MARCH 15, 2020
It feels like just yesterday that we began to hear the ominous term, “social distancing,” with its quasi-public health connotation — stay away from groups of people to avoid Coronavirus infection — but which also describes the condition of my life as a full-time freelance writer and editor. One can’t really call what I do a “job,” although it does occupy my time — sometimes too much or, worse, not enough. I think of my daily life as akin to the human interest paragraph in articles about the “extinction event” unfolding in higher education’s Humanities sector or the mass job losses in the media. When you try to make a career in a field that almost literally disintegrates before your eyes, you’re left with whatever skills you can sell on the open market. Once my daughter and wife leave for school and work, I sit in our apartment and use my particular skills to edit books in various fields; dissertations and theses; grant applications and other non-profit sector writing; personal statements for college or graduate school; and even — all too rarely now — my own writing for publication. I drink far too much coffee, walk the dog every few hours, try to remember when I last took a shower, remind myself to eat lunch by 4 pm, and depend for basic sanity on a little piece of software that reminds me to look away from my computer monitor at regular intervals.
Besides my family, the most important people in my life are the clients who parcel out work to me, most of whom I have never met face-to-face, and with all of whom I interact throughout the day by email, phone, conference call, or in that very intimate medium, the shared electronic document. I am profoundly dependent on these figures who wield, consciously or not, god-like power over me. “Don’t be high maintenance,” the provider of some of my best-paid freelance editing assignments ominously cautioned: “We can just… stop calling you.” By virtue of working, as we say, remotely, I experience social distance from these people who have the most impact on my economic life. Earlier I characterized myself as a “full-time freelance writer and editor,” but “full-time” articulates an aspiration rather than a condition. My income is wholly dependent on the amount of work I get from my clients, so I’m more or less constantly faced with the freelancer’s dilemma of whether or not to take on yet another project for fear of losing future work from the same client or, more unsettlingly, with the fear of being a “high maintenance” contractor. I almost always say “Yes” to every project, in hopes of keeping that anxiety which rears up at the end of the month, when car insurance, rent, and other monster bills come due, at bay.
I share this anxiety not only with many fully-employed people, but with that legion of Americans who live in the so-called gig economy, which includes everyone from child-care providers, Uber and Lyft drivers, landscapers and construction workers, to, for all I know, undertakers. I can only imagine the financial apocalypse that restaurant workers or substitute teachers in just-shuttered school districts such as LAUSD are about to experience. This gig-legion also exists in a state of social distance from each other because we work in such disparate fields and at different rungs on the economic ladder. Considering the kinds of places barely protected from the weather’s whims, like parking lots, where the hopeful gather to wait for day labor, I shouldn’t take my setup — with two unspeakably cluttered desks that monopolize a corner of a living room where I can blast my jazz records or Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life all day if I want, and where I have access to a clean, private bathroom — for granted. Once, when I interviewed for a full-time job at a community college, I passed a roomful of lockers with ADJUNCT FACULTY STORAGE written over the door and for a split second I pictured the adjunct faculty members themselves — of whose vast number I was then one, although employed at other colleges (note plural) — and not merely their belongings, stored in those lockers, to emerge, like PhD-holding Nosferatus, when it was time to teach their sections.
I think of those lockers often because, for me, the social distancing inherent in the freelancer’s life has meant the loss of something whose value I took for granted even more than a regular paycheck and health insurance — a public identity. In my last full-time job, as a university-level Composition instructor, I interacted with students who called me “Professor” no matter how much I explained the hierarchical distinctions inherent in my actual job title (which was not “Professor”); I exchanged the most banal of commonplaces with colleagues in the mailroom; I had a desk that was in not my apartment, where I could keep — oh, ballpoint pens that had run out of ink, bags of Trader Joe’s mixed nuts, little thank-you notes from my students (what teacher doesn’t hoard those?), or binder clips. My very sense of time was organized by the academic calendar. I even had a motivation to shave. It wasn’t much of an identity, and it was more tenuous that I ever suspected, but it belonged to me — until, one day, it didn’t.
I’m lucky to have a loving family from whom I’m never socially distant and whose arrival in the late afternoon often reminds me how late a start I got on my daily labor of cleaning up messy prose with semicolons. My family also provides me with a reason to shave and, what’s more, they give me the precious identities of “husband” and “father.” In the material sphere, my employed wife provides our family with excellent health insurance, which shouldn’t be, but is, a great piece of luck in the twenty-first century U.S. I look forward to having my wife and daughter home during this Coronavirus-enforced period of isolation; but my workload — unlike those of the service workers and substitute teachers — won’t change. I’ll still worry whether I’ve been too “high maintenance” to get that next fairly-priced editing job, I’ll still face a pileup of deadlines almost as menacing as that enemy of my retinas, the computer monitor. And when my family’s finally summoned back to their public identities in the world outside our apartment, I’ll remain as socially distant from most of the human realm as I was before this rushed, bungled, and disorienting interregnum in our nation’s public life.