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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Freaky Deaky Dee

For the past six or so years, I have worked as a legal word processor to support my out-of-control obsessions with writing and other vulgar outbursts of creativity. The work comes easily to me, the pay is good, overtime is rare (and when it happens, the pay is REALLY good), and the schedule is typically accommodating, especially at international firms with offices open 24/7.

As a result, I've spent most of the past six years working evenings. In the beginning, this was a dream come true. I could write all day, then arrive at work when most of the 9-to-5 rabble was preparing to leave. I could stay up late and sleep in if I so chose. What's not to love?

Well, I'll tell you what's not to love.

When one is 29 years old and living in New York City, one can get away with working nights. One has more of a propensity to go out after work and whoop it up, caring less about the possibility of returning to work the next night knackered and stinking of gin and ashtrays. When one is 29 and living in NYC, one has a wide variety of friends with crazy occupations and kooky schedules. One could easily choose from a wide palette of social contacts who would be only too pleased to meet for some chat'n'chew at 2:00 a.m.

When one is 35 years old and living in Chicago, the stakes change just a tad.

When the lyric "I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep" was written, there's good reason it was attributed to the Big Apple rather than the Windy City. Chicago is indeed a big city with a lot of stuff going on all the time, but the (for lack of a better term) working culture is of a far different mindset here than in New York.

Chicago is a 9-to-5 town. You get up in the morning, you come to work, you go home, and after 5:00 p.m., you live your personal life. You pursue your personal passions. You engage with other people who follow the same schedule, because that is what people do in this city until they have reached a point where their personal passions can pay for whatever kind of damn schedule they please.

If you choose another kind of work schedule, you're free to have at it, but you will most likely come to feel a bit marginalized. The Loop, which is the downtown business section of Chicago where I've worked most of the time I've lived in this city, closes down by 6:00 p.m. Restaurants, shops, library, everything - when the 9-to-5ers go home, there's no reason to stay open.

For people like me who worked night shifts in The Loop, it was like arriving at a ghost town every night - my own personal Day After, day after day.

Add to that the typical perils of a night shift worker - you miss out on night-time TV (I learned how to program a VCR over the past few years); you have to schedule time off if you want to see a concert at night, thus shaving off valuable vacation hours; you don't get to socialize with your friends or family unless they keep the same weird hours as you; and you have to deal with weird people in your neighborhood who don't work during the day, and the even weirder people who are wandering the streets when you get off work late at night.

When I moved to Chicago from New York in 2001, I scoured the want ads and drilled the employment agencies for a night shift job like I had in New York. Eventually, I found one that fit the bill. I took two years to realize this schedule wasn't going to work for me here like it could on the East Coast. Actually, most of those two years were spent knowing better but fighting the need to return to the 9-to5 world. As boxed-in as working nights could feel, the last thing I wanted back in my life were claustrophobic rush-hour commutes and frustrating throngs of lunch-hour street waddlers.

Fortunately, I was recently able to strike a deal in which I clock in and out a little earlier than the masses, which gives me the best of both worlds. I can now cook veggie korma with my sweetheart at night, and at the same time I can work days while still clinging tight to my neurotic fear of crowds (remind me again WHY I like living in big cities?).

I've been back on days for a week and a half now, after a couple of years of regularly working a night shift. I told one person that I feel like Morgan Freeman in that Shawshank movie, and I recently tried to explain the ways in which my neighborhood is creepy during the day, when most sensible people are downtown toiling away in their cubicles.

I find it a little unsettling to spend the day in my deserted neighborhood, then trek downtown to another deserted environment for work. I could spend entire days as a resident of Chicago, only seeing my boyfriend and the people with whom I work. Sure, there might be a couple of people in my periphery. A couple of people at the gym during the day. Some old folks from the local retirement community on their shopping day at my local supermarket. Six or seven strangers in my train car on the way to work. But there's no calling a buddy because I feel like getting together for a drink or a movie. Buddy's at work. I'm at home. Or vice versa.

And when I would step outside my apartment during my long days before work, I would notice myself among people who appeared to be unable to fit in among the 9-to-5 mainstream. My neighborhood resembled something half "Monster Mash", half Twin Peaks. People skittered around furtively, with strangely shaped hair and ill-fitting clothing. Or, worse, brazen extroverts would troll the streets, looking for poor souls to suck into their vortex of unfortunate behavior.

And of course, there were the mommies with their strollers. Oh, the strollers. And the screaming, kicking things inside those vessels. The horror...the horror...

This was my world during the day. These were the people in my neighborhood. All the pretty people with playfully messy hair and retro t-shirts and sassy shoes were all at work, fashionably oblivious to the bleary underbelly of our community. I got to see the pretty people on weekends. I was like a divorced parent with limited custody of having a real life.

