More often than I care to really count, I find my eyes wandering across the employment classifieds in my local paper, or glancing at “Now Hiring” signs posted in store windows to see if I might come across some second job that might not only supplement my income, but also provide some sense of balance and difference in my working life. Of course, it’s a far more common activity when my economy is pinched, or when the little sinister voice of society taunts, “one day, you will have to get a ‘real’ job.”
I know that I actually have a “real” job as an adjunct professor. It’s a job that’s easy to explain and easily identifiable, with a W2 form and regular-ish paycheck. I also have “unreal” jobs, which fall outside the recognized perimeters of work because the pay is low, or the work indefinable and mysterious.
When I tell someone my real job, the response is usually something along the lines of: “Oh. I had an English teacher once who [insert terrible education tale here]” and I, The Representative, am left to Apologize For My People. I’ve stopped defending my summers “off” to myself and others, choosing instead to encourage anyone to who wants this kind of life to enter graduate school, or become a public school teacher to get the summers off they imagine are so wonderful. If I’m feeling particularly feisty, I respond “why yes, my summer in pajamas is wonderful.” When I introduce myself as a writer, it turns out that I have everyone’s dream job. They also often say they have an idea, and if they were off from “work” for six months, they’d be able to write a novel. One writer friend of mine once suggested that since she has a brain, she’ll just take six months off from work and become a brain surgeon. Of course, I’m perfectly willing to try and help that novice get started or finished, because that’s yet another “unreal” job I have: writing consultant and coach.
The most common but still envying response to that unreal writer job is usually “don’t quit your day job.” Of course, for me, the choice isn’t really to do one thing or the other, but how to combine the things I do and maybe add a few more. And this is why I found myself recently standing in the line at the Central Market grocery store, considering how much I liked the store and how all the employees seemed to be satisfied and pleasant and maybe, maybe, this would be a nice ancillary job. I even began to write my application in my head as I walked to the car, “Why I Want to Work at Central Market” and consider how I might like to be a shelf stocker there. Just a nice quiet job putting things on shelves and getting a discount on groceries. Yes, it might easily work around my other scheduled classes. Yes, that sounds so pleasant. I have not, however, submitted my application. Yet.
While I enjoy my current jobs, real and unreal, those employment ads still trigger the restless anxiety that I need something more stable, something more reliable, particularly if I’ve lingered too long on MSNBC. Maybe just a little extra job that would bring in a little more money and take out a lot less mental energy. I also crave the sense of normalcy such “work” might bring to my life.
I’m not alone in this. A colleague of mine, working as a full-time adjunct faculty member recently noted how often she ponders the “Now Hiring” sign in her favorite clothing store, considering how the added income and store discount might help pay for her business attire wardrobe. This habit is not limited to those who’s half-lives are connected to academe. Another friend with a very successful, but eclectic, career in theater and improv comedy often tires of trying to explain his work, and contemplates the “real job” he needs to replace his indefinable career. Recently, a notice for office administration and light bookkeeping fell into his e-mail box, and he was ready with a resume before he remembered the interview wouldn’t be an audition for a part in a play about office life.
I completely understand this desire to have the definable job that also is not tied to one’s identity, a job at which one can be mediocre, or even poor, without the risk of consequential failure of self. But also a job that people recognize as “work”. While it might not be a “career”, it remains culturally acceptable and understandable “work.”
It always helps to change the culture of which I consider myself to be a part. If I turn off the mainstream cultural blather in my head and look around at my colleagues and my students, I find a great deal of comfort and camaraderie in the community to which I really belong. When I first started teaching as an adjunct, a new world was slowly revealed to me: a world in which most people held more than a single job, and more often than not, defined themselves not by the work they did for the steadiest paycheck, but by the creative life that work supported. Because of the general creative atmosphere in Austin, I encountered many musicians, photographers, writers, artists, researchers, and a myriad of other “consultants” engaged in both their teaching and their creative work, working at both real and unreal jobs. One semester, the ASL interpreter in my classroom revealed she was also a ceremonial drummer. This combination of work is so prevalent that the most common question I hear when I meet new instructors is “and what else do you do?” and the answers reveal the vibrant creativity of the community in which I have found myself most comfortable and engaged.
It’s not only a community of creatives, but also a community that contains people working a variety of jobs, from grocery store stocker to art welder. I’ve encountered teaching EMT’s, ready for class, or an emergency call. In my classes, my students mirror this variety, sharing the double lives of work and education. This vibrant cross-section of the city reveals how diverse “real” work actually is and belies the cultural mythology of what constitutes a “real” job. So, as I consider working at Central Market, I know it’s a job that would not be scoffed at, and I would most likely encounter others who wanted to work there as well, or at least who understood the impulse I felt standing in line that day, pondering my application. Mostly likely, I won’t be making any applications there, but I will keep considering the pleasant idea of that job as I continue to work at the real and unreal jobs I already have, and keep “normalcy” at bay.
Amy L. Wink is an adjunct professor at Austin Community College. She has taught at Texas A&M University at College Station, Stephen F. Austin State University, Emporia State University and Southwestern University. She is the author of She Left Nothing In Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of 19th Century WomenÂ¹s Diaries  (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and the editor of Their Hearts' Confidante: The Diaries of Henrietta Baker Embree and Tennessee Keys Embree, 1856-1884 (under consideration at University of Tennessee Press). She is currently working on her third book, a collection of personal essays, tentatively titled, "A Seat at The Window."