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When I Grow Up

I moved to New York in the late 1980s-the Jay McInerney, Spy Magazine, Donald and Ivana Trump, merger-and-acquisition, junk-bond boom-time.

by Marisa Bowe
01 December 2004, 12:00am


Photo by Kevin Trageser

I moved to New York in the late 1980s—the Jay McInerney, Spy Magazine, Donald and Ivana Trump, merger-and-acquisition, junk-bond boom-time. Most of my formerly arty college pals were in law or business school, but none of them were interested in either law or business. They just wanted to get paid. In an atmosphere so completely defined by money, fear of falling out of the gentility bubble was palpable.

It was really sad that all the bright, funny, creative people I'd known in school were shoveling themselves into careers they hated. It was even sadder that I couldn't do it too, having studied economics.

Then I read an amazing article in The New Republic about trade magazines. The author had methodically perused dozens and dozens of those little, low-production-value publications, each about a very specific occupation: Frozen Food Age, Modern Baking, MoldMaking Technology, Tissue World, Machinery Lubrication, Catalog Age, Point of Purchase Magazine, Spray Technology & Marketing Magazine, The Apparel Strategist, and on and on. Reading about the specific passion that these people brought to their various occupations somehow got me all hopped up. The mind-boggling diversity of the United States economy was a beautiful thing, concluded the writer. I finished the article with visions of endlessly opening portholes into infinite other worlds.

Why were me and my friends, supposedly among the best-educated young people in the country, allegedly blessed with the widest array of choices, facing lockdown at business and law school, when there were so many potentially interesting jobs out there? And why hadn't anybody told us about any of them?

I decided to start a company and make a series of video documentaries about jobs for high schools and colleges to show to their students. I'd call it Jobshop. The preliminary research I did for the project was encouraging, but I knew a great deal more about researching than I did about starting a company, and the idea gradually migrated to the way back burner. I continued temp word-processing, worrying about my lack of career traction, and goofing around on Echo, a little NYC-based online community I'd joined. My friends were embarrassed for me.

I eventually became the online manager of Echo. There was no sense of real employment possibility in it, so I scratched up hack freelance assignments and did production work for corporate videos. My inability to blend into the corporate world, though, was an increasingly worrisome problem. I wanted to be one those people whose hobbies turned into successful careers. New Agers said to "follow your bliss," but what if you didn't have one?

A deus ex machina saved me: the web. I was in the right place at the right time. The screwing around I'd done online was now a skill. As one of the few people around NYC who had a smattering of both art/lit and internet, I was offered a job as a webzine editor. It turned out that I couldn't have possibly planned a better résumé, because everything I knew how to do was part of "multimedia."

The webzine was called Word.com. We were sick of cultural theory, media commentary, and pundits, so we ran mostly first-person essays. We ran an unsympathetic one by a guy who had sexually harassed someone on the job and gotten in trouble for it. Another guy described working at a debt-collection agency. A third wrote fantasy about the person who writes product instructions.

Now that I had the means, I wanted to create something like Jobshop. My fellow editors and I started an interview column called "Work," featuring a different person every week talking about his job. Studs Terkel's book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do was one of our models. It's a huge collection of interviews that came out in 1972. I was in junior high and was assigned some of it in school. There were fewer than 10 women in the book. I instantly turned to the chapter called "Model." Sounded pretty good, but the other handful of women were in dreary caretaker jobs: secretary, nurse, teacher. I'd never questioned it when I first read it, but it was shocking to me when I looked at it again in the late 90s. Terkel wasn't being sexist; he was reflecting the world as it was.

In other ways, too, the culture and economy of the U.S. had changed so much that Working read like a period piece. Terkel declared, "Work is violence to the spirit," and there were references to "The Man" and "The Establishment."

But in 1998, when we started our column, everybody wanted to be The Man. Starting your own company was how you bucked The Establishment. Work and business were the center of glamour. People talked about therapy issues, not issues of class. Another thing that had changed was that people in Working stayed in one job more or less forever, and once they were home at the end of the day, work was over. There were no faxes, no emails, no cell phones, not even answering machines.

So, despite the monumental greatness of Terkel's book, we felt justified in updating it. Once we had enough interviews for a proposal, we got an agent, who sold it to an editor. The next year was a brutal marathon of interviewing and editing, trying to fill out the book and make it at least somewhat representative of the country as a whole. "We have too many unhappy Southerners, we need a happy one. We have too many successful Asians, we need a failure." Stuff like that.

Our book, Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, came out in 2000 and got a bunch of good reviews. But for me the most gratifying ones were the people on Amazon who said it helped them think about what to do for a living and opened up their eyes about other people's jobs.

Gig even ended up helping me get a job myself after the stock market bubble popped and Word.com shut down. An executive headhunting firm was looking for someone to launch its website, and when they Googled me and saw how many citations there were, they were impressed enough to hire me.

"We're developing the cutting-edge technological interface for the human-capital industry," they boasted.

"OK. Where do I sign?" I asked.

One of the things they did was identify which "human capital" should stay and which should go in the event of a merger. Then they'd give "outplacement counseling" to the execs who were made "redundant." I edited a long document, full of career-changing advice from McKinsey consulting experts, that was to be given to them as a parting gift.

The document was surprisingly artsy-craftsy. It said they should get a big stack of magazines, rip out pages that contain anything that interests them, and make piles according to subject. At the end, the biggest pile represents the field you should work in! Easy, right?

When the firm's website project tanked, I had a chance to follow that advice, sort of. I was so burnt out from the boom era and my corporate stint, and so satisfied with the creative work I'd gotten to do at Word.com, that I couldn't imagine ever being interested in anything again as long as I lived. I wasn't depressed, just charred. I decided to go into a creative intensive-care process, drifting around, noting if anything made a spark at all. I'd look into everything that did, no matter how irrelevant it was.

One day I had to drive to the FedEx plant to pick up a package from Europe. The industrial landscape was totally different than any other part of New York I'd seen. I started checking out other industrial areas. The Long Island City, Sunset Park, Red Hook, and East Williamsburg industrial parks all had similar signage, so some sort of governmental agency was involved in running them. Researching the scraps of information I had, I learned that a cluster of economic, planning, and other organizations were working together on developing them. Immigrant businesses! Heavy machinery! Waterfront port diagrams! Layered geographical resource maps! Import and export! Robert Moses! I was so there. I realized that, duh, this was the spark I was looking for.

Allied Extruders, Inc. Rainbow Polybag Co. Creative Tube Bending, Inc. Mobile Steam Boiler. Nolan Glove Company and Wee Stretch Company. Acme Architectural Products, Inc., Acme Cake Co., Inc., and Acme Smoked Fish Corporation... To me, this was exotic. It was escape from the gentility bubble and an entry into the mind-boggling diversity of the United States economy that the trade-magazines article had promised.

Within a few months I began volunteering at a Brooklyn nonprofit called NAG. Now I work there on "industrial retention" and "economic development," trying to keep manufacturing in the city and kickstart "green" industries like biodiesel. It seems like a natural progression. The book was about helping people figure out what jobs they should do. NAG is about creating jobs. Having evolved from a work voyeur to a work creator, I'm fulfilled again. I'm happy. And I've never had to decide what I wanted to be.

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