Our mutual desire for it is the same, but we all have different definitions of what it means. While we can find this fulfillment in other ways — and many people do — it’s most often tied to our jobs. We flock to cities in search of it. We’re constantly redefining it. We lose sight of our true priorities in the name of it.
The fourth interview in our Success series is with an old high school friend. Ryan and I grew up together in South Portland, Maine, where we learned the fine art of catering. Since I moved away we haven’t seen each other much, but his recent arrival to New York has changed that. The following conversation took place in his Bed-Stuy apartment, excerpts of which have been edited for clarity below.
April 2013 – Brooklyn, NY
I always had an attraction to the written word. Mainly poetry, some prose. I never really considered a career in it until college, but I graduated a few years ago and I’ve just been kind of milling around, waiting to fulfill that destiny. Right now, I’m catering and just trying to get by. My work life is pretty well segmented from what I do in my personal time.
My parents were separated when I was very young. We were on Welfare and then my mother got a job to support my sister and I. She’s been working two to three jobs since I was 10, 12. She’d do something like a call center in the day and go clean office buildings in the evening. She does medical billing now. My dad works at National Semiconductor, he deals with treating the waste water that comes out of the processes they use to treat the computer chips, or whatever they manufacture there. It’s like half physical labor, half organizational work. I lived with my mother and I’d see my father on the weekends, kind of off and on. He had a normal nine to five job, although there were points where he had to pick up a second job; but that wasn’t as consistently as my mother had to. It’s a cliché, but it makes sense — the parent who comes home, they’re tired, they don’t have the energy to cook except for you maybe as a kid and then they just wanna watch TV and they get tired and they have to go to bed.
It’s not like kids sit around school talking about what their parents do for work really, but it’s something you notice. The first thing I feel like most people notice is the presence or absence of a parent. You can kind of gauge based off those hours, and what other people talk about, what kind of job your parent has. It’s not like she was emotionally absent at all. It’s just the time to work, she was absent for that. So I would fill the need to look after my sister, who’s younger than me, and then to do upkeep on the house. Especially when you’re a kid, you want to fill a void and you can show your appreciation for your parent by doing those kinds of things. Once you go into the “workforce” — where you’re working for a wage and your labor means something — you realize after you come home, you’re still working in some sense. You’re still performing tasks. You’re still investing your time in something else. You’re always working in some way. You just aren’t always paid for it.
The first working experience I can remember — being on the clock and kind of having your time measured in that way — was McDonald’s in Millcreek, South Portland. I was so young I couldn’t even work the fryolator. I was 14, 15. I had to file for a worker’s permit and I got the morning shifts. I’d get the staple older crowd that would come in every Sunday and I wouldn’t know their order and they’d expect me to just know it based on who they were. They would get frustrated and I didn’t know the register because I wasn’t properly trained, so I was there for maybe a year. For an eight or nine hour shift, they give you 15 minutes to eat and you can pay a discounted rate to eat one of their shit sandwiches. The experience was very stressful and the discounted fish filet sandwich was not always worth the time I invested. I floundered.
Then I worked at Shaw’s grocery store and was there for a couple years. That was before they had the automatic self-checkout lines. So I stood at a register for hours and hours and hours. That was painful. That was purely just a, “I should have some source of income if I want to do anything” type of thing. Off of that job I funded my trip to Europe with our friends with Tyler and Zach, so that was kind of funny. [In Europe] there isn’t a culture of overtime or desiring overtime. It’s just like, let’s have our work and let’s have the rest of our life to do what we want with the fruit of our labor. When you’re working I think people’s ideal job is that they get that that’s happening, they need to do it, but it doesn’t have to feel like drudgery.
I worked for a catering company for about six or seven years. That was by far the best job I’ve ever had. I learned the most from it in terms of just skills and I can see that I definitely, personally grew through having that job and the opportunities it gave me. Working with friends, having a good, cooperative environment with co-workers, that’s always a plus. I got to do things like bartend, wait tables, prep work, pick up deliveries, just all kinds of stuff. So I didn’t feel like I simply had just one job title.
This sounds I guess romantic in the pejorative sense, but I kind of felt that my interests would guide me toward something. I ran a literary journal at school for a year or two years as the publishing director. I wish I could’ve done more with it, but we got some pretty interesting interviewees like Jennifer Egan, novelist. A friend of mine did an interview with The National, the band. We tried to do the most we could with it and publish some interesting writers. I could’ve tried to get internships or talk to professors, make connections that way, but it just never occurred to me. I feel like if I was in a major that was more focused on funneling that kind of activity into an industry like publishing then that would’ve happened. I applied to graduate school, didn’t have my heart in it at the time and didn’t get the offers I wanted. I got in without funding or didn’t get in.
In 2010, I went to London for a conference on Marxism. The journal is called Historical Materialism. I went with a friend and we met a professor there. He was giving a lecture, so part of the impetus was to go there and attend that. We also had a friend who was in a graduate program at Kingston doing critical theory stuff. So it was a good excuse to go do some heady talking in London and hang out in the pubs or whatever, travel around. If anything, it made me just consider moving to New York more rather than moving abroad or any other city, which is kind of funny. Because for the longest time I hated New York, I thought it was just the worst place.
