Long ago (but not far away), back at the dawn of time, I made a decision for which I’ve often been mocked and derided over the concatenated decades since: I purposely chose not to write the final paper needed to qualify me for a bachelor’s degree in English.
It is undeniable that the decision has cost me hard cash. That has never troubled me much—I have little taste for luxury, though I can dress up and play it straight when I want to. But even back then I benefitted from some glimmer of self-awareness, and I knew that if I did obtain the degree, I would be channeled into an eventual professorship. Indeed, my closest advisors at Pepperdine University were both aglow with optimism over that possibility. (And both of them, as it turned out, left academia shortly afterwards.) I was certain that if it became possible, I would let it happen, for I did have a basic yearning for security. And an easy life does not often make for perspicacious literary expression.
Should I have accepted a future grinding out novels exploring that most pernicious theme, the Professor’s Regret? You know:
Oh, should he or shouldn’t he succumb to the advances of the worshipful young student? And once he inevitably does, should he rack himself with guilt over the hurt he causes the loving but perhaps world-weary and definitely aging mother of his children?
Nowadays of course the story may involve reversed gender roles, or single-gender involvements, or a late coming-out, which can lead to more amusing complications, but the themes are pretty much invariable: a position of power in a job you can’t lose, the romantic ennui of the home, the bright-eyed young lad or lass who believes you can do no wrong….
Allow me an aside: I must admit that a short while after leaving college empty-handed (but not empty-headed), I in fact began an affair with one of my erstwhile professors, a sporadic dalliance that lasted many years—but that was after we had both left the ivory tower, and our social standing was more or less equivalent.
I have been focused on narrative expression since I was seventeen, though I wasn’t very good at it in the early days, having come into fiction-writing by way of lyric poems. I knew that I wanted to dive into the workaday life of the city and write about “The People, Yes.”
I wanted a richness of sensation, conflict, and camaraderie that I did not believe I would find in the ivory tower.
And, boy, did I get it!
My first real job was actually a demanding one: I became a mechanic in a motorcycle shop in the heart of LA’s bohemian district. A real mechanic, able to rebuild transmissions and crankshafts, working in a small family-owned shop on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. Many of our customers were leather boys from two local clubs, the Warriors and the Sons of Apollo, mostly well-educated and clever fellows. I have already mined that vein for scenes and characters in Family Ties, where they not only provide comic relief but render significant assistance in bringing about the denouement.
I left that job not because I disliked the work or the world of motorcycling—I practically lived on a motorcycle and in motorcycle culture for nearly ten years—I left it because I didn’t want to be elbow-deep in carcinogens and other poisons all day long any more.
My next couple of jobs were desk jobs, first in the Western Home Office of a major insurance company, run entirely by Italians out of New Jersey (hmm…), then as a paper pusher in the administration building at UCLA. In the latter position I was introduced to photography by a co-worker and quickly made myself expert at the craft; for the next twenty years or so I worked in photo retail, gave lectures in the history and techniques of the art, and taught a couple of then-unknown artists the processes that helped them become museum staples. I even had a brief career in the gallery world myself, one that occasionally wakes up and lets out a moan or two, as my recent exhibition at the dnj Gallery in Santa Monica testifies. Even in photography I concentrated on narrative series, not stand-alone pretty pictures.
In the retail world, as during my earlier stints in cube farms and among the rough riders of the motorbike culture, I met a broader range of folks than I ever would have encountered in academia.
My books and stories are much the better for the intricate variety of lives, crafts, and places I have experienced. I have met many good people, some of whom are still my friends decades later. I have also met a number of folks who were not so good, and that’s important too. Especially if you get to know them well enough that you see them as more than symbols. It all comes out in the text.
Edith Piaf was singing more about love than work, but I can say along with her that Non, je ne regrette rien.
Was it worth it? I leave to you to judge—by reading the books that result.