Friday, February 16, 2007

Not to Be a Wise Ass, T.S., but How about February?

In his brilliant poem “The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot wrote the famous lines: “April is the cruelest month/Breeding lilacs out of the dead land/Mixing memory and desire/Stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

I get it. Most people think April is a great month, spring renewal and everything, but as we get older, it also reminds us of things that aren’t renewing themselves – people, relationships, burned-out dreams. And there is something bittersweet about those memories mixed in with nature’s annual rebirth.

But, hands down, February is the cruelest month. Ass end of winter. April may be the cruelest month for poets, but, man, unless you live in a warm-weather climate, February eats shit. February is the most fucked-up month? Would that make a better invitation to poetic justice? I can still remember sitting in English class, after pondering that line, and thinking, “Ah, yes, good, someone with a different point of view on life, excellent.” Meanwhile, the kid next to me, who’s probably working a snow plough right now, was thinking, “Yeah, bullshit. Can’t wait for shop class, so I can make a fucking napkin holder, which makes sense.”

The past few Februaries have been pretty rank for me. The past few days, I’ve heard nothing but cars gunning their engines and spinning their wheels. Why? Because I live on a small hill, and all the cars parked on the street by the side of the house have been stuck in a four-inch mix of snow, sleet and ice that came down Wednesday night. With temperatures plunging well below freezing the past few days, if you didn’t get your ass out there and shovel or move by sundown on Wednesday, you were screwed. On top of ploughs coming through and erecting a frozen 12-inch wall of slush on the street side of the parked cars.

Mayor Bloomberg has been showing his billionaire roots by mocking these people … and having meter maids ticket them for being parked on the wrong side of the street on given street-sweeper days. I don’t quite see how a street sweeper could work in this frozen mix of slush, ice and snow, but so be it. Bloomberg is making the same mistake my landlord did, who didn’t lay a $20 on me for shoveling her out … since the snow “really wasn’t that bad” and she assumed this was a walk in the park for me.

I got news for her – this was one of the hardest shovels I ever had. (I basically shovel about 60 feet of sidewalk, usually takes me around two hours going full gun, a great work-out.) I enjoy shoveling snow, but this was one was rough. A thin layer of ice, coated with sleet, with snow on top that was already hardening with the dropping temperatures. You have to jam your shovel in hard on each swing to break up that potent mix, and it weighs a lot more than a shovel full of pure snow.

We’ve had blizzards over the past few years that have dumped upwards of 10 inches of snow each time, and she’d gaze out the window, probably thinking, “Oh, Billy, look at him out there, working away like a madman.” The reality: each time, it was like shoveling confetti. Light snow. Sure, a lot of it, but easy as hell to move around, the only problem being where to put it. Luckily, I broke her of the habit of trying to instruct me while I shoveled. (Hint: never talk to a guy doing hard physical labor unless it’s an emergency.) She’s got a nice little front garden that makes an excellent holding pen for snow piles – much better than the street, which was what she was suggesting. (Another hint: it’s a real scumbag move to shovel large amounts of snow into the street.)

On top of all this, on Monday I gave walking papers to my temp agency, which I’ve been unhappy with for a long time. My pimp (can’t think of a better word to describe my contact there) just wasn’t getting me tolerable jobs, and she was taking too long (2-3 weeks) between jobs to get me them. I’m assuming it’s just her agency (I followed her to this one from another one, because we really have clicked in the past) and a lack of solid corporate contacts across all areas of work.

She was either getting me cruddy entry-level spots that I could have done in 1987 much less now, or trying to shoe-horn me into “executive assistant” spots. Whereas my skills are skewed to ongoing/emergency projects requiring solid MS Office chops. (And if there’s one constant I see in most offices, it’s a lack of workers with these sort of higher computer skills to do these jobs. Don’t get me going on writing skills. These two solid skills alone should have me swimming in work.) She just doesn’t seem to have those spots. “Executive assistant,” next to the mailroom, tends to be the worst job in most companies. Often working for childish, nasty people, even the most basic tasks weighted down with a senseless and false gravity of “importance,” and usually being chained to a phone, so one even has to get it cleared to go take a piss. Not for me. I know these things pay upwards of $80K if you can convince a company that you’re good at it. (And I can easily do this.) But most of these spots have revolving doors on them despite the pay … because they really and truly are not good jobs.

I’ve known this woman since the early 90s, really connected with her, so it’s a bit like a break-up, but if I stay with her and that agency, I’m going to slowly go broke. Luckily, when I was working at the investment bank, I saved a good chunk of change, and I’ve slowly eaten a few thousand off that over the past two years and don’t want to lose any more. (Saving money is a sacred thing for me – one of those things Dad taught me that didn’t kick in until well into my 20s.) With the down time between jobs and choppy pay rate (which hasn’t gone up one penny since the early 90s, nor has gone up with increased experience and skill levels), it operates as a slow money drain. Time to go. She can get as angry as she wants, but I’ve choked down quite a bit of anger over the past two years being sent on near-impossible spots and then sitting around two weeks afterwards waiting for the next fiasco.

What to do? I guess float a few ads on local websites to see what happens, and push comes to shove, just go back to full-time work, which is always an option. I can get occasional freelance gigs on my own, but they're surely not steady work. I really like the idea of temp/freelance work, like that sense of freedom and movement, but if it aint working, it aint working.

(And I don’t want another pimp. The worst forms of corporate humiliation I’ve ever tolerated have been applying to temp agencies. They treat you like an asshole and make it clear that you’re just another name on a list, even after you prove yourself to them. It’s not a good industry in general. It’s an industry where you become a liability the better you get, because the expectations of you on the job are close to zero. In the agency’s eyes, how good you are is generally determined by how much shit you’re willing to eat, not by how skilled you are. And I’m assuming bells are ringing right now with people reading this from all areas of the working world.)

