A Job That Pays Connie Miller Essay

person_pin A Job That Pays

by Connie Miller

Published in Issue No. 9 ~ October, 1997

The night the highway patrol officer picked Andy and me up on I-90 about
halfway between Chicago and Madison, I was a 21-year old graduate
student who had never worked for a living. I’d had part time
jobs-serving food, washing test tubes, typing index entries for a
bibliography-but I thought of those as scaffolding, necessary for
support but irrelevant to my underlying purpose.

It was 1970 and the national guard had just shot and killed four
students at Kent State. At the University of Wisconsin, where I was
doing my graduate work, Vietnam war protesters had turned State Street
into a corridor of shattered glass and boarded up windows. An
organization of radicals who painted their faces and embraced the
teachings of Ho Chi Minh had bombed a university building. The tear gas
that stung my eyes and blurred my vision as I walked between classes
also shaped my view of life beyond academia: I equated earning a living
with selling out.

Such revolutionary sentiments didn’t stop me from enjoying life’s finer
things. When my friend, Andy, who lived downstairs in my rooming house,
invited me to an opera and dinner in Chicago, I jumped at the chance. I
don’t remember now what opera we saw or what I had for dinner. I do
remember how cold it was and how easily, during the three hour drive
into the city, the Wisconsin winter found its way inside Andy’s ancient
Rambler. And I do remember, when the Rambler broke down on the way back,
how quickly what had seemed like the road home when we were moving
became the middle of nowhere when we were standing still. For someone
who associated uniforms with the enemy, I was disconcertingly delighted
at the appearance of a highway patrol vehicle cruising the freeway on
the other side of the median. Its driver spotted our blinking lights,
spun a u-turn, and came to our rescue.

He was a big man and the way he didn’t hurry made him seem like a
patient and thorough one. I watched him pull up behind us, fiddle with
something on the dashboard, climb out of his car, glance backward down
the freeway, and stroll toward the Rambler, his leather jacket and boots
reflecting the pale moonlight. His hat, with its wide brim and round
top, looked like the one Sky King wore in his TV series called Mountie
of the Canadian West.

“Car trouble?” he asked, resting his hands on the lower edge of the
window and leaning down to look inside. When Andy explained our
situation, the highway patrol officer offered to drive us to the nearest
town where we could arrange to have the Rambler towed to a service

We crowded into his car with the flashing light on top and the words
State of Wisconsin Highway Patrol emblazoned around some logo on the
front doors. We all sat in front, me sandwiched between Andy and the
uniform. The officer radioed to headquarters that he was giving us a

As I’ve aged, I’ve learned to appreciate the silences that fall between
people thrown together by chance or circumstance. I’ve lost the need to
fill them. Now, I’d be content just to sit in that dark car as it hummed
along the highway, listening to the disembodied squawking of
headquarters making contact with its outliers, and watching headlights
spring up out of nowhere, steal across our faces, and then disappear out
the window into the dark. Then, I saw chance and circumstance as fate
and sitting in silence as missed opportunity.

“What’s it like to work for the highway patrol?” I asked the big man in
the uniform.

“I help people in trouble,” he answered, never taking his eyes off the

“Like us,” I said.

“You guys are easy.” He adjusted his Sky King hat. “I scrape the hard
ones off the highway after an accident. I’m out here patrolling so I’m
usually first on the scene. I do what I can — give them CPR and make them
comfortable until the medics get there.”

Maybe it was the dim, intimate atmosphere in the warm patrol car or the
luxury of a captive audience. Or maybe the guy just got lonely
patrolling those Wisconsin freeways in the dark. For whatever reason, he
kept talking. He told us about a young girl, “no more than a teenager,”
who had run her car into a bridge. She was half dead when he found her.
He couldn’t do much except keep her company until the ambulance arrived.

“How can you stand it?” I asked him, genuinely alarmed by the prospect
of anyone facing such thankless work.

For the first time the highway patrol officer took his eyes off the road
and looked at me. Because it was so dark, I couldn’t see his expression
but I could hear the leniency in his reply. “It’s a job, dear,” he told
me, shrugging his leather-covered shoulders. “It pays.”

Part of me, the part that had never worked for a living, rejected what
the officer said as a level of compromise people whose eyes knew the
sting of tear gas would never be willing to make. Another part
understood that something besides compromise was at stake. In the bar,
where Andy and I waited for the mechanic to finish, and during the long
drive home in the newly-repaired Rambler, I kept seeing a wrecked car
under a bridge and a patient man in a Sky King hat keeping a dying
teenager company.

account_box More About

Connie Miller lives in Seattle and, like so many writers and artists there, makes her living producing documentation at a software company. She likes to believe her true work is writing essays and articles, a few of which she's managed to publish in Iowa Woman, Seattle Magazine, and elsewhere. Connie was fortunate enough to spend a month-long residency last November at the women writers' retreat, Cottages at Hedgebrook.