Aside from the slow-dawning fear we all feel when a radical life change is imminent, the accomplishment of landing a job is almost reward enough in itself. All that time spent scrounging, hunting, sniffing, scratching, tearing yourself up, it all becomes justified. You weren’t just spinning your wheels this last period of interminable exile from society, were you? Those first days, the week or two between when you get the good news until when the job actually starts are the purest of well-earned vacations. A time to feel most thoroughly justified in whatever the hell you want to feel justified in.
Well, I guess this doesn’t quite apply to me. I didn’t really do any job hunting. I hadn’t really gotten to the place where I was even looking for a job, where I even wanted one. Getting this one had really been something of an accident.
So, what did I do with my two weeks of heaven? More of the same. The difference? I enjoyed it, because I knew it was coming to an end.
It’s great to get a job. But, as soon as the thing itself actually began, I was most brutally reminded of that oh so cruel reality: jobs themselves, they suck.
But I should stop this before it goes any further, not while I’m still at the place I’m complaining about. It’s dangerous to indulge these sort of thoughts to their logical conclusion. Definitive conclusions are dangerous things. Often times you can tell what you would rather not know long before you actually know it. And really, who was doing who a favor here?
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my first days at the Bears’ Lair. It’s just that it was a shock. And when each day came to an end, I was always so relieved. Always with the feeling like, okay, I’ve made it through one more day. Despite the odds, I’d kept myself away for that much longer. One more day in which, through effort and effort and some kind of thing pulling on my mind like a rottweiler on a leash, I hadn’t blown my cover. But since it was so hard, since every time I said something I wasn’t sure that I’d said right, well, you could forgive me for not being sure how long exactly I could keep this up.
But, fortunately, there is another good thing about having a job. It is the being home. It is the daily, tired and triumphant return to your place of respite. Now I could walk a little bit heavier up the stairs of my apartment building. I could close the door to my room a little louder, and watch TV or search the web, or whatever the fuck I wanted to do, with just that slight extra degree of infallibility. I’d been justified. I’d spent the whole day justifying myself. What I did with the rest of my time, now, need only make sense to myself.
One day into my third week, just returned home, I went into the kitchen to fix myself some food, as was my wont. There I found my neighbor, Carmen, a Latina woman in her young middle ages, washing dishes in the sink.
“Oh, hello Carmen,” I said in the doorway.
There was limited counter space in the kitchen. Carmen had never been very nice to me. I didn’t relish the thought of sharing close quarters with her.
She looked over her shoulder at me. Her eyes were different from how they usually were. Like most Mexicans, she usually looked at me either as if I were from another planet, or as if she were considering robbing me of my teeth fillings. Not today though. Today there was a brightness in her eyes. I didn’t like it.
“Oh hey, Johnathon, I’m almost done here,” she chirped.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“No it’s fine. Just a minute and it’s all yours.”
She went back to the dishes, flecks of soap flying out from her hands.
I figured, “why not.” I shouldn’t be intimidated by them any more. Those judging people who had scorned me in my embarrassing periods. I walked in past her. I got a plate out of the cupboard and a knife and fork out of the silverware drawer. I got bread and turkey, tomatoes and lettuce, mustard and mayonnaise out of the refrigerator, and I started to make myself a sandwich. Carmen kept on scrubbing at those dishes, but there was a tension to her scrubbing that made me a little uncomfortable — she would speed up when I got closer to her, and when I went about my business, she would stop abruptly at odd times, as if drawing attention to herself.
When I was done, I equivocated a moment, between eating at the dirty little dining table we had in the kitchen, or taking my food back to my room. But there had been a light in her eyes, that seemed like it was supposed to be friendly. I probably was supposed to stay here and speak with her. I believe that she meant to speak with me.
I sat down at the table.
I was uncomfortable. I regretted my decision immediately.
She finished the last dish and turned off the water. Then she started to dry her hands with a white dish towel we had tucked into one of the cupboard handles. She turned towards me, and she smiled with that pointed brightness in her eyes.
“Well, look at you!” she said, perky and beaming all white teeth.
I tried a smile back, and told myself not to care that it was forced. I was feeling a constriction in my throat. I didn’t like this. I felt under attack.
“What are you all dressed up like that for?” she asked.
“I’m working over at the Cal bookstore.”
“Oh yeah? At the UC?”
“Wow! Good for you!” she said enthusiastically.
It seemed like she was patronizing me, but that wasn’t it, not with that smile, not with that air of superiority about her, more pronounced than it had ever been before.
“How’d you get a job like that?”
