Category Archives: writing

Retail therapy

scratch

One of my first retail jobs was at Howard Johnson’s working the ice cream counter when I was like fourteen. My mom was a hostess. My Aunt Polly was a waitress and my older brother Tom was a short order cook. My aunt got her job first, and then she got the rest of us in. The owner was an old man, a one-eyed Serbian named Louie. He sat by the cash register all night long. I thought he was staring off into space, but the restaurant had all these big windows in front, and Louie was actually monitoring the place by staring into the reflection of the glass. It was a bad job for me, because I never knew what to do with myself, and I have never thought much of the concept of trying to looking busy. I remember my mom racing over to me, whispering out the side of her mouth, “Louie is watching, Louie is watching.”

One time a cute girl came in with her family and I scooped her an ice cream and she took it from my hand, whispered something to her dad, and then he told the assistant manager that I may have licked his daughter’s cone. It was such a horrible, qeeby-inducing thing to be accused of, and the best I could do was screw my face into an indignant pose (I may have licked my wrist, but I swear my tongue never touched that girl’s cone). The assistant manager that night totally knew what to do. He snapped into action, tossing out her cone, scooping her a new one, and all the while just making all this jovial banter with her and her family, smoothing things over for me with her dad. As soon as they left, he turned to me and totally dropped the jovial small talk act.

Never lick your hand when you’re scooping ice cream.

I got kicked out of high school so I went to the Harrisburg East Mall and interviewed for a dishwasher job at Hot Shoppes. I had worked before, but it was my first interview. She was a thin woman about 40 or 50 and she wanted me to tell her about high school. I don’t remember what I said to her, but it was probably something negative about the school, particularly its policy around athletics, or maybe about the athletes who were all so venerated. I expected her to say something like, “Well, you’re a really smart guy, and you should just knuckle down and deal with your attitude” because that’s how those kinds of conversations had always gone in the past. Instead she reached into her purse, shook out a Pall Mall and lit up. It was the late 70s and everyone was smoking everywhere, but it still seemed like an odd thing for her to do in an interview. She offered me a smoke and I probably took it. She blew a cloud of smoke over her shoulder and said that in her opinion the whole education system was just in an absolute sad mess and when did I think I could start. I just looked at her. I had my heart on my sleeve and it was not the direction that I thought the conversation would go. I felt pretty stupid and defeated, but that lady handed it well. I don’t think I lasted more than a few days at Hot Shoppes. The dishes that came out of the machine were super scalding hot.

In the 80s, I financed a heroin habit partly by stealing designer jeans from department stores at the same mall. Not really a lot of planning. You just put on as many pairs of pants as you could wear out of the store, and then you brought them all back inside in a bag from the store and went right to the returns department. My partner was a guy named Vince and his strategy was to look for an older woman, someone with a little grey, who didn’t have a lot of investment in the store. Cash returns without a receipt are judgement calls, so the clerk always asked for a reason. Vince’s thing was to say something vaguely sexual or embarrassing like, “Too tight in the crotch” and then, because these were nice little old ladies, they would just immediately ring you out to get you out of the store and away from their face. If we had a good day and we could score, we would always debrief in the car, and he’d present his old lady return strategy. It’s not okay to steal or mess with elderly retail clerks, but those were some of the best times.

One time I remember a stealing a boom box and a store guard saw me and followed me out of the store. He yelled stop, so I ran and he followed me. He was a big beefy guy. I hadn’t run in a long time and was surprised at how out of shape I was. I realized I was going to have to stop because I was out of breath, collapsing on the hood of some car in the parking lot and looking over my shoulder. He was stopped too, with his hands on his knees sucking air. It was really hard to sell a boom box for any money and I had just grabbed it on impulse. You couldn’t even return electronics like you could pants, so I just hurled the thing in his general direction (it was still in the box) and then limped off to my car. I drove past him and he had the boom box under his arm, his uniform shirt all untucked from his pants, gasping for breath. I waved to get his attention as I passed him. He flipped me off. I flipped him off back.

