I’ve been restraining an emotionally disturbed teenager for an hour. It’s midnight and I’m sore. All I can hear are feral screams.
According to the usual platitudes, college should be the gateway to more money and opportunities. I’ve found the opposite. My friends who didn’t graduate from college seem to make more money than I do.
“Graduating class, I hope you make this institution proud,” says some guy wearing a gown. Rows of graduates look like penguins in funny hats. We’re packed inside the Jenny Craig Pavilion at the University of San Diego. I know it as the Slim Gym. Usually it’s full of coeds who work off their insecurities with eating disorders and exercise.
I realize that degrees don’t make people any smarter, confident, or more apt. The sizable numbers of cokeheads and bulimics at USD attest to this. Life at the top of Linda Vista is Beverly Hills 92110. For many students it revolves around getting drunk at the beach, going to the mall, and making cameos on campus.
“Oh, my God, Kim, those are such cute Uggs, you got them at Fashion Valley, didn’t you?” is a typical conversation.
After four years, I wanted out. Grad school and law school were options, but I didn’t want to be an egghead stuck in the ivory tower. A career seemed like a possibility, but most require an advanced degree. Coming from a blue-collar lineage, the life of the proletariat beckoned. My dad worked hard forever. He picked fruit and delivered newspapers in his adolescence, joined the National Guard, tossed lumber at a saw mill, all before working his way through college. I’ve had jobs but never needed them. Graduating from college is something, but real work is different. It’s survival. Bukowski’s books about life in the gutter were calling me. Little did I know I would become a factotum right out of one of his novels. Hell, we could have shared drinks in between the search for odd jobs.
Going from the structure of the classroom to the frenzy of the job hunt is profound, and the rewards are different. Getting accepted into school is remunerated with classes you can skip, drunken nights, and piles of student debt. Getting a job, the only reward is paying your bills.
I scour the ads for restaurant work. Friends say restaurants are where it’s at. Thirty to 40 hours of intense work, tips, and flexible schedules. I need to move out of the dorms by August, and time is running out.
Busser at the Coronado Yacht Club. Perfect.
“So, what’s your experience in the hospitality industry?” my interviewer asks.
“I was a plate waiter at Newmarket Race Track in England,” I reply.
“Sounds like you have some experience in the hospitality industry.”
But I was a terrible waiter. I burned a lady with a pot of tea. If it weren’t for the preset menu, vegetarians would have been eating beef tartare, while I made sure to get my fair share. If there was champagne at the open bar, it got drained. I sampled whatever was on the menu. My justification was truly European: the British don’t tip.
I am hired at the yacht club anyway. Boats moored in the marina sway through the panoramic windows. Frantically, I pour water into cups around a crowded table. I grab a glass, fill it, then set it back down. I look at my partner, who does the same thing. We nod at each other.
“Hey, watch this,” says the restaurant manager.
He takes my pitcher and pours a glass for an elderly woman. I look at him.
“I know how to pour water!” I say.
“Oooh!” exclaims the customer.
Her mouth is agape. She’s staring at me. This is the slip that kills my waiting career. After only two days, I am back to the job hunt.
Activists Needed, says the ad. That’s me.
The position is for a door-to-door canvasser with Grassroots Incorporated. I will be collecting campaign contributions for the Democrats. “Hi, my name is Adam and I’m collecting money for the DNC, which will be sent to those vital swing states.” This is followed by all sorts of avoidance and slamming doors. I can’t blame them, I’m a Class A huckster. I’m worse than that. I’m not even selling a bad product, I’m offering nothing.
Many of my coworkers swear differently. They believe we are electing peace and justice. Maybe even pie in the sky. My sole consolation is I’m good at the job.
“Wow, Adam, you raised a thousand dollars, how’d you do it?” asks a coworker.
“I was in Cardiff, and people were just writing me $200 checks.” I smile. “Yeah, I met with this one guy for 45 minutes and we were talking about Buddhism, Nepal, and the Four Noble Truths, and as I leave he writes me two $200 checks — dude, funny thing is my degree is finally working for me.”