I shrugged. “I applied. I went in a couple of times, one of the supervisors noticed me. I guess that helped.”
“Yeah. Oh yeah, it helps when they know you.”
“Yeah, it does.”
“Uh-huh,” she nodded and kept nodding like a car-mount plastic chihuahua.
There was a silence. Her smile stayed the same. The light in her eyes. An element of searching, but also an element of self-consciousness the longer she lingered. Not like she wanted to rob me. More like she wanted to belittle me. Like she wanted to. As if I, me myself, now represented a different sort of target. As if she couldn’t quite reconcile such a fact, knowing who I had been only a few short weeks earlier. After all, Carmen herself had been in the same boat. Actually a far worse boat. First of all, she was older than I was. Second of all, she had two kids, and they all three shared the same sleeping room. I’d heard she and the landlord engage in many a shouting match in the hallway. I had the feeling that her kids were there of a somewhat tenuous arrangement, and they weren’t there all the time. I realized now, looking at her, that her clothes were wash-worn and tattered. Compared to the students at the Bears’ Lair, she looked a pauper. I had never realized before how pronounced the difference was, how casually noticeable when that’s what you’re looking for.
Funny. I’d always assumed that those around me would just be proud that I’d gotten a job. At least somebody had, right?
“Well,” she said unhappily, catching the pity in my eyes as her motivations sunk in. “I’ve got to get back to my kids. They probably tearing up the place already.”
“Okay, see ya,” I said.
“See you, Johnathon,” she said, crumpling the dish towel and dropping it on the counter. “Mister career man. I’m so proud for you. It’s so hard finding work these days,” — she emphasized “hard,” and gave this little nod of her whole body while she did so, walking past me — “lot of people out there just don’t catch no breaks. Lots of people.”
“I know. I know.”
“Cal. Man. I know they never let people like me set foot at no Cal, haha,” she laughed.
I didn’t answer her. I took a bite of my sandwich.
“Well. Take care,” she said again, and waved quickly with one hand, a back and forth flicking motion as if she were shooing away a fly.
“Bye,” I said, and she walked fast past me, sharp footsteps down the hall, her door open, the brief sound of Spanish-language TV then cut off again.
I had a moment to wonder. Would things between us be different from now on? How curious. I didn’t like that feeling. It felt hollow. Funny thing was, I didn’t even want this job.
I finished my sandwich. This was the first time I’d realized that success, far from bringing me in, would also set me apart. People do not take pleasure in their brother humans’ accomplishments, even when their brother humans do not consider them as such. They just wonder at the unfairness of it all that allowed it to happen to someone other than themselves. They have a point.
I wanted to get out of the kitchen, it felt like hostile territory. Taking the plate and the remains of my sandwich with me, I felt a palpable unfriendliness in the air when I walked past Carmen’s door. Now I was angry, and when I locked myself into my room, the walls seemed so close and small, so paltry, so lonely, so thin, pressing in.
And here I’d thought I was re-entering the world.
Fuck her. Fuck her. What right did she have to make me feel afraid? I wasn’t priveleged. Fuck her. I was no different. She had no right to look at me differently. I deserved what I got. I needed it. And shit, I didn’t even want it.
I sat down on my bed. I considered the books on my lovely, smooth wood bookshelf, pushed up against the wall to the left of my desk. My best friend and repository of hope. Limitless storage house of comfort, dreams, dog-eared, well-thumbed, multi-colored stories.
Books books and books.
For me, it was always the books.
The next morning, walking through the front door, there’s Trevor behind the counter, smiling beneath his friendly sharks’ eyes.
“Morning, Johnathon,” Trevor said.
“Morning, Trevor,” I answered.
“‘Berto wants you trained up on the registers. Go put your things down and come back up front. Clarissa, Tom and Elliot are on the floor and Joseph’s in the back. So you’re with me today.”
“Okay,” I said. No that was too terse. I hastened to add a shaky and awkward “sounds good,” for which I received no response.
My shoulders slumped, I watched the speckled linoleum floor on my way back through the store to the employee locker room. I took off my sweatshirt and stuffed it into one of the lockers just to the left of a cluttered desk, over which a set of grainy security cameras peered out over the empty bookstore. I tucked in my uniform shirt and ran my fingers through my hair. I’d gotten a haircut a few days ago. My head still felt cold and the back of my neck still felt itchy.
Trevor looked back at me as I approached the registers. I dropped my gaze. I was hiding myself again. This wasn’t a good sign.
