Notes of a Failed Worker

Cover of Notes of a Failed Worker

When the gentle alarm clock—the phone one—goes off, I feel like I should wake up feeling light like the animated version of Olivia Newton John in the intro credits of Grease. But the pain is still there. It feels more like the second alarm clock—the analog wheem wheem wheem wheem that’s harder to snooze. My migraine is still there, and by morning it’s worse because I’ve clenched my jaw all night, but wasn’t I clenching it to bear the pain? I think very few people really believe in chronic pain. If it was that bad, how would you do anything?  


My mom is a CNA, doing the crucial care-taking work that many of us prefer to avoid. She wipes butts, bathes bodies rendered invisible by illness and age, she lifts, lowers, listens, keeps company. I remember being small and she worked the swing shift. I liked the way this name sounded, but it started right after school and lasted until we were in bed. I know someone watched us during these shifts, but I can’t remember who. When I ask her about this time, she  says, Taylor, I don’t know. I don’t think I slept for about seven years.  

My dad worked for the Parks Department. In his first post-divorce apartment, I remember a black widow spider in a jar, taken from a manhole. It was the scariest job I could imagine, to go into a manhole. A hole for a man, full of spiders. I preferred the carousel horses that he worked on sometimes. I rode either the stationary tiger or Prince, a black horse decked out in bejeweled armor. Dad used to wind the iconic clock tower, believe it or not. His middle finger is smashed forever forward—a  careless moment resting on the gears as time passed.  

 My cousin makes five generations of schoolteachers in my family. She inherited our aunt’s first grade classroom right after her retirement. It’s the classroom I remember from summer visits very young—her teddy bear collection piled upon apple crates in the story time corner, the rocking chair she read from—still there for my cousin’s use. It smells the same. This aunt taught me to read and write before kindergarten, giving me everything I’d need to survive. She brought me, at four, to class to read to her first graders, beckoning them to the reading world with my  ability, and her achievement. 


My dad left Parks and started working from home almost thirty years ago. I don’t know if  people even said working from home yet. We started going to auctions and estate sales with long lines to find treasures. I started shipping for eBay when I was eleven. He became an auctioneer. By the time I was a teenager, we rented a farmhouse with a bunch of outbuildings on the edge of the prairie. One was his “office”. We set up huge speakers—one by the front door, one by this office—so he could smoke weed and blast Soundgarden while working.  

I like jobs where I don’t have to work very hard, or where work comes only in short bursts. I worked at the same two-screen indie movie theater twice, the second stint after it had gone digital. I was no longer tasked with the elaborate high-stakes ritual of loading film. The new system was automated. Even the espresso machine was gone. I did so much homework. I  watched free movies and flirted with the bartenders across the foyer. I almost always worked alone, no one to play Scrabble with, but I did become better acquainted with Isabella, the resident ghost.  

A friend recently quit her terrible job. The job itself wasn’t inherently awful in its daily tasks and expectations. There is someone, somewhere, for whom it could have been just right. But it wasn’t her. She endured with cracked stoicism as long as she could. I told her one day that some of us just aren’t meant to be working inside all day: stuffed and surveilled. I guess no one is “meant” to be doing that, but perhaps most of all not a poet. Some of us are meant to be high,  lounging at the altar, waiting for a vision. 


When we moved to the country at the beginning of the pandemic, June offered me a free year to write. We were locked in the apartment together, working. We’d trade spaces halfway through the day so we each felt as though we’d been somewhere. I finished a first draft of a first book in the weird room with the laundry and our pet rats. Adjusted for inflation, Virginia Woolf says you need 70,000 dollars a year and your own room to write. I’m a millennial with no maid,  good at being poor—I’m hoping to make it work on less.  

I try to avoid Amazon. I try to remember my friend who’s been working at the warehouse all through the pandemic. She’s brilliant—a comedian and a fashion designer. Even when I met her when she was a teenager, she could disassemble and rearrange a thrift store garment into something perfect. A unique eye. Intelligent hands. I try not to think about her when I click buy, about those quick hands lifting endless boxes. Dog bandanas. Action figures. Drop-shipped clothing made by anonymous hands elsewhere. Among the boxes, the portable HEPA purifier I just bought, since everything’s so fucking normal again.  

Someone I know works for the tech people now. He helped to design Meta’s Ray-Bans that can stream your whole life, basically. He’s concerned about privacy. He fought for the red recording light on the frames, so you know when someone’s sucking experience up into the cloud. What is  

the application? I ask. We envision it giving people superpowers. Like what. Like scanning someone’s face you can’t remember and it shows you their Facebook profile. Another reason to never stop wearing a mask, I think. I remember being stalked, but say nothing. Oh, to be paid to imagine the future.  

I worked at the world’s worst coffee shop. I can tell you because it’s closed forever that it was called Chairs. It was full of chairs. A guy from high school worked there too and never stopped talking about Vampire Weekend. I didn’t know how to make it stop. Once, I was closing alone and the absentee owner came in and ordered six milkshakes for his terrible family. He said, Do you know who I am? He pulled out his phone and showed me a live feed of us talking. I can  watch this any time I want. Pretty cool, huh?  

Every time I pull wet food bits from the sink, especially eggs, I want to die. It’s dramatic, but I feel the ancient weight of women cleaning house bearing down upon me, filling my hands with static and drawing a gag up my throat. I don’t even have children to make a mess. My partner pulls her weight. And yet, this melancholic rage when the inevitability of cleaning descends. The recurrence of laundry. The hopelessness of the dishes which follow any good meal. The peace of a perfected room, threatened even as it’s enjoyed. Every mother sighing through my mouth.  

