Years ago, when I worked in the check processing department of a now defunct Philadelphia bank, I dreamt of one day becoming my own boss while working at home. The bank was an unusually strict sort of workplace. In my case I worked in a small room with my back to a low-level supervisor, an elderly woman, Miss Stiff, who wore a white Mennonite bonnet.
Another employee sat a side desk, although he was rarely present. Usually it was just me and Miss Stiff, which meant no talking ever, and no unnecessary breaks or staying out too long for lunch. There was certainly no small talk, which made the boring work of processing checks an ordeal. While the military style discipline was hard, I was sensitive enough to be able to feel Miss Stiff's eyes bore into my back at various times during the day. This told me that Miss Stiff was fighting off an urge to start a conversation. We did chat on very rare occasions, usually on a Friday afternoon or right before a major holiday, although she tended to put a "timer' on all idle chit chat. In just five minutes, she'd go silent and I'd be left facing the four walls. I have no doubt that her philosophy of life was, "To work, is to suffer."
By the end of my day at the bank, I was in no shape to go home and work on my freelance writing. For one thing, I usually had a crink in the back of my neck, very near the spot where Miss Stiff's eyes had inadvertently drifted during the course of the day. In order to do any writing at all I had to get up well before I would normally have gotten up in order to catch the train into Center City. This meant rising at 5 a.m., and working for two hours before heading into town. The downside of a routine like this is that once I arrived at the bank, I felt like I had already accomplished my real work. Thank God that Miss Stiff, who was a very religious woman, had the good sense never to ask me what it was that I was writing, because it's certain that she would have disapproved of it.
At another job, the monastic pattern of waking up at 5 a.m. was alleviated when I worked as a cashier at an all-night movie theater on Market Street. This was a casual summer job. One of the reasons I applied for the job was because it enabled me to write during the day and then go to the movie house at 9 p.m., where I'd sit in a large lighted glass booth that was situated almost in the middle of the sidewalk. Sitting there on public display, I'd dispense tickets to businessmen, sailors and other urban night crawlers, especially drunks from nearby bars and clubs. The theater showed very soft-core "respectable" blue movies, not outright pornography, so the clientele was of a better grade than the folks who frequented the scandalous Studio theater, a few doors away. My neon ringside seat right in the middle of Market Street gave me a bird's eye view of the city's nightlife: drunken, falling down sailors, bag people (or the homeless), such as the Elephant woman, who once told me never to kill spiders because seeing a spider meant you would come into money. I'd also spot post-midnight newspaper delivery men, suspicious criminal types, strolling prostitutes, and streams of fresh arrivals from the Greyhound bus station across the street. While I didn't like working in a glass booth and being on display like that, at least I was able to bring a book and read when I wasn't cashing in customers.
I read a lot of books that summer, besides which I had the best reality show in the city. All I had to do was look up from the page and there'd be another city marvel: a parade of guys in platform shoes dressed as David Bowie, or I'd catch a glimpse of police chasing a suspect. When I thought I had seen it all, I looked up one day from my book and saw, on the other side of the glass, my family doctor from childhood, the same kind doctor who made house calls and who treated me for double pneumonia when I was in the fifth grade. Of course, discretion is everything when you work as a cashier at a soft porn palace. I did not meet the good doctor's eyes, but handled the transaction anonymously. My boss at the theater was a thin, quiet, patient older man who had the manners of an old monk. He went about the business of counting cash and receipts at the end of the night in a solemn manner. His facial expression always bore the look of sad resignation. Occasionally he would ask what I was reading, or tell me about a small incident that happened inside the theater, such as a fight or how long the Elephant woman had been camping out near the restrooms. There were no security guards on the premises then because they were not needed.
Of course, working all night -- the theater closed at 4 a.m. -- and then waiting for the subway to open at 5 a.m. (this was before the shuttle) was often difficult. For me, this lost hour usually meant finding a place to have breakfast, after which I'd head home. That summer I slept much less than usual, and was often still too tired to write in the late afternoon when I got up.
No matter what job I found then I learned to put in sufficient writing time, but the best job of all was a lucrative part time early evening job that allowed me to work at home the better part of the day.
At first the freedom was terrifying. With machine like precision, I began to segment the hours -- two hours for this publication, an hour for another publication; then an hour or more for a new book project. The idea was to move gracefully among projects while allowing time for lunch, an occasional break and maybe a telephone chat or two.
To work effectively at home, I found that I had to pretend that I had a no nonsense boss with a leather whip hiding in my closet. I'd sometimes imagine Miss Stiff sitting behind me, her eyes boring into the back of my desk. Her "rules" are the rules from the old bank: get up at the same time every morning; begin the day with exercise, a shower and a brisk walk around the block to get coffee. Morning air is a stimulant, and a small walk to the neighborhood convenience store is like a morning commute to work.
Before beginning the work day at home, you may warm up at the computer by reading and answering email, or reading a daily online newspaper or two. Yet even here, dangers lurk. Reading can be a dragging vortex and before you know it, you've spent far too long idling with the Guardian, the Times or The Washington Post.
Living with roommates, children, or a spouse can be a liability, especially if they are home while you work. Interruptions are the rule. Sometimes even the best housemates want to talk, share ideas or have conversations that last too long. Even a beloved pet can be a distraction. The French writer Colette wrote with cats milling about her desk and in her lap, but not everybody is so versatile.
The telephone can also be a distraction, since some people believe that working from home is not as "real" as working from an office.
"That's not true at all," I sometimes have to tell these friends, "Miss Stiff is here, and she says I have to hang up -- and get back to work."