I was eighteen and living in California with my friend Jason. We’d gotten a place just a few miles from my sister in Rancho Cordova along the American River as it wound its way down from Lake Natoma. She’d found us an apartment to land in, a two bedroom two bath with a working fireplace and a small deck for six hundred a month. After our three-day drive out from Missouri along the southern highway route 66, down through Oklahoma and into Texas and then across through New Mexico and Arizona, sleeping in KOAs and a Wal-Mart parking lot in the center of the Mojave we were ready to arrive in our new lives.
After a swim in her backyard pool, dodging the snakelike motions of the self-cleaning pool shark, we went to check out our new digs. There’d been some problem with our ages etc. and not being present to sign the lease, but Vick had thrown her weight around. She was married to a local lawyer with some pull and they’d grudgingly rolled over for her. She only told me this later as an explanation for why there was a large pile of dog shit in the center of the master bedroom. Apparently as a self-described rich bitch my sister had become accustomed to strategically placed piles of excrement.
We each, Jason and I, bought bed roll futon mattresses from the local Pier One, moved in our fit-in-your-car lives and set about our attempts at employment. I never held a job during my stay in California. I just burned through savings unable to find work. This was in the fall of 1991 and a slew of environmental restrictions had just gone into effect sending many industrial employers to Nevada or south to Mexico. At the same time there was still a huge influx of population such that one in nine United States citizens was a citizen of California.
This was the start of the recession that would spread across the country and sweep Bush senior from office. A manager at a local Burger King told me he was hiring only college graduates. The universities began to fire humanities professors in order to use their salaries to cover welfare payments. Those humanities professors then flooded the midwestern markets and I was both taught by and am currently in competition with them.
It’s not true that neither of us held jobs. Jason went to work for an environmental lobby group doing door-to-door canvassing. He never made much money at it but we did meet some interesting friends to drink with. I took a job selling encyclopedias door to door. I went to the training and got my script to memorize. I took it home and by the time I had it committed to memory I knew I would rather eat glass than recite this to a single potential customer. Just because you can do a thing does not mean you should do that thing.
I called the owner of this encyclopedia company and told him I was quitting. He was very angry with me, especially when I told him that I’d already memorized the script. I still remember this conversation and an odd statement that seemed so out of left field. He said, “Everybody thinks they have a book in them.” Why he took me for an aspiring writer or why he wanted to dash my hopes on the Willie Lowman world of door-to-door encyclopedia sales I can’t imagine. All I can hope is that he did have a book in him and maybe when the home encyclopedia became a thing of the past he was able to get it out.
I started thinking about this time in my life today not to tell the story, but to remind myself that this isn’t the first time that I’ve had trouble finding work. And then, as I was thinking about that time, I remembered an odd lunch halfway into my California life. I had met my sister and her best friend out for burgers at a local upscale chain. I’d been making what money I made while there by running errands for her and her husband, but her friend thought she might be able to get me on as a pizza delivery boy on the military base.
A man with short blonde hair who they knew through their church joined us for lunch. He seemed a little off. There was something innately flawed about him that made all three of us uncomfortable. They knew what it was and I had only a guess, that perhaps he was too flirty and they were both married. I was very wrong and when I asked my sister told me, “You’d be off too if you went through what he just did.”
Apparently Kevin, that was his name, had recently discovered that his depressed mother had just shot his bedridden father with a shotgun and then turned the weapon on herself. My sister punctuated the short story by explaining that as the only child it had fallen to him to clean the carpets so the property could be sold. She went on about how white the carpets were and what a shotgun blast to the face could do to a person. How he would never be right again after the discovery and then the practicalities of a pail and brush.
I haven’t had to be so intimate with my dead as Kevin was, but they’ve still changed me, taken me down into darker places then I ever hoped to go. I’ve carried the Paul twice now and spoke at many more wakes, touched faces in caskets and said my goodbyes. We all have or will, and yet the sun still rises every day and the meters on my utilities and debts keep clicking away in green lights and at reds, regardless of the traffic in and out of life.
It occurred to me back then in California, beyond the framing of my own naiveté finding darker still under imagined or sensed darkness, that there were many worse things than my own lack of direction and joblessness. By this time I could see that I’d landed on a bad seedbed where I didn’t know the market and the market didn’t know what to do with me. Soon Jason and I both decided to move back to Missouri where at least we knew we could get jobs, then college, and then my teaching and professional life.
When we moved back to St. Louis Jason got an apartment with our friend Mike just up the street from where I live now. I moved home to save money for school. The woman who lived next door to them, Carol, was on welfare and she explained how she made more on unemployment than she could if she were working. Sometimes she’d hit Mike up for money and he’d give her food instead. Her boyfriend called me Red or Chief and I still see him from time to time in the Loop.
I was standing on the fire escape with her and her pregnant teenage daughter and she said, “Life is like a shit sandwich, the more bread you got the less shit you got to eat.” It wasn’t too long after that that her daughter and unborn child were killed in a drug deal that went south. I don’t know if more bread could have kept Carol from that shit. You know enough people and you hear enough stories and the shit becomes pretty much constant, just sitting there like that pile in my long lost bedroom, a greeting of resentment and inevitability.
I’ve been fairly money motivated the past few years, working at a job I hated just to get the bills paid rather than getting creative with my life. Maybe now that I’ve found myself again run aground on a bad market it’s time to do two things: to return to what I know and to see at last if I have at least one book in me. What I know is working in restaurants and teaching. Working in restaurants is good because you get to see the presentation and the pleasure in consumption before everything turns to shit. Teaching is good because you get to remind people about their humanity, lest they get the wrong idea that the bread course will do more than ruin their appetite.