Daily Grind

Remember when underground culture moved slowly? Before the Internet -- before the broadcast BCC list and e-mail circular made it possible to give “weirdo” corners of the Web millions of hits or put a comically confident Turkish man on David Letterman only weeks after his Web site was discovered -- esoterica was transmitted person to person. There were no daily messages in your inbox with the subject line “check it out -- interesting”; exploring the cultural margins was work. And some would say more satisfying. It was like receiving word from On High when, say, a friend‘s older brother first passed along copies of Zippy the Pinhead, or a Foetus 12-inch, or a novel by Celine. For some, getting the new issue of ReSearch was like receiving the covenant at Mount Sinai. They were the Chosen, privileged to have a confidential body of knowledge.

I felt that old nerve twinge recently when a friend showed me her copy of Greg Tate’s memoir, 11 Years, 9 Months, and 5 Days: Burger Store Episodes and Frustrations. She told me to open to any page and start reading, and this is what I saw: “During the first week of January, I was on my break. Mark came in and said something to Tawney about there being some tiny rocks in the parking lot. Nina comes downstairs to tell me about it. I said, ‘I would sweep them up after I get off break.’ She said ‘Mark wants you to do it now.’ I got mad and said, ‘That’s a bunch of god damn bullshit. I‘m so fucking tired of this god damn place.’”

Hooked! “There‘s a hundred pages more of whatever you just read,” my friend added. I asked where she found out about the book. Her answer: “Same way you just did.”

11 Years, I discovered, is an Xlibris book, which means it is one of the tens of thousands of vanity books that aspiring authors pay to have published each year. Like most of them, 11 Years had no chance at a professional publisher. It is full of misspellings, typos, grammatical errors and editing gaffes. It has no real narrative, and the prose style is rudimentary at best. When I bought mine, only 10 copies had been sold. But none of that diminishes the book’s tremendous intrinsic charm. I went through my copy of 11 Years in a few hours, and told all my friends about the wonderfully, terribly honest piece of writing, and now I‘m going public with it because, well, the book just plain deserves it.

Tate’s title couldn‘t be more fitting: 11 Years is a deadpan account of his working life as a janitor at a local burger joint in his small Kentucky hometown for that exact time span. Tate methodically, if less than artfully, catalogs the daily miseries of his job -- the ignominies and petty machinations, or what he often calls the “bullshit” of working at the Burger Store. The story is a strict chronology: Chapter 1 is the first year, Chapter 2 is the second year, and so on. In the opening line, Tate has been hired and already has to start cleaning the stairs, and that’s pretty much how it goes until his final workday on the last page.

Stylistically, 11 Years is a curious work. Characters appear and disappear without any warning. Were there a dramatis personae, we would find monikers like LaFina Crozzle, Fonda Kresp, and twins LeRon and DeRon, all of which, we are told in the introduction, are fictionalized so as to avoid potential lawsuits. The characters don‘t get any exposition, and there is almost no reflection, commentary or insight into the events described. The story reads almost like a service work crime blotter, with one anecdote after another, in mostly unrelated paragraphs that might begin like “Another thing that happened was . . .” More than one person to whom I showed 11 Years thought the style had to be contrived, that it was a clever ruse by the likes of some young MFA from Iowa. A post-postmodern exercise, maybe -- storyless story, without irony or a borrowed idiom, yet still artificial. But Tate hit upon the New Sincerity the old-fashioned way, by being sincere. There is no artifice in 11 Years. Tate just wanted to tell it like it is.

And how it is turns out to be fairly grim much of the time. The Burger Store is the kind of place where eating an unauthorized piece of stray bacon on the verge of turning can get you fired; where the managers know less than the employees but get paid more; and where Mark, the millionaire scion of the local Burger Store clan, is so lazy, he lets a pipe leak in the basement for nearly a decade. Over the course of his 11 years, Tate endures a pageant of lackeys for colleagues and all manner of low-grade fast-food hijinks: hair in the fries, maliciously deposited turds in the public toilets, overflowing grease traps, flooded sewage, suspected devil worship (really!), night-shift workers crapping in the pickle bucket (I shit you not!), and the ever-present regime of arbitrary justice from the various echelons of Burger Store management. Incredibly, Tate manages to remain mostly stoic throughout, and keep enough perspective for the levity that seals the deal on this book. Some of the moments Tate records are supremely funny, if sometimes unintentionally. Even without the setup, you can see how lines like these bring in good laughs: “I remember one time, Devon power bombed an empty shortening container 6 times.”

THESEDAYS,You can’t go near a bookstore without seeing Jack Welch‘s mug on the cover of his oily auto-hagiography, Jack: Straight From the Gut -- for which, incidentally, Welch received a record $10 million advance. There he is, in a white cable-knit sweater, flashing a winner’s-circle grin. Straight from the gut -- please. Tate‘s look back at the Burger Store is infinitely more honest and telling about the American workplace than Welch’s platitudinous guff, which reads like management-fad text or, worse yet, annual-report copy. If only Tate had gotten even a fraction of Welch‘s advance -- it’s his book that is truly straight. It‘s about work, without any nostalgic patina, bulleted talking points, or legacy to protect. However comic Tate’s drama may be in parts, its backdrop is the miserable conditions of this country‘s low-end service-labor industry. It’s a world where things like labor law, OSHA regulations, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and basic human decency don‘t seem to apply -- a world many of us have encountered.

In that sense, 11 Years is a universal cultural artifact. Every time Tate endures some new humiliation and we root for him to throw his apron at the boss and walk out the door, we’re thinking of the days we‘ve wanted to do the same ourselves. For all of us who have muttered about our bosses under our breath, 11 Years is the book we wish we had written.