Ditch Digging for the Butcher Lie
or Why Universities Are Terrible Places to Work
by Dave Newman
A cheapie beer on draft cost fifteen cents. A Budweiser, considered fancy, was a quarter. Bottles were available but no one could afford them. This was 1988, and I was seventeen years old. No one cared if under-aged kids drank, least of all the bartender, as long as you pretended to be an adult. I pretended to be an adult—divorced, pissed-off, working long hours as a butcher. A butcher is a complex lie, one involving precision cuts.
The years have simplified my lies.
Now I’d say I dig ditches.
I’d say I work for myself.
I’d say, “None of your fucking business.”
I’d say, “I’m not sure, I don’t know, I apologize.”
In adulthood truth is fluid, moving constantly, like clouds, like the earth, like grains of cocaine coming off a mirror and flying up your nose. I believe in the emotional honesty of a faked resume. Bills from years ago ring false in calls from collection agencies.
When I say I’m unemployed, at forty-two years old, I mean: I can do exactly what you want done, show me how, please help.
In the bar in 1988 everyone knew unemployment. They’d lost jobs from Westinghouse and Edgar Thompson Works, the railroad and Volkswagen. If you dealt in electricity, if you made steel or moved trains, if you built cars on an assembly line, the money you had earned was no longer earnable. What you’d done, you no longer did.
One guy, at least fifty years old, bagged groceries.
Another guy, same age, worked at McDonalds.
“I’d kill myself if I worked at McDonalds,” said a fat guy who’d driven a forklift at the lumberyard until the lumberyard turned to fire and insurance money. He sometimes drank until his head drooped to the bar. Then the bartender would lift his head like a mug, like an ashtray, and run a rag under his face so he wasn’t sleeping on spilled beer, on peanut shells and ash.
After the bar I stumbled home. My mom slept. My dad stayed at the factory, Volkswagen, second shift, overtime, hanging on to the last months of his career before the company pulled out of Western Pennsylvania and returned to Germany.
I spent most of 1988 drunk.
I seldom attended to school.
During 1988 I applied to a half-dozen colleges. People said I should. My parents said I should. A guidance counselor yawned college at me while looking at my transcript. They didn’t say why. They didn’t say where. I didn’t know where. I didn’t know why. I read some pamphlets. The pamphlets said wonderful things about being a student and attending university. All the majors sounded the same: great. Engineering was great. Liberal Arts were great. Playing football and intramurals and being in the school play were all great. At the end of all this greatness there would be jobs and money, choices. I would not stock shelves or bag groceries or wait for years to be promoted to manager. I would not be like what I saw.
But I often think of that bar, of the time I spent with those men, workers out of work.
Until two weeks ago, and for the last three months, I had been a worker out of work.
Now I drive a truck.
For the last two years I attended graduate school for social work because I wanted to help people, people—I imagined—like the men at the bar in 1988, the unemployed, the alcoholic, the downtrodden. I imagined working at a food bank. I imagined handing out free bread and gift certificates to Giant Eagle. I wanted to have a desk in an employment center where I helped grown men and women with their resumes, where I snagged my keys and drove them to interviews and bought them coffee when they came back with good news.
But I struggle to help myself.
My resumes go out and never return. My follow-up calls go unanswered, the messages unreturned. I apply for casework jobs, for jobs as a therapist. I apply to be a drug-and-alcohol counselor. Apply at the prison. Apply at a halfway house. Apply everywhere. Hear nothing. Apply again. Wait. Apply. Wait. And wait.
At my one interview for a job working with veterans, three men in ties ask me what my greatest strengths and weaknesses are. I freeze. I touch my neck, the knot in my tie. I’ve forgotten that adults talk to each other like this, in a language meant to be matched by another specific language, a code, a lie. I know how to fake, how to bullshit and lie, but the words do not form, the mechanics are suddenly lost. I smile and sweat. I say, “Well.”
My greatest weakness is that I am incompetent in interviews.
My greatest strength is my absolute desperation.
They touch their necks, the knots in their ties.
They tell me they will call.
Two weeks later they call and apologize.
I thank them for their time.
Now I have grown out my goatee.
Now my leather shoes are scuffed and lack tread.
