It’s Labour Day and I want to talk about work. I want to talk about a famous celebrity from the Cosby Show who was recently spotted working at Trader Joe’s. I want to talk about honest work and doing work that you love and trying to balance that with doing work that pays the bills, in an effort to both salvage the ego and save the soul. I want to talk about humility.
This Labour Day weekend has been more meaningful to me than most.
A few months ago, my five-year-old nephew asked me, “Simone, are you famous?” It was a fair question for a five-year-old. After all, he sees pictures of his auntie dancing in front of people on Parliament Hill and he sees his auntie making YouTube videos. He knows that I have a full-time job, but he also knows that his auntie is a group fitness instructor. When we talk on the phone, his first three questions are always, “How was your day?” “What are you doing?” “How was Zumba?” So I can’t blame him for asking. I told him that I wasn’t, but in his mind, Auntie Simone is still famous.
But the truth of the matter is that I’m as broke as anyone else. I may be well-known and popular, but I’m definitely, definitely not rich. I currently have enough money to take a vacation to the fridge and back.
On Friday, I ceased being a public servant and my short-lived career in the government came to an anti-climactic end. I had moved to Ottawa to article and I had worked for the government for almost three years in various capacities – none of which I enjoyed. In this latest position, my term had not been extended. The job was never a good fit for me, and I was desperately unhappy, uninspired and unmotivated – not to mention chronically unwell, plagued with mild depression, insomnia and recurrent strep infections. On most days, I was able to drag myself to work, force myself to bite the bullet and put my head down and work (because it paid well, I had benefits and I had a good pension). On other days I literally couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. It slowly became increasingly apparent to my manager and everyone around me that I was not happy there (or in the government in general). I could not fake the funk any longer, and my body had already started to rebel. And so I find myself unemployed. I have been teetering between outright joy and sheer panic every hour ever since.
I felt vindicated, however, when I watched last night’s episode of “Insecure.” *Spoiler Alert* The reason why I love “Insecure” is because I can see myself in the main characters. Interestingly enough, my life aligns with Issa’s in a weird way. For the longest time, Issa had felt increasingly unmotivated by her work at “We Got Y’all” – and when she did try to take initiative, her ideas were not well received (or received at all, to say the least). This last episode had her quitting her job, in search of more exciting work (probably at that music program that works with inner-city youth and had the cute guy standing at the kiosk at the recruitment fair).
When your job no longer motivates you, when your contributions are no longer appreciated, and definitely when your job starts to make you sick, you gotta move.
I haven’t told very many people about this recent development (now you all know! Hi!) and I wondered if this was the wisest thing to do right now (write about it, try harder to stay in the government even though I can’t stand it), but I don’t think there is any shame in admitting to yourself, “This does not work for me” and trying to look for something else.
But there is, however, so much shame surrounding unemployment and finances and work. If Brene Brown’s writing and work have taught me anything, it’s that shame cannot survive empathy. Talking about these things creates a space in which empathy can grow. That’s why I am putting this out there, and I am going to go out on a limb and say that I am pretty sure that many of you, my lovely readers, can relate.
Life is about the inevitable ebbs and unpredictable flows, and one’s education and talent does not inoculate oneself from the shifting tides of one’s journey.
Employment, underemployment and unemployment can involve a lot of pride-swallowing.
When I walk past flyers looking for part-time cashiers or stumble upon advertisements for overnight bakers, I am met with a bevvy of emotions: I wonder if I should apply for the job, I hate that I feel like I have to consider applying for these jobs, but then I also think I did not get two law degrees to work in a factory or a grocery store, and then I think what if someone I know *sees* me, and then I’m like okay but bills and you have to pay rent and what’s your plan B? You wonder if you can hold out for a job that is commensurate with your qualifications, so you don’t have to “settle”, but you also acknowledge that sometimes settling is about survival – ego be damned.
Unemployment can mean disabusing oneself of the notion that you are above working a menial task or even ridding yourself of your beliefs about what you consider to be a menial task to in the first place. It can sometimes mean eating humble pie and doing work “beneath” your education and qualifications in order to make ends meet. At the end of the day, we have bills, and I like food. And I’ll be damned if I have to move in with my parents.
So many of us are one paycheque from being homeless or winding up on the side of the road panhandling if we don’t play our cards right, and so I can’t knock the hustle of anyone who is just trying to live and support themselves and their families.
It’s in that spirit that I sympathize – no, I empathize – with Geoffrey Owens.
We all remember Geoffrey Owens as Elvin, Sondra’s boyfriend-turned-husband, on the Cosby Show. Geoffrey Owens also holds an undergraduate degree from Yale University. But recently, someone spotted him at Trader Joe’s packing groceries:
Geoffrey Owens is a sobering reminder that just because you are famous doesn’t mean that you are rich.
The Slumflower talked about this in her recent podcast on Wannabe. She has 169 000 followers on Instagram alone, but she said in this particular podcast episode, “Just to clear things up, I don’t actually make that much money. I’m almost at 100K followers on Instagram… I don’t have 100K in the bank. I don’t even have 10K right now. I want to be transparent about that. People think that if you have a load of followers, you have that much money in the bank. It’s not even the case at all… Everyone is learning too late. all of your favourite influencers were undervalued at one time.”
