The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Bad Chemistry.

Whenever I see an ad for a beauty product with hyaluronic acid in it I think, who wants to put acid on their face? I also wonder what hyaluron is, but, seriously, there have been far too many times when acid has been used as a weapon that leaves the victim permanently disfigured.

Well, that took a bit of a turn and I don’t want to treat such incidents lightly but what mainly comes to mind when I hear about beauty products that contain acid, aside from how horrifying the history of beauty products is, which could be another turn in itself, is my school science classes and learning about acids for the first time. They seemed like magical potions since they were usually described as “eating” through metal and other substances. I think we all learned that silly little rhyme that also gets written on cardboard tombstones at Halloween every year: “Peter was a happy boy/But now he is no more./What he thought was H2O/Was H2SO4.” Which is a pretty horrifying short story of a potent potable. Fortunately none of us were given access to sulfuric acid, at least not at my school where, thanks to budget cuts, pretty much everything we learned about chemistry we learned by reading about it. Most practical work was limited to all of us gathering around the table while the teacher placed a piece of sodium the size of a pinhead in a beaker of water and it fizzed for about ten seconds before fizzling out.

One day a kid in my class named David tried to convince me he’d mixed all the chemicals in his chemistry set together and created an ultra-dangerous acid. “It eats through everything,” he told me. “It eats through metal, it eats through glass, it eats through wood.” I thought about asking, “What do you keep it in, then?” but he was a big kid and I was afraid he might hit me. I also liked the mental image of this stuff getting away from him and leaving a hole in his parents’ basement that went all the way through the core of the Earth.

“What do you think it is?” he asked me.

Trying to keep a straight face at the thought of Australians climbing out of the hole and stealing his dad’s car I just said, “I have no idea, I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

He must have thought of me as something of an expert because I’d done a science class presentation on acids and their effects on different metals. It sounded very serious and scientific, and it looked very impressive with a set of test tubes—two with hydrochloric acid I’d gotten from the hardware store, and two with sulfuric acid I’d gotten from an old car battery, and I put pieces of zinc and iron in each. I also had three big presentation boards illustrating each of the reactions. Everybody thought it was really cool but, in the back of my mind, I knew it was a ripoff of something I’d seen on Mr. Wizard’s World where he put sulfuric acid in a test tube then added a strip of zinc then capped the tube with a balloon. It swelled up with hydrogen released by the reaction. He then took the balloon and held it over a Bunsen burner so it exploded in a shower of water as the hydrogen combined with oxygen. And also a bunch of little pieces of burned rubber, but Mr. Wizard had stagehands to clean up after him. Since I didn’t have those I couldn’t blow up a balloon, and also none of my teachers thought causing a small explosion in the classroom was a good idea.

Even after that I kept doing some home experiments with acid which were mostly harmless. My father, who studied chemistry in college, told me not to mix any acid with the sodium cyanide crystals that came with my chemistry set because it could be lethal, so I mostly stuck to things like testing the effects of hydrochloric acid on our concrete driveway, and sometimes I wonder if any of the people who moved in after we left have ever found my initials palely etched into a corner.

I never could get my hands on nitric acid, powerful stuff, more reactive than Aunt Gerda after three glasses of sherry, which fascinated and terrified me—combined with hydrochloric acid it could be used to make “aqua regia”, a liquid that would dissolve gold. Not that I had any gold, but I knew that two German scientists, Max von Laue and James Franck hid their Nobel prizes from the Nazis with the help of a third scientist, George de Hevesy, who dissolved the gold medals then left the liquid on a shelf in his laboratory in Denmark when he fled to Sweden. After the war was over he went back and found the innocuous-looking orange liquid still there, so he was able to extract the gold and the medals were recast and returned to the scientists who won them.

So that was an interesting bit of history. Also the guy who told me about nitric acid, an older friend of the family who’d also studied chemistry, told me it could be combined with glycerin, which was easy to find at the drugstore, to make nitroglycerin. In tablet form it can be great to have around if you’re suffering from angina but brewed up in the basement could cause a large explosion, which would not have been a good idea.

