David Bowie is dead, and I’m hunting for a job.
It makes sense that jobs are marks of the real world. They mean that you, to some extent at least, have decided to sacrifice time meant for your own personal growth — emotionally or intellectually, artistically or philosophically — for the sake of surviving in a way that the rest of society has. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sacrifice of any kind is a very grown-up concept; it begs for confrontation at every dragging step toward functional adulthood.
At the dirt track above Clark Kerr where I like to run, there is a middle-aged man who stands out as someone who took a bit of a different route for growing up. He wears the crop tops, jumpsuits, and tank tops of a ‘70s aerobics instructor, and he brings his enormous Rottweiler, an ‘80s boom box and a foam mat to the track for his workouts. In other words, he looks like he is very attached to the era of his formative years.
Eccentric looks aren’t really anything new in Berkeley. But what does stand out to me is that somehow ‘80s man and I have the same workout schedule. I see him every time I go to the track, his dog and faded neon gym bag in tow. As a student, my workout schedule is not necessarily erratic, but it shows that I like to wake up late and roll up midday to the track. So whatever job this man has, it doesn’t seem like he sacrifices the typical 9-5 window to the demands of modern survival.
Furthermore, ‘80s man’s schedule stands out all the more to me after working my own 9-5 social media job for a summer. When I returned to school, I left a dragging 9-5 time commitment and became engrossed in a few sporadic glimpses of this excitingly strange person.
I’ll start at the beginning. This summer, I worked in social media. I’m sure this is a common experience for UC Berkeley students and the average millennial in general. A social media job has become the new coffee shop barista or Blockbuster cashier. At dinner parties in several years, we’ll all sigh over our chicken breasts and brussel sprouts and say, “Oh yeah, I did social media for a year in college. Paid OK.”
The details of my work are banal and uninteresting, but there were parts of my job that absorbed me to no end.
After posting things on my company’s Facebook page, I could sit and stare for hours as the comments piled up in waves of chaotic criticism and confusingly unrelated observations. People say fascinating things online, and I had my own personal theater, despite not being very active on social media myself (my personal pages often just exist in the hopes that someone will take a good photo of me one day and post it online so I can use it for my just as neglected LinkedIn profile).
The large scale outpouring of commentary was just entertainment at first. In the middle of the comment section for a post advertising a new product, some commenter would start to talk about their new puppy. On other posts about giveaways, someone would mention their grandchildren. I recall once putting up a detailed post about unicorns assuming that this would open up quite a captivating dialogue, and one commenter saw fit to bring up this wonderful photograph they had taken of Yosemite.
Every day for three months, I sifted through the comments to my posts, looking for the weirdos. There were always a few. After a while, it felt like I was writing posts just to communicate to those few people who felt the need to share something arbitrary about themselves that day. I felt a special connection with the outliers. So, I understand why it might be confusing to now say that this job made me deeply lonely. But, I can’t think of anything more accurate to say than that my social media experience was alienating.
Yes, at first these outliers were not only entertaining but also somewhat uplifting. But social media is a game of scale. We were operating on a large enough scale that even the strangest of comments could be categorized with hundreds of others in files titled “Comments About Pets in Silly Situations” or “Comments on the Morality of Following Baking Recipes.” People lost their individuality in my pages, and I spent my days perpetuating this process.
To cope with this ironic loneliness, two things happened in my life. First, I started listening to excessive amounts of David Bowie. Bowie had always been present in my musical regimen, but for some reason, on my commute five days a week, I felt the need to go through at least half a Bowie album in order to get through the work day. I distinctly recall putting “Rock & Roll Suicide” on repeat only to hear the line “Oh no, love, you’re not alone/ No matter what a fool you’ve been.”
The second didn’t happen until after my internship ended, but I started running almost every day. I’m not going to spiral into a conversation on the health benefits of an active lifestyle or the adrenaline rush of runner’s high. My favorite things in this world are napping, sitting and eating. My job left me strangely fidgety and restless. I had stored extra energy up while I was staring at a screen full of anonymous blurs of people, and not only did I need to expel it, but I needed to expel it in a way that distinguished me from the blur. This is when I began to encounter my vintage exercise buddy. Similar to the ‘80s man who I began to see quite frequently, I began wearing the most fun workout clothes I could find, donning huge scrunchies and sweatbands, fun patterned jackets, and funky crop tops. I’m not sure if he inspired me or Bowie did, but I’ve ended up with the workout wardrobe of a modern jazzercise enthusiast.
