Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jobs I Never Had and the Cats I Killed, Part I

I was walking up a bustling 13th Street in Philadelphia with E., a friend from high school soon moving from Ann Arbor to Philadelphia, her husband B. and another friend from high school, A. when E. posed a number of questions that all circled around the basic question of 'what do you want to do with your life?' We had already established that my current work wasn't quite cutting it on the 'fulfilling' level. I posited that I no longer knew - that I wasn't good enough at anything to have any natural course of action to take in order to align my professional life or personal interests in a direction that would result in a happier career life, let alone a more contented personal life. E. is a human being and I'm sure she's had her own struggles with the direction she wants to take her life, but she is not someone who anyone could consider 'not good enough' at at least a dozen things. She has excelled academically, thriving at an Ivy League undergraduate institution and then going on to earn an equally prestigious graduate degree in no less vaunted a subject than neuroscience. But she has also developed a pretty solid mastery of the French language, effectively learned to cut hair, sketch the human form and manage teams. The girl has range and the girl has pull and charisma, is all I'm saying. Further proof of her own professional wiles and abilities comes in the fact that she was wooed and courted by a rather prestigious university to leave her position at another esteemed academic institution and set up shop here in the city. She was wooed! They flew her and her husband out multiple times. Took them to meals. Paid for their hotel rooms. Made sure that not only would E. get the position and lab facilities necessary to attract her, but that her husband, also, would have a teaching offer that he could consider as well. Never in my life have I been such a hot commodity. She takes it in stride, knowing she's good at this whole career/academic thing but not acting like a total crazy or arrogant person about it. Somehow I wanted to share this anecdote, of walking down the street with a hot shit neuroscientist, her equally intelligent spouse and our mutual artist friend, thinking about how little I have achieved and how little I have to offer. Comparing oneself to one's friends is not an altogether useful past time, and I certainly try to avoid it. But her earnest questioning, which touched on the areas of study and interest I have intermittently held since she and I first became friends when we were 14 or 15, illustrated the gulf I've begun to feel between me and many of my more motivated or driven friends: they still have troubles and setbacks and sad days, but they are on the career or life tracks for which they hoped, and I have no doubt that whatever obstacles they might encounter will ultimately be overcome by them. And while they recognize I am struggling, I am not sure they can identify with the true self-assessment that I share. I am simply not so certain of my own ability to get on a better track, let alone overcome unforeseen obstacles that would be lurking on such a path.

My purpose in bringing up the differences between E. and me is really beside the point, as the real story I wanted to tell was of a cat in Indiana, which I met when I still felt that it was possible to 'make something of myself.' Although perhaps even then I was more interested in simply making sure that I could pay my recently activated student loans for the MFA in writing I now wish I had never pursued. Or perhaps I thought of the cat through thinking of all the interesting jobs I almost had or wished I had or imagined I could have...but never actually got.

