days” in the U.S. The electric bill is an unfriendly color.

 

3. The Scotch Drinking Stage.

The Australians just got hit with a major flood. Despite their initial enthusiasm for your groundbreaking project, you’re now back in the ranks of the unemployed. Except you can’t collect unemployment because you haven’t been employed full-time for over six months by anyone aside from your own misguided ambition. On a whim, you picked up a minor commission from some English people a few weeks back “for a little extra cash.” Oh, ha! Your friends are short on sympathy. Not only are you a loser; you’re a loser in a time of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Maybe you should have just made nice with that asshole at the old 80-hour a week job who drove you screaming from the building. No, you can’t go that far. Whatever happens, never trust anyone named Gavin.

 

4. The Royal Tenenbaum Stage.

Perhaps it’s time to turn to crime: after all, your fingertips are now polished smooth from exertion. For entertainment, you imagine likely organ solos at your funeral as you treat yourself to a cup of cooked rice. The English people don’t like how the project has worked out and have refused to pay your last bill. This, despite the hours you spent on Skype patiently explaining the nuances of your ingenuity. You’ve got some leads with a few Canadians and a guy who calls himself “MajorDomo51.” You’re going to die in the company of used cardboard containers. The only way people will remember you is with mockery, especially that dickweed Gavin.

 

5. The Jazz Bar Stage.

The darkest hour comes before checking your email. After discarding the grammatically pioneering messages from BestPenis, you discover an explosion of interest from half a dozen serious investors. Maybe it’s the genius of the new Google algorithm or the simplicity of critical mass, but this integrity-plagued existence of yours is starting to turn a profit. You haven’t kowtowed to anyone in over two years, and you’ve settled this evening’s bar tab with unleveraged cash. The feeling is so good that you start swapping anecdotes with the guy sitting next to you. After you explain that you’re your own boss, you see that look in his eyes. It’s the look of a man who has an idea; no, a VISION.

 

Three-Legged Dogs

By Ryan Day

Memoir

“I can’t give you no cash, but if you wanna come work for the day, I’d be happy to pay you for that.” There was a certain Fife-iness, or Gilliganism to his gummy cadence.

It wasn’t what I had in mind, but it would do.

I jumped into his Dually and we headed out towards God knows where. Judging by the giant mound of sod overflowing the truck’s bed, I imagined the work would be long and grueling, and by the end of the day I’d be a lot dirtier than I was to begin with.

“Saul,” he said extending a thinly muscled arm with a grimey hand at the end of it.

I shook it.

He rolled a cigarette with one hand as he drove with the other. I couldn’t tell how old he was. A haggard thirty or a well-preserved fifty. Either would have been believable.

“Smoke?” He offered.

“No. Thanks.”

We had passed a couple of small towns and kept on going. I was getting a little nervous.

“You laid sod before?” he asked.

“No.”

There was a dog in the back seat, a German Shepherd, that was missing one of its front legs.

Saul caught me staring.

“Daisy got cancer,” he said. “Ain’t none of us safe.”

A half hour later he pulled up to a giant house built on the edge of a pond. Saul jumped out of the truck and took off his shirt revealing a concave chest and a stomach that was muscular only due to its lack of any other type of tissue. His khaki shorts sagged heavily, and every couple of seconds he had to pull them up. He was shoeless and bald. I noticed his left foot was missing the big and second toes.

“Come on,” he said, heading for a giant patch of bare dirt extending from the pond to the deck of the house. There was a huge pile of sod already waiting for us.

We didn’t talk at all for the next six hours. Just laid one strip after another and watched that big brown patch slowly turn green, as the dog alternated between swimming, sleeping and harassing us.

When the yard was finally green, a man in a white sweater came down from the deck. I hadn’t noticed him once all day.

When the man got to Saul he stopped. Saul looked at him for a minute, but didn’t say anything. I thought maybe he was trying to catch his breath, but there was something in between them that wouldn’t let itself be addressed. Saul’s eyes stayed down towards his knees. The man’s posture was straight and unforgiving.

He handed Saul an envelope. Saul whistled. The Dog and I obeyed his call, hopping in the truck so the three of us could be on our way.

“Wanna swim?” he asked.

“Alright,” I said, even though I really just wanted my money, and to get out of Iowa.

I assumed he was heading to a lake, or a pool, or a creek, or a reservoir, but he pulled his truck straight onto the sidewalk next to a fountain on the University of Iowa’s campus. He slid on flippers and a snorkel and dove into what couldn’t have been more than two feet of water.

