Helen Chappell - December 2008
Too Much Like Work
I started working when I was fourteen, and since then, I have probably held more crummy, dead-end jobs than you ever dreamed existed. Blue collar, pink collar, no collar. If it is menial, minimum wage and guaranteed not to go anywhere, I’ve probably worked it at some time or another in my life. And, times being what they are, I might have to go back to yet another mind-numbing occupation before this goes to press.
This time I hope I get to sit down most of the time. I’m not as young as I used to be, and years of standing on my feet punching a register have pretty much ruined my back, while being at the mercy of the great American public has made me permanently cynical.
To date, I’ve worked in a greenhouse, a tricot mill, a shoe factory, a thrift shop, cleaning houses, a sales lady at Macy’s Herald Square, peddling men’s pajamas, maternity wear and plus sizes, a machine shop worker, office temp, an apple packer, a sandwich maker, waiting tables, floral arranger, washing dishes, nanny, development director, reporter, editor, photographer and some stuff so awful even Mike Rowe wouldn’t do it on a dare. I’ve blocked a lot of it out, so this is just a partial list.
There is dignity in honest work, I’m not saying there’s not.
Besides, dishonest work is frankly exhausting, tenuous and creates a lot of paranoia I’m not prepared to deal with. Yeah, I could be sitting in a five-million-dollar mansion on the waterfront right now. In spite of all my best efforts, I seem to have an unfortunate iconoclastic honesty I can’t quite shake.
If I’d pursued my evil plan to become a televangelist cult leader, I’d be rolling in high cotton, but who’s got the energy to work that game face 24/7?
Yes, I could have become dictator of a small South American country, or a slick, Miami-based drug dealer, but I hate death by firing squad almost as much as I dislike prison. As we say on the Shore of a plan that’s doomed to fail, it’s too much like work.
Anyone who chooses to pursue a tenuous career in the arts ultimately ends up working a lot of mindless day jobs to keep the pot boiling. Don’t quit your day job!
And oh, I have kept the pot boiling over the years with some pretty dreadful writing assignments, too. (Editor’s note: this does not include writing for Tidewater Times.) Under various noms-de-guerre, I’ve hacked out dreadful science fiction, turgid horror and my personal favorite, novelizations of the scripts of the forgettable TV show Policewoman. Most people will only remember the show because Angie Dickinson was in it, as a decorative female cop. Frankly, I don’t know how Ms. Dickinson stood it either, but I’ll assume that money played into both our decisions.
Early in my career I was handed the TV scripts of 70 or so pages and told to turn them into 225-page paperbacks. There’s only so much you can do with immortal lines like “Freeze! Police!” But I became a mistress of padding, adding backstory, description and character to cardboard. Trees died for this crap, and for that, I’m sorry. I have no idea who read this stuff; I always sort of pictured guys in the military waiting in passenger terminals.
I was working for a publisher so sleazy that in order to get paid my contracted pittance of an advance, I had to go down to Small Claims Court in Lower Manhattan and file a complaint for breach of contract. It would be my first exposure to court, but not my last. But it did pave the way for a lifelong fascination with the ins and outs of trials.
Sometimes I smuggled the manuscript to a sympathetic editor, who would work on it even as we both protested the ms. wouldn’t be presented until I got a check. Usually, either a lawsuit or a deadline would mean the sleazy publisher coughed up a check. It was too much like work, but I needed the money desperately. Working for minimum wage at Macy’s just wasn’t paying the rent.
Still, pot-boiling was an earn-while-you-learn situation, which is more than I can say for many of my dead-end jobs. The best thing about this kind of work is the people you meet, and the stories you hear. They exposed a sheltered kid from an upper-middle-class family to the lives of the American underclass, people who were struggling from paycheck to paycheck – people without much education or even much hope for a better life. People who spent their days doing mind-numbingly repetitive stuff and took pride in the quality of their work.
After three eight-hour days in a plastics factory, pulling a plastic piece out of a presser machine, snapping off all the parts, putting the parts in one box and the waste plastic in another, I went slightly mad from boredom.
I couldn’t even drift into a sort of Zen reverie where I plotted a new story; the machines were too loud. Yet the people I worked with thought it was just fine; soft work. You got to sit down. You got a paycheck. You have to admire that.
Not all of my potboiler writing was weary work. For many years I supported myself, if not in grand style, at least simply, by writing historical romances under yet another nom-de-guerre. These genre novels had a pretty standard plot that has served everyone from Shakespeare to Nora Roberts pretty well. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. Dress that up in the costumes and mores of Regency England, more like Georgette Heyer than Jane Austen, and you can have some fun, if you’re willing to do a lot of reading and research into the period, which I was. It’s not that they were all easy writing: some of them were very difficult to write, and some of them just wrote themselves. But it was something I had an affinity for doing, and I could do it well.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling exceptionally brave, I can go back and read those old romances again, and be surprised that they really aren’t as bad as I thought they would be after a lapse of time.
Maybe I’ll do some more someday. Maybe sooner, rather than later, given the state of things. They sold well. But I burned out on them, just as I burned out on the mindless repetition of the plastic factory and the shoe lacing.
But time and wisdom overcome “Had I But Known” every time. It’s nice to know what you’re capable of doing, even if you never have to do it again. And besides, where else would you get so much material to write about?