Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Down and Out in Hipsterville

It may come to this...
"So one day Jimmy brung his wife inta work, and man! Was she ever ugly! Next day, when Jimmy come in, I let him have it: 'That's some wife you got there! She's a real dog, Jimmy! D'you put her on a leash when you take her out? You keep her in a kennel while you're at work?' He didn't talk to me for maybe a year after that."

Darlene, my comrade at the reception desk, is recounting her days as a sawyer at a lumber mill in rural Oregon. As the mill's only female laborer, and only black employee, she tells me, it wasn't easy to prove herself and gain the grudging approval of her colleagues. With her skill for acerbic verbal jabs, steady work performance and willingness to punch out the odd good-ol'-boy who got a little too fresh with her, she eventually earned their respect. I'm pretty easygoing by nature, and the reception desk where we're sitting is light years removed from the mill, but I'm taking the story's message to heart: I definitely want to stay on Darlene's good side.

So far, so good. I don't seem to have offended her yet, though it appears she hasn't quite made up her mind about me one way or the other. The job is absurdly easy; aside from the occasional administrative task, I mostly just sit there. All Darlene asks is that I organize my breaks so that she can leave in time to catch her bus. She doesn't appear to care if I do anything else at all. As soon as I sit down in the morning, she encourages me to go upstairs and fix some coffee, or to peruse the goods at the grocery store across the street.

It's excruciatingly boring, but I don't care. It's work, and I'm broke. While the quest for a rewarding, meaningful, benefited job continues, in the meantime I'll take whatever the temp agency throws at me.

Which, so far, has not been much. Even though I try to reduce my expenses to rent, food and the occasional, modest social outing, the money I've earned temping so far has not come close to covering these costs.

I've never had much money, but I've rarely felt as aware of my relative poverty as I do right now. Which is perhaps not surprising, since up 'til now I've (sometimes unwittingly) managed to adopt the following strategies:

Free housing, South Sudan style
(1) Isolate yourself somewhere where there's almost nothing to buy.  I recommend South Sudan, small-town Michigan and the Canadian Arctic. That way, when the consumerism bug bites, at worst you'll drop two bucks on a pair of cheap flip-flops, a root beer float, or a bowl of caribou soup so bland you'll never be tempted to order one again.

(2) Work for food (and a place to crash). The digs might not be stylish, nor the grub gourmet, but hey- they're free. Get rid of housing and food expenses, and even the stingiest stipend starts sounding pretty good. 

Low-budget entertainment

(3) Surround yourself with people who are at least as reluctant to spend money as you are. In Missoula, some students I knew tried to survive for a week off of food scrounged from dumpsters, just for kicks. (Though they gave up after four days of nothing but bread, I was inspired by their dedication.) Our compound guard in Uganda, meanwhile, spent nothing. He lived off the harvest from his home village and was saving all of his earnings to begin to replace his family's livestock, which had been pillaged during the war there. After a chat with him, I felt guilty leaving the compound for a $5 dinner out in town. 

Alas, such techniques are not so readily employed in Seattle. First, there are plenty of pretty tempting ways to spend money here: on roller derby tickets, Asian foot massage, artisan beer tastings, writing workshops, trapeze classes, ski weekends, indie film fests, home canning lessons. I haven't been able to find a job that offers regular compensation of any kind, let alone room and board. And my friends here, lovely as they are, enjoy expensive cocktails and ski vacations and Groupon deals for rowing lessons. I can't blame them, but I can't always join them, either.

And so it's a relief when, before clocking out on Wednesday, Darlene tells me, "We'll miss you tomorrow." I'll be back on Monday for another three days at the reception desk, and apparently I've earned Darlene's approval. It ain't much, but these days, I'll take anything I can get.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Not what I had in mind: How I found Seattle for the first time (Part II)

This is the second installment of a two-part series. You might want to read part I first. 

"The distinguishing mark of true adventures is that it is often no fun at all while they are actually happening." 
-Kim Stanley Robinson

Early in my second year at McGill, I discovered a book that would change my life. 

I had returned to Montreal with some reluctance. I felt like a sheep being herded along some safe, established path, without really knowing where I was going or why. I wanted to strike out on my own, but didn't really know how, and was afraid of what might happen if I didn't have some kind of plausible alternate plan. For one, my academically-focused parents might possibly disown me. I needed to convince them that I could fend for myself outside the confines of school, and maybe even do something worthwhile while I was at it. 

And then came Work Your Way Around the World, perched innocuously on the "careers" shelf of the University Bookstore. Continent by continent, it detailed work and volunteer opportunities for the aspiring vagabond, from freelance blueberry picking in Norway to vegetable gardening at remote Andean orphanages. The book provided contact information for thousands of organizations and testimony from actual people who had dived in and lived to tell the tale. 

There was enough in that book to keep me busy for several years, at least. It was just the boost that I needed. I made two rules for myself: (1) Do only things that you find interesting and exciting; and (2) Earn your keep. No crawling back home to ask for money. At the end of the school year, I informed the registrar's office that I'd be taking some time off, and all of a sudden, I was free.

Six months later, when the Greyhound bus spat me out in downtown Seattle after a delirious 24-hour ride up I-5, freedom didn't seem so sweet. I had blown almost all of my summer savings on a police car that had burned to a crisp in the Sierra foothills a week after I had bought it. My plans to farm my way up the coast were bust. I no longer cared if I found something "interesting and exciting" to do; I merely wanted to recover some of that money, before the holidays if possible.

I landed a minimum wage job running the register and washing dishes at a pizza joint in the University District. Besides my sister and her small social circle, I didn't know anyone in town. This was okay, as it meant I wasn't tempted to spend money. But I was miserable. Occasionally, through a break in the autumn skies, I'd catch a glimpse of Mount Rainier, hovering phantom-like on the southern horizon, or the jagged Olympic range to the west. I felt that I would really like it here, if circumstances were a bit different. As it was, I simply observed, wandering from the library to the supermarket to the waterfront. My bank account slowly filled up again. I chipped in for rent. 

The fact that this was only temporary kept me sane. I bussed over to Missoula to check out its Forestry School, and felt more at home there after one weekend than I had after two years in Montreal. I also completed an application with Frontiers Foundation, which sent volunteers to indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic to help in schools. To my great relief, it was accepted, and I'd be leaving for Tsiigehtchic, a tiny Gwich'in town at the confluence of the MacKenzie and the Arctic Red Rivers, on February 1st.

So I tried my best to enjoy the present. At the pizza joint, we competed to see who could fold pizza boxes or assemble a respectable pie the fastest and shared stories about the odd characters who came in off the Ave. But I felt slightly guilty the whole time. It was a huge release when I finally turned in my notice and caught a plane home, armed with plans for an adventure in the Arctic.

Had I been a bit more shrewd, I might have added a third rule to my list, one that would have saved me a good deal of grief in the future: Avoid expectations. Nothing is ever what you have in mind.