All this leaves me thinking that hyaluronic acid might be beneficial—so is vinegar, also acidic, and orange juice, and various acids our bodies produce naturally, including hydrochloric acid which swirls around on our stomachs—but I wouldn’t want to go mixing it with the wrong thing.

Get Lucky.

Source: Wikipedia. I’ve found a lot of four-leaf clovers but never thought to take a picture.

I never had any luck with four-leaf clovers. At least not that I know of, although I have found four-leaf clovers. One early spring, as fifth grade was winding down and I think our teachers were tired of trying to keep us occupied, when it was finally sunny, when the mornings were cold but the afternoons were warm enough that we could go out without our winter coats as long as we did a lot of running around, we were released to the playground. I’d heard somewhere that when wild onions pop up that means the last frost has passed. That’s not really true, I’ve noticed, but it’s still a sign that spring is springing. The clumps of wild onions on the playground also meant the grass hadn’t gotten high enough for the lawnmowers to start running yet so it was easy to find whole clusters of clover spreading across the ground. Maybe that’s why a group of us stopped running around and settled down to hunt for four-leaf clovers. And we each found some. They’re supposed to be rare, which is one of the reasons they’re considered lucky, but they weren’t that hard to find. A couple of my friends each found a five-leaf clover, which I guess is supposed to be twenty-percent luckier although I’m not entirely sure of the math when it comes to clovers, and someone else found a six-leaf clover, and then someone found a seven-leaf clover and an eight-leaf clover.

There was nothing else special about the day, though, and nothing exceptional followed. I think I did all right on a math test the next day in spite of getting tripped up on what one hundred divided by five was. I kept some of the four-leaf clovers I found and pressed them in books, but the only result was that a few months, or, in some cases, a few years later, I’d pick up those same books again and find a dried four-leaf clover I’d forgotten about somewhere in the pages.

Four-leaf clovers are a symbol of Ireland, although they seem to get confused with shamrocks, which get further confused by the fact that no one seems to agree on what exactly a shamrock is, except that it’s more of a sham than a rock. One kid told me the clovers I’d picked weren’t really clover but pigweed, but when I looked it up “pigweed” referred to an entirely different plant that doesn’t look anything like a clover. That’s common names for you.

I’ve also found that four-leaf clovers, and clover in general, have some folklore attached that goes well beyond just luck. In northern Italy there’s a belief that if a traveler falls asleep on his back by a certain stream a white dove will drop a four-leaf clover on his chest and if the traveler wakes before the clover fades he’ll gain the power of invisibility. It’s much more likely that a dove flying over is going to drop something else on you and you’ll be lucky if you’ve got a spare shirt. There’s also a belief that if you eat a four-leaf clover and slip another one in someone else’s food so they eat it you’ll fall in love with each other, which seems like a terrible way to win someone over. And there’s a belief that a single clover—it doesn’t even have to have four leaves—in a walking stick will make the traveler lucky. Maybe the weirdest one is a belief that a four-leaf clover can prevent, or cure, a condition called “the purples”, spotting caused by bleeding under the skin. A few years later I’d wish four-leaf clovers could cure the pimples, but that’s another story.

Clover was just one of the grasses that popped up on the playground. I already mentioned wild onions, but there were also dandelions and henbit and that weird weed that sends up tall stalks topped with a seed head. My friends and I would twist the stalk around on itself then pull it so the seed head would pop off, hopefully in the direction of a teacher who wasn’t looking.

They were all just common weeds but they were a sign that winter was finally over, spring was happening, and summer was just ahead. They were all lucky in their own way.

Please Tip Your Waiter.

The Month of March As A Restaurant Menu


Shrimp cocktail

Simple, classic elegance, half a dozen chilled shrimp served with cocktail sauce and lemon.

Fried green tomatoes

A historic Southern classic since 1991, cornbread fried and served with our house remoulade.

A kick in the nuts

Customers have expressed confusion about this so we want to be clear there are no nuts—no pecans, no walnuts, no hazelnuts–or nut-adjacent items like peanuts, cashews, sesame seeds, or anything else you find in fancy nut mix. This is an actual kick in the family jewels delivered by one of our chefs who, if you’re lucky, will be wearing Crocs.