Now I wear greased-stained jeans and flannel shirts.
Before my current job, while I was a middle-aged student, I drove another truck.
Before that I taught full-time at a university.
Before that I taught part-time at a university.
Before that I managed a bookstore. At the bookstore I worked sixty hours a week. I commuted three hours round trip. The district manager said, “You need to be mean to your employees.” She said, “The employees are not your friends.” But the employees were my friends and I didn’t want to be mean to anyone. I wanted to cry. My wife worked full-time, teaching. She wanted to cry. Our kid cried all the time, a steady wail. My wife wanted me to teach. Teaching offered a better life—more time off, less tears. I wanted to teach. I’d always wanted to teach. I had the degree. I had the publications. Together we raised our small children and never slept and had this dream, two teachers, people moving at a pace that allows conversations about reading.
My wife said, “If we could just publish books.”
She was writing her first book.
I’d written eighteen, all unpublished.
My wife got me a class at the school where she taught. It was weird, my wife getting me a job, but I pretended it was not weird because I loved to teach.
I kept writing while I taught, while I managed the bookstore.
I wrote because I wanted to write and because I needed to write and because people told me not to write and because I believed, honestly, at the end of writing was something more than writing. There would be rewards, however small, however lacking in shine.
I believe this still, somehow.
I write now while I truck.
I wrote through social work graduate school in the library when I should have been researching mental health and studying note cards with facts I would immediately forget.
I wrote in the mornings between boxes of cereal, between kids asking for breakfast.
It goes on, writing and everything, all the way back, years and years, over-the-road trucking with a fistful of pills, loading boxes, unloading boxes, substitute teaching at a high school so violent they couldn’t find substitute teachers, cleaning floors, managing a furniture store, warehouse, deliveryman, first graduate school, the writing graduate school, paying for that, all those loans, all those dreams, imagining a life of books and writing, teaching, always teaching, that dream, the opposite of my father, his eighth grade education.
Right after the acceptance of my first novel, I lost my full-time teaching job. There was a letter saying: nonrenewal, no thanks, your evaluations are good, clean out your office.
My officemate had received the same letter the previous year. He taught his classes for less than half of the money he’d taught his classes at before he’d received his letter. His kids approached college age. The university did not offer tuition breaks for adjunct faculty like they did for full-time faculty hired on an annual basis.
Does any of this make fucking sense?
It really shouldn’t.
I’d always thought reading made you smart, made you compassionate, made you decent, made you better than the world that did not read. It doesn’t. It does not. It does not in anyway. I hate truck driving—the pay, the hours—but the universities were the worst, being around all those people with decades of books behind them, the hours they spent eyeball to text, brain to insight, mind intent on understanding, yet they lack basic compassion, a basic understanding of decency, and they relieve people of their jobs like people do not have lives and bills, like the skills you were hired with expire. Tuition rates go up. Students pack classes until there aren’t enough chairs. You talk to your colleagues, all the part-time people, all people working on annual contracts at best, and no one can pay their bills, no one can pay back their student loans. A few people work full-time, permanent full-time, and if you talk to the people who work full time about becoming full-time they do not talk back, they cringe and they say, “Hmm,” and they walk away, and they turn their eyes to concrete blocks, and you learn not to ask, you convince yourself that not asking is better than asking, that not asking will secure you a job, a permanent one, and everyone smiles but terribly, awkwardly, and the anxiety that causes, anxiety without money for medication.
When I lost my teaching job, no one said good bye, no good luck, no thank you.
One woman, a professor at another college, said, “Well, what did you expect?”
Some days I close my eyes and remember 1988, the sadness of that year and those men, and the icy goodness of having a beer and the belief that college would keep me from the unemployment line, from jobs that barely paid and the midnight shift.
Minimum wage has barely doubled in twenty years but the price of a beer in a dive bar is twenty times what it used to cost.
There are a lot of reasons America is a shitty place. This is one.
Dave Newman is the author of four books, including the novel Two Small Birds (Writers Tribe Books, 2014), and the collection, The Slaughterhouse Poems (White Gorilla Press, 2013), named one of the Best Books of 2013 by L Magazine. He lives and writes in Trafford, PA.