“Come on in,” he said through his snorkel and goggles, “The water’s real nice after a long day work’n.”

I took off my shoes, sat on the edge and rolled up my jeans for a foot bath.

“Don’t be a scaredy cat,” he said. “They know me ’round here.”

Daisy jumped into the fountain too.

Just then a cop car pulled up to the fountain, and my pulse shot into my throat.

Saul just waved a goofy wave from behind those big goggles.

“Howdy, Saul,” said the cops, “We didn’t see a thing.”

“Told ya,” said Saul.

Then one of the cops turned back to us. “You gotta keep that dog on a leash, though.”

“Can’t put a three legged dog on a leash,” said Saul. “It’ll choke her.”

The cops seemed to accept Saul’s difference of opinion.

 

He offered to make me dinner, and seeing as I still hadn’t been paid, I accepted.

He cooked seitan and beans on a fire outside of his cottage on the outskirts of Iowa City.

He drank tall cans of Old Style and began to slur.

“You see this here,” he said pointing at the missing toes.

I nodded.

“Fell asleep in a cornfield last December. They was black when I woke up.”

It was getting dark and the fire was smoldering.

Saul had gone inside for another beer and hadn’t come back.

I peeked past the door. There was no furniture in the apartment. Just a rug with a pillow and a sheet where Saul was curled up in a ball next to a syringe and a spoon.

I saw the envelope that the man had given him earlier that day laying on the floor and decided maybe it was best to pay myself and leave.

Inside there was a fifty dollar bill and a note.

Saul,

Hope this gets you through the week

Love,

Dad

I left the fifty in the envelope and walked along the river back towards the city.

It’s three in the afternoon on Saturday. I’m on my second or third double espresso of the day, not because I need it, but because I love it. I got home this morning at six, after a night spent out and about town, went to bed and rose like black magic at noon to get going. Yesterday marked the end of a 60-hour week at a job I adore and now, I’m writing this piece. My energy levels are through the roof, but I promise you I’m not manic. This is the life and I’m still living it, even though I’m not 22 anymore. Far from it. Though I’m not quite Disco Sally, either.

I live hard. I work hard. I play hard. And I just can’t stop. Late nights, strong cocktails, out until dawn… you know how it goes.  The kind of life you told yourself had to end once you hit your mid-twenties, only I’ve never stopped. I fear if I stop, I’ll hit the wall, and when you’re going 100 MPH, you know the ending result will not be pretty.



That’s me in all my green skin glory, about a month ago. It was taken around midnight in a bar with a camera phone, that is, no bells nor whistles, no filters nor airbrushing involved. It’s definitely not the best picture of me, but I think it captures how I look on any given night (rather than, say, my TNB photo which was professionally shot for a magazine). I still get carded and challenged that my driver’s license is actually my own, granted the lighting in most bars is pretty forgiving. Don’t for a second think that I actually believe I look under 21, but I could easily lie about my age by 10 years. My mom does. Lies about my age, that is. But, I think lying is silly. On the other hand, avoiding the full reveal = awesome! It seems that when most women hit their thirties, especially if we look good, we start to conveniently not mention our age. We do have this mystique to maintain, right? Just call me ageless.

I went to a new doctor recently and when she came in the room after the nurse took my stats, she demanded, “OK, what’s your secret?!”

Secret? I started to freak out thinking she somehow knew I had lied about how many drinks I actually consume in a week on the new patient form.

“We were all just marveling over your age!” she continued. “And we don’t believe it.” Relieved, though a bit shaken, I shrugged and said what has become my throwaway answer: “good genes.” But I come from a family that is prone to just as many maladies as any other.

Look, I’m not here to rub anything in your face (except for a good face serum, maybe). There’s nothing to envy. After all, the past ten years haven’t been easy by any stretch and sometimes I’m shocked and extremely grateful that a pre-plastic surgery Joan Rivers isn’t staring back at me when I look into a mirror. Let’s see, there was the excruciating task of opening and running a business that eventually went south and made me financially and emotionally drained, not to mention the end of relationships, falling in and out of love a couple times. You know… grown-up stuff. Who really has it “easy” anyway?

Consider for a moment what I do “right” and I promise not to lecture. It’s not all that impressive: I avoid the sun (easy for night lovers), get plenty of sleep (I don’t get less than 7 hours a night, on average), eat well (vegetarian, non-processed foods, though that’s undoubtedly its own separate subject), exercise like there’s no tomorrow– while forcing myself to enjoy it (I do, really, I do. Perhaps I’m even a bit addicted. Hey, better than crystal meth right?) and I take care of myself, especially my skin, which I don’t take for granted for a second. It may be kinda green, but it’s smooth and other than a few fine lines, wrinkle-free.

