When I was 18 years old I moved to Chicago for college. Naive and impetuous I gave the decision little consideration. There was no deep ruminating, no incessant deliberating – simply put: no “pros and cons” lists were drawn up.
In a way this was good. My lack of foresight gave me the requisite gumption to make the move. However, in other ways my mindless, drooling precociousness made life harder. The Windy City is unforgiving for an 18-year-old, unskilled worker. You have nothing to sell to an employer except your own soul.
I don’t want this to sound negative. All of the old adages apply to how I feel about those times. I “grew.” I “learned things” about myself. Those years “made me who I am today.”
None of this is a lie. And yes, now that a number of years have gone by I can look back upon those times with a certain amount of fondness. Most of what was repugnant during my time in Chicago has long dissipated. It now serves as great fodder for storytelling.
My experiences attempting to navigate the frigid job market of Chicago, at the beginning of the Great Recession, and armed with little more than a poorly worded resume, exemplifies this. At the time my fruitless searches rendered me completely despondent. They were (what I felt) to be the makings of a Elizabethan tragedy. Now, I of course see them for what they were: the bumbling misadventures of one trying to make ends meat.
Over the years my feckless job hunting brought me to many different employers. I worked as server. I did a year as an RA. For a week I toiled at a Haagen-Dazs ice-cream parlor, serving up cones to patrons at Navy Pier. I even performed a brief tour of duty as a delivery boy for a downtown liquor store. I’ll never forget the days unloading palette after palette of product (until my arm muscles screamed in protest) or feeding the insatiable mouth of the store’s baler.
Even more memorable was the store’s clientele – an insufferable mixture of boozy tourists, floozies and area yuppies. I lost count of how many times I ascended into the clouds to deliver enough booze to sink a battleship. I remember seething privately at various condo owners as they relaxed in opulent splendor. I hated them for only acknowledging my presence to laconically mumble, “Put it there,” (in reference to where I should place their product). There were days where my only real human connection was the sight of one of these men or women waving me away with one of their hands, as if I was little more than an obstinate fly. It had an effect. I would descend from these buildings demeaned, dehumanized, feeling like I was teetering on the edge of total madness.
Still, for as trying as those experiences were everything was eclipsed through my job at one of the city’s AMC movie theaters. Other jobs may have been harder physically, but there is nowhere that spiritually bankrupted me like my time as a movie theater “Team Member.”
I was 19 when I started working there. I just moved into my first apartment: a small space in a volatile neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. Before this work had always felt voluntary, a method for acquiring discretionary money. The theater marked a moment where work became real. There were finally stakes involved with my earnings, obligations needing to be met.
As the Assistant Manager, a short, heavily bearded man of about 50, outlined the mind-numbing attributes of the job, I didn’t even blink. There were no raised eyebrows either when he discussed the level of compensation – which amounted to chickenfeed. I knew that as bad as the job sounded it was crucial to propping up my life in Chicago. I accepted it despite its flaws, like a man dying of thirst being offered a glass of putrid water.
“May I throw that away for you sir?” I asked during my first shift, as a burly man in a baseball cap eyed a windowsill to place the remains of his 32 oz soda, utterly ignoring the trash can resting a few feet away.
“Sure you can,” he remarked, eyes widening, mouth quivering with the beginnings of a smile. “Nice hat by the way.”
His sarcasm, while cruel, wasn’t really surprising. I did look ridiculous. My uniform consisted of crisp white shirt, a jet black hat, and a demeaning little bow-tie. It represented a prime target for intoxicated moviegoers, which this man was. This self-awareness didn’t really placate me. It also didn’t take the sting out of hearing this man’s friends crack up as I retreated, clutching their garbage, my cheeks rosy from humiliation.
As the weeks and months passed any novelty of the job wore off – reducing it to a repetitive slog. Even the perk of free movies lost its sheen after a while. I felt myself sinking more and more into a malaise with each passing shift – a state reflected in my deteriorating job performance. When I was on sweeping duty I began frequently leaving the halls outside of the theaters, where I was supposed to drift like a spectre. I would go into the different auditoriums and watch sections of films. My mind, reduced nearly to a vegetative state from the lack of stimulation, could barely comprehend the images which flickered throughout the dark, cavernous rooms.
