At first, I thought it was a good thing Daniel finally got a professional haircut, because otherwise I didn't see who'd hire his skinny ass, what with his hair looking like it's been attacked by bats. But he's been applying at a lot of coffeehouses lately, where the employers seem to command a shocking appearance from their workers. Christian, a barista at a coffeehouse down the street from me, has his black hair chopped in cantilevered layers with patches dyed alternately cloud white or cobalt blue or both, depending on his mood, and I must say I like looking at him.
"Muss it up a little," I tell Daniel, but he swats my hand away from his head. We are on the patio of the new Caribou in the just-built Target shopping center that all the in-town people were cursing until it came time to buy a shower curtain; now nobody can live without the place. We're here because Daniel is insistent he work at a corporate coffeehouse because he wants to be buried in "holdings," whatever those are.
"Benefits, bitch," he explains. "Health, dental, stock options. At Starbucks they give you a benefits package just for working part time," he slams the table top for emphasis. "Part time."
Daniel has never worked a corporate job his whole life, unless you count that short-lived gig at the Gap 8 million years ago, which coincides with the period during which they folded all their inventory into anal triangles. Now I know why. Daniel is about as fastidious as they come, barring his hair. After we guest-bartended at the Local last year, Keiger insisted Daniel is the only one he'd consider actually hiring, which I really resent, but still I asked Keiger to make good on that. Unfortunately, I'm still heavily in debt to him for rehiring Grant after Grant made his grand, heralded, ticker-tape exit that year and then all of a sudden needed his job back. So Daniel's on his own except for my help, which is dubious.
"Don't work at Starbucks," I whine. "My brother worked there and they beat the life out of him." It's true. My brother was placed as a manager of a Starbucks in Compton, CA, which was the equivalent to hiring a Quaker to helm a strip club. My brother did it for the benefits package, too, left his job parking cars in the paradise of Lake Tahoe so he could clock in at 5am and be accused of discrimination for insisting his subordinates clock in on time as well. After years of being overlooked for obvious promotions, but hanging on, anyway, for the benefits, he was finally fired because of some offense manufactured by these same former underlings who'd out-sucked him in the mad sewage flush to become mid-level corporate buttlicks.
The last job Daniel had, a six-year stint as an instructor at a privately owned mental-health facility for emotionally damaged children, made certain to dump his ass within days of his becoming eligible for said pot-of-gold benefits package, if I recall. So now Daniel is looking to be a cog in the quagmire, just one gerbil among thousands on a big wheel where the bigwigs are too busy making money to discriminate when one of them is getting close to crossing over into the tenured territory of the "benefits-worthy." But there's a cost. There really is.
"Hollis, I don't have a choice. I've worked all my life, and look at me," he splays his arms toward me across the table. "My hands are empty."
I wish I could answer that, but the truth is I'm hardly in a position to talk, except that for years, until last December, I'd been balanced on the line that is supposed to separate the sanctuary of a corporate job from the uncertain abyss of entrepreneurialism. And all I can say is it looks mighty similar on both sides of the fence, so if you have to jump, you might as well do so on the side that lets you dictate your own time. My brother is now an entrepreneur, and I have no idea what that means in his case, except to say that when he's a hundred years old and empty-handed, at least his hands will be empty because he used up what could have been in them, rather than tossing it all fresh and lovely at the feet of a corporation in exchange for the nebulous promise of future security.
Oh, fuck me. I know what I sound like, but it's not like I'm a comet coming entirely from nowhere. I had a service-level corporate job for more than 10 years. My company matched up to 3 percent of my 401K as long as it could invest the money as it wanted. The result? I could have saved more money if I'd taken the original sum and simply bought beer with it and returned the bottles. But that's not to say the job wasn't a facility for me in a lot of ways -- it was. Everybody needs a safety net sometimes, but not everyone can pinpoint when it starts to suffocate them is all.
I look at Daniel's hands, which literally are the hands of an artist, and I'm pained and selfish in my regret that they'll be doing anything other than creating more beautiful pieces like those of his that hang in the Fay Gold Gallery -- warm and lovely work with an amazing depth of proclivity that took years and years to perfect. Daniel's hands are still on the table, outstretched, so I put mine in his and squeeze. "Your hands," I say, "are not empty."
Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."