Surely, you’ve heard all that before, so what else? What’s my secret? It could be that I treat myself well, because I feel I deserve it. I love to spend money on clothing, shoes, quality beauty products and services. I also love to spend money on good food, books, travel and entertainment. All of this keeps me stimulated, inspired and healthy. Could it also be that I refuse to “settle down”? More like I refuse to settle. Once you settle, then you become complacent and then you might as well die as far as I’m concerned. Call it extreme, but this philosophy works for me.

Let’s get back to the topic of work, though. It’s what keeps me in Fluevogs and good bedding (a sound sleep is crucial to a divine daily existence, so go ahead and splurge on those 700-thread count sheets and luxury mattress), not to mention, earning a paycheck allows me to be able to afford those things I can’t live without. But it’s more than that. I was raised with a really strong work ethic, which sucked at 16 when I wanted to fuck off and just go to the beach on weekends, but now I appreciate that ethic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a workaholic, if you allow for the other aforementioned good stuff. I don’t sacrifice my own happiness for work and won’t do so ever again after owning my own business and having to make constant compromises with a partner who did not share the same outlook as me. Ever since that ended, I have followed my own rules, worked many jobs, often two or three at a time, and other than a brief hiatus in employment due to a life-changing move to the Midwest, I now have the career of my dreams. I think that once you get there, you should want to devote yourself to overachievement.

I have this thing called a writing habit, too. My recently completed novel may be on the back burner, but it’s warming up quite nicely. Slow cooking means the most enjoyable eating, I’ve found. And I have some hobbies, too.

But the secret, what’s the secret to looking and feeling young? I think it’s the grand sum of these things. For example, without the exercise, I have to wonder if I could sleep as well as I do. Without eating healthily, would the drink make me a lazy lush? Without sleeping a full night, would I still have endless energy and not get sick? If I didn’t sleep, eat well and drink a few quarts of water a day would my skin look this good? Who knows? It’s a life in progress. I do take breaks from the hard living. There may be a week or two of staying in at night, too. Too much of anything can get boring. I guess I just fell into good habits somewhere along the way, to counterbalance the not so good ones. Listen, not trying these days isn’t an option anymore.

The first paragraph of this piece could have easily started differently. I could have listed all that I do “right,” and I do plenty right but wouldn’t you rather have the fact that I do plenty wrong as a frame of reference? I am not perfect. I drink. A lot. I love caffeine. I love late nights and “sleeping in.”  A lot of this I can attribute to two decades of practice. I started going out when I was underage and living in Greenwich Village. I cut my teeth on New York nightlife as soon as I could.

I do it all, all that I want to do, and I’ll stop when I’m dead. But I will try my best to look and feel fabulous all along the way.  Who knows, some day I may even achieve Zelda Kaplan status.

The living hard part? It’s not crucial, nor is it advisable for everyone, but why not gradually make a go of it? You may find yourself feeling better, having more energy and you may just want to pull an all-nighter or two.


 

I was surprised to see he had no front teeth. He smiled thinly while beckoning me to enter his cluttered dining room. Musty and dank, it was a museum of lifetime accumulation. Stacks of yellowed paper, stuffed owls, clocks, a brass American bald eagle affixed to the wall. A worn checkered cloth covered a small square wooden table with spindle legs. Mr. Pulda pulled out a chair and motioned with his beefy hand for me to take a seat. His eyes narrowed. He wasn’t the type of man who entertained guests. He didn’t like outsiders. Not even those who proclaimed they would help him save his farm. Mr. Pulda wanted was to be left alone to feed his cows, to tend his soybeans and corn.

 

He’d managed to live in isolation on a 67-acre farm all his life. He had six siblings but they weren’t interested in perpetuating a way of life his parents and grandparents knew. The 1920s paint-peeled farmhouse was his and his alone. Mr. Pulda never took a wife nor had children. He was 72, still sturdy enough to ride a tractor and nudge a stubborn cow.

 

Nobody in the suburb that grew around Mr. Pulda’s farm paid much attention to the old man. Toothless and grizzled, he scared kids when he occasionally went to the strip mall. That wasn’t too often. Mr. Pulda lived in a world that no longer existed. As long as he had his acreage to demarcate his life, it made sense to him. He was completely shocked when I told him town officials were trying to buy his farm right out from under him, without his permission. The mayor and his cronies were up to mischief. This would make a great newspaper story. My editors agreed. It had the elements editors love: A David and Goliath conflict with the lore of a farmer in suburbia. The intricacies of town law and how it can be exploited to undermine the unsuspecting.