I worked night shift at a mini mart gas station in Steelton, the small town where I grew up. The guy who ran the franchise was a beefy ex-biker named Joel with tattoos all up his forearms. He knew my family but I didn’t really know him, so we were trying to get to know one another, but doing that little dance you do to let another shady person know where you’re coming from, but also to keep the boss employee boundary in place. He gave me a test he said every employee had to take. It was this crazy test that had questions like “if your mother came into the store and she hadn’t gotten her disability check, but she was sure to get it tomorrow, and she needed milk tonight what would you do?” So it’s multiple choice and like four answers seem like reasonable solutions (give her a half pint and start a tab, pay for it from your salary, etc.) and then one answer is all, like, fuck your Mom, tell her no. I read a few of the questions and they were all like that, so I wasn’t really sure what to do. I asked Joel and he gave me this look. What do you think you should say? he asked. He told me he couldn’t hire me unless I filled it out correctly.

I laughed.

I picked all the “fuck mom” answers, and he hired me on the spot.

I was at the mini mart gas station at the start of my shift. This was the 80s and scratch lottery was a new thing. I had a stack of scratch tickets as thick as a textbook at the register. A guy bought one, scratched it off and hit for $50. Boom. He told me I had to take it out of the register and pay him. I looked into it and he was right. Something about him earning a cool $50 that way just intrigued me in a way that wasn’t healthy. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. He scratched and boom–he was ahead 50 bones. So I had like 5 bucks. The early part of the night wasn’t so busy so I scratched five tickets. Five losers. Now I was broke. But I still had the fever. So I scratched five more. Then five more. And five after that. Now I was in the hole and it dawned on my (too late) that there might not have been another fifty dollar pay out ticket in the whole stack. But I was committed. I earned a few small wins. Maybe a few two dollar winners. Maybe a five. I was keeping track in my head. The stack of scratch tickets was getting smaller. The cops came into the store and wandered around. They did this most every night. It was a small town and they knew I was an addict, so it was all very cordial and cool. They got coffee and sipped. Their radios were going off. They always parked their car out of sight behind the store. Some guy came in to prepay for gas. He saw the cops and gave me a big bill and went to pump his gas. I wanted to get back to my scratch tickets, but it wouldn’t have been cool to scratch five tickets at a time in front of the cops. I was thinking I should just go to the automotive aisle and drink a gallon of antifreeze. Finally the cops left. The dude who had prepaid for gas also took off without getting his change, probably because the cops were in the store, and maybe because he was a little drunk, but it was a nice little chunk of change. I adjusted the tally in my head, but I was still way off.

What could I do? Keep scratching. It was like 4:30. Joel came in at 6 am. I had an hour and a half to work a miracle. At about 5:30 I scratched off another $50 winner. I almost wet myself. It sounds terrible, but it felt pretty good. I will never win another scratch lottery and feel that good. I don’t even play them anymore.

So I was within 8 or 10 of my goal. So close.

Fat Tommy Defrank came in the store and asked for all the hot dogs rolling on the grill, like three or four. You can just pocket all the hot dog money and pretend that you had thrown them all away because they’d been rolling on the grill all night. Joel hated hearing that, because he knew Tommy liked burnt hot dogs, but you could make a convincing stand based on principle. But it would only work on one condition. If and only if, Tommy could eat all of those fucking hot dogs before Joel arrived at the store. I raced back to the refrigerated drinks and grabbed two little chocolate milks, so Tommy could wash all those nasty hot dogs down. I gave them to him, on the house, but no, he wanted to pay. I used the raw power of my mind to will him to stuff those buggers in his mouth and chew chew chew. Finally they were all gone.

I was actually a dollar over and had to pull that dollar out of the till and put it into my pocket to allay suspicion. Joel came in at 6 and I tried to act cool, but my heart was pounding. He noticed the stack of scratch tickets was as slim as comic book. He tapped the stack. I grinned, Yeah, there was a run on those things last night.

He said something like you’re drawer better work out. The morning shift dude came in and I rang out my drawer. It did work out. To the penny.

Now when I get all fucked up with fear and anxiety and can’t see how I will make it to the other side, I think:

Keep scratching.

Don’t drink anything from the automotive aisle.

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How I Got My Job at Microsoft Corporation with a Degree in the Arts

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Every now and again someone asks me if it’s even possible to get a job at Microsoft without a technical degree. I’ve been at Microsoft for more than ten years as a technical writer, and I have an undergraduate degree in English. Here is how it worked for me.

