Last night I was part of an IRL reading for the first time since before Covid. I read with Big Words, Etc., a series that has definitely become my reading home over the last several years. It was wonderful to see Stacey and Jess, the hosts, and to see some of the Big Words regulars.
I gave a few readings on zoom during the height of the pandemic, and all of them were great. It was nice to be able to be in the space with other writers and share my work. Being in person is something else entirely, of course. Getting to interact with the audience is one of my favorite things about reading. I’m always super nervous (“terrified” is a more accurate descriptor) , and getting to laugh with the audience helps so much. And there was plenty of that last night, which made me super happy.
Add to that, a full moon, the discovery of a nice bar, hanging out with Red Emma, the sipping of a jalapeno-spiced mezcal drink, and getting to listen to stunning writing by and give farewell hugs to the wonderful Aimee Herman, and it was a pretty perfect night!
Big Words always has a theme, and last night’s theme was “The Worst Job Ever.” There was such a range of pieces to fit that subject! Here’s the piece I wrote to share:
The Quantum of Worst
I worked for small-time criminals the summer after my first year of college. Technically, they ran an import-export company, but their business was theft. They took merchandise from wholesalers, claimed never to have received it, then sold it. They took payments for merchandise and never shipped the goods. One of my jobs was to organize their file rooms … the one for lawsuits against them and the one for their counter suits.
What makes a job the worst job? I’ve been working more than 40 years. And some of those jobs have sucked dramatically. Some, in spite of their awfulness, also had aspects that were good or funny or nurturing in some way. What is the right equation of crap to equal “the worst”?
Those long-ago bosses — Jack and Charlie — weren’t just crooks. When we met, Charlie asked what college I went to … and then told me how many women from my college he’d had acrobatic, porn-star sex with, wondering if Sarah Lawrence girls had changed since his day.
(I suspect they hadn’t changed, that no one at Sarah Lawrence or anywhere else would ever have been having any kind of sex with Charlie.)
My first morning, I got an office tour, a can of Lysol, and instructions to spray my desk, chair and phone every time I returned to my space. My coworker explained that Jack and Charlie used any unattended desk, saying: “You don’t want to touch things after Jack.” When I met Jack, I understood. He was visibly filthy, his odor preceding him into the room. I doubt Lysol fully eliminated the problem of him. And Lysol couldn’t do anything about the trail of dandruff Charlie left wherever he went. Both men were loud, sloppy eaters, coughing, laughing, and spitting into our phones as they ate. For a Virgo misophone whose primary trigger is eating noises, this was maybe enough to make this job the worst.
But it was a summer job. And I left after only a month. A few short weeks, and I walked out with a trove of crazy stories I’ve told for years. So was that really the worst? Shouldn’t the worst job be the worst for a better reason? Shouldn’t it be in my chosen field, make me question my career choice or become wary and bitter?
I’ve never worked in a more physically repugnant place, but morally repugnant? Yes. I have. That seems far worse.
Jack and Charlie eventually went to prison. They stored volatile chemicals in a Bronx basement, creating a health hazard for the residents, and couldn’t counter-sue their way out of it. It was a fitting result for two entirely-terrible people.
Thinking about my crappy jobs and my good jobs that turned crappy … I realize I’ve been lucky. There’s been real crap — I was sexually harassed at one job, regularly discriminated against at another, ugly-fired from another — but I was able to grow and move forward. And, if not, I was able to pay my bills and sustain myself until I found something better.
“Worst” is about pieces, moments, rather than whole situations. Yes, Jack and Charlie were a whole situation, but otherwise, I have been lucky, have found myself in safe environments, working with people who felt like family, doing work that pleased me … or all of that at once.
So I’m realizing that the critical element in the equation of “worst” … is me, that I can be the force multiplier that sends everything tumbling into the depths.
In my last job I worked with an unashamedly horrible woman. She wasn’t my boss but was central to my work.
In a discussion about the use of new funding, she listened to the pitch for a job program for young people leaving the criminal justice system, rolled her eyes, and launched into a scathing take-down of the proposal, ending with: “We’re making jobs for little criminals now? We can’t make programs for good kids?” Even at my big age, I was naive enough to be stunned. But this is my worst-of-the-worst because of me. Force-multiplier me.
This happened after the ugly-firing. For the first time, I knew how disposable I was, how easily I could find myself in jeopardy. I had just repaid the borrowed money that floated me across the gap between severance and my new job. I knew how much I couldn’t afford to be out on my ass. That woman had that power, and that knowledge cowed me, showed me I could be made to silence myself when my voice was needed.
Any version of me before and after that moment would have called that shit out. Wounded, vulnerable me felt fear and chose self-preservation. And while I could understand that choice, it made me sick. I’d spent years teaching the exact young people she was disparaging, championing them at every opportunity, but I didn’t stand up for them.
And there it is: not a question about my career choice, but about whether I had a right to the space I occupied. How did I merit a seat at that table if I couldn’t be who my students would have needed me to be, who I needed me to be?
Jack and Charlie stole everything, stole at every opportunity. They were despicable and disgusting. But working for them couldn’t be my worst job. They didn’t mean anything. I laughed at them for the caricatures they were and walked away when I’d had enough. Nothing they did could have made me change or swallow who I was. But that “little criminals” moment. My silence in that moment stole me from myself, made me a person I didn’t like.
There are plenty of jobs where the determination of best and worst wouldn’t come down to my actions alone. But I haven’t worked those jobs. My cushy employment life puts the onus on me. Today, two years into what I think of as my dream job, all this worst-job thinking clarifies for me how much the truth or not of how dreamy this job will be for me is mine to create. I like having that power. I hope I use it well.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.