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Most people talk about their schools. High school, college, grad school. On MySpace you list your schools. On Facebook one of the key affiliations is by school. I live in Chapel Hill, NC, where grown men still drive through town on game days flying UNC flags from their car windows.

"I'm a Tarheel! I'll always be a Tarheel!" men and women my age (grown-ups!) will shout, unprovoked. To which I can only respond, "Really? Is there no cure?"

It's a kind of identity that is meaningless to me. Then again, I suppose a single year at San Francisco State majoring in pipe manufacture (ahem) didn't afford me much opportunity to become fully indoctrinated into the cult of school.

My identity was never about school. It was always about work. I'm not the product of this University or that college. My alma maters are Toys R Us, Garfinckel's, Denny's, Middleton's,
the White Marlin, the Wild Goose Chase and White Glove.

There are very few people lucky enough to make their living from putting words on paper, who came up through low-status, dead-end jobs. The whole freezing garret thing has gone out of fashion. Mostly it's MFA's and J-school grads who never broke a sweat, never popped a fistful of Advil to get through a double shift, never took three pre-dawn buses to reach the workplace, never hung out smoking weed with Mexican dishwashers behind the Dumpster, never saw the inside of the little used tampax bin or scraped a stranger's shit off a toilet or ate food off a customer's plate before scraping it into the garbage disposal.

Do I sound perversely proud of all that? You bet your ass. And I'm not the only one:

In my younger days I freelanced as a writer for some time, and supported myself between publishers' checks by taking very menial temporary jobs. If you want to imagine "the kind of jobs Americans won't do," these are what comes to mind: Laundry room of a hospital. You hear the thump of another load drop down the chute and you steel yourself before opening the hatch in case it's blood-stained. You thrust your hands deep into a bin full of unsorted dirty linen, hoping there's not a used needle hiding in it.

And, sure enough, on almost all the jobs I worked, I was one of the only white faces. A lot of blacks, a lot of immigrants. I never worked jobs where friendships formed more easily. You showed up at 7:30 a.m., and by lunchtime you were swapping stories and jokes. People had nothing in common and everything in common just because they were there.

On one assignment I was sent out with about 30 other people to a high hangar-sized warehouse full of new clothes on racks. All the clothes had dry-cleaner-style cellophane wrappers over them. Our job was to strip off the wrappers. So we worked all one summer day in the hot, stuffy room, going down the long rows. The bags were perforated at the shoulders, and pretty soon you got to know a slow downward sweep was the easiest way to strip the garments. Like I said, almost all minorities. I stood up at one point to ease my back and watched my co-workers in their rows and got a quick flashback to what a cotton plantation must have looked like at harvest time. At lunch break I sat out on a bench with a guy named Mike who thought Michelob was an import. We drank Old English 800 and discussed the relative merits of banging fat girls and thin girls.

Been there. Been that guy. Had that conversation.

I've had some success late in life. In earlier years I was a dishwasher, a temp, a house painter, a resident manager for low-end beach rentals, a night clerk at a seedy boardwalk hotel, a burger flipper, a short order cook, a janitor and above all, a waiter.

In terms of work, I'm proud of the fact that I'm a fast, competent, imaginative writer. I'm just as proud of the fact that during off-season "half price" at a seafood joint in Ocean City, Maryland, I used to carry an eight table station. Upstairs. Upstairs and across the restaurant. Eight tables.

My back is still fucked up from it. A minor, but honorable wound.

Do I look down my nose at people who've never sweat through their clothes for less money than it would take to clean the shirt? Who never cashed a single digit paycheck? Who never had to learn to curse in Spanish? Who never worked through a shift with blood seeping out of a fresh cut? Who've never debated whether cleaning dust bunnies off the false teeth they found under a bed was part of their job? Who have never been berated for failing to squeegee a mildewy shower? Who never quit a job out of pride, even when it meant they'd spend that night sleeping under an overpass? No, of course not. Of course I don't look down my nose at . . . Okay, yes. Yes, I do.

Fuck your alma mater: I can carry eight tables, beeyatch. And did I mention they were upstairs?

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  1. Blogger Dave Schuler Says:

    Shared experience may have something to do with the bond that you, Callimachus, and I have.

  2. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    You know that book, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?"

    This would be "The Brotherhood of the Grease-stained Hands."

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