JEAN DAY has been paid to work as an amanuensis, waitress, member of a demolition crew, cook (short order and live-in), hospital attendant for mentally disabled adults, administrative gopher, warehouse clerk, acquisitions manager, executive director (these last three at Small Press Distribution, where she happily toiled for 14 years after finishing college), copywriter, teacher, marketing editor, and academic editor—almost entirely in the nonprofit sphere. For the last 18 years she’s been employed by day as associate editor of Representations, a scholarly humanities journal published by UC Press and administered through the Townsend Center for the Humanities on the UC Berkeley campus. She’s also written seven books of poems, the sixth and most recent of which to be published is Enthusiasm (Adventures in Poetry).
When Bill Cosby observed in 1964 that he “started out as a child,” he was working.
Both of my parents worked. My mother as a teacher and my father as an engineer turned unwilling executive. At the end of the day they drank Manhattans, and I’m certainly a dividend of their first-world, postwar bounty. In college I (and every other student at Antioch) worked alternate semesters, for credit, though we English majors were a little hard to “place.” After that there were enough low-level jobs in San Francisco for eager young graduates like me, and one didn’t have to work too hard at them to support a second life as a writer on the cheap.
Thus began a long-nursed habit of divided attentions.
And competing impulses. The attraction/resistance to a through-line is practically the story of my life. In writing I’m drawn to messes and motivated by enthusiasms. I’m as interested in “unmaking” as “making.” Add “recycling,” and you have a perfect working system—until you try to make it a system. “Do what you love,” then, by definition, means “the money can’t possibly follow” (if only because we know money refuses to follow this neat circuit). That is, in poetry I’ve set myself in a groove where it’s unreasonable to expect serious compensation, if making poems includes its own opposite and overflow, its own super-egotistical critique. Negative capability may be unchampionable as a work ethic; in art—that’s another story.
If capitalism (the realist side of production and decay, about which I know far too little, absorb too much), is destroying individual lives, ways of life, species, then one’s work in the present, whether vocation or hobby (as the IRS calls the “nonprofessional” pursuit of an art that doesn’t pay) is undivorcible from its dark movements. We are its specimen and side effect. The question forever raised is what resistance to its machinations would look like. I’m not the person to ask, but, as implicated as anyone else, I (too) have been at work for the last couple of years on a book in which the destruction of life as we knew it figures both topically and procedurally. Everyone’s writing some version of this; mine’s called Late Human.
You might think of it as an exhortation to hobbyists (and species) to unite. The idea that the certified professional has a greater claim to a good life is after all a fiction of the money economy. As an “English major” (Garrison Keillor’s pathetic whipping post) without an advanced degree, I have admittedly wasted a few brain cells finding myself Insignificant in Academia. If you had 29 bosses (the professors who sit, in person, on the editorial board of the scholarly journal that employs me as its manager and editor, all of them at the top of their fields), you would too. Yet I am and identify by day as a “professional” in my own right—the University of California payroll system concurs, and my membership in the University Professional and Technical Employees Union shores up the idea. Both comical and comforting with its plosive p, “professional” has a whiff of the pedigree about it that can be put to good use. Like Lucy in Peanuts, we could all do with a little “Doctor” before our names. (It’s my father’s favorite term for a jackass: “Nice work, doctor!”)
But I digress.
I came to the union late, but through that professional door: the recognition of and by my daytime peers, and at last myself, that I perform a skilled job. Caught up in a surge of activism around the disastrous effects of privatization on UC in 2009, I suddenly found myself ready again for solidarity and action, and the union was the logical vehicle. (The Berkeley local had the infrastructure, the vision, and the leaders.) So, for much of the last three years I’ve been involved in organizing my fellow “administrative professionals” (UC’s term) for the right to bargain a contract. And with this accident of history, I seem to have acquired an expanded identity: something somewhat more, I hope, than a pin, a t-shirt, and a hat. Most of my life (since the wars in Latin America and Iraq, anyway) I’ve been a lazy activist; now not only do I always have an agenda but I also lately find myself “working” overtime as a unionist in the fictions of another writer. This business is decidedly “meta,” work for which I have no training and deserve no credit—though of course I’m an easy shil for my alter ego’s exploits.
A favorite Seinfeld episode has Kramer (everyone’s alter ego?) “working” in a job that doesn’t exist, for an outfit that didn’t hire him. Loitering in a Manhattan office building, he’s sucked into a flurry of suits by the cry, “Everyone in the conference room, right now!” and is then and there taken for one of the crew. As the bit progresses, he goes through the motions (whining, “You know this is my busy time of year!”) without the slightest consciousness of—or even interest in—the job’s content. It’s irrelevant; what he aspires to is the condition of his working fellows who are, “you know, TCB: taking care of business!” His success is famous, if fleeting.
Scene: Kramer after “work” at a bar with the gang, cracking them up with the sidesplitter we can’t hear but has them all in tears.
Where some of us poets with day jobs sometimes go to decompress (Brennan’s, in west Berkeley, by the railroad tracks) has been a working-class hangout for decades. It’s a bit exotic to us bourgeois and bourgeoises, steam table and all, but there’s no bouncer to throw us out. They make a decent Manhattan.
Everybody comes from work.