Thursday, June 09, 2005

Uneasy Money, Part II

The shame and despair evoked by thinking back to those first years in Portland is so thick that I'm finding it difficult to go on. And it's hard to make a story of it, because the essence of that pain was that my life no longer had a story. I went chasing shadows of old stories. I took a few classes at Portland State, German and English literature, and of course, given the amount of literary and linguistic training I had, it would have been strange if I had not done well. But you can only be a golden boy once. I did find English grad students to hang out with, and a German Stammtisch to go to at noon, but people in general were (rightly) suspicious of me. What was I doing there? My story was that I was just keeping up my languages while I finished writing my dissertation, but I don't think it was a convincing story. There was a faint air of fraudulence about me. I think most people sensed it.

I really don't know when I officially gave up on my dissertation. I used to wander off supposedly to work on it. I would end up at strip bars and come home eight hours later, tipsy, occasionally drunk. The strip bars too were a matter of chasing old stories. I wanted again to be the extraordinary man, the one who could cross barriers, the one who used to be the only male friend of lesbians who had entirely given up on his gender, who was one of the only two male members of the VLS reading-group at Yale (it stood -- I forget why; perhaps there was a movie by that name? -- for the Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Which sounds a great deal more interesting than it was. We got together once a week and drank mint tea and discussed Feminist & Queer theory.) So I sat at the bar, and talked to strippers, and of course they told me I was different -- and they did talk unguardedly to me, and some of them maybe valued their aquaintance with me -- but we weren't friends. I was a customer. I was buying an odd semblance of friendship. It was all fraudulent still. A girl might brighten when I came in, and hop up to hug me, and talk and laugh with me at the bar, but I was tipping and buying her drinks -- of course she was glad to see me.

Money does that. It lays a film of fraudulence over everything. In almost every conceivable relation it casts a shadow, if you're sensitive to such things. Melville's Confidence Man tells a new friend he really has no money, and the man begins to backpeddle and distance himself. "I conjure you back!" the Confidence Man intones, and lays a ring of golden dollars around his friend, who thereupon realizes that it was all a joke. Back comes the bonhomie and enthusiasm.

Anyway. At some point I began taking computer classes, as well, and I ended up -- perhaps it wasn't as haphazard as this, but I remember it as being almost by accident -- getting a second BA in computer science. But another thing had happened along the way. I had gotten a job.

It was a part-time job washing dishes. There was a restaurant just up the street that we liked to go to sometimes -- it was run by a socialist lesbian who actually did something as queer as give her employees health-insurance, and parental leaves. And they had a kids' playroom that Tori liked. A place, in short, frequented by our tribe. One day there was a help-wanted sign in the window, and -- I really have no idea how I rose to doing it, but I filled out an application. I got a call shortly thereafter.

I loved it. I loved virtually everything about it -- the easy comraderie, the accomplishment of keeping up with the tide of dishes through a Friday-evening rush, the gratitude of managers for someone who showed up precisely when he said he would and did exactly what he said he was going to do. I loved the work itself, which -- to my astonishment -- I was quite good at, filling racks of dishes and whirling them into their old-fashioned dishwasher. After a few weeks I graduated to doing pantry-work, mostly preparing and restocking the salad bar. Chopping vegetables. Washing lettuce and mushrooms. I was good at that too.

One day I was training a man about my age, who was pursuing a degree in psychology at Portland State. As I showed him the best way to move things around in the walk-in freezer, and incidentally told him a little of my background, he began to eye me with some perplexity. I could sense his discomfort growing. Eventually he asked, hesitantly but almost compulsively, "Don't you get bored with this?" My enthusiasm, I think, unsettled him.

I didn't get bored with it. If it had paid enough money to support a family, I would happily have stayed there the rest of my life. I suppose I might have gotten bored with it eventually, but the puzzles of how to do the work best and quickest fascinated me as much as any software problem I've ever had to solve as a professional. Any problem in the real world is infinitely complex.

For the first time in my life, I was getting a paycheck that seemed real to me. I had gotten paychecks before, as a TA, or as a piece-editor, and a couple times as a course instructor, but those were all covered with the money-film, one way or another. I had bought my way into Yale, a voice always whispered to me, and all those jobs were just little illusory reflections of the Yale glamour. But I had earned these checks. I worked hard, and I got paid for it because it was valuable to someone. It will probably strike a lot of people as ridiculous, but I was far prouder of those sixty-dollar checks than I ever was of the "honors" grades I got from graduate school. A thirty-year clutch of panic and despair began to untwist itself in my insides.

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