That’s this February. Last February, Mom had a major operation to remove a grapefruit-sized cyst from next to her kidneys. Any time a person over 70 gets any kind of operation, it’s bad news, and luckily this thing wasn’t cancerous. Again, surgery at that age is a life-threatening proposition. It was a lot to deal with, really knocked Mom sideways for a good few months afterwards, but she pretty much came back from it. All that wasn’t clear at first. Luckily, I got let go early from a spot at a fashion company (I’ll describe that lunacy one day, but not now) and got back there two days after she got out of the hospital, and, boy, on top of Dad’s passing the previous year, that was quite a jolt. This is what’s going to happen in your life if it already hasn’t! It doesn’t get easier as you go along.

February of 2005, my boss got let go at the investment bank. I still remember her walking by the desk, pale as a ghost, shaking, and whispering, “Bill, they just let me go. I’m going to get all my stuff and get out of here. Call me at home tomorrow.” Bang, the end of a well-paying era for me. Then again, she’d been calling her number for the last two years in the place, certain that this day was going to happen. (I’ve learned that in a work place, you had better act like you’re a quiet force of nature, like you should be there, otherwise you may very well call your own shot and get ousted. You may get ousted anyway, but if you act like you belong, most times you will belong.)

With Dad’s recent passing, and me still numb (much less hurting) over this, I was in no mood, and could see that whatever was going to transpire wasn’t going to be good. They had already called in a “consultant” to “help out” – and I can remember my boss sensing something fishy was going on here. (She was right. The guy had snake-oil salesman written all over him, which both of us could see, but everyone else was pretending he was a savior. He didn’t know shit about the product we were selling and was spouting cookie-cutter marketing concepts that were going down like honey with everyone else, but sounded like utter dogshit to me. My opinion didn't seem to mean shit although I had daily contact with customers for three years and knew the product like the back of my hand.)

So I gave them about two weeks to come up with Plan B, realized there didn’t seem to be one and handed in my walking papers with a healthy two-month’s notice. Hated doing it, because I liked working there. But I could see that things were left vague after that first harsh decision, and I couldn’t handle vagueness on top of the horrible emotional shit that accompanies the death of a parent. Had enough. Some folks suggest burying yourself in work after the death of a loved one, but I call that denial. I could see that wasn’t going to work for me and made a tough call.

So, that’s been my past three Februaries! T.S. Eliot, nice try, but April can’t hold a candle to February.

As a coda, let me detail another February one-off, this was probably about five years ago. We had just had a bad weekend snow storm, a lot of snow, and after doing my laundry, I had got out there and did a typically good job of shoveling. It’s a tradition for me after a good shovel to hit one of the local supermarkets and treat myself, usually something like a carton of chocolate soy milk and some of those soft-baked Pepperidge Farms cookies. Come back, dry myself off, put on a good DVD, and kick back for the rest of the day in my nice warm apartment.

As with all snow storms and as described above, there was the constant sound of spinning wheels, cars gunning it in vain to break out of their snow tombs. This time, I heard a guy yelling in the street, carrying on like a maniac. Whatever. I’d be glad to help my neighbors if they didn’t put out the 718 prick vibe 24-7 … which most of them do, so I’m not going to bust my ass on people who treat me like I’m invisible. I heard a banging on a door, and my landlord’s voice. Next thing I know, I see a shadow pass my window, then hear a banging on my door and a man’s voice crying out, “Please, help me, I need help! For the love of God, help me!”

I don’t know what this is, so I tell the guy to get away from the door. He keeps yelling. I say, buddy, if you want my help, go back up the stairs, stand there, and I’ll open the door to see if I can help you. I hear footsteps moving away. I open the door to see a dumpy, balding middle-aged guy, out of breath, and he says, “Please, my car is stuck, and no one will help me get it out. I desperately need someone to help me.”

Fuck it, I’m not going to get any peace if I don’t help this guy, and at least he’s making himself clear. When I get out there with my shovel, he says, “What’s wrong with the people in this neighborhood? I’ve been out here 15 minutes crying for help, and no one helps me. No one even answers the door.”

I answer, “Buddy, you’re carrying on like a mental patient. That’s why I asked you to step away from my door. Because you were scaring me. No one may help you anyway, but I can guarantee you no one’s going to help you when you carry on like that.”

This seemed to calm him down. He had a Mercedes parked by the school next door. It was then I noticed his fur coat. And gaudy gold necklace. The guy was rich, which probably explained his sense of entitlement in getting HIS car out of the snow. It didn’t matter to me. I had committed to helping this guy, against my better instincts, so I helped him.

And it was a ballbuster. It took about 20 minutes of constant shoveling of snow from around his back tires and rocking the car to get him loose. But, after that time, I got that one good push, his car spun loose and he was free. Now, if that was a good human being, he’d put the car in park, run back, shake my hand, and at the very least, say thank you. If I was in his shoes, I’d pull out a $10 or a $20 and hand it over in gratitude – someone who had no cause or reason to help me had just helped me in a bad situation. What did this guy do?

He spun out, fishtailing down the block, and that was the last I saw of him. If I could get in a time machine and go back to the moment he was banging on my door, I’d have opened the door and belted him straight in the face with my snow shovel. (If I ever see him again, this will happen.) I get back to my place, my landlord starts yelling down the stairs, “Ah-Billy, why you spend so much-ah time helping that crazy man, he was ah-no good!” And I said, “Look, you told him I was in back here, please don’t lecture me after I’ve just wasted half an hour of time on that worthless piece of shit. It wasn’t my idea to help him, you shouldn’t have answered your door, and you shouldn’t have told him I was here.” That seemed to break through the fog and make it clear how pissed off I was, and she left me alone.


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