Why was I alive?
Sometimes when you have prepared for death and it doesn’t come, you find yourself asking: why am I alive? You have a purpose-driven-life moment. Appreciating time a lot more, you want to get down to the goal of what time you have left. It could be selling ant farms. It could be running for Congress. But you just kinda want to know what you’re here for and get on with it.
After I survived cancer that was diagnosed in 2008, I was ready to get on with my mission. A few years before I got sick, I had made what was either a bold move or a terrible mistake. I had left the workforce to write books. The plan was I would write the four books I wanted to, and then use them to find a job. I particularly wanted to work in the conservative movement, and the books reflected this. One was an expose of the alcoholic, libertine, communist Jesuits who taught me in high school. The other was about my grandfather, who had been a professional baseball player. The third was about sex, Catholicism and rock and roll. It was a defense of both Catholic teaching on human sexuality and rock and roll, which I argued reflected that very same teaching. This book had been accepted by a major publisher, and was in the editing pipeline when I got sick.
I wrote the three books. Then the recession hit. Then I got sick.
Having survived, I had to figure out what to do. I decided to go back to school to get a teaching certificate, but being a teacher means having a backup job. I wanted to work at Fox News, but they didn’t return my calls. So I tried National Geographic, where my father had worked. His had a grand life of travel and discovery and adventure; he had traveled the world and written about it, and actually discovered where Columbus landed, a small island in the Bahamas called Samana Cay. Yet it wasn’t 1965 anymore, or even 1995. Magazines and newspapers were laying people off. I checked the NatGeo website, where I saw an ad for “visitor service representatives” for the five months that a new exhibit would be in Washington. The job would be to check coats, tear tickets, politely herd people to proper locations and general do whatever needs to be done for the 2-3,000 people who come through the museum every day to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, life-sized, 2,000 year-old Chinese clay figures who have been the winter buzz of Washington. The figures, some 8,000 total—the Geographic has fifteen on display—were built by artisans around 200 BC. They were done at the order of China’s first dictator, Qin Shi Huang, and no two are alike. Their purpose was to both usher the emperor into the afterlife and protect him.
Since Fox was ignoring me, I took the Terra Cotta job. I would be a gopher, making people happy and protecting the protectors of the emperor. I could hack it, because for the first time in months I felt strong. To be sure, the chemo had caused some nerve and tissue damage, and according to my doctor it would take about a year for that to wear off. I would also be on a maintenance drug that was new and experimental, and for all I knew would turn me into the Hulk. But none of that was still nothing like the dreary, deadening fatigue I felt in the months leading up to December 2008, when I was diagnosed with cancer. No matter what happens in life, there is usually I sense of security that, if all else should fail, you still have your working body. You can change careers, move to a different state, botch a relationship, but at the end of the day you won’t starve. You can wash dishes, or fold clothes. But when your body itself begins to weaken and you don‘t know why, a desperation sets in. You don’t feel well enough to work, yet you don’t know why. When I was diagnosed, I was actually relieved. Anything was better than living like that.
And I could shake off the spiritual malaise that sets in when you can’t work. One of my heroes is Pope John Paul II, who had penetrating insights into the connection between work and spirituality. In 1940, when Poland was under Nazi occupation, the 20 year-old Karol Wojtyla went to work at the Zakrzowek quarry breaking up limestone. Up until then the future pope had believed, as he was taught as a boy, that hard work was a penalty of original sin. Yet seeing the dignity of the older workers, he came to a different conclusion. As Catholic intellectual George Weigel puts it in Witness to Hope, “[The pope saw that] work, with all its rigors and hardships, was a participation in God’s creativity, because work touched the very essence of the human being as a creature to whom God had given dominion over the earth.”
There was also something to be said for doing work that wasn’t abstract—that didn’t involve information technology or accounting, or sitting in front of a computer all day trying to make money off of other people’s money. There was something to be said for work that allowed you to be inside your own body, like Adam plowing the fields of the Lord. After the cancer it would be an affirmation of health, of joy, of the simple goodness of doing simple, physical things—especially in the service of helping others experience something marvelous. It would be like that powerful scene at the climax of the movie Wall Street, when onetime Wall Street titan Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, has been arrested for insider trading. On a rainy morning in Central Park, he explains to his former mentor Gordon Gekko, who preached that “greed is good,” that he had lost his soul. He wasn’t a destroyer of worlds. “Maybe I’m just Bud Fox,” he said.
The best and worst thing about the job was that no one knew what they were doing. That is, the National Geographic had never charged for an exhibition and had never admitted 2-3,000 people a day onto its museum. The Terra Cotta layout took up the entire ground floor and was made up of two parts. The ushers had to work at various stations: ticket scanning (two), coat check (one), audio tours (one), the main hallway directing traffic (two), at the exit collecting audio tours (one), in the ticket booth in the front of the building (two). There were also supposed to be a floaters to help out, as well as three “shift-leaders” overseeing the operation. We were all equipped with walkie-talkies with earpieces and mics so we could communicate easily. But no one knew what to expect. They had to install new ticket booths out front, and construct areas for selling audio tours and checking coats. Roaming carpenters and electricians were a common site.
