Adventures in Adjuncting
You Never Forget Contingency
In 2013, a group of friends and I started a consortium, with the goal of commissioning new works for flute literature. For $275, flutists got to be a part of commissioning a new work by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Dr. Zhou Long. It sounded like a lot of money to an adjunct, but Pulitzer Prize winners have some pretty steep commission fees, and there’s no way any of us as an individuals, would ever be able to pull off that kind of collaboration. I didn’t know when we started the process, but my work with that consortium would be the most professionally rewarding thing in my life for a several year period; I often joked that if the group had paid, I’d have happily done it full time.
The consortium got me out and performing at flute events again; my CV is filled with events I would not have attended if not for the organization. The consortium created a professional network for me which did not exist at my graduate programs; it gave me something to talk about with my peers and fellow professionals, and helped me to learn about networking - I had loose script, and things I was enthusiastic to talk about. More importantly, it gave me a sense of professional success at a time when it was sorely lacking; I have other things to lean on, now, but it is still among the projects of which I am the most proud.
But contrary to public perception, it did not, still does not, and never will pay. It is literally in the by-laws. I’m actually a paying member, even though I do some of the work that helps keep the organization afloat.
One of the strengths of the group is that almost all of the money it raises goes back into the composition community in some capacity; everyone on the board is a volunteer. All of the positions are volunteers. It was - and still is - a labor of love. When you basically work all the time it’s important that some of your colleagues are friends, and that some of your projects are the sorts of things you would do for fun. This was especially important during the adjunct years, because I did not have nights or weekends off. The board was my social outlet; we’d talk, ostensibly about work, but in a schedule riddled with adjunct work and service jobs, it would be a brief window of equality in my day. It wasn’t my job to run and fetch, or to make better. It was my job to contribute as an equal, and at the time, I was more passionate about that than I was about anything music-related.
In 2014, the consortium was still new. We were working to build our membership, and working toward our first commission, and it was a very exciting time. Unfortunately, it was also at a difficult financial time. During the summer, I was scheduled to teach a class which would have kept up my financial contributions to household expenses from June - August. Unfortunately, it was cancelled a few days before the summer session was scheduled to begin. It was late May in a smallish college town, and I was suddenly in need of a job. Quickly.
If you’ve ever looked for summer work in a small college town, you know that by late May, your options are extremely limited. Students start their hunt in early April in order to secure a summer job. By May, I was fortunate to receive any interviews at all. I suppose, in retrospect, that the first sign of trouble should have been that I was contacted for an interview within hours of applying.
That was how, in late May, at the age of 32, I found myself working as a hostess at the Olive Garden.
The interviewer didn’t ask a lot of questions; he wanted to know how many hours a week I wanted to work, and what I expected to earn. I found out later that I undersold myself, and the 20 year-old kid who trained alongside me made a full two dollars more an hour, even though he came to work drunk several times a week and reeking of alcohol and marijuana the rest. I asked for 20-25 hours a week. Within a few days, they discovered that I was both hardworking and responsible, so I was working 38.5, which was the legal maximum they could assign a person without pushing them into overtime. I felt pretty guilty about not contributing more to my household, so I didn’t say anything; it wasn’t the kind of job that responded to employee preferences about scheduling, anyway. When I finally put in my notice, they offered to cut back my hours, if it would keep me; I laughed because we both knew it wouldn’t last more than a week.
For people who’ve worked in restaurants, the schedule ambiguity is nothing new. As someone with primarily retail experience, it was … shocking. Where retail had mandated fifteen minute breaks so that I could grab water, go to the bathroom, or check my phone, the restaurant didn’t seem to care about my petty human needs. Despite working in a restaurant, I don’t think I ever succeeded at eating while I was on the premises.
I suspect everyone took breaks where they could find them, but there had to be someone at the host stand at all times and the kid they were training alongside me would wander away, and return when it suited him. If I had to pee, I had to track him down and ask him to “cover” our shared job, or risk the manager walking by and seeing an empty post. It was usually me that he scolded.
If we were short a server, I was expected to watch the host stand, get drinks for guests, and bus tables. Both jobs were typically paid more than hosts, but my wage didn’t reflect the extra duties. There was consistently a gap in coverage between lunch and dinner which usually left us without anyone to clean tables, so if I was the ‘lunch closer’, I’d often be doing all three jobs. The managers held a daily meeting in the corner, and never managed to notice when our “lunch lull” wasn’t a lull; they liked for me to close the lunch shift because the restaurant would still be in decent shape when the meeting wrapped, so I’d often be held whether or not I was actually the one scheduled to do so.
The days were long, and usually stacked six at a time. They weren’t just long hours on my feet, but long hours spent quickly moving from task to task, tracking all of the inhabitants of the restaurant. I know other people have loved their experience in restaurant work, but I was miserable. I didn’t like the work, and was significantly older than most of my coworkers so I felt particularly isolated. No one likes the host, for the record; there are always too many tables, or not enough tables. I spent 38.5 hours a week feeling overwhelmed, and ignoring that everyone hated me for reasons beyond my control.
