The Union Project
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” –Studs Terkel
When my friend Sara asks me to work a catering gig, a hipster-ish wedding in a rehabbed church called The Union Project, I say, “I am so in,” and she says, “Really?” as if she expected me to say no.
It’s been years since I’ve done restaurant work of any kind and I miss it. My first jobs were in kitchens and restaurants and, eventually, on airplanes, but I’ve spent the past 17 years writing books and teaching writing to college students.
It still feels awkward and embarrassing to say writer and college professor, though that is what I am and I love what I do. My students are sweet and earnest. Many of them are working-class, first-generation college students as I was. I could do without academic politics and academics that speak through their noses as if their giant brains have squashed their sinuses, but I know my luck.
Some days, I feel like I smuggled myself in and stuck, a wad of gum under my nice professorial desk. I worry people will out me. Imposter syndrome, magazines call it, but it’s not a real syndrome because many people have it.
Lots of us worry over our rightful place in the world.
* * *
“The pitcher cries for water to carry,” the author Marge Piercy wrote, “and the person for work that is real.”
The work I do is sedentary, head-based, abstract, and I sometimes worry about my own usefulness. I miss other kinds of jobs—concrete, physical work, the kind where you can see a measurable, tangible result. Paint walls blue and, at the end of the day, you have a room the color of the sky. Dust a room and a small bit of the world is orderly, all sunlight and lemons.
Teaching and writing are useful, too, but they can feel weightless. It can take years to know if you’re doing any good or not.
This catering job is different.
“You’re going to love her meatballs,” Sara says about the caterer.
The caterer’s specialty is lamb-and-feta meatballs. Lamb-and- feta meatballs are neither abstract nor weightless. They are simple and delicious, unless you’re vegetarian, in which case the caterer also makes a lovely and cruelty-free bruschetta.
Sara and I will serve said meatballs and bruschetta on silver trays to wedding guests, who will dab their lips with cocktail napkins and take seconds and thirds, and Sara and I will smile and the guests will smile and everyone will go off happy into the night, amen.
“To be of use,” Marge Piercy would call this kind of exchange.
* * *
Marge Piercy was born in Detroit to a working-class family. She was the first in her family to graduate college, and one of the first writers I loved. Marge Piercy wrote about women I knew and recognized, though she lives in Wellfleet, Mass. now. Wellfleet is known for its oysters and Noam Chomsky. It’s the kind of place where summer is a verb.
But years ago, working-class Marge Piercy taught me that even though writing can feel frivolous, it’s useful because it helps us stick around a while.
“Our work is to say: remember,” she said. “Remember us. Remember me.”
As long as people read, she said, everyone we love survives.
It’s a romantic thought and one I pass to my students because I want it to be true.
* * *
Raised with physical work, I know enough not to romanticize it. Raised with physical work, I have a hard time seeing what I do for a living as real.
“It’s only work if it shows in your hands,” my grandmother Ethel used to say. Then she’d look at my hands—smooth, long-fingered, foreign—and frown.
* * *
“You don’t know what work is,” the poet Phil Levine wrote. I think he was talking to himself and to me and to everyone like us, too—people who grew up one way and then, through luck or hard work or both, ended up somewhere else.
Phil Levine went from working in Detroit at Chevrolet and Cadillac to sneaking into the University of Iowa and studying with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He went from earning a mail-order master’s degree to finishing his MFA at Iowa, the best writing program in the country. He ended up teaching at universities for the rest of his life—Stanford and NYU and Columbia and Princeton and Berkeley among them.
All that time, he never stopped writing about work or workers. Some critics mocked him for that, even after he won the National Book Award, even after he was named Poet Laureate. They said his poems had too many working people in them. They said he worked hard at reminding everyone he’d been a peasant.
That’s the cost, maybe, of straddling worlds.
* * *
“Would you give me one reason why I should consider this poetry?” the critic Helen Vendler said about Phil Levine’s work.
She didn’t like that his poems included things like lunch pails and salami sandwiches. Helen Vendler liked poems that were more Keats-ian. She called Phil Levine kitschy, another Rod McKuen. He called her elitist and “deaf to poetry.”
* * *
My father, the millworker, used to say, “Don’t be like me. Don’t work with your hands.”
The story goes, when my parents first visited me in the orphanage, my father took a look at one-year-old me and said, “This one’s smart. I can see it in her eyes. She’ll go to college.”
My parents adopted me shortly after that, and my father made his prediction come true. His hard work paid for my tuition. It paid my rent and it paid for books. Sometimes it paid my bar tab.
