The day after Labor Day was always the first day of school when I was growing up in Minnesota. Even now, with nowhere to go, in pandemic life at home, and having worked for myself these past seven Labor Days, I feel like today is the start of something. More New Year’s Day than New Year’s Day itself. The first day walking in to a new job with big hopes for how it will turn out.
In Hilary Leichter’s novel Temporary a young woman passes through an epic series of strange new jobs, approaching each one with hope that it may lead to stability. The assignments are like tests from the gods, and the whole story has the feel of the Odyssey (though a brief 208 pages). This unnamed woman’s quests are far stranger than the parade of odd jobs I’ve held. But I couldn’t help thinking of my own journey as I followed hers. I imagine that’s why Homer has had staying power too.
While reading a section where the young woman works for a hit man and is forced to decide if she wanted to succeed in his field, I was transported to a temp agency in Minneapolis circa 1996. The agent handed me the #5 bus schedule and told me if I showed up that afternoon I could start right away. “The bus is right out front. You’ll be there in twenty minutes,” she promised. The job was at Target’s credit card collection department. In the sixty seconds it took me to get from the temp office to the street, I imagined all the desperate people who’d maxed out their credit at Target buying detergent, clothes and diapers. Imagined my new life harassing them, trying to squeeze out payments. I imagined my new boss would have a quota or bonus system for getting the most people to pay up. I tossed the bus schedule in the trash and walked home in the cold. The temp agent called that night to check on me (landlines in those days). She was worried I got lost or fell in a ditch when I didn’t show up, but I’m sure her commission was on the line. Temp agents have to get paid too.
Earlier, Leichter’s hero and another temp are assigned the inexplicable task of opening and closing doors and drawers. And this reminded me of a job “prepping” corporate documents subpoenaed in a huge class action case. “Prepping” involved placing a numbered bar code sticker on every trivial piece of paper with writing on it. Indecipherable notes on a yellow legal pad. Typed pages in triplicate. Pinup girls torn out of magazines and forgotten in a file folder for sixty years. If pages were stapled or paper-clipped, I had to remove the staple or clip and write down that barcodes number 356,780 through 356,786 were stapled. The corporation surely settled the case out of court long before the mountain of boxes were bar-coded. Every time I hear of a giant lawsuit, I imagine temps in hundreds of office towers, in hundreds of downtowns, going through boxes like these.
I admire Leichter’s pacing in jumping from one adventure to the next. Embracing the realm of fantasy helps Leichter move fast. The world of her story is a sort of dreamland where recurring settings need only be described as “the prison” and “the bank,” a good lesson in distilling the essence of a story — even in you are talking about Eastern State Penitentiary and Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Cincinnati. Similarly, the characters who stay with her on her lonely journey are often little more than descriptive names — the chairman, the tall boyfriend, the favorite boyfriend — yet have all the substance they need to carry their role in the story. As a writer who has been pursuing epic scale for years, getting bogged down by specifics, there are liberating lessons here in distilling a story to its essence.
The new job this day-after-Labor-Day is writer. It’s one I’ve come back to again and again. It is rarely a paid gig, but still a job (among several) to be taken seriously. It’s been with me long enough that I shouldn’t think of it as temporary, but it always feels like a fleeting chase for stability when I get on a streak of publishing regularly (like this series for now 44 days). Here’s hoping next Labor Day I’ve avoided for another year taking the #5 bus to work for credit collectors or hit men.