Reviewed by Christina Mackin
When the daily grind gets me down, I usually watch Office Space. Somewhere in between the fatal hypnosis session and Initech inferno, I feel better about my current job. There's something about watching three grown men pummel a faulty printer with a baseball bat that gives me sweet satisfaction. A few weeks ago, I found myself feeling disgruntled and in need of a vacation (which costs money), so I picked up a book (free).
Enter Iain Levinson. After spending $40,000 to get a degree in English literature, Levinson is now nearing the age at which one could be considered over-the-hill. Yet, he still has "no wife, no serviceable car, no fenced-in yard." His cynicism surrounding his situation is palpable.
An English degree qualifies you for either secretarial work (typing those papers gets your fingers plenty of practice) or teaching English, an irony that seems lost on most English professors I talk to....It's filled me with a sense of entitlement. This makes it difficult to lug other people's crap around for any period of time while waiting for a promotion which, incidentally, I don't really want. So to half the world I'm unemployable, and I'm not interested in the other half.
Despite the fact that Levinson feels overqualified (which is most likely true) for many jobs on the market, he has to make money to pay the rent for his tiny one-bedroom apartment in New York City. Therefore, as A Working Stiff's Manifesto begins, he grabs the Sunday classifieds, and decides to take whatever he can get. The memoir then swims through the resume of his life, spanning 42 jobs, 6 states, and 10 years. From New York to North Carolina, Seattle to Alaska, each section of the book reads like a collection of hilarious short stories. Levinson's dry humor is dead on and completely relatable. His bitterness and exaggerated accounts of past jobs will make you laugh-out-loud, roll your eyes, cringe in horror, and thank the gods you don't work in the fish room on a fishing boat:
I leap back into the corner just as the net opens and dumps several tons of fish into the room. I am suddenly chest-high in fish, and most of them are still moving. Then the roof closes again and I am in a dark room full of live fish....Another netful of live fish, still flipping seawater off their tails as they crash into the room. This time, the shipment comes up to my neck....The roof comes back, the net comes into view. A load of bright red fish come slamming down into the bin, and every one of them has a thousand spiny splinters across its back. I'm in a room full of needles.
It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to squirm your way in or out of any situation. And as you cruise through Levinson's memoir two things become obvious: he has an admirable work ethic (aside from a small bout of stealing) and an equally admirable ability to bullshit.
I can bullshit my way through an interview no problem, and by the time they realize I can't cut [fish], I'm already on the payroll. Then they'll either have to teach me or fire me, and firing me will involve admitting a mistake, so teaching me it will be.
But, all the bullshitting in the world can't save you from the inevitable. As Levinson starts a job cooking at a restaurant, his manager tells him that after 90 days he will not only qualify for insurance but for a position as a shift leader as well. He writes:
Shift leaders are the corporate restaurant world's answer to prison trustees. For an extra fifty cents an hour, you become responsible for everything, basically performing management functions for cook's pay. This frees the managers up to do the more important things, like wander around and look stressed, or sit at a table and wait for the night to end so they can start in on the hard liquor when there's no one around.
There's no dramatic conclusion to Levinson's story. There's no lovely life lesson about how to find a job that you have a passion for in order to live happily ever after in middle-class heaven. Instead, it's delightfully consoling for those of us who've ever suffered through a demoralizing job: we work hard, we pay our bills, and we get little to no recognition for our efforts. And, yet, as Levinson poignantly states below, the world would be in a worse state without our menial positions.
I'm as sick of work as the next guy, but I'm still practical enough to recognize the need for it. Without work, where would all the new breed millionaires that I read about in Time magazine get their dry cleaning done? Who would fix their cars? Who would strip for them when they unload their trophy wives for the evening and go out for a night on the town? Us, the un-united workers of the world.
Books mentioned in this post