The server came to our table, and in the perky manner that must nowadays be a server’s job requirement (“My qualifications are; extensive knowledge of fine dining, friendly, attentive, hard worker and I have a saccharine, perky voice that’s guaranteed to either warm your heart or kill your appetite.”), introduced herself and chirped, “I’ll be taking care of you today.”
“Taking care?” Were we in a restaurant or a nursing facility?
Lunch at Sailor Jack’s Restaurant in Benicia, a seafood joint named after Jack London who lived in the area during the early 1890’s. He was in his mid-twenties when he plied the local bay waters hunting “poachers.” During his off hours London hung out at The Jurgensen Old Corner Saloon, where he gathered material for his novel, John Barleycorn.
I was meeting a former coworker, only the second lunch that I’d had with a coworker since my retirement. Many had been planned with various former colleagues and all but two were canceled for one reason or another. I was always the bride left at the altar. I’m retired, I usually don’t have cause to cancel much of anything.
Over the years, those canceled lunches always left me with the feeling that I was no longer welcome to the party; old news. They, on the other hand, were still important people, busy doing important things, contributing to the economy. Me? Retired; a lotus eater.
Or maybe they all secretly hate me and never want to see me again, especially from across a table of food.
Coincidentally, on the day before my lunch date I decided to revisit LinkedIn, just to see what was going on. It had been at least a year, probably more, since I’d last logged on. After you’ve retired does LinkedIn really matter?
When I retired I didn’t even bother updating my profile. No clever new job title like, “Working at retired,” or “Gone fishing.”
I didn’t put up a cover photo flaunting the leisure life of the retiree. No photo of a Technicolor tropical sunset backlighting one of those umbrella drinks that contains vodka, three kinds of rum, a splash of brandy, a sweet liqueur and three different fruit juices. You know those drinks? They’re the ones that taste like a popsicle and then cause the ground to smack you in the face when you try to stand up.
The first thing I noticed when I reopened LinkedIn were the notifications – 192 of them to be exact. Maybe I was loved after all.
There were a few birthday greetings, congratulations for work anniversaries that never were and recruiters doing some fishing.
I caught up, virtually, on the lives of some of my contacts, many of them former colleagues from past jobs. Some had moved on to other companies and many had moved up their respective ladders.
A young woman who had been a clerk in the quality department is now manager of quality control. Buyers had become purchasing managers at other companies and accounting clerks had moved on to become controllers. A few of my contacts are now “working at retired.”
When I first retired, I was confident that if I wanted to go back to work I would have no problem finding a job. Was that the deep seated reason for not updating my profile? For all the rest of the working world knew, I was still happily employed and, just maybe, looking for a new job.
There were times when I entertained the idea of being a consultant, commanding a high six figure salary for ripping corporate org charts and time-tested procedures down to the studs and then offering to rebuild it all on a foundation of hocus-pocus. After all, what is a consultant but a guy who repurposes the ill-fated plans that got him fired from previous jobs, only to flim flam desperate CEOs into implementing them for his own company.
It happened at my last job. A team of consultants conned management into implementing a plan that was equal parts bullshit and horsefeathers.
The plan, and I use that term liberally, created pods made up of purchasers and salespeople and had purchasing managers directing salespeople and sales managers overseeing buyers. Sales managers had to grasp purchasing on the fly and purchasing managers had to learn the nuances of sales. These well intentioned and now flummoxed pod managers didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. The whole folly, mothballed after a few months, began with a blitzkrieg of staff purges that in the end, turned out to be needless.
I guess, my conscience got the better of me and I decided against consulting.
As I scrolled through LinkedIn and let the changes I was seeing soak in, I came to the depressing realization that working life wasn’t passing me by, it had flat left me behind.
During lunch my lost connection to the working world was made crystalline. My friend still talked in work-speak, a version of English that’s tortured with buzzwords, acronyms and made up titles; a dialect that was now only vaguely familiar. Like the Spanish phrases learned in high school that fell through the deep cracks of disuse and long forgotten by my third year of college, I’d lost my fluency in ERP.
I was like the distance runner who had fallen off the back of the pack, out of gas and out of gears, watching the race get further and further away with each step and not being able to do a damn thing about it.
I was feeling, as Joe Walsh put it so succinctly in song,
“Out to pasture
Think it’s safe to say”
Here I was, just over three years into retirement and I was bothered by the realization that I’d lost my identity.
