The poet looks for a job

Ayana Erdal on trying hard to work


I once read a quote from Lacan in the newspaper that cheered me up: “A real woman is a poor woman”. That being the case, perhaps [this state] shouldn’t be reviled, I said to myself, maybe there’s something desirable in my poverty, some flirtatious, womanly charm?

I remember my mother, desperate but resourceful, standing by the side of the road waiting for a man to turn up who would change her tire. She didn’t have the money for a tow service, and she had two small children with her. She was saved by her smile. That smile was sufficient thanks for the man who stopped, took a look and went through the painful motions of jacking up the car, and taking the reserve wheel from its hiding place. I remember how my mother said to me in the kitchen at home: “Your brother will always be lucky in everything he does. You’ll have to work hard to succeed.”

And I really did work hard. In the army I was a faithful and hardworking office clerk, after that I was a counselor in the community center’s after-school program, then I worked washing floors, as a nanny, a book seller, a waitress, a Tupperware salesperson, a salesperson in the Kitan Center [linen] shop; I rented out cellphones in a Solan Communications outlet, worked as a nurse in a hostel for the mentally ill, was a literature teacher in middle school . . . I worked hard, but never had enough money. My parents were so worried, they bought me a studio apartment. They were afraid that if they didn’t, I would be left destitute. And mother got to say just before she passed away: “I want you to promise me that you will never have an overdraft.” I promised. What else could I say to the woman on her deathbed? Of course I couldn’t keep my promise.

One of the most important things that happened at the start of my relationship with the man who was to become my husband was when he took my green jerry-can and filled it with paraffin at the gas station. After that we went back to my studio apartment and I filled the stove with paraffin, and the house warmed up. It was February. It rained constantly on the ferns and geraniums on the balcony. It’s like that to this day: I say what needs doing and he pays for it. The birth of two children, writing two volumes of poetry, seven years of teaching – all these haven’t changed my inability to make a decent living. In everything to do with money I command no respect. I’ve done things I never imagined I would do.

While I’m writing this a man knocks on my door and says hello, how are you, as though he knows me. Then he asks if I’ll give him work in the garden: he can do anything. We haven’t any money, I apologize. We’ve just had the roof redone. Maybe in a month or two. “Perhaps you have a little money, I have small children at home,” he says. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I say. “I can give you something to eat. Do you want food?” He doesn’t. But this encounter makes clear to me how far I am from real poverty.

Nevertheless, I have been in situations a bit like this man’s. One morning I didn’t have the ten shekels for the school bus and the driver let it go, said I could pay when I had the money. One day when I didn’t have enough money I decided to sell what I had. The secondhand clothes shop in Nachlaot was closed. The bookshop in Shatz Street would give me only five shekels for Truya Shalev’s Love Life. Eventually I went to my mother’s house in Talpiot on foot. There were times I had to leave my shopping at the supermarket checkout because my credit card was refused. Last month I couldn’t pay my dues to the housing committee of which I am the chair. Should I sue myself in small claims court?

This week my car stalled in the middle of Haportzim Street, because I’d run out of gas. Two days later I finally went to get my rotten, hollow front tooth seen to. I managed to pay for the treatment, the reconstruction and the crown, by credit card. The next day Motti from the bank called: “You have to return the credit card to the bank.” Sitting at his desk five minutes before the branch closed, he squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, and said that his job was very unpleasant, that morning he’d called a couple who told him they’d not slept all night from worry, and then he’d called a woman who told him “I don’t have anything to pay with. Take me, take me.”

Women easily fall into poverty, which makes them either helpless or full of initiative, or dependent on men. Sometimes the poverty originates in their femininity: as when a woman is fired because she’s pregnant, or when a woman can’t find work because she’s pregnant, or when she doesn’t get a job because she’s a mother.

When I began teaching literature, I remembered the young girl I had been, coming to this high school every morning on the no. 18 bus. I remembered how we’d sit, a handful of my friends and I, on the concrete step to warm ourselves in the winter sun. Some of the teachers I admired and had been afraid of were still here, and even though I felt like many years had passed, they hadn’t changed at all. The same efficient movements and determined stares. Their hair was dyed a comforting shade, and in the breaks they had the same snatched conversations in the corridor, and still stood that way with a cup of coffee and a sandwich, you could see a kind of hope in their abstracted glance. I was a child the last time I set foot in this building, but I had become a woman and a teacher like them. It wasn’t much but I still didn’t think that they’d fire me at the end of the year.

I filled out the students’ attendance at the start of each lesson. I came to PTA meetings to talk to the boy trying to give us the slip and with concerned parents. I wrote on the board in the most legible hand possible, made a huge effort to put up with the shouts and provocations of the students, even once stood by as a girl climbed on her desk, dancing and wiggling. I taught [David Grossman’s novel about runaways] Someone to Run With and some of the students read it from start to finish. I taught poems by Bialik, and for those who didn’t understand I explained them in simple terms. A cellphone rang in class and they giggled. “Whose cellphone is that?” I asked. Someone answered, “It’s Maor’s. But he’s gone out and we’re not allowed to touch his bag”. The phone went on ringing and I got more annoyed.

