August 4, 2000. In the news, Republican presidential candidate George Bush begins a campaign trail across the Midwest. Cynthia, sitting alone at a table in the bar, tells Stan she’d rather be on a cruise on the Panama Canal. Stan replies that that’s a good way to spend a birthday and asks if Cynthia is alright. She confides in him that she was hoping her friends would show up, but Stan reminds her that they don’t have much of a choice. Cynthia reminisces about how she felt special and accomplished when she first started at Olstead’s—but now that she’s gotten the managerial job she always coveted, she’s been wracked with guilt over watching her friends be locked out.
Cynthia’s experience after her promotion shows that sometimes, increases in status aren’t entirely positive: in this case, Cynthia’s added responsibility has seemingly made her even more stressed and overworked than she was as a floor worker. Her self-professed guilt, along with the fact that she’s spending her birthday alone, is further evidence of how such life changes can cause conflict in one’s relationships—even among beloved friends and family.
Cynthia wonders if the plant gave her the promotion on purpose so that she’d have to take the heat of the lockout, and she regretfully admits that she needs the money. She’d thought that the floor workers would take the deal they were offered. Stan reminds her that it’s their friends who are locked out—many people in town wouldn’t even want him serving Cynthia. Cynthia tells him to drop the attitude. She had to lock out her own son, so she fully understands the gravity of the situation. However, she also thinks that getting Chris out of Olstead’s could be a silver lining.
The workers’ collective disillusionment and distrust of management is justified if Cynthia’s suspicions are correct, as this would mean that Olstead’s promoted Cynthia just to make her a scapegoat during the lockout. However, despite Cynthia’s guilt and the way her loved ones have turned on her, she seems to sense that wallowing in this isn’t productive—instead, she’s focusing on how the lockout could be a good thing in the long term.
Sensing how distraught Cynthia is, Stan reassures her that it’s not her fault—many of Stan’s customers are in Cynthia’s position as other local plants institute layoffs and lockouts. He bitterly comments that politicians have no idea what’s going on in the world, which is why he isn’t voting. Cynthia agrees, and she suggests that maybe Freddy Brunner wasn’t so crazy to burn his house down.
Stan’s reassurance reflects the widespread nature of situations like what’s happening at Olstead’s: it seems that no one in Reading’s working-class community has job security at this time. As such, it makes sense that Stan and Cynthia are cynical about career politicians and are sympathetic to Freddy. A distrust of authority and a tendency toward self-destruction seem inevitable when workers are treated as disposable and their livelihoods are thrown into question.
Just then, Tracey and Jessie enter the bar. The mood immediately darkens; Tracey accuses Cynthia of being a traitor, and Jessie asks Cynthia how it feels to betray her friends. Cynthia reminds them that they could have taken the deal, but Tracey says she’d rather be locked out and dependent upon union handouts than give up everything she’s worked for. Cynthia replies that she didn’t make the policy, but Tracey won’t hear of it—she accuses Cynthia of not being on their side. She tells Cynthia how humiliating it is to be locked out, and Cynthia sympathizes but explains that she’s in a difficult position.
Cynthia has been presented with the dilemma of either retaining her source of income or standing in solidarity with her friends—a choice which reflects just how unfairly Olstead’s employees are treated, as they’re essentially forced to pick between their financial security or their personal life. Choosing the former results in resentment among loved ones, whereas choosing the latter leaves people destitute and unstable like Freddy Brunner—either way, people in Cynthia’s position lose out despite the ostensible career progress they’ve made.
Still, Tracey refuses to hear Cynthia out and scoffs at the idea of taking the deal. She tells Cynthia about the crowds lining up for handouts at the union office and admits that she feels lost without her job. Tracey has always been a hard worker, and now she wakes up with nowhere to go and is hesitant to spend any money or even to leave the house. She asks Cynthia why she even came to the bar, and Cynthia reminds Tracey that it’s her birthday.
Tracey’s struggles are yet another example of working-class disillusionment: having dedicated her entire adult life to Olstead’s, Tracey has now essentially lost her identity along with her sense of purpose. As such, she’s channeling the pain and betrayal she feels into resentment toward Cynthia—whether her friend truly deserves that treatment or not.
Tracey begins to reminisce about their trip to Atlantic City with Brucie and Hank for Cynthia’s 25th birthday, when a drunken Cynthia viciously dug her nails into the fake breasts of a woman who was flirting with Brucie at the casino. This is the feisty friend Tracey misses—the friend who fought for what she loves. However, Cynthia tells Tracey and Jessie that she’s been taking orders from idiotic or racist supervisors since she was 19—now that she’s finally gotten a break, she can’t give up the opportunity. Tracey asks Cynthia if they’re supposed to feel sorry for her, and Cynthia replies that she didn’t expect them to understand—Tracey and Jessie don’t know what it’s like to be in her shoes. Although they think she’s being selfish, Cynthia believes that her job will enable her to keep fighting on behalf of her friends.
Tracey and Cynthia’s conflict emphasizes the differences in their experiences: though they have similar histories as working-class laborers and have both suffered the hardships inherent to this life, Cynthia is black while Tracey is white. As such, Tracey doesn’t understand the unique struggles of being a black woman overseen by presumably all-white management. Cynthia has clearly experienced racism on top of the experiences she and Tracey have in common, uniquely deepening Cynthia’s disillusionment with the system and further compounding the divide between the two women.