Everyone else on LinkedIn had an identity, be it forklift driver, school teacher or director.
“To be or not to be?” said Hamlet, as he mulled over the idea of checking out.
There’s some real life relevancy to that line. If you aren’t being something, are you actually being?
What do you do–that is the question. A question that’s often irritated me.
Maybe it was because what I did just sounded uninspiring. I wasn’t a third baseman for the Yankees, or a professional surfer, or a Michelin starred chef. Hell, I wasn’t even a fry cook. People should marvel at the skills of fry cooks. I know I do. I think it’s amazing that one human can manage five different egg orders, a BLT, three burgers and a chicken fried steak all at once.
My answer? “Buyer.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
Cue the yawn.
Maybe the question was off putting because I realized that in the end, what you do determines who you are. And once that’s happened, you’ve been defined. Until (or if) someone gets to know you better, most everything else is secondary.
I was recently talking to a friend about this very subject and she made the point, the rather obvious one, that one’s identity is often joined at the hip to the workplace.
And why not? Eight hours a day, forty hours a week, fifty two weeks out of a year? You spend more waking hours with coworkers at the office than you do at home with family. Your colleagues are often your friends – or more. I once had a coworker who called me her “work husband” though the “bond” was never, you know, consummated.
“What do you do?”
I’ve always wanted to answer that question with Henry Fonda’s line in the movie Sometimes A Great Notion, “Work, sleep, eat, screw, drink and keep on going; and that’s all there is.”
Now retired, I could take out the “work” part. And the remainder? Well, sometimes there’s too much of some and not enough of the others.
For the longest time, I never had planned on “working at retired.” I figured that at 95 or some other doddering age I would face plant into my keyboard at work. “Somebody get HR on the phone – stat. We need a new buyer. The old one just broke and is beyond repair.”
It was January of 2018 and the company had just named a new purchasing manager. She wasn’t a new hire. She was one of the ayatollahs of sales and she was offered the double duty of purchasing manager.
What an opportunity. She, a poo-bah in sales, wouldn’t just have a finger in the purchasing pie, she would have her whole hand and arm, right up to the elbow in there. It was the sales manager’s wet dream; until it turned into the nightmare of being too much for one person.
Shortly after the coronation, she had one on one sit downs with members of the department and during my interview I stressed that I had no intention of retiring, a true story at the time.
Two months later my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was her fourth bout with cancer and it made me consider that maybe the idea of croaking on the job was a bit selfish.
On the day of surgery my daughter Jessica and I brought Cora to the hospital. After Cora was wheeled off to the operating room, Jessica and I went to the cafeteria, found a corner table and plugged in our computers so that we could work remotely.
Jessica got right to work while my computer wouldn’t connect to the company’s VPN. Frustrated, I decided that since my workplace was only twenty minutes away I would go in and have one of the IT boys fix the problem.
As I was driving down the floors of the parking structure I became increasingly troubled by what I was doing. My wife of nearly forty years was undergoing major surgery and there I was pissed off at my work computer and leaving the hospital to go get it fixed. By the time I reached the ground floor I mumbled a “fuck this,” turned the car around, parked and went back to the cafeteria. I’d gotten my head right and my priorities back in proper order.
The surgery was successful and after a few months of chemo all was well again. For me, the immediate aftermath was the realization that work had insinuated itself too deeply into my life. Work was becoming too much of who I was, or I was becoming work. Either way, the identities were fusing.
It wasn’t always like that.
Mike Curtis was the best man or woman I ever worked for. Must’ve been twenty years ago. He made it clear that work was work and life was life and never, ever, would those twain ever fucking meet.
Mike was a decent man who looked after his staff. Do your job and he’d go to the wall for you. The owner of the company was a bigoted old skinflint but Mike had no qualms about going toe to toe with the old bastard when it came to matters of integrity.
One day I told him that I’d been given the opportunity to coach high school cross country and I asked him if I could adjust my hours to accommodate it.
Without hesitation he told me that I could adjust them anyway I saw fit. “That’s what defines you,” he said with an intensity that I’ll never forget. “This bullshit here isn’t who you are. Get your stuff done and do whatever you have to.”
Just yesterday I looked for Mike on LinkedIn. He left the job 11 years ago. I don’t even know if he’s still around, and, sadly, I mean that in the most important sense. A few years older than me, Mike smoked far too much and drank enough coffee to float an aircraft carrier.
