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A Working Stiff’s Manifesto: a Memoir by Iain Levison

April 30, 2012

Four years at a quality college, culminating in a B.A. in English, guarantees absolutely no entry into a good job. Iain Levison knows, because it happened to him.

In A Working Stiff’s Manifesto, Levison works his way through dozens of shitty jobs. He works in a fish market without any prior experience (and is fired when his boss realizes he can hire an experienced fish-cutter for less money than he started Levison at). Desperate for work, he pretends to be his roommate when a phone call comes through for a bartending gig. The hostess insists on setting the bar up outside and without lights for a wintertime evening party. No one hangs around outside, and the cold and darkness makes it difficult to serve booze. Levison ends up cutting himself and bleeding into the wine; he then gets the hostess’s teenage neighbor, who is outside serving oysters, thoroughly drunk. Levison sneaks away from the party before anyone can discover that the neighbor’s son is shitfaced or that guests are drinking Levison’s blood. For all his trouble, after the expense of renting a tux and transportation, Levison winds up with a net profit of two dollars.

This book is hilarious yet sad. It was written before 9/11 and the resulting market panic threw the economy into a recession. Think about it—the period of underemployment that Levison describes occurred during one of the greatest economic booms in American history.

Other highlights include:

  • Levison is hired to deliver heating oil to Main Line homes, despite having no training whatsoever in oil delivery. He ends up spilling gallons of oil all over Rosemont and Devon. The most egregious instance has Levison mistaking a decorative statue for an oil receiving-and-storage unit; as he tries to fill up the statue with oil, it explodes.
  • Levison works as a cook in a restaurant, and after his intelligence is noticed by management, he is pressured to become one of them. Despite his better judgement, he agrees and soon realizes how much worse it is to be a manager rather than a cook.

    “The irony of the restaurant industry is that no restaurants ever open up in areas of high unemployment, the logic being that these areas are economically depressed and the local populace doesn’t have the disposable income to spend on luxuries like eating out. This means that anywhere there are people who really need restaurant jobs, the restaurants are fleeing like crazy, only to open in areas where nobody wants to work in them. The result is that every successful restaurant is staffed solely with employees who would rather be somewhere else.”

  • Levison works as an interstate mover. His pet peeve? Customers who don’t request packing in advance, which throws off the schedule for other moves. The worst offender he encounters is a woman who’s in a rush to leave her husband while he’s out of town, hitting the guy with a divorce (and an empty house) when he returns home. Surprise!
  • In Seattle, Levison hears stories of good money to be made in Alaska at a fish processing plant. (He gets screwed by the company when he never receives the return air fare that he was promised). Levison soon discovers that his work consists of nightmarish duties, and his co-workers are dimwitted thugs. In a surreal scene, Levison waits in an empty room only to have tons of fish dropped from overhead without any warning; the first few times, he has to dig himself out of the fish which come up to his chest, until he learns how to lift himself up to avoid getting trapped by them. He has to quickly shovel them down a chute—or another load might drop in and completely smother him. One batch has fish with nasty spines that stick out and puncture him.
  • Years before Deadliest Catch made the public aware of the risks of Alaskan crab fishing as one of the most dangerous occupations around, Levison signs up with a crew in order to make thousands of dollars for a few weeks work. Levison works his ass off, but the ship’s haul is bad, so his pay is affected–the trip is a profit-sharing venture for all of the boat workers. When Levison finally quits, after management deducts expenses like food and boat fuel, his paycheck for the entire venture is $438.

Very funny, good descriptions, and brilliantly captures the despair of bouncing from one loser job to the next after a college degree. If you’ve ever worked a crappy low-paying job, regardless of your secondary education, you’ll appreciate Levison’s vignettes and his slacker attitude towards employers


I don’t know many rich people, but I’ve met enough to know that even the ones who were handed a trust fund think of themselves as special, not lucky. They reinvent the past to include details of their own forbearance and fortitude to anyone who’ll listen, and someone always will because they’re rich. It’s always more entertaining listening to the rich, because there’s always a chance you’ll be asked along to the Bahamas or given a sports car for the weekend. The fact that they’re usually stingier than the people I hang out with takes a while to sink in.

The other great fact about rich people is that their kids are always fuck-ups. Not the kind of lovable fuck-up who works down at the gas station and tells you he can fix your car and then destroys it. No, rich kids are shady. They’re the kind that dream up a brilliant illegal plan, just to show their dad a thing or two; then when you all get caught, they beg their dad for a great lawyer and never talk to you again. They were born into money, and they know money will take care of them. This security gives them a whole different value system, one the rest of world never quite gets.

These half-empty houses, I notice, are mostly dark and quiet, like the set from Citizen Kane. Housewives putter around in the kitchens, and I see their coiffed heads through the window as I hook up my hose to their oil fills. They are usually alone. They never wave. The third great fact about rich people is that they don’t talk to the help. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was bullshit.

From → Books, Day Job

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