It didn’t seem like my coworkers particularly liked one another, anyway; there was always some fight between a few of the servers, and the manager was always angry at several of them for performance issues.The Olive Garden was also one of the nicer mid-price establishments in town, and it felt particularly humiliating to seat my academic colleagues - or worse - my students, so I struggled emotionally. My feet ached when I woke up in the morning, before I’d even put on my shoes. There was always someone yelling, and generally at least two people who were angry with me because they didn’t like their assigned section, because I had skipped them to avoid giving them a table I knew they wouldn’t like, or because I couldn’t magically make customers appear.
It was not a good situation, but when I was home there was FNMC. In our first summer, we started a composition competition, with the idea that the winning works would be performed by consortium members. It connected composers with high-quality performers, and performers with high-quality works for their instrument - a win for both groups. Since it was our first year, we set the entry fee at something low and manageable, not knowing what to expect - and hoped that twenty people would enter so that it would pay for our paltry prize. The real draw was always supposed to be the performance, anyway.
We were inundated. The competition announcement went up in March or April. When the deadline arrived a few months later, there were nearly three-hundred entries. Each of them came through my inbox; each had to be cataloged and recorded by me. It was our first year, so I invented a system as we went along. I thrived under the pressure, and loved the professional busy-ness of it all. Composers emailed with questions; I’d answer as soon as I got home. My decade of customer service experience made it familiar, but it was related to something I cared more deeply about. I processed all three hundred of those entries, and fielded dozens of questions daily - we were a new organization, so there were lots of them, ranging from failure to read instructions, to situations we genuinely hadn’t planned for (yet).
It was a weird balance, toggling back and forth between hostess and competition coordinator. Stranger still was the perception of my position that seemed to be implied in those emails. Something about the name suggested that we must be a huge organization. I had the impression that the composers who were asking questions imagined me in a New York or Chicago high-rise, in some sleek building with lots of windows. The reality was that I was emailing underneath a fleece blanket, from the couch in my cramped, third-floor apartment in rural .… Kansas? Hardly a new music hub. I was often soaking my feet to relieve some of the ache from my miserable day. If it had been a particularly long day, I might eat with one hand and type emails with the other. My "working" hours were already 10 p.m. - 1 a.m., when the restaurant had released me.
Grumpy emails would be addressed to Miss Robinson, and imply I couldn't possibly understand my job because I clearly lacked a musical background. Not only were we in a big-city high rise, I was clearly an admin just there for the salary - not a musician or music-lover like they, and probably my board. No one ever directly asked for a manager, but it was implied. If the Olive Garden taught me nothing else, it was how to tell when a customer was about to lose their cool.
We learned, as an organization, that the flute and composition communities are wildly different, despite being … all musicians, and since i was handling the composers, I was the front line for that education. We described the competition as being for emerging composers, thinking that any composer who felt established wouldn’t want to enter a competition whose main value lay in the promised performance. In our world, you were an emerging artist until you had the job everyone wanted; it’s half a decade later, and I still call myself emerging. I still joke that I’ll stop emerging when I’m submerged in my grave. It doesn’t work like that for composers. We know that ... now.
We thought nothing of our entry fee; after all, without an entry fee, there wasn’t going to be a competition. It was only ten dollars; when last I checked, the major flute organization charged $50 to enter its student competition. (Membership fees sold separately. And you must be a member to enter!) In the composition community, entry fees are a hotly contested item, no matter the size of the fee.
Granted, I was a raw nerve from the shame of working at the Olive Garden - and from the sheer exhaustion of actually working at the Olive Garden - but some of the emails were mean. It was work I was happy to do, but sometimes it would take several drafts before I was able to respond in a way that represented our organization well. As we got closer to the entry deadline, the number of inquiries increased in frequency, and in level of demand. It became more and more difficult to manage the intense need of my inbox while also existing at the Olive Garden.
It was around this time that we received one of the nastiest emails I have ever received from a human being. HOW DARE WE charge a competition fee, expecting the sender - we’ll call him Craig - to write a piece for free. (Note that we did not expect composers to write pieces exclusively for us. We did not yet have the language to outline this expectation, but we ultimately expected that composers were writing music because it was their craft. And if their piece happened to fit our limited criteria, and they happened to have ten bucks to gamble on the chance it would get performed, then we were a match.) HOW DARE WE was followed by a lot of anger, and some very unkind words aimed at me, the reader, personally.
To be clear, I have mixed feelings about the content of Craig’s email. I agree that some aspects of the music business are inherently parasitic. I would love to offer a free competition - for both flutists and composers. How ridiculous is it that you have no money because you are getting established, but you have to pay money for the opportunity to establish yourself? But the tone was absolutely out of line.
