Three years ago, Jim Benfield was earning $14,000 a year working in the lockstep of an office job, putting in some 60-hour weeks and feeling pressured and vaguely unhappy.
Then he slipped off his career ladder and into what he describes as a work "utopia." Now 33 and single, he has found to his own amazement that he can earn at least $15,000 a year working at an unlikely smorgasbord of part-time jobs and enjoy life in the bargain.
A man of self-effacing humor and quizzical eyebrows, Benfield rides through the federal bureaucracy on his bicycle, picking up copies of government reports for a multinational packaging company ($7,200 a year) and also works as the janitor of his apartment building ($1,800). He manages a chamber music group ($3,000). He works as a free-lance photographer for several small news services (about $2,500), plays guitar at a Capitol Hill restaurant and gives guitar lessons (about $2,000).
What his unusual situation lacks in terms of middle class security, health and retirement benefits and fancy titles, he says it makes up in personal satisfaction and freedom, on the job and off.
For instance, he explains with relish that now he can go to Washington museums on weekday mornings when the crowds are thinnest.
"Once I got into this, I realized I didn't want a straight job again," he said during an interview in his combination bedroom and office. His roomy apartment is on the second floor of a venerable but fading apartment building on 24th Street NW.
Benfield estimates he works about 25 to 35 hours a week. He takes his vacations when he pleases. His tax deducations include such "weird" combinatuons as guitar strings and hammers (for his janitorial duties).
His audacious life-style is not the result of a deliberate plan but rather a fragile network of "lucky breaks," he emphasizes. "There may not be much future in it, but if I leave it, I doubt I could ever go back to it."
the son of a double bassist for the Chicago symphony, Benfield had studied economics in college with the idea of going into symphony management. Three years ago he was working as public relations director for the National Symphony, a job he found to be a "hotbox" of pressure to fill seats for the concerts. "The dissatisfaction was mutual and I wound up in the unemployment lines," he said.
The pieces of his new life started to fall into place when a friend of his started a news service for a string of Wyoming newspapers and television stations. Benfield has worked as a photographer in the Army and, in doing off photo assignments for his friend, he learned his way around Capitol Hill and made some contacts.
"Before that, I actually thought all Senate hearings were held on the floor of the Senate, and I always wondered how they ever got anything done," he said.
His burgeoning knowledge of Capitol Hill and the federal bureaucracy led to a job on retainer as a "gofer" for the Continental Group (formerly Continental Can Co.). Since it is the highest-paying and steadiest of all his jobs, Benfield said, it is top priority on his calendar.
"I call Continental every morning in New York. They might want me to pick up a certain GAO (Government Accounting Office) report, or a copy of a speech by Attorney General Bell, or a hearing transcript. They've even asked me to do the research on some subjects - a summary of all the bills, official statements, and so on. It's fascinating, and you learn a lot about where to track down information in the government. There's satisfaction in being able to do it quickly."
His favorite job is with the chamber group - The Theater Chamber Players.
The group, which is affiliated with The Smithsonian Institution, performs five concerts a year. Benfield's duties include "arranging publicity, handling grant applications, a little stage managing, doing the layouts for the brochures. And I get to work with some really fine musicians."
Benfield's jobs playing classical guitar started through a cook at the Big Cheese Restaurant who lived at his apartment building and arranged for him to perform there. He now performs Sunday evenings at the Gandy Dancer, a restaurant on Capitol Hill.
The janitorial work consists largely of "vacuuming the rugs, emptying trash and sometimes letting the tenants scream at me," he said. "I can work it in any time, say Saturday midnight, when I come in from a date and still feel wide awake."
Benfield said he keeps his various duties clearly delineated. "i don't lobby fro Continental. I'm just a gopher. And I don't do any reporting, I just push the buttons on a camera."
His life-style has a few minor drawbacks, he noted. "It does require a certain discipline. And I have to keep healthy. If I get-sick, I don't get paid."
He plots his daily schedule carefully in a date book to avoid conflicts. And he has set up his own retirement and hospitalization funds. "That makes my income closer to $11,000 or $12,000," he noted.
Benfield realizes he may not be able to keep up his "hobbyist's approach to work" forever. "I realize I am at an age when most people are laying career plans. But I see so many people whose whole motivation seems to be retirement and then they get cancer at 55 . . . For now, this is a kick."