So this is not a story of some death-defying “undercover” adventure. Almost anyone could do what I did—look for jobs, work those jobs, try to make ends meet. In fact, millions of Americans do it every day, and with a lot less fanfare and dithering.
Cooks want to prepare tasty meals, servers want to serve them graciously, but managers are there for only one reason—to make sure that money is made for some theoretical entity, the corporation, which exists far away in Chicago or New York, if a corporation can be said to have a physical existence at all.
There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.
I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed..
What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination.
How poor are they, my coworkers? The fact that anyone is working this job at all can be taken as prima facie evidence of some kind of desperation or at least a history of mistakes and disappointments […] Almost everyone is embedded in extended families or families artificially extended with housemates. People talk about visiting grandparents in the hospital or sending birthday cards to a niece’s husband; single mothers live with their own mothers or share apartments with a coworker or boyfriend.
The hands-and-knees approach is a definite selling point for corporate cleaning services like The Maids. […] A mop and a full bucket of hot soapy water would not only get a floor cleaner but would be a lot more dignified for the person who does the cleaning. But it is this primal posture of submission—and of what is ultimately anal accessibility—that seems to gratify the consumers of maid services.
So ours is a world of pain—managed by Excedrin and Advil, compensated for with cigarettes and, in one or two cases and then only on weekends, with booze. Do the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect? Would they be bothered if they did know, or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased—boasting to dinner guests, for example, that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?
Yes, I want to help Holly and everyone else in need, on a worldwide basis if possible. I am a “good person,” as my demented charges at the nursing home agree, but maybe I’m also just sick of my suddenly acquired insignificance. Maybe I want to “be somebody,” as Jesse Jackson likes to say, somebody generous, competent, brave, and perhaps, above all, noticeable. Maids, as an occupational group, are not visible, and when we are seen we are often sorry for it.
I am wondering what the two-job way of life would do to a person after a few months with zero days off. In my writing life I normally work seven days a week, but writing is ego food, totally self-supervised and intermittently productive of praise. Here, no one will notice my heroism on that Saturday’s shift. (I will later make a point of telling Linda about it and receive only a distracted nod.) If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?
“I don’t mind, really, because I guess I’m a simple person, and I don’t want what they have. I mean, it’s nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able tot ake a day off now and then…if I had to…and still be able to buy groceries the next day.”
There’s no intermediate point in the process in which you confront the potential employer as a free agent, entitled to cut her own deal. The intercalation of the drug test between application and hiring tilts the playing field even further, establishing that you, and not the employer, are the one who has something to prove. Even in the tightest labor market—and it doesn’t get any tighter than Minneapolis, where I would probably have been welcome to apply at any commercial establishment I entered—the person who has precious labor to sell can be made to feel one down, way down, like a supplicant with her hand stretched out.
Today [Melissa] seems embarrassed when she sees me: “I probably shouldn’t have done this and you’re going to think it’s really silly…” but she’s brought me a sandwich for lunch. This is because I’d told her I was living in a motel almost entirely on fast food, and she felt sorry for me. Now I’m embarrassed, and beyond that overwhelmed to discover a covert stream of generosity running counter to the dominant corporate miserliness.
But now I know something else. In orientation, we learned that the store’s success depends entirely on us, the associate; in fact, our bright blue vests bear the statement “At Wal-Mart, our people make the difference.” Underneath those vests, though, there are real-life charity cases, maybe even shelter dwellers.
Alyssa looks crushed, and I tell her, when Howard’s out of sight, that there’s something wrong when you’re not paid enough to buy a Wal-Mart shirt, a clearanced Wal-Mart shirt with a stain on it.
The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly “unskilled.”
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
The money taboo is one thing that employers can always count on. I suspect that this “taboo” operates most effectively among the lowest-paid people, because, in a society that endlessly celebrates its dot-com billionaires and centimillionaire athletes, $7 or even $10 an hour can feel like a mark of innate inferiority.
What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace (and yes, here all my middle-class privilege is on full display) was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and—what boils down to the same thing—self-respect.
My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re actually worth.
These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency.
The “working poor,” as they are appropriately termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.