by Gordon Haber
When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to keep adjuncting. This was in 2008, when the economy was imploding. But I was determined to teach, so I went through the LA Times education supplement, made a list of colleges and universities in the area, and contacted the English departments of every single one of them. It took weeks, but in the end I was rewarded with sections at two different schools.
Good for me, right? There was just one problem. One college was 20 miles south of home, the other 20 miles west. This would be a long commute for anybody, but in LA, freeway miles are like dog years. Plus, as an adjunct, I was invariably given the lousiest class times, which meant that it was impossible to avoid rush hour. Thus I averaged about 8 hours a week in my car—almost twice the national average.
All the commuting was expensive—I spent over $200 a month in gas—and it affected my
health. I put on weight. I had a constant ache in my neck and calves. The worst was my back. I’d get out of bed and end up supine on the floor, unable to right myself, like Gregor Samsa.
I tried to make the best of this long commute. To pass the time, I got language CDs from the library, and as the months passed I brushed up on my French, Polish and Hebrew. When I got bored with languages, I listened to the blues and early rock-and-roll. And when I got bored with music (which I had never thought possible) I listened to the news. I became an extremely well-informed guy who could ask for directions in Warsaw, Tel Aviv and Paris.
But my commute had unforeseen side effects. It made me irrationally anxious—although I never had an accident, I couldn’t get behind the wheel without knowing I was going to crash. I was also depressed, which made me a miserable person to be around (later I’d learn of the study that found a correlation between long commutes and divorce). All this, by the way, was in addition to the adjunct life, to the near-constant grading and scrambling for sections.
I will say one thing for the commute: it taught me a lot about LA. I learned my way around East L.A. and South Central, Bel Air and the Valley. And eventually I realized that I was lucky. My wife made decent money, so we could afford health insurance and a nice apartment. But what if that weren’t the case? What if I had to face life as a freeway flyer alone?
This was the inspiration for my novella, “Adjunctivitis.” It’s about an adjunct desperately seeking health insurance—and a stable relationship—in Los Angeles. And because it’s unavoidable in LA, I had some fun with the parochialism of show business.
So I guess a couple of good things came out of
that hellish commute. But I never want to go through anything like that again.
For unrelated reasons, my wife and I decided to move back to New York. It seemed like a good opportunity to stop adjuncting. Instead I’ve been freelance writing and consulting for publishers about e-books. And now I have time to polish my story collection and finish my novel.
I can’t say I’ll never go back to adjuncting. With all its indignities, it is the most spiritually-rewarding day job I ever had, but, of course, the pay is pathetic. If I do try and pick up a section or two, you can bet my first and only choice will be the nearby community college.
What’s your longest adjunct commute?