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Everyone has experienced a bad job or two. Some of us have experienced soul-sucking, hope-killing, brain-numbing, and bad with a capital “b” jobs. I only have to think to the late 1990s when I worked for a small advertising company that produced on hold messages. “Your business is important to us. Please stay on the line and someone will be with you momentarily.” Yeah, that stuff. I was the person who wrote that. Sorry.
I sat in a small room with several other newly graduated English majors and churned out lame scripts all day. Inevitably some business owner would want to speak to the copywriter directly to say that he had a GREAT idea for his script. “How about this,” he would enthusiastically spit into the mouthpiece. “We are the go-to source for all your (fill in the blank) needs?” Wow, that’s inspired, I would think to myself. Eventually, he would laugh and say something like “I don’t know why we’re paying writers, when I can come up with this stuff.” Writers were eventually laid off. It’s a messy story complete with embezzlement and sexual harassment allegations, but that’s a story for another time.
I hated this job, but I loved my coworkers. They were some of the most clever, kind, and hilarious people who made my days infinitely better. After being ousted, most of us returned to graduate school and now work for nonprofits, academia, or ourselves. We are scattered across the country, but I still feel a very deep connection with these people. We survived something together.
Perhaps it’s because of this experience that I love work memoirs. I recently listened to the bestselling memoir Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky. I imagine looking slightly off balance to my neighbors as I listened to the story while walking my dog, because I was laughing so frequently and loudly. Heads in Beds is a ruthless look at the hospitality industry from the perspective of a front desk agent. You know, the one who knows all your secrets?
Apparently some readers were turned off by the author’s brand of humor, calling Tomsky bitter, brash, snarky, and angry to which I say: You had me at bitter. Imagine this book being like a Friday evening happy hour in which your friend is telling you all the juicy details of his horrid job. It’s awful, right? Bleak and depressing and, yet… it’s also hilarious. Because people are strange and funny and strangely funny.
Tomsky’s populist slant is likely to resonate with anyone who has ever worked behind a counter or a service desk (which is almost everyone at some point, unless you live in a castle and have a pony or something). It’s reminiscent of so many other manifestos of the service class—The Santaland Diaries from Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler by Wade Rouse and Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip—Confessions of a Cynical Waiter. Tulsa’s own Jeff Martin has edited a collection of retail tales titled The Customer is Always Wrong.
Work is tied so closely to our sense of self. When unemployed, we often feel cut off from the rest of the world—ungrounded and anxious. When we are employed, we love to share our stories with others. They usually start with “You are not going to believe what happened today…” These narratives are the great equalizer, because no matter how bad you think your day was, someone else has a story to top it!