For years I worked in the marketing industry, making a nice salary, day in and day out, staring at spreadsheets, presenting presentations, calculating formulas, creating marketing strategies to convince consumers to buy more stuff. It was a soul-killer. Now I stock grocery shelves. After nearly 15 years of office work I could not take it one more second of one more day. I figured, I love the grocery store, and I love organic groceries, and I love the fact that it’s locally owned. And the grocery store job is fairly low-stress, except that the store manager occasionally wants to know how sales are doing, and my managers want me to become a manager, but not at a position above them, so they made me a “team lead,” and they try to tell me about the bigger picture and motivate me. I sense they want me to be more enthusiastic, but that may just be my perception, my head telling me that I’m not ambitious enough. The other day the store manager–I’ll call him Gus, like Gus from Breaking Bad—asked me to start coming in to work 15 minutes early to join in on the manager’s meetings. Which they have daily. To motivate the managers, to give them a big rah-rah for the store. I’m not sure how much the managers make—anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000, according to salary.com, which still would not be enough for me personally–but I’m not a manager. I’m a “team lead,” which means I make $12 per hour instead of the introductory $10 per hour, and the idea is that I “lead” a “team” of two people, who have managers of their own. So to ask someone who makes $12 an hour to wake up 15 minutes early and commute 30 minutes to a job that’s easier to get to by paying the toll road that costs $80 a month, after I just downsized my life to live in a bedroom, all to motivate me to make more money for your store, not just once a month or once a week, but every single day? It’s enough to make me want to write a book about why the working class of America can’t get ahead. A (best-selling, award-winning) book that chronicles the daily lives of the individual workers who somehow manage to make it in our nation’s capital among the wealthiest individuals in the country and therefore in the world. Somehow we are supposed to feel excited about helping the store increase sales.
It’s a locally-owned organic grocery store, so I thought it was a great idea to contribute to the local economy. What I didn’t realize is that working for the man is working for the man. Whether he’s the owner of a local business or a huge corporation doesn’t matter. I’m not working for my own dreams. I’m working for someone else’s. And you want me to do more than make sure my department is clean, stocked, and presentable? I spend eight and a half hours a day lifting between 25 and 50 pounds—which I’m not too proud to brag about to anyone who’ll listen—dealing with customers who can afford to buy organic groceries, who will return week-old, wilted lettuce they bought on the expiration date because, to their surprise, the lettuce got wilty. And you want me to do what?
The good news is that I finally figured out what I want to do with my life, and it’s the same thing that I’d started to do five years ago after I got my MFA and taught English composition and American literature to first-year college students. This is no small victory. For years I have been agonizing over what to do with my life. Years. Even after returning to get my MFA in creative writing, even after teaching for a couple of semesters and deciding against pursuing a teaching career at that time. Because what I really want is to become a writer. Since childhood I’ve wanted to become a writer, but how would that pay the bills? And isn’t that like trying to become a Hollywood star? The market is vicious, getting published in a reputable publication is next to impossible, the amount of work is practically insurmountable, you can’t earn a living doing this, and you’ll never make it… One creative writing professor told me I’d never get into Bread Loaf, which is this hoity toity writer’s conference held in Vermont. These are the messages I heard as an undergraduate, and I allowed the fear to stop me from doing anything at all, until now. Because the problem with living in fear is that it can become paralyzing. But what else am I going to do? Not do it? Not going for it is not an option anymore.
Now that I’ve made my decision, I’m going full force. So no, I will not be applying as an adjunct at the local community college teaching English composition this time. With an MFA I can apply as a full-time, with benefits, actual professor, teaching literature, at a university, while I’m working on my writing. I want to publish collections of essays, and I want these essays to inspire people to laugh and see truth and beauty and go after their own dreams. I want to inspire college students to follow their hearts and pursue their dreams and not live in the paralyzing fear that they can’t do it because the American dream is a lie. Because it is a lie, depending on how you look at it. No, I can’t become president, but I can become the best version of myself, which means staying true to myself.
So for now, I’ll keep working for the man, because I know it’s temporary, and I’ll be on my path soon, now that I can finally see the path.
Enjoy this song by PJ Harvey, one of my teenage idols. This song has nothing to do with the working class of America, but every time I think of “working for the man,” I think of this song.