At heart, I’m not a religious person, but I’ve always been plagued by a fear akin to superstition. I’ve always suspected that I had innate limitations that would prevent me from achieving anything in life, and even without such barriers, some kind of divine intervention would be put into place to prevent my succeeding in any tangible way. However, I can recall with pride some refutations of this bleak outlook.
I was with my grandmother at an honor’s breakfast on the day of my college graduation. The University President was speaking about something completely forgettable, and I don’t remember much about what was else was happening around me, other than that the woman next to me asked a Japanese family seated on the other side of the table if they might prefer to drink tea instead of the coffee that was being served. I cringed on behalf of the American people at her ignorance. However, this memory belies my experience. I just sat in the chair, muscles relaxed; I stared off at God knows what, occasionally overhearing the tidbits of verbiage around me. I was in unfamiliar, but blessed territory. I had just done something tangible in obtaining my bachelor’s degree and the fact that I was graduating “Cum Laude” told me that I had done it reasonably well. A heavy, rusted chain had just unwrapped itself from my being.
The problem with such restraints isn’t so much the physical discomfort of bondage, but the complacency such acquiescence induces. Five years ago, I had found myself in what was some ways a comfortable rut. Okemos, and East Lansing are two Michigan suburbs near the top of the socio economic latter, yet between this village and city respectively lies a small area that serves as a stark reminder of the realities of a class based society of haves and have-nots. There is a strip mall in this area, but nothing about it screams poverty. The liquor store and motel hints strongly, but prove nothing. No, the real reminder of the world and its troubles is the trailer park, completely obscured by fences, but not so hidden that the police couldn’t find it when need be. I didn’t live far from the trailer park.
I was living in a small, studio that was both quiet and cheap enough for me to avoid the most of stresses of adulthood. My days were simple. At around 6:30, I would wake up, put on my overly officious “Security Officer” uniform, which entailed sliding into dress pants, putting my arms through the sleeves of the white uniformed shirt, clipping on the black tie and fastening the tin badge. This was always a strange experience for me. On one hand, I liked how the uniform looked, with its serious and even heroic qualities; On the other hand, I was wearing the uniform of a notorious security firm which was an anathema to my left wing sensibilities; and in truth, it was never lost on me that I had about as much power or capability as a five year old wearing a cowboy hat and tin star.
These concerns were neither here nor there when I made my way to downtown Lansing via the route #1 bus. Once arrived, there were many posts I could work at, (they were all very simple) but I usually ended up in the lobby of the Romney building. I checked identifications, wrote visitor passes and maintained a presence. No doubt, the job was pretty far down the latter, as meaningless and menial as it was boring, but even now as a graduate student soon to have his Master’s degree I am further away from the rich and powerful than I was then. At that time, I greeted Governor Granholm fairly regularly and was on a first name basis with Michigan’s Attorney General, Mike Cox. This seemed ironic given that he probably only met a very small percentage of his employees within the AG’s department itself.
If I approached this job with zeal, it may have had less to do with any ambition I had at the at the time and more to do with the fact that being in desperate situations has always motivated me to do more than what is typical for me. Before I had this job, I was a college drop-out ( I blame mathematics) with a very poor job history. Unemployed, I had been staying with my friends and some relatives, but after awhile, they all made it clear they wanted me to move on. My father and stepfather were deceased and my mother was in no position to help me out at the time. It was the insecurity stemming from this reality that motivated me when I showed up to work the first day. When other employees might sit down in their booths or behind a desk, I would stay on my feet. Where other employees would wave on by recognized state employees who had forgotten their picture I.D, I enforced policies to the letter. This little bit of extra effort went a long way in initially ingratiating myself with my supervisors and employers. They gave me an employee of the month plaque, a bonus, and discussed promoting me to “Sergeant.” For about a year or so, I was quite happy with this pathetic job, and I give little thought to the future or making any of the changes necessary for an individual to thrive. I was after all, surviving and comfortable, and that seemed to be enough. It meshed well with my pessimism.
If I didn’t talk about the future much in those days, it was because I really had very little to say. I remember sitting down for a beer and burger in some dive, having a conversation with an older cousin. It was a thoroughly disconcerting experience. “So what do you want to do with your life?” I responded without sincerity. “I don’t know, but I’ve always thought it would be interesting to be on a ship in the Navy.” This of course wasn’t a serious idea, and my cousin said something to the effect of my not having the personality for that kind of life.
“I filled out an application to Ferris State too, but I never really followed through,” The last of the lame, poorly thought out ideas that I ran by my cousin was that I could also stick with my current job, and hope for better shift and a little more money. Without any scorn, he said “well you could do that, but it’s kind of pathetic.” It might have been, but for the time being I had a $10/hr job, a uniform that garnered some respect from naïve people, and achieving anything more than that didn’t seem to be in the tea leaves. I would learn later that my cousin, an older, single man with no retirement savings to speak of, had been fired at about the same time I began to fall out of favor at work.
