"Like a Dog": Vincent Francone on the Working Life

 Vincent Francone

Vincent Francone

“My motivation to write the book was simple,” says Vincent Francone of his memoir, Like a Dog, which was published in the fall of 2015. “I was burned out from graduate school, where I studied poetry writing. I decided I needed to take time off from poetry and see what happens. The memoir happened.”

Like a Dog recounts Francone’s journey from the south suburbs of Chicago, where he grew up, to the north side, where he moved in early adulthood. The path is strewn with a series of bad jobs—mail-sorter, book clerk, furniture mover, typist, and legal assistant, among many others—that he endured while taking solace in literature and liquor. The title nods to the final words of Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Francone, a graduate of Northwestern's M.A. program in creative writing, is a lecturer at Roosevelt University, in Chicago, where he teaches composition and the occasional literature class. He won first place in the 2009 Illinois Emerging Writers Competition (Gwendolyn Brooks Award) and is writing a collection of poems and a long essay about book collecting and death. Find more about him at www.vincentfrancone.com. Buy the book here

Francone’s Chicago literary influences include “a lot of local heroes like Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel and Stuart Dybek and definitely Aleksander Hemon, though my book is nothing like any of these writers’ works,” he says. “I once wrote a long poem called ‘Chicago’ just to spite Carl Sandburg, but I’m coming around to him a bit.”

An excerpt from Like a Dog:

I heard somewhere that we spend three fourths of our lives working. What I have not heard or read, though I believe to be true, is that the average person hates their job or at the very least can think of many other things they would rather do. That we spend so much of our time doing something we dislike is upsetting enough, but what always fascinates and depresses me is the story of the person who retires and gets bored. They simply don’t know what to do with themselves now that they have no job.

 A story of bad jobs and a south-to-north side journey.

A story of bad jobs and a south-to-north side journey.

My grandfather was one of these people. My father, right before his retirement, also expressed this concern.

Here’s a quick story about my grandfather:

 Many years after he retired from his job as a truck driver for a plywood company in Chicago, he disappeared. The disappearance was not long, though it seemed quite lengthy to his family.  I know I was worried.

The disappearance was not voluntary, the kind one might read about in novels where the antihero ditches their family or girlfriend or husband and finds short-lived freedom from middle-class trappings.  My grandfather simply got lost.

He got lost driving the short distance between his daughter’s home and the house where he lived for over forty years. He got lost because he was old and the old get confused sometimes.  They mix up names and events and landmarks and, sadly, years.

My grandfather made a wrong turn somewhere off of 79th street and was gone for almost thirty hours. During this time, my family frantically searched for him (my brother drove up and down Cicero Avenue, my aunts and uncles scoured his favorite haunts, I took his picture to the local news station so they could run a missing persons report). A call to the police revealed that my grandfather had been pulled over around 5:00 AM the morning after his disappearance. He’d been driving for quite some time and was very tired. As a result, he swayed from lane to lane, nearly (I imagine, to my horror) hitting oncoming traffic.  The police saw this and stopped him. When asked where he was going, he said that he was driving to work. In fact, he was pulled over on Damen Avenue near his old job.  The police let him go with a warning.

Why the hell would any cop in full possession of his senses let a seventy year old man— who claimed he was on his way to work and who had been driving recklessly— go with a warning?

Eventually, my grandfather was found and escorted home. He didn’t drive after that day, which was sad as my grandfather loved cars. Age robbed him of his health, his job, his sense of purpose, and then his ability to drive. The only thing left to take was his life.

Long after my grandfather’s death, this story continues to upset me. Aside from it being a clear indication of the degeneration that awaits us all, it also reminds me that work is unshakably a part of who we are. We might forget how to get home but we never forget the route to work.

***

My worst job?  A place called PPS where I worked as a mail-sorter. 

The years I spent sorting mail were not the best years of my life. This is not a story of my lost youth and the great friends now departed. This is not a tale of my first love. I don’t know what it means to come of age, and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to believe that I came of age there. The truth: PPS was a lousy place to work. The pay was meager, the hours were inconsistent, the work was tedious, and the employees were corrupt, lazy, unintelligent, and unpleasant.