When I was behind the concession stand my behavior was no better. I began imagining myself as some sort of freedom fighter, attempting to tear down a monolithic corporation from the inside. Customers would come up to buy concessions and I would launch into unhinged tirades, attempting to convince them to forgo paying the theater’s exorbitant prices. I started spending more time in the stock rooms. During lulls in service I would sit in the back and eat the reserve candy – out of resentment not hunger. Whatever I couldn’t stomach wound up in the trash. Initially, I was paranoid that I would be discovered during these acts, but eventually I became so despondent that I stopped caring.
Of course, this situation was untenable; I was on a fast track to getting fired or quitting outright. What eventually expedited this reckoning came in the form of another Assistant Manager named Brendan, who was hired a few months after I started working. Tall, lanky, and carrying a self-serious demeanor, Brendan was a former soldier who recently completed tours through Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything about the way he presented himself reflected his time in the armed forces. The crisp, immaculate state of his uniform, rigid body movements, and haughty interactions with staff were all indicative of one used to a world of strict order and hierarchy.
Our relationship was bad from the beginning, oscillating from tense to straight up acrimonious. Brendan loved to micromanage. One night after dealing with an early evening rush at the concession stand I stood talking with one of my more enjoyable coworkers: a woman named Kara, who was a couple of years younger than me. At this point we had just gotten our area in order again. The hot dogs had been replenished, cups and popcorn bags were stocked to the brim, and the pop machines were primed and ready to rot teeth. There was little left to take care of – or so we thought. Our reprieve was quickly spoiled by the sudden appearance of Brendan, who swooped towards us like a vengeful bird of prey.
“If you have time to lean you have time to clean,” he snarled.
Incredulously I stared at him. I had heard of this particular expression before, yet had never met anyone bold enough to verbalize it.
“Did you hear me?” Brendan continued, a faint, bubbly trace of spit appearing on his lips. “I was watching you on the monitors! You’re not getting paid to socialize, you know!”
Kara and I remained rooted to the spot, transfixed with the man’s bluster. For a moment the only sound was the building’s ambient noise and the faint chatter of the public moving between theaters. Finally, I broke the silence and spoke.
“If you show us what you want done we’ll do it.”
Brendan’s face contorted, as if caught off guard by an egregious insult. His eyes bore into mine. His body, already tense, seemed to become more rigid. I thought at any moment he might leap at me in a state of frenzied rage. Instead, he wheeled around on his heel and marched off towards one of the concession stand’s counters. Jaw clenching like it had a life of its own, Brenden proceeded to shoot a thin, pale finger towards one small section of the counter.
“There,” he said, a triumphant smirk dancing across his face. “This needs to be cleaner.”
I moved closer to the counter to see what he was pointing at. After a few breathless seconds I spotted it: a small, glistening streak of grease, which nearly hugged the line where counter and wall met. Blood pounded in my ears. My mind was barely able to comprehend what I was seeing. Slowly, I turned to face Brendan, only to witness that his eyes were already locked on me.
His face possessed a fantastic, malevolent gleam and his expression seemed almost hopeful that I would refuse to clean the insignificant mark. However, I had no intention of taking his bait or of getting caught in some sort of useless power battle. Without hesitation I grabbed one of our cleaning rags and wiped away the grease with one swift movement.
“Anything else?” I asked, unable to prevent a slight hint of disdain from seeping into my words.
Brendan, his face beet red, said nothing.
This interaction largely set the tone for our working relationship. Every shift I could feel Brendan’s gaze, watching me as I moved to and fro throughout the complex. Each time that I completed a menial cleaning task Brendan would follow behind me and double check my work. His tyrannical nature hung over the theater like an obstinate storm cloud, affecting the mood of nearly the entire team.
As the weeks ticked by Brendan’s presence became more and more consistent, with the other two managers receded gradually into the background. They seemed to relish that there was someone more than willing to play the role of disciplinarian. The head manager, a 40-something, heavy-set woman named Maureen, permanently anchored herself in the grimy, windowless space that they called their office following Brendan’s arrival. The only time us “Team Members” saw her after that was when she quickly shot out for her frequent smoke breaks.
