When I was eighteen, I took a job at a bakery where the pastry chef was a crackhead. I walked into work at 8 a.m., fresh-faced and chock full of dewy, dough-eyed hopefulness, and found him face down on his flour-covered butcher block table. When I roused him, he picked up his metal pipe, lit the blue flame like a tiny blow torch and started sucking on it. I stared in wonder.
Kid, Jesus warned me. That’s a crack pipe.
But up to that point, the only drug I’d ever been exposed to was God’s love, so of course I complimented him on his cool lighter. By way of reply he told me that we needed to use my car to deliver muffins downtown. A muffin delivery. So I said, I’ll get my keys! But what he meant was, you are about to give your boss a free ride to a drug deal that will transact through your passenger side window in a one-way alley in downtown Hartford. I’ll never forget the feeling, sitting in the driver’s seat, watching this man swap cash for a dime bag of rock. It was something like, errmahgerd? Muhfahns?
On the way home, he accidentally dropped his rock under the seat. I pulled over at the closest liquor store to look for it—to look for his dropped crack—first day of work, by the way—and when we never found them, I told him I was sorry. Sorry you lost your crack. My bad. By the way, I’m Dawn, your new employee, do you have a moment to talk about Jesus Christ?
To this day, somewhere under the flooring of a red ’88 Oldsmobile Trofeo, there is bag of unclaimed crack. If you’ve got that make and model go look. Please, have some old crack. You’re welcome.
I mention this story because for me, it marks the beginning of the ends. A lot of them.
Yesterday at the Dairy Queen, I asked the cashier which Blizzard she liked best. She replied, with a robust bitchface that only 20 year-olds can muster: “I don’t eat that stuff.”
She should get a medal. If I had one, I would’ve literally pinned it to her face. She reminded me of myself at that age, climbing the ladder of the food service industry, which is actually not a ladder but a spiral staircase descending directly into a Sarlaccian Pit Monster’s fang-rimmed anus.
When I worked at restaurants, I ate ALL that stuff. All of it, all the time. I never did not eat that stuff, whatever stuff they had, I shoved it all in my face. I licked the crumbs out of the bottom of the souz-chef’s crouton canister. I ate the nasty-ass olives on the pizza prep line. I ate cream cheese all day at the bagel joint, all the flavors all the time, every chance I got, off as many different surfaces as possible. The garbage sacks full of day-old bagels that they stacked by the dumpster? Down the hatch. I took them home and hoarded them like puppies I’d saved from euthanasia. At the country club, I would literally pack Andes Mints into my apron with a hand shovel. I pilfered so many that when I walked to my car at night, I looked like a human marsupial with a litter of tiny, pointed babies. I might not have made any tips, but I would console myself later with a heap of empty foil wrappers.
For me, the only way to work in food service and not to squirrel food into my cheek pockets all the time was to medicate myself. That’s what I finally learned to do at Planet Smoothie: fill my empty Styrofoam cup with vodka so I wouldn’t be tempted to tongue-bathe the pitchers stacked by the dishwasher.
When I slid down the wage slave totem pole to Bar Waitress, medicating was instantly easier–but making change was not. How was I supposed to subtract on the fly when people kept waiting and staring at me with their eyes. Can’t you see I’m wasted? Twenty minus… twelve… fifty-two…carry the…forty cents…Just keep the fucking change, bro. All of it, just here. I’ll eat Jäger.
The only way I ever learned to take $12.80 from a twenty was when I started delivering pizzas alone in the Mexican hood. Who knew: all my life, the thing standing between me and Success at Math was my own imminent death. When it comes to getting better at things you hate, never underestimate the healing power of terror.
Speaking of the truly terrifying, my next job was teaching at a private Christian school. I got the job mainly on the street cred of my Church of Christ background – and my ability to fake pray and silent-sing hymns with the best of them – seriously, I was Jedi level on Great Redeemer. Those blessed folks had my frightened little white ass teaching everything that wasn’t nailed down. But oh, I had such lofty ideals, big fluffy marshmallow-shaped ideals about who I was and what I was there to achieve. I have a suppressed memory of telling the kids to rip out the rules in the front of their textbooks, exactly like “O Captain, my Captain.”
