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He double-arches his eyebrows and smirks. He tells me he’s had two different women answer the door buck-naked. “I musta quit too soon,” I say. We both laugh, and work in companionable silence for a while. I finish my two pallets and motion to him that it’s his turn. His manner has suddenly become aloof and arctic. He draws himself up to his full height, looks down his nose at me, and announces that He is the Biggest Asshole in the World. (He throws down the gauntlet)

“Au Contraire, Mon Ami!” I holler at him. “I am the Biggest Asshole in the World!” (I accept the challenge, and the duel commences) He tries various stabs, jabs, and uppercuts, which I deftly parry. He is hampered by the fact that he is a fraud, a pretender to the throne, while I remain secure in my knowledge that I really am the Biggest Asshole in the World. I toy with my victim mercilessly, waiting for the opportunity to administer the coup de grace.

Finally, in desperation, he says: “I’m older than you, so I get to be the Biggest Asshole in the World.” “How old are you?” I ask. “I turned 44 last month,” he says. (I have him cornered now) “I turned 48 two days ago.” I announce. He hangs his head in abashed silence. We settle on a compromise. He can be Mister Asshole, while I will be the King of All the Assholes.

I hold my hand out for him to shake. “Happy Birthday, you asshole” I tell him.

The Eagles come on the radio, playing ‘Take it Easy’… a shout goes up from the line, while people reach under the conveyors for their guitar cases. (One thing I have noticed: Women will usually bob their heads and Shake their Groove Thing, but they will almost never play Air Guitar, while guys invariably will) I see a Gibson Hummingbird, a Les Paul Black Beauty, and a Fender Telecaster that’s obviously done time in some of Chicago’s less elegant venues. (I leave my Flying V in its case. I don’t like the Eagles all that much. Later however, everyone is jealous of my Rickenbacker 12-string when I join Roger McGuinn on ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.)

I’m friendly to everybody, and most everyone is friendly to me. I walk past a fellow and say ‘hi’ and he nods while his eyes narrow to slits. He has an American flag on his hard hat, while I have a peace sign and ‘former hippie’ written on mine.

I laugh out loud as I walk by. A few of the other workers tip me off. “That guy’s an asshole,” they tell me. “He’ll try and start a fight if you let him,” one of the guys says. I thank them for the advice.

About a week later, I need to use the bathroom. The fellow is about 15 feet ahead of me, and steps into my path, his feet apart, hands on his hips and an insolent sneer on his face. I give him the Death Stare and stride towards him radiating danger, my laborer’s hands balled into fists. His eyes flicker, and he steps back. Just as I thought. Schoolyard bullies never change… they just get older.

I will have no more problems with this kind of foolishness. I flash him the peace sign every time I walk by. He will not meet my gaze.

Sometimes it’s just easier to get through the day when you’re on autopilot… the sustained boredom is starting to tell on me. The Beatles come on the air and play ‘Hey Jude’. ‘Hey Jude’ is the most successful song The Beatles ever released. It was recorded in two days at Trident Studios, London, on July 31 and August 1, 1968, using a 36-piece orchestra, and by the end of that year had sold more than five million copies.

This is one time I’m grateful for my imagination. I am 11 years old again, and me and my friends are camped out in a fort in Larry’s backyard. Larry is 14. Larry has a fort, a radio and a Playboy Magazine. He is too much of a weenie to understand that the only reason we hang out with him is because he has a fort, a radio, and a Playboy Magazine. (Well, OK… a Playboy Magazine)

It’s a hot night. ‘Hey Jude’ is the number one tune worldwide. There was no FM radio when I was 11, only AM. WBBF will play ‘Hey Jude’ every hour on the hour for over two weeks. In between listening to ‘Hey Jude’, we look at the Playboy magazine. My one friend Brian (He’s 12) says: “You know, I don’t like my women naked… I like ‘em with a little something on.”

We stare at him in shocked silence for a moment before the rest of us all talk at once. “What the hell you talkin’ about! You ain’t got no women! The only woman you got is Right Hand Rosie!” We laugh right in his face for saying something so dumb. He gets mad and stomps out of the fort, red-faced and furious. “You guys are stupid! I’m going home!” he hollers over his shoulder.

We know perfectly well he hasn’t gone home but is standing outside listening to us. We pour it on thicker and faster as we use our choicest adolescentries as loudly as we can to describe what he’s doing in the bathroom with all his women. The door bangs open as he stomps back in. “You guys shut up! I heard what you said!” he yells. (The crowd goes wild) My other friend Bill is laughing so hard he sends a gout of Orange Crush out his nostril where it spreads on the front of his shirt. He gasps and lets out the most humongous cheek-flapper of a fart and pisses his gym shorts at the same time.

I have tears running down my face and can hardly breathe. My other friends are rolling around on the floor crying. The DJ begins his countdown, and we quiet down and listen as the Lads from Liverpool tell us things we know are important but don’t understand, being boys and not yet men. Paul’s voice floats out over suburbia in the hot night as the fireflies keep time with the chorus.

(Sigh… I look at my watch… three hours and fifteen minutes left before I can go home.)