I didn’t necessarily disagree with Craig’s intent, but the circumstances weren’t going to change. More importantly, I had the distinct impression that Craig thought I would personally be keeping that ten dollars. In his imagination, I was reading his words in my lavish office, and likely spending his hard-earned dollars on an overpriced New York latte, which I inevitably wouldn’t even finish. And then I’d flounce off to shred scores that belonged to other composers just because I could like some kind of new music Cruella De Ville.
I remember reading his first email on my phone, sitting in the drivers’ seat of my aging Honda Civic, in the parking lot outside of Olive Garden. I had an opening shift that morning and the person with the keys was late, so I forced down the sense of panic it invoked, typed out a very polite response, explained our rationale behind the fee and where it was going, and thanked him for his interest, apologizing if we weren’t a great fit right now. He just didn’t understand we were a startup, and we weren’t out to take his money, I thought naively, and even if he didn’t enter, hopefully he would walk away with a more positive impression of our organization. I was so proud of the consortium I couldn’t imagine any other reaction.
Craig was not interested in changing his impression. Craig was interested in doing as much damage as humanly possible.
I worked the lunch shift, and I could feel my phone buzzing with notifications the entire time. It was one of the better Olive Garden days, even if I was concerned about the buzzing in my pocket.
I was held over to close the lunch shift, which basically bled into the dinner shift. Normally, I would have been upset; it had been a particularly long time since a day off, and I remember that my legs and feet were beyond destroyed. But I decided I would have a good day, so I plead "nature calling" and snuck to the bathroom to check my phone. Since I hadn’t the break scheduled between “shifts”, I figured I was entitled to five minutes to myself in the bathroom.
THERE WERE SO MANY EMAILS.
THEY WERE IN ALL CAPS.
SOME OF THEM HAD BOLDFACE.
CRAIG WAS ANGRY.
Craig was angry, not just with the consortium but with me personally. I had explained that FNMC was volunteer-run, and so even the competition coordinator was donating time to respond to emails. Nobody was wasting lattes on your dime, Craig! Craig said something scathing about how I should clearly be paid the princely sum of $500 for reading his email. Or perhaps he should be paid for the time it took to think of the sum of $500 in the first place. Craig had only wanted to know why I wouldn’t look at his piece for free. I had tried to explain that we weren’t making money personally from his composition, and that I wasn’t even being paid to coordinate the competition: the money was going back to the community, and somehow that had made him intractable.
For the record, I was reading his email in a bathroom stall at an Olive Garden in the middle of Kansas. Around the time that I got to “princely sum,” I heard the nightmare manager’s voice in a hallway, and reflexively pulled my feet up, so that they wouldn’t be visible when he came into the womens’ restroom to look for me. It was inevitable; I was going to be sitting in that stall, getting electronically screamed at, and then I was going to be sitting in that stall getting real-life screamed at, and after making it almost all summer, I was going to cry in that Olive Garden. I didn’t mind giving them my sweat, my suffering, hell, even my dignity … but tears? Not tears. I remember that both my knees cracked when I bent them because they were so stiff from standing all week. The irony was that both screamers were going to use the same profanity-laden insults. Was it irony? I was too tired to remember how humor devices worked.
… how dare I …
… princely sum …
…. $500 …
Something about the $500 got me. It was more than I was going to see on my paycheck. How dare I, indeed. I remember the sting of tears coming to my eyes when this person that I had tried so hard to placate called me names, and told me that I was responsible for making the music community a worse place. I remember feeling my mouth twist into a sob, and letting out a short, quiet gasp in spite of myself. My manager must have been standing in the bathroom waiting for evidence of movement, because as I choked back the sound, he said my name angrily, and I realized that I was the useless so-and-so ruining the music community from the beige and green themed womens’ restroom of a midwestern Olive Garden, with some Frank Sinatra wannabe playing softly in the background. I was paying the consortium $275 in Olive Garden dollars to let this guy shout at me over email.
And I started to laugh.
And laugh some more. Because what the hell else do you do?
I did the only thing I could do: I stopped crouching on the toilet, dramatically flung open the bathroom stall, and I went back to my hourly job. Because those breadsticks don’t sling themselves, and even the most rewarding projects aren’t going to put breadsticks on an adjunct’s table. My manager tried to yell at me, but it’s probably hard to focus when your middle-aged employee is laughing like a crazy person in the middle of the restaurant bathroom. And I didn’t really stand still to listen to him; I breezed out of the bathroom and into the kitchen (“CLEAR!”) and heard nothing that anyone said to me for the rest of the day. It took me a few more days to find another job so that I could give notice, but when they asked me if I’d stay on for more money, I laughed again and they let it go.
I’d have taken the $500 for reading Craig’s email. I’m not sure it would have been enough.