I wonder if the Mikes of the world still have a spot in the workplace.
A few days after Cora’s surgery, I was in the boss’ office.
“Do you have a couple minutes?” I asked.
As soon as I sat down, she beat me to the punch, “You’re going to retire.”
My last day was September 14th, 2018.
Back at lunch, our sprightly server placed a platter of fish and chips in front of me and skipped away as my former coworker caught me up on the news, well, dirt, from work.
She told me about employees who had moved up, moved sideways or moved on, some by choice and others summarily escorted out the door.
She didn’t have to recite chapter and verse about the office culture. Just hearing her voice it was all coming back to me, the recurring bad dream, complete with the cold shivers and gut pain. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” wrote the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. Yes, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Work indeed had passed me by, and as I dipped bits of fried cod into a little cup of tartar sauce, I realized that this was a good thing.
During breaks in the conversation as we ate our meals, I recalled what I’d left behind.
The endless strings of meetings, carrying my laptop from one conference room to the next, meeting upon meeting upon meeting. We stared blankly at self-important people who surely were secretly having orgasms listening to the sounds of their own voice. They would blather incessantly while I glanced at my watch and realized the lost hours I would never get back.
I was reminded of the ass covering, finger pointing threads of emails investigating a mishap. It could have been a shipment of wine bottles arriving at the customer’s warehouse an hour late. Maybe it was an incorrect delivery or damaged goods arriving at our own warehouse.
Misfortune was escalated to global proportions with all the hoo hah that would make a senate investigation pale by comparison. With each email, a new manager was added to the conversation, fresh accusations arose and it seemed as if civilization itself was on the very brink.
In the end everyone involved was instructed to write a detailed history of his or her understanding of how the felony came to be. Hours and hours of pouring through old emails, copying, pasting and composing a narrative that would keep one’s head from the guillotine. Try to point the bony figure at John or Jane without really pointing the finger.
There were the cost cutting cullings of the herd when long time friends and coworkers skulked out the door, carrying Bankers Boxes filled with their personal items; photos, a coffee mug, and various other gimcracks that once adorned now empty desks. Awkward goodbyes and then a sigh of relief that I’d survived the cut.
As my coworker went on it occurred to me that work hadn’t left me behind so much as I’d let work pass me by. During my waning work years, disillusion had turned to disgust as I realized that work was becoming ceaseless. The line that once existed at 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon was being erased.
If something came up at 8 in the evening on a Saturday night, you were expected to turn off the basketball game and address the problem. Coworkers brought computers on vacation or interrupted dinner out with the family to respond to an email. It was a new normal that I chose not to accept.
If the forty hour work week was becoming a dinosaur I was bound and determined to head off to extinction along with it.
I held on firmly to the adage that my dad oft repeated, “I work to live, I don’t live to work.”
Still, more and more I was watching people living to work, whether they realized it or not, whether they wanted to or not. I marveled at the emails I received that were time stamped, two in the morning. Who does that? And why? That shit used to wait until the workday actually began. Now it was never ending.
Ah, here’s a disgruntled employee if there ever was one, you might be thinking. You might be right. I spent seven years with that company. When I started it was, how should I put it, eccentric. But with all the quirkiness it was still a good place to be. There was a camaraderie, strained at times, but still a camaraderie. When a private equity firm bought the company, the joy and personality of the place was sucked right out.
My friend and former coworker headed back to her home office.
Before heading home from lunch I stopped by the old Benicia cemetery to take photos of crumbling grave sites that date back to the mid-nineteenth century. I don’t know that I was really interested in the cemetery itself. I have hundreds of photos taken at cemeteries, much older than the graveyard in Benicia. I think maybe I just stopped and strolled the old grounds because I could, because I didn’t have to go back to an office. I wanted to make that point to myself.
Funny thing, even though I’m now “working at retired,” I still find myself fielding the same question, “What do you do?”
Well, I sleep, eat, screw, drink and keep on going. Oh and I write, I take photographs, set my own schedule, and don’t answer to anyone except the tax man, the wife and my dog, not necessarily in that order. I also take six week road trips to wherever I want to go and whenever it suits me.
When I got back home from lunch I updated my LinkedIn profile.
No longer a buyer, I’m now a writer. A hack maybe, but still a writer.