Memoir Monday this week takes a look at that difficult period in a person's life when they graduate from college and the job they thought would be waiting for them at the end somehow does not materialize. I'm sure there are a few Millennials out there who can relate! So here it is, the next chapter in my forthcoming memoir:
It didn’t take long after I picked up my bachelors degree before I began to realize that the social contract I had believed in was in many ways an illusion. From the time I was a small child I’d felt that my life was on a track. I knew more or less what was expected of me and where I was going next. Life seemed to come with some guarantees. Like everyone else, starting in kindergarten I moved from one school to another. When I finished elementary school, I knew that middle school was waiting. After high school, a college education was a foregone conclusion in my family. All of my life this was the track that I knew I would take, and it came with the expectation that a high-paying job and secure future lay waiting at the end. That’s why a person goes to college in the first place, isn’t it? To secure their future? Despite my lingering questions about where I really fit in to this scheme and what my future might actually look like, I still had this expectation that having played by the rules gave me some guarantee of success. Instead, when I did finally graduate I found that all of the guarantees were suddenly over. For the very first time I was confronted with a vast emptiness. When I started applying for jobs near the end of my senior year in college I came up with exactly nothing. No calls, no interviews, no job.
With my parents no longer supporting me, I had real bills to pay and for the first time in my life I began to feel desperate. When autumn rolled around I still had no prospects at all. Instead of finding a “real job,” I gave up on that idea temporarily and headed to Vail, Colorado where I found work as a ski lift operator for $5.35 per hour. I shoveled snow beginning before dawn in temperatures reaching 30 degrees below zero. I roamed the happy hour circuit for cheap food in the evenings and slept on friends’ couches at night. When the season wrapped up in the spring, I was no closer to a solution for my lack of direction. I still dreamt of the writer’s life but with no way to earn a living from it I moved in with an old friend in San Diego, so broke that I was living off the money I’d saved in a change jar.
My next job was working as an usher at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, the famous racing track “where the turf meets the surf.” Again it was only temporary, but there was something magical about being at the track, especially early in the morning as the grounds crew watered the infield and a cool breeze blew in from the sea. There was so much history here you could just feel it all around. Most of the ushers were men in their 70’s who had worked this job for their entire adult lives. When the spectators arrived, we dusted off their seats and pinned their tickets to their shirts. Occasionally someone handed me a dollar or two. At first that meant I could eat.
Two months later, this season wrapped up and the only work I could find was as a general laborer at a large construction site. I was a college graduate digging ditches. Was this the “real world” I’d been warned about for so long? Most of the other workers on the site were Vietnam vets and at lunch I listened as they swapped combat stories. Ambushes, booby traps and life in the jungle, fighting to survive. Kill or be killed. Things could be worse than they were for me now, I realized.
“Yeah, those were some good times, some good times,” said Frank, a black man with silver “F” engraved on one tooth and a star on another. He enjoyed his time as a medic so much that he volunteered for a second tour of duty.
“I had these wings pinned on my uniform so they thought I was an officer, and I’d get in the officer’s club,” he told me happily. “Yeah, that was the best time of my life.” The fun subsided toward the end when his best friend was sucked out of a helicopter and blown up by a grenade right before his eyes, he told me somberly.
Another co-worker was a large white man in his forties who they called “Hollywood” because he claimed to have worked as a scriptwriter in the porn industry. He told war stories, too, about how his whole platoon was annihilated except for him and one other man. How he took a .50 caliber machinegun round in the side of his helmet and threw a grenade at a VC soldier just ten feet away. While we were working he seemed to think he was still “in country.” He eyed us all warily and kept to himself as he walked around mumbling, “Buck up soldier, that’s no way to carry a gun!”
The only other guy my age drove to work in a battered and lowered VW bug with a big tailpipe sticking up at an angle out of the back. He wore black concert T-shirts with the sleeves cut off and told stories about his own sordid life. “The last job I was on was at a hospital,” he said. “I stole a skin stapler. I use it to pierce nipples. I charge guys $50 and girls $25.”
“Why the difference?”
“Because I like to do the girls.”
“What kinds of people get their nipples pierced?” I asked.
“Strippers, usually, so they can dangle stuff from them. The only problem is when I mess up, because you can’t really do it again,” he said with a twinge of guilt.
