I was sitting in my gray cubicle at the office, staring at the computer screen. I held the mouse on its pad, my index finger poised to execute a very important click. This is how I look when I’m working hard and productivity is up. The casual spectator might not recognize this.
“What do you do?” The question came from behind me. A visitor to the office, obviously unfamiliar with the sight of an editor on the verge of a creative climax, had been watching me for what I hoped hadn’t been too long.
The question caught me on my heels. I turned to her and repeated it: “What do I do?” The look on her face said she expected something monumental. So I gave her my answer: “I handle commas.”
“Commas?” she asked.
“Yup. Commas. Periods are next cubicle over. Semicolons down the hall.”
She didn’t smile, so I gave her the long version, a detailed explanation of what I really do. By the time I finished, the look on her face had changed. I should’ve left it at commas and called Security to show the nosy stranger the way out.
I’ve never had this problem before. My first “real” job, also known as my first job job, is the only one I’ve ever had where someone could watch me work and still ask the question, “What do you do?” The summer before I went off to college, I worked in an elevator factory. That job involved welding, driving a forklift and drilling holes through stainless steel. Not once did a visitor come up behind me and ask what I was doing.
Which has got me to feeling guilty about having my first real job job. And I don’t deal well with guilt, so I’m thinking about quitting and finding an occupation that will put my conscience to rest.
A man should have honest work that sends him home at the end of the day with a sore back and dirt under his fingernails. (Disclaimer: I heartily endorse the notion that a woman should have equal access to backbreaking work, if she so desires, and should be paid a wage commensurate to a man’s.)
Preferably, this work should take place outdoors, in a very cold climate or a very hot one. The way I see it, a man should either freeze or sweat when he’s earning a living. And he should produce something. Furniture or buildings or whatever.
I’ve yet to go home from my job with a sore back. When I punch out, sometimes, my eyes feel a little strained. I live in fear of carpal tunnel syndrome, a disorder no real man could be proud to have.
At the neighborhood bar after work one evening:
Real Working Man: “Tough day. Lost a finger in the radial saw. Barkeep, one beer.”
Me: “Know what you mean, buddy. My fingers tingle from typing too much. Chardonnay, please.”
And now that I think about it, when the day ends I don’t even punch out. No time clock in my office. A man should punch in and out.
Blacksmith. There’s a man’s job. If I quit, I think I’ll become a blacksmith. That job has the attractive feature of involving animals, which has traditionally been a part of manly work. If I were shoeing a quarter-horse, nobody would come up behind me and ask, “What do you do?” And if someone did ask, I’d have handy one of those red-hot pokers.
But even if I had graduated from college and right away become a blacksmith, I’d still feel guilty for the same reason I do now. Forget that my first job doesn’t require power tools: the fact remains, I have a job. Too many people nowadays, especially people I graduated with, don’t have one. Or they’ve got one but it isn’t what you’d call “challenging.” When I occasionally catch myself talking about my job with my unemployed friends, they give me looks like I’m bass fishing in the middle of their boat wreck.
For almost a year after graduation, I worked as an editorial intern and lived at home with Mom because I couldn’t afford rent and all the rest. It was painful. A few times there, I thought I was going to have to kick Mom out of the house. She was messy and downright inconsiderate.
But living with Mom at least kept my conscience clean. When jobless friends asked what I was doing, I could tell them about my poverty and living at home. We had a solidarity, my friends and I, a shared struggle. We all knew the smell of gunpowder and the fear of battle.
Now that I have a job and a place of my own, my friends still talk to me but I detect jealousy in their voices and get the impression they’re all going out afterward for a drink and I’m not invited.
Of course, it’s very likely that I’m imagining all this. My friends may be waiters and grad students and, in one case, even a dishwasher, but they still love me and understand that I’m the same person I was when I made $5 an hour and lived with Mom. Only now I wear a tie every day from 9 to 5 and carry business cards in my wallet.
To be safe, I really should quit. Instead of blacksmith, though, I think I’ll try lumberjack. My friends won’t be able to pester me about having a job if I’m out in the woods, felling timber all day. Plus, it’s dirty work. And I bet you go home sore every day.
It probably won’t look good on my resume to have suddenly walked out of my first real job after only six months. But what does a lumberjack need with a resume?
When this story was originally published, Tim Rogers was an assistant editor at American Way magazine. He is now editor of D Magazine, the city magazine of Dallas.