Of course, the real divorce happened on my late night bus/train rides home from work, at which point most people have filed for a complete divorce from reality. Sitting on the northbound bus among drooling lumpen misfits trundling dozens of bags, and big scary seething things with large heads and bulging eyes, I am reminded of Mink Stole's classic line in the film Desperate Living, in which she is banished to a town for social outcasts: "Look around's a village of idiots!"

Fortunately, I was never directly accosted during my rides home at night, unless putrid stenches count as personal which case, consider me a serial victim. At worst, I've been the target of bizarre and promptly-dismissed chat-up lines, and I was nearly groped one evening by an out of control Mexican drunkard who appeared to be going through some kind of homoerotic sexual awakening - and was taking out his epiphany on all the men on the bus in a grisly act of mass frottage, much to our dismay. My usual bus driver at the time was a pillar of patience in dealing with the various crackpots who'd sit at the front of the bus and rant his ear off for entire trips - on his last night working the route, he stopped me as I stepped off and thanked me for not being insane. I didn't have the heart to correct him, but I knew what he meant.

When my job offered me the chance to work days, I was excited to be done with my not-ready-for-prime-time crew of reprobates. I was ready to surround myself with the workaday trappings of normal people. Pretty people. Witty people. At the very least, God bless 'em, boring people.


To quote a wise Taoist philosopher whose contemplations on the nature of irony have resounded with us for centuries: "HA!"

In the past two weeks of my life as a mere drip in the vat of daytime manpower, I've had two memorably bizarre Close Encounters of the Freak Kind - not just harmless little incidents in which I look on as some mouthbreather in a felt tunic eats raw hamburger on the bus. Oh, no. If only.

The first of my Dances With Freaks occurred the very first evening I returned home from my first day of work. My computer had come down with some kind of banal disorder and I had to walk it across the street to the local PC veterinarian. On my way back from dropping off my little black box of error messages, I passed a disgruntled looking old man who leered at me and barked, "YOU GOT BUCK TEETH!!!"

Soon after, I reported this story to my boyfriend, who then asked me to describe the geezer in question. After I did so, he replied, "oh, yeah. You gotta stay away from him."

After a bit of thought, I decided to take my beau's advice. So much for inviting grumpy gramps around for brunch with buck-teeth.

Incident number two occurred just last weekend, when we dropped by the local superdupermarket to pick up a family pak of low-carb toilet paper. While we were waiting in line for the self-serve check-out (one of my many mental issues is that I don't want anyone named Brenda handling my toilet paper), a creature in front of us spun around and looked at me as if little unicorns had just flown out of my ears. She was the shape and size of a tree stump, she was wearing an ill-fitting curly red wig, she had a voice like a foghorn, and she was clearly unhinged and aiming her crosshairs at me.

"YOU LOOK LIKE YOU SAW A GHOST!" she bellowed, gums aflap. And by the time she spat these words at me, I probably did look like a deer in headlights.

"Um, okay," I responded, aghast at this woman's very existence (and the way in which it was colliding with mine).

"YOU LOOK LIKE DRACULA! WAUGH!" she continued, her eyes popping like vienna sausages bulging from cloudy aspic.

"Why thank you," I said, my pissy-queen reserves beginning to kick in, "and have a nice day."

(I must add, I'm not too shabby at saying "have a nice day" and making it sound like "fuck you very much". I've heard people do worse at this than me. I've worked with secretaries for a long time. I've learned things.)

After this incident, I couldn't help but feel that I had suddenly become a bona fide freak magnet, and that my new work schedule was somehow to blame. Had I made a bad decision? Was working nights and sparing myself the bulk of waking humanity actually something that was keeping me safe from the world's droolcup enthusiasts and notable wingnuts? Had I willed myself into some kind of particularly shrill Twilight Zone episode?

Well, I don't know. I've had a few days since these incidents occurred, and all I can say is that I'm a little impressed at the quality of these two fine weirdos. The freakish behavior I encountered on my late night bus rides home from work was considerably wide in scope, but there was always a vagueness about their untoward behavior that was, dare I say, more predictable than disarming. The daytime freakazoids I have encountered in the past two weeks have what I must admit is a true flair - a commitment to their craft that I cannot help but call refreshing and vital to the world of freakdom. I'm proud of the wonky wombats I'm encountering in my neighborhood these days, and long may their freak flag fly!

Hey, we all gotta tell ourselves things to keep the bad thoughts at bay, ok?

And sometimes the tables do turn.

