May 8, 2011

“Thank You for Your Application,” or Fifteen Minutes of Bitterness


Over the past several years, we’ve all watched helplessly as the Empire’s economy imploded for stupid and unnecessary reasons, fundamentally disrupting millions of lives as it went. So many people around me lost their jobs, had their benefits ripped away, looked in vain for new jobs, and panicked about how they were going to support themselves and their families.

            Through it all, I’d been lucky—I’d somehow been able to slither by under the radar just doing what I do. I never made much money but I think that helps explain my survival. When you’ve never had much of anything, you learn how to live comfortably on next to nothing. In recent days however I’ve also learned that there is a vast difference between “next to nothing” and “nothing.”

            Perhaps too slowly the idea was nudged upon me that I would need to do something I hadn’t done in an awfully long time—namely, “find a real job.” I didn’t particularly want a real job, but I’d grown accustomed to a lifestyle complete with certain niceties, like food and shelter.

            But where to begin when the industry that you have worked in for over half your life is no longer a viable option? I felt like a blacksmith or a typewriter repairman. I was a gray-haired blind man blessed with no appreciable training or skills. You don’t see many ads on Craigslist noting those specific qualifications. Well, given all that, the most obvious move was to try teaching. I’d taught a class in 2009 and though it went okay, I left the classroom vowing I’d never do it again. Funny how a little discomfort can change your mind about things. And what the hell? There are still an awful lot of students out there willing to drop $30K a year to get themselves a useless degree, right? So why not tap into some of that rich dumb kid loot? Hell, I was a well-rounded individual, I’d read some stuff, I could teach damn near anything.

            There was a bit of a corker in the way, however. See, when I left grad school in the mid-eighties, I did so with the understanding that I had my fancy-pants master’s degree tattooed on my forehead. (Master’s, mind you! I was a master!) For twenty-five years it was never a question and never an issue. But the whole time I was teaching that class in 2009, one little problem kept pestering me. These increasingly terse notes kept arriving from the administration office, informing me that they could find no official record of my having received a degree.

            Well, it was a simple administrative error, obviously, I told them. A computer glitch of some sort. Can’t trust these computers for anything, you ask me. Nevertheless at their behest I contacted my old university and tried to get this whole stupid business straightened out while holding these pesky bureaucrats at bay. The class was going fine, the students seemed to be learning something, so why were they hassling me with these trifles?

            By the time the semester ended and my brief teaching career was over, the administrators were still bugging me about that stupid degree and I was still looking for answers.

            Weeks after I was finished teaching I continued trying to get things straightened out. I was a master after all, and didn’t want there to be any doubt about it.

            Back at my old university, there really didn’t seem to be any record of my MA anywhere. According to their computers, I’d just up and left, and that was that. Even after I gave them the title of my thesis paper, it did no good. I began to get paranoid. Had all the records been intentionally erased? There were a few people back then who may have had reason to fuck with me (the result of a simple misunderstanding). Hmmm . . .

            Complicating matters was the fact that my old department—the place that supposedly conferred this supposed degree—no longer existed. Over the years it had been subsumed and dispersed to the four winds, and all the departmental records went with it. So what the hell was I supposed to do?

            In desperation and to clear my good name I finally contacted the old chair of my defunct department. Nice fellow, I always liked him, and he seemed puzzled himself after I explained the situation. Undertaking his own research, he began digging through boxes of twenty-five year-old files hidden away in some basement storage area somewhere on the campus.

            It took a few weeks, but he finally discovered—as much to his surprise as my own—that according to the records I was missing one class. And since the department no longer existed, there was no way for me to make up that one class. I was, in a word, fucked. I had no degree. Seven-eighths of one, maybe, but you can’t very well put that on a résumé. Well, I guess you could, but it would just confuse people.

            Technically this disqualified me from a teaching job. No one anywhere would hire a teacher without a master’s degree these days. And there was no way I was going to go back to school in order to do something I didn’t really want to do in the first place. So what I did is this: I removed the “degree” bit from the résumé to avoid being charged with fraud and sent it off to a bunch of creative writing departments anyway. I mean Jesus Christ, I knew more shit now than I did when everyone except a few bureaucrats thought I got the damn degree. It’s pretty insane if you think about it—a livestock-molesting junkie can get an MA and be perfectly qualified to get a job, but miss one damn class and you might as well be dancing on the corner of Broadway and Forty-seventh with your pants around your ankles.

            Then a sad thing happened. As I sat there in the Bunker waiting for the rejection notes to start popping back from this and that university creative writing department, I began to get bitter.

            I’ve encountered a lot of pathetically bitter people in recent days and however justified their bitterness might be, I still find them annoying. It was often such a patently obvious bitterness which they tried to defend in intellectual terms. They made for sad, exhausting company.

            At least when I saw my own bitterness creeping in, I recognized it for what it was and left it undisguised. I still didn’t like it, but there it was.

            Even before I received the first rejection—in some cases before I sent the résumé off—I was ranting in my head.

            Look at you fuckers, sitting there in your fancy schools, I thought. Writing your delicate, precious little stories that’ll only be read by other academics, claiming to teach a bunch of illiterate cretins how to write by filling their heads with stupid jargon, looking at writing as a goddamn theoretical exercise . . . I may not have a snazzy goddamn degree, but I got out of school and started writing, and I’ve made a go of it for a goddamn quarter century. Take you out of your safe academy and drop you down here into the fray with the rest of us, how fucking long would you survive selling your pretty little poems and your stories about tea socials, you sonsabitches?But no, I’m not good enough. Yeah, fuck you all.

            Yes, it was a generally unpleasant spell that didn’t help anything, so I got drunk and watched some old Ernie Kovacs bits. And as I did I quietly began to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have used the term “fuckers” quite so liberally in my cover letters.


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