Sunday, January 27, 2013

Episode VII: Maid (No, seriously. Maid)

On a few occasions, I have overheard people of my parents' and grandparents' generation say that my generation doesn't know how to work and that we expect to get something for nothing. I don't really know if that is true or not. What I can tell you is that for as long as I can remember, I have held the view that work is a necessary part of life. In fact, there are few things as rewarding as supporting yourself and your family with your own labor. I've never expected something for nothing. I've never considered any kind of honest work to be beneath me.

When I was a teenager, I earned money through several informal and temporary jobs such as salvaging old bricks, planting trees, mowing lawns, weeding gardens, roofing, and shoveling snow. A few times, I filled in for a friend of our family from church who cleaned offices on the weekends. I appreciated the opportunity to earn money by working after hours, alone, with nobody breathing down my neck.

By now you've probably figured out that I prefer to work alone. I'll admit that sometimes I don't handle criticism too well, and I like to do things my own way. This is probably because I'm not normal, and I CAN'T do things somebody else's way, although that has not yet been officially diagnosed.

A year or so after getting married, my wife and I were given the opportunity to clean a dentist's office on the weekends. The money was pretty good, and I maintain that we did an excellent job, despite what the nitpicky office manager lady said about lint on the mirrors. That job ended after the same lady convinced the dentist that she would be better at cleaning the office on the weekends than my wife and I. Oh well. The $400 extra dollars per month was good while it lasted. I hope that money was more useful to her than it would have been to a hungry young couple with their first baby on the way.

Around this same time period, in between finishing my bachelor's degree, there was a guy from church who was starting his own cleaning business. I ran into him at the grocery store one night and he was asking me the typical questions that guys in their early to mid-twenties get asked. What are you doing with yourself? Are you in school? Where do you work? What are your long-term goals? Do you have a plan?

I told him that frankly I didn't know what I was doing. I was getting a bachelor's degree in political science, because everyone I ever trusted told me to go to college. I told him that even though I had thought about becoming a lawyer, I was leaning away from it, because I had worked at a couple of law firms, and I knew enough about it to know that it wasn't the type of thing I would be interested in. So, at that point I really knew more about what I didn't want to do than what I did want to do (still true).

He explained the new cleaning business he had started and asked if I would come work for him. He said he wouldn't be able to pay me much, but if I wanted it, the position was mine. Not knowing what else to do, I politely accepted.

I showed up a couple of days later and filled out the necessary paper work. The next night I was given the assignment to go clean an office. I showed up at the appointed time, went inside, found the cleaning supplies, and went to work. I did the bathrooms, emptied the trash, swept, and mopped. I did a thorough job, and it took me a couple of hours. I wasn't too excited about the 12 bucks or so I was going to receive for the job, but I liked the work just fine.

A couple of days later I went into the office so they could give me another assignment. The owner explained that they wanted to try and get into the residential cleaning market, and he asked me if I would be okay with cleaning some houses. Honestly, I wasn't too excited about it. I'm not a fan of going into the homes of strangers. I find the up-close and personal setting a bit uncomfortable, and I'm afraid of dogs. Yappy dogs make me nervous. Big dogs put me on edge. Pit bulls pick up on my fear immediately, and it's never a good experience. Don't try to reason with me. I haven't met a single pit bull owner who hasn't told me that their pit bull would never hurt anybody. I've heard it all before. I can't tell you how many times I've heard pit bull owners say something like, "That's so weird. She's never acted that way around anybody." Well, they act that way around me, so if I must come into your house, put the pit bull away.