When my father was angry with me, he’d say, “Little Miss College,” his worst insult.
He’d say, “I have more brains in my ass than you have in your head. I don’t need college to tell me that.”
He’d say, “You think you’re too good for this?” meaning the life he gave me, which wasn’t the life I’d been born into, which wasn’t my own life at all.
* * *
A picture of Phil Levine hangs in my living room.
A picture of my father hangs there, too.
They’re the last things I see when I leave my house in the morning and the first things I see when I get home.
“Remember where you came from,” my father would say.
* * *
As an adopted person, remembering where I came from is difficult. I don’t understand roots. I’ve always wanted to belong, but I pride myself in not belonging. Both desires are sincere. Both make me feel a little lost.
* * *
I look forward to the catering gig for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and a big one I haven’t.
I need the money.
A catering job means cash in hand. It means tips in an envelope. Taxes are coming due and our bathtub leaks and my kids need new shoes and expect some kind of summer vacation. Lately I’ve been eyeballing our roof and begging it not to leak and our gutters to hold out one more year.
My professor job doesn’t pay what my students think it pays. My students think I’m rich. They expect me to take them to dinner at the end of the semester. They expect pizzas.
Sometimes I buy pizzas. I buy doughnuts. I bake bread and feed it to my students in class. I buy my students books. I put my love for them on credit cards.
I lie to my husband about how much I’m spending.
I lie to myself about how much I’m spending.
My husband says, “Stop buying your students’ love,” but I don’t think that’s what I’m doing.
I’m embarrassed not to make what my students think I make, as if my salary is a reflection of the kind of education they’re getting. I’m embarrassed not to make what my students think I make, as if my salary is a reflection of my own failures.
Sometimes, when my students ask for advice about graduate schools, they’ll say, “I’m going to be a writer and an English professor, like you,” and I say, “That’s great. Let’s look at back-up plans, too.”
I tell them not to pay for graduate school. I tell them to be sure they get scholarships, assistantships. I tell them not to take out any more loans.
I don’t talk much about how adjunct professor salaries are much worse than my own and how an adjunct could make more as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
I don’t tell them about my husband, who went to graduate school for writing like me and ended up in his 40s with three published novels, going back for another masters, in social work because there were no professor jobs for him. I don’t say that my salary after 17 years as a college professor is just a little more than I would be making if I’d stayed in my previous job with the airlines.
Flight attendants have flight benefits, so they fly for free.
Flight attendants have nice layovers in hotels I can’t afford anymore.
I’d have to calculate that.
* * *
It turns out the bride whose wedding I’ll be working is a former student.
Stacy’s not only a former student; she’s one of my best former students. Years ago, she finished a novel as her senior project. The novel was a good draft about a lovely and smart small-town girl who has a pregnancy scare that leads her to ditch her guitar-strumming slacker boyfriend and follow her dreams to become a famous novelist.
The novel showed promise, though Stacy didn’t publish it after graduation.
“The world keeps getting in the way,” she told me the first few times we ran into each other and I asked about her writing. After a while, when I saw her, I stopped asking about writing because it seemed to make her feel awful to answer.
Stacy used to babysit my kids when they were very young and I had to teach night classes. She’s a teacher herself, now, elementary school kids, and I’m sure she’s wonderful and loved, though I know more about her from Facebook than from real life because we haven’t seen each other in a while, because she has been replaced by other students, and I have been replaced by everything in her life.
“Is it going to be weird?” Sara wants to know when I mention that the bride is my former student, and it didn’t occur to me that it might be.
* * *
I believe in the universe and serendipity.
I imagine the surprise on my former student’s face. I imagine what it would be like to have your former writing professor dole you some meatballs.
I see myself all in black, my apron covered in frosting from slicing wedding cake, everything about me sticky. I see myself bagging trash that sloshes into my sensible shoes. I smell like cold chicken marsala and grease and sweat.
I believe in the dignity of all work.
I believe in the dignity of hard work most of all.
I love hard work most of all.
And then I think, yep, it might be weird.
* * *
During set-up at the wedding, Sara tells the caterer that the bride is my former student, that I’m a professor and a writer.
The caterer, Amy, freezes into a smile.
“But I was a flight attendant for seven years,” I say. “You should see me pour coffee in turbulence,” and make like the ground is shaking.
In the airlines, we never say turbulence. We say, “rough air.” It’s important to downplay things, but I’ve forgotten that.
Sara got me this gig because I’m her friend, because we’re neighbors. We talk about money. We understand bills. Sara vouched for me as a worker.
