…jack of all trades, master of none…
On most days of the week, I stare at a computer, a screen projecting a swath of information I don’t and couldn’t care about. For hours at a time, I figure out how to best formulate that information so someone else can make money. It is my job. For now.
If you are familiar with the term “factotum,” there is a good chance it is because of the author Charles Bukowski. It was the title of his second novel (and a 2005, Matt Dillon-starring film based on it), which tells of Henry Chinaski, an alcoholic ruffian who can’t hold onto a job, or won’t.
If you’re unfamiliar, a factotum is someone who holds many jobs, someone who doesn’t specialize in any one particular occupation but bounces from one gig to the next. Sometimes, factotums are easily bored, always looking for something new to hold their attention. On the hand, maybe they’re just bad at everything and stumble from one failure to the next. And then there are the wanderers.
I’m not sure which category I best fit into, but I am a factotum.
The jobs I have carried:
Sales associate (books, clothing, music and movies, porn)
Data entry clerk
Phone bank operator
Small scale construction (a bathroom; a basement)
I’m likely forgetting some.
I’m currently in the process of embarking on a new, well, career might be too strong a word, but employment direction. For the last month, I’ve been volunteering as an ESL teacher for a program in Hell’s Kitchen. This is fulfilling my practicum hours so I can complete my certification with the International TEFL Academy, which will hopefully open up teaching opportunities globally.
It’s just the next step in an oeuvre that will likely never settle into one groove.
My First Job
Not counting cleaning my dad’s office, the first job I ever held was at a KOA campground on the outskirts of my hometown. The campground was owned by a family who attended the same church as mine. I was happy to avoid working at a fast food restaurant as my older brothers had for their first jobs (alas, fast food employment was still in my future). I was 16.
My responsibilities at the job were a little ill-defined, but mostly I was there to maintain the fields and long-term campsites. The campgrounds were split into three sections: The first consisted of open fields where overnight visitors could set up tents and cook around fire pits. Moving north across the property, there were three lanes of extended-stay parking where RVs and campers could be hooked up and stay for a few weeks.
Finally, there was the long-stay section, where families would often sit for months at a time. Essentially a trailer park, with all the negative associations that brings to mind, I dreaded going anywhere near that section. Of course, these were all just poorer families making do in a tough situation and providing a home for their children; no shame in that. But as a sullen teen responsible for cleaning around their “lawns,” I was unsympathetic to their plight.
On my first day, my boss, Bob, handed me a pair of gloves and directed me to the long-term sites to pick up trash. Thus, the first task of my illustrious and diverse working career involved picking discarded cigarette butts out of gravel like the bleakest claw machine ever (flashing neon: “Win cancer for a quarter!”). Every day of work since then has just been a variation of that.
There were aspects of working at KOA I liked (cruising around on a riding lawn mower) and aspects I loathed (cleaning out the dog walk trash bin with my hands), a dichotomy of activities that fell under the blanket theme of Just Obeying the Boss; you know, a job.
About halfway through the summer, a friend from church was hired, a guy named David, so I had someone to work alongside. We had a good time working together, but much of the gig was fairly solitary, which I didn’t mind. Mowing lawns, weed whacking, cleaning the public bathrooms, they invoked a kind of zen-like trance through the sheer repetition and simplicity of action. Sometimes, that trance was a little too deep.
One sunny day, I was out mowing the far south camping field, a long and thin rectangle of open grass bordered on each side by gravel roads. Other than a couple trees and a fire pit or two, the field was just open grass, which made it a perfect patch of land for accelerating the riding mower to its limits. Starting from the center, I rode that hog in outward concentric circles, gaining speed all the way.
The important thing to know about this field is that it was formed like a flat bowl, with its immediate edges curving up to meet the road.
I was able to pick up the most speed on the long stretches of the field which I would then use to whip across the short sides and back up the other long side. I had managed to pick up considerable momentum by the time I reached the outer edges. That’s where I met the 45-degree incline. I was fine along the long southern side, but as I took a left-hand turn onto the short eastern edge, I experienced a terrifying sensation: the mower tipping onto two wheels.
In that horrified moment, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes, but a vision of the next ten seconds. I’d heard stories: The mower would flip, taking me with it, either crushing me underneath or, having flung me a few feet, rolling and landing wheels-down – blades-down – on my arms, legs, or neck. I wouldn’t be driving home that day.
As I hung at maybe 80 degrees, instinct took over and I kicked with all my strength to leap as far out of the path of the mower as I could. I hit the ground and rolled, looking up just in time to see my mighty steed right itself onto four wheels and drive off without me. For a moment, I stared in astonishment and relief. Then I pushed myself back onto my feet and ran after the riderless mower as it crested the edge of the field, crossed the gravel road, and descend into the next field.
I leapt back into the seat and took command of the mower. Looking around, I checked to see if anyone had seen my near-decapitation, but I was out in the field alone, no witnesses for my embarrassment. I spun the hefty piece of machinery around and sheepishly finished the rest of the field at half speed.
Most days lacked that sort of adrenaline rush. At worst, I’d weed whack some unidentifiable wire hanging from a camper in the extended parking lot and panic for a second, before shrugging it off and continuing with my day.
My worst days came with the arrival of Phish-heads who swarmed to the campground on a weekend in which their beloved jam band was playing a show nearby. The patchouli stench would have been enough, but when they decamped, they left behind piles of garbage, untended fire pits, and, no exaggeration, a centimeter of caked mud on the floor of the bathroom. These were no hippies.
Despite those unpleasantries, I mostly enjoyed the job, albeit only as much as a 16-year-old can enjoy any job. For one, I liked the physical activity. I was a hefty – nay, fat – teen, so that summer spent working outside in the hot sun was the beginning of a period of dramatic weight loss.
Plus, in general, I like working. I’m happy to have an occupation by which I can pay my own way and occupy my body, if not always my mind. It’s why, during my ten years of relocating, periods of joblessness were so depressing. It wasn’t just that I was anxious about money, I hated feeling so listless and inactive.
I’ve never found a job that I wanted to keep forever, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I’ve had some great jobs, working with good people and completing rewarding tasks. I’ve also had my share of soul-crushing gigs. Every one’s had an expiration date. That’s the life of a factotum.
In my younger years when people asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I told them I wanted to be a novelist. As I got older and came to understand how unlikely it is to become successful enough writing fiction to pay the bills, I expanded my career ambitions to include other writing gigs, maybe working for a magazine, or writing travel pieces. Now, though, I’m no longer holding out for that writing dream. I’ll always be a writer; I may never make a dime from it. That’s okay.
I have two passions in life, writing and traveling, and as I age, it’s the latter one that brings me the most satisfaction. Seeing some place new for the first time is life sustaining for me. Money is the necessary evil that allows me to pursue that passion, so I will continue my factotum ways.
Teaching English is just another means to an end. I enjoy it; like, a lot. I could see myself doing it for years, as long as it opens up avenues for new homes in new countries. But will it be the occupation that gets me to settle down somewhere permanently? Unlikely.
I hope you enjoy your job. I hope it fills you with a sense of purpose and satisfies you creatively, intellectually, or physically (ideally, some combination of all three). But if not? Well, nothing has to be forever.