A personal response to literature, written for ENG 2100. Nominated by Professor DJ Dolack:
“Mark’s essay uses his own pre-collegiate experiences to explore some of the ideas brought up in Scott Russell Sanders’ ‘The Men We Carry in Our Minds.’ At first, the story may seem typical in its analysis of coming to terms with the real world, but it’s Mark’s sincerity and integrity that take the story to another level. His ideas are clearly organized and his examples flow throughout the essay while his use of language creates such a strong voice, it’s difficult not to empathize and trust the writer throughout. Mark’s work here has been revised twice and is a sound example of what he’s capable of. Here begins the work of a writer who will positively affect his audience for years to come.”
What a delight it is to be a freshman at Baruch College. Each day I arrive at the Newman Vertical Campus after taking a few trains and a ferry to sit in class, listen, and occasionally participate. All of this work is done from a chair/desk of my choice. Who would guess that on this small throne of mine I would have more power over the future of my life than I ever had at any job I once held? When I look at my work history prior to starting college, I don’t understand why I had wasted so much time in worthless positions that conflicted with everything I had ever hoped to achieve in life. In retrospect, my employers were manipulative and were nowhere near the man my father had wanted me to grow to be. These figures of unaccomplishment are the reason why I wake up every morning to go to my classes. My bosses are quite similar to the images of working class men portrayed in Scott Russell Sanders’ “The Men We Carry in Our Minds.” Their underachieving, mediocre ambitions for bettering their lives undermined my years of education with simple mind-numbing tasks. I attribute my goals in higher learning to the burden of adulthood set upon me over the time I spent working with these men who still wander around the depths of my mind.
My first real job was in a chain coffee restaurant. Yes, I was serving the coffee that America runs on. Lee was the name of a manager. He was a young Sri Lankan man with a perpetual five o’clock shadow, bloodshot eyes, and a work ethic that would put sweatshop workers to shame. Lee often watched workers from his small office, which resembled a closet with a safe, through a surveillance camera feed on a television that sat on a cheap desk most likely made from particleboard. Lee was not as lenient as he made himself out to be. He laughed when one of the workers would ask for a fifteen-minute lunch break during an eight-hour shift. These employees received a type of ridicule that was only visible in Lee’s passive-aggressive behavior, which was hidden by an uncomfortable smile. Sometimes it took certain employees too long to make coffee or some sort of smoothie, in which case he would inform them of the time requirements for each product and the money lost in time wasted. In some situations, Lee would work with the rest of the employees to speed up the work. Lee was a man with little on his mind but the money in his pocket and this was apparent. Long before closing Lee would drive home in a small Ford minivan to his wife and young child who were waiting for him in a humble apartment located in a shady part of Staten Island. And this would continue day after day. Yes, Lee was walking, living proof that the American dream existed.
Lee’s character is reminiscent of the prisoners of Sanders’ “The Men We Carry in Our Minds.” Lee could easily fit into “dingy gray-and-black zebra suits, heavy as canvas, sodden with sweat” (Sanders 481). Although this image of slavery or being a prisoner is far from the reality of Lee’s position, Lee was also in an undesirable position that may have shaped the person he became. Like the black men, “brute toiling animal[s],” Lee was also a foreigner in the land on which he worked (Sanders 481).
Soon I put away my khaki pants and button-decorated baseball cap and left Lee in hopes of getting back some of the sanity I had lost from working eight-hour shifts after school in my senior year. My high school graduation was approaching and I was doing my best to pass all my classes even though I had decided as a senior that I would ignore my three and a half years of hard work and not go to any of my classes. Fortunately, I did get to leave high school and attend graduation because of my better than average grades. I then decided to rebel and not attend college. I took a job as a helper for an appliance installer. Frank was the man in charge, and he drove from place to place putting in dishwashers, stoves, etc. It was my job to bring out tools, help Frank deliver the appliances, and to do any installation Frank may be too big to do. By big I mean that Frank was a heavyset man with more strength in his pinky than I had in my entire body, but his size had often restricted him from small areas so he had me climb under cramped sinks or between closet spaces. The lack of hair on his head was compensated for by a goatee that toughened up his image, until he opened his mouth and revealed a funny little gap in his teeth. Work with Frank was often tougher than I had first imagined it would be. It seemed as if our job was never quite done and when it was, more would find its way upon our laps. Both of our hands were covered in grease, dirt and cuts (some of which were infected by the grease and dirt or had become calluses). These were often looked at as signs of bad hygiene to customers rather than badges of merit.