I vainly looked for even the faintest glimmer of humanity in Brendan – but it was no use. At work he was a beast and he kept his personal life a total mystery to his co-workers, never revealing anything in the way of hobbies or relationships. I would spot him at the nearest bus stop after my shifts were over. The garish lights and urban buzz at the intersection of Ohio and Michigan appeared to hardly affect him. One evening I even caught him staring into the dirty corner of the bus shelter with a foggy, glazed over expression. He appeared completely oblivious to the other commuters trying to seek shelter from Chicago’s hateful weather.
We didn’t speak more than a few words to each other until months later, during a particularly bad night at the cinema. It was May of 2008 and moviegoers were flocking to see stellar releases like Iron Man and Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. At roughly 6:30pm the night reached its nadir, with a huge swarm of people arriving at the theater. After buying their tickets the mass rushed towards the concessions like a pillaging horde and before long we were in the thick of it. We started serving as quickly as possible. Buncha Crunch and Twizzlers quickly evaporated. Milk Duds and Sour Patch Kids were yanked from their display cases. Coke and Sprite began to flow by the gallon and the faint odor of popcorn permeated the air. Nearly every product we carried was soon depleted, with the exception, unsurprisingly, being Good and Plenty – which nobody wanted anything to with.
After about 45 minutes the crowd showed no sign of abating. If anything its amorphous shape – a web of money clutching appendages, hungry mouths and angry eyes – appeared to have grown larger and more agitated. Feet and fingers began twitching. The language of the customers also became shorter and harsher. Kara, who was saddled with cash register duty was near the point of hysteria, shell-shocked from being constantly berated. My fingers, sore and bleeding from viciously ripping open boxes of new product, were still not fast enough. We were utterly in the weeds.
However, it was in that very moment that, like so many times before, Brendan appeared. I was in the backroom behind the concession stand, crouched on the ground while struggling vainly against the tape that defiantly held a box full of candy together. I didn’t hear Brendan come into the room due to din created by the customers outside, and was only alerted to his presence through the appearance of a beanpole shadow in my line of vision.
“Give that here,” he said.
Not waiting for my answer Brendan reached down, grasping the large box with two reedy, wasted arms. Having never been this close to him before I hadn’t noticed that his upper arms were flecked with tattoos, one of which was a series of three names. Brendan yanked the large box upwards from the floor. Then, with remarkable strength he piled two more containers of product on top of it. Not waiting for me his foot lashed out, opening the door to the concession stand area, through which he quickly disappeared.
Over the course of the next hour I watched and worked alongside Brendan in stupefied awe as he moved strategically to appease the crowd and expedite service. It was a wonder to behold, as if he had been born for customer service. Even the most recalcitrant of customers became cooing and grateful – as docile as a herd of well-fed sheep. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, both in terms of Brendan’s physical stamina and his undeniable charisma – which seemed to have come out of nowhere.
After another hour of hard work it was all over. A majority of the crowd had dispersed and my coworkers and I finally had a chance to regroup.
“Thank you,” I stammered to Brendan, wiping sweat from my brow.
He had been busy replenishing the cash in Kara’s till but paused when he heard my voice. As he slowly turned towards me I saw the same look that I had seen in his eyes the night I had spotted him at the bus stop. He was looking at me but at the same time through me.
“Try to clean up as quick as you can,” he robotically muttered. “We might have another rush soon.”
I have often thought of this moment with Brendan. In responding to my expression of gratitude his face had taken on an unnatural quality, doll-like, as if what animates people had been subtracted from him. The gregarious magnetism that I had seen in Brendan while he had been helping us deal with the rush of people was nowhere to be found. Still, it was the closest I came to a moment of solidarity with the man, and that was something.
In the weeks that followed Brendan was absent from the theater floors. I saw him once at the theater’s entrance as he tossed on a backpack before hopping on the narrow escalator. But for the most part he was not around. There was even a few brief rumors passed amongst the Team Members that he had been canned, an idea that didn’t leave anyone’s eyes wet.
