'Nine Lives' bristles with bravado, irony

September 01, 1994|By Henry Alford | Henry Alford,Newsday

Chutzpah, moxie, spunk: It would be difficult to discuss Lynn Snowden and her highly engaging book, "Nine Lives," without invoking these three words. In fact, given the rigorous physical and emotional demands of the reporting that she did for this work of participatory journalism, it might be more appropriate to declaim: Chutzpah! Moxie! Spunk!

A free-lance magazine writer who got herself hired for nine different jobs in the course of a year -- from counseling rape victims in Texas to making chocolate dinosaurs in a factory in Connecticut, from writing copy for a New York City advertising agency to working as a stripper on Bourbon Street in New Orleans -- Ms. Snowden has an ability to throw herself into harrowing situations that is marked by equal parts determination and brio.

Ms. Snowden's investigation of the American workplace was motivated by her belief that what people do during the day determines who they are at night. Moreover, she contends that we all have preconceptions about the sort of person who works in certain jobs.

Thus, in selecting her nine careers for her book, she was "very interested in selecting professions that have very strong stereotypical images." She writes: "I wanted to examine persistent myths about jobs, the people in them and women in the workplace in general."

Ms. Snowden never fails to hold our interest or to provide a clear understanding of the tasks and irritations of each career. The most diverting chapter of the book is her stint as a pyrotechnician for the heavy-metal band Skid Row, whose music she describes as "the aural equivalent of a train wreck."

Hired to help load and detonate explosions during concerts, Ms. Snowden tours with the almost all-male Skid Row entourage, sleeping each night on board the band's bus in a compartment she describes as a "coffin." Ms. Snowden aptly captures the roadie experience: not knowing or caring what city you are in; buying inexpensive socks and later throwing them out rather than having to wash them; working 12- and 14-hour days under much pressure.

Such a career, it seems, brings out the feistiness in Ms. Snowden. When she finds Skid Row's tour accountant reading her notebook one day, she bashes him with her duffel bag; when a male groupie intimates that he will do almost anything in exchange for one of the band member's guitar picks, she tells him to lick the sludge-coated sole of her sneaker (he does, and lustily). After I had read this second act of brazenness -- a classic reversal of the humiliation that male roadies put female fans through -- suddenly the idea of George Plimpton playing for the Lions or of Gloria Steinem working as a Playboy bunny seemed almost quaint.

Equally interesting (if less combative) is Ms. Snowden's account of working as a counselor at the Austin Rape Crisis Center in Texas. During her training she learns that rape "is concerned much more with status, hostility, control and dominance than with sexual pleasure or sexual satisfaction. It is sexual behavior in the service of non-sexual needs."

She goes on to work both on the center's hot line and in person with rape victims.

This chapter best illustrates the author's assertion that who we are at night is informed by what we do during the day. Ms. Snowden's life is, as a result of her work at the center, altered. Women she meets in social situations start blurting out to her that they have been raped; a visit to a local drinking establishment results in paranoia; the failure of the doors of an elevator at her hotel to close finds her complaining to the hotel's management therapist-style ("If the buttons don't work, you're removing my choice to shut the door").

The one disappointing chapter is Ms. Snowden's turn as a Darien, Conn., housewife in charge of three boys and a mother-in-law. The revelation that housekeeping is challenging does not exactly crackle with the shock of the new; nor does the reader acquire any interesting job-specific information. (There is one fun moment when, looking out a window in one of the boys' bedrooms, she sees, scrawled on the glass in red paint, the name Skid Row.)

In the book's epilogue, Ms. Snowden explains how she got each of the nine jobs, showing the irony of how much easier it was to get hired as a high school teacher and rape-crisis counselor than it was as a cocktail waitress or factory worker. She also reflects on the changes wrought in her life as a result of writing the book.

"I [have] developed," she writes, "what is perhaps the dangerous opinion that I could learn how to do anything." In other words: chutzpah, moxie, spunk.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher: My Year-Long Odyssey in the Workplace"

Author: Lynn Snowden

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 287 pages, $22

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