I started to think back to old jobs, to Borders’, to the landscape crews and our work in the hills, in Lafayette, out in the simple and companionable sun. Had it always been like this? I was sure that it hadn’t. No, in fact I had categorizable memories to prove it. I could remember at least three distinct moments of laughter and ease. I remember eating lunch with people, talking to them and standing with them while they smoked cigarettes. I remembered getting along with people. So what was different now? What had changed? Why did every step here feel like a battle? It couldn’t just be the economy, right?
I arrived at the cash register, took my position, and Trevor started talking:
“Okay, so first thing we’re gonna do, before we even open up, is count the cash. You’ve worked a register before, haven’t you?”
“Yeah I have.”
“Okay, so let’s go. See this note here?” he asksed, indicating a slip of receipt paper folded in under the $20 bill slot. “This number here says how much is supposed to be in here, how much Rachel counted out last closing.”
“We count by bills,” he said. “So start with the largest bills, write down the figures, and add up as you go.”
I followed his instructions. I got the right number, and a nod of approval.
“Okay, good,” Trevor said. “So we’re set and ready here. You’re gonna shadow me most of the day. You’ve worked a register before, right?”
“Great. There are a few things you’ll have to remember. For instance, we put fifty bills and up underneath the cash drawer, like so,” he said, lifting up the plastic tray of cash and revealing a small stash of office supplies, rolls of blank receipt paper, a a little zip-loc bag of rubber bands, a couple empty, official-looking envelopes. “We keep the twenties on top, we get a lot of twenties here.”
“You do cash drops?” I asked so as to keep myself engaged.
“We do, twice a day, at noon and at three. ‘Berto comes down, and you’re to have the bills counted and ready for him.”
He paused, stood there stiffly. I scratched my head, nothing to say.
“Sometimes when it’s real busy you have to call him down early,” he added. “That doesn’t happen all that often though. You’ll see. Only on the really busy days. A lot of students use credit and debit cards to buy their text books.”
“Oh, I see.”
More silence. Trevor took a disapproving step away from me, as if it were now my responsibility to break the silence. I tried. I stood there and I thought. My mind started to spin, and I forgot that actually I sort of had a job to do. But damn it, everything had already been said. We didn’t have that much common ground yet, Trevor and I, and I had nothing to talk about. He surely wouldn’t be interested in my crummy little apartment, now would he?
So, I improvised:
“It must be pretty predictable,” I said.
“Predictable?” Trevor asked, raising an eyebrow.
I struggled to turn this into a pedestrian comment:
“Well, I mean, you know when school’s getting in, and that’s probably when most the text books are sold, right? You know when the vacation days are, when people come back to school, when most of them take lunch. You must get to know pretty fast when it’s gonna be busy and when it’s gonna be slow.”
“Yeah, we do. But you know, I wouldn’t call it predictable,” he said, with a laugh just a bit too jocular to be genuine. “And most of the business we do in the meaty part of the year don’t have to do with textbooks at all. At that point we’re just where a lot of students go to buy everyday items. Sunscreen, notebooks, Cal gear, the like. Lots of Cal gear. Football days are huge. No, this isn’t about the school, you know? This is a retail store, and it just happens to be in a school. Retail experience is a lot more important than school experience here.”
“And a lot more important than book store experience,” he continued, and then gave me a piercing look like an accusation. Books, that magic word. Trevor knew me for what I was. It was now my responsibility to whither beneath his superior gaze.
“Not predictable at all,” he went on, turning away. “You’ll see. When we get our first rush, you’ll know that ‘predictable’ just ain’t the word to describe it.”
“I won’t describe it that way any more,” I said.
Trevor gave no sign that he had heard me. Maybe he hadn’t. Over the coming months I would find that Trevor could be quite unexpectedly opaque. This was another strength of black people that I always sort of admired.
This time, our silence proved impenetrable, and he took another step away from me. I tried not to panic. I tried to own my dissatisfaction. Staying true to yourself is the true challenge for every working professional. It’s your only hope, really, to be yourself. But it’s walking a tightrope, because you can’t be yourself too much. If you were that who would ever want to work in a college bookstore?
“Well, it seems like it’s just starting to pick up now,” I said, some time later, after a small group of customers came in through the door. But I must not have sounded convinced, or convincing. Because Trevor sniffed, and didn’t answer, and it was the closest we came to casual conversation for the rest of the afternoon.
Just after I got back home, after I’d eaten and taken off my shoes, sat down on my bed and allowed the day to drain out of me, I stood up, and knelt down in front of my bookshelf. I ran the fingertips of my right hand over the multi-colored, multi-sized, multi-textured bindings. I selected a slim, elegant little paper back: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Chandler’s celebrated short story collection. I turned off the overhead lights, and sat up on my bed with my back against the wall. I turned on the little bedside light. I always liked reading by that light. Warm and small. It helped to make me feel at home.
