silence of natural pauses,
and odors of lunches and labors
— Pier Paolo Pasolini
The mud clerk was a steamboat helper. He was the one who jumped into the water to free the boat from obstructions created by overrun levees and other earthen aberrations. The position was unpaid, but promised advancement to more prestigious jobs aboard the ship. Mark Twain once joked that the mud was the only thing lower than the mud clerk. The position was most prominent in the riverboat era, after the American Civil War. It faded as the steamboat faded, around the turn of the 20th century. The mud clerk became something your father or your grandfather did. It was replaced by the first-wrung-on-the-ladder job of a new era, the new Mud Clerk, the Mud Clerk of whatever the Mud Clerk had supplanted.
* * *
My version of mud clerk was five dollars an hour to bury people’s mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers, sometimes even their sons and daughters. I didn’t like all the crying, all the sadness balled up into tiny Kleenexes. The interesting part was watching who was paying attention and who wasn’t. That woman staring off into space, expressionless, sneaking a glance at her watch. I wanted to know what she was thinking, standing at that rim of Earth, coffin waiting to be lowered. Maybe the tower of dishes in the sink at home. Maybe the robin’s egg blue of the hotel room she visited every Wednesday.
Andy Warhol once said, “I would rather watch somebody buy their underwear than read a book they wrote.” My job pulled back the red velvet rope of a similar moment.
* * *
In ancient Rome, a balatro was a professional jester or buffoon. Balatrones were paid for their jests, and the tables of the wealthy were generally open to them for the sake of the amusement they afforded.
In a broader sense the balatro is anyone who makes their money with their mouth. In our age they call themselves Regional Sales Managers or Junior Publicists. But the reality is unchanged. They entertain at the table of power in exchange for favor.
Celebrities. Comedians. These are our highest cast balatrones. We watch them on plasma screens. They are with us at the end of each day. Their pixels travel into our living rooms to restore order. They entertain at our table so the next morning we can go back to entertaining at the table of another.
* * *
My grandmother could be found in deleted passages of Edith Wharton. Whenever a tea cup was placed on a lacy bedside table. Or the minister brushed past a servant girl in the hallway after spending the night. This is where my grandmother lived, until crossed out by a heavy pen. The back story, unwritten by Edith, was far more interesting: 11 years old, 18 days at the rail, throwing up the ghosts of an older world. The ghosts released in a thick soup, seasoned with shoeless feet and the first finger of premature babies, pointing back from barnyard grave.
Years later I studied the topography of toes pointed in odd directions. She rested them on a torn yellow hassock while telling stories of her years of service. Her employers had hardened into buildings and train stations of New York City. Not much of a change for most of them. But there were a few that saw their mothers looking back in her eyes. These were the ones whose shoes had not yet scuffed the carpet.
* * *
A linkboy was a boy who carried a flaming torch to light the way for pedestrians at night. Linkboys were common in London in the days before street lighting. The linkboy’s fee was commonly one farthing. The torch was often made from burning pitch and tow.
A leech collector, or leech finder, was a person occupied with procuring medicinal leeches. Leeches were used in bloodletting but were not easy for medical practitioners to obtain. The collector would gather the leeches by attracting them to the legs of animals, often old horses. More commonplace was for the collector to use their own legs, gathering the leech after it had finished sucking enough blood. Many in the profession suffered from the effects of the loss of blood and infections spread by the leeches.
* * *
I once was a marriage expert in the guise of the guy who brought you the prime rib or the chicken marsala, sometimes even the salmon almondine. My expertise was smeared across me, like the mashed potatoes I often wore home in a thick layer of spackle across my polyester vest. It was a credential earned from 1,000 class hours, or approximately 500 hundred weddings All races, all religions, all nationalities. What I learned is that the best weddings are the simplest. No 100-story cake of sentiment. Just the couple—the man and woman, the woman and woman, the man and man—holding each other tight at the waist.
