I wasn’t always the Fresh Professor. At one point, I was just another starving actor, trying to make a living. But stories change over time, as do professional desires.
This is Part One of my story. Enjoy the ride.
January 1998: New York City
I moved from Chicago to the Big Apple with a couple hundred dollars in my pocket and, as many New York stories begin, found an insane Jamaican to become my roommate. He never washed his clothes, smoked weed all day, spouted Black nationalist philosophies, and dated only White women. My roommate had an equally crazy “cousin,” whom I’m positive only claimed to be a relative so he could crash in our bathroom when he was drunk; some nights, he would bring back a woman and they’d have sex in our shower. This in and of itself didn’t bother me. That said, I was perturbed that he did it in our tub with his boots still on. Why not take your shoes off? Right?
C’est la vie. I suppose worse things could have happened … at least it wasn’t another dead body.
Oh yeah, that’s why I moved to the city in the first place.
August 1997: Chicago
He was dead. We knew this because he wasn’t breathing. We knew this because he had a hole in his head. And we knew this because we had never pulled anything out from the sewers alive.
I worked for the Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. My title was Manual Laborer A, which meant I drove to sewage collection sites around the city and removed solids so that liquid could flow freely to a water plant, where it was then converted to drinking water. Every city has this—in fact, Chicago happens to have the cleanest drinking water in the country (I know because I cleaned it). My daily routine consisted of commuting to Skokie, checking in with my boss, and heading off to a collection site. Once there, I would grab a shovel, put on my hard hat, and wait for the door to open, at which point the stench of fecal matter would come washing over me (it took about 21⁄2 weeks on the job to acclimate and recover my appetite). After walking into a site, between 10 and 20 feet below street level, we would turn on The Arm, an enormous mechanical device that stretched deep into the sewers, grabbed solid waste, and transferred it to us via conveyer, ultimately dumping its load into a large gondola, though we inevitably found ourselves manually moving waste lost in this transition (only after it splashed all over our boots). These gondolas filled quickly and had to be replaced often, which meant we also had to manage a great deal of spillage (spillage: solid feces, animal carcasses, and other nonbiodegradable debris). After shoveling shit from the floors, we would clean The Arm with a steam jet, lock up, grab lunch, and make our way to headquarters for the afternoon’s marching orders.
Our foreman, Johnny, was somewhere between 45 and 60 years old; with grizzled Black men, age is difficult to ascertain. I never saw the guy without a cigarette in his mouth or sunglasses on his face; he was stoic and quiet, like many men of color who seem to have experienced darker times.
He was dead. We knew this because he wasn’t breathing. We knew this because he had a hole in his head.
I had two other coworkers, Eric and Sheila. Eric was in and out because he suffered from severe depression (he returned from a period of hospitalization during my 2nd month), and though he seemed skittish upon our first meeting, he opened up when I started to crack jokes. Eric was from the West Side and hated being Puerto Rican; he said it was worse than being White but not as good as being Black. (I never fully understood his analysis, but he was adamant about it.) I actually think cultural identity was at the root of his depression. Sheila was the exact opposite of Eric: female, Black, constantly joyous … and pregnant. (I worked this job for a total of 4 months and she looked 8 months pregnant the whole time.) Sheila did the driving and bookkeeping, making sure that everything in each site worked properly. But the sewer fumes were horrible, and most definitely laced with carbon monoxide, a by-product of the decay — to my mind, the fact that higher- ups knew Sheila was pregnant and put her on the truck was unconscionable. I worried about her unborn child every day. (I should have known then that at-risk youth would be in my future.)
The day we found the body, our orders were to clean one of the reservoirs, the cesspools in which Chicago’s water is stored. Once again, I assure you, the water coming out of your faucet is drinkable (although the water in the reservoirs is definitely not). Anyway. Eric and Johnny were raking the reservoir while Sheila and I picked up nearby refuse and cleaned the perimeter.
“Heyyy … whoa! What the fuck is that?” Eric yelled, pointing at something caught in his rake. It was the body of a White man, dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants. We couldn’t distinguish much else, because he was waterlogged, resembling a sausage casing that would have popped at the slightest prick.
Johnny just stared, stone-faced, still smoking his cigarette, and said, “I guess we should call the police.” Sheila ran to the truck, got the keys, and unlocked the onsite office to place the call.
The man’s body baked in the oppressive August heat until officers arrived 30 min later, informing us that they had been looking for him, the apparent target of a mob hit. As we gave our statements the sun beat down, casting a shadow over the body and the afternoon ahead.
