Dumpster Diving and Debt: A Recent English Graduate's Rise to an Office Cubicle

Jeff Markwardt '02

We load up the van with Darigold crates, flashlights, and rubber gloves.  Having heard that Larry's Market throws away good produce each night, we pull around to the back of the grocery store, searching for the location where the market stores its trash.

We are not alone.  A night guard on a smoking break silently watches us from a distance.  Two young adult males named Sage and Peter shake our hands and welcome us into one very large dumpster.  We stand with them on top of spongy layers of broccoli, plums, peaches, apples, oranges, corn, and artichokes.  I am thankful for these radical teachers living off the leftover fruits and vegetables of our unquestionably unsustainable food culture.

  

English majors walk very different paths.  We are uncommon people.  My personal stories about dumpster diving and living off a stipend of $80 per month while working at a homeless shelter would seem not to make a good advertisement for the CSB/SJU English Department.

But I chose to be an English major because I knew doing so would best translate into a life as opposed to a career.   Majoring in English is a challenge.  English majors ask hard questions and learn to be satisfied with not finding absolute answers.  We use our voices.  We imagine.  We create.  Together we can challenge tradition, embrace diversity, and aspire to change the world.  I find something special in our concealed community of social activists, archaeologists, art directors, teachers, and lawyers: we share a common hunger, curiosity, and intensity for life.

After graduating from college, I put my college loans on hold and accepted a year-long position with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, an organization that shared my desires to live out values of peace, social justice, community, and simple living.

CSB/SJU English professors had always told me I could do anything with my English major.  I certainly put their words to the test with my volunteer placement.  I wanted a challenge, and I got it.  I was placed at the largest homeless shelter in downtown Seattle.  Each day I came face to face with mental illness, substance abuse, and violence.  Those first few months, the one thing I felt comfortable with-and good at-was using my Spanish to register Spanish-speaking clients.  I was the only staff member at the shelter with conversational Spanish-speaking skills.

Experience with being in charge of the shelter came the day that the shift supervisor was on vacation and the assistant day-shift supervisor called in sick.  The other regular staff member there that day had a mere two weeks of experience on the job, and my two co-workers were only on-call staff members.  For an eight-hour shift, I was running the largest shelter in Seattle.

Thankfully, I wasn't "the boss" Christmas Eve when I fielded a bomb threat call.  With the assistance of the night-shift supervisor and two other regular staff members, we woke 219 homeless men and women sleeping on their floor mats and escorted them to a nearby city park to wait until the Seattle Police Department told us we could return with safety.

 

 

I chose to be an English major because I knew doing so would best translate into a life as opposed to a career.

Although the shelter provided me with many great stories that would shock my friends and family back home, I knew by the end of my year of volunteer service that a career in direct social services wasn't quite right for me.  As a result, in August I accepted a position as a resource specialist at the Crisis Clinic.  With a team of five other resource specialists, I now constantly edit and write in order to update and maintain a database of more than 7,000 health and human service providers in Seattle's King County.  Our published directory, online resources, and largely volunteer-run 24-hour crisis line are vital resources that connect people in our community to the resources they need.  My previous experience as a peer writing tutor at the CSB/SJU Writing Center, along with the English Department's many inspiring teachers and courses, gave me the skill and confidence I need to do this type of work well.

My sterile, windowless cubicle is comfortable.  I no longer have to be concerned about urine on the shelter floor, fights over the one and only shelter phone, the empty sugar container at the coffee counter, or sleeping clients breaking shelter rules with their shoulders on the floor.  I am now concerned about comma splices and writing clear, concise sentences.  I'm even beginning to pay off some of my college loans.

As an English major, I refuse to let it end here.  I will not allow myself to get too comfortable.  Neither do I dream about someday occupying that currently unoccupied cubicle next to the window.  There's too much to discover and too much that the world freely offers for me to live my entire life quietly sitting down.

Jeff  Markwardt lives communally as a member of the Evergreen Land Trust in a purple coop on Seattle's Capitol Hill.  He is proud to note that this season the coop's backyard garden was bountiful with pears, blackberries, cherries, plums, grapes, and apples.