Like any sales job, there are days where I rake in less than $30. That hurts when you earn minimum wage and depend on your commission, which is 60 percent over quota. Even with the commission, spending six hours outside in the San Diego summer sun, traversing and getting lost in every liberal enclave in the county, is grueling. And I hate harassing the neighbors for political donations. When I’m sent back to Cardiff, I realize I can’t do this. These people just gave us a barrel of money. It seems wrong that we’re asking for more.
“Hi, my name is Adam and I’m with the DNC and we’re collecting money for those vital.…”
I’m interrupted by a lanky, bearded man with close-cropped hair. He stands in the opening of a sliding-glass door.
“Hey, I’m not a Democrat and I don’t vote,” he says.
“Why not?” I ask. I need to break quota today. This neighborhood has an ocean view. It can spare a few bucks for a college graduate.
“It’s all a façade…and I’m an anarchist,” says the man. He looks to be in his late 20s.
Surprised, I ask, “Who have you read?”
“Well, I like Malatesta, Goldman. But I also read a little Gramsci.”
We’re sparring, but on an intellectual level.
“I’m a big fan of Kropotkin myself,” I say. “Mutual Aid was good.”
He looks at me stoically and bounces his head.
“You know, I’m not a Democrat either,” I say. “This is only a job.” I say this like I want to join the cool kids’ club.
“Yeah, we all got to make a living somehow,” he says.
I walk to the next house. I have no interest in continuing this work, but the bills are calling. Before I quit, I have to get mine.
I’m sent out with the wrong maps to a previously canvassed area. When I complain, my team leader, a recently separated sailor who looks like Marky Mark, gives me a new map and drops me off in University Heights. He tells me that this is a confidential mission. He gives me an ETA for the rendezvous. I start my rounds. Knocking on the first couple of doors, I learn these houses were solicited minutes before. I bump into Kenny, a coworker, who is equally frustrated.
“This neighborhood was canvassed last week,” he says.
“Do you think we should keep going?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
I convince him to come with me to 1834 Madison Avenue — my future home. This is the only address we will canvass today. I knock on the door.
My old friend Jim answers. “Hey, what are you doing here?”
“Working,” I say.
Jim guides us to a refrigerator stocked with beer and soda. We spend the afternoon drinking on his front porch, red-faced, and laughing. Kenny and I eventually cross the street and grab a case of Bohemia. It’s the best day of work ever.
A week later I give Jacob, the campaign coordinator, my resignation. He looks at me with disappointment.
“So I’m going to need your shirt,” he says.
“You serious? I don’t have another with me.”
I never thought I would say this, but the Democrats took the shirt off my back. I leave the office head high, half-naked, and a little confused.
Movers Wanted, I read on craigslist.
I apply because my friend told me he made good money. But I’m not strong or hardened enough to be part of this crew. Halfway into a move from City Heights, my arms turn to spaghetti. I scream for my partner. I am stumbling with a 12-inch television. He looks at me, bewildered that somebody could be that weak. Rumors spread around the shop.
“I shouldn’t have to deal with your shit, “ says Ira, the manager. “I got a kid and then my own criminalistic instincts to take care of.”
The crew chuckles and hollers in agreement. We are assembled near the loading dock for our weekly meeting.
“Gentlemen,” says the owner, “if you guys ever have a problem with each other, we can clear a space in the warehouse. When the first guy goes down, we’ll consider the issue resolved.”
Everyone looks around the room, silently shaking their heads. I wonder if I could attend this meeting via security camera. But then they call my name and tell me I’m scheduled. I’m put on a crew with a portly mover named Adrian and a squat one named John.
We’re directed to a condo downtown and asked to pack its contents and take them to somewhere near Sorrento Valley. I’m excited. Even though I preferred the old downtown, before the redevelopment bonanza, this sounds like fun. Adrian and John work like oxen but also make time to crack jokes and gawk at women.
“So what are these for?” asks the client. She picks up a pair of binoculars that are hanging in the cargo compartment of our truck. We look at her. She’s in her 30s, professional and attractive.
“Bird-watching,” says Adrian.
“You guys,” she says, “don’t look like the type.”
“We’re always on the lookout for the Californian red-headed big breast,” says John.
We all smile. On the ride up to the new place, Adrian and John crack jokes. John shows off the picture of his fiancée.
“So, you went to the same country club I did,” says Adrian.
“Yeah, for sure, dude,” says John.
