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Quitting Jobs, Part 1

Friday, March 16th, 2012: Jobs, Stories.

(Carmichael's Grocery, my first jobsite)

They say unemployment is falling. Of course, a good economy is usually bad for the environment. And any time I hear about the job market, I think of how hard I’ve tried to stay out of it.

I wasn’t like that at the beginning. I started working for wages at the age of 8, as a stock boy in my grandpa’s neighborhood grocery store. A couple years later, I started working as an after-school mail courier for the local eye doctor. I kept that job through high school. And in the summers, I mowed lawns and painted houses. That’s how I was able to buy my own musical equipment.

In college, I was trying hard to be an adult. I believed that I needed to support myself. I believed that my parents expected that, and personally, I needed to become independent of my parents. I didn’t think it was an option to continue living off their hard-earned dollars until I finished my degree and presumably used that to get a real job. A friend found me part-time work compiling data for a geography professor, microfiche records of slaves who were freed after the Civil War, at minimum wage. I still remember my head hunched for hours in the dark world of the machine, and the golden parchment scrolling by, with thousands of lines of elegant old fountain-pen script evoking people and families long dead, their Biblical names repeated over and over again.

That project ended, and in the summertime, I moved into an apartment and needed more income. My grandpa had taught me a lot of construction skills, so a friend and I started going to construction sites in the dark before dawn, hoping to get hired. We did that daily for weeks, with no success. The economy was in a deep recession. But I did experience a miracle one day. A foreman at ground level of a new skyscraper told me to ride the crew elevator to the top to find the hiring boss. And I rode the open cage 30 stories into the sky, and walked across loose plywood laid over temporary scaffolding, with no guard rails, nothing but empty air around me, 30 stories above Chicago.

My girlfriend and I were living on junk food purchased in bulk on sale at supermarkets: a dozen macaroni and cheese dinners for $2 would last us a week. I had been planning to transfer to art school, but that was clearly impossible. My science and math skills would qualify me for an engineering career, and engineers could always get jobs. So I transferred to engineering school instead, and from then on, high-paying jobs were miraculously handed to me on a plate. Part-time jobs during school, designing an amino acid analyzer with little buckets that moved around on a miniature conveyor, processing and testing samples. Full-time jobs during the summer, running a block-long, multi-million-dollar machine that took raw metal and turned it into Coke cans, experimenting with liquid nitrogen wearing insulated gloves. We moved into a nicer apartment and I opened a savings account.

But during my lunch hour at work, I was writing short stories, which I kept submitting to magazines and contests until finally I won a literary prize. At night and on the weekends, I was painting and writing songs. And in my last year of engineering school, I interviewed for a bunch of prestigious jobs at places like NASA’s Ames research center, and couldn’t imagine taking any of them. So I changed course for a while. I worked in a music shop as a craftsman, then quit that job to join a friend’s band and hang out at his art school. That experience was a turning point in my creative life, the point when I became a mature artist – if not a mature adult!

I moved to San Francisco and took an engineering job, strictly on the basis that the job was a way of paying my bills while I reserved the best of my energy for the arts. The work was incredibly boring, so I cheated by writing poems and songs at my desk. After six months, I had saved up a few thousand dollars and quit to work on music and art full-time.

I lasted another six months, then went broke, but it was worth it. I got so much work done during that break. I went back to my former boss, a sympathetic, fatherly type, and he gave me my job back, and the pattern was set.

Travis McGee, the hero of a pulp fiction series by John D. MacDonald, always told people that he “took his retirement in installments,” rather than waiting until he was too old to enjoy it. Over and over again, he worked hard for a few weeks to save up a nest egg so he could play for months until the money ran out. I would do something similar, except that instead of playing during those breaks, I would work hard on something I loved. The idea of retirement was meaningless to me, because my goal was to spend my entire life doing creative work. Maybe someday I could just do that, and stop taking jobs!

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