Last night after work, I was at the same supermarket, picking up some stuff for dinner. I was so proud, I was picking up a loaf of french bread and I could finally look like every movie character coming home from work with a bag of groceries with obligatory french bread popping out. I'd finally arrived at domestic ultimate Rhoda Morganstern fantasy!

I prodded at produce for a few minutes for no good reason, and I noticed a display of mini-pumpkins that I thought would make an atrociously precious accent for my desk at work. "Oh GOD, how FESTIVE", my co-workers would grumble as they passed me clacking away at my keyboard. I would pick one up for my sweetie, too.

When I settled up at the self-serve check-out, the mini-pumpkins would not scan. They weren't in the database, it seemed. It was as if the mini-pumpkins were retail stowaways - Charos in the Love Boat of digestable goods.

I asked for help, and the guy paid to stand at a podium and monitor the self-serve checkout stations slouched over and pointed at a sticker on the mini-pumpkin, mumbling something about keying in the number on the sticker. So I did that. Nothing happened still.

So I decided I was gonna get myself some god damn service.

I sighed with a volume handed down to me by generations of put-upon midwestern women and I dropped the mini-pumpkins, quite unscanned, into my grocery bag. The monitor guy got an eyeful of this performance and before I knew it he was leering over my shoulder, a hand already reaching around and pulling the mini-pumpkins from my grocery bag. Miraculously, he pushed a few buttons and the pricing for these purchases appeared. Apparently, customer service comes easier if you threaten to steal.

I felt bad about my performance as I trundled my goods home - what must that man have thought of me, putting unaccounted for items in my bag, I could have been arrested for shoplifting! But the cloud of guilt blew away quickly. I merely feigned a bit of bad behavior to get the assistance I felt I deserved in the first place. I got what I needed, and I was a bit dramatic about it.

I guess we all need to get our freak on, sooner or later.


Blogger Franklin said...

Very vivid. I almost feel like I was there with you! Oh, wait...

8:29 AM, October 07, 2005  
Blogger Marilyn said...

Just to let you know, the Supermarket Gumflapper showed up at my Shoprite last night.

Clearly Succasunna, NJ is preferable to Chicago.

Read into that what you will.

9:32 AM, October 07, 2005  
Blogger weaselrina said...

There is a guy that wanders my neighborhood barking not-quite-nonsequiturs at people such as
"double pneumonia" the day I was walking home in the rain and "gerber baby" - when I was standing with a friend and her child. NY is just as you left it.

12:48 PM, October 07, 2005  
Blogger birdfarm said...

I am typing this in the public library in the medium-shoddy area of town in mid-afternoon. You can imagine, I'm sure, the interesting variety of persons scattered about.

There's only one thing missing from your post. A better name than "flotsam" for this particular category of folks--the non-9-to-5-ers who inhabit the DMV, public library, parks, and other very public spaces from 9 to 5.

Unless it was there and I missed it...

And let me add, as an unemployed fuckup, I would certainly not presume to be in any way superior to my fellow... flotsam. I just want a good name for us, and with all the vast reserve of wittiness between you & Franklin, I'm sure you can come up with something.

Incidentally, flapping gums yelled at Loopy in a drugstore in New York: "Outta my way, you little round thing!" (said as though being a "round thing" were a felonious offense, which in NYC, it may soon become).

12:59 PM, October 07, 2005  
Blogger dragon knitter said...

good god! shades of rick james! the funny part? i attract the freaks too. especially the ones at work. i work at a mail order call center, and we are in "busy season." that means they hire warm bodies to man the phones, and hope they don't piss off the regular customers too much. i swear, there are days when i truly think i am fly paper for freaks. sigh. very nice handling of the mini pumpkin incident. did franklin like his pumpkin?

7:20 PM, October 07, 2005  
Anonymous sahara said...

Ah C, reading your post reminds me of the good ole'days in New York.

My ass is now 47, and living in New York City. I have a wide variety of friends with kooky schedules; the difference now is that everyone is working ten to twelve hour days, no matter what their schedule is.

We get together for late night drinks cause we actually get off lateā€“from working during the day, or night. And EVERYONE is knackered. You just don't stink anymore cause of the "no-smoking ban".

What happened?

I thought I'd never say this, but I am dying to get off at five. Folks tell me I have it made since I come in around 10am. They all start at 8:30, but 10 hours is 10 hours. Or 11, or 12.

It's just one big rush hour now, until about 9:30pm. And everyone's personal passion now, is the job.

Not mine, thank the spirits. Me, Mr. K, and a few others are holding on to the last vestiges of freakdom.

And the major freaks? They all moved.

New York in the millenium has become the worker bee's paradise.

9:51 AM, October 10, 2005  

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