 

Finding the obscure documents at town hall made my cheeks burn hot. I remember rifling through the papers, slowly, then faster and faster, breaking into a cold, sweet sweat as the details were revealed. Like lake lily pads opening to the morning sun, the sordid information fed new life into my deadened soul. I had a place for my anger. How could town officials take Mr. Pulda’s land and convert it into a park without his consent or knowledge? How can my seven-year marriage be collapsing? I will save the day for Mr. Pulda!

 

A light rain subsided. Mr. Pulda whittled a piece of wood with his large, weathered hands. His nails were dirty and chipped. Nobody had ever spent a moment caring for him. I bent down to stroke one of the two dogs coiled around his ankles. “I have a dog like this,” I said. Mr. Pulda shifted in his chair. The sweet smell of burning wood crackling in his cast-iron stove curled through the room. It was chilly for early May.

 

“How did this happen?” I asked, looking straight into the old man’s Dutch-blue eyes. He lowered a hanging copper lamp down over the table as if to illuminate his thoughts.

 

“I told them from the beginning the farm was not for sale. I guess they didn’t hear me.”

 

I assured Mr. Pulda a front-page newspaper story would expose the attempted land-grab, and the good people of this South Jersey town would come out and support him. We spoke for an hour. Then he asked me if I wanted to meet his cows. We walked together through the wet grass to a splintered red barn. We stood in silence. A damp cow hung her head over a wooden fence, offering me her pink nose for rubbing. I obliged her and smiled at Mr. Pulda. He smiled his toothless smile back at me.

 

That day I left the newsroom after dark. Traffic crawled on the turnpike. The windshield wipers beat back and forth hypnotically, like a metronome. I felt dread, first in my chest, rising toward my throat. My temples throbbed. I tried to shake the malaise by thinking about Mr. Pulda’s mustard-yellow acres, how they were getting ready to wake up from a long winter. Nature reminds us how tough it is to come back to life after dormancy. “I’m going to save that man’s farm,” I whispered to myself over the prattle on the radio. When I pulled into the parking lot, I pressed my arms onto the steering wheel and took a deep breath. I summoned whatever strength I had to get out of the car and walk around the corner to my apartment. I knew he wouldn’t be at home. At least there’d be no fighting tonight. The confounding thoughts of how a marriage can go fallow drained me every time I walked through the door. An apartment turns into a gravesite where only ghosts live.

 

Standing in the kitchen spooning cereal from a bowl at 10 pm I peer over at the phone machine. He doesn’t even bother to leave a message anymore when he’s away on business in India. Just as well. I can barely hear him over the crackle. Even on a perfectly clear phone line, we don’t talk anymore. There’s nothing that hasn’t already been said. We’re at an impasse. Too scared to move in one direction or another. Inert. Powerless. A dead thing that needs a burial but it’s too complicated to make the arrangements. We wait. He travels on business. I find meaning in the lives of strangers. I write about them. I change their fate. It offers hope.

 

The relationship started as a transatlantic romance. It was exhilarating to be wooed by a Brit. He convinced me to come and live with him in London, which I did for a few years. Then we returned to New York together and married. Our love was young, hopeful. We shared the desire to travel around the world; we had no ability to settle down. Ten years on, we had the same furniture, no kids and photo albums filled with exotic adventures. We never put down roots. Like Dorian Grey, the relationship never got older, wiser, or deeper. Even our love-making, which had by now stopped, was static.

 

By 10 am the phones in the newsroom were ringing. William Pulda’s story was causing a stir. Town officials knew they had a mess on their hands. Like a bloated turkey seeking female attention, the mayor puffed himself up and made it clear to me he didn’t appreciate the “inaccurate” coverage. I knew I was on firm ground. This made the confrontation all the more intoxicating because Mr. Mayor-a man so accustomed to having his way-held no sway over me. The truth protected me from his harsh words. I told him we were running a follow-up story. “No comment,” he said.

