This is a story for the young and aimless. Well, scratch that; this is a story for certain people who consider themselves young and aimless. This is for young Americans itching themselves in the wake of college, or for the ingénues out there who threw themselves into a new city, desperate to paint or sing or scribble their way out of anonymity. If this story is going to work on any level you have to know a bit about me; don’t worry, there really isn’t much to know. I can spell myself out as such: a twenty-something (the lower half), degree-holding former English major, gratingly liberal, open-minded, and excited … or just naïve. That’s what this story is about: me, the sap, and the class mobility that let me jump from highbrow humanities to lowbrow (physically speaking) scrubbing of toilets with a few stops in between.
About two years ago, after managing to earn a humanities degree from a public university, a feat that requires some attendance, some manual bullshitting, and some heart, I decided I’d move from the DC area to Seattle. Sure there were reasons; I had a friend out here (something I’ve since learned we in fact all have), we had co-written a comic book, and we were going to make it all happen. I dragged some fellow grads along with me and off we went, road trip style. The road trip was uneventful: beautiful landscapes, subsequent pictures, drinking, smoking, and the occasional hijinks. We made it to Seattle, go figure. Days ticked off like seconds and before we knew it my friends and I had a place to stay, complete with rooms and mattresses of our own. This is when the economic pressures made themselves abundantly clear.
First, the credit card. I had busted most of that on the way over. My early swipes of invincibility with the card marked my road trip attitude, but like any good vanishing point, by the time I had to settle down and act like I lived in Seattle, my financial outlook was nonexistent. And second, the unemployment. It’s not like I expected that by becoming a comic writer I would just stumble upon all the stacks of money eagerly waiting for me underneath my new doormat. You know, I just thought, well, I thought I wouldn’t plop myself down and say, “now what?”. The comic was a trickle, we needed a new, unpaid illustrator, needed to shop it around, needed to care, and I needed some money; but really I guess I was just dazed, crammed into a corner of the nation I knew nothing about. Where was my scholastic spine? My reassuring professors? My indispensable skills of interpretation? I needed to shut the fuck up and get a job.
So we needed internet. The sentiment became an empty drone amongst me and my roommates. We were headless job hunters if we didn’t have our netz, more specifically, our Craigslist. Oh Craigslist, where would I be without your endless stream of hand-me-downs or your vast stacks of scams, gigs, and jobs? I have turned the Craigslist free section into material mounds and then into kingdoms. Are its seedy networks ushering in an era of digital agoras? I won’t say, but I can attest that my bare Seattle home was transformed by Craigslist for the mere cost of the gas and the sweat it took to haul people’s unwanted stuff. If I were someone who hadn’t directly benefited from all this free nonsense, I might be concerned. I mean it’s a perpetual loop of shedding things, they really do become mere things. Pictures you upload to an ad, just screaming neglect, begging to be whisked away by another owner. I don’t like the attitude, but it has blessed me with plenty, which was just what my friends and I needed to jumpstart our life-building efforts. Furniture of every shape andsize, ping pong tables, bad art, televisions, blenders, organs (musical or otherwise), and most most most importantly: most of the jobs I’ve ever landed.
But for a while we just didn’t get the internet installed at our new place. The details behind this are fuzzy. I think it was a mixture of laziness, indecision, and maybe some identity verification. Whatever the reason, we were hitting up the public access…a lot. This is trying for any young fuck who just assumes a browser is built into his arm. Unsurprisingly, cyber cafes (a term as outdated as “modem”) were scarce. We went to the libraries and waited for our turns to “surf” (cue now ancient poster of kids marveling over a screen glowing digital green). Every day a member of Seattle Public Library is entitled to 75 minutes of access. The clock starts as soon as you sign in. For the jobless this means a manic rush to update resumes, scan Craigslist – or as we’ve affectionately dubbed it: “the crag” – prepare letters, get ‘em out, rinse, repeat. If you can’t reflexively alt-tab between pages, you are dead in the water. We would each average 20 to 30 applications a session. From there you just have to wait. Landing an interview in the seas of the crag is tricky. There are things you can do to game it, little tweaks I refuse to go into, but at the end of the day it’s a crapshoot. Is an employer going to open your email amidst hundreds of applications? Are they really going to like what they see? Whatever, keep applying. This went on for about three weeks. And then Nintendo called me. Well, sort of.
It wasn’t Nintendo, it was a contractor they were using to edit games, and they wanted me to review grammar. Compared to the no job that I had, this seemed like an easy call. Nintendo! I like(d) video games! They made Smash Bros! I wanted to be a bro! Of course I’ll take the interview! I’ll gulp system-clearing potions to weasel past your drug tests! I’ll sign a piece of paper that says I get nothing but my meager money and that I understand that one day, possibly very soon, you will simply call to inform me I no longer work for you. I will not even think the words “union,” “401K” or “dental.” I'll do it all, and more, with a smile.
None of this is really shocking, Craigslist job pages are plagued by an overpowering number of ads for limited-engagement, project-oriented work. You’ll usually find said ads saddled right beside listings by temp agencies clamoring for your attention and assuring you of the brilliance of your many qualifications. Agree, and like part of a demented collection, your name will become yet another row in their massive archive of the area’s technically employable. This all speaks to the mindfuck that is searching for jobs in such a gaping crag. Being an at-will employee means that your relationship with the company can be ended by either side at anytime, no liability, no hard feelings, no severance pay. No union, nor worker protections, no vacation time. In all likelihood, if you’re a recent college grad, you’ve never felt so disposable. But for a video game company that needs to put in a quota of hours of review before their products hit international shelves, this sort of contracted work is standard operating procedure. Logic and destitution were licking the spindly hairs on the back of my neck, so I took the job. No further deliberation? Nah, I just wrote off the toil and doubt; a paid job meant my life in the city could continue.
