Thursday, March 10, 2005

Class, Part IV: What's Your Job?

The first job I ever had was as the summer lunchtime hostess/cashier at a small (90-seat) department store restaurant. Because I had not applied to the SPLAC I wanted to attend in time (yes, I know), I was wait-listed and then offered February admission, which I took. I needed more work hours for the fall, even though I could keep the two evenings/week, and weekend shifts, because the regular lunchtime cashier/hostess was coming back. The daytime dishwasher was leaving, so I asked for those hours and got them. I liked the job, too, as far as that goes; there were no hidden agendas, for one thing, and there's always a rhythm to work like that. I always look for small efficiencies (e.g., I sorted the silverware as I cleaned out the bus buckets, which made putting away the clean silverware a much simpler task for the waitstaff), and it's usually possible to just relax into it. I also discovered that I do NOT like to do this work while high: I did that one time, and the day dragged on for at least two weeks.

Because I was bonded for the cashier job, when the lunch hostess needed to step away for some reason, I stepped up to the cash register in my kitchen whites. (Irrelevant aside: you can always tell whether someone learned to make change on an old-fashioned cash register--i.e., one that doesn't tell you how much to hand back to the customer--or the new-fangled kind that does tell, by seeing whether the person starts from the bills or the pennies.) I mentioned this at the dinner table, and my mother's first reaction was to be appalled that I appeared in the dining room in my kitchen whites (my mother has always been concerned with appearances, and with my tendency to do things that seem unfeminine to her). My father jumped in before I could say anything and said something to the effect of, "They're her work clothes and they're nothing to be ashamed of." I also figured out, when I was at college--in part because my mom was a secretary--that the secretaries knew everything and made everything happen. Not the deans, not the professors, not the administrators, the secretaries. Many students were unaware of this and treated secretaries with something less than the respect they deserved. In short, then, my parents taught me (my mom's concern for appearances notwithstanding) that there was no shame in any job, and that doing a job half-assed was impermissible. It was also impermissible to treat anyone else with anything less than respect, no matter what job they happened to be doing.

As I did a number of shit jobs myself over the years, I experienced this from the other side, i.e., the people who treat you like scum or like a servant because you're in a "service" position. I also experienced the rhythm to service jobs that involved the public (though I never waited tables; that would probably tax my goodwill way too far)--I tried to connect with the customers, even if only in a small way, and I discovered that it made the hours move more quickly and also that it sometimes jolted people out of some funk they were in or just made a small human connection that improved their day. (I did not tell people to smile, however; that makes me crazy.)

Two things have come out of this.

First, having been on the other side, I find myself trying to at least be pleasant to the service people around me. Bus drivers, counter help, waitstaff, janitorial or maintenance staff, whomever. Please; thank you; I don't know how to do this, can you please help me? Mind you, this isn't some kind of noblesse oblige, and I don't think I'm doing anything exceptional here--that's how I think everyone should treat each other. Miss Manners would agree completely. Based on the positive responses that I get, however, it may be the case that not everyone's parents taught this.

The second thing, though, is that, I do not entirely trust someone who's never held a shit job that he or she needed to keep in order to make the rent or buy food. A summer job making photocopies in the law offices of daddy's best friend does not count. Waiting tables three nights a week and weekends so you can pay the rent and eat while you do an unpaid internship does. I can eventually overcome my mistrust, sometimes, but, to me, if you've never had a shit job ever in your life, then you've experienced a fair amount of privilege, and chances are pretty good that you're unaware of that privilege. You've never had the joy of someone treating you like shit, simply because of the work that you're doing, and knowing that you can't really object too much because you need that job. The feeling that goes along with that is neither hopeful nor positive.

There are two sub-points related to this. First, one of the things that made the jobs bearable to me was that I saw them as a means to an end: I'll do this shit work now, and I have to keep this particular job now, but it's in the service of eventually not having to do this job. If working for peanuts at Wal-Mart were the only job i could ever hope to have? I can't imagine the despair that would wash over me. Well, yes, I can, having had a taste of it 12 years ago, and it's not pleasant. Second, though, much as I don't want to do those jobs, I know that, if push comes to shove, I can. I've done them, I know how to do them, I can do it.


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