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Office Paper and Other Misfortunes

Once a pilot always a pilot. That’s my rejoinder — and perhaps, on some levels, a pitiful one — when hit with the question: “Oh, so you’re not actually flying any more?” Or even more hurtful: “Oh, so you’re a former pilot?” I get that a lot, couched in a tone of suspicion that sends me racing to defend my credibility.

“Ask the Ex-Pilot” would, of course, be a terrible name for a column. Meanwhile, it’s likely the only thing less glamorous than being a pilot in 2005 is being a laid-off one. Furloughed, street-meat, made redundant — whatever your choice of term, I’ve been out here with approximately 10,000 pink-slipped brethren, watching in bemused horror as our industry wretches, convulses, and collapses on itself.

Not yet 40 I’m still young enough — do you think? — to accept it in stride. I’ve been grounded before and chances are good I’ll be grounded again. I’ve met flyers who’ve been to the unemployment office on four, five, even six different occasions. Imagine a résumé that includes Braniff, Eastern, Pan Am, and TWA — and the unstated misfortune of having to start over, at probationary pay and benefits, each time around.

It can be interesting to look back on the how and why of whatever career path we chose or were otherwise badgered into. Somewhere along the way, though I can never pinpoint exactly when and where it happened to me, the idea of a job takes on all the gravity and seriousness your parents warned it would. Once again they were right (if overly dramatic about it), and you were wrong (no matter how cool you looked with an orange mohawk). This is the moment when you stop thinking of work in that easygoing, something-to-do-for-the-summer way and actually begin worrying about it, in the context of an ever-encroaching adulthood. Gone are the days when the sole focus of employment was nothing more weighty than earning enough money for a single, tangible object, be it a new cassette deck or, in my case, airline tickets to Singapore, Hong Kong and Kenya — acquisitions that provided summary release from whichever droning part-time tenure had been endured to save the cash.

While there are several fabled gauges of when, precisely, we kiss off our youth and embrace — or are floored by — adulthood, that first typed résumé or job interview requiring a tie is, maybe, good a benchmark as any. Thinking back to my teens, and the anarchy-espousing, leather-jacketed social circle I found myself immersed in, I’m surprised that day ever came. I’ve still never recovered from, or forgiven, the relentlessly competitive Catholic boys school where I spent grades 9-12, where the kids had the admissions addresses of each Ivy League college memorized by sophomore year (also the kind of place that gave us a half-day when Reagan got shot). Talk of careers — part and parcel of some greater, beckoning suburban nirvana — was ceaseless at St. John’s Prep, delivered by teachers and guidance counselors with all the fear and seriousness of a pre-dawn air strike briefing. Our Xaverian Brother elders shook their fists and boomed in full Cotton Mather tradition, warning us that lest we buckle down and sell our souls to the gods of SAT, we would end up back at whatever public high we ran from to attend St. John’s, ultimately destined for agricultural school or, much worse, community college.

Which is exactly where I ended up. The good Brothers’ histrionics had me carving Dead Kennedys logos into the desks with my pocketknife, and as a graduating senior I was member of the less than two percent of my class not proceeding immediately to an accredited four-year university. I’d leave campus in May, 1984, instilled with a virulent disdain for the notion of gainful employment and a work ethic rife with ideological pranksterism. After a year of post-Xaverian twilight and recovery, I enrolled at a nearby community college that offered an aviation program. I was returning to my roots, more or less, following through on my childhood dream of becoming a pilot. I’d made it through four tyrannical years of black robes and Latin only to pursue the very thing I least needed them for.

I’d need some spending money along the way, and that meant getting a job. And for some of us, luckily, no matter how awful our present straits, whether we’re a furloughed airline worker or a displaced dot-commer, things will never be quite as unenjoyable or degrading as they were at age 18.

It would take both hands to count the number of blow-off positions I held between the ages of about 17 and 21, more than one of which I resigned from with no more ceremony than simply walking home for lunch and never walking back. Such is being young. You get bored and quit, and at this stage in life — a grace period from vocational responsibility — nobody really faults you or cares.