Spring rolls

Rice-paper wrapped spring rolls, your choice of shrimp of vegetarian, with cucumber, bean sprouts, and cilantro. With plum sauce for dipping.

Roast chicken

An entire chicken stuffed with mushrooms, croutons, capers, and gorgonzola with a wine-reduction sauce. For some people this is an appetizer. Don’t judge.


House salad

Iceberg lettuce with cucumber, radishes, chopped tomato, and our house vinaigrette.

Big bowl of broken glass

Served with our house dressing which in this case is literally pieces of the building we knocked off with a hammer and threw in there.


Prime rib

Either eight or twelve ounces, grilled to your specifications, served with two sides and you may or may not be stabbed in the hand by your waiter.

Linguini with clams in either red or white—oh, wait, we just became one of those sushi places where the sushi goes by on a little conveyor belt. We hope you enjoy our new direction.

Burgers and Sandwiches because we’ve turned back into the place we were when you came in.

House burger

Your choice of ground beef, turkey, or black bean. Served with fries and your server will scream non-stop for five minutes.

Box of crayons between two slices of bread

The crayons are all orange so if you want the chef will melt them and you can pretend it’s the world’s worst grilled cheese.



We stole a bunch of these from a construction site. Served on an elegant dish.

Chocolate cake

Our own special recipe made with swirled dark and white chocolate, available with or without macadamia nuts, raspberry sauce, and whipped cream.

Raw oysters

The chef may stick a few of these in the chocolate cake if you’re wondering why it’s in the desserts.


We have a wide variety of craft beers on tap, bottled, and in cans, as well as a range of specialty cocktails.

Iced tea is available sweet or unsweet.

Still and sparkling water is available, as are soft drinks.

Someone dressed as the Kool-Aid Man may pour a pitcher of Mountain Dew Code Red over you as he runs through the restaurant singing Roger Miller’s “You Can’t Rollerskate In A Buffalo Herd”.

Thank you for visiting the month of March—where anything can happen!

Some Of This Has Been Said Before.

It’s hard to come up with anything original to say about plagiarism. It’s been on my mind because some magazines have now shut down their submissions because they were being flooded with AI-generated stories, most of which, it turned out, were at least partially plagiarized, because artificial intelligence isn’t very creative, and also had clunky, often meaningless syntax because artificial intelligence still isn’t very intelligent, although it’s only a matter of time before it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

It hits me because I have friends who are writers, some of whom had submissions in process at places that are shutting down and might now have to find some way to prove their humanity, or had stories they were working on but will now have to find other venues. As for the people who submitted the AI-generated stories—because they were real people even if they were submitting work they hadn’t actually written—some of them say, “I needed the money.” I find this really hard to believe. There are some publications that pay, and it is possible for a new writer to get lucky, but there are easier ways to make money, and if you were submitting a story for money, even if it wasn’t one you’d written, wouldn’t you at least read it first?

This also hits me because in high school I entered a city-wide writing contest. I didn’t win, or even place, but I assumed my story just wasn’t good enough. It was science fiction and it might not have even made it past my teacher who was one of the first-round judges and very vocal about how much she hated science fiction. When the winners were announced there was a lot of fanfare about how the first-place story was more than double the word limit but the judges all thought it was so good they let it pass. Of course they thought it was good. When I read it I was stunned that it was “Sled” by Thomas E. Adams, first published in 1961. It had been in my seventh grade English textbook. But by then it was too late to do anything.

In school I understand the pressure to plagiarize. I never did it, mostly because I took too much pride in trying to prove myself, but also, even pre-internet, I never thought I could get away with it. Even after the writing contest I didn’t think I, personally, could get away with it, and I wasn’t interested in trying.

In college I had a professor, Dr. Will, who taught philosophy and at the end of the term gave us two options: we could take the final exam or turn in a paper, but it would have to be a really good paper. He’d also grill anyone who turned in a paper to make sure they’d written it and understood the subject. Years earlier he had a student who’d failed every part of the class and who turned in a paper that started with the line, “Immanuel Kant transformed the hylomorphic distinction from an ontological to a noetic order.” Dr. Will offered the student a deal: if he could explain what that one sentence meant he’d get an A for the semester. The student flunked philosophy.

