You Call That Hard Work?

”]Cover of "Gorky Park [Region 2]"

We watched the terrific 1983 movie “Gorky Park” on the weekend.

In it, a young and handsome William Hurt, playing a Moscow cop, decides to reconstruct the facial features of two murder victims. In order to do so, he has the coroner (of course!) saw off their heads, which he then transports in two plain cardboard boxes tied with string.


Carting about severed heads strikes me as a fairly tough day at the office….

Journalists’ jobs often throw them into bizarre and dangerous situations. You never really know what to expect when you work at a newspaper or wire service: might be a plane crash, the aftermath of a hurricane or another lying politician weeping to the cameras about his mistakes.

You learn to keep a fresh shirt and tie in your desk drawer and women, depending what sort of stories they’re covering, learn to wear flats and clothing you can run, squat and even climb in comfortably. (Yes, that would rule out pencil skirts and stilettos.) You discover that ink freezes taking notes in sub-zero temperatures.

The sweetie faced a much tougher gig than I — six weeks in Bosnia at Christmas, alone, shooting photos for The New York Times. He slept in an unheated cargo container, almost died in a snowdrift at dusk and ate a cup of dried chicken soup as his holiday meal. Like a soldier, he slept in his long underwear for weeks. Showers were rare.

My toughest? I’ve had a few, more emotionally draining than physically demanding or frightening. Sent on a midtown stake-out, I had to stalk a Quebecoise tourist who’d been stabbed in the ass (welcome to New York) — because I was the only Daily News reporter who spoke French. I hated chasing her around a local deli asking questions as much as she resented the intrusion on her privacy.

In Montreal, the night before I took my driving test, I had to cover a horrific car-bus head-on collision, the car’s windows sheeted with blood.

In Winnipeg, interviewing a woman whose life had been turned upside down by a terrible drug side effect meant watching her shake and cry, her Parkinsons’ disease aggravated by the very stress of talking to me about her nightmare. I felt like a demon. It was the only way to get the story.

Here’s the classic whine, “Money for Nothing” from Dire Straits:

Now look at them yo-yo’s that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain’t dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

What’s the hardest thing you ever did and got paid for?

13 thoughts on “You Call That Hard Work?

  1. I would imagine journalism is one of those jobs in which you are never, ever quite prepared for what’s around the corner! Kudos to you for taking the bizarre and scary in stride!

  2. Thanks…One of the things I have always liked about journalism is knowing it quickly weeds out (into fluffy stuff) people who FREAK OUT when bad shit happens. You have to stay calm and focused and tell whatever story is happening all around you lucidly to others who have no idea what’s going on. I like having that authority, as does the sweetie.

    The downside, and it’s very real, is that some of us suffer a form of PTSD called secondary trauma, but have little institutional support for seeing it and supporting us getting help. I got it after writing Blown Away and focusing for months on violence.

  3. Deborah the Closet Monster

    I’ve considered this question for several minutes, but I can’t think of a single job where the job itself encompassed notable hardship. The closest I could get was thinking of my experience teaching in South Korea; the job itself was sometimes frustrating, but the circumstances of feeling trapped in it–with a boss who was always controlling and sometimes meandered over the border into “malicious”–were what made it so hard. I had very little money, certainly not enough to buy tickets back home, and thus knew I had to endure managerial efforts to keep me in the combined school/home building long enough that I’d actually have enough money to get myself back to the States.

  4. I think it’s interesting what people do consider “hard” — I think for many of us it’s 1) low wage 2) no room to move up 3) physically grueling, dangerous or dirty.

    I’ve had nasty bosses like yours, and while not an ocean away from home, had to stick it out for the $$ and the year on the resume.

    I never understood why or how retail work is so hard, but now I do!

  5. Reading this makes me wonder whether there is a marked difference in life expectancy for different careers. A quick Google didn’t turn up any kind of definitive list, but I did find CNN’s list of the “Best Jobs in America” by the percentage of people in any given profession who say their job is low-stress:

    …unsurprisingly, reporter is nowhere to be found on that list.

    I’ve always been frightened by the stress famously associated with the life of a writer, but generally thought of it as being brought about by both deadlines and having none, not what the jobs themselves entailed.

    Interesting perspective, thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. Deadlines (I have two in the next two days) are no big deal! As long as you have done the requisite research and interviewing, thinking and writing in time….no biggie! I’ve been doing it for so long I know how quickly I am able to work, which allows me to more efficiently budget and use my time than in the past. It may be stressful for some people but I suspect they get out of this business, if so.

    It’s also much worse when you work for someone else in their office; I once had an assignment dropped on me at 5:00 pm (!) and told to have it back to the editors by 6:00 p.m. (When in doubt, call California…3 hrs behind NY time. Helpful trick!)

    The stress of being a writer, for me, is the endless rollercoaster of emotion (amazingly grateful emails from readers, nasty reviews from morons at amazon); the financial worry of never knowing month to month what (if anything) I will earn; the endless feeling I am not producing nearly as well/fast/lucratively as I should or could be. But here I am in my nightie on the balcony at 10:00 a.m. on my laptop. That part is fun! 🙂

  7. I’ve had to deal with some really nail bitingly aggravating coworkers, but the hardest thing I’ve had to do is sit in on an interview with a domestic violence victim and listen to her justify her husband’s behavior. It felt, literally, crippling. We couldn’t press charges without her testimony, but worse, professionally I couldn’t shake her and tell her that he would never change and that she deserved better. I’ve never felt so impotent as a human being in my life.

  8. Lara

    Is being disabled a job? It’s certainly not a lifestyle choice. Applying for disability benefits in the UK is the hardest, most humiliating and degrading work I’ve ever done and so far I haven’t received a penny for it. I still have several grueling stages to undertake before (hopefully – it’s not a foregone conclusion) “earning” the payments the taxes I paid during my working life as an IT consultant entitle me to.

    Anyway, love your writing – hope you never have to write from personal experience about how to live when you can’t work…

    1. I’m so sorry to hear this! I live in fear of losing my ability to work, for many reasons….and one of them is the utter loathing for all forms of bureaucracy.

      I really appreciate your kind words and wish you the best with this transition. One of the scariest things about writing for a living is how very difficult it is to even buy disability insurance as it’s difficult to prove I could not work, regardless of the disability. So I keep my overhead low and save a lot.

      1. Lara

        Thank you Caitlin – I’m trying to regard it as an “interesting journey”! Once I’ve got through this stage, I hope to be able to do something productive again. I have a million ideas, but not enough energy to implement any one of them at the moment.

        I had low overheads and savings, and was doing OK financially (though on a very much reduced income) despite my illness, until the credit crunch. My investments are now pretty much worthless and interest on savings is less than one third what is was. Who knew that when the credit bubble burst the government would plunder saver’s pockets instead of punishing the excessive borrowers?! Make sure you keep at least part of your savings somewhere that the government can’t get it’s hands on it 😉 .

  9. The hardest job I’ve ever had was an unpaid clinical practicum in a hospital that involved working with yeasty stomas in trache patients, administering oral exercises and hygiene care with facial burn victims and patients with neurosyphillis, and performing swallow therapy with stroke patients, etc.

  10. God bless you!

    I cannot imagine anything so demanding, and admire you enormously for doing it. I have learned I can handle emotionally draining work (journalism has plenty of it) but am totally uncomfortable with physical/corporeal work like this. Funny how we choose what works for us.

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