A curious phenomenon runs rampant in the city of Seattle: job satisfaction.
The first hint of something amiss came in the form of a Sears upholstery cleaning team. It all started months before their arrival, when the unique charms of my beloved tomato couch proved its undoing. Renowned for deep seats, a high supportive back, and perfectly supple, but not too soft, cushions, I toted the couch my dad gave me in college from Oakland to Philadelphia to DC, and finally – via four huge movers lifting it hand-over-hand onto the fifth story deck of our Beacon Hill walk-up – to Boston (none of my New York apartments featured sufficient square footage for a couch until I moved in with Ian, he owned some big ugly thing, and our love was so young that I didn’t yet disparage his possessions). Known to many as Kaitlin’s longest standing relationship thanks to the frequency with which they spent the night together (Adam only has a few more years to go to catch up, but then again the furniture never proposed), our dear couch chose life in Beantown over chainsaw dismemberment. Using craigslist, we purchased a three year-old, microsuede, light blue replacement for only $140. Since we knew that (1) I’d be breastfeeding Viv on the couch until our massive la-z-boy rocker arrived, (2) the former owner allowed a small dog to enthrone itself on the couch daily, and (3) Ian sweated all over the thing getting it home on the hottest day in Seattle history, we called Sears.
Two guys arrived, one clearly the senior steam cleaner. He is – to steal the winning courtroom line of a good friend and champion of constitutional rights – a giant human being. A clipboard, a few poorly hidden tattoos, and an exasperated expression left me expecting the standard and totally understandable service industry attitude. No, no, no. Turns out his dismay stemmed from lack of a “clean” entry point for his hose. After routing the tube through the backyard, he cheered up considerably. (The previous two sentences should not in any way, shape, or form be read as a euphemism.) He took a good look at the couch for the first time. “M’am,” he sighed, “you’re not going to believe this.” “Uh oh,” I thought, anticipating some fine print that doubled the price of the cleaning or required rescheduling. Shaking his head from side to side and casting an incredulous look my way, he continued, “The previous owner never once steam cleaned this couch.” I tried my best to organize my features into the expression he would deem appropriate to hearing this type of revelation, desperately attempting to conceal the fact that I’d never even considered anything more than occasionally vacuuming my tomato treasure in the eight years I owned it. Then his chest swelled with pride and a shining smile lit up his face. “Since it’s never been cleaned almost all of these stains will come out!” he exclaimed. His joy faltered. “Except for this one here,” he whispered with the gentleness required when breaking the news of loss of a loved one. He worked diligently for forty minutes or so and then pulled me aside. “It’s looking really nice,” he said. I’ve only been a mom for a few months, but my teaching experience alerted me to the “but” headed my way. “But if you don’t get the scotch guard,” he shuddered as if he couldn’t imagine such a devastating scenario, “it’ll stain right up again.” My careful self-conditioning to reject the up-sell automatically kicked in: “Oh, I don’t think we need that.” His returning look was saturated with disappointment. His shoulders drooped. He started to shuffle outside, his prior virtual skip of a gait now a distant memory. I couldn’t take it. He clearly cared more about the state of this couch than I did. Didn’t one of my law professors say that the market benefits when the highest stakeholder takes control? When I changed my mind, such excitement thrilled through him that I thought he might jump into my arms like a puppy.
I wrote the exceptionally diligent steam cleaner off as a pleasant anomaly and didn’t give the issue further thought until our new house cleaner arrived a week later. Shannon – a middle-aged man with an ex-wife and two kids to support who looks like the African American version of Mr. Clean – absolutely shocked me with his enthusiasm. Sure, I loved hearing the evident self-satisfaction with which he announced that he owns and runs his business (motto: “It’s not a dream, it’s marvelously clean!”), but the angel’s in the details. I felt awkward when he dropped to his knees and began picking at the floor with his nail. Age, gender, and race dynamics thickened the air I breathed. “Um, hmm,” Shannon declared, a goofy grin slowly growing and evidencing his complete absorption in the task at hand, “just like I thought. I invented something that will be perfect for this floor.” He then proceeded to rattle off a list of ingredients in the cleaning agent he’d concocted and declared, “Your baby could lick the floor and be perfectly safe. I developed this mix for my clients who have dogs.” Whenever he cleans, every half hour or so Shannon stops what he’s doing to explain one of his innovative techniques. He’s actually so ebullient that I try to avoid the house when he’s coming; I couldn’t care less about the method to his prowess. I stay away for a second reason: if Viv goes down for a nap while Shannon cleans, he insists on skipping her room and coming back a different day to finish up without charging extra for the trip. I add a little something to his check anyway, but the back and forth over whether it’s too much just exhausts me.
