Finding a Workaday Tune

Photo: Barbara LaneThe first time I picked up a guitar, my fingers were pained and wobbly and the music sounded about the same. It took time to find any stability on the instrument and when I finally did, I gave up trying to find new sounds. It’s just so easy to stop noticing what’s beautiful. Of all the jobs I’ve worked the past thirteen years, none of them ever gave the initial impression of being very . . . well, me either. At the beginning, my work seemed pained and wobbly, too. When I found stability in one of these places, it was easy to stop there, to become rote in action and dull in mind. Given time, bits of beauty began to glimmer and the job grew on me. Or maybe I grew on it. Coming back to my guitar after something like a musical sabbatical, there’s a greater sense of discovery and the instrument is growing on me. Or maybe I’m growing on it.

My first job, at age fifteen, was a Sandwich Artist at Subway. I remember standing at the prep table, slicing tomatoes, swearing that I would go to college so that I wouldn’t have to slice tomatoes and refill mayonnaise bottles for the rest of my life. Yet there was a certain delight I found in the act of slicing those tomatoes, refilling tubs of pickles and bell peppers, piecing together a beautiful sandwich. I watched hungry customers in line, how they interacted, what stories they told. I liked finding out where they were from and found their sandwich selections to be curious.

I worked for a while with an elderly woman, though she wasn’t really very old — she had gone to high school with my dad. Josie’s hands were knotted with arthritis. Most of the time she would slice onions, portion out grilled chicken, and put sandwiches together as though her hands were as limber as mine. Once in a while she’d ask my help to open a jar or pull a container down from a high shelf. I know that she worked part-time at the elementary school as a bilingual teacher’s aid; she had a wonderful sense of humor; she was devotedly involved at a Catholic church somewhere in town; and her dual celebrity crush was John Wayne and Harrison Ford. I don’t remember whether Josie had gone to college.

Working with Josie brought an odd sense of stability, like the steadiness of forming those first few chords on my guitar. After a while, though, I stopped noticing what was beautiful there and I moved on to some other employment. Grass being greener on the other side and all.

Photo: Marty Lane

A few odd jobs later, my little brother and I worked at the local cinema. It was small, three screens, and staffed primarily by high schoolers. By then I was in the middle of a bachelor’s degree in pretty much nothing or everything, depending on who you are, and made use of the time between movie sets to study. I worked there through one degree and most of the way through my graduate studies, nagged with the fear that this would make me and/or my career an epic failure. There’s nothing like cleaning up a pile of wet, chewed-on sunflower seeds or removing the stink of a kid’s puke from the carpeted lobby floor to make you feel like an up-and-coming success. But the ordinariness of the place quickly gave way to its magic. Mirrors, lights, posters, and the concession stand, stocked well with all manner of theatre kitsch. The smell of hot oil in the popper, fresh laden with kernels and salt. The sound of rustling popcorn as it was shoveled with the metal scoop into paper bags. The feel of a jumbo paper cup, ice-chilled and heavy with some sugary beverage or other. Then there were the movies themselves, moving pictures to draw in the imagination and bring other worlds to life. The blank canvas of the screens, receptive to just about anything, from sparkling vampires to demented scheming murderers to beloved literary figures brought to life.

An endless variety of people came in response to the unevenly spaced block letters on the marquee, and for any number of reasons. Sparkling vampires and sizzling werewolves could easily attract a long line of middle-aged women as eager as their teenage female offspring to see “Jacob Black” strip off his shirt. Romantic comedies often brought men dragged along by a female counterpart, or alone and hoping to find a seat next to some unsuspecting female. The conspiracy theorists in town could be depended upon to show up for any film in the Da Vinci Code-slash-National Treasure category while the more devoted fundamentalist Christians could be counted on to picket those. The crowds would filter in through the glass doors to purchase their tickets and concessions, and finally into the darkness of the theater to stumble into their seats and wait.

Above the crowds was the projection booth. Up the creaky stairs, into the semi-darkness of the booth, there was the smell of light and heat. It was a world of film and reels, cogs and springs, lamps, splicers, and cans. If the lobby with its flashing lights and glamourous posters was a cathedral, the booth was my monastery. When I’d open a can of reels — five or six of them ready to be built into one coherent story on the projector’s platter — I felt as though I’d joined some historic order of people capable of finally crafting these moving pictures as gifts to the eager public. My hands learned the tension and alignment the film needed to thread smoothly through the projector. My ears tuned in to the hum of the booth as everything ran properly. Oh, the mess of tangled and melted film if something went amiss! The acrid smell of burned film. The sheer delight in setting it all right again. Suddenly there it was — that sweet moment when I’d pressed beyond the point of stability and become a part of something larger, reminiscent of the moment I realized that the notes I was looking for were buried somewhere in the fretboard of my guitar.

Now, after six months of unemployment, I find myself in customer service at a life insurance company. From time to time I see my myself sitting in my cubicle and have to shake myself free of the thought: Um, wow, I didn’t see this coming.

I am in a grid-like world of cubicles, a world in which I count myself fortunate to be located within six feet of a large window and only a short walk to the break room. It is a corporate world of slogans and incentives, though with a far less “corporate” feel than I imagine other large companies might have. Overall, a decent place to work, and I can truly say that I love the people I work with.

Most of my work days consist of hours confined to a cubicle and tethered to a phone. The “beep” in my ear begins a call; I never know quite what will follow. Normally it’s a question about a payment or reinstatement, or confusion about how a policy works. Sometimes the caller is upset and needs to be calmed down. Sometimes it’s a wife or brother or mother calling to let me know that their loved one has passed away. I like being the real person on the other side of their phone line who can offer some bit of clarity or consolation in a frightening moment. Here I learn the rhythms of patient listening, humble explanation, and what amounts to the growth of a thicker skin that’s tender enough to offer compassion.  

My colleagues inhabit the cubicles around me and together we work day after day, one call at a time. What I’ve glimpsed inside the walls of those miniature offices says volumes about the people who pass their days there. Family pictures, diplomas, notes, and a variety of “cheat sheets” for quick reference during a call. Desk calendars, artwork crafted by young hands. Favorite books. We make our cubicles our own. There is also a continuous flow of effort to find connection with the cubicle inhabitants around us — team meetings and potlucks are the more official expressions. “Happy Birthday” balloons float over intermittent desks two or three days at a time. Instant messages fly through the virtual world of the office all day long (I’ve often wished they looked more like the inter-office paper airplanes in the world of Harry Potter). The intra-cubicle paper wad wars, subtle though they may be, serve to extend an odd sort of hospitality from one cubicle to another. I train my eyes to rest on these beautiful things during work days, reminiscent of the time I discovered an open E chord on my guitar and played it for a solid half hour in as many ways I could, with my ear resting on the body of the instrument to soak up the resonance. There’s a stability I’m finding here that is good and right, that reminds me of the growing stability of my hands mastering those first basic chord shapes and transitions.

My guitar beckons for attention these days, and my workdays voice the same desire — for disciplined attention that gives way to awe as what is beautiful becomes more apparent. Somewhere pained and wobbly motions stabilize and become a frontier for discovery. That is when acts of creative transcendence begin to make the sacred and the profane indistinguishable.

Photo: Barbara Lane

Barbara Lane is an editorial intern for the Art House America Blog. Her home is a basement apartment in Fremont, Michigan, where she is learning the art of homemaking. She blogs at Lost Arrivals and frequently geeks out on Instagram.

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