Saddened to hear of the death of Harvey Pekar, writer, raconteur, and subject of the brilliantly innovative HBO movie, American Splendor (2003), I've been watching my DVD of the movie again. Here's a thought you won't read anywhere else:
This time around, this movie strikes me as a window on a rapidly receding past. Note that the crappy job Harvey's stuck in -- and pathetically grateful to have -- doesn't even exist any more: taking care of paper files in big metal drawers and yards of metal shelves in the basement of a government hospital. Nowadays that stuff is all on computers, and the job would go to a somewhat more skilled person.
When I was a hippie, I knew longhairs who worked for the Postal Service, not because they felt a calling to wear shorts and carry bags full of Sears catalogues, but because the USPS didn't care if you had long hair. Their customers may not have liked it, but as a government bureau they didn't have to please their customers.
This is the niche in the socio-economic system that Harve occupied. The film begins with the real Harvey telling us that he has always worked at sh*t jobs, lived in sh*t places, and with women who treat him like human garbage. A lot of the charm of the film, and of Harvey's books, is enjoying the ironic tension between a) his intellectual brilliance, b) the gritty crappiness of his immediate surroundings, and c) the gross, obvious character flaws that bring about (b) in spite of (a).
Has anyone noticed the contribution to our culture that was made by that vanishing institution, the crappy government job? Here is a guy with a set of skills and interests that are not highly marketable (jazz critic, expert on comic books and the kind of blues records that only eccentric white people listen to any more) and massive failures of patience and self-discipline that prevent him from getting very far with his formal education (otherwise he might have pursued his goofy obsessions in a university and actually gotten paid for it).
How to avoid a life of utter frustration? One classic solution, admittedly imperfect, was the undemanding but unrenumerative government job (or UDURGJ for short). It enabled a person like Harve to go home at the end of the work day, his mind un-cluttered by any complex or worrying problems like the ones that come up in other people's work day, and un-exausted by any backbreaking physical labor, free to pursue his private obsessions as just that -- private. Meanwhile, the UDURGJ makes it possible for Harvey to make a real contribution to the economy and to be remunerated in a way that is appropriate to his meager contributions (ie., not much). The arrangement is meager, yes, but honorable.
From what I have read, this sort of job seems to be vanishing fast. Thanks to increasing unionization, more and more government jobs have better pay and much, much better perks than similar jobs in the private sector. (Not to mention that precious government job security!)*
Maybe you are thinking, what's wrong with Harve getting better remuneration? Wouldn't that be a good thing from his point of view? Well, I don't think so. If you take the UR out of the UDURGJ, I doubt that this job will go to someone like Harvey. If the job is really worth a lot, it will attract people who are a lot more marketable than him. Why would anyone, even the government, hire someone with Harvey's obvious emotional problems, character flaws, and complete lack of credentials, when for the same (exorbitant) price they can get someone who is a lot more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Those unions must be pricing guys like Harvey right out of the market.
With the disappearance of the crappy government job, we will lose a haven for dreamers, misanthopes, and misfits, for the stunted, the botched, and the mangled-by-life. I don't know about you folks, but that describes some of my favorite people. As a recovering hippie myself, I will miss them!
* News flash: I just heard an interview with the mayor of San Jose CA, on why they are firing their (unionized) city janitors and hiring private (but also unionized) ones: the government ones cost twice as much as the private ones. Their government janitors get about $80,000 a year [including perks] plus about 17% "for time off" [now there is an interesting concept!], or just under $100,000 per year, or around $50 per hour. That's fifty bucks for an hour of buffing the floor and swabbing the toilets.