Post-MFA the most exciting of these never-to-be jobs was also the job that, in fact,  catapulted me out of Chicago and to Bloomington, Indiana. Initially after my MFA graduation, which I didn't attend but for which I hosted a barbeque for my fellow graduates and their families, I began working a rather pointless phone job at an apartment locating service in Chicago. The work wasn't rocket science; my colleagues weren't particularly engaging (my 300+ pound supervisor would sometimes hang his arms over my cubicle and I would be overly worried about the sweat beading at his brow and the possibility that when it rolled down his face it might land on me); the pay was not enough to allow for many splurges, but enough to cover rent, have some beers and pay my monthly $288 to the student loan gods. The work was also not the worst. It was fine. But it was not in any way related to my education in writing or photography, nor did it offer any particularly concrete opportunity to ever advance ... not that I even thought about advancement in those days. During the months that led up to my completing my MFA, I definitely sought out a number of more writerly-focused career opportunities, but none panned out. At one point I was interviewed for an internship at Key West Magazine, a lifestyle magazine focused on, perhaps understandably, the Key West cultural scene. But then they decided they didn't need an intern and I had to figure out something in Chicago, thus landing the apartment phone job. A potentially long and pointless story short: That magazine then reconnected with me about three months after I started working at the apartment locating service. I participated in additional interviews and correspondences and was then offered the chance to join the team. They would fly me out for a six month stint with possibility of full-time work thereafter. They would house me on a "sailboat in an upscale marina" and I could wear flip flops to work. I found a replacement for my half of the rent of a truly spectacular gem of a Chicago apartment and gave my current employer three week's notice. I celebrated Christmas with my parents and then drove south with them to Tennessee to enjoy New Years before embarking on what would certainly be a very important opportunity to get my feet wet in the world of publishing. It was an exciting, heady time in my life. My mother gave me new shoes she thought would fit in with a Key West vibe, and pants that had built-in sunscreen. But days before my intended arrival date, the publisher emailed me saying that the entire magazine was shutting down and apologized for any inconvenience. This left me without a job or place to live in a rural Tennessee town with my parents. This is only one of so many jobs that seemed promising and even probable, which would have better aligned me with the kind of life I wanted to live...a life of  writing blurbs and lifestyle pieces for a real live magazine, and having the opportunity to be part of a story and to be outside the story. The short assignments I would be given would allow me to build a portfolio that would spark  additional freelance work and a reputation of being a reliable and serviceable writer. And eventually I would rise through the ranks of a dying industry and find myself happily somewhere in the middle. But, with the reversal of the offer I was suddenly very, very far away from that line of career or life.

So where does Indiana and the cat come in? Soon after I shared this twist in my plans, my friends C. and T. contacted me and suggested that I join them,  rent-free, in their home in Bloomington, Indiana. They felt that I would be more motivated to find work and perhaps less emotionally at a loss (my four+ year relationship had also recently ended) if I wasn't living at home with my parents. I happily took them up on the offer. This was a great kindness on their part and one for which I will always be grateful, but I think they also missed the camaraderie and friendship that we had fostered back in our Chicago days and adding me to their lives, even if it was literally in their house as opposed to a couple of blocks away, was a welcome relief to some of their issues with living in Bloomington. And so, after a bit of a roundabout set of visits with a number of friends in North Carolina and New York, I flew into Indianapolis on Super Bowl Sunday, 2008. I lived with C. and T. until early April of that year. During that time there were a number of other jobs I applied for and didn't get. A job in New York for a kid's online education platform and a job as an assistant at a Bloomington real estate company garnered  interviews but no offers. Borders Books didn't call me back, nor did the University of Indiana. And so what about the cat? Why tell you about the countless failed cover letters I sent to small papers across the country that didn't even elicit an interview before a rejection? Why go to such lengths to explain all the jobs I didn't get at that point in time when the real story of that time was a cat? I couldn't tell you, at least not at this specific moment.

The cat's name was, according to C. and T., Smackers or Smackey. He was not their cat exactly. Nor was he exactly anyone else's. We were heavy smokers at that time, C. and myself especially. And it would not be at all unusual to go out to their house's front porch for a smoke and have Smackers/Smackey quickly appear out of nowhere, rubbing up against our legs and looking for love, food and shelter. He was some sort of Persion/longhair mix. Black. With a generally peaceable attitude. If you sat on the porch swing it would not be more than a matter of minutes before he would be in your lap, matted fur barely hiding protruding ribs, hacking wheezy cough and all. He was a generally sweet cat. I don't recall his ever trying to bite or scratch me. So desperate. So desperate and clearly sick. C. and T. said that the cat also struck up a friendship of some kind with the neighbors across the way, a young teenaged boy who once knocked on the door asking for band-aids since all the adults at his place had no medical supplies. He was the type of kid you could more easily imagine dropping out of high school and walking around aimlessly during those day time hours than you could finishing school and pursuing higher education or any line of work that wasn't  hourly with no benefits. This is to say that he and the assorted family members that seemed to live in that house across the way were poor and not terribly focused on the welfare of the children in their household, let alone any stray, starving and sick cats that might stop by from time to time. C. and T. were more dog people than cat people, and were not terribly happy with their chosen neighborhood, but there was a sincere appreciation for Smackey's basic presence at the fringes of their residential life.