However nothing could have been further from the truth.
One day near the end of the summer I was working one of the toughest shifts of the week: an unholy Tuesday afternoon shift, where the theaters downtown were about as lively as a mortuary. I had been placed on ticket taking duty. Across the lobby my colleagues were walking back and forth behind the concession stand, mindlessly wiping at different counter tops in a half-hearted attempt to appease the all-seeing eyes of the cameras – which hovered above them.
I could feel my eye-lids drooping and with each passing minute I sensed that my mood was following them. In the years since I worked at the theater I have often seen other ticket takers reading during slow moments at the theater. This was something that was strictly prohibited for me.
A clock loomed near the entrance to the theater and could be seen from my location. It sat there, defiant, oblivious to my agony. It’s hands, allegedly a symbol of time’s inexorable march, seemed to have stalled before my eyes. Essentially, everything felt like it had been plunged into gloom.
The door leading to the management office, which few of us had ever breached, then swung open ferociously, hitting the wall it was attached to with a resounding crash. Out stepped Brendan, complete with a furrowed brow and an icy-cold stare.
“Alright,” Brendan said, rubbing his hands together.
To the rest of the team Brendan’s statement was inaudible – yet I heard every inflection. He’s tone was disturbing, snake-like, almost as if he was titillated. Cracking his knuckles, he swept towards the concession stand area with a pronounced spring in his step. From my vantage point I watched, somewhat horrified, as Brendan pounced upon my colleagues, berating them mercilessly and directing their behavior as if they were little more than puppets.
Kara, being somewhat younger than Brendan appeared to wilt before my eyes. Even Richard, who was easily one of the most physically imposing Team Members, buckled systematically as Brendan droned on and led him about the concession stand area. I could see Richard’s chest heaving as he sighed in response to Brendan’s continuous instruction. The man was easily as tall as the wiry manager and outweighed him by well over 50 pounds. Yet he still was coerced to follow orders through the context of the job.
After some time Brendan paused and scanned the lobby area. Satisfied that it was nearly deserted Brendan beckoned nearly all of the team members to follow him into the back store-room, an order they followed with drooped heads and slumped shoulders.
I bristled and turned back to the clock. It stared back nearly unmoved. A person’s voice then spoke, and their hot breath curled around my ear.
“How’s it going?”
I spun on my heel. There, no more than a foot behind me stood Brendan, invading my personal space to a grotesque degree.
“Looks like we should find something for you to do,” Brendan sneered.
Before I could respond his eyes darted around the immediate area. What could he possibly want done? I wondered. There had only been a handful of customers since we opened that morning. Nothing was out-of-place.
“I’ve got it!” Brendan exclaimed before strutting away from me. I stared after his retreating form in a trance. Why would he want to continue drawing the ire of the rest of his co-workers? What potential reason could there be? Undoubtedly he got off on it. I had never seen him more focused than when he was subordinating others. His cheeks became flushed, his movements more precise. The activity gave him an irrefutable vitality, as if it stimulated his very soul.
Brendan disappeared quickly into one of the lobby’s shadowy corners, opening a closet that I had never touched. He began pulling out a variety of smooth metal poles of about 3 feet in height and 3-4 inches in diameter. They were stanchions, poles which could be attached together by rope or nylon ribbon to form barriers or indicate a pre-approved walkway.
Like a mindless cretin I watched as Brendan continued to pull out stanchion after stanchion, placing them in the corner near a staircase that led to one of the complex’s many theaters. After the 20th one he fished out a couple of small, dirty rags and a bottle of spray polish before turning back and gesturing to me with his finger. I knew then he was not out to simply dispense busy work, he was out to establish his power.
These thoughts crashed about inside of me and I could feel my throat start to go dry. It was humiliating being forced into an utterly fruitless task – applying effort to something that would never be used. All through the summer we had dealt with massive crowds, teeming masses of bodies fueled by high fructose corn syrup and bad taste, and we had never pulled out the rope and stanchions – not once. Walking away from my station I craned my neck backwards for a glance at one of the windows on the opposite wall. Behind the steely glass lay the real world. I could see the skyscrapers that dotted River North Beyond that was the great blue expanse of Lake Michigan. It beckoned me, the shoreline promising a balmy, late-summer evening of relaxation and escape.
