Cleaning up shit

When I think back on my late teen years and the earliest part of my twenties, I mostly feel agony. It was a time in my life when I was constantly drunk, unbelievably depressed, and embarrassingly insecure. But there are, inevitably, moments that I remember with fondness, like the job I worked between the ages of 18 and 21, as an usher, concessionaire and ticket seller at the Film Forum, New York’s iconic independent movie theater.

It was my first real job, and even though it was menial—tearing tickets, telling people which theater to go to, popping corn—my coworkers were an exceptionally lovely group of people, and we cultivated a sort of familial relationship, bonded together by the aches of minimum wage life and an undying love for cinema.

There’s one specific moment during my career as a movie theater employee that I've been reflecting on a lot lately, now that it’s been years since I worked in service and I’m a certified yuppie: The first time in my life when I had to clean up another person’s shit.

The thing about Film Forum, despite its trendiness, was that many of its patrons happened to be elderly retirees, who frequented the theater during the daytime to watch their favorite classic movies. That, staffers theorized, led to a recurring problem for us—because someone was bound to have little (or big) accident in the bathroom. There were a number of times when a coworker discovered that the men’s bathroom was covered in poop, and some brave soul would have to clean it up. Whenever shit hit the wall, we’d have fun thinking about exactly the circumstances that would lead to someone making such a mess in a public bathroom, and lament the fact that we were in the unfortunate position of having to clean it all up.

One day when I was ushering, another bathroom accident went down, this time in the ladies’ room, and my manager informed me, with a benign smirk, that it was finally my turn to clean up the shit. So the only other woman working that shift and I went into the bathroom, and did the dirty work we had to.

Rigged out in rubber gloves, we used a long-handled mop to get the shit off the walls while keeping a safe distance. We were howling and giggling in utter disgust, united by the fact that we were working a job that required us to perform such a fundamentally gross task. It was disgusting, but not in a gut-wrenching way. It didn’t make me feel bad about myself or my position in the world—it was simply a chore I was required to perform, and I made the best out of a shitty situation.

Now that I’m at a different point in my life, having written professionally for various news media organizations since 2015, I haven’t had to clean up literal shit in a minute. These days, I'm more likely to be navigating adolescent office politics, thwarting internet haters, and/or the perennial anxiety of being a professional creative. The bad feelings associated with work now tend to be deeply personal, and occasionally, I’ve found myself yearning for simpler times, when the worst thing I was required to do was clean up another person’s feces.

The last full-time job I had was writing for a talk show on cable television, the kind of gig that makes a parent proud. But three months in I called it quits, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that it was, without a doubt, the worst job I have ever had. Not to sound too Goop-ish, but the bad energy on the set of this show truly stank.

Forced to be in the office for upwards of eleven hours a day, I underwent pointless meeting after pointless meeting, wherein my coworkers and I would present our scripts and ideas to a clique of cartoonishly difficult and insecure TV show hosts, who practically delighted in their contempt for my fellow producers—who, for what it’s worth, were amazing and brilliant—as well as the job the network had hired them to do. That was compounded by the ultra-toxic work environment fostered by clueless upper management types: a gang of white, well-dressed Gen X’ers who became obsessed with bringing different shiny new consultants every other week in a misguided attempt to fix a fundamentally broken project, creating weird rifts between various writers and producers, and all but ensuring our failure.

Working on the bad show, of course, had its upsides: it paid significantly more than my minimum-wage movie theater job did, I ended up making some great friends (hi Josh!), and most of all, it sounded impressive to other people.

Most days, I was bored and vexed by the fact that I had to spend all my time working on a show I hated for an organization that I hated nearly as much. During my months toiling away on this horrible, awful, no good project, my mind often wandered to what it really meant to clean up someone else’s shit. I thought about the day I cleaned up the mess in that bathroom, the simplicity of it, how it was a task that wasn’t motivated by other people’s malice or institutional mismanagement, but just someone having bad luck in a public bathroom, how easily the issue was able to be addressed, and the lack of lingering bad feelings about the whole thing.

Dealing with worse problems than the actual feces I was required to clean up years earlier, has made me reconsider the values I learned growing up the child of middle-class creative types in New York City. There’s a prevailing cultural assumption that having a service job, or performing any sort of unskilled labor, is somehow less respectable than, say, writing professionally. By the time I quit, I had reached the following conclusion: Fuck what’s respectable and fuck what looks good on paper. I’d rather clean up some old lady’s shit in a public bathroom any day of the week than be doomed to work in the world’s most socially toxic environment. (If I needed any more proof I needed to get the fuck out, in the weeks leading up to my departure, my back had twisted in an agonizing cramp, restricting my ability to stand-up straight, a pain I thought I might never escape. A couple days after I quit, it vanished completely.)

There’s no right way to live, and there isn't some special merit to being a TV star instead of working as waiter. Anyone who tells you different simply hasn’t had to clean up enough shit.


ICYMI, check out some of my latest work:

Which 2020 Candidate Would You Swipe Right On? - New York Times Sunday Review

Meet the Marianniacs - Elle

Grumpy Jewish Grandpa 2020 - Moment Magazine