Soon after my arrival I believe I suggested we at the very least provide some sort of warm shelter for the cat, as the days and nights were routinely below freezing. Even coming from Chicago, I felt like the Indiana winter was more bitter and stretched on even more cruelly than the winters in the Windy City. We constructed a cardboard box of a  house for him, lined with a few  towels. I experimented with putting a few bricks in an oven with the idea that we could wrap them in towels in order to help provide radiant heat for the cat. But his cough and general look of ill health was unmistakable and showed no signs of turning around with this small attempt at kindness. C and T had a dog, and T was very allergic to cats, so there was no way that the cat could come live with them. It should also be noted that the cat kept returning to their porch because the previous tenants had been his owners...but when they left the house, they also abandoned the cat. So, to him, the house remained the best and most familiar bet for finding a new 'forever home.'  

I attempted perhaps a total of three or four times to convince them that the thing to do to save this cat from almost certain death and starvation was to simply box him up and bring him to the ASPCA. They balked. They worried that doing so without consulting the less-than-ideal neighbors could lead to conflict. And they were not necessarily wrong, but to me it was worth the risk. If the kid came across the street asking after the cat, it was easy enough to say 'no, haven't seen him lately.' But C. and T. were squeamish to do such blatant lying, and I was their friend and their guest and did not want to make an issue out of something that could potentially impact our friendship and the tenuous success of my temporarily joining their household. So I stayed silent and stopped bringing it up. And eventually Smackers the cat stopped coming around. While some could try to be optimistic about it, perhaps thinking that some other neighbor finally took pity on him and let him into their homes and hearts, I think the more realistic and plausible outcome for this particular cat was that he died in the woods or under a bush as a result of whatever was wrong with his respiratory system. Or perhaps he was hit by a car. Or mauled by dogs. Or...well there are a million ways a stray cat can die. And me? I had some ability to change the fate of that cat's life. I could have gone against C. and T.'s rational fears ans simply asked to borrow their car. I could have gone rogue. I could have made his the kind of story the ASPCA likes sharing on their websites or on a wall in their facilities: the cat with a sad back story, finally happily ensconced in someone's lap INSIDE, with a full bowl of kibble nearby.

In the span of four months I went from promising editorial assistant at a lifestyle magazine in Key West packing up her wonderful Chicago apartment with sun in her future to an unemployed freeloader and passive cat killer in the frozen plains of Indiana. How far can those of us who didn't even start out very high can fall? So far. So far indeed.

My time in Indiana came to a close roughly three days before Spring. I remember renting a car to drive from Bloomington to Chattanooga and finding that with every passing mile south, more tree buds appeared and within a few hours, the buds were already opening. Red buds, cherry blossoms, green lush grass. Visions that Bloomington hadn't quite managed to share with me before I departed. Apparently, as C. and T. later told me, Spring truly did bloom with my departure, but the cat did not appear with the warmer climes. And while I did find employment and wasn't forced to become a 27 year old woman living at home, unemployed, with her parents...there are still moments that I envision the life I would have had in Key West. The characters I would have met. The experience of sleeping on a boat as it slowly rocked and swayed, tethered to the docks of a marina that, for all I know, could have been just a hop, skip and stumble away from Ernest Hemmingway's house and his legions of well-fed and tended cats who never had to worry about the cold.


Robley H said...

Oh yes. Writing worth reading. Every bit.

Huck said...

You are very good at writing stories that move me and stay with me.

nc catherine said...

Totally agree Huck and Robley H, totally agree.

Anonymous said...

And while they recognize I am struggling, I am not sure they can identify with the true self-assessment that I share. I am simply not so certain of my own ability to get on a better track, let alone overcome unforeseen obstacles that would be lurking on such a path.

Maybe a change in perspective about oneself and one's abilities is a place to start? I think you are more capable than you give yourself credit for.

cc said...

Thanks all.

It's a tricky's not that I don't think I can't, on occasion, use my words well...I just recognize the limitations of that skill. A change in perspective, to me, would be the equivalent of lying to myself.