I’ve been restraining an emotionally disturbed teenager for an hour. It’s midnight and I’m sore. All I can hear are feral screams.
According to the usual platitudes, college should be the gateway to more money and opportunities. I’ve found the opposite. My friends who didn’t graduate from college seem to make more money than I do.
“Graduating class, I hope you make this institution proud,” says some guy wearing a gown. Rows of graduates look like penguins in funny hats. We’re packed inside the Jenny Craig Pavilion at the University of San Diego. I know it as the Slim Gym. Usually it’s full of coeds who work off their insecurities with eating disorders and exercise.
I realize that degrees don’t make people any smarter, confident, or more apt. The sizable numbers of cokeheads and bulimics at USD attest to this. Life at the top of Linda Vista is Beverly Hills 92110. For many students it revolves around getting drunk at the beach, going to the mall, and making cameos on campus.
“Oh, my God, Kim, those are such cute Uggs, you got them at Fashion Valley, didn’t you?” is a typical conversation.
After four years, I wanted out. Grad school and law school were options, but I didn’t want to be an egghead stuck in the ivory tower. A career seemed like a possibility, but most require an advanced degree. Coming from a blue-collar lineage, the life of the proletariat beckoned. My dad worked hard forever. He picked fruit and delivered newspapers in his adolescence, joined the National Guard, tossed lumber at a saw mill, all before working his way through college. I’ve had jobs but never needed them. Graduating from college is something, but real work is different. It’s survival. Bukowski’s books about life in the gutter were calling me. Little did I know I would become a factotum right out of one of his novels. Hell, we could have shared drinks in between the search for odd jobs.
Going from the structure of the classroom to the frenzy of the job hunt is profound, and the rewards are different. Getting accepted into school is remunerated with classes you can skip, drunken nights, and piles of student debt. Getting a job, the only reward is paying your bills.
I scour the ads for restaurant work. Friends say restaurants are where it’s at. Thirty to 40 hours of intense work, tips, and flexible schedules. I need to move out of the dorms by August, and time is running out.
Busser at the Coronado Yacht Club. Perfect.
“So, what’s your experience in the hospitality industry?” my interviewer asks.
“I was a plate waiter at Newmarket Race Track in England,” I reply.
“Sounds like you have some experience in the hospitality industry.”
But I was a terrible waiter. I burned a lady with a pot of tea. If it weren’t for the preset menu, vegetarians would have been eating beef tartare, while I made sure to get my fair share. If there was champagne at the open bar, it got drained. I sampled whatever was on the menu. My justification was truly European: the British don’t tip.
I am hired at the yacht club anyway. Boats moored in the marina sway through the panoramic windows. Frantically, I pour water into cups around a crowded table. I grab a glass, fill it, then set it back down. I look at my partner, who does the same thing. We nod at each other.
“Hey, watch this,” says the restaurant manager.
He takes my pitcher and pours a glass for an elderly woman. I look at him.
“I know how to pour water!” I say.
“Oooh!” exclaims the customer.
Her mouth is agape. She’s staring at me. This is the slip that kills my waiting career. After only two days, I am back to the job hunt.
Activists Needed, says the ad. That’s me.
The position is for a door-to-door canvasser with Grassroots Incorporated. I will be collecting campaign contributions for the Democrats. “Hi, my name is Adam and I’m collecting money for the DNC, which will be sent to those vital swing states.” This is followed by all sorts of avoidance and slamming doors. I can’t blame them, I’m a Class A huckster. I’m worse than that. I’m not even selling a bad product, I’m offering nothing.
Many of my coworkers swear differently. They believe we are electing peace and justice. Maybe even pie in the sky. My sole consolation is I’m good at the job.
“Wow, Adam, you raised a thousand dollars, how’d you do it?” asks a coworker.
“I was in Cardiff, and people were just writing me $200 checks.” I smile. “Yeah, I met with this one guy for 45 minutes and we were talking about Buddhism, Nepal, and the Four Noble Truths, and as I leave he writes me two $200 checks — dude, funny thing is my degree is finally working for me.”
Like any sales job, there are days where I rake in less than $30. That hurts when you earn minimum wage and depend on your commission, which is 60 percent over quota. Even with the commission, spending six hours outside in the San Diego summer sun, traversing and getting lost in every liberal enclave in the county, is grueling. And I hate harassing the neighbors for political donations. When I’m sent back to Cardiff, I realize I can’t do this. These people just gave us a barrel of money. It seems wrong that we’re asking for more.
“Hi, my name is Adam and I’m with the DNC and we’re collecting money for those vital.…”
I’m interrupted by a lanky, bearded man with close-cropped hair. He stands in the opening of a sliding-glass door.
“Hey, I’m not a Democrat and I don’t vote,” he says.
“Why not?” I ask. I need to break quota today. This neighborhood has an ocean view. It can spare a few bucks for a college graduate.
“It’s all a façade…and I’m an anarchist,” says the man. He looks to be in his late 20s.