I moved to Seattle from New York City in ’96 with a B.A. from Hunter College and quickly found work writing for small software companies. My first jobs as a technical writer were for consumer products in vertical industries (healthcare accounting, court record search). They wanted people who weren’t afraid of computers but not necessarily heavy-duty tech heads. My job was to explain to their nontechnical customers how to use the specialized software those companies made. The nice thing about consumer software is that the people who hire you often understand that they’ll have to explain how the tech works to you, with the expectation that you’ll then be able to relay that information in easy-to-understand prose for their customers.

I interviewed for a position answering phones in Microsoft support in 98, but didn’t get the job. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was good news for me, because a job in support would have derailed my career in technical writing. I was discovering a real passion for writing about software. Because I had experience writing about software, I was eventually able to get contract writing jobs at Microsoft. With my first contract, I owned the documentation for Windows Media Player. At that time, Microsoft was converting a lot of its contract positions to full-time (FTE), so I interviewed for the position I already held as a contractor. Once again, I didn’t make the cut. This, too, was probably more good fortune for me. I realized that if I wanted a good paying job in technical writing, I would need to know a lot more of the technical details in a specific area, like server administration or computer programming. I started teaching myself system administration by reading textbooks (Doug Comer basic textbook on TCP/IP is a really good, readable book) and experimenting with personal web sites.

After the first big tech crash in 2000, I started getting writing jobs at bigger software company (Concur, RealNetworks). By the time I got to RealNetworks, I was documenting heavy-duty systems administration stuff. The job at RealNetworks was a decrease in salary for me, but it offered me hands-on job experience I wanted on my resume. I eventually went back to contracting at MSFT, this time on the Windows Server writing team (ServerUA). I got that job based on my experience at RealNetworks, but I needed some official paper to bolster my technical skills, so I started looking at Microsoft’s technical certifications. If you work at Microsoft (even as a contractor) Microsoft allows you to take its certification tests for free. During my last contract, I earned a few related Microsoft certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). Through some connections I made in Server UA, I got an interview for another FTE writing position.

On my third try, I got the job. Yes!

Microsoft is a great place to work, especially if you get on the right team. I’ve been lucky to find a few. I hope this information is helpful. If you have specific questions, leave me a message in the comments. I may not have the answer, but I am happy to respond.

Good luck you liberal arts majors!

On Writing An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career

I got my copy of Best Sex Writing 2012 earlier this year and was very pleased to have my work featured alongside so many great writers. Like they used to say in the old Penthouse Forum letters, “I never thought it would happen to me!

For my part in the Best Sex Writing Virtual Blog Tour, I wanted to talk about how I came to write my submission, An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career.

This was a difficult story for me to write. As nonfiction, I have long thought the story would work better if I had been gay. Consider the synopsis: caught having casual sex with a shipmate, a troubled teen collides with an out-of-control and powerful homophobic authority. This, in turn, makes our intrepid young protagonist confront his own homophobic fears, which allows him to realize that he is… STRAIGHT?

Humm. I hear you. You probably want to say something like: Your synopsis doesn’t seem quite right, my friend.

That’s exactly what I said. For years. Too many years. But then I read a brilliant craft essay by Kerry Cohen, a former Best Sex Writer herself, and discovered that the story really is mine, even if it doesn’t map cleanly to what a reader might expect. I can own it. I don’t have to tell it the way it would be told if it were in a Hollywood movie or a cheap novel. If I can overcome my own personal shame long enough to see the truth, I can make the story mine.

With that revelation, the only thing left to overcome was the social stigma.

As the author of a memoir about my recovery from heroin addiction, I know a little something about social stigmas, how damaging and infuriating they can be. In one of the first pieces I ever published, I refused to acknowledge I was an addict because I was afraid of what people would think of me. I published the piece—a great story about my relationship with my oldest son—without mentioning my addiction. But I started to think seriously about how much of my life I wanted to share in my stories. What does it mean to write nonfiction? What impact comes from openly sharing true stories about socially stigmatizing issues? Nonfiction gives our stories a little extra something that fiction can’t manage. That’s not meant as a ding against fiction writers, but as encouragement to writers of nonfiction: Our work matters in ways we can’t always know or understand. As Kerry Cohen points out, we have to be brave enough to “locate the truth,” to own our own stories.

