For the bulk of my working life, I’ve been a freelancer. Early on, I realized I didn’t dig having the parameters of my life dictated by fluorescent lights, cubicle walls, petty middlemen, and rush-hour traffic, and figured there had to be a better way to make a buck. I’d paid my way through college by working as an artist’s model and as a waitress, and swore that I’d only work jobs that in some way made use of my degree once I received it. I’ve always kept to that, and as a result have been a freelance editor to pay my bread and butter ever since I quit working at the garment workers’ union — which, as it turned out, treated its employees roughly as badly as the errant shops that we were always laboring to organize.
But ain’t that always the way?
Truth be told, I don’t really dig editorial work that much anymore, at least the kind I’m doing still. For in order to remain free-lance, I’ve persistently avoided any upward mobility. Eventually, if you’re good enough at your job, you get offered a higher, steadier position. I’ve never taken one simply because the claustrophobia of someone else dictating the tenor of five days of every week far outweighs the allure of a regular paycheck. Not to mention that managing editor gigs and the like always entail a level of bureaucracy to which I’m hardly suited.
The result, of course, is that I still do a hell of a lot of copy editing to pay my bills. And the more I work as an actual writer, the more this editing feels like a distraction that I resent, one too close to my actual work to not drain it in some way. I slog on, because after a decade, it’s the only way I know to make a quick buck. Back in the day, I mostly separated church and state by editing architectural publications, and I still don’t ever edit at publications for which I wish to write seriously. I’m convinced no one trusts the creativity of someone who’s carefully excised their extra commas. Now I tend to work on publications in the entertainment industry that keep me informed about the shite that I write about and occasionally provide useful contacts.
For the last few years, I’ve edited in various capacities a television magazine owned by a well-endowed if nefarious company that can certainly foot my bills. The work is mostly easy and typically relevant to my own field, and if the prose is too slick and the office politics totally dysfunctional, I can keep mum since I know I’m only there a few weeks at a time. More importantly, it’s financed my life as it’s paid a very handsome rate.
So what do you do when it suddenly doesn’t?
For the last few months, I’ve not been paid by those guys. I know what happened: My overworked boss forgot to submit the invoices for my compensation. And once he realized it, he was loath to shuttle my paperwork through because he was loath to highlight how irresponsible his actions were, either to me or to his supervisor in turn. The result of that small act of selfishness has been that I’ve been unable to pay my rent let alone go out for dinner. Not getting paid for two months of work has meant that I’ve had to clear through my scanty savings, borrow money, impair business relationships based on the good faith that I pay my own bills on time, worry my parents who are old enough so they deserve to not worry about their oldest daughter. My life has been on hold.
As a freelancer, you always do have to be on your best behavior. If you prove too much trouble, you can simply not be rehired come next month. It’s certainly not in your best interest to roll heads if you want to keep a gig, and until I wasn’t get paid for my work, I had no intention of letting go of this cushy situation. I’ve been practically the only freelance writer I know who carries absolutely no debt. So in my repeated inquiries, I tried my best to be super polite, all while my savings account has steadily dwindled.
Being a woman who already can be perceived (and lo! I hate this expression) as a ball breaker simply by the virtue of taking up a fair amount of space is also a factor. The only way to compensate for being clear and outspoken when you’re working under a male boss is to be not only funny but deferential. In other words, I sweeten my shit up at work.
But when, by Friday, an empty mailbox yawned at me once again, it was clear to me that I’d essentially been working my money job for no money like a stone-cold sucker. By then, I couldn’t breathe for lack of finances. If it endures long enough, the shitty feeling of being super broke when you owe and are owed nags at the back of your head even during sex. It was time to step up the tone and do whatever it took to get paid.
During the process of then going over his head, sweet-talking the secretaries at corporate and leaving frank messages on his superior’s voicemail, I realized how little my boss had actually done to take care of the problem. Eventually he faxed in my invoice, but he only acknowledged to me that he hadn’t done so before when he knew I already knew. God forbid he of his own volition request that accounting expedite the month period it typically takes to process paperwork. Why? Because it didn’t really matter to him that his small carelessness had derailed my whole life unless I made it inconvenient for him.
It came down to me saying I wouldn’t turn in any of the stories that I’d assigned on the magazine’s behalf, that I wouldn’t let any freelancer who I’d trained for them work there again, to writing a shaming letter that would have made George Bush admit he was wrong before they they agreed to fedex my check (and you know corporations can always expedite a check when need be). It came down to me having to reach far back in my bag of tricks and access the shite I learned from the garment workers to get my dollars. It came down to me standing on a table, essentially, with a big sign that read “UNION.”
