Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment
By Franklin Schneider
Citadel Press/ Kensington Publishing Corp. (2010)
Ever since Franklin Schneider put on waterproof pants and waded into a filthy Iowa cornfield at the age of 13 to pull weeds through muck that had flooded from a nearby hog farm, he knew that work could be insulting, repetitive and pointless. As an adult, he set out to prove this is all it can be.
Taking a series of low status customer service jobs and eventually landing a handful of dull office positions, Schneider always did his work from the sidelines with little personal investment, where capturing the most extreme stories was job number one and the work itself was a means to that end. Eventually he started writing these stories as a columnist for the Washington City Paper.
Schneider lets the reader live vicariously through him as he boldly insults pep-talking employers, dismisses instructions like a child having a temper tantrum and mocks customers, clients, co-workers and himself. He resists authority in a way that other workers dream about but would rarely be self-destructive enough to carry out.
Schneider also offers social critique. While working as a telemarketer at an MCI call center, he writes of his co-workers, “There was a meanness there, a vague undirected predatory instinct coupled with a frank indifference to their fellow men. That they could exercise this instinct while also engaged in a very American sort of commerce was icing on the cake.”
Archiving files that no one seemed to look at for a federal contracting company, Schneider decided to shred the documents instead. He was fired from a cashier job at a pornography store after he yelled at a nightly customer who he thought was uptight, “Just relax, man. You’re making everyone nervous!” At a video mall arcade, Schneider supplemented his “dying wage” by pocketing game tokens, which he traded for food and clothing.
“I wanted a job where they would pay little but expect little, where my physical presence would be the extent of my contribution. I didn’t want to join a family or a team or a tradition of excellence, I just wanted to not starve,” Schneider writes.
At times Schneider seems to revel in turning himself into a detestable character as he recounts his failed work efforts. He recalls conspiring with co-workers to incessantly re-dial MCI customers who refused their telemarketing calls rudely. He helps a friend get revenge at a boss who blocked his unemployment insurance by sending a lawnmower through the man’s living room wall. It turns out to be the wrong house.
Schneider’s anecdotes are so bizarre that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish when he has moved from direct experience to comic exaggeration.
As much as Schneider works to dispel sympathy by refusing to take orders from anyone, he speaks to an essential and basic human drive for self-determination and brute honesty that made his columns in the Washington City Paper some of the publication’s most read stories prior to his book deal.
“Here now was life stripped of all illusion and pretension, down to just a bare scaffolding of desperation and imperative,” Schneider writes about his telemarketing job in a rant about deceptive sales techniques and dead-end work. “No glad-handing or networking or angling for that promotion, because nobody cared what school you went to and there were no promotions to be had, just a quasi-legal minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour grind, here in the ghetto of the free market.”
“Looking back, I’m not sure why I stayed so long. Clearly, the work catered to my sadistic side, and it provided a convenient and lucrative outlet for my free-floating resentment,” he writes.
As he is unsurprisingly fired from every job he lands, Schneider decides that the financial and social impacts of unemployment are preferable to working. When the economic downturn catches up with his attitude, he tries to extend his free ride, sending intentionally flawed resumes out to avoid work (other than freelance writing) for as long as possible.
As he proudly moves into his third year of unemployment, Schneider finally becomes so hungry that he has to stop himself from swallowing his own toothpaste. “My stomach kept trying to convince my mouth it was ice cream,” he writes. But Schneider says he prefers this to developing “office ass,” a condition caused by excessive computer work and lack of exercise that plagued him at his desk jobs.
A childhood friend invites Schneider, now fifteen pounds lighter, to a celebration at his house in a neighborhood with “wraparound porches and landscaped terraces and balconies and skylights and bay windows.” Schneider, arriving by bicycle, is out of his element. He puts a beer bottle down on a Danish coffee table without a coaster when no one is looking like a final insult to the world of success that he intends never to join – except, perhaps, by writing.
This book review was written through a fellowship program at The Writers' Institute (CUNY Graduate Center).