 

The days and weeks that followed were ecstatic. I’d worked on urgent, breaking news stories before but Mr. Pulda’s farm stoked my energy daily. I relished being alive. I was acutely aware of how it contrasted with time spent when I wasn’t busy being a reporter. The story grew legs, as they say in the news business. Citizens mobbed public meetings; they signed petitions expressing outrage at town officials. Local officials did some fancy tap-dancing to proclaim their innocence, saying Mr. Pulda was a willing seller. I felt powerful for orchestrating this combustion. Had the plot not been exposed, town officials would have eventually resorted to the dirty tactic of eminent domain to get his land.

 

Bringing Mr. Pulda to life reminded people that the town was once a patchwork of farms, a way of life most Americans idealize. Readers responded to his purity. He became a symbol to all of us who feel thwarted in our dreams. Bringing Mr. Pulda to life threw me a lifeline, too.

 

Eventually preservation groups stepped in to save his land by offering to put it in a conservation trust. Town officials backed off. Mr. Pulda could go back to tending his soybeans and corn.

 

After the harvest, color disappeared. I’d drive past the farm and smile, hoping to catch a glimpse of the farmer. I never did. Once I stopped at the end of his dirt driveway. A light snow began to fall. I wanted to go inside and sit in his little house again and breathe in that sweet smell of wood burning. I wiped hot tears from my cheeks. Happy tears for saving a man’s life and his dignity.

 

That winter, over the holidays, my husband and I went skiing. The raw beauty of snow-covered mountains and twinkling Christmas lights finally tore my heart in half. At the airport on the way home, we were in a newspaper shop. He pulled out a calendar for the brand new year, and flipped through its pages. I looked at him hard. He was a stranger. I tried to stop myself from trembling. I was afraid I’d open my mouth and nothing would come out. “You have to move out when we get home.” He lowered his eyes and put the calendar back on the rack.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a narrow band of road that snakes from Donegal town to Malin Head, Ireland’s northernmost point.

Sheep, goats, and the occasional, and increasingly rare corncrake, were some of the only witnesses to my days working in the late-1990s for Ireland’s LA Gear distributor. You know, the shoes with lights in the heels?

In those days the village of Malin had an urban population of in and around 120 souls, and it was my duty to drive the winding road to the 1991 Tidy Town’s winning location once a month as part of my territory. I loved the drive, through sheer landscape, rock and heather, a barren place where even the seabirds suffered personality disorders.

One shoe shop, opposite the Allied Irish bank, close to the large Celtic cross in the center of town. It was my privilege to service this customer, pointing out the merits of flashy American trainers with lights in the heels, and some with sparkles and rhinestones studding the uppers. One of the bestsellers was the MVP, endorsed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and that bore a remarkable resemblance to Nike’s original Air Jordans.

“Howreyedoingtoday?” the bent-double old lady said. “Sure, dyehaveanyofyonsparklyshoeswithyetoday?”

“Sorry?” I said, unable to decipher her Joycean stream-of-consciousness dialogue. The coconut crumbs from her morning snack of Kimberly Mikado biscuits were embedded in the wiry mustache she sported. She had the look of Fu Manchu on an off day, but I needed the sales because my figures for the month were dire.

“Thelightssonnythelights.” And then she wheezed, as if it was her dying breath.

I unzipped the bag and pulled out a selection of perfectly laced left-only shoes.

“Here’s the new Stardust range,” I said, offering the five sample shoes for her inspection. “They’re selling well, strong leather uppers, EVA midsole, great design.”

“Wherearethelightsforgoodnesssakesonny?”

I handed her a sample and she treated it as if it were a potato dug from her garden, rolling it around in her arthritic fingers, the long pointy fingernails crusted with dirt. She peered at the floral design on the outsole.

“Nogoodtoushereatallatall,” she decreed. “Itslightstheyoungwanswantlights.”

“We’ve got plenty of lights, still. You can put in an order for them if you like,” I said, plucking the order book from my briefcase.

Ten minutes later she’d ordered twelve pairs of shoes, between an 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 in the Catapult, and a 5, 6, 7, 8, including half-sizes, in a women’s lights model. Barely enough commission on the sale to buy me a fucking Mars bar at the nearby petrol station shop. I was zipping the samples back into the bag, when she appeared at the door to the back of the shop and waved feebly at me.

“Comehereandlookatthese,” she said.

On a table in the back room was a heap of Catapults and light-up shoes, tied with lace, in various states of decay and soakage. The smell was mildewy, and the woman shook her head from side to side. “Theyreallruinedfromthepuddlestheyoungwansdoberunningthrough,” she said.

“Ma’am, they’re not supposed to be worn in the rain, or to go through puddles,” I said.

“Fortheloveofgodsureareyoukiddingmeatalltall?”