These employees are impressively gruntled, but they don’t hold a candle to the guys at the grocery store down the block. First of all, every one of them stops to coo at Viv. Smiling at a baby doesn’t sound like an impressive act of dedication except for that we go to the store every day (literally, regardless of whether we actually buy something – it’s part of her routine) and Viv grins so freely and exuberantly that it takes several minutes of their time for her to become bored. After Viv gets her fill, they each take whistling while they work to new heights in a different way. The butcher, who refers to himself as “Shrek” when talking to Viv and who actually looks like a hipster version of the ogre (think tattoos and those ear-stretchy-outty things), does his best to bury his dismay when I request a lean cut. Unwilling to give up on my welfare, however, he continually reminds me that the fat gives meat its flavor. Yet his polite smile never falters as he hands me my tasteless protein of choice, and he helps me scout out the oxidized pieces of filet mignon which taste just as good if cooked the same day but cost half as much. (The “Accidental Hedonist” explains: “[B]rown meat wasn’t a sign of bad meat, it was a sign that it had enough time to become oxidized to the point where metmyoglobin dominated the beef. It was less ‘fresh’ than the cuts of meat that had only been exposed to oxygen long enough to let the oxymyoglobin dominate.” Yeah, that was my second guess.) Only because we see him so often can I tell how very much he wants to slip a nice pot roast from the chuck into my basket. (Again, totally not intending to be suggestive here.)
The fishmonger gets the all around knowledge award. He walks me through the pros and cons in terms of freshness, price, and versatility of his daily offerings often with far more detail than strictly necessary. I don’t always do a good job of feigning interest in anything other than his final recommendation, but he persists, once even persevering – despite my glazed over and clearly uncomprehending eyes – in walking through the full scientific explanation for why the previously frozen lobster tails I’d purchased for Valentine’s Day and then refroze would taste like shit.
Lastly, there’s the dairy guy, winner of the alien game. Oh dear, that’s going to require some explanation. You see, when one spends all day essentially talking to herself, she tends to develop new and unconventional ways of staying engaged. Viv and I (meaning I) created a little diversion: you try to guess which person in any given room would be the alien if every room had an alien pretending to be human in it. In declaring the dairy guy supreme, I may actually be acting like a total jerk since it’s entirely possible that he’s overcome a disorder on the autism spectrum. He gives competent and enthusiastic advice, clearly feeling as stimulated by dairy as any sensible individual would feel by steam cleaning, cleaning technique, meat, or fish. It’s his delivery that brings home the alien accolade. It’s just a touch slow, like he’s giving me his advice over a cell phone. (Viv and I also have our suspicions about one of the checkout men. He’s terribly efficient, too efficient, and infallibly polite, too polite.) Alien or not, his reverence for yogurt impresses.
Each of these people cares about and enjoys his chosen occupation as much, if not more, than most of the professionals I know. Maybe the Pacific Northwest is rubbing off on me. I’ve had a tough three weeks at the office. After Viv’s g tube surgery, she got the sweats and vomited with just about every feed. Her reflux increased and caused puking between feedings as well. She refused to drink anything. Her nap schedule went to shit, and she slept only about an hour at a stretch at night. I felt despondent, particularly since we cut her open specifically to decrease reflux and vomiting. The Burpster (Dr. Burpee just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well) doubled her reflux medication and suggested a laxative. It worked. About two weeks post-op, Viv pooped, slept, and best of all, ate for two days. I rejoiced. Barely halfway through my celebratory chicken dance, she suddenly started vomiting again. Huge volumes. Everywhere. At random times. She also began sleeping like a horse besieged by flies, twitching every ten seconds or so and fully waking with a start every ten minutes. When a high fever and subsequent rash assigned blame for this latest dip in ye olde health roller coaster to a viral bug, I started reliving all the feelings that the dysphagia diagnosis engendered (to summarize, “Seriously?!?!? This too?!?!? WTF?!?!?”). I worry about dehydration. Viv and I change our clothes like celebrities, drenching at least four outfits apiece in her puke each day. I watch my baby girl suffer yet again. I don’t sleep. All the while, I feel an irrepressible optimism. The fact that Viv got sick means that the decrease in her oral intake doesn’t reflect negative progress on the weaning front as we feared. Yes it stinks that we’re already a week into this tummy trouble and it’s still going strong, but despite it all her gaping smiles reveal the two huge front teeth that recently joined her little bottom ones, she’s starting to “scoot” or “bottom shuffle” from her now reliable sitting position, and, most amazingly, she snuggles and kisses me and Ian by, respectively, curling her head down into us and placing her open mouth against our faces (resulting in quite a bit of slobber and a little bit of tooth).
I guess the elitist in me (or the part of me justifying the butt-busting required for incremental academic gains) always assumed that there are good jobs and bad jobs. Now I realize that the day-to-day of work – the dirtiness and exhaustion – doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with job satisfaction when you’re passionate about the calling.