Humble Work and Mad Wanderings


I WAS LOOKING out at the mountains, thinking: Trees are so lucky, they don’t have to have jobs. Of course, as any elementary schoolteacher will tell you, trees do have an important job, which is to expel nice fresh oxygen into the air so we can all breathe, to provide a habitat for lots of necessary creatures, and so on. But they don’t have to have job jobs, where you show up at an office every day, or compulsively check your work email from home, or wait nervously for checks to arrive in the mail in hopes that your propane gas won’t get turned off. Trees don’t have to worry about things like that, and I envy them.

“Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” This sad litany comes from an idiosyncratic novel by David Markson called The Last Novel, in which he tells the story, in fragmentary anecdotes, of an aging author writing his final book. The novel references hundreds of other writers and artists of various kinds, many of whom went unrecognized during their lives.  Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke. I can’t stand the thought of anyone ending up that way.

But it happens. The working poor are poor and under duress even though they’re sometimes working several jobs (Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed from 2001 illustrated this powerfully), and a large swath of the middle class is barely afloat. My parents worked hard and made modest salaries, in fact were in many ways probably underpaid for what they did, and yet they supported a family of five without a feeling of desperation about the family finances (at least not that I was aware of). They were part of what we now call “the creative class.” But they had pensions and union benefits and comprehensive health insurance and they were able to put some money away. The creative class now, of which I am a proud and bewildered member, appears to be drifting out to sea.

If you’re an artist but your work is not closely connected to corporate America, you’re probably making modest money, quite possibly eating into any savings you might have, or at the very least just making your bills. I used to work for magazines put out by big corporations. The jobs were sometimes cushy, sometimes fun and challenging, sometimes a little humiliating. But for crying out loud I sure could pay my bills.

I did some silly things for those jobs. It pains me to say it, but I once wrote a magazine piece about a trend I called Dick Lit. Yes, it was a play on Chick Lit and it supposedly involved male authors writing for a primarily male audience about guy things. In the magazine world we always liked to say “Three’s a trend.” So I found three books coming out at roughly the same time covering roughly the same terrain and called it a trend. But if I mentioned those three writers now, I daresay you’d be hard pressed to recognize the names, there was so little to this “trend.” I was doing what I had to do for my job, trying to please the higher-ups, helping to keep people reading so the ad revenue would keep coming in.

Another low point comes to mind. I dreamed up a frothy little item for a men’s magazine comparing the output of several well-known youngish male authors (David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Powers, etc.) and likening their productivity to a pissing contest. It was so crass and fun! I actually totaled up the page count of all their books to see who came out ahead (the most math I had done in years). The idea was so dumb and meaningless that the magazine actually didn’t go for it. I had dumbed down just a bit too far that time.

I was also lied to and embarrassed. I wrote a piece on JT LeRoy, infamous scammer of the literary world, the woman who posed as a guy posing as a girl who supposedly wrote the books Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. He/she sat across from me in a fancy New York restaurant and did a job on me, played a part, concocted a whole elaborate ruse that I then wrote about as though it were for real (albeit a little skeptically, but still, I was basically duped). I should’ve paid more attention to my instincts. When he/she complained at the end of the meal that “the salad was overdressed,” it hit me wrong. Would a formerly homeless truck-stop hooker complain about a free salad? Not long after that I sat across from James A Million Little Pieces Frey, who lied to me too. (For those who may have already forgotten, he wrote a falsified memoir about his drug addiction, recovery, and a dead girlfriend.) I remember thinking, He looks like a great big frat guy, something doesn’t smell right here. But I went along for the ride. The publicity machinery was already cranking away and I was just another writer sucked up in the gears.

These experiences may have been what you’d call high-class problems, or maybe middle-class—certainly this was not the stuff of abject poverty. But my point is that sometimes we do things to keep our jobs that we’re not proud of and don’t necessarily believe in. And yet we might be relatively well paid. Then when we jump the track and try to be more independent, more purist, less tied to the establishment, we start getting our propane gas turned off. And now, a really nasty surprise: It turns out even working for the man pays far less than it used to, at least in many fields. Musicians are lucky to make any money from their work. Writers often write for a pittance, far less than minimum wage when the hours of work are figured in. It’s almost as though the captains of industry and the folks in the government don’t value what we do. But that couldn’t be true.

One of my favorite books is a little-known one called Humble Work & Mad Wanderings, by a photo historian named Ken Appollo. He spent years collecting photographs of street workers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people like street scribes, tinkers, organ grinders, cobblers, book-vending crones. “I was drawn to photographs of the working poor in transition—wandering, falling, ascending,” he writes in the book. Their work “speaks of human ingenuity and tenacity.” The assemblage of images shows dignity in the face of difficulty and humiliation. It’s a strangely inspiring book, and feels especially relevant, because the country right now feels as though it’s full of wandering people, people contending with far too much and who deserve better, much better, than they have. I think about this stuff a lot these days, wondering in what direction this imminent election will take us.

But back to the trees. The leaves are starting to fall. Where I live they go fast—one hard rain in October can bring them all down. It looks a little bleak after that, but it’s not as bleak as it seems. Things always come back around. Trees grow their leaves again, people keep writing stories and songs, making paintings and movies, fixing shoes, doing any number of meaningful and beautiful things. Because without all that, we’d be wandering for no good reason at all.

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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5 Responses to Humble Work and Mad Wanderings

  1. If the captains of industry (read: publishers) don’t value what we do, it’s because they think the hordes of consumers represented by lines on their graphs don’t value what we do. Are they right, or do the hordes never get to decide because they are not presented with anything that hasn’t already proven its commercial value, so we’re sucked in a copycat spiral ever downward into the sewer?

    I work for the man but still barely get by every month, and the time available for literary pursuits seems to shrink every year. On the other hand, I live so much better than most of the world that I think I’ll shift my focus over to gratitude now….

    Good post, Janet, thanks!

  2. Malcolm Weaver says:

    The problem isn’t career choice, it’s America.

    I’m a consultant, working in the computer industry for a Fortune 500 company (once, I was a photographer).

    I earn six figures. In the NYC area, half my take-home pay goes to pay the rent. I have no pension, and little hope that I’ll not end up old, tired and sick (hopefully not alone). Because all that will take is a period of extended unemployment (likely) and a period of extended illness (inevitable).

    The remains of the social safety net will be privatized and shredded, no matter which right-wing, corporatist party happens to be in power.

    Work pressure is unbearable, as the jobs of hundreds of coworkers continue to be quietly offshored every month, leaving those left behind to pick up the slack. Work has become horrible – a horror show of mandatory overtime and ESL miscommunication.

    And I used to love it.

    My parents were blue collar. They owned a home and two cars on only my dad’s post office job. The same job provided an adequate pension and health care until the day he died. I shall have no such comfort. I’m on my own.

    So it’s not the career, it’s the country. It’s broken beyond repair, beyond hope. When the author, my coworkers, and me are all retired with millions of others – in poverty and sickness – then what?

    And for the next generations, it’s gonna be even worse.

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