Wednesday, February 25, 2015

14. Not Going to Work/School

My first job was as a bagger in a commissary on the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Commissaries are the military base version of grocery stores, and really they're no different than regular grocery stores, except that they employ young teenagers to bag groceries for no paycheck and only cash tips. I was 13 years old, had long scraggly brown hair, and had never made eye contact with a pair of tweezers in my life. 

I would stand at the end of the conveyor belt, dutifully organizing foodstuffs into paper or plastic, loading it into a cart, and dragging the cart out to the person's car. I would carefully place the groceries into the car, and then stand there awkwardly for a moment, hoping maybe they would give me a couple of sweaty dollar bills I could jam into my pocket. Some days I'd make $15 an hour, and other days I'd make 75 cents in an hour, depending on the volume of customers. Regardless of how much I made, it all went into buying anything/everything with dragons on it, because I was nothing if not a young woman of taste. 

One early summer afternoon I was standing at end of the cash register, chewing bubble gum silently and staring into the middle distance. There was hardly anyone in the store, and because it was a really slow time of day, there was only me and the one cashier, who I think was named Diane. Tinny music played half-heartedly over the store's PA system while fluorescent lights hummed above us and the four other abandoned registers. There was one customer, a woman with a 2-year-old buckled into the front of her shopping cart, and my mind had drifted idly to focus on the squeaking protestations of the cart's one disobedient wheel as the woman made her way up and down each aisle. It was definitely a 75 cents kind of day.

My gum had lost most of its flavor, and my spaced-out daze focused in on the woman and her child, who were now about 30 feet away, in the aisle parallel to the register. The woman left to walk back down the aisle to find something, and left her cart and her toddler sitting alone. The toddler made a few little burbling sounds, then picked up the full gallon of milk sitting next to him in the cart. Diane and I watched in silence, doing absolutely nothing to intervene, as the toddler clearly made the conscious choice to hoist the jug over the edge of the cart, and hurl it onto the ground as hard as possible.

The jug hit the floor and exploded. Milk utterly defied physics as it rocketed up from the carcass of the ripped-apart plastic jug, spraying milk all over the shelves, the floor, and the child. I've never seen liquid behave that way before or after, but there's no other way to describe it: that milk was JOYFUL. It danced and spun through the air like the happiest festival dancer celebrating a bountiful harvest. On and on and on it sprayed and gurgled all over the place, as though propelled into the atmosphere by sheer mania. The toddler laughed hysterically as milk flew into the air and then rained back down upon him, a never-ending white thunderstorm. The mother screamed and came running back to her cart, whose contents were now thoroughly soaked in thick, white cow's milk.

I blinked and blew a slow, large bubble in my gum. Diane let out a small sigh, picked up the PA system walkie and announced in a deadpan across the crackled speakers,

"Dave, we're gonna need a clean-up on aisle 3."

I didn't learn very much at that job, except how to be quietly seething and furious whenever I go to a grocery store now and see someone put canned soup in the same bag as the eggs. 

I've been in school since I was a toddler, went straight from high school to college to graduate school, and then straight into the work force. I did odd jobs all through my teenage years, and ever since I started graduate school, I started my career as a full time child and family therapist. I had four jobs when I first moved to New York City, and I currently have a full time job and two part time jobs, so I've got three jobs now (four, I suppose, if you count blogging, which is totally silly). I work over 60 hours a week, and often on weekends.

This is a choice. I like working, I really do. I love my job(s), and I love the direct positive impact I have on my community. But I realized recently that other than summer vacations as a child (which were maybe 3 months), I haven't had more than a month without doing some type of work or school since I was an infant

Except, of course, when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail. I had SIX MONTHS where I was obligated to no one other than myself. Granted, this level of freedom happened because DT and I saved money for two whole years to be able to have enough in savings to justify flat out not working for half a year. I had a hiking family, yes, and I had a goal. But I couldn't get fired. I didn't have to worry about dress code or remembering to make myself look semi presentable. I didn't have anyone depending on me, other than my friends, and we all were equally depending on each other. I didn't have deadlines or threats of audits. I didn't have to worry about being late. I was my own boss, and no one had any expectations of me.

Here's the thing: we have to work. Either we work in a job, or we work as a student, or we work as a full time parent, or we work on our physical and mental health. Whether or not we get a paycheck for what we do is irrelevant. Whether or not other people judge us for our choices or how we choose to have meaning in our lives is irrelevant. We wake up, we work, we fight, we love, and we fall asleep to do it all over again. Even though it's important, we all feel trapped sometimes in our work, and sometimes we wish for that freedom, even if it's just temporary.

I've had vacations, week-long excursions and adventures. But there was always a job on the other end, or school. There were always more expectations. Regardless of where you are in your life, I'm sure you remember the feeling of the end of summer vacation, the daunting feeling of all your freedom evaporating overnight. Even though ending the AT was kind of like the end of summer vacation, there wasn't the same pressure. I had started over, in a brand new state, in a brand new community, and I had infinite choices about what I wanted to do next. 

It wasn't the end of summer vacation. For once, the end of an adventure wasn't an end. Not at all.

Clever Girl


  1. "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."
    -- Semisonic

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you Beth and Bernie, you two are absolutely the best

  3. Replies
    1. I agree, Beth! The picture could be titled "The Triumph of the Human Spirit". Such a well deserved triumph, indeed!