“Well, do you at least know how to operate a pallet jack?”
I hesitate. I have eight-and-one-third years of higher education under my belt. I really should have a good answer to this question. “I’m sure I’ll pick it up quickly”, I offer optimistically.
Last Tuesday was my first day at my new job—my first non-research-related job since I was the receptionist at a law office six years ago. It’s been a tumultuous few weeks that have brought me to this point. At the start of October, I was TAing an introductory sociology class, plugging away on a series of articles for publication, and preparing for my qualifying exams—and, I should add, unequivocally the most miserable I’ve ever been in my entire life. So I decided to leave. First I told people I was “dropping out”. I’ve since graduated to “withdrawn” or, when I’m feeling particularly optimistic, “taking a sabbatical”.
The idea behind coming home was to give myself time to “get healthy”, but I quickly realized this was not an activity that could be blocked off on a day planner like “exercise” or “study”. Casting about for meaningful things to do, I gravitated towards food, as I always have: with the freegans at Princeton, Food Justice at Oxford, and Food Not Bombs at Berkeley. I filled out an online volunteer form for the Flagstaff Food Bank, noting with a bit of embarrassment, in response to a query about “available hours”, that I was free pretty much anytime. Within 24 hours I got an enthusiastic call from a somewhat desperate volunteer coordinator and within 48 I was offered a part-time job.
Now I work in a warehouse. I unload trucks coming in with donations, weigh pallets of surplus food, and assemble emergency food boxes. Having spent the last six months gradually watching my capacity to do the things I enjoy and find meaning in wither away, there’s something rewarding and contemplative about spending four hours a day sorting out rotten mushrooms. The cold of the refrigerator room gives me a much-needed jolt, and the Christian rock that blares over the loudspeaker provides me a strong incentive to get healthy and return to my old life. And yes, I’ve learned how to operate a pallet jack—first a manual one and, today, a mighty and somewhat difficult to control electric one (with which I almost managed to precipitate my first workers’ comp claim). Maybe forklifts are next.
That said, even in my current state, my goal is to progress as quickly as I can beyond moving around gaylords* of stale bread. So when the Food Bank director announced on Friday that we would have a meeting about improving our operations, I was excited. Perhaps I could put those years of higher education—which we discuss in the warehouse only in the context of making fun of my utter lack of practical knowledge—to some use! I spent the weekend researching the academic literature on emergency food systems, and even dreamed up a small interview project to better understand the needs of our clientele.
On Monday, the time for the meeting came—and went. I kept packing boxes and waiting for someone to come get me. I finished my tasks for the day and wandered up to the front of the warehouse. Not knowing the layout, I stumbled into a room where pretty much everyone else from the Food Bank was assembled. “Can I help you?” my boss asked. As it turns out, I wasn’t invited.
I’ve been having doubts for more than a year about academia. I don’t know if those doubts have precipitated my depression or if depression has created the doubts; it doesn’t really matter, because it is increasingly hard for me to imagine myself “making it” as a professor. But veering from that course, I’m quickly realizing, is not easy. The internships and entry-level positions I’ve been looking at online are meant for people who are, well, younger. And while I’ve gutted through the lowest eschelons of academia, I haven’t put in my time anywhere else. So why would I get invited to a planning meeting, anyway: I’m just a guy who works in the warehouse.
* The name for large octagonal cardboard boxes. You learn something new every day!