Sure, according to the clear directions of my dream, it was going to be one of those frustrating days where I duck into the used-book-store for a morning coffee and the chance to smell decomposing paperbacks. And just stepping in I’d see that now it was 7 am, like an hour earlier than it could possibly be and that I’d already be late for work, and every minute that I spend there I’m a half-hour later although every clock moves backwards three minutes, the way you’d expect. Well, before you know it, I’m up on the roof of the old church, balancing everything I have just barely as I sit down to some serious writing. And then there’s a bunch of crows on the next roof glaring at me. Plus there’s this ostrich who keeps projecting her head out from the building and through the cupola windows to come just close enough that I think she’s going to snap at my hand. But the worst part is that in the dream I was putting on paper exactly the letter needed to reconnect with that estranged friend. And when I woke up I couldn’t think of a single word I had written. But at least I had it right for a little bit.
It’s hard to avoid thinking about the end of the world sometimes. I suppose most of us figure the world’s got to end sooner or later. Most of us are banking on later. If it’s any sooner than that we don’t want to know about it. Except there are people who want to know about it. And who figure they know about it coming sometime soon. Where this gets me is I remember hearing years ago about how Russia had scads of groups of people figuring the end of the world was near. There were enough groups bunkered down in … bunkers … somewhere that it was causing a crisis in bunker space. Apparently the Russian government had an office of people trained to deal with groups bunkered down for the end of the world.
That’s the sort of thought sure to last long in my mind. First there’s how some people work in the Office of Talking Groups Out Of Their End-Of-The-World Bunkers. That’s either a job that you spend years aiming yourself at, or else it’s one you stumble into without meaning it. Either way is a heck of a story. More of a story than how people end up at whatever factories make those tiny little cocktail-drink flags on toothpicks. But that’s because of what the job is about. There’s still something weird that anybody has either of these jobs at all. Oh, and then there’s the regular old administration and support staff. They must need good transcriptionists at the Office of Talking Groups Out Of Their End-Of-The-World Bunkers. That’s got to be the table at the farthest, strangest corner at Transcriptionist School.
But it’s the mainline officers I wonder about. The people who go out to a group that’s all gathered in some secure spot waiting for the end of the world. The job is to talk them out of the bunker, but, how? What is there to even talk about? I know what a mess I’d make of the job. I’d go up to the door and wave at the security camera. We get some communication going somehow. They call me on my cell phone and then someone reminds me I left my cell phone in my messenger bag, on the chair we don’t otherwise need, at the dining table, back home. I’m always doing this and it never makes my life easier. But let’s pretend that I’ve got my phone, which is the least plausible part of this scenario.
“Come on out,” I bet you I’d say. “The world isn’t ending anytime soon.”
And then they say, “Shan’t. The world is coming to an end really very soon, and we’re going to hide.”
“Well, if it is going to end soon, what good is it staying in a bunker like that? The bunker” — and here you see the reasoning skills that earned me a PhD in mathematics but not work in mathematics — “is located inside the world.” (I’m assuming they’re not bunkered down in a space station, for the fourth most obvious reason.)
“That’s as may be,” comes back the voice, “But we’re fairly sure this is the part of the world that’s going to end last.”
And at that point I’m stumped. I can’t think of evidence that would prove my proposition that the world isn’t ending soon, or that if it does end it’s going to end there last. I’m assuming they want to be part of the last group that’s ended, to see if there’s anything good in the world’s closing credits. Start with the end of the world and there’s not a lot of places to go. Yes, yes, I know this is a fallacy. Of course you end with the end of the world. But you know what I’m getting at and I thought we were friends here. But what could I offer an incentive to come out and stop all this hiding away in caves or bunkers or whatever in Russia somewhere? (Also they’ve hit one of my weaknesses. I love when people say “shan’t”. If they only started bunkering so that they could say “shan’t” to a person who urged them to come out, then I’m on their side.)
Of course, I lack training. They must prepare new hires on simpler assignments. Perhaps new hires talk with groups that are holed up and waiting for the end of smaller things, such as Thursdays, or ironic detachment, or baked goods. I don’t know how I’d deal with those either. But the consequences of my failure would be less. Or consequences of my success. Wouldn’t it be my luck to talk a group out of their end-of-the-world bunker, and then the world comes up and ends right then and there? Think of the humiliation! I want to hole up and hide from that today and it hasn’t even happened. Oh, gosh, what if there’s some misunderstanding and that’s what all those scad groups were really hiding from? That could change everything.
I just want someone to reassure me that I’m exactly right in what I’m doing and what I figure to do and anyone saying anything to the contrary is so wrong I don’t have to even answer. Is that too much? Clumsy mention of my mathematics blog reviewing comic strips here.
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.
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.