Not Drowning, Waving

On working and wondering

I am sitting in a booth at the McDonald's in Whittier, looking out the window at the intersection of 25th and Nicollet, the same view I had when I'd take my break here 30 years ago. It was a Red Barn then; I worked the 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. shift every Friday and Saturday. I made a mean Big Barney and Cheesebuster.

It was my first real job. I did all sorts of things, including cooking, cashiering, hauling garbage and grease to the dumpster, cleaning the bathroom where my friend Pat found an aborted fetus one night, and talking with the pimps and hookers who'd come in to use the phone, the Jesus people who'd come in after church across the street, and the drunks who'd stagger in by the dozens after bar close. I also spent an inordinate amount of time doing what the woman next to me is doing at the moment: mopping the floor.

I was 15 years old. I lied about my age to get the job, and some nights when I took my break, I'd sit in this booth and read Studs Terkel's Working, in which the great journalist interviews all sorts of people about their various vocational paths, dreams, and ruts. I'd look out this window at the cars and buses and lives, and wonder what I was going to do with mine. Now here I am, doing exactly the same thing.

James O'Brien

In my backpack I have two books, both of which were gifts from friends who thought I'd get something out of them: Obituaries by the great essayist and playwright William Saroyan, in which he writes, "Why do I write? Why am I writing this book? To save my life, to keep from dying, of course. That is why we get up in the morning." And Air Guitar, a collection of essays by the great arts critic Dave Hickey, who writes, "All of these essays begin in innocence, in extremely simple, even childlike questions that begin with 'Why?'... When I wrote about music, I wrote about other things, mostly about music history, politics, drugs, hanging out, and playing the guitar. Why? I wondered--and I wondered all the time, because it's disquieting to be doing something and not know why you're doing it."

My grandfather worked in coal mines in Ireland and England for seven years, 10 hours a day, until he left his family forever and came to Minneapolis. A couple of years ago, I went down in a coal mine near where he grew up, and, after 10 minutes, couldn't breathe and couldn't wait to get out. In comparison, what I do doesn't feel anything like work: I write about what I think and feel, what has happened to me and others, and, after almost six months of doing this column, I'm still asking myself Why? Sometimes the answer is clear, sometimes not, but part of the answer comes in what happens after I do what I do.

In the past few months I've heard from a number of people who wanted to touch base after they read something in this space. There was the sociologist from Missouri who didn't think a column sounded like "me," the performance artist who recognized a kindred spirit, the single mom who wanted equal time for the benefits of divorce, a local musician who wants me to write about him and not me, a stranger from Toronto who told me about his fight with depression, several subhead-sick editors and journalists from around the globe, many who wrote to tell me their personal stories, and many more who called or wrote to say only, "I feel ya." Then there was the woman who picked up City Pages for the first time at Canterbury Downs and wrote to say she liked something I wrote about Santa Claus, and finished her e-mail by saying she'd hit a trifecta in the sixth.

I can't play it cool. It never gets old. Since I was that kid in this booth, I've written to figure things out, to capture things that seem otherwise elusive, and to connect--with myself first, and others a close second. On New Year's Day, the same day an old friend killed himself (one answer to the ultimate Why?), my friend Lorraine sent me an e-mail that said she was feeling blessed for her husband and son "in this unfathomable universe." I thought that was a perfect description of this place we find ourselves in, this occasionally blissed-out shithole we're navigating.

At the Pantages Theatre last month, Mike Scott went into one of my favorite Waterboys songs, one I'd forgotten about. In the song, Scott is on a train, and as it pulls up to a crowded station, he waves. The guy sitting next to him says, "Hey, man, who are you waving at?" Scott replies, "What have I got to lose? Somebody might wave back." To me, that's as good an answer to why we do what we do as any, because if we do, then someone might see something in it, might recognize something strange or familiar, something that makes them feel less alone.

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