It’s the summer of 2014. I’m a year into my funded PhD program at a Research I university. Not to mention, I’m among the foremost experts on that topic no one actually cares about, having just completed a Master’s thesis on it.
I’m kind of a big deal.
So you can imagine the conversation going on in my head, at 2 AM, inside the Pita Pit, as I scrub a particularly foul grill and get ready to empty an unspeakably foul grease trap. The mantra repeats in my mind with each stroke of that scrubber thingy: “I will complete this degree; I will go and get that job; I will make rent this month…”
My good stipend, plus that fellowship I lucked into, made me a particularly well-paid graduate student, which I guess isn’t actually saying all that much, especially when paired with a public school teacher’s salary in a state proudly ranked 50th in the nation in education. Having just decreed that my daughter, now a year old, would grow up in a house, with her own backyard, not an apartment complex, I was in need of another source of income, which is how I found myself gainfully employed at the Pita Pit, making and occasionally delivering delicious Mediterranean-ish cuisine.
But, fantastic as that job was, I determined that it was insufficient, which is how I found myself, at 2 AM, standing outside the bar next door to the Pita Pit, checking the occasional ID. It was the townie bar, catering mostly to the forty-and-over crowd, so my services were rarely needed. Instead, I tried to read Westad’s The Global Cold War on my phone.
I managed to quit the Pita Pit, and get fired from the bar, and thus found myself, in the summer of 2015, again in need of extra funds. Understanding that all of my academic exploits qualified me for nothing at all, I swallowed my pride and went to work for $10.10/hr in Wal-Mart’s produce section.
My concerns about the job not standing up to my lofty notions of my own importance faded very quickly. I was having a blast. I began wondering if I was caught in some sort of alternate universe. I was working full time at Wal-Mart, and not only did I not mind, I actually loved my job. The guys I worked with were tons of fun, and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed working with and talking with customers in the retail environment. I had a lot of good adventures in that produce department, including that strange girl who walked up and handed me her number, then walked off without ever saying a word. I even have fond memories of spending my lunch breaks on comps prep in the Subway. All in all, it was a very entertaining summer.
But, it was not to last. Wal-Mart and I soon parted ways, and I moved on to my current side job. While delivering pitas to college kids with the munchies, and serving as eye candy for awkward Wal-Mart shoppers, were both admirable services performed on behalf of a grateful community, they are nothing compared to how I now spend my free time.
I’ve had a police officer put a crying girl in my backseat. I’ve had a girl puke down the side of my car as we traveled at 75 mph down the highway. I’ve harbored and transported individuals likely sought by the authorities at the time. I’ve explained my research in detail to (literally) captive audiences foolish enough to ask about it. I’ve had a girl leave her phone number on a gum wrapper in my cupholder. I’ve had to hold an unconscious man upright in the passenger seat as his girlfriend apologized dozens of times from the backseat. I’ve tried to convince unwary undergrads to take my class next semester. I’ve had seven sorority girls in my four passenger car at one time, jabbering like a flock of exotic birds. And I have singlehandedly dented a municipal budget by reducing DUI’s.
I’ve been called a hero. Me? I just call myself an Uber driver.
Let me tell you, folks. You haven't lived until you’ve invited a succession of strangers into your backseat, never knowing until the doors are closed and the journey is underway just what exactly you’re in for. It’s hard to say what’s more fun, driving drunk folks to and from their revelries, or driving hungover folks home the next morning, taking them on their ride of shame. I’ve had passengers I couldn’t wait to see the back of, and I’ve had conversations I wished could have gone on for hours. I’ve encountered just about every form of humanity rural America has to offer in 15 months of driving, and I’m happy to report that, with few exceptions, we really are a truly decent bunch of people.
I’ve done more than my fair share of whining about how much of my time gets spent working second and third jobs, and my poor wife has had to take the brunt of it, even as she toiled at her own extra jobs. But I’ve done my best not to complain too much to others. Most grad students in history departments would love to be paid as well as I’ve been, and many other students, especially those with families to provide for, also find themselves spending valuable time at unflattering work to help make ends meet. While the side jobs further complicate the already tricky work/family balance, they serve as constant reminders of why we are willing to work so hard to pursue this dream.