Many teachers adapt themselves to this work with cool and determination. But my heart trembled every morning and raced every night and I couldn’t remain calm in the face of the disdain and aggression directed at me. I was hurt, but I went on teaching Agnon: “On his return he found his house locked”. There were a few serious students in the class who paid attention to every word. It was hard, but this was my living; I had a small child at home and I was expecting another.

In April the head of the literature stream stopped me in the car-park, handed me a large bag containing children’s clothes and said she’d be happy for me to go on teaching next year. Then Israel’s Education Minister Limor Livnat announced cuts and the school principal, a curly haired man my own age who had a reputation for listening to what the students said, sacked me just like that. “I have no choice,” he said. And I was pregnant.

I approached the Labor Ministry, and a woman in clicking heels listened to me attentively, without letting me see what she was writing. She said she represented my interests and then did exactly what the school principal told her. Eventually a pathetic letter was sent to my home claiming that although I was pregnant, I wasn’t being fired because of the pregnancy but because I wasn’t good enough at my job, as evidenced by the fact that I had approached the school counselor for advice.

Armed with this letter as evidence of my dismissal, I went to claim unemployment benefits. They’ve moved the labor exchange, which used to be close to the Mahane Yehuda market – a place where a person can live with her poverty – to the central bus station shopping mall, where unemployed people must pass by bargain-bras, Café Aroma’s Gypsy Sandwich, “Third book free” at the bookstore, “Satin Pajamas, only 69 shekels”, stalls selling hand-made jewelry, and are urged to pay in installments, to pay by credit card, to buy with what you don’t have, to join the line at the Labor Exchange.

I received very little money from National Insurance because I worked a few hours a week as a reader at a publisher. One day a week I sat at a formica desk and read manuscripts that had been submitted. There were manuscripts I enjoyed reading, and some were later published. But most were boring, pathetic or vulgar. They had impossible plots unfolded at a dizzying pace, or predictable plots crafted by ex-high-tech workers who sat at home in front of their computers with nothing better to do. On my way to the cafeteria I talked with the few friends I had there, the ones who read and loved books. The editor-in-chief, on the other hand, approached me one day because he had a problem with me: “Why do you laugh every time you see me?” I had never seen him reading a book.

The editor-in-chief didn’t come to the President’s Prize ceremony where I was awarded a prize for a book his firm had published, and somewhat late in the day he let his secretary send flowers. When I was about to sign a contract for the publication of my second volume of poetry, he said: “We want to have a bestseller. We will make a loss on your book.”

I was fired from my job as a reader, which brought in 800 shekels a month, after the editor of original fiction quit. I took the small doll on the desk, the rose-hip teabags, the mirror and lipstick from the drawer, the photograph of my son and a few books, and burst into tears at the door. I had worked there almost three years, and they’d fired me at a day’s notice.

Three months after my daughter was born, I started looking for work. The manager of one of the bookshops who interviewed me phoned a week later, congratulated me on winning the President’s Prize and added “we’re looking for someone more flexible.” She meant someone without children.

In the café I had worked in as a waitress, they looked sorry for me when I offered them my services. Am I too old for this job? I think my serving skills have only improved with the years, and my smile is heartier. Am I too much of a poet for this job? Parking tickets accumulated in my letterbox. I didn’t even have five shekels for the parking ticket machine, so now I’d have to pay several hundred.

My mother-in-law recommended me to a garage owner she knew, who was looking for a secretary. “She’s a poet”, she said. “A poet?” he was alarmed. “No thanks”. I went to look for work as a checkout girl at the local supermarket. Waiting in line for the interview, I saw a large rat running between the crates of bread.

Sometimes I wish I were younger and more stupid, so it would be easy to get a job at a flower stand, or a bookshop. Once I composed a CV for myself, which included my work as a salesperson at Book Week and as a store-to-store jewelry salesperson in Tel Aviv, and I left out what I had written and published. They still didn’t give me a job as a salesperson in an outsize clothes shop or as a secretary’s assistant in the ‘English as a Foreign Language’ department at the university. I could have gotten a job in a jewelry store in the mall, but I thought I’d be bored: how much could you sing the praises of jewelry? Moreover, it was liable to bankrupt me.

On the other hand, in order to work in teaching and to earn enough, you need a first and second degree, but during my years at university I felt like I was trapped in a fire, and when the film we watched in the Contemporary American Theater course scared me, I went out to wander the halls, and when I had to write something to a deadline, to cry or to fall in love, I stayed home. I wrote poems.

In the dark days when Limor Livnat ran the Education Ministry, I was educated but without a title, a mother without enough money for her children’s keep. I remembered what one of my friends said: “I can afford to work in education because my wife works in high-tech”. But my husband was a teacher, and I was fired from my teaching job. We saw Limor Livnat’s indifferent face on television. She sees someone with no certificates as someone with no education.

What on earth could I do? I didn’t get this job or that. I decided to write. Chekhov also wrote books for a living. I’ll send the things I write to a place that pays author’s rates. They won’t deduct income tax, but they might deduct a subscription. The magazines aren’t doing so well either.

© Ayana Erdal (Translated by Rebecca Gillis)

Source: Ynet online 04.01.2008; reprinted from Eretz Acheret 38 (February-March 2007)

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