I needed David Bowie to tell me that I wasn’t alone, and then I needed to incorporate into my daily routine an activity that is deeply isolating. I had worked in an industry defined by interpersonal connections, yet I had deprived people of any meaning in making these connections. I existed in a state of contradiction.
Things got complicated quickly, and they remained in this vague fog of a concept of Bowie and running that I assumed was adulthood until the day after David Bowie’s recent death. I woke up and decided to go for a Bowie-soundtracked run. It seemed like a good thing to include in my mourning routine.
My run was a struggle. Some runs go easier than others, but this one felt like I had just eaten a steak. So, I’m breathing heavily and stumbling along the track half-sobbing to “Life on Mars” when my favorite blast from the past strolls up with his boom box and mat. But something was off. The enormous Rottweiler was replaced with a small pit bull sniffing around eagerly.
I spent the rest of my run watching ‘80s man and assuming the worst. David Bowie died and now this guy’s dog died and that’s sad and this day is miserable. I jogged my final steps to a grassy patch to stretch, one with a view of ‘80s man and his dog.
I spent a good 20 minutes staring at this new dog and creating her introductory Facebook post. ‘80s man’s Rottweiler had passed away over the holidays. Inconsolable for days, ‘80s man couldn’t bring himself to the track for his stylish workouts. After mourning for a week, ‘80s man took control of his sorrow and went to the pound to rescue this clearly new puppy in need of a home. The new dog, dubbed Priscilla in my fantasy, gave ‘80s man the push he needed to get back to his workout regimen, but he couldn’t fight the nagging sadness of loss and his workout was just as slow and painful as mine.
Finally overcome by curiosity and perhaps a bit of a desire to talk to someone obviously shaped by Bowie, I approached ‘80s man and demanded, “What happened?”
Without missing a beat, ‘80s man said “Oh, don’t worry. She’s slow to warm up to people.” He thought I was talking about the obvious skittishness of his new dog.
“No, what happened to your old dog?” I must have looked like a crazy person, but the suspense was killing me. I speculated that he would be bursting with emotional loss, and I was offering him a chance to relieve some of the built-up pressure.
But within a moment, ‘80s man put two and two together and said, “Oh, he’s at home. I can only take one at a time, and I just got this one.”
I’ll admit, I was taken aback. It’s not that I wanted him to be miserable, but I had assumed we would be linked by some feelings of loss as well as our matching crop tops. But quickly after my initial shock, I was flooded with the relief that I thought I was offering ‘80s man. He began telling me about how much he loved his dog that he had decided to get another. In the midst of professing his canine affection, he was interrupted by a phone call from work. Right before taking it, he explained that his line of work let him spend more time with his dogs, going to the track with them, walking them a lot. “It’s not the best job, but you’ve got to make sacrifices. You can see it helps the dogs.”
I was touched by ‘80s man’s affection for his dogs. It seemed so sincere and silly. I was reminded of that first Facebook comment about some random person’s new puppy, and the gag reflex of thinking back on working in social media was forgotten.
‘80s man, in just a short interaction, had reawakened in me an appreciation for the strange that my social media job robbed me of. I may have sacrificed a bit of my sanity for a short amount of time, but it was only so that I could find a way to relate to the strange people of the world in a way that didn’t alienate me. I, like many students, am hunting for postgraduate employment. While I don’t think I’ll ever work in social media again, I must say that whatever job I find, I don’t think it will have the power to rob me of my humanity, though I might need a bit of a reminder of this sometimes. Whatever part of myself I sacrificed this summer was not irretrievably gone, and this feels like at least a small step to understanding adulthood.
My only regret is that I had to sacrifice David Bowie in order to grow up a bit. He spoke to the strange and complicated in everyone and made it something wonderful to cultivate. His death sparked my, and several millions of touched fans’, humanity. So if you too are looking for a job and a little bit of adulthood, I ironically encourage you (and everyone) to perhaps check out the flood of social media posts devoted to and inspired by David Bowie. However alienating the real world of jobs might be, there is no job that entirely eliminates the communal love of individuality that Bowie will always represent to me.
Emma Rosenbaum is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]