So, despite the fact that I wasn't really comfortable with it, I agreed to go clean a couple of houses that day. The first one was one unit in a four-plex. After driving around for an hour looking for a place to park (because the developers in Las Vegas apparently didn't think it was necessary to provide parking spaces for visitors at large multi-family housing complexes), I showed up and asked the guy at the house what he wanted done. He didn't really know. A quick survey of the place explained why. I doubt this guy ever cleaned anything in his life. I spent the next couple of hours picking up underwear, sweeping up week-old cereal spills, scrubbing sinks, and finding places for things I wish I could forget. When I left, the apartment looked completely different from the rat hole it was when I got there. By then I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was only going to be paid about $6 per hour for the disgusting deed I had just done, but I pressed on anyway.

I am aware that cleaning houses is not typically a job that men line up to do, but like I said, I've never been one to think that any kind of honest work was beneath me. Furthermore, I'm not one of those guys whose mom cleaned up after him every minute of every day from the day he was born until the day he moved out on his own and beyond. In fact, my mother worked at a cleaning-supply store for several years, and she taught me all about how to remove soap scum from bath tubs, how to get sticky gunk ('gunk' is a word, I'm sure of it) out of carpet, and how to clean windows without leaving streaks. I have done my own laundry since the age of 10. My wife would be the first to tell you that I know how to clean. If that makes me less of a man, I don't really care. I can't play basketball either. I drink chamomile tea on a regular basis. I am what I am. Whatcha gonna do about it?

So, I wasn't entirely surprised by the experience at the door of the next home I cleaned that day. The house was in a somewhat upper-class neighborhood. It was the type of neighborhood where you would expect people to afford paying other people to clean their homes while they discussed business deals on golf courses or went to lunch with other women who aren't really their friends.  I knew the social situation was going to be a bit awkward, and honestly, deep down I felt a little embarrassed about driving up to this nice house in a nice neighborhood in my crumby little Toyota Corolla to clean somebody's house. I just reminded myself that it was honest work, and I went ahead and knocked on the door.

I don't think I'll ever forget what happened next. A woman comes to the door. Everything on her looks expensive. She looks at me, pauses, stands there with her mouth half open, looks me up and down and says, "Do you even know how to clean?"

You would think that in this day in age when women can do anything a man can do, the opposite wouldn't be such a big deal. Not so. I nearly said what I really wanted to say, but instead I just motioned toward my car and asked, "So, do you just want me to go?"

She said something to the effect that I just wasn't what she expected. Yeah, well it's not what I expected either, lady. I was always an A student. I was fluent in a foreign language by the time I was in second grade. Other kids used to make fun of me for having a big vocabulary. I once got an award for being the outstanding male student in the whole school district. I always thought I'd wind up working in the White House or something, or maybe arguing cases in front of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. But life happened, and here I am on your porch with a mop. Do you want your house cleaned or not?

She eventually let me in and told me what she wanted done. Then she left to go run some prissy rich lady errand. I did a remarkably perfunctory job and left within an hour. Then I went back to the office and promptly resigned. All in all I think I made a grand total of maybe $40 at that job.

As for that idea about no honest work being beneath me? Yeah, that's completely out the window. There are definitely some things I will not do anymore. And if that makes me a bad person, well whatcha gonna do about it?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Episode VI: Package Handler

I was a runner for a law firm for a couple of years in my early twenties. It was the best job I ever had. I liked the people, and I loved that I could drive around by myself all day long listening to whatever I wanted to listen to, visiting new places and new people every day. Unfortunately, it didn't pay so well, so I had to move on, but this post isn't about my runner job.

I spent a year as a corporate paralegal for a small pharmaceutical start-up, which I'm still not entirely sure was a legitimate business. It mostly consisted of menial tasks and getting talked down to by people who underestimated my intelligence and thought it was cute that I was a Mormon and didn't drink alcohol. I did make a couple of good friends there, but all in all I felt it was getting me nowhere. Besides, the stock price of the company had gone from $10/share when I arrived down to about $.05/share, so I had a feeling I had better get out while I still could on my own terms. I left after a year and decided to move my family up to Idaho so we could move in with my parents and I could pursue a degree in music, which is what I really wanted to do. I came to find out that a few months after I left, the pharmaceutical company ran out of money and actually missed a payroll. This was one instance where my flakiness actually served me well. 