Amy the caterer doesn’t know me at all.
I can feel Amy looking me over, dubious. Professor, writer. It sounds bad. “The liberal elite,” Fox News calls people like me.
Amy’s wondering, I think, why I’m here, if I know how to work, if I will work.
Amy is wondering how much slack she’ll have to pick up when I try to slither out.
* * *
“Writing is hard work and bad for the health,” E.B. White said, but writing and teaching are not the same as restaurant work. They’re not the same as my father’s days in the mill, the work that made it possible for me to become a writer and a teacher.
Graphite dust is bad for your health. Molten metal that melts skin and bone is bad for your health. Machines that catch on wedding rings and take fingers are bad for your health.
I want to tell Amy I was raised on work, but she looks at me like we’re on a reality show and I’m the weakest link.
Instead I say, “I’m excited. Thank you! What can I do first?” and her smile unfreezes a little.
She points me to the set-up room, to a line of sternos waiting to be lit, to a stack of aluminum trays waiting to be filled.
She says, kindly, “Well, welcome aboard.”
* * *
When Stacy makes her entrance, Amy says to me, “You should stand up front so the bride can see you.”
Amy turns out to be a lovely person—a Buddhist in a T-shirt and black stretch pants, the most Zen of anyone who has ever done restaurant work, meaning she does not yell at people. She suggests.
Like, “Maybe you’d like to cut that bread,” and “The bride will want to see you,” and “Maybe scootch forward a little.”
I scootch. I make myself visible. I feel like looking for a fire escape, a way out, and I feel like blowing the bride a kiss.
Stacy, the bride in her lovely dress, moves toward where I’m standing. Her hair is long and curled and she looks beautiful and grown, bathed in the rainbow light that pours through the stained glass windows. Instead of a veil, she wears a golden crown that weaves across her forehead like Grecian laurel.
* * *
Remember Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” truth and beauty, beauty and truth?
Critics hated that poem, the way it was based on an ordinary object, a vase of all things, and Keats died thinking it was terrible and inconsequential, and then years later Helen Vendler, who hated the salami and lunch pails in Phil Levine’s poems, would love Keats’ urn so much she’d build her reputation on it.
It’s hard, maybe, to see the value of things in real time.
* * *
When Stacy finally sees me, I give a little wave. She looks confused. Then shocked. Then embarrassed. Then happy. Then shocked and happy and embarrassed and confused, all those emotions circling each other, figures on a vase that never connect.
* * *
I go back to the kitchen. I load up a tray with meatballs. I raise the tray above my head, the way I’ve known how to for years.
I am proud of my muscle memory. I am proud of my balance and skill.
I put on a smile.
It’s a good smile, practiced but sincere.
It says, “Welcome.”
It says, “I’m here to serve.”
* * *
When I teach, I always bring my students a little something. A candy bowl. Some brownies or cookies I’ve made. The bread I mentioned.
My students have needs that are bigger than I can imagine.
I have needs that are bigger than they can imagine.
“After a good meal, you can forgive anyone,” Oscar Wilde said.
I give my students food not to buy their love, but because I need their forgiveness— for failing them; for the inevitability that the world will be too much; for the fact that I know this and encourage them to be writers despite it.
I want to invite my students into my life and hold them there.
I am afraid of the weight of this, so we stick to snacks.
I know I will fail everyone and be sorry for it.
Here’s something small and sweet.
Maybe you’ll write about this someday.
Maybe you’ll remember me for this.
* * *
Sometimes Sara and I talk about opening a business together in Trafford, our hometown. They recently built a new police station and put the old one up for sale. Sara and I dream about buying it. We’d turn it into a cafe called The Clink, a place where people could come and sit a while. Sara makes beautiful cookies and pastries. I know some things about coffee. Our logo would be a coffee cup run along prison bars. We’d have coupons that would look like speeding tickets and our décor would be black-and-white stripes. We’d go full on with the incarceration theme. Our espresso would be called Mug Shots and our slogan would be, “Coffee so good, you’ll be here for life.” We’d have a house band that would do covers of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Fought the Law” and “Bang Bang (I Shot My Baby Down).”
“We could really do this,” Sara says, and we both imagine it. We drive by the station again and again. We park and walk around the building. We hold up our hands like picture frames. Inside the old police station, there are holding cells. We would leave them as is. Business people could reserve the cells the way they reserve private meeting rooms at Panera.
We would book The Clink’s cells by the hour. If people want, we could lock them inside.
It would be something people would pay extra for, to be trapped like that.
