What Work Is
by Philip Levine
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten paces.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
* * *
This poem doesn't really have much to do with my workplace, but I liked the turn from the drudgery of work to a broken family relationship.
What do I do as work? I hate answering this question, but I've devised my way to answer it. I work at a law firm, which usually impresses people - What is this English major doing in a law firm, she's not supposed to have a "respectable" job - but the follow-up typically ruins that. My firm works in asbestos litigation. You know all those commercials you see on daytime TV about class action lawsuits for people with mesothelioma? Yes, that's a real disease, and yes, the asbestos litigation business puts food on the table for people like me. Well, not really people like me, but people like the attorneys I work for. My job is to help them however they may need; there's no way to tell what it'll be day-to-day. When they don't need me, I'm usually doing archival work. "Archival work" meaning "going through really old boxes of paperwork and trying to figure out what any of them are and why we need to keep them." That part is always the same. I've spent long hours at work tunneling through abandoned offices, hauling boxes to and fro, stacking them until they lean worryingly, and finding bizarre things in the process. Like floppy disks. Why do we still have floppy disks? Or Tupperware containers with ancient cereal still in them. Who leaves a perfectly good Tupperware in a file room? I fight a constant battle trying to get people to throw stuff out. They're all hoarders, I swear.
Man, you don't even want to know how many papercuts I've gotten. Papercuts are the worst, and I get them on the insides of my fingers sometimes. Or on my cuticles. Oh god. Those ones sting.
It's funny to work perpetually in the past, though. I get called out of archives to deliver papers to courthouses, scan other papers for other people to muddle through, bring yet more papers to other firms, or read even more papers and summarize them or index them or do something or another to them. But aside from that, I'm confined to life among my towers of filing boxes, all labeled in my handwriting or numbered with stickers or tracked in an Excel spreadsheet. I don't know if any of this is actually useful to anybody, but it's vaguely satisfying to stare at a mess of unlabeled boxes and files and turn them from chaos into organized chaos by the end of the day. When I'm not doing that I cover the receptionist's desk at the front, which essentially broke my poor socially impaired brain the first few times I did it. I mean, seriously. You want me to answer a phone? And talk to a stranger? Me?
I've worked there since my first summer before college, literally, when I was 18, and I've always been surrounded by adults in a high-powered work environment that moves so fast around me that I never know what's going on. Sometimes I don't really feel like I belong there. But honestly? No one at my job has ever treated me like a kid. They talk to me like I'm anybody else. I talk sports with one co-worker, talk literature with another, talk about school with all of them, actually; they all like hearing about what I'm up to here in Brooklyn. Despite the usual office humdrum and drudgery, it's lightened by the people there, all overwhelmingly pleasant and kind.
Which is a huge comfort in those moments when I realize I have no earthly idea what I'm doing and I accidentally hung up on somebody instead of transferring them to someone's voicemail again and almost cry.