After they’d gone, Johnny stared into the distance and Eric sat on the ground (face turned away) while Sheila and I waited for orders, though she seemed disgusted by the prospect of resuming work. Although I always liked being a Laborer, witnessing death in that way had done something to me; instead of freaking out, I felt myself harden. I saw myself becoming Johnny. As cool as that cat was, he was lonely and unemotional. I didn’t want that. I did not want to be closed off to the world. I still saw hope in people. I knew that if I stayed there, colors would begin to disappear.
So I quit.
At 3 p.m. the next day, I turned in my hard hat and took a bus (then train) back home, smelling like shit and vomit, as I had done every day for 4 months. But this time I knew I wouldn’t be back, which made me sad; the sadness, in turn, made me happy — I knew I was feeling something, which meant I was still alive.
May 1998: New York City
Months passed. My roommate was still insane, though his cousin had stopped coming by, seemingly settled after his bathtub trysts. I was still trying to find work as an actor.
I searched Backstage and called my agent looking for auditions that would get me on stage, on TV, or on film. I was able to move to the city only because, 1 week after finding the body, I landed a commercial in Chicago. I naively believed that, having booked one job there, I’d be hired for every job in the city. As disheartening (and shocking) as it was to come across a bloated cadaver floating in Chicago’s drinking water, it gave me the courage to branch out and audition. That was my first SAG job, and every time the commercial aired I received a check for $500; thankfully, it aired a great deal, landed me an agent with offices in New York and Chicago, and eventually funded my escape to the Big Apple.
Yet there I was, an unemployed actor drinking too much beer.
One day, while sitting in Washington Square Park, a beautiful woman asked to take my picture and get my number. I thought she was hitting on me, but she was actually a scout looking for hip Black models. She called the next day, and though the pay was crap, my residuals were drying up, so I took the gig. At the shoot, I quickly discovered the other models were actors too — modeling was a way for the beatific ones to make extra money between jobs. In talking with them, I realized something that significantly altered my trajectory: They all had graduate degrees in acting. I did not. In fact, I had no real training at all, having majored in English while at Morehouse. It was then I made the decision to attend grad school.
If I was going to pursue acting, I had to take it seriously; manual labor was no longer an option, and I refused to even consider my other nine-to-five, accounting.
May 1995: Chicago
“James, here’s your desk.”
“Thank you, I’m very excited to get started.”
“Well, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is lucky to have you.”
Fresh out of school, I landed a job as Junior Accountant for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I sat in a cubicle connected to three other desks, forming a quadrant of people staring at screens and drinking coffee. With a focus on foreign markets, my job was to ensure that reported sales for pork bellies matched actual income in USD and deutschmarks (based on conversion rates that shifted daily). It was not difficult, but it was technical, and required a level of acumen I hadn’t accessed in quite a while. I have always been incredibly proficient in mathematics. In high school, teachers thought I cheated on exams because I would calculate in my head; eventually, they realized that I saw numbers in a unique way and suggested I tutor my classmates, whose parents would pay me for services. When I got to Morehouse College, I made extra money doing the same thing. I write all of this not to self-congratulate but to provide a picture of me as a young man. Math was easy, so it seemed logical to work in finance.
If I was going to pursue acting,
I had to take it seriously; manual labor was no longer an option
My 1st day at the CME, I was happy to fixate on the screen, plugging in equations and double checking spreadsheets. My neighbors played soft rock at a low volume; it was the first time I heard bands like Stone Temple Pilots and the Cranberries, which I grew to like. This was my first full-time job, and I was beginning to see how the rest of my life would play out: work, work, work, go home, drink a beer, meet a woman in finance, get married, have kids, move to Lincoln Park, raise a family, and enjoy a practical life as an accountant.
And so began my 2nd day of work.
It started early, around 8 a.m. The previous evening I’d gone to a bar with friends from high school. We didn’t stay out late, but we drank a lot. (It was Chicago, after all.) So I was admittedly operating at 85%. Around 12:30, I fell asleep inputting data and made a clerical error that threw off the books by about $500,000. Fortunately, my supervisor caught the mistake; she said it was a common error and just asked me to focus a bit more. I was so shaken that I went back to work full force for the next hour and a half.
Then I fell asleep again.
I quickly learned that the focus required for data entry was unlike anything I had done before. The job was monotonous. It was repetitive. And, although initially challenging, in the end it was quite simply. Once I understood the processes and systems, I could operate on autopilot. I didn’t have to learn new concepts or perform complex computations; I just had to master a few formulas and apply them … every day … for the rest of my life.
