Muscling My Way Over


Guest blogger Rob Plath is a writer from New York. He lives in a subterranean hovel
 with his cat Daisy. He is a member of the AAUP.

I’m sitting in my car. Monday. 7:45 AM. Traffic is at a standstill. It takes me over 1-½ hours to drive 42 miles to the school. I try my best to be in the moment. I try my best to be Zen. I try to enjoy my car. A 2013 Honda Fit that I lease. I should be happy that it’s not the 21-year-old Corolla anymore. The one with the massive oil leak, a crack in the manifold and broken hood latch, among other things. I remember once on one school’s campus two students saw me entering my car from the passenger side door and climbing across the front seat because the driver’s side door lock was permanently jammed. They kind of grinned and looked embarrassed for me and walked off.  I should be happy that I have a smooth ride with a CD player and USB hookup. But then I glance at the odometer and I’m 6,000 miles over my mileage limit and still have 10 more months to go before the 3 years is up. It’s all this driving around, teaching at three schools, 6 days a week. Class starts at 10 this morning. Creative writing. I adore that class. Lots of poets in there.  And I can shut the lights and open the blinds on the tall windows and let the morning light in.  I usually teach in the afternoon and evenings at this school, but a late change in my schedule has me arriving earlier than I have in years. It also leaves me with a 5-½ hour break in between classes. Traffic is still at a full halt. While idling, I check the contents of my lunch box. Chai tea in a hot beverage bottle.  A bag of baby carrots. Chickpeas with olive oil, cumin, turmeric, sea salt and black pepper and two blueberry Larabars. The break between my creative writing course and composition course is very long. I bring some food from home, so I don’t spend so much in the cafeteria. I’m vegan now. I’ve been so for 4 years. It helped me lose 35 lbs, get off high blood pressure medication, and cure my eczema and digestion problems. Doctors are expensive. I don’t have health insurance. So I try my best to put good stuff into my body. Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine.” But some things are unavoidable. Last week I paid $600 to get a wisdom tooth extracted. It was shifting other teeth. I didn’t get put to sleep during the procedure. I didn’t take any antibiotics or pain medication. Just rinsed with salt water. Not even Advil. The traffic moves. I’ll grade two sets of papers from the other school during the break. At 4:30, I’m teaching Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay “On the Vanity of Existence” in the composition class. It’s appropriate for current my state of mind.  The German philosopher claims the future is an illusion. That thought makes me feel better since I have no health insurance, no retirement fund, no job security, no permanent position.  I will try to be Zen, Arthur. I will live in the present—which is the only thing you say that is real. I will be in the NOW. After the creative writing class, 5 hours of grading, the composition class and my savior Schopenhauer, I have to drive over to the second school. Two more classes. A developmental writing course and then another composition course. The last class ends at 10:45 PM. That’s 4 courses in one day. A 12-hour day. Then I have about a 45-minute commute. I feel lucky. The traffic is finally light then, unless there’s late night construction and we all need to merge onto the service road for 5 long exits. I usually get home around midnight.  I teach the next day at a third school but class is in the late afternoon. I can grade more papers in the morning. In that class we’re reading Catcher in the Rye. An image of poor awkward Holden tramping along 5th Avenue, the cherry of his cigarette floating along in the dark, pops into my head. I quit smoking 4 years ago. Beside it being a major health risk, it was an expensive habit for me. So no meat, dairy, eggs, cigarettes or even coffee goes into my body. The traffic inches along. I remember that I have a folder of papers to grade for my Friday night introduction to literature class. We just finished reading Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s cry of injustice is very relevant in these times. I was lucky enough to have Allen Ginsberg as my professor for two years at Brooklyn College, where I earned my MFA. I was one of the last students to study with him. The month before our class graduated he died. He was given a year to live early that April but died within a week. The bleak news was too much for his worn-out shape. It was a sad spring. I still own a few books signed by him. Once he took one of the books that I asked him to autograph into the Brooklyn College bathroom and drew an elaborate drawing in it. I thought of selling them when I was struggling a few years ago, but I changed my mind. A few months before I graduated I was planning on asking him for a letter of recommendation for when I applied for teaching jobs, but then he was suddenly sick. And then he was gone. I remember once when he told me to cut my long hair or else I wouldn’t get hired and that I’d scare people. Imagine that. Allen Ginsberg telling me to cut my hair. My hair has been short for years, Allen.  A young student name Tess is reading Ginsberg’s journals for fun in my Sunday creative writing course. Last Sunday’s class was great. Students are really opening up in there, especially the quiet soldier in the back of the room. I can’t wait for Saturday, though. I haven’t cleaned my subterranean hovel in a while. I’ll clean Saturday morning. My only day off. Maybe read some of Patti Smith’s new memoir M Train. Sit with my cat. Sip mint green tea. Maybe visit my Buddhist monk friend at the Thai temple. I finally hit Exit 49. The border of Nassau. The big rigs fill two of the three lanes and stretch like an endless train into the horizon. The enormous cab of an eighteen-wheeler looms behind me. It looks like a giant iron demon ready to open its jaws and bite my car in two. I think of Ginsberg protesting in “Howl” about the mechanical monster that surrounds us everywhere and devours our imaginations and purity; Moloch, he called it.  “Moloch whose Mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone!”  I still have to jump onto two parkways before I get to my destination. I watch the odometer flip. More fines from Honda. Then I think of all the papers. Stacks of papers sitting on my couch in manila folders. There is a future, Schopenhauer. I look down and see that I have two missed calls from Sallie Mae, my student loan company. I’m still paying student loans after being out of school 18 years. Sallie Mae’s voicemails insist there’s a future. I start becoming completely un-Zen like. I start thinking about two of the schools that are working on the schedules for the upcoming spring semester. I think of how I’m obsessed with checking the enrollment numbers once I’m assigned my courses. In the last few years the cap on the number of students you need in order for a class to run was raised.  And with enrollment usually lower in the spring courses get cut left and right.  Some semesters you don’t even get that phone call informing you of your schedule and you don’t have any class enrollment numbers to obsess over. I remember once I drove 45 minutes to an hour-long unpaid norming session for a developmental course I was supposed to teach at one of the three schools. I sat through the entire session and afterwards, just as I took my pen out to sign the contract the secretary appeared, informing me that the course was on reserve for a full-timer whose own course was canceled due to low enrollment.  Just like that. Less than a week before the first day school. Something I was relying on was taken away. If I was standing right now my knees might buckle from the weight of worry. I take a sip of water from one of the two Poland Spring bottles I’ve brought along.  I do have one schedule that I like very much.  Although it’s never set in stone, I feel pretty confident about it. I’m really excited about teaching a Young Adult and Children’s Literature course for the first time. The traffic finally moves and I escape at last from the jaws of the monster truck on my tail. Muscling my way over to the right lane, I punch the gas and head towards the parkway ramp.