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The Newest Best Sex Writer of Them All

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I’m proud to announce that my story, An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career, has been selected for Best Sex Writing 2012!

I’m so pleased. The Best Sex Writing series is from Cleis Press and has been around for a few years. Rachel Kramer Bussel edits. I went to see her at Elliott Bay when she was promoting Best Sex Writing 2010 with Kerry Cohen and the amazing Janet Hardy.

Rachel is incredible.

As I remember it, she was feeling sick, but had showed up in the most amazing slinky black dress with these incredible red platform shoes and she slowly walked from the back of Elliott Bay to the lectern in those fabulous shoes – clipping, clopping – and we were all watching and she was just so poised and graceful and you could tell it was a hard night for her, but she was there, daintily dabbing her nose with a tissue, and looking so good, and so professional, and I thought: I must work with this woman. She is just amazing. If you try to friend her on Facebook, you get a little note from Facebook that says, Rachel Kramer Bussel has too many friends already. Fuckin’ A, baby. How awesome is that?

This year Susie Bright selected the stories. I’m so proud. I wonder if Rachel will organize a reading tour for this one, as she did with Kerry and Janet. Now that I realize how difficult it is to get the book stores to let you give a reading, I have new found respect for authors and editors who somehow find a way past the gate. I’ve been turned down by a few of the big stores already. Maybe working with Rachel I will finally get my heart’s desire.

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Dopefiend, Now Available for Pre-order on Amazon

dopefiend

Here it is!

The cover art is ready. The book is in the final stages of copy edit. In a few weeks, the galleys should go out. Amazon lists the release date as September 1. Amazon also says my book is number 1,449,102 in Books. Already.

Well, it’s good to know where you stand, I suppose.

I have setup an Amazon author page, a blog, and a Facebook page for the book. If you are on Facebook, give me a Like. I could use it.



I am still trying to figure out what I ought to post to the book blog. I have categories for People, Places and Things. In treatment, the standard warning we issued to one another was to watch out for people, places, and things. It was a reminder that one ought to be wary about the people you hung out with, the places you allowed yourself to visit, and the things you got involved with. On the blog, it hasn’t quite gelled into a posting strategy.

But I’m optimistic.

I’m mostly posting about book related things. I have one post about Steelton. At some point, I’m going to post a story about the night this mug shot was taken.

Dopefiend

And, of course, as we pull our plans together for a book tour, I’ll add those to the blog. Keep coming back. It’s going to be grand!

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Tim Elhajj in Brevity

Trusty blue nova

I’m pleased to announce that my story, Sobering, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of Brevity.

Brevity has this to say about the issue:

The Winter 2011 issue of Brevity offers eighteen concise essays — rich examples of the experimentation, illumination, and surprise that can come with the very brief form.

Included is one our briefest essays yet, from the esteemed Steven Barthelme, and some of our favorite authors returning for an encore, including Richard Terrill, Lance Larsen, and Tim Elhajj. Meanwhile, Linsey Maughan graces us with her first creative nonfiction publication ever, and more than a few graduate student authors display their growing talents and strengths.

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Sweet – A Literary Confection of Poetry and Creative Nonfiction

Satisfaction at Cape Disappointment appears in the Winter issue of Sweet, available right now.

I’m pleased to be in the company of such stalwart artists as Dinty W. Moore, Rachel Furey, Barrie Jean Borich, Iza Wojciechowska, Sean Michael Wilson, Nin Andrews, Susan Lilley, David Sklar, Nick McRae, and Hillary C. Katz.

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2010 in Review: the Blogging Edition

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 24,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 5 fully loaded ships.

In 2010, there were 39 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 277 posts. There were 37 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 4mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was January 7th with 437 views. The most popular post that day was Modern Love in the New York Times.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, quartertothree.com, en.wordpress.com, search.aol.com, and search.conduit.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for present tense, tree fort plans, tree fort, play fort plans, and sketchup.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Modern Love in the New York Times March 2009
24 comments

2

True Stories July 2008

3

The BFG November 2007
2 comments

4

About Tim Elhajj February 2007

5

I Am Not Your Broom July 2008

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Got Junk?

