by The Inmate
Working in the fields is not in itself a degrading job. It’s hard, but if you’re given regular hours, better pay, decent housing, unemployment and medical compensation, pension plans–we have a very relaxed way of living. But the growers don’t recognize us as persons. That’s the worst thing, the way they treat you. Like we have no brains.
“You must have a rewarding job.”
The comment, directed at me, exuded sarcasm. I stood on an elevator in a First Interstate bank building. The woman, the only other occupant besides myself, had dark black hair, a dress suit to match and carried a briefcase. She was forty-something; I was twenty-nine. She smiled condescendingly and stared at me until the elevator doors opened. I did not say or do a damn thing except stare back at her in disbelief.
As she walked down the hall away from the elevator I thought of several things to say. Unfortunately, that’s the way it usually is: I think of the fitting, witty retaliation after the event. That’s why I like to write, there’s time to think. Obviously she was upset and there I stood at the back of the elevator looking–looking what? Vulnerable? Like a sensitive, meek, shy male? I’m six-feet two inches tall and at that time I weighed around 195 pounds. I played football in high school and college. Friends tell me I can look intimidating. But that did not stop her. She was angry about something. But still, why me?
I know why. It was my uniform.
Every weekday I drive a white panel van past eucalyptus, palm and pine trees that line a stretch of freeway 163 into downtown San Diego where I work. If the traffic is not heavy that small segment of highway, its north and south lanes separated by a grass median and tall trees, is a mental oasis between my office and downtown. For more than a decade I have been a courier, or “delivery boy” as I was once called by a receptionist, for an overnight express company.
The woman on the elevator is the only person who has ever overtly criticized me based on what I do to make a living. There are more subtle things, behavior that takes place simply because I am wearing a uniform, but it is rarely blatant.
A few years ago I heard two New York business people, a man and a woman, talking about a man in my city(San Diego)they had come to see.
“He’s just not very serious about this,” the woman said.
“He doesn’t go after it like he used to,” her companion responded.
“Too many distractions out here, too many sunny days. He’s lost his intensity.” There was no laughter from these two. Their gravity was genuine.
“Yeah, it’s just too laid back out here.”
Sometimes it’s as if I am not there, as if my uniform makes me invisible, as if I’m nobody.
Whoever they were talking about I liked. Sounded to me as if he had moved in an attempt to have a meaningful life not only at work but outside of it too. On my way down the man who had commented entered the elevator with me. Usually I do not let people know I’ve been eavesdropping, but I wanted to say something. “So, you think we’re too laid back out here?” I asked him.
“It’s not that–” he searched for an explanation. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it embarrassed him that I had called him on his comments and he backpedaled quickly, though not convincingly. Why? Was it because the guy in the uniform spoke? What did he assume I was thinking when they castigated their undedicated business associate in front of me? That I was impressed with their serious work ethic?
More times than I can count over the past ten years I have had a man or woman step onto the elevator with me and make a comment that goes something like this, “It must be nice to be outside all day and wearing shorts. I hate being stuck in the office behind my damn desk.”
One of the great advantages of having a job like mine is not taking anything home–anything. When I quit work–that’s it. I do not have a briefcase; I do not have a beeper; I do not have a cellular phone. I do not think about my job until I arrive in the morning. Even then, I can think about any number of things as I weave my way through the high rises looking for loading zones and meters that have not run out, walking to and from buildings and riding and waiting for elevators.
I heard a man on a pay phone at 550 West C Street, a twenty-story office building in San Diego, yelling into the receiver.
“You don’t understand the pressure I’m under.” His voice echoed off the marble walls into the elevator lobby on the ground floor. “They’re constantly giving me new projects and giving me more responsibility. I can hardly keep up. It’s all I can think about.”
In Coming Up for Air George Orwell wrote, “The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working. But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s fast asleep.” I wonder how free he or she is even then.
A year or two ago at a Marriot hotel’s shipping and receiving dock a man lamented that he was going to have to work on his day off, especially with the great weather.
“They can run your life sometimes, can’t they?” I commented.
“Run it and ruin it,” he responded.
I often hear people talking on elevators about their jobs.
“Were you here Sunday?” one man asked the other.
“You’re sick! For how long?”
“Most of the day.”
“You are sick!”
A man at Merrill Lynch once told me, “This place dictates my schedule, there’s no way around it.”
Over a hundred years ago Alexis de Toqueville wrote, “For indeed, few men are idle in democratic nations; life is passed in the midst of noise and excitement, and men are so engaged in acting that little time remains to them for thinking.” De Toqueville, I am sure, had a specific kind of thinking in mind.
I once delivered a painting to a penthouse condominium. A man opened the door holding a hardcover book. It was open.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“I’m looking for a quote from Dante’s Inferno.” He seemed occupied as he answered my question. “It’s from the opening.”
“I have that at home,” I said, but the comment appeared not to interest him. He signed for the package and handed my clipboard back to me. I went home, looked up the quote and sent it to him–I knew his address–I know a lot of addresses.
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
A few weeks later he sent me a two page letter, a copy of the letter he used the Dante quote in, a short short story of his and four poems he wrote. We communicated through letters for about three years. My correspondence with him was extremely interesting. I asked him once why he chose to respond at length to my brief first letter. Among a number of reasons he wrote,
I also felt I had smugly patronized you based on your work. . . . I was more shocked at myself than remorseful. My letter then was an apology.