Being a very serious and dedicated student myself, one who’d done pretty well in the class, I, of course, opted for the final exam.

At the same time I was in that philosophy class I first read the short story “Who’s Cribbing?” by Jack Lewis. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s a series of letters between Lewis and various editors. His stories get rejected because, at first, they’re too similar to stories by another writer who died years earlier and whom Lewis has never heard of. Things get even weirder when what he thinks are his own original stories turn out to be word-for-word copies of ones the previous writer wrote.

It made me laugh even though at the time it seemed like a nightmare, especially for someone who makes a living as a writer, to be able to write anything original. Now, though, decades later, it makes me think about how “original” is a shifty term. The stories we tell each other are relatable because they’re built around common experience, and told in a shared language. Most stories are adapted from other stories, passed down and remixed or updated, but we still value the lived experience behind the stories. It’s because so much is shared, so much overlaps in our own storytelling, and the potential of losing what makes stories alive that makes AI so threatening. It’s also why it’s hard to say anything original about plagiarism.

Twenty-One Attempts To Get The Windshield Replaced.

The van’s windshield had a crack in it. We called HourGlass Repair & Replace. This is the chronicle of what followed.

Appointment 1-The technician texted to say that according to his GPS he’d be arriving between 8:30AM and 9:30AM. At 9:43AM he pulled into our driveway and started getting ready. A light rain started. Because we don’t have a garage or covered driveway he said he’d have to come back when it was dry and would reschedule us for the next day.

Appointment 2-Three days later we had to call and make another appointment. Two technicians showed up unannounced at 10:10AM. After complaining for fifteen minutes about the cold they started preparing the windshield for replacement, removing side pieces. Then they decided it was too wet and cold to continue and left. They made a note to reschedule out appointment.

Appointment 3-Cancelled because of heavy rain. We had to call and reschedule.

Appointment 4-The technician arrived a day early when we weren’t home. No apparent repair work was done but he left a Vespa parked in the driveway next to the van.

Appointment 5-The technician, scheduled to arrive between noon and 3:00PM, arrived some time between midnight and 3:00AM. We awoke to find that he had removed the cracked windshield then reinstalled it backwards and left a note that said, “They don’t make Edsels like they used to.”

Appointment 6-Cancelled because of heavy rain. We had to call and reschedule.

Appointment 7-Cancelled due to unforeseen delays with other jobs. While taking the Vespa out for a spin I was pursued by a van belonging to a rival auto-glass company. I was unable to see the driver but could hear him demanding that I stop and give him kidney beans.

Appointment 8-The technician arrived at 10:05AM in an HourGlass Repair & Replace truck blaring “Bad Moon Rising”. After preliminary prep on the van windshield he discovered the replacement windshield was for a 1991 Yugo and wouldn’t fit any existing vehicle, including a 1991 Yugo. The appointment was rescheduled.

Appointment 9-The technician arrived at 1:05PM and took the Vespa.

Appointment 10-The technician texted us that he had to cancel our appointment because a manure spreader jack-knifed on the Santa Ana. We had to call and reschedule.

Appointment 11-The technician texted to say “time is a fluid and very relative concept”. At 2:35PM a rainbow-colored van turned into our driveway. The technician, with a bushy white beard and a t-shirt that said, “If You Remember The 60’s You Weren’t There” sat in front of the van contemplating the crack for several hours. After leaving he texted us to say he was unable to finish because “the banana peels were kicking in”.

Appointment 12-Cancelled for unknown reasons. Automatically rescheduled.

Appointment 13-The technician arrived around 8:00AM and was done by 8:30AM. Everything seemed to be fine until we discovered he’d removed the engine and replaced it with a cake decorated with “Happy Retirement, Carl!”

Appointment 14-Twelve technicians arrived at 2:30PM. Carl’s retirement party was a great success.

Appointment 15-Cancelled because of leftover cake.

Appointment 16-Some time during the night the Vespa was returned.

