Ralph Waldo Emerson is the owner of Cleanest, a household cleaning service. He interviews a job seeker named Wilson.
E: Do you lead a spiritual life, Mr. Wilson?
W: I do.
E: A purely spiritual life?
W: I didn’t think my religious beliefs could be part of the interview.
E: I wouldn’t think of it. I ask about your spiritual life. I could not be less interested in your religion.
W: Well, it’s less than pure.
E: That’s an honest answer, sir. History has yet to afford us an example of a purely spiritual life. But I am open to inscrutable possibilities.
W: I’ve never been first in anything. But I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for. People have to eat.
E: Is there nothing spiritual in food? I can be nourished on the broth of old shoes.
W: I prefer angel food cake.
E: I take a slice of pie every morning myself. Please don’t lean back in your chair. In fact, stand up and let me see your posture.
E: You should cultivate the habit of relying entirely on your character. You should not look sideways. You should tilt neither backwards nor forwards, but maintain your vertical axis. There. The sculpture of the human form!
W: I’m having some work done on my back.
E: What sort of work? Can you teach the squirrel to hoard nuts or the bee to gather honey? What did Shakespeare know of Shakespeare? Character, sir. I’m afraid you either have it or you don’t.
W: I believe I do.
E: Believe it, then. Trust yourself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. How are your involuntary bodily functions? Breath, bowels, and so forth?
W: Regular, normal.
E: But you balk when thrown into this enchanted circle?
W: What enchanted circle? I’m applying for the housecleaner position you advertised. Seven dollars an hour.
E: If you choose to reduce it to that. If your obedience is imperfect.
W: Excuse me.
E: I am trying to elicit the particular degree of idealism I can count on from you.
W: I don’t claim much. I’m a hard worker, and my references are solid.
E: References? Never seek yourself outside yourself. Have you ever been fired?
E: I’m sorry to hear that. Our policy is, “No fire, no hire.”
W: That’s the opposite of—
E: The standard policy, the policy you’re familiar with? I should think so. But we seek those candidates with fire in their minds.
W: I didn’t think it was my mind you were hiring.
E: Then why did you list this item on your resume?
W (Looking at the item). I couldn’t bear to leave it out. They told me to leave it out.
E: And you refused. That is a strong indication, sir. Or should I call you Doctor?
W: I’m not that kind of doctor.
E: Not the kind who wears a stethoscope? But you have no need of external badges, do you? Your degree is all inside.
W: It took me eight years not to get that degree, and one to get it. I’m still recovering from the experience.
E: I should say so. I notice here that you were born, and then you got your bachelor’s degree. How do you account for the intervening decades?
W: It’s a resume.
E: Again you refer to something external. And again I say, “Ne te quaseveris extra.”
W: My Latin’s limited to etymologies—roots and particles, suffixes and prefixes.
E: Your Latin. Well, then. I shall screw you. Extra?
W: Extra. Out, outside.
W: Privative. Negative. Not, do not.
W: Second person singular. Object, subject. Reflexive?
E: Excellent. Quaseveris, then.
W: You’ve got me there. Severe? Sever? Quaver? Ver—toward?
E: Now the whole phrase.
W: Don’t sever yourself from the outside?
E: On the contrary: Do not seek outside of yourself for yourself.
W: Oh, yes. Stay inside yourself.
E: Stay inside yourself. Indeed. A fine translation. That is the first principle of self-reliance. Self-dependence. Self-trust.
E: I would not go that far.
W: Let’s say I’m self-reliant. Why should I apply to you or anyone else for a job? Why should I pay the bills sent to me by the gas and electric company, or the phone company?
E: Because nothing is got for nothing. As to your first question, you should not. You are your own conglomerate, your own utility.
W: But I have no power.
E: You have more. You too are a system floating in soft air, spinning away, dragging bank and banking, highway and highway robber, robber barons and robbers, at a rate of a thousand miles an hour. How firm is the earth, after all?
W: I don’t think that question’s—I think it goes beyond the scope of this interview.
E: You exaggerate. It goes beyond the scope of our daily questions—but then it doesn’t take much to get beyond those, does it?
W: No, it doesn’t. But I was thinking about cleaning products.
E: It is most important to clean the inside of the cup.
W: The tub?
E: The cup. The cup of knowledge.
W: Look, I have to get back to work. They don’t give us an hour for lunch anymore.
E: How much time do you grant yourself for lunch? That is what interests me.
W: What’s your lunch policy? If I go over an hour, do I have to make it up at the end of the day?
E: We all have to make it up at the end of the day. Bacon said that hope makes a good breakfast, but an ill supper.
W: There are no free lunches.
E: The world is an apple, Mr. Wilson. I have eaten the world.
W: In your dreams.
E: What did you say?
W: In your dreams.
E: Yes, in my dreams. I know the difference between the world I think and the world.
W: You put a lot of stock in your intuition.
E: An institution is lengthened shadow of a man.
W: Or a broom. I’ve worked for several institutions. They’re much stronger than intuitions.
E: As you will. I have an idea. Let’s say I hire you not to work. Let’s say I hire you to wait.