I had a friend — my friend who I live with now — he was living here over a year ago and I would visit him. It was a very gradual process. I would tell my girlfriend, “I don’t know why people live here. It’s dirty, it’s gross, it’s loud, it’s crowded.” I liked Portland. I went to a lot of shows. It’s a good scene there, but part of why I moved is because there aren’t too many events in Portland. I moved in December, so I’m a very recent transplant. I found my reasons to be here I guess. It’s almost entirely to see what is going on in the literary world. I’d like to meet other writers, other poets. The most shocking aspect hasn’t been living in a big city — it’s been being close to what I perceived to be the center, when I thought I was on the outside.
I go to readings that I’ve already known about and had wished to attend while I was in Portland. I like Zinc Bar in the Village, a longstanding poetry reading series that’s been going on called Segue. It’s been going since like the ‘70s. It used to be at the Bowery, but go figure I move down here and the fuckin’ Bowery is closed until fall for renovations. So I’ve been there, just random places like around Brooklyn, Bushwick. I’m suddenly there and it feels like I’m in a strange fantasy world, but they’re just people — people hanging out doing their thing. It’s the same effect as if you spend a lot of time talking to somebody on the phone or the Internet and then all the sudden you’re back in person with them. It becomes a bizarrely reified thing.
I feel like being here has given me an impetus to want to have open discussions with people, to want to exchange work, to want to have my own work influenced by other people, to not want to be guarded. It’s been very refreshing. You go from a city to one of the largest cities in the world and suddenly your idea of an audience shifts. It’s like, “Am I writing for other poets? Am I writing to a specific person?” You become a little more conscious of the specificities of who would read this. Who within a certain aesthetic, or who within a certain class background or educational background? Or who would think of this as a good use of their time? Or what would they do with it, what would they think?
Thematically, I try to focus on work that’s politically conscious but isn’t topically political. Some writers do a general critique of a systematic way of how things work and they try to address those things with their personal experiences. They talk about commitment in that way and how to engage in political practices, but I mean obviously it’s a poem it’s not a pamphlet. So you do what you can with the confines of your art form. I’m interested in how people engage with things that impact your life but you don’t necessarily think they do.
I try not to be mood-based or allow myself to fall into some kind of need-for-inspiration mode of writing. I try to be pretty regular about it, but then work gets in the way or lack of work gets in the way, which is funny. I feel like I write less the less I work, because I’m more worried about not having money, not being able to support myself so that I can have the time to eventually write. When you’re busy all the time — you get out of a 10, 12 hour shift — and you’re like, “All I wanna do is what matters to me right now. Or have a drink. Both!” Work has a way of clarifying what actually matters to you and not working everything gets a little muddled. I think what’s funny is that people think the romantic idea is to have a detached creative life where you’re working on things and then you self-publish, or what you do is not integral to your waged job. I think that’s the first error — the first step on the road to failure — to over-identify.
It’s probably because I write poetry that it would never ever occur to me that I would ever be able to get by just writing. I work for catering companies. I’m not necessarily unskilled, but I’m replaceable at the same time. I feel like a precarious worker in that way. At this point, I’m applying for what you’d call entry level jobs at publishing companies. I’m the guy who’s looking for just an editorial job right now, not even as a writer, just ‘cause I’m analytically focused. I’d like to have a job where I’m correcting proofs and doing things like that, very dry. I have no problem doing something like that. I would also have no problem doing technical writing, or doing something that has absolutely nothing to do with writing for work.
[To be successful] I guess is the same route of anybody who is aiming to be an established writer — is to meet other writers who inspire you, to have your work just get better over time, to be published maybe, hopefully. If I was fulfilled by how that whole process went and if I was fulfilled with my own work I would be happy. I feel like moving here has been a step towards that. Not because it’s the only place to be. It could be just one more stop that I end up passing through. That’s why it’s almost ironic about me even ending up here. It’s almost like people come here because they like to think that’s a substitution for doing anything important. It’s like, “Well you know I had the New York experience so I guess that means I’m doing something important in my work,” but that’s not true necessarily.
At the moment that means having two to three jobs and still barely scraping by. That’s my New York experience so far. City life, I guess, is just getting by but everybody also hopes to be doing more than that.
-Interviewed by Cole Rosengren
Another dream of a movie
where someone sitting in a public park
good-looking in the park
so caught up on these women
wanting cheap manufactured articles
or a high-paying part time job
& wanting to know the new dating rules
just smells flowers in a walled garden instead
my thoughts are thus slightly cloudy
like a frozen bottle of Gordon’s gin
they’re more opinionated than me, these thoughts
pacing in a zoo feeding on tufted grass
take your fishing buddy to this zoo
this feverish ape represents cultural stasis
no one knows how but these wartime areas
on the formless bulky ape are from cabinetmaking