Special Duty


EVERY YEAR around this time, I have to live through an ordeal. I am sitting at the lunch table, listening to the usual idle chatter about Proust's toenails and the meaning of life, when suddenly it starts:

"What did you do this summer?" I try to cram down the rest of my tostada as the question sweeps along the table like a prairie fire. "Oh, I cured cancer. What about you?"

"Me? I did an internship as Pope. What about you?"

"I won the Americas' Cup," the person next to me answers as I try to roll out of my chair, and then drops the grenade in my lap: "What did you do this summer?"

Blood rushes to my face and I stammer. "Me? Oh, I ehm...worked."


"Oh, I've heard of that," someone in the gathering crowd says. "Which bank?"

"Ehm...actually, it was in a warehouse...I moved stuff." Having made my confession, I slink off into exile, leaving them looking like a bunch of children who have just learned their grandmother is a transvestite.

For the last three summers, a dizzying lack of connections, coupled with an even more dizzying lack of qualifications and initiative, has put me among the ranks of the manual laborer.

Although it has been rather tiring, sticky and unpleasant working on a lawn crew, or on an assembly line, or even in a warehouse, these brief but terrifying glimpses of the real world have also been educational. The first thing I learn each summer is that I hate to work, and I am absolutely incompetent when I do.

Each job has been different, but the pattern remains the same. On the first day of work, I find I have been given a special duty not described in my contract, like graverobbing or defusing bombs. On the second day, I learn the first day was a piece of cake. It goes downhill from there.

From the moment I punch in or step into a warehouse, I feel as if I have entered the Tower of Babel: nothing makes sense. For instance, when my foreman tells me to "cut the grass down thar between that patch of goober weeds and them stink weeds," I am at a complete loss.

Twenty minutes later, surveying a massacred patch of flowers, he hits me with the inevitable line: "You go to HARVARD and you don't know the difference between goober weeds and stink weeds?!!! Gawwwwdamn!!!"

THIS IS ACTUALLY one of the milder forms of humiliation which results from being a college student. Every summer, right after I start working, I run into a certain kind of person, and become locked into a conversation very much like this:

"Hey, somebody tole me you was a college boy."

"Uhm, yes," I say apologetically.