Appointment 17-The technician arrived at 10:15AM, removed the cracked windshield, and installed a new one backwards. He left without notifying us. We scheduled a new appointment.

Appointment 18-The technician arrived at 9:25AM in a Citroen BX. He wore a trench coat, a plaid trilby, and dark glasses. After telling me several times, “The pearl is in the river,” we both concluded he was in fact a character from a 1982 made-for-TV spy thriller in which downtown Poughkeepsie is used as a stand-in for Bucharest.

Appointment 19-The technician arrived at 1:30PM and removed the backwards windshield but replaced it with the one with the crack in it.

Appointment 20-The technician arrived at 10:05AM in an HourGlass Repair & Replace truck, loaded the Vespa, and departed, blaring Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Midnight Special”.

Appointment 21-The technician texted us to say that according to his GPS he’d arrive sometime between 8:30AM and 9:00AM. He arrived at 8:50AM. Replacement of the windshield took about an hour with a recommended wait time of four hours to allow the glue to dry. After he left we found a note taped to the inside that said, “Call any time you need us again.—Carl.”

Somehow It Didn’t Work Out This Way.

A typical day of my adult life, as imagined by me as a kid, watching television, circa 1979:

I stumble out of bed and wander aimlessly with my eyes closed. Because I’m not fully conscious I step out of the window and wander onto a construction site where a series of well-timed girders lifted by cranes carry me up at least a dozen floors of an unfinished skyscraper. I make my way along more girders, blissfully unaware that I’m over a hundred feet off the ground and step into a large steel pipe just as it passes by. The pipe is lowered to the ground just in time for me to step out of it. I walk back into my apartment into the bathroom where I manage to shower, shave, and get fully dressed, somehow without ever taking off my full-length pajamas.

My roommates and I who, in spite of all having full-time jobs, are always in the apartment together, discover we don’t have the month’s rent which is due today. Or we had it and misplaced it under the couch cushions, or accidentally handed it over to the neighbor with his morning newspaper and now he’s on a trip to Paris and we have no way to get into his apartment to get the envelope with the rent in it.

I set off to take a part-time job, in spite of having a full-time job, that’s guaranteed to pay me just enough money for the rent. Rent, in fact, is our only expense; food and a constantly shifting wardrobe just somehow take care of themselves.

Getting to the job involves a car chase. I’m not sure exactly why it involves a car chase but I’ll be driving a Cadillac Fleetwood nine-passenger sedan–green, of course–at high speed around corners and over hills, flying into the air, possibly while chased by police, or just by another person who will be conveniently stopped by a passing train.

Inevitably two guys will be carrying a large pane of glass across the street just in time for me to drive through and break it into a million pieces. I feel bad about this, but, making it even worse, they’ll be carrying a replacement pane of glass just in time for the other person or the cops to drive through.

The job will take me to the jungle which is not only in another country but another continent but it only takes me a few minutes to get there. While traveling through the jungle I will, of course, encounter quicksand which, in spite of looking like nothing more than extremely watery oatmeal, has the astounding power to pull me under. Slowly.

Using a convenient branch or rope I’ll pull myself free from the quicksand, and within a minute I’ll be completely clean and dry. This is fortunate because next I’ll have to worry about the erupting volcano. I’ll be able to outrun the lava and make an escape over a rickety rope and wood bridge.

Once safely over the bridge I’ll pause to watch the bridge collapse and everything on the other side be swallowed up by the destruction.

At some point in this process I will acquire the rent money and will get home just in time to hand it over to the landlord who will laugh and remind me that we gave him the rent money yesterday, and the whole thing was one big misunderstanding.

Miraculously all this will take place in less than thirty minutes.

Subject To De-Bait.

At work I opened a can of worms. It was a simple mistake and, fortunately, I work in a library where, behind the scenes anyway, most of the work that goes on is relatively academic and abstract. There’s a reason one of the patron saints of librarians is Saint Minutia whose miracle was splitting a hair. The biggest problems libraries face come from outside—specifically stupid people who want everyone else to be stupid too, but that’s another story.

