Suburban Soliloquy

Thirty Years

I’m just home from work.  There is no time to produce a first draft with pen and ink and paper.  I am working at the keyboard for expedience, composing this, my next essay, before I  allow myself sleep.  Meantime, Jazzbender the cat has just dragged himself back and forth across my hands before settling in my lap, and Ms Keogh, my more significant other, labors without my help assembling the new futon couch/bed in the guest room. (Or so I thought it would be, but then she called me to tighten screws and hold the heavy iron frames while she attached them.)  Everything I do is at the expense of something else I want to do and, in the meantime, my job cuts the largest swath out of my life.  I can't sleep because some recess of my mind is poking me with the phrase "precious little time".

From the time I was in my late teens I had planned to start my life over again in Europe or New Zealand at age thirty-five.  I didn’t.  There was also a dream of visiting Paris, Prague, Heidelberg, Lhasa, and Auckland.  I haven’t.  When I was in my late twenties, I was a clerk-typist for Sears in Chicago.  Sears had brought me to Chicago on bonuses and promises, convinced that I would be a boon to them.  In New York the executives in sales admired my ability to work independently creating presentations of texts and graphs with little instruction from them.  They gave me a free hand, relied on me to organize the material and make the final product appealing.  In Chicago, I was reduced to copying numbers and letters by hand onto data forms.  When sales executives asked me to assist them, my boss wouldn’t allow it.  I went on for months manually copying code, taking breaks to punch the steel stalls in the men’s room to relieve my desperation with the monotony.  I quit my job and went to work for AT&T.

How do I write about my career at AT&T without depressing myself or boring the reader?  On the third of December 2009, I had completed thirty years of servitude with AT&T.  Most of it was as a Communications Technician.  I feel ashamed and embarrassed by the notion that I have wasted so many years at a job which I never held in my heart, a job that has never been an expression of who I am.  For thirty years I have had to explore my true interests during the gaps.  When the third of December rolled around, I just happened to be sick, truly sick, and, untypical of me, took a sick day.

During my days off from work, my time is lost to fulfilling social obligations. (To which Ms Keogh says, “Which ones?  You do precious little!”)  I should also be doing maintenance on the house, the car, my body, none of which usually gets done.  It takes time to adjust to being away from the job and catching up on sleep.  Just when I feel I am finally ready to tackle Proust or begin that Gilgamesh libretto I had promised myself I would write, there comes the painful sting of it being the last day before returning to work.  This has been the pattern for three decades.

I want to write.  "When you retire," says Ms Keogh, "then you can write your essays and poems and short stories.  We’ll be moving to Britain and you’ll be inspired."  My vision has weakened, arthritis has crept into my fingers, and my waistline has spread, even as my digestion has grown cantankerous like old pipes clogged and corroded.  What am I going to be like when I’m retired?

Communications Technician is my vocation.  Writing is my avocation.  The irony is writing essays is harder work than troubleshooting digital circuits.  But for all the anguish, I love this work of writing.  I feel writing to be my calling, even though words do not come easy to me.  Hard though writing is, I suspect my AT&T job is the biggest obstacle frustrating this joyful other labor.  The hard work of writing brings me the satisfaction of having engaged the better parts of myself.  From moment to moment it elicits pride in accomplishment when I have managed the right word or crafted a solid sentence.

There is no such satisfaction with my work at AT&T, but I will not whinge about the employer.  The problems at work come down to a shift of focus away from the client; our customer is now the shareholder and upper management and the client is just a resource to be exploited.  I hope for a lay-off, although that is unfair to my colleagues.  A lay-off is to have fate intervene where I lack the confidence to act.  "Aren't you afraid of being laid off?" my mother asks every Sunday when I visit her for breakfast.  "Yes, I'm afraid to be laid off," I always reply, "but I am equally afraid of continuing at that job."

Thirty years with the company and the office threw me a breakfast party, a breakfast party because I work midnight to eight.  They shifted my tour one night by two hours so I could be at my party, which was shared with a colleague being honored for thirty-five years - meaning more funds for a better breakfast.  There were fruits, yogurts, croissants, Danishes, muffins, rye and white toast, bagels, sausage patties, sausage links, scrambled eggs, eggs over easy, eggs with spicy chipotle, peppers, and onions, there were hash browns, bacon, orange juice, tea, and of course coffee.  Although I had no cause for celebration, no pride in having completed thirty years, yet I would not wish to deny my good colleagues an excuse to have a big breakfast at the company’s expense.

Every fifth year of service the company presented the employees with a glossy catalogue of gifts.  They could order any gift associated to their particular anniversary, or any of the previous anniversaries in the catalogue.  For the most part, the gifts had been junk.  I have a nice enough clock on my wall which was just such a gift, but open up the back and you see it operates on the cheapest of chip and plastic mechanisms made in China and running on a AA battery.  I have since lost all the earlier gifts, a pair of binoculars, a thermos, a watch, and then for my twenty-fifth anniversary they did away with the gift catalogue.  Funny, but at my twenty-fifth anniversary I missed the crappy catalogue.

Instead of a catalogue, the company sent me a letter that offered one of two gift choices.  I could either have an engraved chunk of Lucite commemorating my time of service to be displayed on my desk or a letter of thanks and appreciation from the C.E.O.  I ignored the offer.  When I received a follow-up letter, threatening that I would forfeit my prize if I didn't make a choice, I sent back a letter waiving the privilege.  If AT&T was trying to save money, this clever means of discouragement was certainly effective.

Fortunately, for my thirtieth, matters had changed.  The catalogue was reinstated.  Perhaps upper management had been embarrassed by so many who felt disinclined to select a gift.  Or maybe, since AT&T has since been bought by SBC (which then took the name AT&T), the catalogue represents the generosity of our new masters.  In any case, the gifts were better than ever and I selected a sixteen inch Replogle Globe mounted on a floor stand.  Politically contemporary, in appearance it is made to look antique, with beige oceans instead of blue, and it is a 3D relief globe so one can feel the mountain ranges with their finger tips.

It's wonderful.  In thirty years, this globe is the nicest thing I’ve taken away from the job.  How have I lived so long without a globe?  It is an elegant addition to my study.  Do any of you deprive yourselves of owning a globe? It's better than a flat map of the world.  There is something aesthetically appealing being able to handle a globe.  It is the difference between a real book and reading on the internet, if that makes a difference to you.  With a book, there is an imposing sense balancing in one's hand the weight and proportions of a well-made volume.  There are rewarding sensations of turning the page of a book, just like revolving a globe.  It is no different than shifting a manual stick in a car, or dialing the aperture ring on a camera, or writing with a fountain pen.  Maybe I’m anachronistic, yet I’m wired to enjoy the tactile interface of the things needing to be physically manipulated.  Writing with a pen is a craft, not unlike wood carving.  We are ritualistic tool users, or at least I am.  When the globe arrived, I spent a long time with it, my fingers visiting Paris, Prague, Heidelberg, Lhasa, and Auckland.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"