As freelancers, we writers and editors work our asses off for jobs that never grant us insurance, let alone bonuses or vacations. The least these people can do is pay us without making us jump through hurdles. Yet how many of us get paid as regularly or as well as we should? And how carefully do we always broach that subject, fearful as we are of biting (read: irritating) the hand that ostensibly feeds us? Even now, after being treated like a subhuman for months, I’m wary of posting these comments.
I keep thinking on it. I do these stupid small-time jobs so I can finance the rest of my endeavors. If they end up instead depleting me to the point that I can’t get anything else done — and note how infrequently I’ve updated this blog in the last few weeks — what’s the point?
The point is that freelancing as both an editor and a writer has still meant that I could take off on an ill-advised trip when I wanted to, that I could still work out in the middle of the day or have a long lunch with a dear old friend, that I could sometimes stay up till 4 am or get up at 4 am to write. It meant that I didn’t have to answer ultimately to anyone but myself. It meant that I could write about what I wish. But what if, as right now, I can’t sleep let alone write because I’m so worried about how I’m going to pay my electric bill in the next few months? What if I now feel like I’m dancing awkwardly between self-respect and solvency?
We seem to think these days that unions are deeply outdated. We white-collar kids don’t even know our labor rights, let alone insist they be enforced. Most everybody gets screwed in some way by the new companies that look impressive as hell on our resumes. I’ve written and edited for I don’t know how many hipper-than-thou pubs over the last few years that employ college grads for diddly, make us work weekends and nights without any benefits, let alone overtime, pay us when it suits them, drop deadlines like bombs, and remind us how disposable we are when we utter the slightest peep. Email only worsens things, as there’s no excuse in employers’ eyes to not constantly be on call. Most companies, truth be told, should be called LaborViolations.com rather than whatever oblique wordplay they use as their monikers. And all we do is complain over overpriced cocktails without much recourse.
There’s not much room for, you should forgive the term, true bohemia in our current climate even though it’s necessary to create truly original art. I never want to make a ton of cash; I don’t give a fuck about working for all the glossy publications that treat copy like mere captions for celebrity pics. I simply want to lead a life of financial integrity, in which I finance myself, the occasional trip, the occasional emergency, and the occasional loved one who needs my support through work I believe in.
I know how to live on not so much cash; have been practicing that skill forever so that I could pursue a life on my own terms rather than on someone else’s. For I truly believe that only when you lead a life that entails acceptable rather than unacceptable compromise can you excavate your authentic self well enough to write from it.
Sure enough everything happens for a reason, and this experience has helped me affirm that organizer within myself again. Helped me experience anger as a motivating force rather than merely as a sick drain. But I’m devastated that things are still so rough, are only getting rougher in our political climate in which fascism is so glibly confused for patriotism, in which the rights of middle and lower class Americans grow increasingly less germane to the leaders who purport to represent us. It’s time to kick more ass. For all of us to try to use our art and commerce to wake each other up rather than inure us further.
What’s scary, of course, is I don’t know if I can do any more work in good faith for an employer who has shown such disregard for the work I do. I also, simply put, don’t know how else I will live. How I will feed the cats. What’s exciting is now I get to find out. It’s time for me personally to shed my old-school lefty feelings of being repulsed by money, as a friend recently observed, and become truly self-employed. Money can finance wonderful endeavors in addition to problematic ones.
As they say in my country, what the fuck?
Last night, for what seems like the billionth time but just may be fourth, Yancey tried to get me into Deadwood, HBO’s very own Manifest Destiny drama. Typically, if he tells me I’m going to dig a show, I do, if grudgingly. The Wire is the classic example — and thank our lucky stars that it’s been renewed for the fourth season, praise be.
But although I admire the painstaking research that goes into Deadwood, as well as its seamless integration of real-life historical figures with fabricated characters, I just haven’t cottoned to this one. Its sepia tones, dirty red faces, potty-potty mouths, (and this coming from a girl who’s had her mouth metaphorically washed out with soap many a time); the claustrophobia of such a tiny town squirming, teeming with avarice and swaggering men in big boots and big hats with big guns and big capitalistic aspirations. It just ain’t my thing.
I’ve never liked Westerns. Ever. Even the ones I know officially are admirable, like McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Eastwood’s revisionist Unforgiven. I used to think it was just because the dusty, browbeaten aesthetic, all squinted eyes and thin lips squirting tobacco juice, didn’t appeal to me, and because the world of Westerns is very much a world stripped of femininity even when it isn’t stripped of physical women.