I was 100% positive I had made the right decision when I started school in the fall of 2007 (don't ask me why), but 6 months of Idaho winter (it's winter there about 9 months out of the year) has a way of changing your perspective on things. So does having a pregnant wife while living in your parents' basement. The decision to quit was difficult, and it still haunts me. I still feel terrible about leaving the program, where people were planning on having me stick around for 3 or 4 years, after I told them I was in for the long haul. But when you're broke with your second baby on the way,  and your wife is showing unmistakable signs of year-round seasonal depression, you wake up to the fact that you're never going to make a living as a musician, and menial labor doesn't seem so bad. 

Then there was the job I had at the time. While I went to school, I worked part-time at the performing arts center on campus. I was hired as an assistant sound and lighting technician. The job posting said I would operate sound and lighting equipment, which I did on a few occasions. What it should have said was that there really wasn't enough work to go around, so you'll spend most of your time setting up chairs and tables and doing general maintenance of the building. 

The guy in charge was, well...remember that saying about if you can't say something nice? I'm afraid there's not much I can say here. The job only paid about $7/hour anyway. We'll just pretend it was the low pay that led me to quit. 

After some soul-searching, I decided the best thing for me to do would be to find a position similar to the runner job I used to love. If I could just do something that allowed me to not be in an office all day with people looking over my shoulder, I would be able to tough it out and at least enable my family to live somewhere above ground and see the sunlight every now and then.

I scoured the internet for job postings in the Pocatello area. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were some. Among them was a posting for a driver position with FedEx. That's right, a DRIVER POSITION. I seemed to meet the qualifications they had listed, so I applied and was promptly contacted for an interview. I was excited at the prospect of driving around all day at work, like the good old days when I was a runner. What followed was an interesting little routine I've encountered at least a couple more times after searching for a job on one of those well-known job sites. I went in and they asked me to fill out an application. Of course I had already filled out an application online, but apparently they wanted another. Who was I to argue?

After filling out the application, I sat down with the interviewer who asked me, "Now, which position are you applying for?"

To which I replied, "Driver."

"I'm afraid we don't have any openings for drivers," she explained, "and those are typically positions we give to people who start out as package handlers. Would you be interested in a package handling position?"

At this point I was trying in vain to understand why they posted an opening for a driver position if there was no such position available, but not wanting to ruin my chances for a future career, I quickly replied "Of course!"

No big deal. I'm a hard worker. I could just put in a year or so as a package handler, and then I would be promoted. I was older, wiser and more responsible than most of the employees they hired at that position, so my chances of getting promoted to driver would probably be fairly good. We finished the interview, and a couple of days later they called me back and asked when I could start.

My first day started very early in the morning, but knowing I would soon adjust to waking up early, I eagerly arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule. I was given the run-down on how they sort packages. It seemed simple enough, but of course I would have to start at the bottom.

The bottom is the guy who gets the packages out of the truck that arrived over night and puts them on the conveyor belt. Over time you move up to taking packages off of the conveyor belt and placing them inside the trucks. Somewhere down the line (it wasn't clear exactly when, but I think I remember another employee telling me that he had been handling packages for about four years) you get to be a driver. As I expected, there was going to be some heavy lifting, but it was only a four-hour shift. I had previous experience unloading semi-trailers full of large bags of animal feed, so I was confident that I would be able to handle it.

The truck was packed from floor to ceiling, front to back. There were packages as small as Chinese take-out boxes to packages large enough to accommodate a family of immigrants, their grandmother and their chickens. The floor wasn't flat, because that would make package-handling too easy. There was a large recess in the floor of the trailer, which required me to lift packages up and out before putting them onto the conveyor belt. I went as fast as I could, but I could tell that I would have to get faster as time went on. It was obviously a challenge, but I wasn't too worried. I pressed on and completed my shift.