* * *
Poultry workers have soiled themselves while standing on the line. Supervisors mock their requests to use the bathroom; some threaten punishment or firing. Many workers wear diapers to work and restrict their intake of fluids to dangerous degrees.
Gong farmer (also gongfermor, gongfermour, gong-fayer, gong-fower or gong scourer) was a term used in Tudor England to describe someone who dug out and removed human excrement from privies and cesspits; the word “gong” was used for both a privy and its contents. Gong farmers were only allowed to work at night, hence they were sometimes known as nightmen. The waste they collected, known as night soil, had to be taken outside the city or town boundary or to official dumps for disposal.
* * *
Certain types of parasites cause their hosts to commit suicide. A main example is the phylum Acanthocephala, which directs its host to be eaten by the predator, their new definitive host.
Anyone who has lived through a corporate takeover will recognize similar behavior. The human analog of Acanthocephala is that guy in the next cube that encourages your manager to stick up for the department, not take shit from our new corporate masters. You are not surprised to learn he has been named manager of the new integrated department. You were suspicious of him from the start. You remember your first day. Tiny pinhole in his right lobe where an earring went during non-work hours. He said something like “It’s just a job” while clicking away from a Goth webpage. It was too perfect. Too-too.
Takeovers are not what you read in the newspaper. All numbers, claims of new efficiencies, new revenue opportunities. I have watched friends eaten alive, their blood wiped off the faded cushion of their chair.
* * *
There are three types of personalities in the workplace: over-dogs, underdogs, and lone wolves. Over-dogs are the alphas that eat most of the food, in a practice called “merit-based CEO compensation.” Underdogs complain about their job but are happy to be lapping up strawberry frozen yogurt from their bowl every day at 12:35 p.m. Lone wolves are beasts that nest in the walls of corporations, performing tasks at odd hours, without assistance from fellow staff. In recent years many lone wolves have escaped the enterprise. They have become independent consultants, with websites and business cards and promotional photos of themselves wearing expensive sports jackets over matted fur.
There are online tests to determine which workplace personality you are, but if you are sitting in a chair made of rock-salt or you ever had a superior pluck a completed assignment from between your bloody jaws, I think you already know.
* * *
Powder monkeys were young teenage boys in charge of bringing gunpowder from a warship’s storage rooms to wherever it was needed. Powder monkeys had to be particularly fast bringing the gunpowder—a slight delay could spell defeat for their side. They also had to be especially careful in handling the gunpowder and keeping it away from fire.
Matchstick dippers were young girls who dipped matchsticks into the white phosphorus that was used as the product’s chemical accelerant. Prolonged exposure to the chemical led to the life-threatening, disfiguring disease “phossy jaw.” Officially known as “phosphorus necrosis of the jaw,” this disease could rip off someone’s jaw, leading to a massive infection. Death came painfully—on shoes not much more than leather straps.
* * *
I used to work at the place that managed the checking account of ___________ (insert name of third-world dictator or drug kingpin). My job was to spend eight hours pretending I wasn’t only working for about three. It wasn’t a bad job. The managers didn’t try to be my friend, nobody said the team was a family. It was like being back in the Heaven/Hell, Saved/Screwed cosmology of Catholic school after seven years of trying to figure out what those swirling Mandela people at my experimental school wanted. Here, there was no question. It was “Do X, by 2:16 p.m. EST on Tuesday, or I’ll rip your lungs out.”
I welcomed the clarity, and I welcomed the fear because it brought tasks into focus, gave everyone consequences, created order. I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed my low-level job on the Death Star. Everything regimented. In at a certain time, lunch at the certain time—for a certain amount of time.
What tripped me up was Friday evening. I would sit in my cube waiting for someone else to leave. I didn’t want to be the first. Neither did my co-workers. We all sat, moving our mouse, typing random things on our keyboard, staring at each other over tops of our grey pens, cursing into the knots of our ties. Every Friday night was the same game, like the corporate version of “Chicken.” The only person who didn’t seem to have a problem was Amy. Amy was amazing. She was a technical writer with the power of invisibility. I never saw her arrive at work and I never saw her leave. Some Fridays I even waited by the door.