I taught drama there too, which I thought was my big chance to introduce Eugene Ionesco to twelve year-olds. Guys, guys, GUYS, the play is NOT SUPPOSED to make sense. The efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information, as well as the vast realm of the unknown, make total certainty impossible, amiright? Now take it from the top!
When that didn’t work, I wrote plays satirizing the beauty pageant industry when I should have been grading, or making lesson plans, or being a teacher. I put on a high school production of Romeo and Juliet in the style of Baz Luhrman, on a budget that only covered cardboard, spray paint and sadness. I taught creative writing, too. Picture Oprah juggling poo, with a paper airplane stuck in her hair, and you can roughly approximate me teaching 6th graders how to emote via prose. I taught 9th graders film, too. Film, which covered important things like Top 10 Movie Urban Legends; and also 8th grade journalism, which involved starting a school newspaper that would get banned the same week. So, our backup plan was to just read the newspaper everyday, and map headlines about the murder and rape of pizza delivery drivers in Atlanta’s Mexican hood
I taught grammar, too—ok wait, can we just pause here to discuss grammar? Can we just? Because you have math for the math people, right? And English for the English people – but the laws of grammar? They are a cruel bastardization of both. Grammar is the reason Suicide Hotlines were invented. Don’t make English into a math equation, people. Have some goddamn decency. For me, correct sentence structure has always been about sound and feel, you know, some sentences sound right, some don’t – but even the ones that don’t, have a kind of music to them. Try teaching kids to map that, friends. Try to teach that vague and useless non-concept and still sleep at night. I did, and I didn’t.
I lasted two years, all the while, slowly fading into greater and greater disorganization, sucking bigger and bigger bags of ducks. Big, angry, quacking ducks. Part of the problem was that I was 23 and hadn’t yet learned the steely art of demanding respect from students. Or parents. Or anybody. The teachers who ruled their classrooms had respect on lock: they knew how to invoke a sense of generational worthlessness, they knew how to publicly penetrate you with shame—your mother would be so embarrassed of you, Johnny, let’s call her right now—those were the marms, man. Those kids’ heads were hunkered down at their desks in eerie unison, a line of pleasant, obedient flesh orbs.
Meanwhile, my classes were like a scene from 1970s experimental group therapy, and after reading all the angry parent notes left in my inbox, my grade book was a series of erases and scribbles that were replaced with more optimistic best guesses.
When I started having my own kids, I left teaching and did what any responsible, domestically-inclined introvert will do: multi-tasked the fuck out of my basement office. I was both mother, wife and breadwinner. Sane humans can do only one or maybe two of those things very well at a time, but in the interest of not being a slacker I reviewed business books, edited transcripts, proofread textbooks, wrote newsletters, knocked out deadlines, ran a school garden with one kid on each tit and another baby on the way, until finally one day, eight months pregnant, I thought I was about to die. Even as consciousness ebbed, my boss was on the other line asking if I could please send my backup file. Back-up file. My god man, I didn’t even have a backup pair of maternity pants for the ones I’d been pulling out of my unwashed asscrack for six months straight. Backups were for people who had a Plan A for their life. My whole life was a Plan B, pretty much a foil-covered capsule you get from the pharmacist at 2 am. And today, well, it was just trying to make it through the next five diapers without being fucking dead. Easy does it. One shit at a time.
I was not a backup file person. I had too many goddamn asses to wipe. I preferred to backup the keyboard with my fist when it wouldn’t print, or backup my supply of pets with more pets; or backup and work on that poem for three more hours. What is the exact feeling of the color blue, anyway?