The dull thud of my work shoe colliding with a stanchion refocused me.
“Ok,” he said. “We want to get them nice and shiny.”
Brendan slapped the rag and the can of spray into my hands before brushing past me. I sighed, staring down at the new tools of my trade. Across the lobby my fellow peons looked on with a mixture of sympathy and disillusionment, before returning themselves to the task of trying to look busy.
This action by Brendan was deliberately abrasive. I wasn’t going to play his game. Quickly, violently I sprayed the polish into the rag and began to give each stanchion a quick wipe near their heads. If Brendan was right about something it was that the stanchions were indeed dirty. Each pole was covered by a fine layer of dust.
I didn’t care though. I was fed up, not just with Brendan but with the reality of my working life. Outside the windows of the theater I could see the world start to slowly darken. It signaled so many things: another afternoon that I would never get to enjoy, another day being concluded without the slightest change in my economic stagnation.
The full weight of my work history then pressed down upon my shoulders. The stanchions, oh the stanchions; they rose up before me taller than a grove of redwoods. Each dusty pole was a totem, imbued with a confluence of past experience. In their surfaces I could see everything. They were windows into the past but also a mirror of my present. In one surface, underneath the grime I could see the pale, broken shape of my 15-year-old face, looking out onto suburban banality from a drive through window. In another I was adorned in the uniform of Longhorn Steakhouse and being chewed out by my manager, who spoke with a deep, southern twang. This vision, thinly sketched at first, gradually became clearer. I watched in abject shame as the same manager ordered me to get on my knees and check for any crumbs underneath my tables.
More sights followed, triggering a landslide of memories. I recalled a brief stint working as a sales rep for no commission at Eddie Bauer, trailing after middle-aged shoppers and harassing them as they tried on pants in the dressing rooms. I was taken back to a year I spent in an auto care shop, where racist jokes assailed my ears as oil and grease covered my arms. I didn’t know it then but these ghostly impressions of days gone by were prophetic of my imminent future.
Miserably standing there, needlessly wiping down stanchions, would serve as a precursor to what would become of my life in little more than a year. After leaving AMC I held a number of odd jobs, the most substantial being my time as a dog care worker at two different kennels. These experiences slowly transformed me from a dog enthusiast into a dog hater. My duties at these kennels, while certainly concerned with things less frivolous than stanchion-polishing, possessed an equal level of trauma. One can’t grasp the notion of looking down and having the floor disappear, replaced by dozens of teeming, wiggling canine bodies. One can’t picture the tidal waves of canine excrement (motivated by stress), the muddy rivers of waste flowing over concrete that is your job to hold at bay.
How many times have I done this?
As the Chicago sky continued to darken behind me I pondered this question. I had been working since I was 15 years old. Yet in the four years that had come and gone I had amassed next to nothing from my labors. Every two-week period between checks was a daunting and often debilitating experience. Without fail, right before each payday you could find me searching the pockets of my dirty clothing or throwing aside couch cushions in an attempt to find CTA fare. I often felt like I had been the victim of a great injustice. Half-formed ideas about the inequitable nature of capitalism had been formed through these jobs. I felt myself wanted to hate someone, to blame someone, a desire which manifested itself in a hot, sick feeling throughout my abdomen.
Disgusted, I quickly finished wiping down the stanchions before setting the spray can and the used rag down next to them. Walking back to my station I felt the small strands of hair begin to stand up on the back of my neck. I knew what was coming next.
In the bowels of the office Brendan had been watching my every move, becoming more and more enraged with how I had barely touched the stanchions with the rag. He must have perceived it as a direct slight to him. When he appeared again on the lobby floor he was so angry you would think I had flipped the bird directly at one of the cameras.
“Adam! Get over here!” he bellowed, veins bulging dangerously in his neck.
“What is it?” I inquired with a flat monotone.