“Honestly. They’re not built for that abuse.”

“Bythehokeysureisnttheweatheralwaysbadinthiscountryanddontallyoungwansmcukaboutinpuddles?”

She had a point. It must rain over two hundred days a year in the North-West of Ireland. There’s no chance shitty, mass-produced sneakers will hold up to the ravages of such a climate. Resignedly, I dropped my sample bag in the car and came back in for the returns. I loaded thirty pairs of shoes in the trunk of the car and drove the desolate road back to Donegal town for the night.


Next morning, car stuffed with returned shoes, I sat outside a drapery in Donegal town, paralyzed with a hatred of my job. Instead of calling on the account, I filled in the Irish Times crossword, both Simplex and Crosaire, and had a sausage roll and cup of tea in a gaily decorated café. Finally, I sucked every ounce of self-esteem from my nether regions, and walking into the account for the last time.


That Friday I unloaded a cache of over one hundred pairs of crap sneakers from the company car, walked into the director’s office, and handed in my resignation. Worst part of it was I had to work out my notice and endure two more weeks of sneaker abuse at the hands of little old ladies speaking in tongues, and ruddy-faced farmers trying to diversify their interests, accepting their returns, and taking orders for more of the happy, shiny shoes I hated so.


And now, twenty-odd years later,with my summer school teaching job coming to an end this week, and no real prospect of work beyond that, I remember the old days, driving out to Malin Head, Achill Island, and Oughterard, trying to sell shoes that had the habit of falling apart at first wear, and consider that things could always be worse. Recession be damned.




I.

The first time I lived in Iowa City, I didn’t have any local numbers in my phone. I didn’t know anyone from Iowa City; I only knew people who had moved there. I knew people who had moved there from Los Angeles and San Francisco and North Carolina and Chicago; from Boston, like me, and Seattle, and Palo Alto—and New York, of course, ubiquitous New York, the 917’s peppered through my contact list between 415’s and 323’s and 310’s and 206’s and 617’s. I was a 617.

On the second day at your new job,
you leave a notebook on the break room table
that the mechanics read aloud from:

In tight spaces between zucchini
and eggplant, between my thighs,
I get so wet watching you weed.

Later the boss takes you aside
to warn you that the men are a tough crowd.
He looks away when he advises
against leaving personal stuff around.

He doesn’t believe you when you tell him
that this morning you accidentally grabbed
your wife’s notebook in lieu of your own.

I got fired for the first time in my life sometime in the past two weeks. I say ‘sometime’ because my boss never actually picked up my phone calls or let me know what was going on beyond a single text that said, “no work,” sent at 6:15 on the Tuesday morning after I returned home from a week being out of town. I finally got a letter of dismissal in the mail the other day. Classy.

Preceding the text and nicely worded letter, what happened was this:

I was offered a last-minute opportunity to go to Calgary for a week in early May to do some writing/photography/filmography with a notable group of Canadian athletes, and I jumped at it.

At the job site I had been working on, me and the other dudes were basically being rented out by another project manager and were working under his supervision; my ‘real boss’ had nothing to do with the site besides showing up every few weeks to collect the absurd amount of money he was getting paid to do absolutely nothing.*

So, because I had only seen my ‘real boss’ like twice in the last month and a half of working – and because he’s an impossible-to-talk-to, bi-polar, hyper-aggressive heart attack candidate whose mental development arrested at the exact moment of a playground shoving match that took place when he was 12 – I wasn’t in a huge hurry to get him on the phone.  I got around to calling him some 18 hours before I was to get on the plane and left a message saying I would be leaving.

I know that seems like a pretty obvious move of insubordination on my part, but to be fair when I called him it was only like 18 hours after I had found out I was to be getting on the plane in the first place. I had immediately let the project manager –- the guy whom I saw at work every day and who was responsible for what was going on on site –- know what I was up to though, and he had no problems with me leaving. And that to me seemed ‘good enough.’

So (again), the short notice to my ‘real boss,’ by itself…I mean, company protocol states an employee is supposed to ask at least 24 hours in advance before taking time off, and I failed to do that. But if we’re going to get into ‘company protocol’ here, how about this; on my last day on the job two dudes weren’t wearing steel-toed boots, three of us were working with our shirts off, no one wore ear or eye protection the entire day, and there wasn’t even one hard hat on the whole site. Fuck company protocol; that shit is illegal, and I don’t think I’m splitting hairs to point out that there might be some incongruities in enforcing co. stipulations going on at K___ Construction.

