It might sound like an old struggling artist story: I graduated college in Tennessee with a degree in literature, then packed all the important things into a suitcase and rode the Greyhound to Chicago. In the middle of this spread of urban life, I have a small room in an apartment with my friends, I have a bike, and a new cell phone with a local area code.
I also have two jobs. One is at the cash register in a late-night pizza place, the other is on the saddle of an old bike delivering sandwiches in the West Loop. The just-over minimum wage of these two jobs, plus the food stamps, will support me as I attempt to eek out a living as an artist, and sustain my difficult blah blah blah.
The joke is that I bought the myth of the struggling writer wholesale, with factory specs, etcetera. Kind of like how an intelligent person might buy a cup of Starbucks coffee, knowing full well that it’s all hype, about the same corporate engineering as a Big Mac but with a different look—and yet enjoys the coffee, because in a way, knowing a myth is a myth doesn’t take away its power to make life a little easier to swallow. I still read the labels on the Starbucks cups sometimes, thinking, well, it can’t be a lie, can it?
In other words, I’m not reflecting on my life from the other side of an epiphany, but living in the middle of my own story. I’m suspending my disbelief. The physicist Heisenberg, a notorious rationalist, once explained to a journalist a horseshoe hanging over the door of his office: I don’t believe in it, he said, but I heard it works anyway.
I enjoy food service. Much more than writing, actually. Of course, the pleasure of creating something you’re proud of is an experience that has no rival—and I want to express my gratitude to this principle of creation that seems safe from any kind of modern paradigm shift. The poets got it right. The pleasure is eternal. But the lifestyle of word-processing and journalism’s politics and trending stories and sciatic pains from sitting too long, and all this glazed with the guilt of making money by simply thinking—there is something missing. Some half of you atrophies. You contract bourgeois ennui and either castigate yourself (maybe even write stories of self-loathing) or you try to argue that being bourgeois sucks too, that hypochondria is as destructive as the real disease. A hernia from constipation hurts the same as one that is masonry-related.
So serving someone a medium pizza with Canadian ham is a larger gesture at that moment than writing the next Hamlet.
I’m being cheeky, you’ll note, because writing “the next Hamlet” is simply not possible, and this is just one more problem of living as an artist in these times. Especially as a white guy. The hero’s age is past, at least the hero of Shakespearean proportions and its very unlikely that a single text could ever again attain Hamlet status.
Once upon a time the word “bard”— Shakespeare’s job title—described the social position of a writer with the same thumping intonation as the words “butcher,” “baker,” or “candlestick maker.” Or even “king” for that matter. It is a relic of a time in western culture when artists provided a service. Writer’s block was probably seen as an injury, like a carpenter mauling his working arm. The very fact that Hamlet continues to reach people all over the world, day after day, post-Internet boom, post-colonial period, post-representationalism, post-author is astonishing and is likely the effect of nostalgia—for the bard.
This fact shouldn’t be depressing for a writer, though. Quite the contrary. If the art of writing was not continually changing, then we’d all have to admit defeat in the face of the great classics. If we were to tell the same kind of stories for the same reason for the same attitude of the readers with the same idea of who we are as writers, then the task has been completed. Literature: check. We did it. Congrats, now back to making pizzas.
Which is where I’m at right now. The lunch rush is over, it’s getting in to the late afternoon. Poncho, the chief cook, is preparing his dough and Fredo is mopping. Other than that, the place is empty so I look into the styrofoam tip jar: a one dollar bill standing on a bed of pennies and nickles. I’m immensely satisfied with myself. From noon until just a few minutes ago I was part of a team that got pizzas and chicken wings and fries and soda to twenty or thirty people. That’s twenty or thirty times myself, which is a worthy factor. It’s good work. It contributes its own to the heroic hum that can be heard far above Chicago city. I found what I’ve been missing and I found it in the food service industry.
How bourgeois of me.