And the mistake I made turned out to be productive because it uncovered some other mistakes made by other people which in turn led to other mistakes, hence the proverbial can of worms.

Why a can of worms, though? Or rather why are we still opening cans of worms? Worms as bait for fishing used to be sold in metal cans, but, being alive, you don’t really want a tight lid on your annelids. By the time I was a kid and went fishing worms were sold in paper cups. Paper is easier to recycle and more biodegradable in addition to being easier to open. It’s also more porous, allowing more air in for the worms. It was also easier to tell which end was up with a paper cup and this made a difference because, while we were fishing, we’d keep the cup upside down. The worms, perhaps sensing the gruesome impaling followed by drowning that was their fate, buried themselves at the bottom of the cup which, since it was inverted, was actually the top.

Paper cups were then replaced by Styrofoam which, environmentally, is worse than either paper or metal, but by then I’d stopped getting my fish with worms and started getting it from the counter at the back of the supermarket instead.

If you’ve ever gone fishing with worms you also know they’re generally slow-moving so opening a can of worms isn’t that much of a problem unless you go off and leave the can for, well, at least a few hours. They’re also not upwardly mobile—as previously noted they’re more dowardly mobile, which makes them a lousy metaphor for anything business-related. The can of worms needs to be retired. After all pretty much anyone who remembers worms in a can has also long since retired and, in many cases, is now, well, food for worms.

To replace the can of worms for a business error, though, I don’t think we need to go any further than their mortal enemies. Someone in your office made a terrible mistake that spread out across several areas? Just say, “Boy, Carl really microwaved the fish this time.”

It’s useful because unless you work in a bait shop it’s really unlikely anyone brings cans of worms to work but in almost every office someone makes the mistake of microwaving fish. The smell goes everywhere, it’s difficult to get rid of it, but, hopefully, the person responsible will never do it ever again.

For a lighter, vegan option—that is, for problems that aren’t so serious, like my minor faux pas, I recommend saying that someone “burned the popcorn”.

Again this involves the microwave—something most offices have in their break rooms or kitchens—and a smell that permeates the entire department, although it’s not as bad.

In fact I remember the time a guy I worked with, for reasons I still can’t understand, put a bag of extra butter popcorn in the microwave for five minutes. That’s enough time to cook a twenty-pound turkey in most microwaves, or start a fusion reaction.

When he finally donned a hazmat suit and pulled the bag from the microwave the popcorn wasn’t just burned. It was smoking like Humphrey Bogart. He threw it in the trash where it burst into flames and we had to douse it with water.

It was a terrible mess but the office smelled wonderful for weeks.

Ready To Run.

A friend and I were looking at a large project and he finally said, “Well, I guess we have to run the gamut.” I started to bring out the, “I do not think that means what you think it means” line but then I realized I don’t really know what a gamut is or how you run one. I know how to run a race, and lost pretty much every one I ever ran in school, partly because I never was that athletic and partly because I never really cared that much about getting from one end of the playground to the other faster than anyone else, although I did build up quite a nice collection of participation ribbons. I distinctly remember that when my school held field days where we spent the entire day outside doing various sports that the ribbons for first place were blue, second were red, third were yellow, and the participation ribbons were green which I not only thought was a nicer color but they were easier to collect because all I had to do was take part. And eventually I learned I didn’t even have to do that. There was always an adult walking around with a handful of green ribbons and all I had to do was ask them for one or, if they weren’t looking, grab half a dozen.

I know how to run a marathon although I don’t know how likely it is that I’ll ever run one. It’s much more likely that I’ll walk one, and I know from experience that I can average a rate of a mile about every fifteen minutes. That would mean I could complete a marathon in a little over six and a half hours, which is respectable even if it’s not going to set any records, although the rate I recorded is from my time on a treadmill where the terrain almost never changes. Since marathons cover more than twenty-six miles there’s bound to be variation, as well as some hills, and I should also probably do some training. I don’t want to end up like Philippides, the original marathon runner, who died at the finish line before he could even get a participation ribbon.