When I am on an elevator in my uniform with half a dozen men in suits, some part of me struggles not to feel inferior. Why is that? Is it because being a delivery guy is not as prestigious as being a lawyer or doctor or businessman? Is it because they make more money than I do? Is it my insecurity?
What do they think about me? Is what they do more important than what I do? How many of them struggle with feelings of superiority standing with me on the elevator? Do any of them wonder why someone over forty chooses to do what I do?
It is the people on elevators who are not talking that I wonder about most. A man I used to see in an older office building wore thick black glasses, was short and a little overweight. Watching him I knew he was timid: he walked to the corner of the elevator with his head down and stood there–silent–shoulders slumped.
“How you doing? I asked him one day, something I often said to him.
“Very fine, thank you, sir,” he said quickly, glancing at me for only a moment, his usual reply.
The only conversation I had with him began when after I greeted him he said to me, “You must have an important job.”
Without thinking I laughed out loud, a clear indication of how I really viewed my job. “Not hardly,” I said. He looked away when I turned toward him.
“No, really,” he said, making eye contact briefly. “They trust you with a company vehicle and you deliver all those packages to important people. I couldn’t handle the responsibility.”
If it had come from someone else I would have taken it as an insult, but from him, well, he sounded serious. I was sure he was, but a small part of me wondered.
He was older than me by a decade or so, but age is hard to figure. I used to think about him a lot. What was he like at work? At home? Was it only in public that he was so shy? Maybe he was some kind of reclusive genius, a man who stuffed his mathematical formulas into a cedar chest that will be discovered after he dies, a man who enjoyed teasing couriers on the elevator.
I am often asked what I do for a living. I used to tell people I was a courier closely followed by the fact that I was writing. That justifies certain kinds of work–the proverbial starving artists on their noble attempts to follow their dreams. “Writing is the only profession,” Jules Renard wrote, “where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” “No one” is an exaggeration.
Early on I needed to give a reason to people why I had this kind of job. It was, at that time, simply a means to an end. I did not intend to stay longer than a year or two and I wanted people to know that I was pursuing other things–I was not just a courier. Seventeen years later–I am a courier. I feel a little like Leonard Nimoy. First he wrote, I Am Not Spock and then, I Am Spock. I began a number of years ago simply stating, when asked what I do, “I’m a courier.”
Reactions to this naked fact are varied. A mother of a girl I dated in college said to me in an appalling tone, “Why are you doing that?” Oftentimes there is an uncomfortable silence and the subject is changed. It is rare that anyone ever asks what I literally do everyday or how our company moves thousands and thousands of packages all over the world. A number of years ago my wife’s uncle, who works at Chrysler’s testing facility in Michigan, asked me about the particulars of my job for a half hour. That’s a rare occurrence.
I work because I need the money. I work part-time(over 17 years now) in order to pursue my passions. I have met couriers over the years working on Master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s. Many are musicians, aspiring airline pilots, actors or those who wanted a change from a desk job. Many have chosen it as a career: the pay is tolerable, you’re outside on your own without someone constantly watching you and the day zips by. Not bad–all things considered.
I have, however, met few couriers who say they love their jobs, who thoroughly enjoy what they do. I think I have met one.
Six or seven years ago I was running in downtown and a homeless man said to me, “You’re gonna kill yourself running around like that.”
I pointed to my head and said, “I’m not running up here.”
He laughed. So did I. But it’s true.
A few years ago in a Wells Fargo Bank building two women, a man in a suit and myself got on an elevator as a security guard walked off barking orders into a walkie-talkie for someone to get a vacuum cleaner. Flower petals were scattered across the carpeted elevator floor.
The doors closed and one of the women remarked, “This is the kind of problem I like elevators to have.” We laughed.
Then the man said, “It would have taken him about five seconds to pick them up, so why didn’t he?”
“Why don’t we?” I asked him without hesitation. He stared at me for two or three seconds without saying a word. I smiled.
“That’s a good question,” he said.
I almost–almost, and now I wish I had, bent over to pick up the petals. I thought about it, but I did not want to lower myself either literally or symbolically in front of my fellow occupants if they did not join in with me. Pride? Yes. What would they have thought? What would they have done? But what if he in his suit, the women in their dresses and I in my uniform had all picked up the petals together?
The man answered me: “I, for one, have this briefcase in my hand . . .” The elevator doors opened and I walked out. I still wonder what would have happened if I had picked up the petals. Supposing I had–what then?
How dreary–to be–Somebody!
How public–like a Frog–
To tell one’s name–the livelong June–
To an admiring Bog!
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy : Cantica One: Hell, translated by Dorothy Sayers, Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.
- Dickinson, Emily, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1960, p. 133.
- Orwell, George, quoted in Class by Paul Fussell, Ballantine Books, New York, 1991, p. 37.
- Terkel, Studs, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Ballantine Books, New York, N.Y., 1990, p. 38
- Touqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, translated by Henry Reeve, revised by Francis Bowen, Edited and abridged by Richard D. Heffner, A Mentor Book, New American Library, 1984, p. 271.