The tools of my father’s trade – pencils, adding machines, Redweld folders – earned him money as an accountant, but didn’t help much when the roof leaked or toilet clogged, which they did regularly. My mother recognized his limitations and decided that I, her lone male child, should acquire some of the blue collar skills that my father lacked, in part so that she didn’t have to fork out $120 for a guy to haul his half-exposed bottom to our house when the sink got stopped up (plus an additional $85 an hour and the inflated cost of parts). I therefore learned some plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, and, later, some light automobile maintenance, mostly via trial and a great deal of error.
I gave up virtually all car repair tasks at a certain point in my adulthood, realizing that the trade requires not just specialized skill, but also lots of tools that cost more money to buy than having someone else do the work for you. Who among us didn’t try to change his own oil and filter at least once “to save money,” only to find that he’d saved nothing, least of all time, after buying an oil pan, funnel, and filter-removal tool. Plus, there was all that oil sitting your garage for the next 3 years.
Which brings me to this point in my tradesman history, in which I find myself once again attempting to learn a new skill in order to “save money,” this time bicycle repair. Having undertaken the very benign task of replacing my bike chain, only to find that this has caused my bike to stop working because the new chain slips on the worn crank, I’ve bought myself some specialized tools to replace the crank and, as the bike mechanics suggested I do at the same time, the “bottom bracket,” an essential part that I now believe I may have stripped and, therefore, ruined. Oh, the part doesn’t cost much – maybe $30 – but if you can’t get it out of the bike, the only solution is to get a new frame, i.e. a new bicycle. At least I can assert, with genuine honestly, that I have learned something new yet again.
I’m not what you call a breakfast cereal fanatic, but I like to pad my morning meal of whole fruit with a bowl or so of some grainy, crunchy stuff, often granola with nuts and raisins, and sometimes something puffy and ricey and a bit sweet. Lately, I have been looking at the labels and selecting cereals that are lower in calories in an effort to trim down a bit. Enter the cunningly named “Ezekiel 4:9” after the bible passage that urges Hebrews of yesteryear to make bread with ingredients as hard as stone.
The trickery is not in the cereal itself, but in the pricing, which must have been arrived at by imagining the cost of the ingredients in 590 or so B.C., then adjusting for inflation. I tend to multitask when I visit my local overpriced market, calling friends or reading spam whilst selecting my cereal, and not always remembering to check the cost of spelt-infused varieties. In this case, it wasn’t until I was back at the office and had open the box that I noticed that Ezekiel 4:9 cost me $9.29. (For 16 ounces).
Take Unto Thee This God-Awful Concoction And See if You Can Choke it Down
On the bright side, lots of millet became nestled in between my teeth, which fed me throughout the morning and kept me from getting hungry.
The first post-college work I got paid for was temping in the cafeteria at the Bristol plant in Syracuse, NY, while working at night to reface the kitchen cabinets in my parents’ home, where I was living rent-free. Hard work, and yet these were not what I’d call “real jobs.” But I couldn’t afford to take a real job right out of school: I had grand designs on traveling across country and using the experience to write my first novel, or screenplay, or something like that (also not a real job). I labored day and night at these quasi-jobs from late May until early August, then packed up my car and headed west toward Rochester, NY, where my girlfriend was staying with her sister, and from there out to South Dakota and Wyoming, and, ultimately, California.
Two months later, I was back in Boston, where I found more work, canvassing for MassPIRG in an effort to get some clean water legislation passed. This employment only lasted six weeks or so. Looking for money by knocking on doors feels a little like begging (the ultimate hard work that is nevertheless not a “real job”), and furthermore, canvassing requires you to interact with people who despise your political views, while you stand on their property (which they hate) and get rained on. However, during those fateful six weeks, I struck up a friendship with a guy who was leaving his job at MassPIRG in order to work for the Boston Phoenix newspaper, an alternative weekly that had been started in the late 1960s. At the last minute, this new friend decided, instead, to take a job with his dad (Bill Moyers!), and told the Phoenix that I might be an OK replacement candidate, given my interest in writing. I interviewed, and soon thereafter was offered the position of editorial assistant. I’ll always regard this as my “first real job out of college”: I had my own desk, a phone, and, since this was the 1980s, my own ashtray into which I could stub out cigarettes. Neither of my other “first jobs” gave me an ashtray. I had finally arrived!
I missed my first morning of work at the Phoenix because I was due in court that Monday, having been arrested the previous Friday night with an “open container” – i.e. a can of beer I was sipping. My sentence was to do 40 hours of community service, which I fulfilled by volunteering at St. Francis House, a homeless day-shelter in Boston. To this day, my regular charitable contributions go to this shelter, and because of that, my bi-weekly paycheck is a constant reminder of my having been arrested at 22 years old, and of having missed my first morning of work at the Phoenix.
Last week, the Boston Phoenix announced it would cease operations after producing one final issue. Alas, yet another newspaper bites the dust, this time a publication that I actually cared about. The Phoenix wasn’t perfect – particularly because no one was paid very well – but it was exciting and “alternative,” and not only did it report on politics and crime, which, as we all know, are often one and the same, but devoted a great deal of space to the arts. Who didn’t consult the Phoenix regularly to find out which plays or films to see, or, more essentially, which bands would be passing through town? Even when I was in college, the Phoenix arrived free of charge on campus on Thursdays as “B.A.D.” – an acronym referring to its earlier incarnation as “Boston After Dark.”
The demise of the Phoenix is hardly a shock, of course. Everyone wants to get their content free these days, and advertisers have left newspapers and magazines in favor of getting in your face when you surf for flip-flops online. Maybe the only way for publications to survive is to exist in the ether rather than in physical offices (or, even better, at the local Starbucks, the way neighborhood “Patch” publications do it.)
It’s time I did something with the millions I’ll one day make in some industry yet-to-be-established. What kind of man refuses to plan for such an eventuality when there are so many worthy causes in the world, and so much evidence that the riches will one day pour in? I think of all the people who iron their clothes all over the world, and how some people do it better than others and could probably impart their ironing wisdom on the rest of us if someone could quantify, with good, hard data, what exceptional ironing looks like. (Perhaps a whole “center” for the exploration of this topic isn’t necessary, but we could certainly use a well-funded program.)
This reminds me of a thriller I was thinking of writing to obtain aforesaid millions. Let’s call this a “screenplay,” though I reserve the right to make it into one of those interactive performance art pieces nobody goes to if I can’t find a film producer to take on the project (as unlikely as that sounds). Our lead character in this dark, brooding film, in which you can barely make out anyone’s facial expressions because of some overindulgent camera filtering by the cinematographer, irons clothes in some huge ironing operation in a basement deep in the heart of some unnamed city in China. One day, he heads outside for a smoke and overhears two factory employees scheming to plant a “controlled blaze” in the factory, timed to go off late at night and set off alarms so quickly that the fire department is able to put it out before the factory is damaged and jobs are lost, except for the job of this one particular douchebag boss, who it will appear was at fault for the fire by having left cigarette ashes on paperwork meant to record the day’s bribes. Our lead character thus finds himself in a moral quandary: either tip off the police to this attempt to frame the boss, or keep quiet because, let’s face it, that particular boss is an actual douchebag, which can be verified with hard data based on the meticulously-kept bribe sheets.
Okay, there’s the set up. I’ll work on the rest of the screenplay over the course of my remaining years of life, and will leave the manuscript in my will “to the highest bidder.”