* * *
“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our dreams,” Studs Terkel said.
Here’s the thing about dreams—they can make a person disgruntled. Dreaming is a costly pastime.
Sara checked out how much we’d need to buy The Clink. “Just around 20,” she says, meaning $20,000.
Dream too much and the world can seem sadder and more ridiculous than it is. Dream too much and you can give up on the small good things the world can offer.
“Be satisfied,” my father said, his key to happiness.
I never knew my father to be happy.
$20,000 might as well be Mars.
* * *
At Stacy’s wedding, I pass meatballs. I pass bruschetta. Everything is delicious and beautiful. My feet hurt like they do not when I sit behind my desk. My back hurts and there’s a twinge in my neck that’s different from the twinge I get when I’m at my computer too long.
The more I serve, the more I realize there are other former students here, lots of them. Stacy has invited a half dozen or so of the people who graduated with her. Each of my former students looks shocked and, maybe, horrified when I lean over and offer appetizers.
“Oh my God,” one says.
“What are you doing here?” another one, James, says, like he just caught me dumpster diving.
I say, “What, this?” and gesture to my tray of meatballs. “I love this.” I say, “This is the first time I’ve done it in a while.” I say, “The money’s good.”
When I laugh, it sounds forced.
* * *
I balance my tray of meatballs on one hand and reach down to give James a hug. James is thin and pale as ever, his arms and legs jutting like pipe cleaners beneath his black suit.
James was my student over 10 years ago. He was artsy, an activist, always working for this or that cause. He worked with Stacy on the school literary magazine and he wore black all the time, but by black I mean band T-shirts, never a suit. James wore his hair in dreads and had his eyebrows pierced. Today his eyebrows are clear of studs, but his hair is still in dreads, though the dreads look somehow coiffed. When he hugs me, I feel something heavy on his wrists, gold cufflinks.
I bring the tray of meatballs between us and offer him some, then I remember he was a vegetarian and probably still is.
I say, “Sorry,” and he says, “No worries.”
Two boys are with him, one on each side. They’re around my daughter’s age, 10 and 12, maybe. The boys snag the meatballs James passed on. The boys are handsome, with long wavy rich-kid hair. They’re both in suits with bow ties. The suits look expensive. The bow ties are hand-tied, not cheats. James introduces them as his stepsons. It takes me a minute to let that register.
James—a father to two boys who look like they summer in the Hamptons. It seems impossible. But cufflinks are impossible, too.
He says, “Life’s crazy, right?”
He says, “Oh, this is my wife, Carol.”
I hadn’t noticed Carol until now, maybe because she’s been ignoring our exchange. Her body is turned at an angle, away from James and her sons. Carol has expensive blonde hair, highlights in every buttery shade of gold. Her dress looks like something Coco Chanel would like. She is wearing a brooch.
James tries twice to introduce us, but Carol will not look at me. James seems embarrassed by this, so I try to cover. I offer the wife a meatball. I give her a smile. She puts up her left hand to wave me off.
* * *
When I was a flight attendant, there were stories of celebrities who sent their assistants to board the plane first. Lucille Ball was legendary.
“Ms. Ball does not speak to the hired help,” her assistant would say.
“Do not look Ms. Ball in the eye,” her assistant would say. “Direct any questions for Ms. Ball to me.”
James’ wife looks like I’m taking in too much air and making it hard for her to breathe.
I say I have to get back to work.
James says, “We’ll catch up later.” He says, “It’s good to see you, even so,” and shrugs.
Later, when I come to pick up trash, Carol the wife will pretend I’m invisible.
* * *
I feel bad that my former students seem embarrassed that I’m serving them, but I don’t consider what it means until later. The work is nonstop—plating salads, serving, clearing, main course, cake. Sara and I make plans to go out for drinks when our night’s over to celebrate. I love the way my body feels—tired, in motion. I love how it makes it hard to analyze anything too much.
* * *
When I think about serving my students, I realize it’s always been like this between us.
Here’s a meatball. Here’s bruschetta.
Here’s a book of poems. Here’s a book of stories.
Have you written something beautiful and true?
Send it to me.
* * *
At the end of the night, the bride and groom are very drunk. They are beautiful and young and emotional. The groom comes back to the kitchen twice to tip us, again and again. I hug the bride and pretend I have not been twice-tipped. She tells me she wants to get back to her novel. We make plans to get together to talk about that soon, though I know we probably won’t.
All my co-workers count out their cash on the steel prep table.
They are happy about the extra tips.
I am, too.