It took me a couple hours to read the whole book (more impressive than it sounds — What We Talk About is only about a hundred pages altogether, and a lot of those pages have significant page breaks). When I finished it was 12:30 in the morning. But I still wasn’t ready to go to sleep. I had to wake up early the next morning, but I hadn’t even begun my nightly ritual. I hadn’t played any online chess games. I hadn’t hunted out a current events article to read. I hadn’t become bored of being bored. I suppose by most people’s frames of reference this would be a good thing. Working full-time means you have less time to be unproductive with. But for me, that’s often felt like my time best well spent.
So I sat in front of my laptop, with its battered keyboard and its internet. Its openings to the multitude of private infinities. A window into worlds and worlds of perfect drifting.
But I was sick of surfing the internet. I had nowhere to go. I’d done plenty of that over the last few months, and I only rarely felt good about the time spent doing so.
And so, because I hadn’t else to do, I opened a Microsoft Word Document. I put my hands on the keys. Once upon a time, writing had been a calling of mine. I remembered it, back in the years.
What had happened? Should I write about that?
I would be up all night if I did. And what would be the point?
I continued to stare at the screen. Then I stood up and went into the kitchen. I prepared myself a glass of ice water, and I took it back to my room, through the dark hallway, the faint sound of a TV from somewhere within one of my neighbors’ rooms.
Back in my room. The screen open. The screen blaring.
I sat down.
I put my hands back on the keys, and I told them to just start moving, to just go with that first thought that I had in my head. Because I had a lot of them. Yeah, I did. And when I started, they kept on coming. I heard my neighbors through the walls, wondering what I was doing. I ignored them. I would not worry about them. Just like it had when I was younger, something within me began to feel glorious.
It was 3:30 in the morning when I closed the Word Document. I was able to go to sleep soon thereafter.
I was the first person to arrive at the Bears’ Lair the next morning. I sat on the steps in front of the glass doors and put my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands. ‘Berto arrived about ten minutes later. He unlocked the door and let me in, then he powered off to his back office without a word. He was always a man on a mission. We hadn’t exchanged more than a passing salutation since I’d gotten the job. I would come to learn to discretely stay out of his way.
I began the long walk back to the locker room, soft tapping footsteps on speckled white/gray linoleum, past the tables of over-priced best sellers near the entrance, past the magazine rack, and the parallel rows of shelves of fiction and textbooks and required reading. Countless lifetimes of knowledge in this one little store, packaged and prepared, presentable and dear and useless to all who wouldn’t or couldn’t afford it. What a strange thing bookstores like these are. Profit might well have been the furthest thing from the authors’ minds when they created the fruits of others riches. If they were anything like me, they just couldn’t help themselves. They had nothing else to do. And here in this store, young children who know nothing of how the world works are coerced into buying them out of the strictures of higher education. How strange it all was.
On the wall just outside the locker room, I flicked on all of the store’s lights, then I entered in and tucked my backpack into my locker. I returned to the main floor. Up front the doors were still closed. I was alone.
And before I took another step, I felt something in the bottom of my gut. That faint, familiar tickle in the small part of my lungs. When I notice it, it grows rapidly, and I realize it’s been building for some time already. Makes me hot and twitchy, and I know that if I were to look in a mirror right then, I would see a bright red flush creeping up from beneath my shirt collar, the faintest visual hint to the subtle roar of hot pumping blood growing louder within me. Powerful, irrational. Even despite everything else, like a long lost friend, the urge was still there, compelling me.
Allowing little more to thought, I darted into the closest aisle. Arts history on one side, literary studies on the other. Books and books and books — (why was it always books?) — I pulled out the biggest, thickest, most expensive one I could find, and took it back into the locker room with me.
When I came back out, Trevor and Clarissa were shuffling blearily about like irritable zombies. Clarissa gave me a little smile as she passed. Trevor too said “Good morning,” and, oddly enough, it sounded like he meant it. I responded in kind. I could see that Trevor had already made up his mind about me. He believed that beneath my neuroticisms, good intentions, and esoteric skill sets, I was, in truth and fact, little more than a lost cause waiting to be appropriately categorized. I couldn’t help it. I was who I was. I think he liked this about me.
Wait ‘till he finds out what I’ve got in my backpack.
I think it’s safe to say he’s got no frickin’ idea.