Jeremy Bentham would have us believe that the Panopticon was about being seen by a big nasty at the top. It wasn’t. The Panopticon was each of us, around every corner.
* * *
Moirologists were professional mourners, paid to lament or deliver a eulogy. In India, it was a common occupation for lower-caste women. The stated objective of moirologists was to elevate the status of the deceased. The unstated was to draw attention from closest family members who might not have been experiencing the expected sense of loss.
In France, professional falsity has a cultural note. A claque is an organized body of professional applauders in French theatres and opera houses. Members of a claque are called claqueurs.
* * *
Many 21st century workers know their chief duty is to worship a god whose head was cut off long ago. They are paid to maintain the pretense, to avoid gazing upon the stitches, to address the god in regular tones, perform for him as if his cheeks weren’t pasted with clay.
This is the plight of wizards who travel highways and trains, buses and airports with pockets of wasted magic.
* * *
Kafka was great at a job he claimed to hate. At the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, he was rapidly promoted to insurance officer, with duties that included processing and investigating compensation claims, writing reports, and handling appeals from businessmen who thought their firms had been placed in too high a risk category. Recent biographies reveal that Kafka’s formal workday ended at 2 p.m., leaving him the rest of the day to write fiction and compose letters to various girlfriends.
Writers are not to be trusted around the subject of work. Perhaps the most accurate depiction of a workplace was Moby-Dick. Scholars delighting in the Biblical and Shakespearean allusions miss that Moby-Dick was a portrait of a toxic work environment. Ahab was the Platonic ideal of crazy boss, driving his team to extremes in pursuit of a goal he claimed to see splashing its white body between the waves.
Kafka’s K and the anonymous narrator of Moby-Dick who asks to be called “Ishmael” could have been disgruntled work friends meeting under the awning for an afternoon smoke. Their nametag-only metaphysics is genuine at being ingenuous. Both offer valid critique while disguising privilege. Brotberuf, literally “bread job,” is how Kafka’s father described his son’s work. In contemporary call-out culture, the likely term would be “hipster.”
* * *
The Americanization of work is not McDonald’s opening in France. The Americanization of work is the “pursuit of happiness” with free Wi-Fi and a pitch deck awaiting angel investment.
Emerson was the great father of American enterprise as spiritual enterprise. He was the one that converted the Puritanical investment in eternity into stock options whose transcendental value could be realized on the mortal side of the balance sheet. Work as spiritual rite was how he touched the Over-Soul with pink fingertips. He is the ghost behind Steve Jobs and all other entrepreneurial priests that channel Jonathan Edwards into apotheosis for consumer devices made five thousand miles away by people in buildings with nets draped around their middle.
The author of “Self-Reliance” gave us permission to put ourselves at the beginning of our own value chain. He never asked us to trace that chain—from numinous origin to steel encumbrance of another.
* * *
Between staff were domestic workers in a great house whose work crossed between the areas of responsibility of the Butler, the Housekeeper and the Cook.
Baristas, supermarket cashiers, Uber drivers, fast food workers and other low-wage employees without fixed hours belong to a new labor class known as the “precariat.”
Cereal bars, free coffee, yoga breaks are amenities that show investment in the short-term health and well-being of workers. They are also clever ways to keep a young, unmarried workforce on-site for longer than the standard 8-hour workday. Some employers are experimenting with work-live models, offering employees “below-market” micro-apartments a few floors above the shared workspace where they spend their days. The move assumes a corporatized version of communal living, which replaces revelation with metrics as evidence of divine ROI.
* * *
The corporate cosmos speaks in euphemism. No one is “fired” anymore. Firing is part of an old world of analog consequences that wears ties and doesn’t inflate earnings statements. Workers are condemned to walk the Earth, filling their cardboard box with theories of what they did wrong. Managers speak of a “change of direction,” congratulate them on “new opportunities.” Ambiguity is best practices.