When I was 11, the whole world was 11 too, and full of promise. It’s good to go back there sometimes. I wonder what that boy who was me would have thought if he could have looked into the future and seen a grey bearded man who was him slinging boxes onto the line.

Another day. More boxes stretching into infinity. The day here starts at 6:45 in the morning and ends at 3:15, which is OK… I can check my e-mail and return any phone calls when I get home. I keep looking for work. I get some requests for bids. I reply. One guy says my fees are too expensive. He doesn’t want to give me a deposit, which I require before starting work on a project. He gets mad when I decline to work for free, in the hopes that I’ll show him something he might like. (An especially pungent conversation on this same subject happened between a potential client and myself a few years ago. He wanted me to work for free up front. I asked him how he would feel if he came to work for me and I told him he could work for a week, and on Friday, if I liked the work he did, I’d pay him, and otherwise he’d get nothing. He didn’t like that at all. We ended up not working together, which in hindsight was a blessing.)

I’ve gotten to know most of my co-workers. As I said before, almost no one asks my last name. I’m a stranger to them. They know nothing about me. Whether it’s out of desperation with their lockstep lives, or because I’m new here, or whether it’s something else altogether, I take on the role unsought as Father Confessor. I’ve noticed this behavior before in closed groups of people, this need to unburden themselves to someone, anyone who might have some advice, who might have an answer, who might pay attention to them alone. Their tales tumble out as we work: “I’ve been to jail, I’ve been to prison, my wife left me and our disabled child and run off, I been divorced (dee-vorced) three times”, I, I, I, I.

We work, they talk, and I make no judgments about any of them. I offer such advice as I can, with the almost certain knowledge that they’ll tell the same tale to the next person who will listen. Right or wrong, I think there’s no such thing as coincidence, and that everything happens for a reason. I’ve helped other people, and other people have helped me. I offer them such small lessons as my experience has taught me. Every one of us has a sad tale to tell.

One thing that I’ve come to understand is that the difference you make in people’s lives often comes to fruition long after you’re out of the picture, so you need to make your time and your words count, wherever you are, and accept the fact that most likely you’ll never know if it mattered or not. The important thing, I think, is always to act as if it matters the most.

This assignment ends when the company doesn’t have enough work to keep the temps busy. That’s OK… things are starting to get just a little bit busier.

The advertising agency that represents the Buffalo Bills calls me. They need a logo for something they’re doing to commemorate Ralph Wilson Stadium. I tell them I’ll do it. Like many jobs I get because no one can make up their mind until the last minute, it’s a real barnburner and has to be done from start to finish in four days. I keep looking for work. It’s slim pickings out there. I get a few calls from people who need stuff done. A few sentences into the conversation they all want to know ‘how much this is going to cost’.

Professionally, I always give people a price right up front, before I start work. It’s the right, fair thing to do. They know how much money they’ll need in the budget, and if they have a heart attack, well, neither of us has wasted the other one’s time. However, I usually want to have a meeting (which I don’t charge for) and there’s a bit of discussion so I can really get a handle on the nature of the project. Sometimes the client isn’t too sure yet as to what the project will entail, or even what it is they want.

With the economy the way it is, however, people are extremely skittish about spending anything. Not just because I’m a graphic designer, but buying anything based on price, especially something that needs to be custom-made, well, I hope people aren’t too disappointed with what they end up with. I keep sending out resumes and calling and e-mailing people I know in the field. I get more calls, but ‘how much would it take to get you to work here?’ comes up distressingly early in the initial phone call.

A friend of mine calls me. His company needs an Art Director to fill in for a while. I keep looking for work while I’m there. It’s a pretty good gig, and pays well. A lady calls from a technical service agency after seeing my resume on monster.com, looking for someone who has the kind of computer skills I have. The pay rate is only a little better than what the temp agency was paying, so I decline. (The temp agency had strictly warned us not to discuss our pay rates with any other temporary worker. Naturally, it’s the first thing we do.)

A headhunter phones from Buffalo, looking to recruit me as a copywriter for a Rochester ad agency. I tell him I have a long-term situation here, but let’s talk in the future. He asks if I want to work in Buffalo. I tell him anything’s open if he can find the money. He laughs and asks me if I know any copywriters. I do, but they’re fortunate enough not to have been laid off.

In boom times, a job is something you have the liberty of taking for granted... having lots of opportunities affords a worker the luxury of choice in employment, rather than the other way around. In tough times like these, however, you may have no choice at all.

At lunch or break times, or in talking while we worked together, there was an undercurrent of worry and in some cases, despair, as to what the future might hold for the people this article is about, and that includes me, too.

I've never known times like these.

In some ways, in many ways actually, what we do defines who we are, and aside from providing income, our professions give purpose to our lives. If we’re lucky enough to have work, whether we realize it or not, our jobs affect us at a very deep level. They join our physical lives, our basic need for shelter and food, and our spiritual or ethical lives as well… we all have a need for satisfaction, well-being and a sense of accomplishment.

Walt Disney noted: "In order to make good in your chosen task, it's important to have someone you want to do it for. The greatest moments in life are not concerned with selfish achievements but rather with the things we do for people we love and esteem, and whose respect we need."

That sums it up pretty well, I think.

It’s time to go to work.

 


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