A strange sensation came over me later that evening. The muscles in my arms began to stiffen. "Of course they are a little stiff," I thought. "This will just take a little time, that's all."

I wanted to remain optimistic that night as I went to bed, but deep down I knew that the feeling I had not yet experienced up until that moment (the feeling that my arms had just spent half the day being pounded mercilessly with the pointy end of a meat tenderizer) was all too real and was going to present a serious problem the next morning.

I awoke with a pretty hefty amount of soreness, but I was determined not to let it get to me. I got dressed and drove to work. After a bit of careful stretching, I jumped right in and started lifting boxes. It went okay for about twenty minutes. The next hour or so I spent trying desperately to keep lifting, focusing mainly on the lighter boxes just to keep the line moving, and trying to think of how I could get someone to help me with the heavier items without looking like a complete waste of space.

Then it hit me. I was down in the recessed part of the trailer. I lifted what was probably about a 15-pound box from the ground and held it at waist level. By this time the pain was excruciating, but I wasn't going to quit. As I attempted to lift the box up and out of the recess, my arms completely gave out, as if they were attached to a Muppet with no strings, and the box fell to the floor. I paused for a moment, and then I tried to bend my elbows and lift my arms up a few inches. I couldn't. I found that if I concentrated really hard, I could make the muscles at my shoulders twitch slightly, which would cause my arms to sway a bit, but lifting them at all was completely out of the question. I paused again, giving myself one last chance to think of some way to keep working. Defeated, I wiggled my way out of the truck, walked past the Package Handler Of The Month plaque on the wall (which included a few names of women manlier than I), and into the office, where I sheepishly explained that I could not move my arms. The supervisor didn't look the least bit surprised. I hung my head in shame and walked out.

As I drove home (very slowly, because I was steering with my chin), I thought of how I was going to explain it all to my poor wife without looking like a complete pansy. There was no way. I am what I am, and a package handler I am not.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Episode V: Second Fiddle To The Hair

From time to time when there are actually people interested, I will give drum lessons. I usually don't charge all that much, because it's kind of a competitive field in a town full of hundreds of unemployed graduates of bachelor of music programs who majored in percussion. I've actually attempted that one twice, but dropped out twice after waking up (yes, twice) to the fact that there was virtually no possible way of making a living as a musician. So, one day, in the midst of one of my frequent stretches of unemployment, I went in to some local music stores and asked if they would add me to their list of music lesson instructors they refer customers to. As expected, nothing came of it, and I kind of forgot about it.

Many months later I got a phone call from some guy who worked for a production company. He had been hired by the people putting on a convention for General Motors dealers to be held in Las Vegas. He said they wanted to put together a percussion ensemble to perform on the last night of the convention. I was a little skeptical that I would actually get paid 300 actual American dollars to play the drums, but I accepted, because I figured it would be interesting to see where the whole thing went anyway.

I showed up to rehearsal, which was held at a high school's band room (flood of awkward memories) and started mingling with the other ensemble players. None of us knew quite what to expect. The diversity of musical styles and backgrounds represented was a little interesting. We had a guy who played drums for an Elvis tribute band, a drummer for a smooth jazz outfit, a girl who just finished her masters degree in percussion, a Cuban, Latin percussion specialist, a drummer from a top 40 cover band, and some dude with a thick Eastern European accent with really long dark hair.

It turns out one of the band teachers from the high school where we rehearsed was hired to put it all together, but he wouldn't be available for the performance. He decided it would be best to go in the direction of a drum line sort of thing with the Latin percussion guy doing his own thing on the side, because dang. He was good. We would be accompanying a troupe of acrobats on loan from Cirque Du Soleil. They would be suspended from giant bungee cords, doing their thing while we provided the music.