The best job I ever had was in the summer of 1986, two years after I bid farewell to the boat shoes and Izods of St John’s. Roger Clemens was pitching the Red Sox toward another doomed World Series, and I was taking classes and learning to fly at the small woodside airport in Beverly, Massachusetts. I’d found a job driving Subarus around a giant processing lot near Castle Island in South Boston. Enormous ships – great rectangular car-carriers that looked like floating warehouses – would pull in from Yokohama and disgorge their cargo. The Longshoremen would drive the Subarus onto the docks, and we would then zip them around cleaning, fueling, and primping stations. If you’ve ever bought a new car and wondered where that handful of odometer miles came from, here’s your answer.

The longest stretch was about a quarter-mile, from the washing station to the hot wax machine. There was lots of moving around, back and forth. In an eight-hour day, I’d probably move a hundred cars a cumulative total of four miles. Having been trained in stop-and-go Boston traffic, I saw this as nothing out of the ordinary. The managers cruised around in vans whistling orders or telling people to slow down, but mostly they sat in the shade playing cards.

It would have been fun to actually navigate the cars down the huge steel planks that led from the cavernous ships to the docks, but the Longshoremen’s contract carefully stipulated a buffer zone of 50 feet around the hull. Only a genuine Longshoreman could drive inside that zone. He’d roll down from the ship, cruise out a few feet, then slam on the brakes and hand over the keys with a snarl. What sort of careers these surly, tank-topped guys had I can’t say, but I’ll guess they made as much money as I came to make flying cargo planes to Europe.

At five bucks an hour it wasn’t a bad gig for a kid weaning himself away from the raucous, anti-establishment trappings of the punk rock world and back toward a more temporal ambition of flying planes. I was playing with a kind of double-ironic idealism — that of a quasi-rebel realizing the naiveté and disillusionment of one scene, and replacing it with the ultimately more disappointing naiveté and disillusionment of another.

The Castle Island lot was just across the approach end of runways 04L/04R at Logan International, and the sight of the jets arriving low overhead – a source of both inspiration and frustration – kept things interesting on those days when the stench of asphalt-fried guano had most of us in that desperate, what am I doing here mode. Southie being Southie more than a few of my fellow drivers were illegals from Dublin, and I remember once how the sight of a green and white Aer Lingus 747, like a huge floating bar of Irish Spring, had everyone cheering and clapping. Years later, based at Logan and flying commuter planes, I’d bank down the channel and pivot my wing around that very same processing lot, looking down (sometimes, even, a ship would be unloading) and recalling quite vividly the interior smell of a brand new ’86 Subaru wagon.

Eventually I had short-lived stints as a courier (both by foot and car), stockroom clerk, and even a stereo speaker repair technician. Starting in 1988 I went through a rapid-fire series of temp jobs. I’d signed up at a couple of different agencies, one or both of which would call at 7 a.m. to offer me this or that degrading, spirit-breaking position for the next week or so. Often enough I’d turn them down and go back to sleep, and option that is regrettably not among the workplace customs that carry over later in life. The go/no-go choice came down to little more than how much pocket money I needed. I was living with my parents, and my only mandatory expense was the $169.96 monthly payment on my burgundy, 1987 Hyundai Excel. To this day, thanks to five depressing years of tearing coupons from a payment book, I still remember that amount exactly.

If you’ve ever dabbled in temp jobs, you’ll understand how such assignments can be far more traumatizing than anything withstood during childhood, adolescence, or full-blown adulthood. I’ll happily endure the worst fifth grade pants-pulling episode, high school hazing, and a hundred more airline furloughs before I ever again subject myself again to temp work. Temps are the workplace bottom-feeders, brought in to sort, file, and rearrange the spillover of corporate America, which consists of millions upon millions of 8.5 x 11 sheets of office paper that need to be put into one incredibly tedious order or another. More than ten years after my last assignment, my alphabetizing skills still attest dutifully to the number of $5.50 an hour filing positions I held.

