May 5, 2000. In the news, U.S. unemployment reaches a 30-year low; the city of Reading fires several employees as the city faces a $10 million deficit. At the bar, Stan prepares a gimlet for Jessie, who’s eyeing a birthday cake on the counter. Oscar plays a handheld video game behind the bar. Jessie tells Stan that Tracey and Cynthia were supposed to meet her here an hour ago. Stan asks if something is going on, and Jessie tells him that Cynthia’s promotion is creating a lot of tension with Tracey. Tracey is pretending it’s not a big deal, but she’s also spreading a rumor that Cynthia only got the job because she’s black. Stan thinks it’s ridiculous that people at Olstead’s are angry about the promotion since Cynthia earned it fair and square—they’re just resistant to change.
The contrast between the national headline and the local one shows that despite overall economic prosperity in the U.S., there are still communities like Reading that are struggling financially. This likely contributes to characters’ sense of injustice as they struggle to make ends meet despite their hard work—to people like Tracey, it probably seems as though everyone else is getting ahead while she’s underpaid and underappreciated. Jessie’s comment that there are a lot of people mad at Cynthia for her new job reinforces this: rather than supporting their longtime coworker, people feel resentful and even more disillusioned with the system given that they will likely never receive promotions of their own.
Jessie says she’s sick of being stuck in the middle between Tracey and Cynthia; she gives up on waiting and asks Stan to get a knife for the cake. Jessie blows out the candles, and Stan affectionately wishes her a happy birthday. Just as Jessie begins to cut the cake, Cynthia rushes in and apologizes for being late—she got stuck in a meeting. She gives Jessie her birthday gift, a Cher CD, and the two of them hug and sing a few lines from “Believe” together. Cynthia tells Jessie about her meeting with the other Olstead’s supervisors, all of whom have big ideas for how to run the floor more efficiently despite never having operated the plant’s machines.
Unlike Tracey, Jessie is supportive of Cynthia and refuses to get in the middle of her friends’ conflict. This could be due to the fact that Jessie is more apathetic about Olstead’s (as evidenced by how she shows up to work drunk), which might make her less resentful of those who get ahead. Tracey, on the other hand, cares very much about being acknowledged and respected for her work, so it’s a slap in the face that Cynthia has advanced while Tracey is stuck in the same job.
Stan comments that it must feel great to be a manager after so many years on the floor, and Cynthia confirms that it is—she has an office with a computer, and she no longer has to stay on her feet for 10 hours without air-conditioning. She reflects how, despite working at Olstead’s for 24 years, she never spoke to anyone else in the office part of the plant before now. Suddenly, Chris and Jason burst into the bar, immediately infecting the room with energy. They wish Jessie a happy birthday, and Chris tells everyone that they just took a spin on Jason’s new motorcycle. Jason asks where his mom is, but Jessie doesn’t know; Jason reassures her that Tracey will show up.
Cynthia’s experience as a new manger is telling: it seems that Olstead’s white-collar workers rarely if ever interact with the blue-collar laborers, an atmosphere that explains why the floor workers feel overlooked and disrespected. The poor working conditions (long hours with no air-conditioning) likely also contribute to the floor workers’ discontent, as management is comfortable and insulated while those on the floor suffer physically, financially, and emotionally.
Chris comments on how professionally Cynthia is dressed, and Cynthia and Jessie reminisce about how they looked when they first started at Olstead’s: Cynthia had an Afro and platform heels, and Jessie had hair down to her bottom. Jessie recalls how she started at the plant when she was 18 (Jason bets that she was hot back then, and Stan confirms that she was). Jessie only planned on working long enough to save the money she needed to backpack in Asia along “hippie trails” with her boyfriend. But that never happened—she met Dan, her now-ex-husband, and got caught in the “riptide” of working. Now, Jessie regrets not getting out and seeing the world. She becomes emotional, and Stan shares that he saw some of the world after he was in the Vietnam War and reassures her that sometimes “not knowing” is better.
Jessie’s unrealized dreams show the long-term consequences of getting stuck at a factory like Olstead’s: rather than saving enough money to achieve her goals, Jessie ended up stuck in a cycle of work in which she essentially forfeited her dreams and dedicated her life to a company for little in return. However, Stan’s wisdom about the downsides of seeing the world suggests that it’s counterproductive to look back on the past with regret—and sometimes, it’s better to stay with what’s comfortable and familiar rather than branch out and risk experiencing traumatic things.
Just then, Tracey rushes into the bar and announces that the party can begin. She and Cynthia get into a spat about how late she is, and Tracey brushes Jessie off when Jessie asks if she’s okay. Jessie notes that the gathering suddenly doesn’t feel like a celebration. When Tracey avoids sitting next to Cynthia, Cynthia confronts her: they’ve been friends for a long time, she says, so Tracey should speak her mind instead of creating tension if she has a problem. She tells Tracey that she doesn’t deserve what Tracey has been saying and asks her not to make the promotion about race.
Tracey’s rude behavior toward Cynthia is driving a wedge in their decades-long friendship. This is particularly hypocritical given that Tracey went for the same job and likely would have taken the promotion if she had been offered it. Clearly, Tracey is acting out because she feels jealous of Cynthia and left behind by one of her oldest friends.
Tracey admits that she’s hurt because Cynthia is rubbing elbows with management while ignoring Tracey on the floor. Cynthia understands, but she asks them all to cut her some slack since she’s under so much pressure. At this, Tracey asks if there’s something Cynthia isn’t telling them and if there are going to be layoffs, which alarms Jason and Chris. Cynthia hesitates to answer. She admits that there’s been talk of cutting overhead, and Tracey makes her promise to tell them if she hears anything definitive. She calls Oscar over to read Cynthia the job posting from the Latino Community Center.
Tracey’s admission of how hurt she is drives home the idea that people tend to react with resentment rather than support when they feel left behind by their love ones—even, and especially, if they’re all in the same boat of trying to stay afloat in life. Meanwhile, the revelation about potential layoffs gives legitimacy to the job posting at the Latino Community Center: it seems that Olstead’s may indeed be going behind their employees’ backs to look for replacements who are willing to work for lower pay.