W: Wait for what?
E: Until there is work worth doing.
W: How many employees do you have?
W: Then we don’t have time to wait.
E: Oh, but we do. You see, I have no clients, either.
W: How do you expect to pay me then?
E: You are already paid.
W: Are you serious? Let me ask you something. How did you start this business? Did you take out a small business loan? Are you insured?
E: There isn’t an outfit big enough to insure me, and my business is anything but small. I sit in the sun and think.
W: I don’t follow you.
E: I do not want followers. I spurn them. I am recruiting seething brains with lofty dreams. Self-employment. My friend Henry is self-employed. I am self-employed. We are all self-employed here.
W: I don’t know where here is for you, but for me here self-employed means practically broke.
E: There is a crack in everything God has made, and I unsettle everything.
W: And you run a house-cleaning service? No wonder you don’t have any clients.
E: No wonder. No wonder. Practically broke. Listen to you! The growing of businesses, the building of cities, the upkeep of the infrastructure, the raising of the tax-base, the balancing of the budget, the capitalization of the Pacific brim—
W: Rim. Rim.
E: Up and over the brim. All of that is highly overrated.
W: What would you have? An endless strike? The end of production?
E: I would go further: organization itself is failure. History bears me out.
W: I wouldn’t think you’d have much use for history.
E: For the sake of the canvas I have in mind, I will grind everything into paint.
W: Including me?
W: Including you?
E: Myself above all. I am not here to work, but to be worked on.
W: How many have you interviewed before me?
E: You are the first.
W: Why me?
E: Your application was on top of the pile.
W: That’s the only reason?
E: That, and the fact that you have been a student longer than some inner-city youth are expected to live.
W: But I taught for ten of those twenty-five years.
E: Then you know as well as I do that teaching is not considered work.
W: It’s been held against me whenever I’ve tried to get a job, even in colleges and universities.
E: Especially there, I should think.
W: I interviewed at a college in Massachusetts. I came in second out of 900. You know what they told me? That I was too interested in ideas.
E: It is a sign of the times. I propose that we continue to stamp our discontent on the age, our discontent and our poverty, until we have some solid fruit to justify it with.
W: The age or our discontent?
E: It’s all one, as Shakespeare would say.
W: Well, I thought that the $38,000 I made one year came close to justifying me.
E: Do you think so still?
W: Let’s put it this way. Last year I paid taxes on $12,000. The new Archbishop of Denver is a Franciscan. He’d taken the vow of poverty. When he was installed, they insisted that his salary be raised by $500. The Catholics who told me this were proud. When I told them that their Archbishop and I were now making the same salary, they were shocked. “O, my God,” they said. Your God, I said, not mine.
E: Come out of that, now. Resentment, like a hero, becomes a bore at last. You should embrace your poverty.
W: I’d rather embrace a woman.
E: Of course you would. You shall never see anything more frightening than yourself.
W: Are we about finished?
E: One more thing. What if, after you leave here today, you get an offer from Clean Enough? What will you say?
W: I’ll say that I don’t like your work.
E: And they will say, “Then show me your own.”
W: The job I have now—smoking salmon—isn’t worth showing.
E: Smoking salmon is not what I mean by a job.
W: It’s more of a job than teaching.
E: It might be more work.
W: There isn’t a teaching job for me right now. I thought salmon smoking would be better than cleaning houses. Those were the only offers I got in six months of looking.
E: Six months! You looked for six months?
W: Five, really. Maybe more like four.
E: Weren’t you traveling for a month?
W: Okay. Three. No. I probably watched videos and TV for a month.
E Two months, then. Not a lot of looking. Two job offers in two months? That’s not bad, really.
W: It’s bad when you consider I was making $38,000 a year in April and $8 an hour in January.
E: What do you do in this job?
W: I put fillets of salmon through a process. I unload them, stack them, unstack and restack them, slit them at the tail so I can carry them on my finger, slit them on the side so the salt can get into the meat, rinse them, stack them, unstack them, salt them on both sides, submerge them in salt water, fish them out, rinse them off, stack them, put them on a rack to drip dry, roll the rack into the refrigerator for a few hours, pull the rack out, put the fillets on the smoking rack and put the rack into the smoker. The next day, I take the rack from the smoker, stack the sides in a cart, unstack them, slice off the skin, trim them, put them on styrofoam sheets, chill them in the freezer, take them out of the freezer, guide them through the slicing machine, put the sliced sides on a gold piece of cardboard, put a bag over that, then seal it in a vacuum sealer, then stack the packs, weigh them, put stickers on them, deliver some of them, and stack the rest in the refrigerator. That’s the process. It seemed better than cleaning houses.
E: What will you do, then?
W: I’ll wait.
E: How long?
W: I don’t know.
E Until the universe calls you to work?
W: The universe? They’ll laugh at me.
E: The truth is always scorned. When they stop laughing, they will tell you to have it your way, but you will grow old and useless while you wait.
W: Then I’ll sit in a corner and perish.
W: When do I start?
E: Patience, patience.