It’s more than that, though. Visiting the world of the Western not only entails visiting the lair of the lion, but visiting what is no matter what a rationalization, even an aggrandizement of the individualistic, acquisitive strain of American culture that now dominates our landscape. The behavior of white pioneers in the West not only embodies the strain of American history that most shames me, but on a dramatic level, it just doesn’t make for compelling drama.
The Man in action is dull. It’s dull to identify with what is ostensibly the oppressor rather than the Native Americans or even land that he conquered. What interests me in every story is subversion. Underdogs. Underworlds. Greys. Out there, in the too-bright sunlight, squirming for gold, squeezing holsters, fucking broads, guzzling whiskey — there’s no subconscious. Hell, it’s all superconscious. Or, worse: id.
Deadwood may provides ample insight into the current mindframe dominating American culture, but I don’t need to squander my leisure time on the revelation that we’re all just a bunch of grasping cowboys. Pardner, I’ve got CNN for that.
Movies is quiet and so is I. I’m knee-deep in a batch of mostly onerous editing to help me pay off the Dreaded Taxes (really, why don’t we all stop paying; it’d be a fuck of a lot faster way to derail all and sundry than those faltering protests preaching solely to the choir); reviews to write; books I’ve committed to read. Mostly, though, I’ve surrendered once again to the whims of the weather, and am here to report that the best cultural barometer of the moment is not film nor television but subway.
What public transportation relies upon, slavishly, is a complete and utter adherence to the social contract — to the unspoken agreement that the only way to get through the day with so many strangers’ elbows lodged squarely and unintentionally up your ass is to practice the golden rule. In the words of Miss Tina Turner back when she was Mrs. Ike: “Nice and easy.”
Alas, what with the MTA’s wildly outdated signal system, the miserable slush and hail and rain and ice and yellow yellow snow and flip-your-wig winds, an entire city who needs a vacation from the Winter That Wouldn’t End, well, the social contract is breaking down a wee bit. Men sitting with legs sprawled out, taking up two seats while old people on canes and pregnant women loom above them. At 8 am a woman smacking loudly on greasy fried chicken drops wrappers at her feet, while every Hungover Harriet gags around her. The angry whir of so many headphones not turned down low enough. The unfathomable body odor of a parka-wrapped people stalled in overheated sardine cans. The homeless person clad in urine-soaked paperbags. The drug addicts drooling their methadone fix on their neighbors’ shoulders. The save-it-for-the-couch self-analyses between Williamsburg silverspoons who haven’t quite caught on to how the rest of us working joes ain’t just background plants. Nasal fusillades that masquerade as girltalk between assistants zipping between the gym and their lipstick gigs. Everyone pushing their way to get on and off first, stepping on toes, bags, egos; pushing past politesse to land that empty seat. No please, no thank you, just an occasional exasperated sigh.
A “Metropolitan Diary” Entry You’ll Never Read: The other day on a superpacked 6 pm 4 train speeding down from Grand Central, a 16-year-old slackjaw fiddled with a cell phone game that beeped wildly every five seconds or so. In the grin-and-bear-it category, for sure, until the train screeched to a halt that extended into 10 minutes. The rest of us stood silent, unwilling to honor our despair by commiserating about it. But the beeping, in contrast to that looming quiet, was intolerable.
I have an impolite habit of naming other people’s impoliteness. LadyRosman, etiquette avenger at your service, whether you requested it or not. I’ll yell at you for littering, for talking during a movie, for wearing your jeans slung too far below your panties. So I said something.
“Do you mind turning down the volume on your phone?”
The girl looked up, cowlike, mouth ajar. But the big woman on her left looked immediately alert, jaw jutting forward to compensate for her charge’s slack.
“Why should she?”
“Because the beeping is so loud that it’s irritating.”
“Maybe you’re the one who’s irritating.”
“I asked her politely and you’ve answered for her. Rudely.”
“She aint’ doin’ nuthin. You the one who’s irritating. You rude.”
“Listen to yourself. You’re setting a fine example.”
Everyone else remained still. Even stiller.
By now the girl was staring into space blankly, the phone abandoned, either embarrassed or markedly attention-deficient. The big woman nudged her, hard, in the ribs, over and over until she started playing again. I started to laugh, more (admittedly) to irk them both than anything else.
“You’re all irritating,” someone else mumbled.
They had a point.
This just in: No social contract in New York City, not until spring makes her fine self known.
Possibly, no social contract in the United States until our finer selves have a place to shine.