“Remember those showers?”
“Those were some cold showers.”
They grin at each other, and I suddenly realize I’m the only non-convict in the truck, if not the whole shop. It’s odd. I am getting paid $9 an hour, but only because of my driver’s license.
We work another move, one in the UTC area. It goes way overtime, and many of the shipper’s belongings are damaged. I destroy an oak headboard valued at $1000. In the truck, I’m apprehensive, silent, tired.
“Hell, we messed that up big-time,” says the driver. He has spiked hair, glasses, a look of annoyance.
Everyone in the cabin is quiet.
The driver says to me, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Why are you doing this? You got a college degree.”
“I need a job.”
“Listen, I can’t do anything else, most of us got records,” says a crew member. “You, you’ve got other options.”
Yes. I graduated from a respectable school with a double major and honors. So why am I in this rut? My parents found decent jobs after finishing school, but a lot of employers now want a master’s degree. My college friends who have good positions did it through internships or connections. craigslist seems to be offering jobs, paying just over broke. Maybe I need to go back to school.
But I still want to see what the real world can teach me.
Working for the post office might be ideal. Steady employment, benefits, and good pay. For me, as a temporary mail carrier, it’s $13 an hour. I imagine the work is enjoying the San Diego scenery and talking to friendly people. The position seems enviable, and some guys from the moving company ask if I can find them a job.
But I learn soon that it’s 60–70-hour weeks and a backache that won’t go away. The regular employees have a union. I have no job security. I deliver mail at night without a flashlight, harassed by dogs. I crash my postal vehicle.
One day, when I start the engine, it dies. Suddenly, I am sliding downhill. I collide with the car parked in front of me. I’m in Mission Hills, and my mail truck has run out of gas. It’s the second time in a month. The first, my truck ran onto the sidewalk and a former Marine let me call for backup. This time, I’m not so lucky. If the car’s owner calls the station, I’m fired.
“No! No! I was ahead of schedule!” I scream.
I run down India Street looking for a gas station. I pray it sells gas cans. Route 66 does, small ones. I buy a gas can, fill it, and run back to my vehicle. After I empty the contents in the tank, I start the engine. It turns, but as soon as I back up, it cuts out again. I roll forward and bump into the car again. And now the truck is stuck, bumper to bumper. I run back to Route 66 and fill the can again.
I run into an old acquaintance. He used to be a barista at Aromas, the coffee shop at USD.
“Hey, what’ve you been up to?” he asks.
“Working,” I say. “Could you come along and give me a hand?”
He follows. Five months ago, I would never have imagined being in this situation. If I had my degree at hand now and it could power my truck, I’d throw it in the tank. Arriving at the scene, I find a man taking photos of the collision. His wife stands beside him. Crap! They’re the owners. I’m fired now. A bystander looks on.
The owner says, “You broke a bracket on my car and scratched the paint on my bumper. What’s your information?”
“You have to call my station,” I say. “But if you do, I’ll lose my job.”
He looks at me, then at his wife. It might have been my words, or it might have been because I look young, or maybe because he works for a living, too.
“Well, if you pay for the price of the repairs, we can keep this between us,” he says.
His wife looks at him in shock.
I think for a second. “You know, maybe it’s better if you just call the station.”
This guy could sue me. Losing my job would be bad, but legal fees are worse. He tells me to think about it. I do. We cut a gentleman’s agreement. I call him after I finish my shift.
“Sorry it’s so late,” I say. “I just got off.”
I’ve been delivering mail at night again without a flashlight. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and people were barbecuing a roast in one of my neighborhoods. This has been a bad day.
“I kind of thought you wouldn’t call,” the guy says.
The next morning, I meet him at his shop. He’s repainting a customer’s car. I give him $100. He smiles and I go back to my route.
I get an email from my dad.
“Use your degree and not your back,” he writes.
He sends me a link to another job opening. Mental Health Counselor. Required BA.
I can do this, I think.
What I can’t do is keep working at the post office. It’s too crazy. One week I run into a cactus. Three big needles are sticking out of my arm. I pull them out and continue with my route. Part of that damn cactus remained lodged in my flesh for weeks. I am sent to South Park. Walking to the entrance of a house, a dog pounces on me. Its barking goes from playful to aggressive. A five-year-old girl with blond hair is giddy and in the open doorway.
