After I get arrested, quit drinking, and move to North Carolina with my brother for a while to recoup, I’m in the bathroom at the diner I work at, contemplating the unique smell of our men's room.
It’s got this saccharin scent: hints iron, almost molasses. First comes the familiar waft of an overused public can: salty dirt shit and skin. But then beneath, it quick delivers to the tongue a salivary ache like sour candy. I’m stomping the trash down next to a toilet -- no gloves in the bathroom supplies so my hands are wrapped in TP like oven mitts -- and I'm holding them in front of me like a surrendering burn victim.
Spying a stray smear of purple shit beneath the TP roll I'm supposed to change out, I dry heave, gag audibly. You could have just started interning at a fucking magazine or something but instead you listened to Rilke saying something or other about doing the poetic thing, having a random day job, making 7 bucks an hour after taxes.
I use my towel mitts to swipe the toilet top, some cold grime soaking through to my palm. I hold my breath and move quicker, almost done. Haven't eaten for 9 hours and been on my feet for 8 of them, muscles feel like hot macaroni, eyes dry, head blank as a washed chalkboard. The bright sun that blasts through the window walls of the restaurant is doing nothing for me except making me squint indoors.
I stick my head out the swing door for some air as an embarrassed dad is looking to get in. My co-worker, Jimmy, flies by to grab a highchair from a corner stack outside the door and in his fast passing I ask him, one limp tear from my gag making its way down my cheek, “What’s that sweet smell in the men's bathroom?”
He curls his lip up, his eyes roll back like recalling horror, "Some cheap ass urinal cake is what that is." He looks back at me. "A lady shouldn't have to be a party. "
Megan, a manager who has eyes like a night-seeing bird and who could run this restaurant on a packed night alone, goes in as I'm finally done, checks my work. I want to tell her that I will have the sweet potato pancakes for lunch, thanks, could she put my order in.
"You forgot to change the TP roll" she says, a tone like, "Can we get it together here?" She's already leading 15 Duke students to a pre-set table.
I go sheepish in the limbs, getting a waft of the urinal cakes and oil-fried potatoes that have soaked themselves irrevocably into my clothes. In a hot golden moment of clarity I think: It might be about time to give writing a shot.
A few weeks later, I get on an overnight bus to New York with the thinking that it’s probably the place I need to go to start learning how to do that.
To make bread since college, I’ve watched babies on date night, done the 3-11 shift at an inn, and taken back the wrong eggs. I’ve arranged funeral flowers, filled anti-psychotic prescriptions for elementary schoolboys, worked as a nanny for the kids of a famous artist, sold knitwear, antiques, art supplies. I’ve made ice cream cones, sandwiches, coffee. Conducted research interviews. Shown houses to movie producers and city lawyers. I’ve harvested lettuce, taught children to dance, answered office phones.
I always have jobs, usually a variety and more than one at a time. Although most of them have nothing to do with what I consider to be my true work, my (hacking cough) raison d’etre, I like working. I appreciate it. I like connecting with people I’d never meet otherwise, and, odd as it might be, I like having to do things I’m not very good at. It allows me to improve practical life skills at an intentional but slow trot.
Part of my part-time day jobbing, beside the nagging choice between needing money or joining the Rainbow Family, has been the result of never believing it possible or knowing at all how to try supporting myself through any of my creative pursuits. I've wanted to have jobs that allow me some flexibility. The only way I’ve ever known to work on writing is to just keep plugging along alone, maintaining a practice. That has also meant spending a lot of my time not connecting with anyone through the work that I do that’s most important to me.
Which is the point, after all? Isn’t it?
Moving to New York has started that process, and to be paid to publish on a site I admire is scary as hell. But makes me feel a strength in my skin I haven’t felt since girlhood. It’s done the wondrous thing of helping break me out of my creative shell, has connected me to people, given me some great opportunities.
These days, though, the money is running real low. After a few months of a lucky living situation in Brooklyn, I’m subletting a room in Manhattan for at least 3 months. I’ve got a jaw-dropping steal of deal considering where I am and how many Wall Street Journals are delivered to the building, but this rent means I’ve got to work more, and working more jobs means I’m working on my writing less.
I realize this is a problem both common and ages old. In and of itself, it's not necessarily a problem but a question, a confrontation of the choices I have to make. When I met with a friend this weekend, an artist I admire whose beautiful film installation I just went to see, my friend told me, “Few are able to do it.“ Meaning supporting themselves on their passions alone. “That’s why I teach.”
So, I’m still watching babies. I’m renting out videos to native New Yorkers at one of Manhattan’s last picture shops. I’m trying to design on a dime with old lamps and a foam-pad floor mattress. I believe it’s called minimalist.
Which is all fine, something I understand I have to do, and these are jobs that win the part-timer’s lottery. Still, sometimes it’s hard to remember what I’m doing when I find myself home too late from work, going to bed instead of doing my daily pages, or when I feel a nagging guilt while socializing. I figure I need to persist and enjoy it all, stop doubting. Realize that, all in all, I am lucky as hell, and happier than I’ve been in a while to boot. That I’ve got to see each of the things I do as a part of the little journey I’m on.
In the midst of my questioning and worry, I remember Rilke said this other thing, too. I wrote it down in a journal some time ago. It’s about what you do if you feel called to be a writer. He said, “...then accept that fate, bear its burden and its grandeur without asking for the reward...”
I remember also what my friend Harry, grouchy gold-hearted cynic and my new Manhattan roommate, says because he's been at this kind of thing for awhile.
“You’ve got to expect setbacks.”