I also know how to run a program. Well, I think I do anyway. Most of the time I can start a program, especially if it’s something like Word, but those don’t seem to run so much as just sit there waiting for me to start typing. There are other programs I’m told are always running in the background and I’m not sure I want to know what they’re doing even though they probably know too much about what I’m doing.

Sometimes I’ll run an idea by someone else but mostly when I have an idea I’ll take it and run with it.

Anyway I finally looked up “gamut” and usually it means the complete range of notes in a scale, which my friend, who’s a singer, should have known, and, as a writer, he also should have known the common metaphorical phrase “to run the gamut” means to go through the whole range of something, so I guess he was correct. It still sounds odd to me since I’m used to hearing it in the past tense, once someone has run the gamut, but this is just a roundabout explanation of why our plans never went anywhere.

Life’s Work.

Source: Giphy

There’s a trend I’ve noticed in commercials of showing people whose whole lives, even whole identities, are built around their careers. It’s not a new trend, nor is it particularly widespread, but it seems to have spread to fast food workers, which is strange and may even be insidious. I spent a summer working at a Shoney’s, a chain that’s rapidly disappearing, but, for those who don’t know it, is best described as a fast food place with printed menus and someone who brings your food to your table rather than making you go to a counter to order it. In spite of presenting itself as a sit-down restaurant, complete with a breakfast bar in the mornings that switched over to a salad bar after eleven in the morning—with the dirty secret that some of the salad bar food was sitting under the breakfast bar food, in case anyone ever wondered why the black olives were so warm—the wait staff were supposed to subtly pressure customers to get their food and get out as quickly as possible. People would sometimes ask a waitress to hold their food so they could spend a little time enjoying the salad bar and maybe give the Jell-o a chance to cool down, but behind the scenes management would penalize waitresses if they didn’t deliver plates to the table in under ten minutes.

So that’s my entire background in the food service industry but, contrary to what some commercials want you to think, I doubt any fast food place is really a fun place to work with wacky employees getting up to various hijinks with each other. I hope everyone, no matter what job they do, can find some joy and maybe even fulfillment in it, but for me and pretty much everyone else who worked at that Shoney’s it seemed we all just wanted to get through our shifts without getting ptomaine or bitten by the rats in the dry storage room and go onto whatever waited us outside the restaurant walls.

The insidious part of the commercials, I think, is not just that they want customers to feel better about going to fast food places but they want to convey the idea that, hey, it’s low-paying drudgery and probably no benefits or sick leave even if you get ptomaine, but at least there’s wacky hijinks to be had.

And to be clear: if you work in fast food and really enjoy what you do that’s great. I’m not knocking anyone’s career choice. I’m knocking the upper management belief that a sense of corporate community and pulling together for the good of the shareholders is a substitute for benefits, decent wages, and even decent treatment—which is an easy belief to hold when you’re pulling down three figures and don’t even know the names of most of the people you manage.

The commercial trope of people who devote their whole lives to their work, funny enough, seems to be more common for insurance. Maybe that’s because insurance is, for most of us, something we don’t think about all the time but it can literally be a lifesaver when we need medical care, or really handy to have when we have a car accident, house fire, or other catastrophe. Insurance commercials work hard to convince us that there are people out there who devote their whole lives, every waking and even every sleeping moment, to lowering your premiums while also working to make sure you’re completely covered if you have a flood or a meteor hits your home. It’s reassuring even if, not so deep down, we all know it’s hogwash.

What’s really funny to me, because I have a weird sense of humor and a degree in English, is the poet Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance agent. It was one of those dual lives you rarely hear about—the sort I’m not sure can even exist anymore, since, even in the real, non-commercial world, only celebrities seem able to manage multiple careers, and even they can only manage that because they can afford to hire someone to design the clothes, the makeup, the power tools they slap their names and faces on.

Sometimes I even envy Wallace Stevens, who I think was in the perfect position—successful enough as an insurance agent that he got to a pretty high level in the company where he worked, and at the same time one of the most widely read and respected American poets of the twentieth century. Imagine being at a cocktail party and saying to someone, “Here’s my card if you need an insurance agent, and here’s my other card if you need two-hundred and forty lines of enigmatic language on the Aurora Borealis.”

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