Recently, someone reminded me that people with strong imaginations need the most help with day to day tasks because they “put themselves in jail before they even start their taxes.” That sounds about right. I’ve always been able to visualize myself getting fired before I even finish applying. My mind is an Inverted Darwin, butchering my accomplishments so only the bad ones survive in memoriam. I don’t remember the five years of good work I did, I remember the one day my boss asked me snidely if I wanted a pity party; I remember another whose wife told me to button your blouse, another who fired me out because I forgot to serve the sirloin with a steak knife. I don’t remember the excellent freelance work I did for the local business, but I certainly remember forging their corporate logo to get a fake employee discount at a local gym, and the gym owner finding out, and then threatening to call the cops.
I *do* remember the one week I made 600$ selling spa promotions door to door—it was glorious. Actually most of my sales were to drunk men on a golf course. Maybe they didn’t understand precisely what kind of facials I was selling. I don’t think I ever made that much ever again, anywhere.
For over-sensitive people like me, employment has always been a slow-moving queue to the gas chamber. A gas chamber where, every morning, you get to line up all over again. It’s the feeling of being overqualified and under-equipped, of being under-prepared after preparing all night. It’s expecting the ocean while they throw you into a five-gallon tank. It’s about taking and failing a timed, online aptitude test that looks like the quadrilateral Kama Sutra:
My work history is a giant dirty secret; the decade’s worth of vacancies make me squirm. The funnest writing exercise I ever did was converting my CV into the far more interesting Whore’s Resume where the undersigned excels at such deadline-driven tasks as “two-fisted hand-jobs” and “meticulous dildo-polishing.”
What I need to write on there, but can’t, is this: “…Between the third child and this month, you’ll notice some years missing. During that time, I worked harder than I ever had in my life, gave up my pride wholesale, accepted handouts so I could raise three stellar human beings, saved us all from becoming a statistic and a casualty of a bad divorce, I started and finished two books, and became a human being.”
Great stuff, really great. Now, get a fucking job.
Maybe you’re like me, stuck in the five-gallon tank of the past, thinking the only accomplishment you’ll ever be worthy of is the Taco Loco, where your purse is stuffed with old tacos at the end of every shift.
Truth is, there’s no one who could do what you’ve done every day, say what you’ve said, held it together for years on end, got it done and made it work. Not one soul. Given your shoes, they would wilt like daisies. Maybe you’ve been dealt a long line of bad hands and started thinking that was all you’d ever get. But there comes a point when the smoke clears, and nobody is gunning you down, and you realize the oh shit, these bullets are coming from me.
My point is, when you’ve been out of the game, or down and out for a long time, and you can’t get out of bed, you need to give yourself credit really hard; hard and strong and all day long. Either that, or get your spouse to, what the hell is he doing anyway. You have to tell the doomsday voice in your head to Fuck Off so you can lean into the supreme discomfort of the positive outlook. It means deciding that your unpaid accomplishments are still mighty, albeit unpaid; that your stupid ideas aren’t stupid. They’re just undiscovered.
There will always be criticism, bad reviews, naysayers and a negative account balance. The only sustainable resource is your own audacious certainty. It’s about remembering how you felt about yourself when you were little, before you were taught by bad bosses how to think about yourself. It’s about knowing in the face of the unknown.
Self-trust is really hard. After all, anyone can daydream about the good stuff, about the oceans—but few trust their own instincts on how to get there when they feel squished in a tank; fewer still break the rules and buck tradition and follow a weird detour simply because it feels right– even while people tell them it’s all wrong. That audacity takes a special pair of diamond-crusted balls, and maybe a healthy lack of logic, too. You don’t get those beauties overnight. But I think they’re imperative; because when you’re buying stock in Kleenex, eating failure for breakfast, and you’re thinking about embracing the void– that doesn’t mean you’re headed the wrong way. What they don’t teach you in school is that, sometimes, the wrong road is the fastest way to get to right.
In the meantime, baby steps. One tiny step each day is enough. One shit at a time. Allow a space in your head for the fact that one student never forgot the day you ripped the rules out of the front of the textbook. You will find more of those students. Allow for the fact that swimming in circles is only temporary. Allow for the ocean, it’s coming.
K. Dawn’s Goodwin’s latest novel Crash Bang Burn, click here
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016