For the rest of my life …
Just 24 hours later, I was ready to leave the life I had so vividly imagined. I knew I had to work. I knew I had to be an adult. And I knew I couldn’t walk away from a well-paying job. I was sure lots of people hated their jobs. (In fact, I was sure lots of them ended up doing things they regretted for their rest of their lives.) I didn’t want to be one of those people. I wanted to love my job and everything that I did. I wanted to be so excited about work that I was paid to do something I would have done anyway. I wanted to embrace work like a new lover, nonstop … gratuitously. I wanted to sleep, eat, and dream about my role in society. Basically, I wanted to love whatever I did. Was I being naive? Maybe. Was I being honest? Definitely.
That said, I had no idea what would come next. The Internet wasn’t quite a thing, so I couldn’t log on to idealist or monster.com; moreover, I was a recent college graduate without any real work experience.
And I was a young Black man in Chicago.
At 10 years old, an officer held a gun to my head because I was racing my cousin as we left a mall. He pulled out the gun and asked if I’d stolen anything. And when he couldn’t find anything on me, he said I was “lucky” because he could have told my parents. It would be several years before I realized he had no reason to stop me, let alone conduct a search. But I got used to it.
Throughout my adolescence I was repeatedly stopped by police, and at age 17 I went to jail for looking at graffiti while waiting on the train.
Cop: What are you doing?
Cop: (Referring to graffiti) Did you do that?
Cop: I don’t believe you … prove it.
Me: (Taking off my bag) OK.
Cop: Why are you removing your bag? You trying to run away?
Cop: OK, smart guy. You’re going downtown for destruction of property and resisting arrest.
Just 24 hours later, I was ready to leave the life I had so vividly imagined.
And law enforcement seems to have set the standard for treatment of Black people in Chicago: I was turned away from bars, I had bottles thrown at me, I was even spit on. So here I was, gainfully employed and, more important, safe, with no one calling me a “nigger.” I couldn’t even think about leaving. I put my nose to the grindstone and tried hard to love my job. On Day 3, I walked in smiling, with a cup of coffee in one hand and an oatmeal bar in the other.
But I was asleep by 10 a.m. Damn.
I got my work done, but goddamn. Nothing I could do kept me awake or interested. I tried listening to loud music, chewing gum, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, taking frequent breaks, drinking water, even going to bed early. Everything failed, though somehow my efficacy wasn’t affected and I remained productive. My colleagues noticed that I slept with regularity, but because it didn’t disrupt their work, they left me alone. I mean, who knows, maybe we all took naps at the same time. In all honesty, I was so ashamed that I avoided talking to them about anything other than weather, afraid that a deep conversation would end in narcolepsy, which would lead to a reprimand, or worse, being let go, which would leave me living in a box outside Wrigley Field. So I kept quiet, did my work, slept, ate, worked, slept, worked … wash, rinse, repeat.
Three or four months later, I was despondent and went on a whim to shoot pool with friends in the neighborhood. The bar, also a restaurant serving top-notch food, was six blocks from my house. It was cute and tiny, and had cool clientele. If it existed now, it would be a hipster’s paradise. Anyway, that night I struck up a conversation with this gangly redhead who had burns outlining his arms, drank like a fish, and scrutinized every plate coming out of the kitchen. We chatted about living in Chicago, leaving Chicago, the Cubs, and hot women. I eventually told him about my job—my need for a change—and he asked if I could mix a drink. As luck would have it, my new friend was the bar’s owner and head chef. He offered me a job on the spot. I accepted, and spent the next several months attempting to figure out the rest of my life.
I could not have foreseen my journey to that point. Nor was I able to predict that tending bar would lead to scrubbing sewers, a dead body, a commercial, a move to New York, and graduate school. It was my first fresh start, but clearly not my last.
Storytelling with Fresh Professor: To Be Continued …
James Miles is a Master Teaching Artist who has worked in arts education for over 15 years. He has facilitated workshops and designed curriculum for the New Victory Theater, Roundabout Theatre, Disney Theatrical Group, Theatre for a New Audience, Center of Arts Education, BAX, Brooklyn Arts Council, Opening Act, and (Out)Laws & Justice. He has worked as an actor, an accountant, comedian, and a model. James is an adjunct professor at NYU and the Director of Education at Urban Arts Partnership.
Guest Post by: James Miles