I walked over towards Brendan slowly. Any normal anxiety, which would have been stimulated through the fear of losing my job, had strangely dissipated. I felt loose and weightless. I realize now that the job had pushed me too far. My mood was so low that any potential consequence had been rendered nugatory.
“That’s not what I meant when I said shine them.”
“You didn’t touch the base. That’s the most important part.”
I glanced over to where he was indicating. At the base of each stanchion the silvery metal pooled outward in the shape of an upside down, shallow bowl. To get at it, to shine it properly, would require me to literally get on my hands and knees, to place my nose and mouth a few inches from where countless people had trodden and where innumerable amounts of sugar, grease and oil had been undoubtedly spilled.
“No,” I said softly, almost to myself.
“No, I’m not gonna do that.”
Brendan didn’t say anything – he didn’t have to, his eyes spoke volumes.
At first they were fixed in what had come to be known as their typical shape. His irises were impenetrable, possessing a color that looked like a combination of oil and mud. What gave voice to Brendan’s emotions was always the area directly surrounding his eyes, such as his cascading eye brows. Upon my refusal his eyes quickly widened, expressing his shock. Even from where I was I could see how blood-shot they were, with veins streaking across the scleras like bolts of red lightning.
The shape of his eyes soon narrowed however and a glassy sheen encased them.
“Ok. Go to the office. Now!”
To my knowledge no Team Member had ever been invited into the managers’ office. However, like I had expected it was nothing to write home about. It was little more than a windowless and nearly airless little cell. Entering it one would think they were being entombed in AMC propaganda. Unused popcorn buckets sat resting in one corner, spare uniforms in another. An entire wall was covered by a rickety old bulletin board, which was obscured underneath sheet after sheet of workplace regulations. Underneath the hanging messages outlining OSHA regulations sat a small, mentalic, 1980’s style desk. It was battered and cold-looking, just depressing as hell. Brendan cleared a small space on it by pushing aside a large binder that detailed upcoming releases. Plucking a white form out of a large manilla envelope he placed it on the recently free space before grabbing a ballpoint pen.
“You’re gonna get written up for this. You know that right?”
I considered my options as Brendan began to write. I could have apologized to him, gone out and polished the stanchions and just gone on with my life – but I didn’t. I stayed silent. Brendan continued to busy himself with writing until he realized that I wasn’t going to apologize or grovel. Understanding this he began to push harder.
“So what do you say to that.”
“Nothing,” I began. “You do what you have to do.”
At first I thought those words had come from somewhere else; they seemed disembodied, almost like a ventriloquist had spoken for me. My head swam. I had never gone this far before, never displayed such a cavalier attitude. It definitely produced a reaction. Brendan seemed to forget about the write up entirely. Launching himself out of his chair he began to pace back and forth across the small room.
“You are so insubordinate!”
“Look. I know that you can’t fire me,” I said. “If you were acting like this because you felt like you had to things would be different, but you’re not. We’ve got nothing more to talk about.”
This was a match to the power keg. Brendan blew up. For the next five minutes he delivered an intense, scathing diatribe. I was “insubordinate.” I didn’t have a “clue” about how “the world works.” I was going to be “fired as soon as the General Manager heard about this.”
I didn’t say anything in response. I just sat there and took it. I strongly believe that, under different circumstances, Brendan might have hit me – he seemed that angry. After he tired himself out I informed him simply that I was going to go back to my station, and that’s exactly what I did.
I never heard anything more about the incident and a week later I quit the theater in fashion comparable in drama. During one evening shift I just walked out. Thinking back upon it my thought process is an utter mystery to me, lost to the passage of time. I even convinced Kara to come. We ran down the staircases in the back of the theater as if fleeing from execution, bounding often down two stairs at a time. My heart felt full, close to bursting. In that moment I was elated, perfectly attuned to the present.
We burst out a side door onto the bustling sidewalk. It was a perfect late summer night: not too cold and not too warm. Unsurprisingly the streets were packed with people, people who were living not working. Both Kara and I were giddy and nervous. For me the intensity of the moment was rippling up and down my body. I even had a fantasy of Brendan and the gang pursuing us once they figured out what we had done.
