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  • Ken Ilgunas

Warning: If you major in English, you may just end up washing dishes in a working camp on the arctic

So, I’m a working man again. I just finished my first forty-hour week (of menial labor) in over five years.

At Deadhorse Camp (which is one of several camp/motel facilities in the greater Deadhorse area), we have about 30-50 oilfield employees who, for three weeks at a time, live here and work twelve hours a day. We house them, serve them food at breakfast and dinner buffets, and make them sack lunches. (No need to point out the hypocrisy of a raving environmentalist indirectly abetting the initiatives of the oil industry.)

I am one of five people who work here (three of whom are permanents). And while I’m not one of the permanents, if you include me in the five, then sixty percent of the Deadhorse Camp workforce has a college degree in English—a degree that has clearly served no purpose in preparing us for the duties of our jobs, but does, however, empower us to have impassioned 45-minute conversations on whether the film Scream does or does not fit within the horror genre. (Self-deprecation aside, I do and always will cherish my impractical degrees.)

I’ve been spending about six hours a day in the kitchen, every day of the week. I scrub the bottoms of burnt soup pots with wire brushes, dip my hand into sink drains to pluck out palmfuls of slippery vegetables, and cram heavy black industrial trash bags into polar bear-proof dumpsters. I set up the salad bar, slice the bread, arrange the dessert rack, and fold used cardboard.

Apart from the hikes I’ve gone on over the course of the summer, it’s been awhile since I’ve had to be in a continuous state of movement for hours on end. By the end of my first shift, I was physically exhausted, with sore feet and an aching back—and duly embarrassed because everyone around me had been working twice as long. Now—after a week—my back and feet have adjusted and I am in full-out, body-on, brain-off, work mode.

The job, more than anything, makes me reflect on my many previous menial jobs. Over the years, I’ve mowed lawns, sharpened skates, flipped burgers, scrubbed toilets, delivered papers, cashed a register, and pushed carts. While it is in fashion to glorify some of these blue collar trades, I have no issue unequivocally stating that I hated all these jobs and admitting that I hate work in general. And I realize that—as an American—such an admission is just about as blasphemous as doubting the existence of Jesus as our savior, but there’s no way around it: I hate work and I’ll do most anything to avoid it, short of taking unemployment checks. And when I mean “work,” I mean working for somebody else, punching a clock, at a job that isn’t entirely of your choosing, at a place or company you’re not exactly free to leave whenever you want. I don’t consider tutoring kids work, or building David a stone path work, or writing my book work—largely because of the loose, unstructured, independent nature of those “jobs.”

Mostly, I hate how the hours go by, how the days melt into one another, and how you realize, suddenly, just how many weeks, months, and years have passed—with the great majority of them devoted to giving someone else your time and spending what few hours you have of your own recuperating from the exhausting toil.

After dishwashing, by the end of the day, I have no ambition to do anything. I have little desire to write, or self-improve, or do anything constructive. All my instincts tell me to lie down, drink cheap beer, and watch another episode of “The Wire.” (In the week I’ve been here, my coworkers and I have exhausted our supply of booze and watched the first 13-episode season of “The Wire,” which, by the way, is one of the greatest TV shows I’ve ever seen.) And while there’s nothing wrong with resting after a day’s work in front of the tube, a man can’t help but question his purpose in life when he spends his time doing something of very little consequence for just a little bit of money.

I know I’ve only been doing this for a week, but there’s nothing like washing one individual spoon after another, for half an hour, in the middle of the night, in a silent kitchen, at a working camp 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, that makes you think about the direction your life is headed in.

My prevailing thought: What the fuck am I doing washing dishes up in Deadhorse?

This question takes on added significance when I consider a recent job opportunity I turned down. Right around the time I got my degree from Duke, an EiC of a respectable magazine strongly encouraged that I apply for a writing job that offered a yearly salary in the high 30’s. I was tempted. But only for a moment. The catch was, if I took the job, I had to stay there for at least three years.

But if I took it, I would be able to do what I love most (writing), I would have a respectable job that puts me on a track to a respectable career, and I would make plenty of money I could put away for a rainy day, as well as the other standard perks: health insurance, dental, 401k….

Ultimately, I turned it down because I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere for three years, sitting at a desk for much of that time, writing articles about things I’m not entirely interested in… I thought I’d be missing out on other challenges, glories, and wonders if I sentenced myself to three years of obligation. In other words, I sacrificed financial security for freedom.

But freedom to do what? I’m effin’ broke and I still have no idea if the book is really going to happen. I currently have $2,000 in the bank, $400 in my wallet, and about $1K in checks that I’ve yet to cash. Freedom to wash dishes?

I suppose, while washing spoons that night, I wondered, for the first time, if I made the wrong decision. I wondered if I’d become too rigid, too unrealistic, too dogmatic. I wondered if maybe I ought to start making more “responsible” decisions. Maybe I should have taken the writing job. Maybe I should have been a park ranger again, making twice as much money doing fun, worthwhile stuff…

But then I reminded myself how lifestyles are traps—traps that are incredibly difficult to escape from. Once you get a career, you get things, you get money, you build around you the infrastructure to have a family. And then—now that it’s convenient—you get a family. And ten years later, you find yourself stuck—stuck in a career you can’t afford to give up, stuck in a family you can’t morally extricate yourself from, stuck inside a personality that is one-dimensional. I think I’ll be happy to be stuck someday, but not now.

What I want more than anything is to write and to continue to experiment with life, which a career very much inhibits. I guess I sometimes forget what I want; I lose sight of the path I put myself on. So I guess it’s good to do what you hate once in a while. When you’re most constrained and least inspired, dreams are resuscitated from the dead, empty souls glow to life like blood pumped back into slumbering limbs, and the comatose are shaken awake with a swift kick to the groin.

Mopping the kitchen.

I make about 25 lunches a night. You got me what this lady wanted.

Drinking beer with fellow coworkers after my shift. They were eager, to say the least, to get their paws on the Pabst, as they’d been subjected to Genesee before I came up.


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