Anyhow. I went on my trip, did some good stuff, perhaps furthered the ‘career’ I ostensibly went to school for, got paid, and came back home to radio silence.

And, financial uncertainties aside, it’s been a sweet couple of weeks.

But I guess I hurt boss man’s feelings. Or undermined his authority. Or maybe I was doing a shitty job…although, if that was the case, I don’t really see how it could have gotten me canned, seeing as how he was never around long enough to check up on anything we were actually doing.

So (once more), I got fired sometime in the last two weeks for some vaguely justifiable reason (I guess), but I didn’t find out until yesterday. Two separate dudes who I worked with called to sort of gently let me know that they had heard through the grapevine that I was ‘done.’ With both of them I chatted for a few minutes, planned to meet up for a beer sometime soon, and said, “Thanks for calling. Take it easy, bro.” One of them offered to go pick my last paycheck up for me on Friday and drop it off at my place.

After I got off the phone and left the diner and got back on my bike and got home I reread the previously posted ‘Jobsite Survival Guide’ and felt that I wasn’t sure if I should have published it. I didn’t think it was as funny as I thought it was when I was writing it – actually, I felt like it was maybe kind of mean-spirited, and a simultaneous oversimplification/exaggeration of my blue-collar life for the sake of entertainment. I had written it after a shitty day of work in some kind of snickering rage, and re-reading it now I wonder if it doesn’t sort of stink of that.

But those rules I outlined aren’t all bullshit. In fact, from the perspective I (and my non-philistine hammer-swinging friends) most often look from, they’re all true almost all of the time. But – and this ‘But’ might just be the two weeks of unemployed hedonistic joy mellowing my roll here – BUT, from the ‘noble’ side of this Savage Nobel (yeah yeah, sic) exploration, it is kind of bullshit that I wrote the piece.

See, I like ‘The Bros.’ I like hanging out with ‘The Bros.’ I like being one of ‘The Bros.’ ‘The Bros’ are solid and predictable and when I’m around them all the hyper-self-conscious, future-fearing, narcissi-nihilist paralytic paranoia in my life sort of sometimes disappears. Sometimes I even enjoy myself, being on site, hamming nails and shooting the shit with ‘The Bros.’ And I’ve realized that if any of ‘The Bros’ were to read the stuff I’ve written (not likely) and got bummed about it/me, I’d be bummed too.

And on top of/in conjunction with all this I’ve realized despite the fact I hated what I was doing for work, I kind of liked it, too.

Now I know there’s all sorts of shit that could read into this, the seeming incongruities between the things I’ve written about construction in this miserable little series vs. the reality of me actually enjoying the act of building stuff out of wood. I think someone could probably make a pretty strong case that my white, upper-middleclass sense of entitlement is the real root of the problems I have working on a jobsite, and that I’d be a subversive, anti-authoritative, malaise-mongering little shit in any job scenario I could conceivably be found in (besides like a respected-author-avec-movie-deal-happily-enjoying-creative-control type of situation).

And I wouldn’t really argue with them. The only real habits I have are my vices and a militant dedication to being non-committal. If I can’t conceive of myself being able to bail out around the six-month mark, I don’t want to be part of anything. And as soon as whatever responsibilities I find myself, uh, responsible for start closing in like the walls I start looking for a way to smash out. Or at least throw a wrench in the gears.

(Yes, I’m single.)

But I’m pretty aware of all this. I’m pretty aware of most of my flaws. And for right now I don’t work a construction job anymore and I’m happy about that. And yeah, I’m writing more. And I’m even getting paid for some of it. No, it’s not fiction, but it is storytelling of some recognizable form and I feel positively about that. But no, I’m not writing as much as I would have led you to believe I might, back in Part I when I was all indignant and repressed and ready to really start banging it out like a fucking hellion. Maybe I’ll start tomorrow.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be down at the bar.


*For those who don’t know, construction workers are generally charged out at double the rate they get paid, with the rest going into the boss man’s pocket. My boss, I think, was charging his own fees on top of that.  The dollar figure he was pulling down per day to not be anywhere near site and not have anything to do with what was going on was disgusting.


