I prefer not to …

While my high-school English teacher taught me a lot about Bartleby the Scrivener, he left out one vital morsel: Bartleby was a temp.

Of course, Herman Melville never directly discloses this fact about his pale, milky hero — whose dogged repetition of the phrase “I prefer not to” drives his employer to distraction (with generations of high-school essayists right behind him) — but the evidence is abundant. Here’s a guy hired on at the time a business is overwhelmed with work. As an extra, he never fits into the office’s established rhythms, and his co-workers consider him “a little luny” (a step up, one supposes, from being “a total weerdo“).

His desk, which sits in a corner of his boss’s office, is enclosed by a mere green folding screen, like some early American forerunner of the cubicle. The view from the nearby window has been blocked by the construction of a building next door. If Bartleby were around today, you can bet he’d have traded his coat and pantaloons for a Walkman, Doc Martens and square, black hipster glasses.

Instead of “I prefer not to” ringing in his ears, Bartleby’s boss would now have to contend with the mumbled fighting words “scrivening sucks.” And were Bartleby with us today, it’s easy to imagine him as a contributor to the soft-cover book The Murdering of My Years (Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet), recently put out by indie publishers Soft Skull Press.

The tie that strangles me

The book, which takes its title from a Charles Bukowski poem, is the brainchild of New York writer Mickey Z., who one day found himself at his desk — not writing, but worrying how to pay the bills. He knew he needed to earn more dough. (Some readers may suspect that Mr. Z.’s wife also had a hand in this realization).

“But,” as he recounts in his introduction, “how would I earn without selling out and still have time to write?” So he decided to ask some friends — interesting folks whom he admired — how they did it. He sent out some e-mails and “grew fascinated with the results.”

A more formal and expansive survey followed, with 24 participants responding by e-mail to questions that ranged from “What’s the biggest lie on your resume?” and “How many times have you been fired? Downsized? Quit?” to more searching inquiries into “Are you ever tempted to ‘go mainstream?'” and “If you could be doing what you really want to be doing, what exactly would it be?”

Included among the interviewed are writers, political activists, poets, filmmakers, actors and ground-level, guerrilla-media types (including Soft Skull’s own publisher, Sander Hicks).

Yet their 1099s tell a different tale, with listed occupations like secretary, construction worker, waiter, telemarketer — and the time-honored temporary office employee.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what qualities help a person get ahead in business, but it seems safe to say that the tendency to make statements like “I dislike profit” (as the cult poet Sparrow does here) isn’t one of them.

Even worse for Mr. Sparrow’s prospects for a well-padded 401K: He appears to be in earnest.

Needless to say, Suze Orman, author of The Courage to be Rich, does not provide a blurb for the book’s jacket. Because what the members of Mickey Z.’s motley group most have in common appears to be The Courage to Be Poor. While some are eking a living from their chosen vocation, the majority toil at day jobs to supplement their income. (One participant, the writer A.D. Nauman, describes why. Once, she says, she received a monetary prize for her writing: “I took the $1,000 award money and opened a special bank account for ‘all my writing money,’ which I was then going to use for traveling to Europe. After several years, that account got up to, oh, about $1,050. Eventually I had to use it for rent.”)

I wasn’t surprised to learn that many participants showed a distaste for office jobs, favoring more flexible gigs like waiting tables. As you read through the responses (which are organized by question), a picture emerges of how ill-suited many of those interviewed would be to office life. The qualities they bring to their art and writing — a questing attitude, a bent for truth, an uneasy self-consciousness — aren’t traits normally rewarded in the workplace.

Indeed, Mickey Z. has searched out that class of people who agonize over their “work personae” as their co-workers innocently discuss plans for the weekend or what was on TV last night. These reluctant 9-to-5-ers react to a dictum from the boss by dissecting (out loud) why the request was neither reasonable nor very smart. Here are men who can’t wear a tie without appearing to strangle; women who can’t wear pantyhose without feeling like drag queens. Like a gaggle of modern-day Bartlebys, they are sure to stick out in a typing pool.

Weeping into the coffee

My sentimental favorite, though, is a writer named Christine Hamm, who describes herself, at age 7, as “a strange, unwashed, shy and morbid child.” Hamm attended Reed College, where she wrote a collection of short stories for her thesis. “I wrote about the real stuff: death, sex, transvestites,” she says. Then she got a master’s in creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton.

Today, Hamm is a secretary. And one shivers to imagine what sort of story Herman Melville would concoct from her experiences. Though he wouldn’t necessarily have to — she is clearly capable of writing her own.

Here’s an excerpt from her prose poem, “Bad Secretary”: “She weeps into your coffee; staples memos to her blouse. She has acne; her lipstick smears. She breaks up with her boyfriend every other weekend and makes you hear about it. … She doesn’t wear underwear. She doesn’t bathe. She makes you love her. She is your master.”

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