At least I was meeting some real characters. People I might write about some day. Yet still, after a month digging holes and busting up concrete I was at the end of my wits. I finally got my first call about a “real job” I’d applied for. It was a writing job at that, for a national magazine catering to small businesses. I asked my friends if I could borrow a tie for the interview.
“Sorry, man, I don’t have a tie,” they all said.
I asked my roommate, Barry. “Yeah, I have one tie. It’s got little surfers on it,” he responded. I put on my best slacks and shirt and stopped at a discount store to buy my own tie on the way. It must have been good enough, because I managed to get the job. I showed up on the first day and settled in to my cubicle. I had my own desk! And computer! No more digging ditches! It took less than a day to realize how much I was going to hate it, chained to my seat under fluorescent lamps and forced to write drivel.
As we walked out to the parking lot on my first Friday after work, one of my new colleagues pumped a fist in the air. “Yes!!! I live for the weekend!” she exclaimed. To me, this seemed like a terrible way to spend a life. Miserable for five out of seven days each week? Was this what most working people went through? Having their souls slowly sucked dry as they tossed their principles out the window? I can’t say that I was particularly surprised. In many ways it was exactly what I’d expected. It was what my mother had seemed to want for me, and a concept I’d struggled against. What I also realized about this magazine in particular was that they were not really selling business advice, as they claimed to be. They were selling a fantasy. It was a magazine for all of those other poor saps out there stuck in their own cubicles as their souls were sucked dry. It was for people who desperately dreamed of something better and had nowhere else to turn.
In college I’d had a naïve notion of something called journalistic ethics. Now I was trying to write even-handed articles with reliable information, yet my editors would have none of that. The final straw for me came after a year of agony. My editor sent back a draft of an article I’d written. Circled in red ink was the word recession along with a note that said, “Come see me.”
I went to the editor’s office and she confronted me immediately. “You can’t use this word in our magazine!” she said angrily.
“Why not?” I asked. “This is actually putting a positive spin on it. This business can do better in a recession. You know, like a shoe store suffers, but a shoe repairman prospers. It’s like that.”
“How do you know we’re in a recession?” she demanded, apparently not hearing a word I’d said.
“Well, everyone’s talking about it,” I replied. “It seems pretty obvious.”
“Take it out,” she decreed. “Never use the word ‘recession’ in this magazine, understand?”
I gave my notice two weeks later. This life of stability wasn’t worth the emotional trauma I’d been forced to endure. It was not a tradeoff I could live with. At least I’d managed to save up enough money to buy a used Jeep pickup truck. That vehicle would end up being the only real stability I’d have for the next two decades. It was the only major possession I had, and I’m driving it to this day, 23 years after I bought it. Time and again I’ve thought about ditching it when I’ve gone off and travelled the world, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to part with this truck; a sentimental side to me I suppose.
Six months after I quit working for the magazine I saw an issue on a newsstand at the airport. The cover headline; “Top Ten Recession-Proof Businesses.” I had no regrets about leaving. I was going to be a fiction writer. I would start out making a living by writing short stories and selling them to magazines. I knew I could do it. Plenty of the greats had done it this way. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dickens. Once again my optimism was based on ignorance. If I had known then what I know now would I have even tried? If I had known that in the next year I would get three stories published and be paid a grand total of $20 would I have bothered? Not likely.
When I left the magazine I moved back home with my parents and wrote stories. I tried to write one per week. I wrote about the beach community I grew up in. About growing older and watching the world change. About loneliness and alienation in the modern world. I sent my stories to every conceivable publication, from The New Yorker to the local rags.
I soon learned one of the most difficult lessons of being a writer. So many people want to do this for a living, with so few outlets, that editors will gladly pay you nothing for your time and think they are doing you a huge favor. Editors understand that struggling writers are so desperate to see their names in print that many will do anything to be published. The truth is that writers are among the most exploited people in the world. If you won’t give your work away for free, there are a hundred other poor saps lined up behind you who will.
Early on I submitted a piece to a small local paper. They never responded. Several weeks later a friend congratulated me on seeing my story published. Not only had the paper not paid me a cent, they hadn’t even bothered to tell me they were publishing my work! Shortly thereafter a local glossy magazine called to tell me that they wanted a photo of me so that they could publish it along with another one of my stories. “Great!” I said, and stopped by their office with the photo. At least I knew this article was coming out in advance. I waited to see how much they would pay me. I was afraid to even ask. It was a good thing I didn’t hold my breath. Again, not a dime.
