I’ve been working for a paycheck in some capacity since September ’84, when me and my brother Darren began working with our father Jimme down in Upper West/East Side and Midtown Manhattan. Back then, we cleaned the floors of corporate offices, the carpets of condos and co-ops, and endured Jimme’s alcoholic ups and downs. There was one lesson, though, that stuck with me in the year or so that we worked for our father, one that extended the lesson we observed from our Mom before we fell into welfare in April ’83. That we wouldn’t get far without hard work or without having work, and that if we wanted to avoid the work of a low-paying, back-breaking job like buffing and waxing floors, we also needed to work smart, to use our brains and our muscles
Since then, the longest I’ve been without a job has been ten months, between August ’86 and June ’87. I worked all the way through undergrad at Pitt and was a grad assistant and teaching assistant throughout grad school (with the exception of my time as a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow in ’95-’96, and even then, I worked on two of Joe Trotter’s research projects). I’ve faced periods of unemployment and longer periods where I’ve cobbled together part-time and full-time work, as well as held stable full-time work in the nonprofit and higher education worlds.
In all that time, I’ve only held two jobs where I’d been overwhelmed with work. Not the actual act of performing the duties of these jobs, mind you. The number of hours in which I had to show up for work was what eventually made these jobs overwhelming. My first time experiencing full-time work outside of a summer job was in the middle of my Winter/Spring ’89 semester. I worked for Pitt’s Computer and Information Systems’ (CIS) computer labs back then. I had requested more hours, and had gone from twelve to twenty to thirty-six between the beginning of January and the second-half of February, covering for folks who had moved on to real full-time work after graduating.
This was a seven-week period in which I averaged 36 hours per week while taking sixteen credits — five classes — and all while facing sexual harassment from my co-worker Pam, harassment tacitly sanctioned by our boss and her friend Cindy. Despite it all and my $4.15/hour salary, I focused on the work, the need for extra cash, and my friends, and came out the other side, and hoped to avoid a situation like that again.
I stumbled my way into a worse situation in my first full-time work after earning my doctorate, with the now out-of-business Presidential Classroom. My official title was Director of Curriculum, but that was my main job for only nine months out of the year. Because Presidential Classroom had dedicated itself to edu-tainment with a full-time staff of only a dozen, this meant that all full-time staff were also part of what we called Program. Fifteen weeks during the winter, early spring and summer, one group of 300-400 high school juniors and seniors from across the country (and Puerto Rico and outside the US/commonwealth) after another would spend a week in DC learning about “how government and politics work on Capitol Hill.” Or, as our brochures would say, “Not your typical week in Washington.”
I worked on-site at the Georgetown University Conference Center (where Marriott had a hotel, primarily for families visiting their hospitalized loved ones at Georgetown University Hospital) for seven of those weeks. I supervised interns, so-called faculty (some of whom were government employees who seemed more interested in chasing skirts than in sharing their experiences) and worked with other staff while watching over these groups of students roaming all over DC and Northern Virginia week after week.
One week in February ’00, I counted up, and found that I’d worked 120 hours in all. This included a 21-hour-day, in which I’d caught a boy in a girls’ hotel room, and then proceeded to contact his parents and expel him from the program. Between that and the bigoted staff I worked with — including my boss, the ED, who once told the joke that “slavery was a hoax” — I knew that putting in 100+ hours per week and sleeping in lumpy beds for $35,000 a year wasn’t worth it. By the last week of June ’00, I was severely sleep-deprived and ready to run my co-workers through with a long spear.
The lesson here was that we all need work, and we all need to work hard in order to guarantee success. But working hard also requires hard thinking and decision-making. It required me to say “No” to things that I had said “Yes” to when I was younger and more desperate for any job. What’s the damnable misery of it, though, is knowing that there are millions of people stuck in jobs that require so much more of them than they should be willing to give.
No job should require the kind of hours I put in combined with harassment and bigotry unless the salary is in the six-figure range, and even then, it’s not worth it. It won’t be worth the loss of self-esteem, the sleep deprivation, the sudden weight gain, the irritability and the temptation to turn to forms of self-medication. It wasn’t worth it for me in ’89 or in ’00, as I’m sure it isn’t for those of you in jobs like this now.