If I were asked what exactly it was that motivated me to abandon this life and return to school, I could give many answers. I have family in the Marquette area, and I had always wanted to attend university in this part of the state. Of course, there was also the simple matter of pride: who wanted to end up a thirty or forty year old security guard? I could give you all of these answers, but in truth, it was likely the disciplinary action taken against me by my bosses and the resulting bruised feelings and fearfulness that had me feeling desperate enough to make a change.
Sitting behind a desk in an office building during working hours, drinking lots of Mountain Dew or other fluorescent looking green liquids in a vain effort to keep alert, can leave a body agitated. Lying in bed, I would sometimes be restless, having not fully worked off the day’s caffeine intake. Often, I would be up all night, unable to sleep. My tardiness and absenteeism became noticeable. I had been taken aside once or twice and advised to shape up or else face having to relocate to another worksite. The brain is not removed from the miseries of the body, and so too was my mind restless, having nothing to mull over. I remember one late morning I pestered a lady who seemed to be in the habit of covering her employee photograph with her thumb ” I need to see your identification each time, thank you,” She had enough of my nuisance, and that day she shoved her badge into my face, giving me a bloody nose. Another woman always showed me her credentials from about twenty feet away, “I need you to stop, ma’am.” She worked for the governor and couldn’t be bothered. These types of daily interactions didn’t do much for my disposition, and I directed a lot of my anger at my more irksome coworkers. Through no fault of my own, I remember being somewhat late in relieving one of my coworkers at their posts. She griped to me about it, implying I was at fault, but for whatever reason I just ignored most of her whining. I noticed at her desk she had a Little Mermaid handbag and couldn’t help snickering. She called me on it, “what, just cause I’m a guard I have to be serious all the time?” I told her I didn’t care, but she said something else. I remember leaving her station, saying “you have a great day, sweetheart” with obvious sarcasm and contempt in my voice (little did I know she was a corrections officer on stress leave). I would learn later that using the word “sweetheart” was considered an act of “verbal harassment.” With this seemingly benign insult cum endearment, my real troubles at work had begun. As far as I can tell, my “Captain” and “Lieutenant” didn’t quite understand the situation, having counseled me to “treat the female officers the same way you would treat the male officers,” the implication being that I had been flirting with that woman. They made me sign a paper indicating that the matter had been discussed and I was directed not to “discuss this with anyone.” Being the cantankerous sometimes foolish individual that I was then, I defied that directive.
I hadn’t expected to hear anything more about the incident, but then I wouldn’t be writing this essay if that was the case. I remember lying around in bed on a day off, having no plans but to go to an espresso bar and read the newspaper. When I finally got around to checking my voice mail, my world was turned upside down in a matter of seconds. “Mr. Monroe, you are to report the office Monday Morning at 8:30… Don’t come to the complex.” I was confused and terrified. My bosses at work didn’t have the authority to fire anyone, so when you were called to the office to meet with the higher-ups, it almost always meant you were going to be terminated. I couldn’t afford to lose this job, where would I go? How would I pay rent?
To my astonishment, I wasn’t fired. The general manager was allowing his human resources officer to take actions that would make the local branch a better employer, in this case, one that gave second (or third) chances. After being screamed at and humiliated, I returned to work completely broken in spirit, even feeling a bit betrayed; after all, I had done so much for this corporation, couldn’t they give me a little leeway? In the days that would follow, I would simply wave familiar faces past my post, not bothering to check ID. Whenever possible, I remained seated. There was little to say beyond what was necessary.
In the days that followed, I felt the cosmic forces, whatever they may be, were moving in on me; there was little doubt in my mind they would get around to seeing me unemployed and dying in the street at the appointed time. With the sword hanging over my head, I decided to actually face up to my fears, fill out an application, and see if I could cheat, or at the very least delay fate by enrolling at Northern Michigan University. My mother had been going through her own struggle before she returned to her studies and she appeared to have gained some momentum. My grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousin were also in the area. At the very least, Marquette seemed to offer a little more a support network than what I had at the present time.
My optimism slowly returned from wherever it had been hiding for so many years. The application to Northern had gone through without issue and I was accepted. It wasn’t even too late to apply to the Federal Government for a loan to cover the expenses of the upcoming semester. Unbeknownst to me, my maternal grandmother had put away some money for her grandchildren’s education. I received nothing but encouragement from a family that I had in the last few years feared was growing distant. Absurdly enough though, my real sense of relief came when I found out that Northern Michigan University’s math requirement was far less demanding than Michigan State’s. The devil that was mathematics had road- blocked my education long enough. Math would no longer prevent me from studying English. It was 2003, and it was the year that would see me leave the greater Lansing area on a Greyhound Bus with nothing but a single suitcase and sleeping bag in tow.
With at least some academic success in my background now, I’m slowly learning to have faith in my own efforts. It is true that I am nearly thirty, without a vehicle or what I consider a dignified residence, but at the same time, I appear to be two semesters and a creative thesis away from obtaining a Master’s degree. On a daily basis, I still battle with the complacency and pessimism that will always hound me, but everyday I move a little closer towards where I want to be.