“Go get him!” she yells. “Yeah, doggy, good dog!”
I back up and dig in my satchel. I’m looking for the pepper spray. If the dog attacks, I’m macing that child.
Later, I apply to work with emotionally disturbed teenagers.
My interviewer asks, “So what’s your experience working with children?”
I pause, thinking back. “I was a reading tutor sophomore year?”
Of all my jobs, tutoring at Kit Carson in Linda Vista was the best. The kids were always happy to see me, and there was no dress code. My hair was a spiked/poofy pomp that ranged from blond to pink to blue. The kids said I looked like a Super Saiyan from the cartoon Dragon Ball Z. I liked that. An intergalactic ass-kicker with awesome hair.
My interviewer stares at my application. “You say you can wrestle.”
“Yeah, I wrestled from 8th to 12th grade.” I don’t tell her I was pretty bad.
“We’ll see if we can get something closer to your pay expectations,” says my new boss.
Working at a facility for children with severe emotional disorders and developmental disabilities feels so promising. A full weekend off, along with 20 other full days a year, free health care, and a 401k plan. What’s not to like? Helping at-risk youth is something you can feel good about at the end of the day. I’ll be making the world a better place, while earning a living.
The truth is, I will be entering another reality.
“Now, Janet, you can get out of this, if you calm down,” says my coworker Shannon.
“Gaaaahhh!” Janet screams.
Janet’s legs are wrapped in my arms. Brittany, from Boston, pins the client’s left arm against the floor, Shannon does the same with the right. Meanwhile, Janet slips in and out of lucidity. When she comes around, we’ll know by her threats and expletives. I’m praying she doesn’t wake up the other clients. The commotion started when she whipped Shannon in the face with an extension cord.
Janet is a large teenager who experiences delusions and a profound love for Hilary Duff. We’ve had to restrain her several times today. She is the resident who is closest to being clinically insane. Not that she’s crazy all the time, but when she loses it, reality doesn’t faze her. She is just one of a group of kids. Despite their faults, you can’t help being fascinated. They are multidimensional people, victims who are able to simultaneously victimize.
My first couple of months, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I initially thought it would be a lot more cerebral, but it’s instead very physical. Most of the time I’m trying to create stability in a dangerous and chaotic environment.
“Don’t come any closer or I’m going to shank you, Adam!”
This plump teenager, who looks four years younger than his age, is making a promise. Now the question is, does Will have anything to cut me with? He has a chair in his hand, but that’s not a knife. The first time I restrained him, he hid Plexiglas spacers in his hands. He sliced me six times. I ended the night looking like a cutter. Will detests me and makes every attempt to make this known. He’s a punk, yes, but I don’t blame him. Considering his history with poor male role models, it makes sense.
“I’m not getting any closer, man,” I say. “I want you to take a time out and go outside.”
Realistically, if he steps outside, he might try to run away from the facility. But right now, I just want him to drop the chair. I’m going to have to go outside to monitor him. This puts me at risk. But being assaulted at this place is like getting pricked at the blood bank. It’s going to happen.
The first assault on my person entails a stuffed monkey to the head and three kicks to the shin. To this day, I see those monkey eyes coming for my forehead. Getting ass-kicked by a plush animal is too much. I end up at the Ould Sod with a pint of Guinness. I talk to the bartender all night as if he’s Freud.
My friends ask why I do this kind of work. I tell them I need it for my résumé. This is partly true. But really, it reaffirms what I learned in college.
As a student activist, I used to proclaim to an apathetic campus about the ills of the world. But I was still a part of the microcosm. Working here, my political philosophy comes to life.
My kids are the canaries of a sick society. They are locked behind closed doors, and they are suffocating from society’s problems. Poverty, abuse, neglect, and drugs are the M.O. My kids are the most extreme examples, but there are others under the radar.
Passing Santana High on my way to work, I make the connection.
Andy Williams, the school shooter, was superficially too normal to be one of my kids. But all of them are just steps away from juvie or the ward. They’re at the bottom, and I am along for the ride.
I think that’s why Bukowski wrote his novels. Factotum is my life. With my college degree, some say I’m slumming. But you’d be amazed what you can see from the gutter.