Frank was like Sanders’ childhood image of a man who was “twisted and maimed in ways visible and invisible” (412). Frank often threw out his back or cut his hand well enough to go to the hospital for stitches. Frank represented an animal-like figure of physical strength and power that had once enticed me and had almost caught me in its web. Entangled in this web were the ideas of financial security in blue-collar work and the good times I had spent in a van with Frank. Unfortunately, Frank’s downfall was his dependency on his bosses. Frank was actually contracted out by a bigger company who was contracted out by a famous department store. The result was Frank’s dependency on other companies and a smaller wage than he deserved for the work he was doing. We slaved away an average of 10 hours a day for six days a week. Our grueling schedules took a toll on our bodies and on my heart.
I worked for Frank for nine months when I finally decided to give Frank my two weeks’. Sixty-hour weeks were getting the best of me. I found little time to spend with friends and family or even for my own leisure. I made the decision to find a part time job so I could start saving and support a chain-smoking habit I developed from long van rides with Frank. Freedom was in view and it took the shape of a franchised home improvement store. I had been overjoyed to hear that I would only be working twenty hours a week. This joy had subsided when I was told my hours would be the 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. shift. For months I took late night buses with sleeping night workers and red-nosed drunks into a shady part of the island. The building where I worked was surrounded by housing projects, and the silent night surrounding it was enough to send chills up my spine every morning. Being under-rested often added to my anxiety and paranoia. But I was not alone. I was a part of the “pack out” team. Marcus was the morning freight team captain and receiving manager. He was a young Puerto Rican man in his early thirties who had been working for this corporation for ten years of his young life. He was loud, obnoxious, conceited, and took a liking to me. Marcus often spoke of his mistakes in his teenage years that led him to his unfortunate position. He had fathered a child at age 15 with whom he did not live. He had spent his teens making problems that he would have to pay for in his adulthood. His stories often sobered the mood of our conversations with their harsh reality. I would never expect such questionable acts to have come from a man like him.
But Marcus was far from a rowdy criminal. His strong work ethic and dedication to his team was what kept me working the morning shift for five months. Marcus was an unfortunate soul who could have done well for himself if he had worked to pursue greater goals. Marcus missed the chance to be what Sanders had worked so hard to achieve in “The Men We Carry in Our Minds.” He could never be all that he had the potential to be and the father he wished he could be because Marcus was only a boy when he was forced to become a man. This rush to reality was a wakeup call he could have done without. So now Marcus could only be the best man he could be, living paycheck to paycheck to pay for child support and rent for a tiny apartment he could hardly afford with his modest salary. Unfortunately, Marcus had dug a hole for himself that he would most likely not easily dig himself out of.
I realized then that I was in the greatest position I would ever have. I dropped my shovel and I started to realize my goals. To be a man is to be in control of your environment and to be able to nurture those you love. It is not arrogance, physical strength, or pride that makes a man who he is. His commitment to the ones he loves and the sacrifices he is willing to make for them are the most important aspects of manhood. Lee, Frank, and Marcus suffered the misfortune of not being able to be all that they had the potential to be. I had chosen to take a different path. My roads had become college bound and from then on I strived to work so that I may make the best future for myself and those around me.
I decided that I would attend Baruch College as soon as I could and try to salvage my relationship with my parents. When I approached my father with the issues, he felt the need to give me the “I told you so” argument. Honestly, I completely deserved it. But if I had not made these mistakes, I would always be wondering about what if I had done things differently in my life. My father never needed a chance to wonder. As an immigrant from Poland, he supported a wife and two children working as a painter. Without knowledge of the country and experience with the language, he bravely improved his surroundings in order to allow his children to one day become successful in work and life in America. Years later, I was born an American citizen in better circumstances. What my father had strived for in the process of his U.S. citizenship was very selfless, and I had decided these actions would not have been taken in vain.
My parents agreed to pay my tuition after hearing my matured thoughts on working after experiencing the annoyance of employment. I vowed to work for more so I could be the son my father wanted me to be and the man I wanted to be. I can now say my employers were less than pleasant but were essential in my understanding the importance of educational success in my life. Lee, Frank, and Marcus all contributed to my finally attending college, and for that reason they were successful employers. I believe that often we find ourselves running into walls as a means of making mistakes and learning lessons. Although my previous jobs were not pleasing to me, they gave me a newfound appreciation for money and motivation to succeed in whatever sort of higher learning I put my mind to. My goal is to move past these jobs that had held me back, and become one of the men Sanders sees “on television—the politicians, the astronauts, the generals, the savvy lawyers, the philosophical doctors, the bosses who gave orders to both soldiers and laborers” (482). What may be apparent to most was for me a hard lesson earned.
Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Men We Carry in Our Minds.” Patterns for College Writing. Ed. Laura G. Kiszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 10th ed. New York: Bedford/St Martins, 2007. 481-485.Topic: Archive, Nonfiction, Spring 2009 Tags: None