Thursday, August 11, 2011

It was 7:15 a.m., 15 minutes before my wife and I intended to wake up, when the head of maintenance, knocked on the door. He'd brought an exterminator to deal with the ants that had been overrunning the faculty apartment we'd moved into two weeks before. The apartment that hadn't been cleaned, or, apparently, sprayed before we moved in. The head of maintenance had a malicious glint in his eyes, as though he'd caught us sleeping in 'til noon.

We dressed and let the exterminator in, and I spent the next fifteen minutes or so showing him where we'd seen the ants, while he sprayed and complained nonstop.
"You just get back from your summer vacation?" he asked.
"Not really," I said. I had turned in the final grades for my summer classes the day before the movers came to deliver us to my wife's new appointment at a boarding school in a different state. We'd been unpacking and scrambling to get our lives settled in the week allotted before classes began. Paying the movers meant we had to live bare bones for a couple months, but it was for the promise of a more satisfying future, a better life.
"Exterminators don't get summer breaks. I work twelve hour days. I don't get any breaks," he said.
Being a teacher at a community college and married to a high school teacher, I didn't feel much sympathy for the man. And having grown up on a farm, the son of a farmer who really did work from dawn to dusk seven days a week, including a half day on Christmas, and never complained about it, I was even less impressed. Especially considering he'd woken me up, which I was prepared to forgive, until he started complaining.

The man walked through, miserably spraying behind cabinets, coating the baseboards, hitting all the places I'd already laid poison. I'm sure his job was difficult in certain ways. The tank was probably heavy. He probably spent most of his time on the road, which could be tedious, and the poisons were probably pretty toxic. He had to go into some unpleasant places--smelly basements, hot attics. He probably had to deal with some unsavory things, but he chose the job.

What I wanted to say to him was that if he was jealous of us teachers ("What, are we sitting on the beach drinking margaritas?" my wife commented after he left) and hated his job so much, quit. It's the easiest thing in the world. Quit, go to school, get a better job, one you can be proud of. Sacrifice a little bit; put your money where your mouth is. Most of all, I wanted to tell him to shut up and quit complaining. Do something about it. But no, the poor trod-upon exterminator (who was, I am certain, making more money per hour than me or my wife, especially if you actually looked at the volume of work each of us did) chose to stick with his current job and complain about it instead of improving his lot in life. Eyes full of disdain and self-pity, he looked upon our utilitarian furniture, mostly bare rooms, cheap, teacherly clothes, and thought, those lucky bastards. They get all the breaks.

My brother is the opposite. Years ago, he left the farm to work a factory job because my father felt there was no future in farming for either of us. After fourteen years at the factory, he was laid off when it moved to Korea, as has been the fashion with American industry for some time now. Even though they sapped his livelihood and his confidence, my brother feels no animosity toward said factory owners and will, in any conversation, take the staunchly conservative view of supporting big-business over the workers, even though big-business put him on unemployment. He's also the kind of guy who continues to blame the unions for the failing auto industry, for example, claiming, 'they had it too good for too long.'

Keep in mind, now, my brother lives with my father in a rural area with few jobs and refuses to commute or move in order to support himself. The jobs available in nearby towns or cities aren't good enough for him, he feels, but he refuses to do anything to improve his immediate situation, choosing instead to cash in his retirement early while also accruing a huge credit card debt. It's as though he expects someone to hand him a job, or maybe just a check. This isn't how we were raised and this sense of entitlement is the bane of my existence, so how frustrating to find it firmly ensconced in the heart of my own brother?

In the first three years after he was laid off--before he gave up completely--my brother held several jobs, only one for longer than a month. He worked at a Frito-Lay factory but complained about the drive (forty-five minutes with virtually no traffic. But this seems like a pretty common commute time. I drove that much, easily, to my adjunct gig, and my wife drove more.)Then he worked in another factory and complained about the conditions (which were unsavory, I will grant him.) After he got his foot run over by a fork-lift, he put in a handful of applications and gave up, even though he hadn't been seriously injured.

In the winters, he worked with my father or whoever he could, selling catfish as my father has for longer than I've been alive. My father grew up during the depression. He served in the armed forces at the tail end of WWII and built the farm up from nothing. He's had his share of problems, including losing a third of the farm and having to sell off the bulk of what was left to survive, but even now, in his eighties, he still walks the land, maintaining it. He continues to sell fish with my brother for purely altruistic means, and my brother, eighteen years my senior, still doesn't see this. This is an extreme example, but what I'm talking about, here, is ease.

It's easier to complain and just keep doing the job one hates than to work toward the achievement of lofty goals. It's easy to give up, to sulk, instead of to recognize a hardship and move on. It's easy to just get through life. Wake up in the morning, eat some breakfast, go to work, pay the rent, come home. It's easy to just make-do. And if someone makes you feel bad about it, it's easy to write that person off as a rich private school teacher or some son of privilege.

This was the attitude I met with for the five years I worked retail before I decided to go to college. I didn't like my life. I was getting by, sure, and I didn't mind my job as a produce manager at a grocery store. I took pride in doing a useful job that people appreciated. When the produce looked good, people complemented me. When it looked bad, they let me know that, too. But, as my father had said to me about farming, there didn't seem to be any future in it.

After I started college, I continued to work retail jobs, which were the only ones that would work around my class schedule, and it only got worse. Now, I was the sucker for going to school. My co-workers complained that they couldn't afford to go to school and scoffed if I suggested taking out a loan. They complained that they'd be stuck in the same jobs for their whole lives, but any suggestion of doing something about it was met with animosity. I was written off as an elitist, a "college boy." People acted as though I had never worked a day in my life, though, my first summer term of college, I worked sixty hour weeks in addition to taking a full course load, and I tended to work full time in addition to a full course load for the rest of the year, as well. But don't most people? I would feel vindicated in my own efforts, but if I mentioned it to one of them now, he or she would only complain about how unfair life is.

Which is true. Life isn't fair. I don't know who came up with the idea that it was, but we should find out and go kick him. Hard. If life were fair, I could've stayed on my father's farm, my pet dog Red from when I was ten never would've died, and there'd be something good on TV when I actually sit down to watch it. Life isn't fair, good things don't last, and fad diets never work.

I won't say that I'm making the big bucks now as a result of all my spent elbow grease (far from it) and it's true that my wife and I have a mountain of student loan debt to pay off, thanks to our efforts to seek out better lives. But we have something to show for it. We worked hard and we're getting to do something we love. Sure, the biggest thing we've gained next to our debt is the opportunity to continue working hard for the forseeable future, but work gives meaning and shape to our lives if it's the work you want to do. That's a basic human need - to work - and even my brother feels something is lacking in his life as a result of his refusal to seek and perform some labor, menial or not.

So, back to the exterminator. I wanted to explain that he could do better work, if he wanted to. But in all honesty, he probably knows that already. He'd rather complain and sound like a spoiled child than put forth the effort. Instead, I just showed him where to spray and got him out of my house as quickly as possible. Next time, I'll do it myself. That way, I'll have nothing to complain about.


Anonymous said...

That exterminator was my father!! thanks for making me lose my respect for him.

CLBledsoe said...

Your daddy was a good man. A good man! It was the bugs that drove him to it!