Lately I have been receiving emails with job announcements—not for my students but for me.
Rebecca: Washington University in St. Louis jobs and others we think you will like!!
- Amazon Driver! Flex-time options.
- Valvoline Lube Technician
- Anheuser-Busch Machinist
With the exception of perhaps the first, I’m not even remotely qualified for the jobs they send. Plus, I’m not looking for a job. If anything, I’m looking to get out of a job, trying to find my way to retirement.
I’ve had my share of jobs in the past: bus driver, pizza delivery runner, braille typist. All of these were necessary to get me to the job I have now, the job that is my career, my way of life really, and so much more than a means to a paycheck.
Becoming a professor was never about the money. I wanted fair pay, of course (which is not always a given and even now is the source of great disparity based on discipline, gender, and clout.) The money wasn’t the point. It was the commitment that mattered, the understanding that I was in it for the long haul and that it would be a “job” that had goal posts but few boundary markers. The field was always in play, the penalties were many, and time outs were rare.
Being a professor has meant working on the weekends, working through holidays, working during the times others don’t work because that is the best time to be productive. Weekdays are cluttered with professional activities: meetings, teaching, meetings, advising, and more meetings. The weekends are usually unstructured, allowing the time to do the kind of thinking one needs to do to write.
I have often found myself facing a Monday morning feeling exhausted from a marathon weekend of rushing to meet deadlines, scrambling to concoct a last-minute letter of recommendation for a student, reassessing a grade, reviewing a dissertation chapter, and then preparing for classes. That’s when I often wonder what it might be like to work for Anheuser-Busch or Valvoline, to punch in and punch out, to leave work on Friday and not look back, to lock the door until Monday. I fantasize about the kind of job that comes with weekends.
Years ago, after my first year of graduate school at Columbia University, I spent a summer in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania where my fiancé and soon to be husband, Dennis, lived. While he taught summer school, I worked at a seafood restaurant tucked into a quiet hillside off a rural road. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant now. I think it was in Carlisle. All I remember is that the owner was an affable white-haired man named Fred.
Fred had me work the bar. I probably represented myself as having experience as a bartender. The summer before I had worked at Charlie Goodnights, a bar in Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s where I met Dennis. Only, I worked the 3:00-8:00 pm shift, which was hardly ever busy. Moreover, at the time bars in NC could only serve beer and wine. My bar skills were limited to opening bottles or drawing a draft.
In Pennsylvania bars offered liquor of all variety, and I quickly had to learn to make an assortment of drinks—whisky sours, screwdrivers, and martinis. The crowd at Fred’s restaurant did not have elaborate tastes. Most preferred beers and wine in carafes.
But there were days when we were busy. I usually worked with a bartender named Judy who seemed to have been born to pour drinks. She could mix up an assortment of cocktails without once looking at the recipe or relying on a measuring cup. Next to her, I was as slow as a snail. Judy was kind to me and always willing to remind me how to mix a Harvey Wallbanger or a rusty nail. But when we got busy, I was in her way. Her hands would fly over the bottles, grabbing, pouring, stirring, and then she’d whirl across the floor sliding drinks in front of customers. Half the time she’d have to elbow me out of the way, too busy to even articulate the word “MOVE.”
Judy was middle-aged. Her voice was raspy from cigarette smoke, her short-cropped hair complemented her small elfin frame. I admired her and her ability to sling drinks. I wondered how long it would take me to develop the skill. Certainly more than a summer. And a summer was all I had. I was on my way back to New York in August to bury myself again in the Kent Hall library.
Fred wanted me to stay.
“Why do you study Japanese?” he asked time and again, incredulous that anyone would think it worthwhile. “Stay on here. I need a manager.”
How Fred could see me as management material I could not understand. I think the fact that I had a college degree impressed him.
When Judy found out Fred had offered me the management position, her cheerful asides ended. The elbows she threw when we were busy grew sharper.
I can’t say I blamed her.
Still, I thought about Fred’s offer.
Graduate school was rough—more bruising than Judy’s elbows. I hardly had time to sleep. And since money was so scarce, I hardly ate. The other students seemed so much stronger than I was, and most were spending their summers—while I avoided Judy’s elbows—in Japan improving their Japanese.
Maybe I wasn’t cut out for academics. What if after all the studying and starvation I couldn’t find a job? Wouldn’t I be better off running a restaurant?
One evening Fred invited me to join him on an adventure.
He took me with him to the Baltimore markets to buy provisions. He made the trip once a week. I climbed into his small pickup truck. His good friend Walter piled in next to me. We left just after midnight, the two-hour trip landing us at the docks around the time the fish vendors opened. I watched Fred and Walter select the seasonal seafood. After that we headed to the produce markets, and by the time we were finished, the back of Fred’s truck was laden with food. The fish was stored in ice, allowing us to stop for breakfast before heading back along the winding rural roads to Fred’s restaurant and home.
Sitting between the two old friends was the highlight of my summer. Sleepily watching the sun rise over Pennsylvania farmland, I enjoyed the way Fred and Walter joked and cussed. When we got back to the restaurant we shared an early beer, just the three of us, at the bar. Fred poured.
This could be mine, I thought to myself. This could be my life. This could be my nine-to-five.
When the summer ended, though, I took a different road.
I never returned to that restaurant.
I never saw Fred again.
I don’t even remember his last name.
But sometimes when I come to a Monday wishing for a weekend, I think of that ride to Baltimore and the laugher we shared.
I imagine lots of professors can relate to this story. Being a professor becomes one’s work, one’s identity, and the source of one’s friends and travel. It’s all consuming. I wonder what Fred felt drove his life.
Lively story that makes me think!
I was talking to a physician’s assistant, who has a nine-to-five. She says there ARE the weekends. But the predictability of the schedule can be tedious. At least the professor track avoids that kind of tedium. But I guess, “the grass is always greener!”
I never knew that. What a wonderful experience.
That drive to Baltimore was so precious!