One such assignment took place at a downtown Boston firm that maintained thousands of student loan records. My job was to dig out a file — a fat manila envelope stuffed with data — and either add, subtract, or swap various pages. The pages awaiting placement filled an entire shopping carriage that had been wheeled into the windowless, eighth-floor storage area I worked in. The files were arranged alphabetically; the paperwork within by number. Thus, my numerical and letter sequencing skills were put to test simultaneously, a kind of worst of both worlds scenario and nightmare embodiment of the average temp’s job description. Usually I toiled as instructed, repeating identical tasks over and over until my own arms began to remind me of the insanely repetitive, anthropomorphic motions of the meat-wrapping machine I used to watch at the supermarket as a little kid. When it all became too much, I’d walk over to the garbage chute and hurl an entire file or two into the basement dumpster.

Once in a while there were openings for jobs that required actual standing or walking. These were, to me, the Holy Grail of temp work, free from the wrist-crippling world of filing. Gone were the sounds of paper – the shuffling, the crackling, the sound of an index finger counting through corners of white stock – noises that have a water-torture effect when you’ve heard nothing else over the course of a 40-hour week. For one five day stretch I handed out promotional flyers at the Hynes Convention Center during a computer show. The freedom borne of a job that did not revolve around the sequential arrangement of numbers or letters was stultifying. I could stand in the doorway, near the info desk, or even wander at whim through the crowd of hello-my-name-is conventioneers, presenting my handouts to whomever seemed friendly or goodlooking enough to warrant one.

Now and then a chance for full-fledged manual labor came up. A department store over in Everett needed a group of temps of dismantle and haul out an immense pile of scrap metal in its rear parking lot. There were a half-dozen of us: myself and five recent parolees from the Billerica House of Corrections there as part of a work release thing. They all knew each other, and nicknames like “Chap,” “Bupper,” and “Flip.” They were decent enough people, though each could pull his weight, measured in pounds of scrap metal, much better than I could. Unsupervised, much of the day revolved around whatever duty-shirking entertainment can be had from a pile of rusted girders and poles, such as playing baseball with stones and a bat-shaped section of pipe.

The jailbirds made me suspect there was some whole culture of temp work out there. Rough cut types got the heavy labor assignments, while students and people like me got the paper pushing. Both were shitty jobs, but at least the sweaty stuff gave you some exercise and kept you away from the offices and their full-time staff, whose senses of pride and accomplishment, I might add, were tapped directly from the misfortunes of the only people whose tasks were more meaningless than their own: the temp workers. The ex-cons were welcome company after the snide comments and unctuous smirks of innumerable office managers.

So I started requesting the heavy stuff, and getting it. Collar-wise, the transition from faux white to true blue was cathartic, and certainly kept me from hanging myself or skipping a car payment. I helped assemble the racks of a new shoe store in East Boston; I moved pallets; I unloaded trailers. The days flew by.

My life as a temp lasted more than three years. During much of this period I was also flight instructing on the side. I’d earned my instructor’s license up at Beverly and was teaching freelance, driving out to airports and putting flyers on people’s Cessnas and Pipers. Flight instruction, serious as it might sound, was essentially a non-job that netted about seven grand a year, necessitating a second and almost equally dismal income. One day I’d be shooting ILS approaches and teaching some rich gynecologist how to fly in the fog; the next morning I’d be shoveling bark mulch onto a truck.

Looking back, I find it hard to believe that by 1990, only a short time removed from the days of moving Subarus and flinging people’s financial aid folders into the trash, I’d be an airline pilot. But to marvel in that, I suppose, is to measure everything in terms of employment – to see and realize oneself solely in the context of a job, field, profession. For what it’s worth, I went on to do exactly what I wanted to do. I was never apprehensive about the hot-and-heavy career that was coming at me full speed. Others maybe aren’t so blessed, if indeed (another round of layoffs just announced) that’s the applicable term.

And all of us, for better or worse, progress to the ubiquitous “so what do you do?” of the cocktail party. Not that I’ve ever been to a cocktail party, but the trick is, unavoidably and cynically enough, to have an answer you’re genuinely proud of. Or, if nothing else, an answer that sounds that way.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.