Think your job is bad? Try working the “slime line” aboard an Alaskan fishing boat. Or, better yet, just read about it in Iain Levison’s brilliant and hilarious book, A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. Levison, who lived in Raleigh from 1994-2001, describes himself as a modern-day Tom Joad, with the exception that Tom Joad “didn’t blow $40,000 getting an English degree.” He’s the perfect chaperone, guiding us on a tour of some of the most horrible jobs imaginable and recounting his experiences in a deadpan manner that will have you wincing and laughing simultaneously.
An übermaster of low-paying menial labor, Levison has worked over 42 jobs in 10 years in six states, and he’s quit 30, been fired from nine, and can’t quite remember what happened with the other three. His jobs have run the gamut from furniture mover to fish cutter at an upscale market, from installing computer wires to driving a heating oil truck. During his time in the Triangle, he held a variety of jobs, painting apartment complexes, driving a truck for a Durham trucking company, and working at many restaurants, including Tripps, Cactus Flower, 42nd Street Oyster Bar, and Gibson’s Steak House.
In between his employment stints, Levison scans the Classifieds in hopes of finding a decent-paying job in which he can apply his Bachelor’s in English. His fruitless pursuits lead him to divide employment opportunities into two categories: jobs he doesn’t qualify for and jobs he doesn’t want. Applying for just about anything and everything, he sometimes lands employment that falls under both categories. And he sometimes moves to a different state in search of the next better job.
While on his peripatetic tour through the world of the disenfranchised and disillusioned, Levison’s jobs steadily progress from bad to worse to hellish to the Worst Possible Job in the Universe. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, he discovers his English degree is a liability when he applies at the nation’s largest bug-spraying company, where the manager tells him people with English degrees are too “analytical” for the job.
Funny, yes, but also pretty painful. Since when is a college degree a liability? Time and time again Levison’s optimism is met with a slap in the face. True, the author, like so many other Gen-Xers, was dreaming of the post-graduation middle-class existence he thought was pretty much guaranteed: job security, dependable car, nice house, perhaps a fenced-in yard. Almost anyone with a degree in the humanities has had to face up to what a delusion that can be.
A Working Stiff’s Manifesto could seem to verge on condescension, as if it were assumed that Levison’s life would be perfect if only he didn’t have to work these menial jobs. But it’s not the jobs that are the problem, it’s the way that the workers are treated, the lack of job security and insurance, the ridiculously low pay. From a very human perspective, Levison shows us how difficult and degrading it is to shuffle from one job to the next, what it’s like to be so low on the totem pole that indignity becomes a fact of life. As Levison says, “It’s surviving, but surviving sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama. It’s scraping by.”
A Working Stiff’s Manifesto should perhaps be taught to college students as a sort of crash course in reality. Fortunately, it has garnered widespread attention: The New York Times Book Review, USA Today and Entertainment Weekly have all sung its praises. And, come Labor Day, Levison will appear on the A&E network (along with Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed) in a special feature on labor issues.
Levison will revisit the Triangle to read from his manifesto on Friday, May 31, at Quail Ridge Books, with the facade of nearby Tripps, where he once waited tables, reflected in the bookstore’s windows.