Thirty years ago this fall I was unemployed and completely broke after having graduated from college into the worst job market since the Great Depression (until the last few years). I was forced to take a break from pounding sending out resumes and pounding the pavement in order to get something, anything, to pay the rent. The consequences of not making it would have been moving back home with my parents.
I signed up with a temp service that sent me out for “light industrial” jobs. I loaded and unloaded trucks, filled in as a bank courier, unloaded railroad cars filled from top to bottom with Andersen windows and wood molding at a lumber yard. Basic, unskilled manual labor. There were, however, a few benefits. All of that loading and unloading for the few months that I did it gave me, for the only time in my life, arms like Popeye. I didn’t mind the work for the most part. I believed that it was a temporary situation for me and that I would eventually get on with the rest of my life, like Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man.
I did, however, get a small glimpse of what it feels like to be invisible. To be simply ignored, and to move unacknowledged and unrecognized in the world that only exists for others. The assignment that drove this home the most was working in the fall of 1982 with a crew from the sanitation department of the upstate New York town of Bethlehem, cleaning up leaves from upper middle-class neighborhoods. It was noisy and filthy, and unlike my other assignments, work performed out in public.
Several years ago, I saw the same kind of crew coming through my upper middle-class neighborhood in Maryland and wrote a short story, a vignette really, about that job I had when I was twenty-two years old and waiting for my life to begin. I remembered being hungry and anxious, but most of all I remember being invisible except for a single conversation with a young woman who is now probably a grandmother with absolutely no recollection of our conversation. The story, “Calvin’s Monster,” was published in the March, 2006 issue of Word Riot.
I saw the crew again this weekend outside my apartment in Indianapolis, where I’m working on a consulting project. Ironically, it’s another kind of temp job.
“Calvin’s Monster” is now available in my new short story collection, Indian Summer and Other Stories.
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