* * *
Memo to Guillotine Employees Reminding Them to Clean Workstation in Preparation for Next Shift
Memo Reminding All Hindenburg Staff that Smoking Is Limited to Black Forest Break Room
Memo to Adult Movie Trainees Defining What Is, What Is *Not* Fluffing
Memo from Imperial Wizard to Stragglers in Biloxi, MS Chapter Warning that Tolerance Will Not Be Tolerated
Memo Reminding Team Members that Despite Work/Pay Disparity and the Historic Incidence of
Capitalistic Exploitation Killing Management, Burning Bodies in Bonfire Is Against Corporate Policy
* * *
I had a lot of different jobs the same way I had a lot of different girlfriends. The variety gave me a variety that was no variety at all. I’ve been a: camp counselor, security guard, telemarketer, résumé writer, furniture delivery guy, editor, fast-food worker, customer support worker, tutor, publicist, producer.
Different jobs, all the same me watching me do them, a voyeur of my own life.
* * *
Frederick Taylor broke a job into its component parts and measured each to the hundredth of a minute. One of his most famous studies involved shovels. He noticed that workers used the same shovel for all materials. He determined that the most effective load was 21½ lb, and found or designed shovels that for each material would scoop up that amount.
Modern management theorists love Taylor. His component parts have become component parts of component parts, each smaller, more efficient, until the task disappeared before the worker, the metric becoming a sub-atomic approximation of a job well done. We call this metric “data,” but the term implies a fixity that no one who ever watched a Friday afternoon selloff would recognize. We are better off in the realm of quantum mechanics. The Euclidean principles Taylor measured with a stopwatch have dissolved into the quarks, leptons and other non-relational particles that managers call “clicks,” “keystrokes,” and “engagements.”
The return of uncertainties has meant a re-sacralization of certain workers. Computer programmers, anyone who “horse whispers” the quants that run the stock market; these are the new craftspeople, the new untouchable class of labor, created by the same process that had sought its elimination.
* * *
“Employees must wash their hands” began with Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. In the early 1900s, she was a freelance cook, working in the homes of the New York City’s wealthy. Her case came to light when it was discovered that she was an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. She infected at least 50 people, many of them from the same families that employed my grandmother. The case brought out anti-Irish sentiment, which later became anti-Italian sentiment, which continues as anti-Mexican sentiment. The laws that resulted from Typhoid Mary are based on the assumption that the new immigrants working at this type of service must have different standards of hygiene than the sanitized swells who were born here.
A similar requirement of ablution is today asked whenever someone applies for a job or a mortgage. The hand that accepts the position or the keys to the new home must be scrubbed, buffed, sterilized of any trace of financial impropriety. Anything that might foul the balance sheet is the exclusive domain of corporate executives and market-mavens, their hands filthy with a dirt that can’t be seen.
* * *
The buttons ricocheted around the room whenever my father tore the shirt from his back. It was a ritual he performed every few weeks, sometimes punctuated by a howl. The next day he might try to explain how he had been insulted by customer. He might say it was this stuck-up doctor showing off in front of a young woman he wasn’t married to or some banker joking about his height or his bald head.
Sometimes there would be commentary, expatiation that he skipped a grade in school but had to quit and come to this country because there wasn’t any food. There would be words, words, words, words, they went everywhere and nowhere, like those buttons. Maybe I was too young to understand. Maybe I was too frightened. He only talked about he did after the most violent incidents, on mornings when I was still shaking the way the wall shook when he punched a hole in it.
My father had to stop working full-time in his mid-40s due to diabetes caused by drinking. He died when I was at the end of graduate school, wondering what a job would do to me.
William Lessard has writing that has appeared in McSweeney’s, NPR, Prelude, Wired, Hyperallergic, People Holding. His chapbook Rembrandt with Cell Phone has just been published by Reality Beach. He co-hosts the Cool as F*** series in Brooklyn.
Note: Several of these sections have been sampled from Wikipedia entries. Others were inspired by Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane and Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses.