Ian Shoales: Temp Work


Ian Shoales, as I said in introducing this week, was the creation of Merle Kessler, and he’s a great character: sneering and cranky without, at least for me, losing his likability, even if I probably wouldn’t want to spend too much time with him. Kessler developed Shoales’s persona with a biography full of the frustrated ambitions that sound right for someone aiming to be a creative success and carrying on even though the lottery of fame doesn’t pay out much. Shoales’s life is marked with failed relationships and annoyed bosses and indignities petty and grand. I don’t know whether Kessler, or anyone he knew, ever was sued for libel by his high school principal, but it’s the kind of thing I find easy to imagine happening to someone like him, and to see it mentioned as an aside in an essay on, oh, say, Elvis Presley has an electrifying effect that I didn’t realize I wasn’t getting from Dave Barry or old Bob Newhart records (much as I cherished them).

Here, from 1984, is one of these partly biographically-informed essays by Ian Shoales. I can believe that what he describes in the first paragraph really happened, if not to Kessler then to someone. While it’s all quite funny, to me anyway, it’s also all fairly good advice if you’re hoping to make it as an artist. If I ever give it a try I’ll take this advice.


Temp Work

Along the way to my present success I’ve had to work for a living, usually at “temp work”, as it’s called in professional circles. I have moved furniture, filed, typed, answered phones, and I probably have the world’s record for getting fired. This is because I’d show up at work unshaven, wearing sunglasses, and not wearing socks. I figured, “I’m not an executive, who’s gonna care?” Well, after my third temp job in a week, I finally took Mom’s long-distance advice, and got a beige seersucker three-piece for five bucks at Goodwill. It fit me like a glove, and I wore it to my next temp job. But when the permanent employees saw me approach the water cooler, they all scattered. Nobody would come near me. Finally a little bald guy worked up the courage to ask me who I was. He had me pegged as some corporate honcho checking up on worker efficiency, I guess, because when I told him I was a temp worker, a look of relief passed over his face. Then he replaced that look with one of utter disregard. By noon, all employee fear of me had vanished. So the next day my suit vanished to be replaced by blue jeans, and the next day my job vanished to be replaced by poverty.

But if you’re an artist of any kind, it means you’re going to have to get the kind of job you get till you get to do what you want to do. So let me give you some advice about the temp-worker scene.

  • Never drink beer at your desk. Supervisors don’t like it.
  • Permanent employees probably won’t appreciate your Joe Cocker impression.
  • If you’re moving furniture, don’t move a desk if somebody’s sitting at it.
  • Never call corporate executives by their first name, or ask them if they want to play a couple of holes on Saturday.
  • Don’t try to find Pac Man on the personal computer unless you’re invited by your supervisor.
  • Never ask the supervisor for a date.
  • If you’re answering the company phone, say, “Hello,” not, “Yeah, what do ya want?”
  • I know temp work can get dull, but never rearrange the filing system without permission.
  • Don’t rewrite business letters in blank verse.
  • If you’re supposed to show up at work on Tuesday don’t come in on Wednesday.

I know this is basic stuff, but don’t draw faces with white-out on the desk; don’t make jewelry out of the paper clips; don’t compose melodies on the Touch-Tone phone; don’t ask to borrow the Selectric overnight — remember always, you’re just a ghost in the working world.

Somebody will eventually publish the 1,500-page rock-and-roll novel gathering dust in your sock drawer. Your ship will come in, and then you’ll have temps of your own. And they better not call you by your first name.

         — Not rich, 1/15/84.

Ian Shoales: The Perfect City


In the overnight hours of the 1990s there was a news broadcast called World News Now. There still is. Back then, they had regular appearances from a commenter, Ian Shoales. He was, as one of the anchors put it, an “amphetamined prince of darkness”, reading wordy comic essays at rapid-fire speed and signing off with, “I gotta go.” And so I encountered his writing at just the right moment for it to hit me, deeply. For a while I tried imitating his voice in my own comic writing, which resulted in my learning that whatever my natural comic voice was, it wasn’t very much like Ian Shoales’s.

Ian Shoales was, and I suppose still is, a character created by Merle Kessler, one of the Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater troupe, a comedy band you maybe remember from either Nickelodeon’s mock-talk-show Out Of Control or MTV’s Randee of the Redwoods, or possibly from the Ask Doctor Science radio/web feature. Obviously, I’m a fan; I also realize I’m learning still from his writing.

I’d like more people to be aware of his writing, though, and I’m somehow feeling a little too lazy just to look up what YouTube videos there must be of his World News Now appearances. So I’m making this a little Ian Shoales week, with essays from I Gotta Go, his 1985 collection. My copy is signed by Merle Kessler. I got it from the library’s used-book-store section.

For the first piece, let me offer “The Perfect City”, which I think gives a fine idea of his character’s cranky yet appealing personality.

Later in the decade Kessler would publish Ian Shoales’s Perfect World, a novel, which is only loosely connected to what’s described in this piece. It’s also kind of a weird book, although I haven’t had a copy to read in long enough that I can’t swear that reading it is necessarily a good idea.


The Perfect City

If this were a perfect world we’d have at least one perfect city. The perfect city would look a bit like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, without the worker problems and without the electronic music. In the perfect city, big-band jazz would be broadcast nightly on the streets, which would be paved with bricks and lined with elm and maple trees.

The only dogs allowed would be African basenjis, which cannot bark and would be trained to curb themselves. All cars would float on silent cushions of air. All the cops would ride horses. There are no pigeons and no statues.

In the perfect city, automatic tellers would spew cash at random every half hour or so, the concerts would all be free, all be reggae music, and never be crowded. Drinks are half price, and it is always early autumn in the perfect city.

In the perfect city, Woody Allen would be funny again, Steven Spielberg would take a vacation, and there would be a Kurosawa festival once a month. Westerns would make a comeback, and theater seats would be six bucks tops. Critics would be wise, enthusiastic, and fair, and so with the artists of the city. No art after 1900 would be displayed in the museums. Admission to museums would be free, and large groups of children would stay well away until I had left the building.

I would never be put on hold in the perfect city.

In the perfect city, all parties would be “by invitation only”, and guests would receive cash prizes when they went through the door. I would be invited to all these parties, and no matter how rude I became, I would never be asked to leave.

In the perfect city there would be a twenty-four-hour French restaurant but all the entreés would be under five bucks. The waiters would be named Mac and the waitresses would all call you Honey.

In the perfect city, clothing would be well cut, sharp, swell, and inexpensive. People would roam the streets in formal evening wear. In the perfect city, I would have a nickname like “Spats” or “Captain Danger”. Every newsboy, flower seller, and cabbie would know my name; even the muggers would know my name. The mayor would call me for advice, my quips would be legendary in the society columns, the library would be well stocked, and super heroes and heroines would drift lazily among the skyscraper peaks, seeking out wrongdoers everywhere.

The shower in my apartment would be hot and powerful, and all my neighbors would work nights. Women would laugh at my jokes, and men wouldn’t tell them. Guitars would stay in tune. I would have many friends, and they would not ask me for money. They would all have jobs, and their jobs would be good. I would have my own news program, in which I would bring bad news to the perfect city, but nobody would mind, because everybody would know I had a bad attitude anyway.

Women would stay with me longer than two months, or if they left they’d at least leave their record collections, which would include all recordings by the Ramones. And they’d leave me a record player. And some money.

All transportation is free, including tickets out of town. And down those mean streets a man would go, who was not himself afraid, and that would be me, the oldest pro on the block. Ian “Captain Danger” Shoales. In the perfect city.

        — Watching the pigeons, 10/15/84.