The Savage Nobel Part I: My Life as a Well-Read Meathead

The Savage Nobel Part II: An Abridged Jobsite Survival Guide

If you’re an elitist, classist, pseudo-intellectual like myself, you’ll find that maintaining any semblance of sanity while stooping yourself and short-selling your ideals to toil away on a construction site takes a certain brand of self-preservation instinct. Not only is it important that those you are working with don’t really know who you are, it’s also critical that they are somehow led to believe that you are like them. You don’t want to be the ‘faggot’ on site who no one talks to, or the ‘greener’ who gets delegated the shittiest jobs via back-lot work site conspiracies, or the victimized shmuck who finds his boots full of line chalk and his tool belt in the outhouse every couple of days. Because more important than even surviving your co-workers is surviving your boss, and the only way to do that is to toe the line and become part of the team. You have to be Construction Bro.

If you’ve played sports at any competitive level for any significant length of time without being beaten up by your teammates, this should be no problem; the rules are pretty much the same. If not, better bone up on your sociopathology and start smiling through the lie that is your life. Here’s one man’s method for making it through another day.

RULE # 1:

Use the word “Fuck” incessantly. This is the most important rule on the job site. If you aren’t prepared to use the word “Fuck” for approximately 1/5th of every sentence spoken you’re not going to fit in. You’re encouraged to use other swearwords as wantonly as possible, but make sure their usage is at least doubled by your use of the word “Fuck.”

RULE # 2 (a, b, c, d):

On site you’re allowed to talk about sports, chicks, getting shitfaced, and how good you are at your job compared to how bad everyone else is at their job. Never actually talk about work, unless it’s to discuss the work of one of the other trades and how shitty it is/they are. When discussing sports it’s important to engage in endless debate on predicted outcomes regardless of the unfathomable pointlessness of it all (and do prepare yourself to get skewered for days afterward when ‘your’ team doesn’t win/’your’ player shits the bed/etc). When discussing ‘pussy’ it’s important to frame the opposite sex through the most misogynistic, boorish lens you ever feared your mind was capable of. When discussing getting shitfaced just act like yourself, because you do love getting shitfaced. Remember to adhere to Rule # 1 in all situations.

RULE # 3 (a, b):

If you have a girlfriend, don’t talk about her. Don’t even mention her name. If your crew is especially tasteless, make that ditto for Mom. These two female figures are the best, most effective, and most consistently summoned subjects for worker-to-worker job site harassment. It’s best to pretend they don’t exist. Further, if you do anything after work besides play/watch (regional team sport of choice), lift weights, or get drunk, don’t talk about it either. You may be proud of the volunteer work you do down at the local Sally Ann or your collection of vintage Pyrex, but to the average construction bro that shit is weird. Mention something out of the ordinary and the conversation will drop, unease will start creeping into the back of your mind, and come next week your little hobby will have undergone enough mental processing to come back at you as something worthy of mockery.

RULE # 4:

Whenever necessary, go to work hungover. A ‘necessary’ time to go to work hungover is whenever somebody who you predict you’ll be working closely with the next day announces that they are going out that night to (verb) party. The only alternative to going out and manufacturing a hangover for yourself is to not get drunk, go to work the next day sober, and face a day of dealing with your work bro dragging his ass around, hiding from the boss, fucking up any task he does attempt, and BBM-ing the chick he banged the night before like every 5 minutes. If however you’re both getting dragged behind the shit wagon you can at least laugh along with the dude and watch each others’ backs for an eight hour game of ‘Let’s Make Work Noises In The Basement’ or ‘How Long Can We Make The Easy Job Last?’

RULE # 5:

Avoid spending non-work hours with ‘The Bros’ at all costs. All non-work related activity engaged in will entail nothing more than embarrassment at how disgusting work-bro interaction becomes off of the job site, the suffering of ridicule regarding how tight your pants are, and the spending of way more money than you could ever justify in a bar you fucking hate.

RULE # 6:

Do an ok job. Don’t blow anybody away, but don’t make yourself a liability. As long as you’re not terrible at the work you do and you show up closer to 7:30am than you do to noon every day chances are you’ll be able to get away with things like taking a ‘mental health’ day here or there, fucking things up once in a while, or asking for that raise you were promised. Yeah, sure, you were supposed to get it at three months, and it’s a $2/hour less than what you think you’re worth, but it’s still almost double what your friend is making rolling burritos.

RULE # 7:

Etc., etc., etc., etc.,

RULE # 8:

Never stop believing that one day it has to be over and that ‘real life’ will start for you sometime soon. Once you lose this…

Wait. Maybe losing this is the one torch under your ass you need to get The Fear so bad you actually go out and make something happen for yourself. Because pretending this gig was gonna be ‘mellow’ and ‘temporary’ is what landed you back here in the first place, chief.

(In Part III: The Days After Savage Nobel)

Part I: My Life As A Well-Read Meathead