What Do You Do For A Living?

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In April, the Atlantic Monthly published an article that was so ill-advised I hesitate to post a link to the article for fear of increasing its page count and further sensationalizing the author’s bogus argument. The article was about creative writing programs. An impassioned, somewhat jilted, author, Jon Reiner, makes a case for why instead of going to MFA schools, wanna-be published authors should go out and live—similar to arguments for why writers need to have “real-life jobs” before writing. Reiner referred to University of Michigan and our recent gift from Helen Zell, clearly riding on the coattails of our recent fortuitous news, without it seems researching or calling to speak with any current (or past) U of Michigna MFA student Helen Zell’s writers came out in full force, sharing our different life experiences and debunking one of the article’s myths that MFA programs are attended by heartless automons, who are somehow living in a literary bubble of books and rainbows. I was proud of my cohort, but somehow I felt excluded from the conversation. After all, I seemed to be exactly who the article wanted to invalidate. I’m young, well-educated, and I’ve only held a job for as long as the summer has lasted.

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Considering the sheer number of Creative Writing MFA programs in the U.S, there is a high likelihood that young, well-educated, straight-out-of-college aspiring writers are going to slip their way into those cherished programs, but of the many faults, Jon Reiner made, the gravest perhaps is how he grossly misjudges the lives of those “young” students. His stance that younger students have not lived comes from a ridiculously, narrow and American perspective; for he assumes MFA students grew up in American suburbs and were pampered by their middle to upper class families. I am young, I admit, but my experiences of the world are greatly different from a large portion of my future audience, and it seems to me to justify why I should be writing and learning and reading as well. Besides didn’t Flannery O’ Connor, one of the most amazing American writers ever to have existed, once say “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days?” Meh. Blah. I don’t want to write a post about his article, especially so belatedly. In fact, I’ve only mentioned it to say how it got me thinking about my lack of long-term job experience and how as a young girl growing up in a developing country jobs, first jobs especially, didn’t always seem like a job in the quintessential sense.

Skye, Tiffany—my two cousins— and I worked at Powell’s Marketing, a real estate office, during the summer of 99’. This was my first job. Powell’s Marketing was owned by my aunt (Skye and Tiffany’s grandmother), who when I was ten was already sixty-one years old. I called her “Aunty Edid” (which perhaps might simply be the way Bahamians like to say the name Edith) and Skye and Tiffany called her “Mummy Pops” because grandmother made her feel too old. Aunty Edid was very sprightly for her age, always taking calls, always leaving important papers in random places, always at meetings or playing tennis, but what I truly remember of her is how she doted on my cousins in every conversation and found a way to comment on my weight, simultaneously, in one breath like an aging family member, who doesn’t see the point in niceties anymore.

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My Aunt and her late husband back in the day

Powell’s Marketing was located right on the end of Ludlow St, a quiet and run down, somewhat residential, street. Every other day, the Aquapure truck drove over the potholed road like a hobbling man, delivering and selling five-gallon water bottles. The ice cream truck drove by often, and sometimes if we were out there we could see barefoot children running behind it, screaming to each other for ice cream sandwiches and fruit popsicles.  A woman who owned two very big german shepherds was to the left of the office, and to the right was a married couple—the husband a stocky, man, who winked and waved hello to me whenever I passed. I always avoided the abandoned house, where now I realize homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes might have lived. At the end of the corner there was a convenience store, where Skye, Tiffany and I could buy sticky sweet tamarind balls and cold orange soda and blow pops all for only a dollar. Every morning my mother would drop me off to the office at 7:30. Having her own key, my mother would unlock the padlock on the door’s metal gate, then the three locks on the front door, which was always getting stuck, always needing a good push to finally open it. I would turn on all the lights, and my mother would check the mail, because my mother and aunt shared a mail box downtown, which means that all mail with the name Powell’s Marketing, Elaine Major, Edith Powell, Amielle Major, Philip Powell, Anina Major, all went to the same P.O. Box.

Aunty Edid was never on time, but I was old enough to know not to open the door for anyone until she or Tiffany arrived, or until my Uncle Craig came from the back room, where he sometimes lived and slept, snoring, loudly, like a stuttering air conditioner.  The office layout was like a backgammon board, very box-shaped with the necessities of a house—a kitchen and a bathroom, where there was a shower and toilet—but without perhaps a house’s charm or humility. The lighting was harsh. The tiles were ugly, checkered black and white squares, and for some reason there were these huge square and rectangular mirrors everywhere—on the wall in the front section of the office, one in the hallway, one in the bathroom and one in a back office. I describe, in particular, these tiles and mirrors because it was often my responsibility to clean them. I’d sweep the floors in the morning and wipe the mirrors with Windex and old newspaper. I’d organize my Aunty Edid’s tennis balls and tennis rackets, put piles of paper together more neatly. Duties that felt more like household chores. Once the day started going, I’d answer the phones, “Good afternoon Powell’s Marketing,” with the same polite  tone and proper pronunciation that everyone—my school teachers, my mother and aunt—seemed to prefer. I’d alphabetize files and folders, sometimes re-alphabetizing folders, the contents of which I knew little, just to look as if I were doing something important, and not as useless as I felt.

220px-Cleaver_family_Leave_it_to_Beaver_1960I grew up on American television shows and films—from the innocent Leave it To Beaver variety to Scarface and Godfather. Americans talk a lot about jobs—how they’re losing them, how they’re gaining them, why some people shouldn’t be allowed to have them—but I wasn’t able to put together what a job seemed to be—because on the island babysitting was usually done by an older sibling for no pay, mowing the lawn was done by a Haitian, cooking and cleaning was your responsibility just because your mother or father told you to—or if you were richer, maybe the duty of that Jamaican lady, who might stop by every other week. I never had a lemonade stand, and the people who worked in fast-food places were almost always over twenty. This wasn’t something I recognized at the time, but many businesses in the Bahamas, are small, family-run business operated out of whatever building or car is convenient, though, this was not at all a matter of choice, but more a symptom of the country’s dependency on tourism. If you didn’t work in a hotel, you might sell roasted peanuts in brown paper pouches, 99c breakfast in styrofoam containers, phone cards or bottles of water from the your car’s trunk. If you wanted really good bread, you never went to the grocery store, you went to the woman who lived up the street from you, who sold loaves of raisin bread that were so light and fluffy you felt as if you were eating clouds. This is why the concept of a first job, the quintessential baby sitter or the pimply-faced teenager serving french fries and milkshakes seems so foreign to me, but at the same time more like “real work” than what I did at Powell’s Marketing. Ironically, I feel as if I’ve had to work for everything I ever received. I wouldn’t claim to know anything about Jon Reiner’s life, but my misconception about what first jobs can look is an example of what happens when one tries to compare apples and oranges.

At the end of the week, Aunty Edid would pay me twenty dollars, which always went to my mother, for school expenses she explained. In fact, I never got to keep earnings from any of my jobs until I was seventeen. Everything went towards the family, like in the mafia, but not at all quite as exciting.

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