The work is to keep doing the work. So goes one mantra of contemporary social movements. Changing the world isn’t just work, it’s THE work. I never got comfortable in its professionalized world—a parallel universe. I could’ve become a consultant, easily, raking it in  by holding diversity and equity trainings for corporate types, checking boxes. I could’ve run campaigns, electing better people or passing better regulations, stopgaps. I could’ve been an executive director, managing a budget with my own salary the biggest line item, doing the work no one else finds time for, what with the systemic oppression and all.  


I managed a nonprofit community center once, in a gentrifying neighborhood. ALL ARE  WELCOME, we said, really wanting to mean it. Neighborhood kids ran over daily to play Minecraft after school. Loud and rowdy, they yelled—at each other, NO FAIR; at the game, GET  HIM KILL HIM; for the hell of it, launching off the brand new tidy furniture, JOHN CENA! Eight-year-old boys tested my commitment to abolition, volunteer workers from the new condos desired order. The tension of each day frayed my nerves, but chaos in any form between the shiny winery and the vegan ice cream felt welcome. 

The clarinet professor comes into the recording studio to record videos. The videos help students prepare their auditions for prestigious statewide ensembles. No other professors record narration with their pieces, but she knows that the students won’t read. Her voice echoes decades of teaching a chromatic scale that never changes, fingers shifting positions as she names notes: c,  c#, d, d#, e, f, f#, g, g#, a, a#, b, and finally, c. Remember on the descent, we call the notes by their flat names: c, b, b, a, a, g, g, f, e, e, d, d, and back to c.  

June shows me TikToks of a high school teacher who creates rewritten imaginings of real interactions, casting himself as versions of his students. The videos are shot in his classroom, implying that he either remains there when the students leave or arrives before they do to place the camera, to play multiple parts. These tiny interactions—the weird kid not finding a partner for group work, the resistance of kids unrepresented by school hierarchy to attend pep rallies—are reimagined with such attention. How much of his time is devoted to these students, his concern. I  think it would break my heart.  


In our post-Puritan culture, the more pain your work elicits, the more good it is, the more honest (kind of kinky if you ask me). If your back’s blown out by the time you retire, you must have been doing Good Honest Work. I recently learned that my great-great-grandfather taught school at a mining camp called Gilt Edge in Montana in 1897. His students were aged six to twenty-six, because some of  the miners came in to study when they could. I wonder what the men thought of him, doing women’s work above ground while they toiled in the dark.  

My Idaho grandpa, my last living grandparent, is eighty-one this December and still logging. He’s been working in the forest since he was a teenager and the work has kept him young. He wrote a poem I can’t remember. I know it starts: I had a favorite chainsaw/her name was Emmylou, She always smoked a little/but never took a chew. He’s taken up golf—he’s good, despite or perhaps because of his fogged sight in one eye (a logging accident)—but it’s not enough. After all, how could manicured grass ever compete with the deadly mystery of the forest.  

When I worked mornings as a barista downtown (mandatory latte art—the elite of the service underclass), regulars would eventually find me intelligent and ask, What are you doing here? Allen, the wizard, never asked me that. A janitor, a Zen buddhist, a chess master with the encyclopedic general knowledge of a Jeopardy champion—he saw things. I was working there when my joints first started to painfully flare. He was one of few to notice my wincing endurance, my  slight limp. He brought me a handmade wooden cane, a crone stick, he called it, winking. Just in case you need it.  


When I got arrested, they sent a task force. Overkill, and scary too. I “resisted,” yelling about my “rights,” until the biggest one grabbed me by the wrist and swung me against the wall, pressing into my back. I don’t want to hurt you, he said softly. He got lost on the way to the jail and asked me, cuffed in the backseat of his unmarked car, for directions. I sighed. Get in the left lane. You can merge onto the bridge up here. He gave a terse nod-and-smile combination in the rearview mirror, just doing his job I guess.    

But who would build the roads? Boring people like to ask me this when they learn I’m an anarchist. They know the threat of violence is the only reason anyone does anything productive,  helpful, or interesting. I think about chain gangs, the Chinese cemetery full of immigrants who built the railroad that clatters through my old neighborhood—bulldozed under after the Great Fire,  right under the roads, about how in Rhode Island the mob runs construction and roads are closed, torn up and repaved for no reason at all. What would you do if no one forced you to do anything? 

 A journalist friend recently interviewed me. He asked how we met. He shared his recollections including memories of my “standout” work ethic. My work ethic? He reminded me of the interviews, research, writing I did for free. The volunteering, boards, and consulting. Websites I made for every group and cause. Do I miss her, this person he remembers? I resent her work ethic, jealous remembering an exhaustion I actually earned. It’s like he doesn’t  remember that person is dead now. She got used up, being a good worker. And for what? Shit. This interview was supposed to be about UFOs.  


The alarm goes off before sunrise and I wonder how farmers and people in Little House on the Prairie times got up early enough to thaw cows in the winter, whatever else they did.  How the women could start a fire in the cold to make coffee and bread. People say the morning  

is quiet, but when I wake up to write, I can already hear the grain trucks loading, doing whatever  else they do. I feel heroic when I remember to set the automatic coffee pot. I feel like Pa Ingalls when I manage to do anything at all. 


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