Prior to that summer, I was unable to leave.  I tried many times, but I always ended up back at PPS. Farmers Insurance hired me as a cold caller, a job for which I was ill-suited. I have never enjoyed talking on the phone, thus I made no sales. After two weeks—long past the learning curve—I was let go.  I could’ve applied to any number of other places, but instead I begged the manager at PPS to take me back. Once I managed to leave for five whole months during which time I worked as barcoder for a company that made junk mail. It was not dissimilar to PPS save for one important aspect: they had a competent manager and a set of inflexible rules. I was let go for absenteeism. Again, I returned to PPS. All the same assholes were there to welcome me back.

One summer, I moonlighted at a gas station. It seemed like an easy job. I made change and swept up during the overnight shift. I sorted mail from four until ten, then grabbed dinner and went to the gas station at eleven and worked until seven in the morning. Then I slept until one or two in the afternoon, just enough time to eat breakfast and drink a lot of coffee before my shift at PPS.  It was a rotten summer, but I made some money. I was enjoying the thought of money (which I’d always lacked) for the first time in my life, though before long it occurred to me that I had no time to spend my hard earned cash. What good is money if you can’t spend it? So I quit the gas station job, focusing all my efforts, such as they were, on PPS.

Since then I have had a ridiculous number of jobs, many of which I have left before long. I worked one night as a bus boy in a pizzeria, was a host at a pie shop for a week, and spent the summer of 1995 working odd jobs that mostly consisted of moving furniture. I’ve tried telemarketing, copy writing, editing; I managed a courier center, I conducted background checks on potential healthcare employees, and worked in a stock room. I was a book clerk for a while and then worked as a typist for a friend who sold used ties and board games on eBay. I’ve spent far too many hours as a legal assistant, or a paralegal (minus the certification), depending on which letterhead I used. For a brief period, I worked in the payroll department of a cable company. I have never really liked any of my jobs, but, without a doubt, PPS was the worst. PPS was located in the part of Chicago where I grew up, a part of town I purposely left. This may seem inconsequential, but the whole north side v. south side thing is something of a big deal in Chicago. My south side buddies hated the north side, the Cubs, the yuppies, and the homosexuals who, they assumed, had exclusive rights to every inch of the northern neighborhoods. I was told once to make sure my shoes were tied when going to Wrigley Field.

When asked, I never say that I hate the south side. Having left and stayed gone these last twenty years, people assume I am a defector, a hater of all things south and west of Chinatown. The truth: I love the south side the way an exile loves their motherland.  I can’t help but love it.  In theory, it ought to be as easy as north v. south, but while many who hail from Chicago split the town in half (which insultingly ignores the west side), things are really a lot more complicated. Technically, I am from the southwest side near Midway, a world apart from Englewood or Roseland or any real south side neighborhood. The “south side” can mean many different things, as it—like Chicago—is a collection of disparate communities slammed together, often unsure of what to make of each other.  Southsiders tend to be contemptuous of the north side as their area is substantially larger yet the north side gets a lot more positive attention. The north side is where the Cubs, those loveable losers, play their version of baseball. The north side is where the cafés and indie clubs are, where the hipsters congregate. It’s where, a long time ago, the used bookshops and record stores were found. It is where the young come to live when they relocate from Michigan or Wisconsin or Indiana or any other area near Illinois with not a whole lot happening. It is where the south side girls move to go to college and meet similarly situated young men to marry. They stay a few years until they become pregnant, at which point they hightail it back to Beverly.

What does the southwest side have? Plenty, but by the time I was out of high school I didn’t want any of it. The dive bars, the machine shops and garages, the empty lots and prairies, the industrial sky lines and their stink of rendered corn—I was done with it all.  And so I went north.

For the record, the south side does net its share of attention, though mostly in the form of news reports about homicides.