Thursday, July 30, 2009


I’ll spare you the embarrassing details of our financial demise, but against the backdrop of plummeting markets and a shrinking economy, wife and self had virtually no income for all of 2008. Toward the end of the year, her business showed a spark of life and a few dollars started appearing in the old bank account. Not like the old days, of course, but she had turned the corner.

And then there was me.

When you are 58 years old and you have not practiced law since you were 40, you discover there is a certain reluctance on the part of the legal community to welcome you back into the brotherhood. Perfectly understandable, of course---one can hardly blame them. Still, I grew weary of sending the resume and covering letter out into the ether and receiving no response. It’s like sitting in a restaurant for an hour and having no one offer you service. After a while, you begin to think you’re in one of those Twilight Zone episodes where you’re actually dead but you haven’t figured it out yet. It was time to do SOMETHING. Anything.

So it was I found myself in November, filling out an application for a minimum-wage job at the big-box store on the Main Line, one of the richest areas in America. It was close to my home. It was a part of corporate America that was actually making money (and as a capitalist, I respected that). Also, though I had had brushes with the retail world in the past, I had never worked for BIG RETAIL. I thought it would be interesting. I thought I might learn something. I thought there might be some potential for advancement.

The store, which I will call Argus, invited me in a couple of weeks later. My three interviews consisted of questions read to me from a printed pamphlet, with each interviewer making notes of my responses. (“Tell me about a job situation you had where you had to overcome an obstacle.”) They apparently liked me well enough to check my urine, which they also liked. I was in. I would be paid $8.00 for each and every hour I worked.

For the kind of work I’m doing, you don’t get a lot of training. One girl I talked to, who had worked at Wal-Mart for four years, summed it up this way: “In retail, they don’t tell you nothing.” At Argus, twelve of us newbies were summoned in for three hours one evening to fill out our W-4’s and watch some forgettable videos. I do remember that diversity is good and that Argus cherishes its commitment thereto. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, was treated with considerably less enthusiasm.

The longest video, with the most production values and the cutest models, was the one warning us about the dangers of trade unions and the various tactics organizers might use to seduce us. The highlight for me was an animated sequence in which dollars (my pay!) flew into the hands of union bosses who, it seemed clear, did not really care about me once they had tricked me into signing up with them. Glancing around the room during this video, I saw no hint of snickers or cynicism, only nodding heads. Of course, any union sympathizers would have kept their traps shut in that venue, but I have come to believe my buddies in the underclass really do not have much interest in unions. In my seven months at Argus, the subject has never come up in conversation.

Finally, after a brief chat with the undercover asset-protection specialist---“There are twelve of you here; three of you will steal, and I will catch you!”---we were sent off into the night to await a call for our first day of work. I was genuinely excited at the prospect, and curious about what my life would now be like. At least I knew it was a life, and not an episode of The Twilight Zone.

I do not disparage these types of jobs. They are excellent for someone just out of high school (or who maybe didn’t finish high school). A job like this is a way to start building a work history and to learn what adult responsibility is all about. And I need hardly add that honest labor is always worthy of respect.

For me, however, I confess that in addition to the excitement and curiosity about my new position, there was something else.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie “Lost in America,” starring Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty. They play a yuppie couple who decide to sell everything, load up the car and “see America,” only to have Hagerty lose their entire nest egg in a few minutes at a Las Vegas casino. Forced to take menial jobs in a dusty, nondescript town in Arizona, Brooks winds up as a school crossing guard. He had been an executive in L.A., a player, and now, his first day on the job, he is harassed by a group of 12-year-olds on bikes who taunt him with calls of “Hey, retardo!”

My first day at Argus, I couldn’t help but think of that scene in the movie. Eager as I was to start this new phase in my life, to show them what I could do, to make the company a success(!), part of me expected to be taunted by children. I also had a nagging suspicion I would encounter, as shoppers, every person in my life who had ever disliked me and would be schadenfreuded to orgasm at the sight of me pushing a cart full of school supplies. I was 58 years old. I had once made a living as one of a handful of experts in an obscure area of environmental law, and I had run a successful business with Sandi for twenty years. Now I would be making $8.00/hour opening cases of Lean Cuisine products and aligning them neatly in freezers. I was a loser. I was the biggest loser I knew. Maybe this had always been true, but in the past, I had managed to keep it discretely hushed up. Now it was public. Now it was official.

Or as my son put it one day, “Hey, anybody can work at Argus. All you need is a law degree.”



  1. gratification comes from within, whether you be a pawn of argus or other nefarious power-brokers.
    i don't think you are a loser, for whatever that is worth. i just hope it doesn't take you 'til your deathbed for you not to think so as well.

  2. Your no loser mikey ... We do what we gotta do, they never said we had to
    like it . Love

  3. Defeat is a portion of every contest , and I can see
    noone more fit than myself , to accept it cheerfully!!!!

  4. This is gold, Mike. How about sometime writing on your experiences as a taxi driver, a longshoreman, and a wood butcher?

  5. I'm working on oil rigs now (check out History channel's "black Gold" series). While the money is good I share the attachment that I'm supposed to be a house servant and not a field servant. It also challenges my credential as a lifetime member of the Sirra Club since 1973.

    Also the job at 60 is different from what it is when you're 18.

    Right now oil is in recession (always the leader both in and out for the economy). If you want to start as a "worm" and work up to being a "hand" I can give you some names.