What did I do exactly? I fixed in-game grammar. The translators turned the original Japanese into choppy English and I fixed the holes. If this sounds fun, then I'm writing it wrong. I’d work on one project at a time, for weeks and weeks until my thumbs ached and eyeballs burned. There wasn't much accountability. I had to: A. not fall asleep and B. move my hands, press controller buttons, and keep my eyes on the screen. Aside from all that, I could be utterly empty. I was just a numerical contribution to a mandatory inspection, the reassuring (English-fluent) human presence that Nintendo needs to make everything check out. That reality, at times, was oppressively dull. Video games often have endings or just well worn tracks, and once they run their course, you can move on. That is, unless you’re getting paid to do just the opposite. Going through the same motions Monday through Friday allegedly looking for subtle in-game flaws simply stunned me, dismissing the “if you fall asleep, you’re fired” risk was no longer an option.
Most of my coworkers didn’t have a problem. Detailing them won’t do me any good, but let’s just say there are plenty of folk who can never turn off when it comes to video games. If they had breaks, these folks would bust out portable systems or video game magazines or their patented fanboy babble. I remembered what if felt like when I left my gaming machine on for too long and it got red hot, a sure signal that it was time to pick myself up and do something, anything that didn’t require a TV screen; well that’s what these people feel like all the time, like a red hot box of fried wires, burned in pixels. I should also mention some of the awful diets I witnessed, including a horrifying breakfast combo of chips and Mountain Dew, a sight that is sadly becoming more and more common. Nintendo wants you stay healthy (isn’t that why they built the Wii?), but they are also more than fine indulging contracted workers with strategically situated vending machines.
Even if it wasn't back-breaking labor (more on that soon), it was frustrating to see my creative dreams mashed into controller grime as I cycled through text screen after text screen. I was depressed over my contribution to the entertainment industry, often wondering how society had arrived at the point where customers found joy in what was, for me, drudgery. Are kids so restless that getting bombarded with a constant stream of novel games really is the pinnacle of fun? Probably, but I didn’t have the energy to address the issues that were keeping me employed. I was resigned to keep working until they pulled the rug out from under me.
Why didn’t I just leave? I could have kept applying, interviewing, etc. until something better stuck. I could attribute it to the outrageous attendance expectations of contracted workers or I could say it was the soul-fucking length of my commute (Seattle to Redmond is nothing, unless you jam it with every car, everywhere, all at 5 PM). The reality probably has more to do with my contract and my lack of money. The contract has a fatalistic draw to it; I think I wanted to see how long I would hold up before they axed me. There was something painfully fun about the idea of getting hurled to the curb by Nintendo, told to fend for myself. The scramble to see what’s next for the old sap. Interestingly enough, plenty of the contractors I knew loved Nintendo so much that they would get canned, get in line for unemployment, and then just wait until Nintendo’s contractors offered them another gig. This cycle gave them ample time to simulate their former jobs within the comfort of their very own parents’ homes.
I lasted four months before they cast me aside. My historic inability to save whilst working a wage job continued, my last paycheck going straight to my credit card and rent. Based on my ATM statement I had about 10 days to find something new, so I renewed my Craigslist frenzy, resolved to take whatever came first. The winner was house cleaning, and let me assure you that house cleaning remained the winner as it proceeded to whip my ass. I had worked my share of physical jobs, had done the restaurant thing and wasn’t keen to do it again, so I thought house cleaning would be a great break. I quickly learned I am terrible at cleaning anyone's house, let alone the houses of people whose standards and wages are high enough for them to regularly pay cleaners. My childhood chores meant nothing. I left streaks on everything, couldn’t get the hair off of toilets, and missed dust and spots constantly. When I discovered the existence of my lower back through a surge of toppling pain as I vacuumed yet another stairwell, I knew I was officially broken. If I hadn’t quit when I did, they surely would have fired me a few days later.
That’s pretty much the story, plenty of new work happened after that, and despite all the credit evaporating out of my card, I didn’t have to crawl back to the parents. Of course it wasn’t all that bad all the time. My work week was a drag, but I was living somewhere brand new. Seattle life was swirling all around me, it was my respite, my justification. They have lots and lots of water here, big trees, smatterings of culture everywhere! And on a regular weekend, I would get hammered and commiserate with the similarly precarious. When it really comes down to it though, my life has always been a far cry from any sort of real misery, there are padded buffers all over this place. I came with the education, I came with the internet, the credit card, the car that got us here. Way more people simply can’t say the same. I am one of the fortunate ones, this tale being my first foray in making it in whatever urban job climate you want to call Seattle.
Take away what you will, be it the reality that more and more people are going to get contracted with no benefits, no guarantees, and numbing conditions, or that Craigslist is some sort of virtual thrift store deity, or that cleaning people, not me, I mean the ones who have been at it for years, deserve immense respect. But understand that survival in whatever environment you choose means unpredictability. One day you're playing video games for a living, the next you're back at the library. You won’t always have to spin the at-will employment wheel and take whatever new gig comes your way, but these days when jobs are tough to find but easy to lose and careers aren't hiring, sometimes you have to sit down on your Craigslist couch and figure out what's next.
This essay appear in Shareable's paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers. For the next article in Share or Die, Regan Mcmahon's "The Shareable Job Search", click here.