Holly and I are collaborating on an online literary magazine called Junk. From the press release:

Tim Elhajj and Holly Huckeba have joined forces to bring you Junk, a literary fix at http://www.junklit.com. We’re a nonfiction literary magazine that focuses on addiction, but you don’t have to be an addict to submit to us.

That white elephant (pictured) is Whitey, our mascot. When it comes to memoir about addiction, Whitey is the (literary) elephant in the room that no one talks about (shhhh).

We just published our first official issue, a touching story from Elizabeth Westmark called Detritus.

Holly and I have some work posted, too. Check it out. I’d love to get your feedback. This is something I have always wanted to do and I’m so pleased it’s finally coming into its own.

I have always felt very strongly two things: 1) our creativity is one of the most powerful forces each of us has for creating good in the world; 2) memoirs about addiction and addicts are legion, but for some reason this work only appears in the same predictable ways, time after time. Junk is an attempt to bring these two ideas together and have some fun.

But mostly have fun.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Holly has agreed to work with me on this. I love working on creative projects with her but only realized this a few years ago, when Holly signed up to create memory books for the entire fifth grade as our kids graduated to middle school. It was early in the school year and she asked if I wanted to be part of it.

I laughed. “No way,” I said. “Count me out.”

Of course the plan for the memory books expanded. Then it contracted. Some of the fifth graders were confused. Others were prolific. Finally we came upon zero hour: it was the weekened before the memory books were due. Holly had so many stacks of art work, a few lists of names, and a lot of ideas.

“Are you going to help,” Holly said.

What could I say? Of course I would.

We ordered pizza for the kids and temporarliy lifted all TV and video game restrictions. We took all the art work to my office and spread it out on a ping pong table. The coffee machine clucked to life. We started trading ideas. The copiers and printers began humming. We got out the sicssors and started doing layouts.  The paper cutter made its chop chop noise. We sent out for Chinese. Finally, in the middle of the night, those memory books started coming to life. I had no idea it would be so much fun.

This weekend before last, Holly and I were at it again. We scoured our little corner of Washington to capture a photograph to go with Elizabeth’s fine story. What fun!

We posted the press release on the blog for the journal, where we post updates about research, all types of addiction, or literature that strikes our fancy. Our goal is to use the blog to create a community around the journal and see what happens.

Won’t you join us?

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Dopefiend Forthcoming from Central Recovery Press in October 2011!

Four Views of a Book Press

I signed a contract with a book publisher!

Dopefiend* is forthcoming from Central Recovery Press in October 2011. I am so excited and pleased.

Central Recovery Press first contacted me in early spring. I signed in late September. In-between was much book publishing drama. It’s nothing like what I imagined. I say that, but I am no longer even sure what I imagined. I just know I agonized over everything.

You always read about these wonderfully talented writers who were poor business people and ended up dying penniless and lonely in some terrible place. I was determined not to let that happen to me. I asked about print runs, wholesale and retail prices, and means of distribution, but the person I worked with—a kind soul from upstate NY named Tom Woll—liked to answer these type questions in general terms. I could never tell if he thought I was somewhat slow or if he was  just trying to protect me from myself.

Probably a little of both.

In the end, I had to reach out to all my writer friends and acquaintances for help. That’s what really turned the tide and helped me understand what was going on. It’s one thing to see yourself as a promising new voice. No matter how many rejections come, you’re always able to shrug it off. Writers get rejected. This is just what we do. In a sense, we’re manufacturing rejection. But being asked to deliver on a vivid and engaging manuscript is another story altogether. I didn’t see it right off, but now I realize I was overwhelmed, intimidated, and mabye even a little frightened.

Fortunately I had a host of writers and friends to rely on for everything from sanity checks to encouragement. Much thanks to: William Bradley, Dinty Moore, Matt Briggs, Rachael Brownell, Diane Diekman, Karna Converse, Carter Jefferson, Grace Skibicki, William Pitt Root, Tom Catton, Ira Sukrungruang, and I am sure a few others who I am forgetting as I write this.

And many thanks to Holly—a wonderfully talented writer in her own right, and my best reader and favorite critic—for putting up with me all summer long and for cleaning out some room in the house where I can write. I realize that I have been offered a wonderful opportunity, one that not many writers get.

Now my job is to write the best book I can produce.

*Dopefiend is the tentative title. I agreed to come up with a new title, but I haven’t found anything I like just yet.

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