New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Strayed (who wrote the book Wild which was turned into a Hollywood film) knows this:
I find her transparency in this interview with Vulture absolutely refreshing:
And you were in worse debt at the time that you sold Wild?
We almost lost our house before I sold Wild. I think we had about $85,000 in credit card debt by the time I sold that book. I can say that now because I don’t have any debt, but I was so ashamed of that.
How did that debt stack up?
It was really interesting. By the time Torch was published, we had two kids under the age of two. So here I was, trying to write my second book with two babies, and we were just busting our asses. During those years we were spending more on childcare than I was making. And we would always be so broke and ashamed and putting things on the credit card. Really getting into trouble.
Here’s another thing that’s so interesting about money that people never talk about: there are all these invisible advantages and privileges people have. Parents who help out with a down payment, or a grandparent who takes the kids every Tuesday. Parents who pay for college. We didn’t have any of that. I also had student loan debt from my undergraduate degree that I finally paid off on my forty-fourth birthday, thanks to Wild.
When I started to write Wild, I started to feel like I could sell this book. I just needed time to write it. So I was always fighting to try to find time to write the book—with the kids and earning a living and teaching and all those things. By the end of 2008, I had finished the first 130 pages or so.
How did you sell it? What was that process like?
In November 2008, I took Wild out to sell, and I had to take it to Houghton Mifflin because they published Torch and had right of first refusal. I was reluctant because my editor there had been let go—and I could have refused their offer, but I was so destitute. My agent called me and said, “They’re working up an offer,” and I said, “Oh my god! Whatever it is, I’ll accept it, and please put a rush on the check because we need the money!”
But these were the darkest days of the publishing industry. I then got a call saying they couldn’t make the offer, because as of that day there was a freeze on acquisitions at the company. It made the New York Times; it was a big deal. And I think I was one of the first authors to know about it because my book deal disappeared that day.
So by the time I took it out again in April 2009, my former editor, Janet Silver, had become an agent, and I decided to have her represent me. She took it out, and within a couple of days I was speaking to several editors who wanted the book, and I sold it to Knopf for $400,000. And that’s when I was like, Oh my god. Thank you. Thank you.
Again, the great, funny irony about that was that I got my first check, and we spent it all on credit card bills.
To be an actor is hard. To make a living in the arts is hard. Artists often have to have a day job or work other jobs to keep afloat. Work is almost never steady and stable. Income is unpredictable. Gigs are sometimes overflowing until suddenly they are few and far between. Not to mention that we don’t live in a society that values the creative arts as much as we value information technology, and so doctors and IT specialists are typically more well off than painters and poets.
To quote Viola Davis, the arts, and acting in particular, celebrates what it means to live a life. But, as a creative person myself, it does make me wonder if some degree of poverty is the necessary plight of the creative person.
I don’t know if the lady who took the photo did so to shame him. Surely if anyone of us saw a formerly famous actor, in this day and age of smartphones and social media, we may have done the same. But in sharing the photo, the photographer, the tabloid paper and the news outlet (Fox) had the rare opportunity to temper the conversation and make it more about Geoffery Owens working hard as opposed to talking about his fall from grace.
I still appreciate that his photo went viral because it shone a light on the speckled path to success of the famous. It showed that sometimes even celebrities find themselves doing blue-collar, normal jobs too. It was affirming, and served as a reminder that these famous people struggle just like us regular, shmegular, degular people do:
The kerfuffle that erupted also helps us realize that’s it’s okay to do a normal job. And that a lot of us are between jobs. And that it is okay to sometimes take a job for which you are overqualified, to do work that you may not want to do, but have to do. And that life is hard for everyone and that everyone falls on hard times and that you’re not a bad person if you ever find yourself down on your luck, working at jobs you never imagined you’d be working. You are not any less of a man. You are not any less of a person.
Tough times are not character flaws:
In a society that puts a premium on making money, and a society that attributes value to people based on how one answers the question, “So what do you do?” I have to remind myself that just because one does work that is not commensurate with one’s educational attainment, or, in layman’s terms, work that isn’t sexy and cool and lucrative doesn’t mean that someone is a failure or any less successful. And even though society, friends and family may not affirm it, my worth is inherent and comes from God – not from what I do or how much I make.
I have so many issues with my parents, but I am so thankful that for decades they did honest work as school janitors – a job that is often looked down upon – so that my brother, sister, and I could have better opportunities in this country than they ever had in their entire lives. I was always embarrassed to tell people what my parents did, but I admire the fact that they would work the night shift and shovel and sweep and mop and pick up the garbage that all of the teachers and students had left for them that day, only to return home and start their second shift of raising three young children without support from their own family. It was because they did “menial” but honest work that we were able to go on vacations to Jamaica and the US, and attend summer camp, and art camp, and gymnastics, and swimming and tennis and Pathfinders. And we were always fed and safe and loved and cared for.
My parents worked hard – worked honestly – so that I could focus on other things like getting an education.
The Geoffrey Owens photo is the kind of Oprah’s “Where Are They Now?” episode that we needed to see. The Bible says that “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all thy might.” Looks like Geoffrey is doing just that.
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.
But that’s all.