Philadelphia Metropolis


Changing a Lightbulb

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Best of VoxPop: The World of Work

By Jeff Milligan

I'm not planning on drinking a cyanide smoothie or anything, but when you have no work, your soul seems to shrivel.  As a self-employed contractor, the fundamental assumption is that I have to rely on myself. But as my "self" seems to implode, so does my reality. There is nothing left to lean on, so I slowly fall down.

I scour Craigslist for jobs and gigs and check Chester County papers for warehouse work or anything to bring in money. I do a few pushups and examine my hairline in the mirror. I pat my soft belly. I recheck construction proposals for typos and wonder if my price was too high. Maybe, I think, I should follow-up again, but they'll probably hang up on me.

I wonder if the neighbors have noticed that my truck has been parked out front for a few weeks. Maybe I should move it -- go sit at Wawa for an hour. I peek through the curtains and see Mrs. Brown getting the mail. I slip out of sight before she sees me.

I wonder if an idle mind is the devil's workshop. Maybe I'll read a book -- something inspirational by Wayne Dyer or something nice about Jesus. Maybe a cup of green tea. Got to  fight those free radicals if you want to stay healthy and young. I probably already have cancer, though. My groin hurts. I need to go outside.

I go upstairs and find the dog asleep on my bed. "Want to go for a walk?" I say mustering what enthusiasm I can. He sits up, yawns and lies back down. A hollow feeling of complete rejection spreads through my belly.  

I shuffle into my son's room and sit on his unmade bed. On his shelf of trophies is one of mine from when I was a kid. I take it down: Rookie of the Year, 1980. The hollow feeling grows. Where did all the years go?

I realize I'm drifting, spiraling down, allowing depression in. I force myself to check my email and see if I've heard back about the jobs I've bid on - the wall job in Downingtown or that walkway in Wayne. I log in with a feeling of hope, but nothing. No new mail. So I check out a news site and read an article about healthcare. I post a quick rebuttal in the comments section. Someone named "HardVark" said something stupid, but I, "TheRoman", set him straight - threw him to the lions, if you will. That cheered me up for a moment.

Maybe I should do some of the chores my wife has been asking me to do. I could replace the light bulb on the front porch. I could get a new doorknob for the closet. I could do so many things, but it's hard to get started.

 Paralysis soaks into your bones when you feel you're no good. Now, I know I'm being sensitive. And I know my self-worth is not tallied on a paycheck, but it sure seems that way. And I know that if I could just get moving that I would somehow gain momentum, but that first heavy step just won't come.

And so I sit here. Stupidly.

Then I remember this quote from the Tao te Ching. "Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self". I need to be selfless, to do something for someone else. I will change that light bulb, I declare boldly. And I'm off to the closet to get one... but the door won't open. The knob is finally stuck for good. I jiggle and shake it. Jam and slam it. Curse it. Kick it. Beg for mercy. But it won't open.

Then I calm myself - breathing, breathing, Om. And I logically solve the puzzle: get your screwdriver and remove the door knob, then you can replace the light bulb. Then maybe drive to the hardware store and get a new doorknob. And by doing that you can move your truck and your neighbors will think you are still a worthwhile member of society. You see, problems resolve themselves with logic and selflessness.

So it's back downstairs to get my tool box, but I can't find it. Then I remember I loaned it to my brother who just moved to Wilmington. I feel my throat tighten. I ball my fists and shake them at the gods. Why? I shout. Why?

I collapse like a sad puppet in front of my computer, but I muster up the fortitude to check my email again...And, lo and behold, before my eyes, I see I have one new email mail! Maybe, with this one, the money will come pouring in. 

I open my mailbox and there is the message:  JOCKEY SHORTS 15% off!

A smile creeps across my face.


Jeff Milligan lives in Chester County with his wife and three children.

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