Later a small surfing magazine asked to publish one of my stories. This time I made sure to ask for money up front. I was learning, slowly. They were shocked that I actually wanted compensation for my time and energy. So many editors had the same response. They seemed to think I was doing this simply for the love of my craft, and that the fame they offered was payment enough. They didn’t seem to understand that work without pay leads to a very hungry boy. I told the editor of the surfing magazine that I had to be paid, if on principle alone. We settled on $20. That was all I earned in six months of fiction writing. If I had worked an average of 25 hours per week, or 650 hours total, this meant I’d earned a whopping three cents an hour. This didn’t even count the paper, ink cartridges and postal expenses. It did not take me long to realize that this was going to be one hell of a business. Did I really want to go through with this? It was a question I struggled with. Maybe changing the world though my writing just wasn’t in the cards after all. In the meantime, I needed to earn a living however I could. I took a job as a substitute teacher, heading off to different schools each day for temporary assignments in classes from kindergarten to 12th grade. There were good days and bad, but overall this was absolutely not what I wanted to do for a living. It was merely a way to pay the bills while I continued to dream bigger dreams.
On the weekends I went fishing with a friend who had a small boat. Andrew’s 22-foot cabin cruiser was docked at his grandmother’s house on Newport Bay. Small and fast, his boat could make it all the way to Catalina Island in an hour. We fished for Bonita and Mackerel, but what Andrew really loved to catch were sharks. When we gassed up at the fuel dock before each trip we also bought packets of squid for bait and a couple buckets of chum; frozen fish blood and guts. Then we motored out of the harbor and roared across the sea until we reached a promising spot off the coast. Andrew would stop the boat, cut a few holes in a chum bucket, tie it to a line and toss it overboard. We’d drop in some fishing lines, take off our shirts, grab a cold beer and wait. It was always just a matter of time before the sharks started circling. Usually this meant six-foot blues. We’d watch their sleek, silvery bodies swim around the bait and bump it with their noses while they worked up their courage. Eventually a shark took a bite and then off it went, the reel singing as the line spun out. All we had to do then was reel it in and fight the shark up alongside the boat to release it. One of us would use a gaffing hook to hold the shark along the boat while the other reached over with pliers to twist the fishhook from the jaws.
Eventually these trips became the basis for a short story. Two friends fishing off Catalina catch a shark with human remains inside. Was this murder, or a horrible accident? In the story, the two protagonists eventually find out that a band of thieves is preying on private boats in the Catalina channel. The remains in the shark are from a couple who were sailing home when they were attacked, tied to an anchor and thrown overboard. At least in my story the victims were dead before they went over. Years later a true story dominated the Orange County headlines when just such an incident actually took place on a private yacht off the California coast. Only in the true version, the couple was still alive when they were tied to the anchor and thrown overboard.
My own short story turned into my first novel, Blood in Blue Water. This wasn’t the type of project that would change the world in any way, but maybe it was commercial enough to give my fledgling career the boost that it needed. I clung to that hope as I sent samples to hundreds of literary agents and publishers. I never got anywhere.
At one point my dad tried to make me feel a little better about it all. “You know, the guy who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected about 160 times before a publisher finally bought it,” he said. This didn’t do much to brighten my spirits, since I had already been rejected by more than 200 agents and editors at that point. Finally an agent agreed to represent me. He wanted $250 up front to cover his costs. It sounded like a scam to me and was more than I could afford anyway, so I turned him down. When he sent the manuscript back it smelled so badly of cigarette smoke that I had to throw it away.
What I was learning the most during this period was how to live with rejection. How to eat, breathe and sleep it. How to revel in it, even. No matter how many rejection letters I got, they still couldn’t stop me from being a writer. Nothing could. I was a writer, damn it, and I was going to write no matter what! My favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh, was only known to have sold one painting in his entire life. Did that make him any less of an artist? Of course not! At the end of the day, the only thing that can stop a writer from being a writer is himself. The only failure is in giving up. That’s what I had to tell myself, anyway. As for food, clothing and housing, that unfortunately was a separate, albeit intensely frustrating issue.