The Land

Ah, winter’s angry hold has finally broken.  The first signs of Spring in Washington are upon us – namely, fleets of landscapers out preparing our corporate greenspaces for the warm weather.

Whilst they labor with their hoes and clippers, surrounded by bags of mulch and soil, I’m somewhat nostalgic about my own attempt to change my direction in life.

It was 1999 and I had left my editor position at the Associated Press.  It was that or blow my brains out.  Or remove my boss’s testicles, fry them in my shit, and then serve them to him cold…which is something I still want to do.

I had a good five months of unemployment – largely spent recovering from the stress of the AP job and trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life.  Since, at that point, I was in severe pain, I didn’t see too many options.  The big push was for me to go and get my Masters degree, but my only interest was unemployable history, and I didn’t want to teach.  Also, I really liked making money.  The five months unemployed was cushioned by reserves from the AP job and, with newfound free time, I was able to discover that money was neat.

I tried my hand at writing the Great American Novel – the early draft of a tale of three misanthropic losers who survive the apocalypse and aren’t really broken up about it.  I soon learned that my brain is too addled to carry out coherent thoughts for more than 500 words, so that fell apart.  Though I would, eventually, finish the novel in 2003, largely because I needed to shim up my coffee table.

I moved on to figuring out how I could work from home – then almost a necessity as I was frequently bedridden due to my little long-term illness.  But, besides that, sick or healthy, I really wanted to make money and never change out of my bathrobe.  And drink gin for breakfast.

I became a freelance business reporter, working primarily for a British magazine profiling North American companies that were expanding into Europe.  The overall theme was military and hardware stuff.  Private companies of the Blackwater sort, except much smaller, selling Death Helicopters to tiny European countries.  Or, more often, nameless widgets intended to be the missing piece in Freedonia’s own Death Helicopter development.  Lots of money in widgets.  It’s the future!

(By “widget,” I really mean “paramilitary troops.”  But, sshh… America does not have a 230 year history of hiring gun-crazed lunatics, arming them, and then sending them off to unfortunate parts of the world or onto the high seas to interrupt commerce and serve the whims of extraordinarily violent dictators.)

I made around $400 a week, about a dollar a word for the short articles assigned by a ditzy editor.  Of course, this was a freelance gig, so that weekly pay took about six weeks to arrive, and then it was taxed in exciting and unique ways at the end of the year.  (My longtime weekend job, at that point in my life, was only scoring me one 8 hour gig a month at $15 an hour.)

The job itself, despite involving instruments of terror and destruction, was hideously tedious.  No matter how cool the Death Helicopter may be, the article is about the company’s expansion into Europe.  So I would call up and play phone tag with pencil-necked, uber-paranoid, hyper-medicated corporate geeks and we’d talk about employment figures, locations, and just how dull life is.

Meanwhile, the AP money was running out, and the fanciful whimsy of the accounting department at the magazine wasn’t quite jiving with reality.  So I bit the bullet and started looking for a real job.

Since high school, I had harbored an unwritten novel in the Mark Leyner style.  A fictional autobiography where I was a famous author who had elevated to the political stage, performed countless atrocities, brought the world to the brink of war, then fled the limelight and lived in small town America under an assumed name, working as a lowly gardener.

A student reporter from the local college found out who I was and strong-armed me into talking about the story of my life…which, of course, was a light-hearted parody of Mein Kampf.  The title was “The Struggle,”

Part of that story came to me while I was actually landscaping over the summer of 93.  Nothing official, just a few neighbors who wanted some limited yard service.  But I found myself at peace for the first time in my life.  I was out in the yard, isolated from everyone.

Of course, by the end of the summer, I was having animated conversations with myself and digging holes for no reason.  But, god, I loved working through the day without fucking talking or interacting with anyone.

When it came time to change my life, choose a new direction, and find a job, I decided to go into landscaping with professionals.  And nobody would hire me.  Probably because I was dressing up and treating the interviews like real jobs.  So I’d walk in where the boss was in t-shirt and jeans, covered with filth, and stand there in suit and tie and hand over my resume.  As opposed to Hector out in the lot whose main job qualification was “not drunk too often.”

With a few people, I even broke down and told them all about my dream.  I want to be out there with a shovel, man.  I want to mulch!  I want to labor under the sun.  I want to be a field hand.  I want to be nobody, and I want to fade away into the designer shrubbery of the truly blessed people.

After a month, with almost daily attempts, I gave up and took a job in a soulless service center jammed into the top floor of the old Woodward Building on 15th Street.  Now high-rent condos, the Woodward Building in 1999 was a nearly condemned early 20th century office block where your air conditioning was struggling to open up the rotting windows, and heat was extra blankets.

I’ve been in the phone service industry for the last decade.  Now I work in a more modern building with windows that never open, but it certainly feels like the direction I chose for my life was, simply, to stop moving.  I still think it would be nice to get into landscaping, or working as a groundskeeper somewhere.  As, each year, we pull out of the dark days of winter, and my unchanging path from the Metro to work takes on the character of early spring, I’m always on the verge of giving up.  How I would love to be one of those dressed down people covered in dirt and working out there in the flower beds, trimming trees, and getting the CNN corporate plaza ready to bloom. Surrounded by a river of commuters, and yet seemingly as isolated as a man living in a deep mountain shack.  The green thumb version of the great unseen masses who keep our cities running.  Some beat up van full of mulch parked crazily on the sidewalk, impeding progress, offending the dayworkers.

And while everyone answers phones and shuffles papers from behind tightly sealed suicide-proof windows, those people are out there in the early spring sun, breathing real air, relaxing on the tailgate of their truck at lunch and watching the world go by.

Every March, I contemplate throwing everything away, and update my resume for a potential landscaping job:  July 1993-March 2009 – Did not get drunk too often.

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