According to NPR, there was not a man in America who had a job. Long-faced unemployed auto-factory workers stood in unemployment lines with doctors sprung loose of shuttered hospitals. Whole towns collapsing in economic horror. City blocks boarded up and empty. America as ghost town. The politicians were not calling it a depression but it was clear from the reports that the descriptor still applied to the men.
I sat in a Starbucks, reading the newspaper and working on notes for what I hoped would be a novel, secure in the knowledge that I was, apparently, the last man in America who had a job. I had been — and still am — an English professor at a local community college, but with the summer offI looked just like every other man in the dim room, frantically working on some project that would offer no method of feeding our families as we followed our bliss down the road to starvation and ruin.
Some of the men were clearly looking for work, paging through the Sacramento Bee's classified section, seeking something to fill their days. But they would drift, these men, from the classified ads to the sports pages, to the funnies, and finally to the death and terror of the front page, sinking through the edges of the community that had cast them aside, seeking a column inch, a single line, a word, and not finding it, using the paper as a feeble attempt to fill the hours that remained in the day.
The landscape itself bore out the economy. The suburban subdivision I was then living in had become a patchwork of perfect new homes and vacant shells with dead yellow lawns. Foreclosure signs everywhere. Houses for sale but no one buying them. As if the former occupants had simply dissolved one day, had disappeared into a fine mist which even now was breathed in and out by those who remained.
My notebook was filled with ideas about the men who had vacated such places, men I had seen at Starbucks and had heard about on the news, men who had defined themselves by the work they were doing only to find the entire industry closed or the expectations shifted so completely that their years of experience had become a liability rather than a strength, and that familiar greeting So, what do you do? had become a well of gravity pointing to inadequacy, defeat, embarrassment, and ruin. Men cut loose of the only earth they had ever known. My notebook had become a collection of questions. If men define themselves by the work they do, what happens when they lose that work? Not only that, but what happens when a huge number of men are unemployed at once? Or, what happens when such men have to settle for jobs at Starbucks after a career doing something they actually loved?
These ideas were complicated by experiences at the community college. American River College in Sacramento serves a uniquely diverse population and my students had often included (and still do include) immigrants, particularly from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Occasionally these students had careers in their native countries that could not be continued in the United States. In Russia or Ukraine or Belarus or wherever they were from, they had been dentists or nurses or engineers. Here, whatever qualifications they had were worthless. So, they had come back to school, sat in my community-college English classes writing essays, trying to complete an A.A. degree so they could build some new life in the land of opportunity.
All of this ended up in my notebook.I thought there might be a novel hidden within: men and women set upon a landscape of thinly veiled economic disaster. I even had a title: Dudes of Great Longing. Notes on men and unemployment and immigration, and occasionally on the women who had tied themselves to these failing, dimming stars. I kept returning to the story of an immigrant who had foregone an important job in Ukraine to come to America at the behest of his wife and for the benefit of his children, only to end up working at Target stocking shelves.
There was a hole in my notes, though, something or someone who would hold the entire idea together, who might provide a focal point from which the narrative could roll forward. Because of this need, some of the characters were becoming extraneous. I was crossing people out wholesale. The Ukrainian remained but I knew he was not the center, for how could I, a man born and raised in California, truly get into the head of a Ukrainian immigrant? I could not. I would not. It would not be fair to do so. And yet I knew he needed to be central to the book somehow, central but not the center. There needed to be someone else, someone with a staggeringly bright career, someone to spin out of control in the midst of what I realized was not really suburban decay but rather was more akin to a deep and substantial economic frost.
My father was a long-haul truck driver at the time, his second career after many decades of automobile repair. He was home for a brief moment before returning to the road, and we were driving through sprawling shopping malls, past Best Buy and Costco and Home Depot, complaining about work, which I actually had no right to do; I had a job and was enjoying my summer off, after all. He had been driving 10 hours on/10 hours off for many years. His summer would be spent doing much of the same, taking a load of bagged salad from Salinas, California, to Chicago, and then the rest of the United States from there. It had been interesting at first, and my mother had gone out on the road with him for a time. They had been team drivers, hauling big loads across the nation. But she had retired and he continued to work. Now the job had become a tedium. He had seen the country many, many times and there was nothing new on the road anymore.
And so we fell to complaining about our jobs, fell to complaining without any sense of irony whatsoever, driving through the suburban shopping malls in a time of employment and economic ruin. My endless stacks of papers to grade. His endless miles of roadway. "At least you have some time off," he said at one point.
"That's the truth. I'd go crazy if it weren't for the summer."
He slowed the car. A big rig in front of us was turning onto the freeway, its huge rear door blank except for a tiny placard reading "How am I driving?" and a phone number.
"Nobody likes their job," he said.
"Probably true," I said.
"It is true," he said."They pay you to do it because you don't want to. If you wanted to do it, you'd do it for free."
I nodded. The truck had disappeared onto the interchange. Around us, cars came and went from parking lots larger than football fields. If everyone was unemployed, how were these people buying things? Where were these people going?
"Everyone hates their job," my father said then. He paused a moment. Then he said, "Except maybe the President. And astronauts. People like that."
I looked over at him, my father, driving his car through the traffic. I knew that I had found my book in that sentence. I did not yet know what shape it would come in, and I did not yet know it would take 41 drafts to complete, but I knew it was there: a failed astronaut adrift in the suburbs, all his life unscrolling into ash behind him, a man defined by work, by progress, by forward motion. That man became the distal point upon which the narrative revolved. The astronaut, drawing the book together even as his own life fell apart.
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Christian Kiefer earned his Ph.D. in American literature from the University of California-Davis and is on the English faculty of American River College in Sacramento. His poetry has appeared in various national journals including the Antioch Review and Santa Monica Review. He is also an accomplished songwriter and recording artist. He lives in the hill country north of Sacramento with his wife and five sons.
Books mentioned in this post
Christian Kiefer is the author of The Infinite Tides