“I can’t believe we just did that!” Kara squealed, giving her head a slight shake.
“I know, I know,” I replied in a happy daze.
We walked together southward for a few blocks before Kara left me to get on a Red Line train. Hugging each other before parting we had one final laugh about the months we had shared underneath the foot of the AMC Corporation. As I watched her descend into the station I thought about the all of the people who I had spent time with at various jobs and how often I had spent more time with those people than I did with my own friends and family. It was so rare that one of those people transferred over into my personal life or remained connected to me once one of us had left a job. Unsurprisingly, Kara fit this trend. I never saw her again.
After we parted ways I continued to walk around the city. Enlivened, nearly delirious, I could hardly stop grinning. The night was mine. My autonomy was reclaimed. I began running through the streets, with my coat (a light jacket) streaming behind like a small cape. The emotion, which had rocked me initially after Kara and I had absconded from the theater, began to burst forth. I started to laugh, a mad, psychotic cackle that I had never heard my body produce before. Tears welled up in my eyes, joyful droplets which streamed across my flushed cheeks before being flung merrily to the Earth.
After a few minutes I entered Chicago’s famed Grant Park – a massive stretch of land which provides a botanical buffer between the city’s downtown core and the waters of Lake Michigan. Pushing deeper I soon was passing by the Museum Campus. At the Field Museum I stopped on the white marble staircase, which provides an overwhelming, panoramic view of the city. Light-headed and on the verge of tears I collapsed onto the hard, sturdy pavement of the museum’s entrance, drinking in huge mouthfuls of refreshing air like a dying fish.
I had thought that I had won a victory that night, but in the days that followed I realized how temporal it all was. The money that I had tucked aside was a pittance. After a few short days of doing nothing I entered into one of the most prolonged and excruciating periods of job hunting in my entire life. My elation at freeing myself from AMC’s clutches gradually descended into pitiful anxiety. Each rejection I received for jobs I actually didn’t want reduced me to little more than a bucket of quivering slop.
Work has and is something that doesn’t come easy for me. I’ve never really enjoyed it, but I understand why it plays such a dominant role in human life. Work provides social organization, what’s more it helps placate many of us, filling the internal void with at least the illusion of meaning.
Still, for something that is supposed to provide lives with a foundation, the workplace, at least a functional, sustainable workplace, proves to be rare and ephemeral. How often are people satisfied with their work for a long period of time? How often do people have their work ripped from them (followed quickly by their sense of self) due to the whims of a corporation?
That night on the steps I resolved to strive for contentment outside of my vocation, to know myself through other avenues aside from what I do for money. My foundation would need to be found elsewhere and imbued with a greater degree of permanence. I’ve largely kept that promise in the years since AMC. Work has almost never been more than temporal support, support that I’ve never switched up or put aside with a heavy heart. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.
And I did find myself back in that particular AMC one final time before I left Chicago. Reluctantly, I was dragged there six months after my infamous desertion, despite my vehement protests. After buying my tickets I ran into Richard, who was emerging from one of the bathrooms carrying an arm load of cleaning supplies. We exchanged the various pleasantries. According to Richard AMC was essentially unchanged – with one exception.
After our altercation Brendan had slowly begun to change, gradually becoming more and more withdrawn and unpredictable. His appearance was a testament to this transformation. The immaculate order of his uniform had slowly begun to erode and his face – normally so clean cut and put together – became permanently marked by a coarse pattern of whiskers. Richard said that eventually one day Brendan didn’t even show up for his shift, prompting Maureen to finally take to the floor again after months of inactivity. This of course had led to his immediate termination and he hadn’t been seen since. His final check was still sitting in the management office, gathering dust and marked with bright red lettering: RETURN TO SENDER.
Following our conversation I went to the movie. Afterwards I didn’t have any more time to talk with Richard. We exchanged a small and somewhat sad wave. He was behind the concession stand and was soon lost to me as a mass of people pressed closer to him, screaming for sweets. I myself hurried towards the exit, with no time to waste. I had to get downtown quickly or risk being late for work.