5 thoughts on “Muscling My Way Over

  1. Your post really resonated with me. Man, I hate driving around. It’s all the worse when money’s tight. But I just can’t resist buying books! Your creative writing just inspired me to call my local bookstore to see if they’ve got Stephen King’s book on writing. They don’t have it. Oh well, one more sale to Amazon. But it’s not so bad. Amazon helps me stretch my income a bit further, which is helpful because these student loans aren’t going to pay themselves and I’m trying to save up money to move somewhere cheaper which is hard when I’m spending all my money on rent to live near the city, and I don’t even have the spare time to enjoy living in the capitol of the world. Them’s the breaks. Besides, what else am I going to do at this point? I mean, I could go into sales, but don’t I deserve something more fulfilling? I think I do. But once I move to Vermont, or Wyoming (or anywhere cheap and cool and not North Dakota or South Dakota or Iowa or some boring place like that) I’ll save so much on rent that I’ll finally be able to get back to finishing my dissertation. Of course I’ll have to re-enroll. But at least I won’t be driving from school to school, polluting my paycheck into the atmosphere. I’ll be able to put that money into a CSA share instead of eating out all the time to save money. And hopefully going vegan will be as successful for me as it was for you. Man my back hurts. Probably from sitting in my car too much. I guess I’ll have to sit in my car plenty when I leave NYC, but once I can find a full time teaching gig I won’t have to worry so much about the possibility of losing my income based on the whim of student evals! No more easy A’s! I can’t wait for it all to finally fall into place. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Each month I just fall further behind. Maybe I should cancel that order from Amazon? Or trudge into Manhattan and find it used? But who has time for that? I’ve got stacks of grading to do to. Red pens. That’s another thing I spend a lot of money on. Why don’t schools provide office supplies?! I mean, I’m training the next generation of child development professionals here! If the children are the future, then my students are the future of the future! But boy do they need to study more. So I just keep marking up their homework, adding helpful comments, pointing out what they’re missing. A single submission can take an hour to properly comment on. My social work class on Friday nights is the best though. Those kids really get it. They just really understand that it’s all about having a holistic approach. You know? That really helps me hold on. I mean, moving to Oregon or California will probably help me save money and finish my degree, but that whole process is going to take time. I’m not 25 any more! Even if I picked up tomorrow I’d probably still be 10 years away from having the secure job I deserve. You really shouldn’t lease. It’s a cash grab! I’ve learned all sorts of helpful stuff like that following personal finance blogs, but it all gets jumbled. Maybe I just don’t have a mind for numbers. Something about them just seems made up. What’s that Thai temple you go to? I didn’t think Thais practiced Zen Buddhism. I wish I could make a service learning class where students went to Thailand or Japan to help clean up all the litter tourists leave at temples. It would really help them realize that there’s more out there. You know? Like spiritual energies that connect us all. But you’re right; it’s hard to notice that when you’re on the road all the time. But tapping into those spiritual energies isn’t want corporations want us to do because then we wouldn’t buy all their stuff. I really should cancel that Amazon order. I probably don’t need another book about writing. I’ve already got Zinsser (not signed), and I barely get enough time to read it unless I’m taking the train and then I’m so distracted by all the noise around me that I get it all mixed up anyways! Anyways, hang in there! I’m muscling my way over to the off ramp too–I’ll see you there!

  2. I was VP and treasurer of the poetry club at Brooklyn College, in 1979 or 1980. On my initiative, we blew our entire budget on one reading with Allen Ginsberg. This was before he taught there I guess – I never knew he taught there until reading this blog. i remember he arrived on the subway and said he had had a vision, that William Blake appeared to him on the IRT. He also told me how he had called John Ashbery on the phone and asked him how to “teach” poetry. Thanks for the look at your lane.

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