Dear Mrs. Villagrande
I don't expect you to read this, I mean, it’s not even addressed to your real name. And I don’t believe for a second that you would actually read the front page of Somethingawful.com, an armchair critics' trade journal more jaded than a Mayan temple. But, I have been wrong before.
I can only imagine the mess I looked like and was in the mid 2010’s, a lumpy bag of resentment in reglued shoes dumped outside the county workforce office like so much sadsack. I was a rumpled gross hoodie with a human somewhere in it, potato-postured, with chips on both shoulders, like a booger wiped on the plastic chairs. Miserable on a good day but when forced into a downtown office complex in the sunlight even? Tasked with telling a new caseworker, a total stranger, my "work situation"? I was not a happy lump of thirty, but my family needed to qualify for SNAP benefits more than I needed my pride. It was honestly the best price I’d been offered for it up to that point.
I didn’t think you’d believe me. Keeping my own hours, making my own opportunities. Working from home. Online. Feast or famine business model but I think, yeah, it is one, I guess. You know. A real job.
A real job. The thing one is told to get, the most capitalist of brickbats. A real job is one a person drives to and from at the same time every day, this was established with religious weight in America long before I was born. It is a job that earns one the resentful obedience of people in lesser jobs, or a stock portfolio one can and probably should leave on autopilot. Maybe both, if it's a really real job. One might even get to see a doctor if they're sick or injured, though really, that’s dreaming. It’s still just America.
Right away I was wrong. Real jobs vs unreal ones never came into it. "Self-employed" was all I needed, then you told me to chart my hours, which you admitted could be difficult for a home business. I could use my discretion, and make up the remainder volunteering. Plus, free bus tickets! Considering how fraught the war for my quarters had become between the regional bus company and Soapy Sarah’s laundromat at the time, that was big.
Dazzling a resentful young dunce like me with such weapons-grade kindness is impressive. Even once, I mean, really, free bus tickets. But then to do it over and over, meeting after meeting like you did; eventually you were just showing off, admit it. If volunteering one place didn’t work, we found another, if business was bad that month you always understood, and before I knew it you were no longer Mrs. Villagrande. You were Belinda. And you really were there just to help.
Piece by piece your niceness dismantled my armor, until one month I could finally say it. I. Was. An. Artist? And a writer, I guess, I mean, kinda, qualification 4, qualification 5, etc. There was more to what I did than “Design” or whatever curt nondescription I used on my obsessively kept little orange charts. And I worked. On. The. Internet? If that’s okay?
It was a real job, was my outlandishly shy point. It just didn't look like it to anybody but me.
Wrong again. You said you had been a labor services caseworker for 40 years. Starting in the 1970's you had attended, annually, seminars brimming with demonstrations of what experts believed would be the future of employment, technologies that let people work from home. Video phones, remote control everything, and of course The Information Superhighway. It would be up to your generation of civil servants to adjust both your clients and yourselves to driving our new information supercars to work, or however that metaphor was supposed to go together.
You said you had wondered countless times how long it would take for that transformation to happen, and what exactly it would look like. Every year you saw advancements towards it, often before the general public did. You saw cellular phone coverage stretch planetwide, the internet go from an odd hobby to a component of breathable air, satellite video teleconferencing become mundane; each supposedly the turning point in turn, according to the Future of Labor demonstrations and their ever-hopeful demonstrators.
However, innovation after innovation, the stigma persisted that it wasn't real business if one did it remotely. Working from home was just inherently illegitimate, exactly how friends or romantic partners one met online were once seen as having some kind of disqualifying stink on them. But polite civilization, for lack of a better term, was coming around on those aspects of the internet by that point. Why not work?
You had a theory. You theorized that most people couldn't imagine their job looking different than those they grew up seeing, and that this trapped them. Simply having no frame of reference limited their concept of work, exactly like how calling the internet a “superhighway” was limiting. People just didn’t know any better model for it at the time. Some day some invention or trend would finally tip over the teetering telecommuter epoch, it was inevitable, but in the meanwhile nothing but preconceptions held it back.
If I had known you and I agreed about this completely- in fact that you had formulated my opinions several decades before I had- things would have gone differently from the start, Belinda. I certainly would have spent more time talking with you about working online, about the tools and platforms and communities I had found there. Maybe I would have even told you about SomethingAwful.com where you could eventually read this letter. No, still probably not, but the point was moot. It was too late, you were recommending me to a new caseworker, ready to retire to charity work for your international church organization.
Which you called your real job. The one and only time you ever said it.
You apologized at our very first meeting for the paperwork being insufficient to properly log self-employment hours, Mrs. Villagrande. Why hadn't I listened? Why hadn't I realized I had someone in my corner who would love to talk about all the amazing new ways of working, in fact who had been already talking to people about it for most of her adult life? Because I couldn't imagine you being any different than what I was used to, and got trapped by my preconceptions, for lack of reference. Bullseye.
Now that the 2010's have slipped away, with their pop-up stores and little local libraries and Olympic games all relics of the pre-pandemic era, a lot has changed. I no longer live in the city, and I no longer need SNAP (If you do, sign up. Everyone deserves to eat). I do still work from home, but I’m hardly an oddball anymore. If the work-from-home future you had prepared for was on the precipice but just waiting through 40 nudgeless years, Mrs. Villagrande, then 2020 has been ten nudges, a shove and a shotgun blast. With Domino's Pizza telling me to "ask about our contactless delivery" between nightly news segments shot in anchors’ home booknooks, I can't help but wonder what society's concept of jobs will look like next. Will little children seeing their parents at kitchen table telemeetings grow up with a more flexible concept of what it means to work? Will that open up more opportunities for them to choose between? To be more open to discussing those choices, and less ashamed about them? I hope so.
I wonder what impoverished country you’re doing your real job in today, Mrs. Villagrande. Who else are you helping? How much further along the information superhighway can you see now?
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– Ian "BFM" Helm