Landlord, Teacher, Writer: Brandi Wells on Learning to Separate Themself From Their Job(s)
“Reframing work is an ongoing and sometimes impossible-seeming process.”
For seven years I didn’t exist. I had a body and woke up every day and went to work but no one thought I was real. I was this slippery, non-person. I was a receptionist and then a leasing consultant and then the assistant manager and finally the property manager of a group of apartments catering to low-income college students and families. The rates were beyond cheap. $175 a month could get a room in a four bedroom. $299 could get you a 560 square foot one bedroom.
I remember prices, square footages, amenities, and apartment numbers. This is all I was. My life outside the office wasn’t real. I lived maybe twenty feet from where I worked. I walked out my back door and around to the front of the office to start my day. “Thank you for calling _____. This is Brandi. How can I help you?” People thought I was the answering machine. I should have realized then that I wasn’t real.
When I started the job, I was 19 and had just dropped out of college. I didn’t know how I would support myself, how I would live. So I allowed the job to become my identity. I built everything about myself around it, on top of it, like the job was the foundation for who I was.
When I was at home, I was on call for emergencies, leaks or outages, if an apartment got broken into. A building caught on fire because the tenant fell asleep cooking and also stored all her grease and oil in the cabinet above the stove. The fire climbed bright orange into the sky, and I had to call the owner and tell him it was burning. We had to relocate tenants, let them out of their leases. Even once the apartments were repainted, refloored, and given new appliances, it still smelled like a barbecue inside.
The owner of the company came on Tuesdays, though not every Tuesday. He would pull up in a luxury car that everyone knew he bought with cash. No matter what we did he would criticize us. Why weren’t the apartments rented? Why weren’t we doing our jobs? The units sat empty because they were in poor condition. The buildings were old, the roofs needed to be replaced, our parking lot was full of holes. The owner refused to take care of their apartments.
The tenants looked at me and saw the owner. The owner looked at me and saw tenants. Really, they looked through me; I was a window they looked through to one another.Seeing myself as separate from my work is an ongoing journey.
When the tenant from unit #90 walked into the office looking distraught, I knew what was wrong. My manager had his apartment cleaned out even though he hadn’t handed his keys in. He and his wife had lived there with their two children for almost a year. The items we threw away included: removable seats for a van, books, photos, toys, dishes, sports equipment. And the trash had already run so everything was long gone.
I tried to look sympathetic while not crying. My manager could hear us from her office, but she didn’t come out. I felt like it was my job to absorb his anger and heartbreak. I took his feelings, internalized them, and made them into nothing. Alongside the rundown apartments I was becoming worse too.
To everyone who saw me, I was the company. I could have quit but I didn’t. I was fumbling through college again, overdrawing my bank account, and the job felt like a life raft. I had a paycheck and discounted rent. I believed this was all I was capable of, and I was lucky to have it.
I kept charging late fees, serving evictions, going to court dates. I didn’t repair maintenance issues or do anything about the bugs. My apartment had bugs too. Roaches and silverfish and fleas. They were a punishment, a plague. Someone put gum on my car, and I left it there, let it melt down my window when the Georgia heat became too much for it. Another tenant put a note in the office’s drop box. It said, “You next, Brandi.” One tenant mimicked stabbing me when I fined her for grilling on her wooden balcony. It all became commonplace, routine.
My life grew around the job, felt impossible to untangle from it. I dated a tenant. I learned about make up from an assistant manager. I opened my first cell phone in that office. Decided to go back to school but kept working full time, did homework in the back room, missed class for work emergencies, and somehow mucked through.
When I think of that place now, I still think of it as home. I grew up there. In some ways it feels like I’ll never escape.
In retrospect, it wasn’t just that I was invisible. It’s that as I let all these people become part of my job, they became unreal too. I compartmentalized them. I made harm okay, normal. It’s terrifying to remember this version of myself.
Now I’m a professor, and I haven’t quite figured out how to render myself as distinct from my job, but I’m working on it. Unlike the tenants, I remember that my students are people first, fully realized human beings with backstories and interiority. I’m always imagining they need more than they’re willing to ask for—more lenience, more understanding.
I try to remember that I’m not my job. I’m not a teacher. I’m not a professor. That’s just work that I do. And the job is different, the pay is better, and I have a little breathing room. But still, I fall asleep thinking about assignments and emails, rewriting messages in my head, reconceiving of classroom exercises, until I can’t actually sleep. I have to type notes into my phone, ones that aren’t even very good because I’ve been in bed for hours and my mind is swimming.
Seeing myself as separate from my work is an ongoing journey. I still slip into my old mindset. I dream of work, I talk about it, I start to throw myself into things and let other aspects of my life wither. Whenever I’m writing, I imagine I’ve set my pace to grueling. I wake up and write until I’m ready to go to bed, seven days a week. I vanish from the social sphere, only to resurface weeks or months later, attempting to reestablish friendships I’ve forgotten. It’s easy to throw myself into any task I’m doing and forget everything else.
My debut novel, The Cleaner, follows a narrator whose job is her entire life, as well as her identity to disastrous results. Under capitalism, this is how work has been structured. Our jobs are important, essential. Or, we have to work hard to get ahead. It’s temporary! Productivity culture will devour us all until we even measure our downtime using the language of capitalism. Was my holiday productive? Did I have a productive break? Reframing work is an ongoing and sometimes impossible-seeming process. But I’m more than my job or my writing. I have to be. You have to be too.
The Cleaner by Brandi Wells is available from Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.