Jim Schley's Essays



My Twenty Part-Time Jobs

Like millions of other Americans, in early 2003 I suddenly found myself laid-off. 

My erstwhile employer wasn’t a giant, downsizing corporation but a small book publisher. Two years previously I’d had my photo in color in the business section of the New York Times, in a lead article lauding our company for exemplary "niche" publishing. Even so, after more than a decade in various management positions I was told, "You’re a fixed cost that needs to be a variable cost." 

I wasn’t expecting the difficulties of finding a new job, nor the jolt to my self-respect, ordinarily rather sturdy. I missed my colleagues, most of them also fired. I missed seeing my name on a masthead and business card.

I signed up for unemployment compensation, six months of weekly checks at a portion of my previous income, and came to feel an odd warmth for the synthesized voice on the automated claims line — a fatherly baritone, intoning seven questions which I’d answer by pressing 1 for yes or 9 for no.

Meanwhile I scoured the job listings. I inventoried my abilities, stretched my imagination, and threw myself wholeheartedly into applications for nineteen jobs — nineteen carefully worded cover letters and fine-tuned resumes and references from former employers or advisors. Nineteen neatly printed packets addressed and mailed. Each time, you believe you’ll be called for an interview, have a complete meeting of minds, and be offered a great position.

The usual result is much different: You run as fast as you can and leap — into a cinderblock wall.  

One evening when our family sat down to dinner, as my wife and our daughter recounted the day’s highlights, I realized that I had almost nothing to say. I was basically retired. I’d done the laundry, made soup, planted another garden bed . . . but so what? I felt boring, not having talked with anyone all day. That night I decided there was no way I was going to let myself be one of those laid-off men who flounder, squandering hours watching TV and feeling sorry for themselves. Anyway, we don’t have a TV. 

What I could see all around me were part-time jobs. This is the epoch of the adjunct and out-sourced. In addition to more than 8 million people unemployed in the U.S., at least 5 million people are working part-time, unable to find full-time positions. Without benefits or a  contract, paid hourly instead by salary, but work to be done. 

So I resolved to take as many part-time jobs as I could find and ended up juggling as many as eleven at a time. The experience has been fantastic.

In the past year I’ve found gainful employment by: writing (reviews for a metropolitan newspaper and essays for feature magazines); teaching (book-discussion series in public libraries,  poetry  programs for high-school students, and presentations for ElderHostel and writers’ conferences); performing (with a dance troupe and a stage company, in a documentary film, and on stilts with a brass band); editing (a poetry column for a forestry magazine, a special issue of a literary journal, and a book about the history of bridges); house painting; snowplowing; research (for a family history and a firm documenting biomedical expertise); carpentry, demolition, and landscaping; house-sitting; and playing the role of patient for medical students practicing interviews.

Knowing that I was trying to see how many part-time jobs I could manage, my sister called one day to suggest sperm donation as a (quite lucrative) possibility. 

Instead of feeling crazed, keeping track of all those responsibilities, this experiment has yielded countless benefits. To have so many jobs you need to be supremely well organized, in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and clothes. A friend peered into my car one morning and exclaimed, "You’ve got more bags than a mailman!" Some days I had four different jobs over the course of twelve hours. 

As our ten-year-old daughter was listening with an impish expression to the radio news, she said "Hey, Dad, no wonder there’s high unemployment — you have all the jobs."

Admittedly, I was better prepared than most people for such a predicament. A college graduate who has made my living for twenty years in the arts, I’ve worked in editorial offices but also in restaurants, on construction crews, as a camera salesman, touring puppeteer, community-college teacher, and model for art classes. My wife and I live "off-the-grid" in a solar-electric house we built ourselves — no mortgage, no power line, and a big vegetable garden — with health insurance from her teaching job. Through thirteen years of marriage we’ve carefully avoided debt, clearing our one credit card every month, paying off our cars quickly and keeping them running beyond 150,000 miles. 

This balance feels precarious, but heartbroken at the loss of my old job, with no savings and no offers, I was nonetheless ready to take drastic action.

And though I wasn’t looking for this lesson, in the past year I’ve discovered how valuable humility can be. Humble turns out to be quite different from humiliated, and the difference is largely up to you. 

Who knows? Maybe I’ll never take another full-time job. As a regular employee, you’re ultimately at the mercy of someone else’s decisions, which might well be impetuous or idiotic. 

In the meantime my  short-term plan has me busy and upbeat, with plenty to recount over our dinner table. 

Biographical note: Jim Schley, who lives in central Vermont, is author of a book of poems, One Another (Chapiteau).