Most of the other guys were a little nervous about revealing their lack of drum line chops, but I was actually really into it. I spent a lot of time in drum line when I was a kid and a few years earlier in college, so it hadn't been as long for me as it had for most everyone else. All those years in drum line resulted in a serious social awkwardness problem and an overdeveloped and useless skill set, but now, strangely enough, here I was getting offered money for it. I was blown away, and I almost felt a little bit proud to be a band geek. I mean, here I was, getting the large sum of $300 for simply enduring several years of band geekdom at the bottom of the social ladder, where it's 100% safe from any nervous, intimate moments with attractive women. Sure, I had to endure getting spat upon by opposing football fans. Sure, I had to wear uniforms so tacky it almost seemed as if somebody with a grudge against me was doing it on purpose. Sure, I still remember having actual fruit thrown at me by the football players while marching in a parade, but none of that mattered anymore, because I was about to earn a whole $10/hour for approximately 30 hours total of rehearsal, waiting in the green room, and performing in front of hundreds of drunken car salesmen. I'm so glad I spent all of those lonely hours in my bedroom, practicing drum rudiments endlessly on a pillow, instead of making friends.

Due to the fact that I was the only one in the group who still practiced his rudiments, I was made captain of our little drum line, and I opted for center snare. I was accompanied on snare by the smooth jazz guy, who complained a bit about the way the style of music hurt his wrists, but was nonetheless a pretty decent snare player. Top 40 man played quads. The academic percussion lady played bass drum along with a couple other nameless, faceless people. (Completely normal for people who played on the bass line. Sad but true.)

And then there was the Romanian guy with really long hair. He was like a skinny Fabio. He wanted to try playing the snare drum. It didn't really work out. They gave him some trinkets to hit. That didn't work out either. They gave him some different trinkets to hit. It turns out that Skinny Fabio had zero musical ability. We were all baffled as to how he was able to pass himself off as a musician to the point where somebody would actually hire him. They gave him a trash can to hit. No really, a trash can. It seems the band teacher really wanted to let him go, but the guy from the production company said he already signed a contract, and besides, the hair was really good for production value. I mean, his hair was visually stunning. They had to have that glorious hair. Garbage cans don't actually project a lot of sound in large spaces, so it was actually somewhat doable.

We rehearsed way longer than we should have for what they were paying us. All the while we all tried to block out the trash can noise. I really don't know what he was doing, but he did it with such confidence. I fully expect to see that guy on America's Got Talent some day, banging away on that trash can like he's God's gift to the stage, while the judges sit there in befuddled amusement. I'm surprised that "Trash Can Guy" isn't one of the top YouTube videos of all time by now. Is it? I don't know.

The night of the performance, we all met in the green room at the assigned hour and waited patiently for showtime. All of us of course, except for Skinny Fabio. He was dragged in later by the production company guy after spending an hour or so on the convention floor, mingling with the ladies and eating the food reserved for convention goers. It would have made a nice little routine for a Borat movie.

We walked onto the stage. The lights went down. The acrobats on bungee cords took their places. I received the cue from the production manager and counted us off. I noticed the big screens placed throughout the convention hall flashing close-ups of the performers. There was one directly in front of me so I could watch it for the entire performance. For fifteen solid minutes, we executed our masterpiece of percussive showmanship with laser-like precision. And for Fifteen solid minutes, I watched as the image on the screen switched between shots of swinging acrobats and one crazy dude with long hair, banging away on a garbage can in all his glory, while his hair danced around magically, bathed in dazzling light. Stage performance wasn't for me. It was for Skinny Fabio and his magnificent hair.

It's too bad my job as drum line captain at a GM convention was just a one-time thing. At least I got 300 bucks and some comp tickets to Le Reve out of it. The guy from the production company was kind enough to give them to me a few weeks later when he was out of town and couldn't make it. I guess those are just the perks of being a band geek. I know you're jealous. I'm just jealous of that guy's wonderfully silky mane, and I'm still waiting for it to show up somewhere in lights.