With massive crowds coming through, it was an ADHD sufferer’s paradise. There was constantly something to do. If I wasn’t selling audio tours or announcing the rules—no food or drink or photography turn off your sell phones hold on to you tickets all the way through—I was checking coats or answering questions. (After work I often had dreams of lines of people moving past me.) The other visitor services reps were a good group of people, most of them grad students in anthropology or museum studies. There was an excitement at orientation; we were going to be part of something historic, spectacular! When the Terra Cotta exhibit had been in London, the demand was so great that for the last two weeks they had to stay open 24 hours. This kind of popularity made me and others who had been hired see what would become a constant, serious problem: understaffing. In hiring 20 of us, most students who would be working part time, National Geographic had underestimated attrition rates, which are high in a job that 1) is physically demanding and 2)involved students who tend to drink a lot. They also had a bizarre system of scheduling: you could make your own hours. That is, you could tell them what days and hours you were available and they would only schedule you for those hours. This was done to try and accommodate the students, but I instantly saw the folly in this approach. Better to simply have set shifts that you must work. Letting a bunch of college students make their own hours is like letting liberals run congress.
But for a while, the job was fun. I was good with people. Most everyone who I worked with had a good sense of humor, and as long as we showed up and did our jobs, the supervisors let us joke around on the walk-talkies to blow off steam. If there is one thing you need after a ten hour shift in a building heavy with dead air and streaming with people, it’s an occasional mental whoopee cushion. When one of the workers, a small woman who was obsessive about checking and double-checking people’s tickets, came through on an off day as a visitor, she forgot her own ticket stub in her checked coat. “She’s lucky she didn’t run into herself working in the hallway,” someone quipped over the microphone. Tired of people using the phrase “go to the bathroom,” a supervisor said the code over the microphone for that necessity would now be a “10-100.” I couldn’t resist: “Unless it’s a 10-200. Then you get an extra 30 seconds.” People did movie and presidential trivia over the lines when it was slow. We gently poked fun at each other, and the kids went out together after work. Friendships were made. One couple got engaged. A supervisor went so far as to call us a family.
The most Howard Stern moment came the day that me and this guy nicknamed Ig were working in the ticket booth out front. They had built the both with two-inch class, and when talking through it it was difficult to understand the other person. Customers on the outside could hear us only if we got right up to the round hole in the middle of the window. The ticket booth was where you dealt with a lot of angry, disappointed people. People who had lost their tickets. Who didn’t have tickets but didn’t know it was sold out, and they had driven to Washington from Pennsylvania, and couldn’t we give them a break. And people who were just jerks. Ig and I were in the booth when a guy came up to my window and started complaining. What did I mean we were sold out? He was visiting from Germany! His plane left in three hours! The Web site said nothing about being sold out! Where was my manager?
I farted. Loudly.
Ig jumped. The man, clueless behind two inches of near-soundproof glass, kept talking.
“I wanna know who is in charge here—“
I let him know again. BWWWWWAAAP!!!!
“I’ve been a subscriber to National Geographic since 1957—“
I stood there facing the man and nodding. He had no idea I had almost blown out the back of the ticket booth. He just went on. By now Ig had his head down. He was shaking with laughter. “Supervisors,” he radioed, “can we get some Lysol in the booth?”
After four months, I finally left the job. The self-scheduling had caused problems. Some kids were only working one day a week, leaving others to work overtime. They extended the weekend visiting hours, from 10 to 6 to 10 to 8 or even 9 if there was a special event. Some people were scheduled 9 to 10—that’s 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and sometimes several days in a row. Adding to that, new dictums came down from the worst supervisor, a control freak I called the Red Skull. From now on if we couldn’t work and even tried to find a sub—a common occurrence—we would be written up, even if we had sick leave hours. In short, there was no calling in sick. No more stand-up on the walkie-talkies. We had to treat our fellow employees with “respect.” A 13-hour day came with one half hour for lunch, no dinner, and a possible fifteen minute break was “at the discretion of the supervisor.” And so on.
So: we couldn’t take a sick day, even if we had the hours to do so. We couldn’t give each other good-humored shit. No stress-relief on the microphone. And, if Red Skull was working, best to pass out rather than take five for some fresh air during a 12- or 13-hour shift. I was enduring such monster shift when I suddenly felt dizzy, and my legs went numb. I was in the hallway, directing visitors from one part of the exhibit to the other. I sat down on a stool (they provided us with those—the job would not have been possibly without them) and tried to stay focused. I had been there for 11 hours, and my post-chemo legs were giving. But I had kept up for four months, and only one more hour to go. I had to do it. I suddenly realized that I was having a National Geographic Explorer moment; I had to retain consciousness, push ahead, stuff down the pain. I was like Admiral Perry on the North Pole or Jacques Cousteau at the ocean floor. And it was happening inside the lobby of the National Geographic building itself.
I gave my notice that day. Three other workers had done the same the day before. The thing was breaking apart, and soon would be just another museum/retail establishment with overly serious bosses, no benefits and heavy turnover. Before leaving, I stopped by the 7th floor to see dad’s old office. Near it was his picture with a description:
“It’s a magazine of discovery,” said Thomas Brehon, here shown studying a map of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World. Using computers to calculate the voyage, Brehon discovered the original Columbus landfall in Samana Cay, Bahamas. Washington, D.C., was Brehon’s home town. He was wired into the city. He wrote speeches for JFK. And there was no contradiction between the Irish Catholic poet and the journalist with a soaring world view. The two sides of Thomas Brehon played against each other like a harp to produce vivid pictures of Jerusalem and Alaska, Ireland, the Australian outback the Minoans, articles that betrayed a deep streak of compassion He was the magazine’s top word man for ten years. He offered his writer’s that most frightening of freedoms: trust.
I got on the subway to go home. I felt spent, and still had no idea why I was alive. But I knew it wasn’t to check coats. As the train came up from the underground, I saw the lights of home. On my iPod was a U2 song, “Moment of Surrender”:
I was speeding on the subway
Through the station of the cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down ’til the pain would stop
At the moment of surrender
Of vision over visibility
I did not notice the passers-by
And they did not notice me
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.