Put Your Head Down and Work

Truth or Consequences, NM

One of my first jobs out of college was at a busy, local bike shop. It was 2009, so my humanities degrees were useless in the already bankrupt Chicago labor market. But the bike shop was a happy medium. It paid well, the customers were (mostly) cool, and the discounts were steep. Outside of the university, sandwich shop, and non-profit jobs I held during college, my years with the bike shop were my first real introduction to “work” in Chicago. That particular psychology of labor—a byproduct of capitalist economics—constituting the careerist spirit of ‘The City That Works.’ I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had a running joke in the shop that I think served as dictum for this psychology: “Put your head down and work.” Which is what we would say—jokingly-but-not-jokingly—when things got hectic. Us shop hands would complain under our breath at the weekend busyness, or the stupidity of that new money yuppie couple in the corner. Then someone would say, “put your head down and work.” We’d laugh, but then we’d actually put our heads down, and we’d work. And stop complaining, and stop joking around.

As much as I liked working for the shop, this was Chicago, which meant people rode bikes for maybe five good months out of the year. Off-season employment was spotty at best, and I needed insurance, too. So I took a job as a ‘floater’ at a Chicago-based, and very-well-to-do non-profit. At this place, floaters were the bottom of the bottom of the totem pole. Maybe one step above the janitorial night staff. It was my job to stuff envelopes, enter data, and re-direct phone calls. Something a five-year-old could do with proper training. But I went into it grateful for what would be a small but steady paycheck, and some okay benefits (like…discount movie tickets). On my first day at the office, I sat down at the desk, surveyed my cubicle walls, took stock of my pens and post-it notes, and sighed. This shit is going to suck hard, I thought, but it’ll suck harder if I think about how hard it’s going to suck. And then I heard the voice of that Chicago conscience, now planted in my head: put your head down and work.

And that’s what I did. First at that job. And then at my next job, which was a little better, but still full of those disappointments I’ve since learned are ubiquitous in office culture. There, too, I put my head down and worked. Until I got desperate and burnt out and started a new job, with higher pay, more responsibility, and just as much to hate. But I couldn’t stop working. My wife and I were digging out of over $90,000 of student debt. We had rent to pay, and Internet, and data plans, and food. So I needed to keep putting my head down and working. Because if I looked up, even for a second, it would only make me feel worse. Kind of like how if you ever have a serious injury to part of your body, the paramedics will tell you not to look at it. Only in this case it felt like I was being branded very slowly, and very deeply, over a long period of time. Sort of like the idiocy borne by that new money yuppie couple I complained about in the bike shop had become a neural parasite. The pain will be over soon, I kept telling myself. Just put your head down and work, and it’ll be over before you know it.

But it wasn’t over, really. There was no clocking out, just occasional resting periods, because, no matter the job, I’d have to go back on Monday, again and again. So for years I repeated this dictum. It became like a prayer, but the kind you speak to one of those sadistic ancient gods, who once demanded virgin blood and first-born sons. And when an idea like this becomes as prayer, it begets a restructuring of consciousness, of ethics, of self-worth. On one hand, there’s a sense of stoic resolve in the idea of putting your head down and working. But on the other, it reads as a maxim for the enslaved. It says, I can’t change my situation, but I can grin and bear it. Which isn’t a solution, but a coping mechanism. Like taking Ibuprofen for a brain tumor. Applied to a city or region at large, like in the Midwest, where this seems to be the general defeatist attitude, it reifies a culture of hopelessness and cynicism. Look at anybody leaving work and walking towards the trains and buses home on an average weekday evening in Chicago and you can feel it. No smiles, no laughter, no weirdness, and not even any faces. Just bodies walking like penitent automata, heads bowed towards the sidewalk in a chorus of negative prayer.

Work isn’t the enemy, of course. Humans are meant to work. But ‘work’ lacks a stable definition across cultures. Its meanings and applications change depending on the social worlds it influences and is influenced by. For example, though I’ve only been in New Mexico a few days, I’ve yet to see this idea of putting your head down and working observed or resented in the way I’ve felt and lived it in Chicago. Of course, there’s a bit of economic precedent; New Mexico is the second poorest state in the US, with a poverty rate of 22%—only a few points less than Mississippi’s 24.1%. And average household income in the town I’m staying, Truth or Consequences, is a mere $21,775 (compared to the national average of $53,046). There is also a general assumption here that most of the people living in rural New Mexico, if they aren’t ranchers or public employees, are receiving financial support from the government (which makes this state’s conservatism/right-wingedness even more ironic). This, plus the extremism of local weather, puts a natural deceleration on the rapid careerist pace native to larger cities and urban areas. The pace I’ve been experiencing in New Mexico—slow, and sometimes painfully so—is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There’s no rush to climb the ladder, because, at least in these rural expanses, there’s no ladder to climb. Which makes the idea of putting your head down and working somewhat meaningless here—at least in the way it’s understood in Chicago.

And this change of pace, I’m finding, is turning out to be an unintended but valuable benefit to this residency experience at Starry Night: a forced change of pace. One of the other residents here at the retreat asked me why I’m doing a residency, if I can just write at home. A lot of reasons, I said. Career growth, sustained time dedicated to writing and research, continued grant support, broadened experience (and the accompanying and more complete knowledge of American culture), personal challenge (never spent two weeks away from home, much less in one of the poorest states in the US), but most importantly, as I’m finding, a forced change of pace. I’ve been getting a lot of work done—but the kind of work I want to be doing. I don’t need any stoic motivation, either. Just the sun, some beers, and a few rogue tarantulas.

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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